Say What: Hunting Down the Pleonasms

Okay, I think I’m ready to get back out here under my own head of steam. Apologies for the slow entries of the last few days; of course I was working on finishing the book first, then in the process of doing so caught a cold from God-only-knows-where. Of course, we went back to visit family on Thanksgiving, and yesterday was traveling and intense back pain. You just can’t write very well under such conditions. I’m still not 100%, but thankfully (eh, eh??) I’m feeling well enough to write an entry again.

First note that I want to add is The Kayson Cycle is now available on Smashwords, and will soon be available on Barnes and Noble in advance of The Corridors of the Dead releasing next Wednesday.

Today I want to talk about Allen Guthrie’s “Hunting down the Pleonasms”. A few years ago, an acquisition editor for Point Blank Press wrote up this list of advice for writers, and it’s become something of a hand-me-down amongst writers. I suppose last night was my turn to receive the sage advice. Guthrie gave Adventure Books of Seattle permission to reprint the list where-ever they wanted, so I’m not going to step on their toes and reproduce the whole thing. If you want to see the list in full, go over to their site; the list is linked here.

What I would like to do, however, is discuss some of his points here. He makes some others that I’ve discussed on this site before (and some of the ones that I have picked out have been Shaggin the Muse mainstays, but this shows a new angle on those concepts).

1: Avoid pleonasms. A pleonasm is a word or phrase which can be removed from a sentence without changing its meaning. For example, in “Hunting Down The Pleonasm”, ‘down’ is pleonastic. Cut it and the meaning of the sentence does not alter. Many words are used pleonastically: ‘just’, ‘that’ and ‘actually’ are three frequently-seen culprits (I actually just know that he’s the killer can be trimmed to I know he’s the killer), and phrases like ‘more or less’ and ‘in any shape or form’ are redundant.

I had never heard of this term before I read the article, but I was familiar with the concept. In fact, at times when I was cutting the pleonasms I wondered if I was being a little too picky, but as it turns out, no! I was doing the right thing. Of course, I also think that sometimes we can still go overboard, if writing in the voice of a given character.

2: Use oblique dialogue. Try to generate conflict at all times in your writing. Attempt the following experiment at home or work: spend the day refusing to answer your family and colleagues’ questions directly. Did you generate conflict? I bet you did. Apply that principle to your writing and your characters will respond likewise.

This was particularly interesting, as I had a beta reader who complained about what she felt was information being withheld in the story. I didn’t see the problem – I felt that it was generating more tension and conflict. So I asked my other beta readers and my editor if they agreed with the assessment. They disagreed – they felt that just enough information was fed through to balance out what was withheld. Ultimately, readers will have the final say, but this is something that I tried to address.

6: Keep speeches short. Any speech of more than three sentences should be broken up. Force your character to do something. Make him take note of his surroundings. Ground the reader. Create a sense of place.

I may be guilty of this, but I will be aggressive about this in the future.

7: If you find you’ve said the same thing more than once, choose the best and cut the rest. Frequently, I see the same idea presented several ways. It’s as if the writer is saying, “The first couple of images might not work, but the third one should do it. If not, maybe all three together will swing it.” The writer is repeating himself. Like this. This is a subtle form of pleonasm.

Man oh man did I finally “get” this with the Corridors edit. A few times I came across separate characters espousing essentially the same concepts. It felt like I wasn’t 100% confident of what I was saying, so I either consolidated the ideas or cut one. It made the story much stronger.

11: Avoid sounding ‘writerly’. Better to dirty up your prose. When you sound like a writer, your voice has crept in and authorial intrusion is always unwelcome. In the best writing, the author is invisible.

This gets back to what I said in Point 1. Sometimes it’s more important to convey the world in the character’s voice than get caught up in the artifice of “being a writer”. This is why I exclusively write in first person, as I can become very guilty of flourishing and showing off when it’s not necessary. First person keeps me honest.

14: Use ‘said’ to carry dialogue. Sid Fleischman calls ‘said’, “the invisible word.”

One of my pet peeves. I like to throw in a “whispered” or “yelled” when it’s appropriate (impossible to convey the character’s state of mind due to scene constraints), but otherwise “said” is always the right choice.

18: Give your characters clear goals. Always. Every scene. And provide obstacles to those goals. Always. Every scene. If the POV character in a scene does not have a goal, provide one or cut the scene. If there is no obstacle, add one or cut the scene.

Yes! I’ve written about this before (see here) – it’s the idea of “bullseyes” in chapters and scenes.

21: Use all five senses in your descriptions. Smell and touch are too often neglected.

I live by this. You don’t know a venue until you know how it smells.

29: Characters who smile and grin a lot come across as deranged fools. Sighing and shrugging are also actions to avoid. Eliminating smiles, sighs and shrugs is almost always an improvement. Smiling sadly is a capital offence.

Guilty as charged. All of these ended up on my “weak words” list, and fell victim to the Find-and-Replace ax.

32: If something works, forget about the rule that says it shouldn’t.

Too true! This is, again, where First Person allows me to get around some of the rules where they would handcuff a story. Sometimes, the situation just calls for rule-breaking – but as I learned long ago, you must understand the rules before you break them.

Overall, a great list, and I plan to print these out and keep them handy on my desk for the next editing cycle. I hope they can help you out too. Look for a list of seven more “weak words” coming Monday.

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  1. Very useful, Jonathan. I’ve heard them before, but somehow need regular reminding.

    (By the way, “very” is a pleonasm.)

  2. I lost my sense of smell after a surgery when I was 13. This is a problem around gas leaks, but it also shows up in my writing as an unintentional lack of smells. Someone in a writing group was reviewing a story I wrote that was set in an Asian market. He said that the variety of smells from the spices, the fish counter, the durian fruits are what strike him the most when shopping at an Asian market and that it was an interesting choice to not mention them! That was an excellent catch on his part and I’ve tried very hard to overcome this in subsequent work. Of course, now you know if you read something and I mention a smell, I’m making it up or had to pester someone to describe an odor to me (people have trouble with this, they really do!).

    I am going through the final copy edit of my novel and got nervous that I was using “sigh” too much. I wasn’t, but I feel much better now. I’m also cutting all the pleonasms and repetition I can find; my novel gets shorter with every revision!

    Thanks for the writing reminders!

    • Whoah, I can’t imagine what that’s like. I didn’t even know that was possible. Does that impact your day-to-day life very much? Amazing ingenuity in getting others to describe smells for you, though. I think some writers who do smell things might benefit from that, as well, as I’ve found that some smells are very different to other people. Hmmm…going to try that soon.

      Hah, feel you on the shorter work. I started at something like 79,000 words and ended just north of 70,000. I’ve never been guilty of writing especially long novels, so I was getting a little nervous about my length.

  3. Very useful (I said with just a deranged grin.)

  4. thanks for the post! it came at the right time since I’m having to edit my book AGAIN. I don’t know if I agree with the no-no on smiles, shrugs and sighs…I have my characters doing these things because I want the reader to SEE them…I don’t agree with the spare writing that seems to be all the rage–I like the occasional adverb–but I do agree about extra words like THAT, or THE being left out if it doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence…and yes, lengthy descriptions or backstory can really lose a reader’s interest…one of the things I like about being self-pubbed is breaking some of these rules that have so recently arrived from–where? who decides these things? And yes, I want to keep my readers interest at all costs–there is a happy medium, I think.

    • Mmmhmm. I wonder about these sometimes, too, because I can honestly say that I have never seen a traditionally published book that obeys all of the rules that have been laid down, anywhere. I view and present these lists (and others that I haven’t shared yet) as something of a road-map. Some of these “destinations” are fitting for me, others are not, and I try to share them with others who might identify something that they’d like to change in their own works. I mean, I know that certain words and phrases work as crutches in my first drafts, and that’s fine – they’re there to help me just get the ideas, dialogue, and plot out – but I have to change them in the final version to hold the reader’s interest. Sometimes these lists just add something to my editing checklist.

      But I do like being able to break some of the trad publishing rules, like making my first work part of a series and not having it stand *entirely* on its own. I understand that’s quite difficult as an initial sell.

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