Impeccable grammar is necessary. It is not, however sufficient, if you want your book to be any good. You also need to consider issues of style. The following is a selection of some of the more common style errors into which inexperienced writers fall. It is not exhaustive.
Monotonous sentence structures.
A long series of sentences with identical structures gives your work an air of horrible monotony. Of course, if that’s what you are aiming for, this can be a technique that can work well for you. The basic rule is like that about rudeness: you can do it, but never do it by accident.
We all laugh about “the wine-dark sea”, and “jostling sheep and shambling cattle with their twisted horns.” Don’t fall into the trap of constantly associating the same descriptives with anything. It looks extremely silly. No, Homer is not an exception to this.
It is best not to repeat a word within a sentence. It looks very clunky. However, don’t fall into the trap of straining after synonyms.
For example, consider this passage:
VERSION 1 (BAD)
The dog crouched behind the dustbin. Tantalising odours wafted from the bin, driving the hungry dog almost mad with desire. The dog had tried to push up the lid with his nose, but it was on tightly enough to defeat the dog’s efforts. Sadly, the dog resigned himself to another hungry night.
In this passage the word “dog” appears five times in four short sentences. This is very poor style, and something needs to be done about it. However, there is a trap here. The semi-educated person may assume that the problem is one of vocabulary; we see this mistaken assumption often made by writers for women’s magazines, and it leads to dreadfulness like this:
VERSION 2 (UNSPEAKABLE)
The dog crouched behind the dustbin. Tantalising odours wafted from the bin, driving the hungry hound almost mad with desire. The mutt had tried to push up the lid with his nose, but it was on tightly enough to defeat the pooch’s efforts. Sadly, the pup resigned himself to another hungry night.
This is just gruesome and unbearably twee. And this problem is caused by the fact that the original problem is not one of vocabulary, but of structure. To fix it, what is needed is not to find nouns that can be substituted for “dog”, but to alter the passage to eliminate the repetition.
VERSION 3 (BETTER)
The dog crouched behind the dustbin. Tantalising odours wafted from the bin, driving him almost mad with desire. He had tried to push up the lid with his nose, but it was on tightly enough to defeat all efforts. Sadly, he resigned himself to another hungry night.
“While”, like alcohol, is wonderful when used appropriately, but extremely toxic when overused. In order to use “while” responsibly, do not use the word unless it is actually necessary. Generally that will be when indicating simultaneity of two actions is necessary or desirable in your narrative.
EG: While he was waiting for the milkman, Fluffy passed the time catching fleas.
This is fine because the “while” indicates that the flea-catching is contemporaneous with waiting for the milkman.
However: The hollow under the steps gave Fluffy shelter from the rain, while the daily milk delivery provided emergency food.
Unless the daily milk delivery only ever occurred when it was raining, this “while” is a poor substitute for “and”.
Never, under any circumstances, say “whilst”.
Like “while”, “with” is a useful word, but is very prone to be abused. Consider the following:
“I wish I could take you home, Rover,” said the boy, with a sad look on his face.
Now this would be all very well if we didn’t have adverbs, but we do have adverbs, and cases like this are just what they are for. “Sadly” has nearly the same meaning as “with a sad look on his face,” but with the added benefit of also colouring the speaker’s tone of voice.
“Drat that dog,” said the housekeeper, with irritation.
Here again, although an adverb won’t meet the case, an adjective will. “Irritated” is what’s needed here.
Never, ever use “with” to take the place of an adjective or adverb. Keep it for when you really need it:
“His fur would make a wonderful collar,” said Cruella, with a gay little laugh.
Active and Passive Voice
It is often said that it is best to stick to the active voice. However, you should not take an overly simplistic view of this question. It is true that simple narrative is clearer and has much better impact in the active voice, but in passages where you want to emphasise the helpless passivity of a character who is acted upon by events, rather than acting himself, the passive voice may be a better choice. Consider these two examples of how the strengths of each voice can be used to add to the power of your narrative:
ACTIVE: Rover seized the rat by the scruff of the neck and shook it once, sharply. He heard a satisfying snap! as its neck broke. He dropped the rat and pounced on another.
PASSIVE: Rover was dried with a towel, and given a bowl of milk by a woman in a white coat. He was lifted onto a table and had bright lights shone into his eyes, and his mouth inspected. He was stuck in the scruff of the neck with something sharp, and a stick was poked up his bottom. Finally, he was left alone in a small, dark room.
Pronouns are great. They’re one of my favourite things. But it’s important when you use one, that it is clear what the referent of that pronoun is. Consider the following sentence:
Rover told Spot he was smelly and full of fleas.
It really isn’t clear whether it is Rover or Spot that Rover thinks is smelly and full of fleas. This is one of the most common mistakes that people make with pronouns - after failure to agree, which we discussed last month. The best way to fix something like this is not to do it in the first place; otherwise, you will probably need to rephrase the whole thing.
Badly Positioned Pronouns
In a paragraph where you are going to mention a person several times, you do not want to keep using his name, or you will end up with something like this:
Rover turned the corner and froze, astonished. Rover could see right into the building, and it was absolutely full of meat! Rover took a tentative step towards the open door.
That looks terrible, and you know that you need to use a pronoun in place of Rover, Rover, Rover. But don’t do this:
He turned the corner and froze, astonished. He could see right into the building, and it was absolutely full of meat! Rover took a tentative step towards the open door.
This is confusing for the reader, especially in a long paragraph, because the sudden appearance of the character’s name half way through the passage suggests that the first “he” referred to someone other than Rover. Therefore, if a name is to be used once, it should be used at the beginning of the paragraph.