Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Three Easy Fixes to Improve Your Writing

Got your attention, did I? Good.

Today's post, as promised in the title, will give you three easy things you can do to improve your writing. None of them is a positive thing; they are all things to avoid. That's why I can say for sure that they are easy, for you do not have to learn any new skill to apply any of them.

1 - Foreign Languages

You may think it looks sophisticated to have bits of French, Italian or some other language sprinkled through your writing. Whether it does or no (personally, I don't think so), there may be some plot-related occasions for using foreign phrases.

Now, I'm not saying you must never use any words of foreign in your writing. Sacre Bleu, non! Absit! And similar expressions. What I am saying is that you must not attempt to use foreign languages unless you speak them yourself. Or, you know, a suitable delegate can be found. For example, if I want to say something in Norwegian (a language I do not speak), I'll ask my friend Birgitta to give me the phrase I want. A friend used for this purpose needs to be trustworthy, because you are taking the grammar, etc., on faith. But under no circumstances will I use Google Translate or similar devices.

I really cannot stress this strongly enough. You can't trust Google Translate. A couple of years ago one of my clients sent me a book that was stuffed full of Latin that she'd obtained in this way. Okay, you'll say. You, as her editor, had to correct her Latin. Big deal. But I couldn't even correct it, because the mishmash produced by Google Translate was so nonsensical that I couldn't even tell what it was supposed to mean. Nor could I reverse engineer it using Google Translate the other way. That doesn't work. My client hadn't saved any record of the English she'd started with, and so there followed an agonising (for both of us) couple of days of going back and forth, back and forth, just to determine some English I could use as a starting point. It was rough on us both, and the sad thing was that it was so unnecessary. I'm not a world-class Latinist, but I'm able, for example, to read Summa Theologia in the original, and I could easily have done what she wanted from scratch.

You cannot rely on your editor for this. I did it, but it really isn't your editor's job, and you shouldn't be delegating to anyone a matter as basic as what words you will use.

The Fix:

a) Whenever you are going to write something foreign, first ask yourself why. Is it essential to the plot? Is it necessary or at least highly useful to, for example, flesh out a character? Make sure you have a good reason.

b) If you have satisfied yourself, according to (a) above, that the foreign bit is either necessary or highly desirable, you need to satisfy also one of the following:

i. You are fluent, or at least reasonably competent, in the language in question
ii. The phrase you want to use is well-known, or quoted from a reliable source. E.g. 'ars longa, vita brevis', 'semper fidelis'.
iii. You have access to someone, preferably a native speaker, who is both fluent in the language and willing to check your use of it.


2 - Archaic Language.

I don't care if you are writing historical fiction, angel porn, or something else. Do not attempt the language of the King James Bible unless you understand how the verbs work. Nothing, or at least hardly anything, will make you look like more of a hopeless fool than getting this stuff wrong.

A full disclosure of the paradigms for these older forms is beyond the scope of this article, but here's the present tense of 'To Go', as an example.

Present Tense

I go
Thou goest
He goeth
We go
You go
They go

Note that ONLY the singular second and third persons are different from the English we speak today. Also note the different pronoun for the second person singular. 'Thou' differs by case, as follows:

Nominative:  Thou
Accusative:   Thee
Genitive:       Thy

The Fix: Know what you're doing with this, or leave it alone. There is no other way.


3. - Baby Talk

Most adult writers will be surprised that this even needs to be mentioned, but I see this in modern novels, particularly in the romance genre. Pseudo-words such as 'tummy', 'doggy', 'bub' and so on have no place in narrative. If you want to use them in dialogue, sure, go ahead. Sometimes we just need to make a character sound cringeworthily twee.  But if you do it in your narrative, you are the one who will sound cringeworthily twee, at the likely cost of many of your readers.

You may feel that if you are writing for small children, you are exempt from this. That's your call to make. Personally, I would still avoid it. Consider Beatrix Potter. Consider, too, the enduring popularity of her books.


And if you must do it, don't ask me to be your editor. I will charge double if I have to read that shit.

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