There are pernicious writerly germs out there infecting pages all around the world. Left uncured they can be fatal. Talk to your book doctor or literary health provider if you notice any of these symptoms:
Difficult to read, sentences are, when reversing sentences an author is. Cart before horse, I’m putting, and confused, readers will be.
An overstuffed sentence happens when a writer tries to pack too many things into one sentence in convoluted fashion, making it difficult for the intent of the sentence to come through and to follow it becomes an exercise in re-reading the sentence while making the sentence clearer in our brains so we can understand the overstuffed sentence, which is the point of reading.
When writers just miss the target ground with their word using they on occasion elicit a type of sentence experiential feeling that creates a backtracking necessity.
So, like, I don’t know if you’ve noticed but OMG teenagers use so much freaking slang!!! And multiple exclamation points!!! In a novel not a blog post!!! And so I’m all putting tons of freaking repetitious verbal tics into totes every sentence and it’s majorly exhausting the reader because WAIT I NEED TO USE ALL CAPS.
Sometimes when authors get lyrical, lyrical in a mystical, wondrous sense, they use repetition, repetition that used sparingly can be effective, effective in a way that makes us pause and focus, focus on the thing they’re repeating, but when used too many times, so many times again and again, it can drive us insane, insane in a way that will land the reader in the loony bin, the loony bin for aggrieved readers.
Clipped sentences. Muscular. Am dropping articles. The death. It spreads. No sentence more than six words. Dear god the monotony. The monotony like death.
Sometimes when authors are in a paragraph one thing won’t flow to the next. They’ll describe one thing, wow can you believe that thing that happened three days ago?, and keep describing the first thing.
Upon this page there is a period. It is not just any period, it is a period following a sentence. It follows this sentence in a way befitting a period of its kind, possessing a roundness that is pleasing to the eye and hearty to the soul. This period has the bearing of a regal tennis ball combined with the utility of a used spoon. It is an unpretentious period, just like any other, the result of hundreds of years of typesetting innovations that allows it to be used, almost forgotten, like oxygen to the sentence only darker, more visible. And it is after this period, which will neither reappear nor matter in any sense whatsoever to the rest of the novel, that our story begins.
Character #1: “I am saying precisely what I mean!”
Character #2: “Wait. What is that you are trying to tell me?”
Character #1: “Are you frickin’ listening to me? I am telling you precisely what I am feeling in this given moment. And I’m showing you I’m really angry by using pointed rhetorical questions and petulant exhortations. God.”
Character #2: “Sheesh! Well, I’m responding with leading questions that allow you to tell me exactly what you mean while adding little of value to the conversation on my own. Am I not?”
Character #1:”You are totally doing that. You totally frickin’ are. Ugh! I’m so mad right now!”
The Old Spice Guy Effect (excessive rug-pulling)
The character was standing on a rug. He falls through his floor to his death! The rug was actually a trap door. But wait, the character was already dead. He merely faked falling through the trap door. But wait, the trap door was actually a portal into another world. The character was actually alive, he just thought he was dead. Now he’s really dead. Or is he? I’m in a chair.
Have you spotted any other writerly viruses out there in the wild?
See also: Do You Suffer From One of These Writing Maladies? (Part II)
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Art: The Doctor’s Visit by Jan Steen
Nathan Bransford, you are a writer's dream! 🙂
New fan here! The Old Spice Guy Effect? LMAO Brilliant! WAIT I NEED TO USE ALL CAPS.
I become so annoyed when reading books that are overdescriptive, that I end up underdescribing when I write.
The Anonymous poster (comment #195) definitely found a keeper with the Vague Plague. I tend to be afflicted by this when I'm providing input or moderating a dispute on wikipedia.
I pretty well avoid it in my manuscript, however, because it's being written/told by a 14-year old, I find myself dancing a tightrope with every one of the maladies Nathan posted. The narrator's age basically requires some of each of the shortcomings, but literary storytelling still holds sway. Paradoxically, striking the right balance is gruelling without input from others, but I won't let anyone read a word of it unless I'm content I've struck the right balance.
"Dear god the monotony. The monotony like death."
I really liked that!
Wait, that's not a good thing, is it…
The Red Angel says
LOL this is hilarious!! Love the humor Nathan. xD I don't think I suffer from any of these maladies myself, but I do enjoy some "Shorter Hemingway" in novels I read, especially in horrors and science fiction. Makes things more real and intense.
A.M. Guynes says
I'm guilty of the overstuffed sentences. But only on my 1st (and maybe 2nd) drafts. After a few edits they get put back into the realm of normalcy.
What about punctuation abuse as a writing malady? You know…those people, who while intelligent – and not the least bit shy – go all out and: use too much punctuation, use the wrong punctuation, or have a favorite (such as a hyphen or a comma) and use them more often than they should?
(Wow. That got long. But I've seen sentences like that in my own work so I know that's one of my maladies.)
Sibel Hodge says
CLASSIC!!!! I'll just pick myself off the floor now. My favourite is the repetition one.
Robin Merrill says
This is too hilarious. I was born a chatty cathy (though NOT as bad as your example) but I think I've got it under control. As an aside, if anyone is interested, I am giving away a $5 gift certificate to Better World Books on my blog at https://worldcentricliving.blogspot.com!
Laura J. Hickman says
thank you this post, yes I find some of my writing can have all of these maladies, but luckily that's what editing is for. The way you explained each one was wonderful.
For the teen entry, you forgot to add those who talllkkk likeee thisss. It makes them sound like they're stuttering. And it's downright stupid–very juvenile.
Carol J. Garvin says
Hilarious, but frighteningly possible. Excuse me now while I go check my latest draft.
Excellent post Nathan! Guess I'm due for a writing check up!
The fact that we're all finding this post so hilarious must mean that some (or perhaps all) of the examples look very familiar to us. What a great technique for making the issues excruciatingly clear! Thanks!
Elizabeth West says
LOL! The Yoda thing made me giggle at my desk. Thank goodness the bosses went to lunch and didn't catch me doing my OTHER work!
Marian from Murphys says
My unofficial publication coach steered me to this blog item. Best thing I've done for a week. My hope is to come back often for some learning and laughing.
Yes, I suffer from more than one of these maladies. Your column has made it harder to ignore them.
I swear I have read this like fifteen times and laugh every time I get to the dialogue part…awesome post!
I'm totally new at writing and I just finished what I think could be a novel. But examples like these are really assisting me in editing my work. I believe I have 2 of thesed maladies. I also seem to have and over abundance of words like: just, and then, etc… Having your work edited is expensive and this helps a great deal.
VERY FUNNY!!!! FUNNY INDEED!!!! OMG. THAT WAS AWSOME!!!! How many did I break there? My writing maladies mainly consist of "he turned around. And then he died." I get to the point extremly quickly.
Absolutely agree with this list. I've seen all these crimes committed so often that it beggars belief. As for stilted dialogue, isn't it strange that where Harold Pinter succeeds, others stumble and fall? Thanks for this list – it's a lovely reminder.
But Nathan – I'd LOVE to read the rest of this book:
"Upon this page there is a period. It is not just any period, it is a period following a sentence. It follows this sentence in a way befitting a period of its kind, possessing a roundness that is pleasing to the eye and hearty to the soul. This period has the bearing of a regal tennis ball combined with the utility of a used spoon. It is an unpretentious period, just like any other, the result of hundreds of years of typesetting innovations that allows it to be used, almost forgotten, like oxygen to the sentence only darker, more visible. And it is after this period, which will neither reappear nor matter in any sense whatsoever to the rest of the novel, that our story begins."
A.M Hudson says
Bah ha ha ha ha!!! I'm a little late to this party, but OMG, this is funny. Shall I use more CAPS or !!!!?
So true. All of it. The "I'm in a chair" really got me. I'm still tearing up with laughter. I love this blog.
Teefers Treats says
I love you so much for this post, and managing to work in not only Yoda, but the Old Spice Guy. Why couldn't I have found this blog before you went and stopped being a literary agent? If nothing else, I suspect your rejection letter would have been kind, but hilarious…and that is always nice, when one is being rejected.
Also, I could practically spit out my door and hit the Sacramento Kings. I actually might, if the Maloofs don't stop this "we're leaving unless you feed our ego monkey" stuff.
Ah well. Back to polishing.
Jessica M says
Love dropping articles!
Isabella Amaris says
lol! Nathan, have you ever thought of writing satire? I promise, I would buy the book if you did:)
"Repetition: Sometimes when authors get lyrical, lyrical in a mystical, wondrous sense, they use repetition, repetition that used sparingly can be effective, effective in a way that makes us pause and focus, focus on the thing they're repeating, but when used too many times, so many times again and again, it can drive us insane, insane in a way that will land the reader in the loony bin, the loony bin for aggrieved readers."
Stunning. It's stuff like this that makes me feel blessed to have a co-author (whose sometimes plays editor) and catches these illnesses before they spread. Lord knows I would do this often if not kept in check.
Oh and the paragraph about the period was amazing. I actually LIKED it… is there something wrong with me?
Brooke Monfort says
Wonderful and spot on observations. The "Repetition" part reminds me of Monty Python skits. And the "Overstuffed Sentence," well, as an independent editor of fiction, these are the most laborious to correct. One thinks: what is the most important fact, thought or observation here that the writer is trying to convey? What part of this sentence gets in the way of successful communication? Sometimes, it's just a matter of commas in the right places (creating clauses) to make the thoughts both flow and make sense, or rearranging the order of the clauses. Sometimes it's a matter of breaking the overstuffed sentence into two or even three sentences; whatever imparts the most vigor and clarity. But often,we simply need to kill our little darlings, clever though they are.
Just started following you! thanks for all the great posts. First novel ever so i've read probably 1/2 your posts already. okay off to finish the mundane rituals of everyday life while the scenes of my novel swirl on repeat in my head… until i can get them typed out. Thanks!
Wendy Christopher says
Funniest thing I've read in a long time. I laughed… through my fingers, as I felt the empathy.
I have one of my own to add (LITERALLY my own, since I do suffer from it with painful regularity.) I call it "Thunderbird Puppet Syndrome." Allow me to demonstrate…
John looked up at Sue as she walked towards him, hips swaying. "You look nice" he said, nodding at her obviously new hairstyle.
Sue fluttered her lashes and smiled, waving her hand in a dismissive gesture. "D'you like it?" she said, patting her hair and raising an eyebrow suggestively.
John nodded and smiled. "It makes you look ten years younger."
Sue's eyes widened and she took a step back. "Are you saying I looked like an old woman before, then?" she said, raising her eyebrows and folding her arms across her chest.
"No, not at all" said John, raising his hands and shuffling from one foot to the other.
Thank you for writing such a thorough article on the topic. Ghostwriting has been on my mind a lot lately. Not because I plan to use one for vsellis.com or want to become one but because I have so many clients that need fresh content for their websites but whom I know will never create it themselves.