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
February Grace says
THIS is why I love you.
And I mean that in the most non-creepy, 'no worries I'm on the other side of the country, I do have a life and I promise I'm not a complete wingnut' way possible.
Thank you not only for another treasure-trove worthy post but also for making me smile on a really rough day.
You really need an official fan club. With t-shirts. I'd pay for a t-shirt with this post printed on it.
You think I'm kidding? I'm so not kidding.
I love this post.
ryan field says
LOL!! At least if you recognize these things they can be edited eventually.
Nathan (and Ink)- You are too dang funny. That's all I have to say.
Thanks for a good laugh.
*LOL* *snort* My coworkers are giving me dirty looks. 🙂
Hilarious, especially the overly descriptive passage. Though I may be guilty of the stilted dialogue on occasion. That's what revisions are for!
K.L. Brady says
I'm innocent of most charges but do on occasion suffer from sporadic cases of Sentence Stuffin'itis. 🙂
Alex Beecroft says
LOL! I think I do them all!
Nathan, I think I love you.
So Marisa, would the opposite of too many dialog tags be no dialog tags or "talking head syndrome"–you know where you have to go back up and count the lines of text to figure out exactly who said what?!?
I love this post. I can't stand your description of "chatty cathy" writing even when it is in a blog post. In an actual novel, I don't think I could get past one or two sentences.
These were great descriptions. I'm going to bookmark and read it often as a reminder of what to avoid.
Yep, that was witty, all right. My worst fault is probably the overstuffed sentence.
Taylor Mathews Taylor says
This post is The Man.
"I'm in a chair."
If I suffer from anything, it's rug-pulling. The most annoying one to me is the teenage-talk.
Absolutely fantastic. I mean, anything that includes a reference to the Old Spice Guy is bound to be pretty amazing, but this was beyond amazing. I laughed louder than I probably should have, considering I'm at work. Thanks! =)
wry wryter says
I would like to quote my not so long dead uncle.
"Oh what a funny little fish the froggy are, when him jumps, him jumps and when him sits, him sits, on his tail which him ain't got none almost hardly."
"Him has gone, him has went, him
has left me all alone will he never come to me must I always go to he, oh it cannot was."
Tania Hershman says
I've just read almost 900 entries for a short story competition and have seen many, many examples of every single of these maladies! Spot on, Mr Bransford, spot on. If only there was a cure!
Emily White says
"Dear god the monotony."
That right there is pure gold.
Oh phew. Chatty Cathy in blog posts is fine? Oh thank goodness. Otherwise, I couldn't post. WHAT WOULD I SAY??
This list should be copyrighted. I'm serious.
Everything here is so funny. Probably my favorite of them all was the Description Overload. That was just stunning. Tennis ball/Used spoon/Will never matter to the story. ROFL!!
Nathan, you'll have to write a book someday.
I mean, another book.
Andi Newton says
Another one to add to the list: crutch words. My personal bane in that category is "just". I haven't quite broken myself of using it, but by default I do one editing pass specifically to look for that word. And it's lucky if I leave it in even once.
"The character thought he was dead, but really he was riding a horse. Backwards. Oh wait, I'm in a chair."
You've made me fall in love with the period all over again.
I am printing these out and adding them to my cheat-sheets and writer's bible.
Scribbler to Scribe
Creative Conduit says
Favorite post of yours. Ever.
I bet your friends think you're a blast. Is JWCSK funny like this post?
Nathan, I love that you show us the incorrect ways we write, this is invaluable. I wonder though, if one day you'd consider showing us the *right* way to write. Like posting a portion of a book you admire and show us by example why it actually works and what traps the author avoided by structuring their words right. Like a reverse red-lining. I think that would be cool if you considered it.
what you are doing is a great service to your readers. You are terrific. Keep it up
Steven Till says
Ramsey – I'm pretty sure he is. And O'Brian is successful at doing it. My point is some writers cannot pull it off, and it comes off as being difficult to read. O'Brian can pull it off. I was using his name for my term because he's the first author that came to mind who creates these long, run-on type sentences, which I personally like if done well. When crafting sentences in this style, the writer must pay careful attention to balance and rhythm.
He looked at me, his eyes narrowed. “Have you finished the revision?” I looked down. “No,” I said, shaking my head. He rolled his eyes, sighing. “I don’t understand what you’re waiting for,” he said with a frown. “Waiting for?” I said, raising my eyebrows. "I'm not waiting for anything. I just can't find the time." "Right," he said, nodding. I glared at him.
Too funny Nate Dog! I'm guilty of shorter hemingway.
"Never, I have seen maladies such as these frequent my inky thoughts and scratched out upon the yielding parchment. Cold. Dead. Silent and err cold!!!" Yoda ejaculated.
Jet Harrington says
…only darker, more visible…
I'm in a chair.
Brilliant, creative examples for each one – the onomatopoeia of writing tics.
Awesome. But. Now. I. Am. Frozen. In. Paranoia. Must. Play. Drinking. Game. With. My. Manuscripts.
That last one sounds a lot like the J.J. Abrams effect. Wait, did he write those Old Spice commercials?
Jenna Wallace says
And don't forget the sister to Description Overload: Adjective Overload
The cool blustery breeze blew the filmy white curtains that framed the perfectly square window in the small hot bedroom. On the shining brass bed was a folksy blue quilt…
Caleb J Ross says
Definitely check out the Writing Badly Well blog for continued fun. https://writebadlywell.blogspot.com/
As for my own examples, I don't have any. However, in certain hands, some of the methods above can be defended. Jose Saramago, for example, overstuffs the creme right out of his sentences, and I love him for it.
THIS IS THE END says
There's something to be said for style, but there's much more to be said for the price of it.
Monotony or confusion are definitely deal breakers.
I do think some of these styles are alright, in moderation, as long as they are "organic" in some way. If the writing/wording feels unnatural, it's disruptive. Yoda is almost always disruptive. But sometimes the run-on, overstuffed sentence is effective. (Especially if it breaks a monotony of otherwise short, bullet esque sentences that came before) Is this my own malady convincing me I don't have a malady?
I agree with the post and found it helpful. But I'm curious if there is ever a time and place for writing that slips into some of these "maladies"?
Lila Swann says
Oh, Nathan, I just about fell out of my chair when you threw in "totes." I'm seventeen and I hear that word every day, along with every other "abrev" that we can come up with. I figured maybe some of your other tics were made up, but I really believe that you see "totes."
First time I've commented, though I have longtime a lurker been. (Ahem)
This is very educational and I agree with Anonymous/Jen who requested a reverse redline of a novel that works.
My writing pet peeve is found quite often on Facebook Wall Posts. It's Improper Abuse of the Comma, and yes, the writer is American:
"Oh, my God,,, I was their the other day,,, and I saw him,,,,, and i was like,,,"
It causes me to wonder exactly what, if anything, they are teaching in school nowadays.
Angela (Posy Moe) says
I kind of see myself in the shorter Hemingway description. Which is sad. Even so, this was awesome. And funny. Seriously.
E. A. Provost says
Thank you for the much needed laugh, and reminder.
Other maladies I've encountered:
Pronoun Paranoia: John Doe was afraid that if John didn't write Paul, Sarah, and Sue's names each time Paul, Sarah and Sue were referred to, then the reader wouldn't understand what John was writing about.
Word of the Day Syndrome: In which the author clearly has a Word-of-the-Day calendar and is experimenting with seldom used vocabulary. This usually causes the reader revert to "huh?"
And my personal tic:
Over-saturation with classical literature: In which I become so saturated with the works of Shakespeare, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, et al. that my characters begin to speak in a manner unbefitting a modern American. I shall endeavor to mend my ways, but I fear it will not be possible without a great deal of editing.
Susan Cross says
In the opening paragraph, I would add, "These maladies can be caused by excessive reading of poorly written books, eavesdropping at Starbucks located in downtown Seattle and ingesting dangerous chemicals. If you suffer from any of the symptoms described below contact Harry B. Harry, Attorney at Law. A class action lawsuit is being brought against bad authors, Starbucks and all companies that make and dispense products containing chemicals."
"I'm in a chair."
*nearly snorts my Pepsi*
This is awesome.
Sheila Cull says
I love Chatty Cathy! That made me laugh out loud. (Chatty Cathyism is what I'm now going to consider because after seeing what you wrote about Chatty Cathy, I had to resist using an exclamation point after the word loud, last word of the sentence. (!)
Aren't writers funny? They are always so willing to throw themselves onto their own literary swords. Guys! Just because someone hints that the reason you aren't published is because you may suffer from one of these 'diseases' it doesn't mean you are actually infected. You may not even be a carrier. "Rules is for breaking" Jonyboy exhaults. Ask Salinger.RIPx
Oooops! It's gone all quiet. I'll get my coat.
Pamala Knight says
This is so spot-on! In revisionland now, and I hate to admit that I do almost all of these.
…I also have the ellipsis (and parentheses!!!) problem too.
…and apparently the multiple exclamation point one!!!
Someone should turn this into a Youtube video, with the [commercial voice] narrating and appropriate authorly types reading the examples from a lectern.
sex scenes at starbucks, says
Thanks for the laugh!
My editor just caught me out on the thats that I tend to stick in that sentence. Yeah. That one.
I almost cried I was that embarrassed.
sex scenes at starbucks, says
And a certain agent who we all know and love but isn't Nathan says you only get a couple of exclamation points per novel, so use them sparingly.