Beginner Mistakes: Using Crutches

CC image by Chris Costes

CC image by PhotoAtelier

CC image by PhotoAtelier

Crutches make it easier to walk. However, they don’t help you get stronger. Writing crutches are the same. As crutches help you get from point A to point B, so writing crutches can help you get from your first paragraph to your last. However, in their wake they leave snail trails of laziness, little pockmarks of weakness in a story that yearns to be without blemish. I’m going to give you three examples of writing crutches that I’ve come across. This is by no means an all-inclusive list, but it’s a pretty amusing sampling. If you’re a beginning writer employing these crutches, that’s ok. However, as I will emphasize throughout this list, you must remove traces of these crutches in subsequent drafts. As you continue to grow as a writer, you may find you’re able to stop using these crutches altogether.

Unnecessary adverbs
Unlike the great Stephen King, I don’t believe “the road to hell is paved with adverbs.” However, the road to hell is certainly sprinkled with them. Adverbs are our laziness on the page; it’s so much easier to say “lovingly” than show “lovingly,” and when we just say it, our writing tends to fall a bit flat. Adverbs usually result in weaker writing.

CC image by Chris Costes

CC image by Chris Costes

Adverbs are shortcuts that may be useful in first drafts where you’re just trying to get on the page that your hero was angry when he closed the door. What’s the easiest way to portray this emotion when words are shooting from your brain to the keys? You write: “He angrily slammed the door.” Our brain says he’s angry, so we say in point of fact that he did something “angrily.” However, when we comb through our first draft to strengthen it, we had better spot that “angrily” and remove it. Why? It’s redundant; most of the time when people slam a door, they’re angry. “He slammed the door” works just the same. Take it one step better and change that slamming the door action altogether. People slam doors all the time, so maybe he did something else more unique to him. E.g., He bit the inside of his cheek or fell completely quiet. Or maybe you can at least apply an image to slamming the door. Did he slam it a certain way, or is the slam the pound of the gavel that ends the debate he was just having with his wife? Strengthen, strengthen, strengthen.

Now, I have some writer friends who think better of adverbs than I do; they remind me that an adverb could be essential if it must be used to clarify something that would otherwise be ambiguous. For example, “He looked at her.” How was he looking? One would hope context makes this obvious, including nature of the character. If he’s arguing with his wife, and his heart is softened by the tears in her eyes, he’s probably staring at her in love. But if we just can’t know through context, or through the character’s personality how they’re staring, then maybe we have to say he “looked at her lovingly.” Of course, needing to include this adverb may serve as a red flag that our character might not be strong enough or that the context of the scene isn’t clear. Therefore, no matter what, all adverbs should be examined with scrutiny when going through drafts.

Overuse of character names
Ok, I’ll admit it—this one is a pet peeve of mine. After a character has been introduced and I as the reader know their name, it bugs the hell out of me when I have to read their name at the end of every dialogue tag and at the beginning of every action they perform. As an example:

Sally had never been to this side of town before, and she wasn’t sure she would ever come back. The grocery store looked as if it might bite Sally, like a rusty old penny in her hand. But Sally had to go in—she needed creamed corn.
As Sally approached the sliding front doors, a homeless man leaning against the wall approached her.
“Spare some change?” he asked.
“No. I don’t have any,” replied Sally.
Sally walked around him and into the store.

For the love of creamed corn, we know it’s Sally! You know the only “Sally” necessary in this particular block of text? The first one. That’s it. There’s just Sally and a homeless person in this scene, who happens to be a man; there’s only one female character, so using “she” is sufficient. Trust me on this.

The overuse of character names is quite common in short stories, particularly those you’ll find workshopped in writing classes. My guess is that this happens because most students create brand new stories for class, and they’re getting used to their newly birthed characters. As a result, they use their names in the piece. They use their names a lot. It may be to keep things clear about who’s talking/acting in each scene, or to see the names over and over as they try them out to see how they feel on that character. Sometimes it’s so bad that Sally suddenly becomes Cindy on page 12 because the author made the change mid-piece and didn’t go back to fix the earlier occurrences.

Now, names must sometimes be used multiple times in a scene. As an example, I was working on a scene in my book in which there are a bunch of characters discussing an issue—guys and girls, all trying to get their opinions in, all in different spatial areas. Name tags were pretty essential because the last thing I want in a complex scene like this one is to confuse and frustrate my reader, making them throw the book against the wall. However, scenes with just a couple characters, even three or four, should be constructed well enough to avoid using the characters’ names every time they open their mouths or go to sit down.

What’s the solution to this overuse? If you must, use their names until the pages swell to bursting with them in the first draft. But when you start on your second draft, remove every single non-essential name tag. You know their names, we as readers know their names, now get to the story.

Excessive punctuation
Writers, especially beginning writers, sometimes use excessive punctuation because they aren’t sure if their story/tone of their dialogue is strong enough without it. They know how loudly the dialogue is spoken or where exactly characters pause for emphasis or breath, but they don’t think the reader will know without extra punctuation thrown in. It’s a crutch used either mistakenly out of fear that the reader won’t “get it” if there aren’t five exclamation points, or it’s used because the characters and/or dialogue truly aren’t strong enough to portray tone and volume.

Do you do this? Not sure? Below is a handy cheat sheet for you to find out. Keep in mind that these taboos are more specific to formal writing, e.g., novels, short stories, and anything else intended to be taken seriously. I won’t judge you for using excessive punctuation when writing informally, such as in your journal or in a blog post (I’m sure I’ve done so in a post or two). Informal writing such as this is called “informal” for a reason. However, in formal writing:

– You don’t need more than one exclamation point or question mark. Ever.
– Ellipses should not be used every time there’s a pause in thought or conversation, and probably shouldn’t be used at all for this purpose.
– Words that are shouted shouldn’t be written in all caps. Maybe the occasional onomatopoeia (e.g., BAM) can appear in caps, but this is rare.

CC image by Kevin Trotman

CC image by Kevin Trotman

As an example:

Tony was exhausted after working in the cereal factory all day…but that wasn’t the only reason. His brother Chester had kept him up all night, having a panic attack about losing his job.
“It’s just not fair!!” he’d screamed. “Just for one little failed drug test, they TOSS ME OUT??”
“Uh huh.”
“Tony, are you even listening to me? You don’t…think they should have fired me…do you??”
“NO! OF COURSE NOT!!”

^^^Definition of excessive.

Normal punctuation and capitalization rules should be sufficient to get your story across. If it’s truly not clear how someone is speaking or where they pause for breath, then you have a problem with character/scene that can’t be fixed by changing a line of dialogue to all caps.

Do you use any of these crutches, or did you at one time? What other crutches have you come across? Let us know in the comments!

By Madeleine Mozley