How Many Writing Errors Can You Spot?

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Welcome to my first TKZ post of 2016! What better way to start off the year than with a pop quiz?

Can I hear a Yea?

Oh, I see. You feared and loathed them in school, eh? Well relax, this one is self-graded. Just remember: no gum chewing!

Below is a bit of writing I made up based on errors I see all the time in manuscripts and published (even traditionally!) books. Heck, I’ve been guilty at one time or another, especially in my early years. Some of these are technically not “errors,” as they may be grammatically correct. But they’re what I call “little writing speed bumps.” They disturb the reader’s fictive dream, usually in a subconscious way. The more bumps, the less enjoyable the reading experience.

Learn to spot them in your own writing, however, and you can smooth out the road.

So here we go. Read the following and jot down all the speed bumps you can find. Don’t look ahead to the answer sheet yet. You’re on the honor system!

John Harper gazed out the window at his Christmas present.

He gazed at a beautiful boat.

“How do you like it?” his wife said. Carol was dressed in a red sweater.

Carol luxuriated in the softness of the sweater. Her smile was soft and warm.

John turned from the window and embraced his wife.

“I can see you do,” Carol laughed.

Kissing Carol full on the mouth, John whispered, “I like you even more.”

Carol Harper was forty-two. A graduate of Bryn Mawr, she had studied folklore and mythology, before finally deciding to major in business. Her first job out of college was with an advertising firm in New York.

“I like you too,” Carol said lovingly.

“I like you so much,” John repeated, “that I want to take you out to a nice dinner tonight.”

“A nice dinner, John?” Carol expostulated. “Tonight?”

“Yes,” John winked. “Tonight.”

How’d you do, class? Now, take this quiz home to your parents and return it with a note saying they’ve seen it …

… or not. Below is the excerpt with my answers provided. Some of them have footnotes that you can read below the excerpt. Have a look, then open up a discussion in the comments.

John Harper gazed out the window at his Christmas present.

He gazed [ECHO. SEE NOTE 1, BELOW] at a beautiful boat.

“How do you like it?” his wife said. Carol was dressed in a red sweater. [POV PROBLEM. WE’RE IN JOHN’S HEAD. HOW CAN HE SEE HIS WIFE’S OUTFIT IF HE’S LOOKING OUT THE WINDOW?]

Carol luxuriated [POV SWITCH TO CAROL] in the softness of the sweater. Her smile was soft [ECHO] and warm. [POV PROBLEM. WHO SEES THIS? NOT HER. SHE’S NOT LOOKING IN A MIRROR, AND NOT JOHN, WHO IS LOOKING OUT THE WINDOW]

John turned from the window and embraced his wife.

“I can see you do,” [HOW? HE’S EMBRACING HER] Carol laughed [YOU DON’T LAUGH DIALOGUE. SEE NOTE 2]

Kissing Carol full on the mouth, John whispered [HOW CAN JOHN WHISPER ANYTHING IF HE’S FULL ON THE MOUTH? SEE NOTE 3], “I like you even more.”

Carol Harper was forty-two. [POV SWITCH. THIS IS AN OMNISCIENT VIEW]. A graduate of Bryn Mawr, she had studied folklore and mythology, {MISPLACED COMMA] before finally deciding to major in business. Her first job out of college was with an advertising firm in New York. [ALL THIS IS INFO DUMP AND EXPOSITION. IT CAN WAIT!]

“I like you too,” Carol said lovingly. [ADVERB IS unnecessary. SEE NOTE 4]

“I like you so much [ECHO IN DIALOGUE],” John repeated [REDUNDANT], “that I want to take you out to a nice dinner tonight.”

“A nice dinner, John?” [UNNECESSARY USE OF NAME. SEE NOTE 5] Carol expostulated [I HOPE I DON’T HAVE TO EXPLAIN THIS. BUT SEE NOTE 2 AGAIN]. “Tonight?”

“Yes, [UNNECCESARY FILLER. SEE NOTE 6]” John winked [DIALOGUE DOESN’T WINK!]. “Tonight.” [ECHO]

[FINAL AND MOST IMPORTANT COMMENT: NO CONFLICT OR TENSION ANYWHERE! SEE NOTE 7]

NOTES:

  1. An echo is when a descriptive word (an adjective or verb) is used more than once in close proximity. Here, gazed is used in back-to-back sentences. It’s not “wrong” to do this, but it’s a bump in the reader’s mind.
  1. For attributions in dialogue, use said as your default. Its job is to clue the reader in on who is speaking and nothing more. It’s virtually invisible. If you are tempted to use another word to indicate a manner of speaking, look to the context and seek to make things clear. For example: Sgt. Trask clenched his teeth. “Fall in!” he growled. We know he growled from the context and the exclamation point. We know he is speaking, too. So: Sgt. Trask clenched his teeth. “Fall in!” is enough.
  1. This kind of sentence construction is called a participle phrase. It begins with a word ending in –ing. What you have to watch out for are two actions that defy the laws of physics. In other words, can the two actions take place at the same time? Full-on kissing and whispering cannot (unless you speak fluent French. Ahem). But these two actions can coexist: Getting out of his car, John heard a woman scream. While some writing instructors hold that you should never use a participle phrase. I think they’re just fine if they a) pass the coexistence test; and b) are used sparingly.
  1. Adverbs propping up dialogue attributions are almost always unnecessary. If it’s not clear how something is being said from the dialogue itself, or the action surrounding it, see if you can make it clear. The occasional adverb is fine, but only if you truly need it.
  1. Avoid having characters tell each other things they both already know. The other character’s name is one of these. Unless, of course, the character is trying to be adamant, as in, “John, how many times do I have to tell you not to kidnap the neighbors!” But when you try to slip in exposition in dialogue, it can sound truly phony if it’s information both characters already possess: “Oh hello Arthur, my family doctor from Baltimore. Please come in.”
  1. One of the best ways to make dialogue crisp is to cut needless filler words. Look for these at the start of dialogue, especially Yes, No, and Well. The sentence in the piece would have been much better this way: John winked. “Tonight.” (Why is tonight not an echo? Because John is using it as an echo. It’s intentional.)
  1. The scene is dullsville because there’s no conflict. There should be some tension, any kind, even if it’s only an emotional knot inside one of the characters. Anything that takes the scene south of normal.

John Harper gazed out the window at his Christmas present.

“How do you like it?” his wife said.

John turned from the window and faced Carol.

“I can see you do,” Carol said.

“What’s wrong with your eyesight?” John said.

So what about you? Did you see anything else? How would you improve the scene?

***And say, kids, for a chance to win a FREE book by yours truly, and be the first to know when the new ones come out, take a moment to check out this page.

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31 thoughts on “How Many Writing Errors Can You Spot?

  1. Great post and fun to go through.

    Seems like the use of ‘window’ twice in the first 3 sentences is a bit redundant. We know he’s at the window. When he turns it would be clear that he’s turning ‘from the window’.
    Could replace a couple general words for more specific details. For example, why not say the specific type of boat he’s looking at (instead of Christmas present) because that’s what he might be thinking. One could still get across that it’s ‘Christmas time/present’ at some point before or during the scene maybe by a reference to a Christmas decoration.

  2. If I may… I caught a lot of these, but must confess I’m sort of in the process of doing this to a book I was given, and found disappointing because a LOT of these same things show up much too often throughout (thank you, Mr. Bell for waking me up to more “critical” reading 🙂 ).

    What I find bit distressing is this author has a whole series of books out (in paperback), with similar issues: adverbs, POV, echo-echo, descriptive dialogue attribution, and doing two conflicting things at the same time (your third bullet above)- I’m not saying I’m not guilty of these from time to time, but I AM curious how a book full of them makes it through to print.

    Or maybe they’re intended to be a writer’s “Where’s Waldo”?

    Imperfectly y’all’s ~ and Happy New Year,

    g

    • George, truth be told, there is little spot-on editing going at the big houses. Partly it’s staff cutbacks. Partly it’s simply young editors are not trained like they used to be.

      Another factor is that some “big name” authors can now “mail it in” and the house just puts it out there with minimal intrusion because it will sell the requisite number of copies.

      The self-pubbed writer MUST train himself in these matters and ALSO find a good freelance editor who knows this stuff, too.

  3. Thanks, Jim, for another teaching moment.

    I missed the education during the last two weeks.

    Like George, the more I learn about craft from your books and others, the more I’m jarred by the mistakes. I often interrupt my wife’s reading at night. “Look at this. The author’s a top seller, and he’s head-hopping all over the place.”

    Looking forward to your posts during the coming year.

  4. In this one:

    “I can see you do,” [HOW? HE’S EMBRACING HER] Carol laughed [YOU DON’T LAUGH DIALOGUE. SEE NOTE 2]

    I understand the correction in theory but actually don’t see it as necessary in this situation. If he’s embraced her, she CAN see he likes it. As to Carol laughing dialogue–how do you fix that without making it a more wordy line? I need to see an example?

    Muchas gracias.

    • Yes, that line can read that way, but requires interpretation. Better to make it clearer so the reader doesn’t HAVE to interpret.

      As for the laughter, the fix is simple. Put the action first, then the dialogue.

      Carol laughed. “I can see you like it.”

      We don’t need the attribution here because the preceding action tells us it’s Carol.

  5. Wow. This reads as if you look over my shoulder while I work, every day.

    I love the emphasis on errors that disrupt reader flow. There isn’t nearly enough talk about these. While most of my editing colleagues verbally knife-fight to the death over “more than” vs. “over” or the singular “they” and the like, these problems are far more insidious in my opinion because they stealthily undermine the reading experience to the point that the few readers who make it to the final page feel as if they’ve had a hollow, unsatisfying experience — no matter how good the actual storytelling might be. They feel as if they wasted hours or days that could have been spent with a better book.

    • these problems are far more insidious in my opinion because they stealthily undermine the reading experience to the point that the few readers who make it to the final page feel as if they’ve had a hollow, unsatisfying experience — no matter how good the actual storytelling might be.

      You are a man after my own heart, Jim. I love how you put it: “stealthily undermine.” Even if they get to the end of the book and think, “Pretty good story,” they don’t have a strong desire to seek out the author’s next book, which is the key to a long career.

      Great comment.

  6. “I like you so much,” John repeated…
    This is the first time John said “I like you so much.” so how could he repeat it?

    (There is an its/it’s typo in Note number 2.)

  7. Are there any writer’s workbooks of quizzes and instruction that you would recommend? I found this exercise fun and informative.

  8. I loved the quiz, found myself rewriting, editing and deleting as I read along. I caught the unnecessary adverb, the echos, and the info dump. It took me to the end before I realized the conflict was missing. I thought it was still pending:)
    I hope you might have another “quiz” in the future. I enjoyed it.
    Best wishes, Frances

  9. I must admit that I missed many of these. I could tell that something was a bit off, but I couldn’t pinpoint it. I realize that I still have so much to learn and appreciate TKZ’s tips. I love all of your writing books too. They are a great help.

    • Rebecca, you summed up the very point. You can sense something. And that’s what readers do. Without really analyzing it, they know something is off. We want to make sure they don’t get that feeling. Thanks for playing.

  10. James,
    Good quiz. I admit that I was thrown by the idea of specific ‘errors’ and put most of the excerpt down as plain bad writing. I should have thought about trying to edit it rather than read for errors.
    That said, I still have two questions:

    >>>>>LINE 3 – “How do you like it?” his wife said. Carol was…
    I work hard to keep my necessary dialogue attribution to ‘said’ and even then, only when necessary. In the case above, is ‘said’ the correct tag for a question, or would ‘asked’ be more appropriate? Or better to get rid of it altogether?

    >>>>>3RD LAST LINE – “I like you so much,” John repeated, “that I want to…
    This one has confused me for a while. When a dialogue attribution is placed in the middle of a singular thought, is it a rule that the attribution should be followed by a comma and an uncapitalised opening word in the next passage of dialogue? I’ve seen it the way you have shown–from time to time–but more often with a full stop / period following the attribution and a capitalised word opening the next piece of dialgoue.

    Thanks for keeping us scribblers honest and improving.
    Cheers,
    BILL

    • Bill, “said” is fine for questions. In fact, some argue that “asked” is redundant, because of the question mark. I find that a bit over the top. “Asked” is fine for variety.

      And yes, when it’s the construction as shown (i.e., ONE sentence with a comma), the next quoted word is NOT capitalized. It is acceptable to do it this way, though I’d suggest not doing it too much. For variety.

  11. James, I am a real fan of yours and I agreed with everything you said. Actually I agreed with most everyone.
    But, I am not sure how to identify the difference between 3rd Person Omniscient and 1st person of John in the first two lines.
    I am a novice and have taken classes, but this is the bugger that always stumps me. I’m sure it is something quit simple that I must be not getting. I know what the difference is in theory, but sometimes in writing I don’t see it. Here is one of those times.
    I would appreciate anyone’s advise on this.

    Great test by the way, I would like to see these more often. It’s fun as well as perfect for us novices.

    Thank you for your time and input.

    • Twila, no worries. POV is something that dogs even experienced novelists.

      There is no first person POV here. There is no “I did this, I did that.” What happens is we begin the scene inside John’s head, a third person position. Then we move to an omniscient narrator, disembodied from John.

      • Sorry, I meant to type 3rd person, but I guess I can’t differentiate from one 3rd POV to another 3rd POV without thinking it’s just simply omniscient.
        Thanks for your help.

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