The price of good writing is eternal vigilance

by M.J. Hearle

I don’t feel very confident discussing the actual mechanics of writing. Partly because I don’t think I have enough experience to do so, and partly because the process is largely instinctual. Writing is something like a magic trick and I’m afraid if I start pulling my work apart like that greedy king who cut open the golden-egg laying goose, I might end up with blood on my hands and little else. This is a silly, somewhat superstitious fear but when your job is make-believe it’s hard not be a little silly and superstitious.

However, in the interest of helping my fellow fledgling writers avoid falling into some of the same traps I did, I am going to risk turning an analytical eye onto my own work and to do so, first I need to make a confession. Okay, this isn’t easy, but here goes….

(closes eyes, takes a deep breath)

My first draft of Winter’s Shadow wasn’t great. There, I’ve said it. I understand, Welcome Reader, this probably comes as something of a shock to you. After all, how could the author of such a brilliantly written blog produce anything less than a masterwork on his first try, but it’s true. The story flowed reasonably well, sections of my writing were pretty good, but there were mistakes. A lot of them.

Now, most mistakes aren’t difficult to pick up. Problems with spelling, punctuation, language consistency etc. tend to jump out at you. Unfortunately, there are other less obvious errors that can creep into your work, cunningly eluding computerised grammar checks, and studious read throughs. Errors to do with tone and pace, stylistic faux pas’s such as the one I’m about to reveal. Have a look at this sentence taken from the first draft of Winter’s Shadow:

Blake’s gaze kept drifting past Winter to the stairs as though he was looking for someone else.

Okay, nothing too wrong with that, but when the next one reads:

She wanted to ask him what was wrong but couldn’t bring herself to speak.

We have a problem. Taken separately, both lines aren’t terrible, however when you pair them together something just doesn’t feel right. If it’s not obvious to you (and it certainly wasn’t to me at first) try looking at them again:

Blake’s gaze kept drifting past Winter to the stairs as though he was looking for someone else.
She wanted to ask him what was wrong but couldn’t bring herself to speak.

See it? The rhythm of the sentences are too similar. Each line is split in the middle with a ‘though’ or a ‘but’. If this was a piece of music it might sound like someone had accidentally played the same note twice. My first draft was riddled with this kind of clumsy writing, and the worst thing was I couldn’t see it. I must have written and re-written those lines at least a dozen times each but it had never occurred to me that the rhythm was the same. After all, they looked fine on the page nestled comfortably in a paragraph. I would have remained oblivious, unless my brilliant editor Alex hadn’t tactfully brought this naughty quirk to my attention. Once I was aware of the problem, it wasn’t too difficult to fix. All I did was vary the sentence structure, so it read like this:

Blake’s gaze kept drifting past Winter to the stairs – was he looking for someone else?
She wanted to ask him what was wrong but couldn’t bring herself to speak.

It’s worth keeping a close eye on your own writing. You might not suffer from same malady as I did (I never met a sentence I felt couldn’t use a big old ‘but’, ‘though,’ or ‘however’) but ( see!) there’s a chance you might favour a certain kind of rhythm and use it too frequently. Varying your sentence structure can not only help you avoid this mistake, it also keeps your writing fresh and interesting.

M. J.

Advertisements