Cast Your Eyes Over This and Other Writing Flubs?

bad writing examples shocking monkeyAll right. This is not an essay from an expert telling everybody about better writing technique. This is a writer complaining about all the dratted self-styled experts who have nothing better to do than find arbitrary ways to complain about our work.

Case in Point.

I write, “Her eyes dropped to the floor.” And my smart-*ss editor comments, “I hope she picked them up afterwards.”

I suppose I’m not allowed to say, “His eyes shifted to the left,” in my Fantasy novel for fear of a comment about there being no transmissions in feudal times.

What’s Wrong With Metaphor?

I really hope some “expert” will sign in to the comments section below and give me one good reason why I shouldn’t say, “He flicked a hand towards the door, and their eyes turned in that direction.”

If it were only a few idiot reviewers and graduate students desperate for something original to spout about in their theses, I wouldn’t mind. The trouble comes when enough of them blather one of these self-created rules around the echo chamber to the point where readers start to pick it up. Then you have a bunch of readers who are sensitized to the form, and every time they see an example, they are tossed out of their connection with the story to say, “Oh, yes, there’s one of those whatchamacallits. This guy must be a bad writer.”

So in the end, we have to stop using a whole range of useful expressions for a while, until the fad dies away.

Descriptors, for Example

Remember the campaign against adjectives and adverbs? A few years ago, there were supposedly knowledgeable people stating that you should only allow yourself three adverbs per chapter. Well, I can write without adverbs. I can say, “He glared at her, a frown on his forehead and a sneer on his lips.” But couldn’t I just say, “He glared at her suspiciously,” and get on with the story? Yes, I know. Show, don’t tell. But sometimes the showing just takes too many words. There are all sorts of recognized shortcuts to get the job done faster and smoother, and as long as the reader and the writer agree on them and they are not overused, why not?

Why Not?

Because somebody has committed to producing a blog on writing every Tuesday, and it’s Monday at midnight and he or she can’t think of anything intelligent to say. So we get people writing whole blogs on the subject of “Don’t Make People Do Stupid Things With their Eyes,” or some such nonsense. When you read them, they place works like, “I will lift my eyes unto the hills from whence comes my help” (Psalm 121) on a par with, “Suddenly, all the eyes in the room rose from their fixed positions on the floor to stare at him.” One is beautiful poetry, one is execrable writing, and eye movement has little to do with it. (What’s that? You want a hint? Umm…well, one of them uses “whence.” Is that even a word?)

And it comes to me that these people have no idea about good writing and bad writing and how to distinguish between the two. Instead, like so many academics and critics before them, they impose rules that every writer must follow, so that his or her writing can be analyzed as perfect. Or not. And incidentally so those who create the rules can feel smug.

Which then leads to comments like, “Editors expect writers to mean exactly what they write.” (Yes, that’s a direct quote) In other words, if you are writing prose, then you must write exactly, perfectly, literally at all times. And heaven help you if you use simile, metaphor, hyperbole or any other artistic form of writing. (And never, ever, ever use three adverbs in a row.)

My definition of Philistines is, “People hostile towards things they know nothing about.”

Bah, Humbug!

(Oh, and don’t use exclamation marks, either.)

Author: Gordon Long

Gordon A. Long is a writer, editor, publisher, playwright, director and teacher. 
Learn more about Gordon and his writing from his blog and his Author Central page.

14 thoughts on “Cast Your Eyes Over This and Other Writing Flubs?”

  1. I’ve written countless digital pages of unneeded words to “show don’t tell” when telling was fine; to “avoid adverbs” when adverbs were better suited to the writing, and avoided idioms when idioms were appropriate.

    Now I write what I feel, and if someone doesn’t like it they don’t have to read it.

    Thanks for the great article.

    My jaw dropped when I suspiciously read your piece, which let the cat out of the bag and was refreshingly honest.

    Well, sorry about that last sentence. 🙂

  2. Hi Gordon,

    Thank you very much, I agree whole heartedly with what you said. Reading your post lightens my heart that there are actually fellow writers who do not fear the critics feather pen and empty ink wells of contempt for all who call themselves writers. I myself am a happy hack writer. I am tired of reading rehashed contrite articles talking down to us and telling us to write using only proper exact grammatical correctness, and not to write with metaphors & descriptors, or as one of my college professors called them metawhores & disruptors LoL.

    Being from New England, I love slipping in a little zinger of a colloquialism to make a point, or lighten my stories. Where would we be if Shakespeare had not filled his plays with such word play, or Mark Twain had not created witticisms to keep us turning the pages of Huckleberry Finn. After all the purest critics are nothing more then pompous failed writers and wanna be novelists, who never completed a successful story and whose only goal is to knock down others, in order, to show off how much better they themselves are then we are. Don’t listen to them, instead write the words that excite your readers and keep them buying your books, for even Shakespeare and Twain were considered Hack Writers at first.

    Hail Caesar! A Thumbs Up to You!
    JB Wocoski

  3. LMAO! Yes.
    Go, Gordon!
    I’ve never been able to understand why perfectly good aspects of the English language go through these silly fads. Meh…clearly they can’t but…meh again. And I agree with the overuse of Show don’t Tell as well. Can you imagine a fight scene where every grunt and groan is ‘shown’ in exquisite detail? Of course the reader will have gone to sleep before the first punch lands, but hey, at least the critics will love it.
    Glad to see I’m not the only one who can see that the Emperor has no clothes. 😀

  4. I’m struggling right now with my editor – I maintain that: Suddenly, the silence of the night was shattered by the sound of … But oh no, it starts with an adverb. I used to think I could write – for heaven’s sake I’ve earned my living by writing for almost 40 years – but it appears I can’t – previously i self-edited, but then a couple of reviews on the Big A sent me panicking to shell out tons of money to professional editing and now my work is ‘correct’ but where have I gone?

    1. A note on “suddenly.” 90% (I made up that number) of the time you should cut it. It is almost always misused to insert immediacy and tension, which should have been done with better writing technique. “Suddenly, he yawned.” Huh?
      However, sometimes things happen out of the blue, with no warning. Like a quiet night shattered by an abrupt sound. And then it’s correct, useful, and the quickest way to get the information across. Tell your editor that 🙂

  5. So now you’ve decided to talk down to us – complaining about people who …
    Seriously, though, some of those examples are sheer laziness. I never understood the objection to adverbs, but can see how “suspiciously” is a pretty meaningless word to apply to a look or a statement. How does the observer know the look or the tone conveyed that intention – if indeed that was the intention. The meaning is much clearer if the observer’s thoughts or words tell us that he or she did not trust what he/she was seeing/hearing.
    And if the word applies to the words or facial expression of the POV character there are much better ways of ensuring the intended effect is achieved.
    Why can your character not point towards the door (you could use the adverb ‘casually’ instead of that business about flicking his hand) and everyone else simply look in that direction?
    There’s a reason we need editors – even if it’s only ourselves. And we don’t always have to accept their opinion if our gut tells us that our original is better than the suggested alternative. At least you’ve given thought to the best way of expressing what you mean. If you then decide the cliche that came out in your first draft is perfect for the context, fine.

    1. About “suspiciously”; I must take issue with your use of the descriptor “meaningless.” I’m a playwright and theatre director, and believe me, when I put “He looks suspiciously at her,” as a stage direction, I know I will get a very specific reaction from the actor, complete with body language, facial expression, and tone of voice. It is impossible to describe in words, and different actors will do it in different ways, but every one of them will read my instructions and communicate the information to an audience who has exactly the same picture in their head of what “suspiciously” means. That’s what a good adverb does. It clues the reader, in the shortest time possible, to a very complex set of visual responses that would take a paragraph to explain.
      As I mention in the story, it’s not the adverb that’s the problem. It’s the misuse and overuse by bad (yes, “lazy”) writers that makes it a problem.

  6. I’ve never suffered an attack by an excessive literalist, but I have been told that I really don’t want to be saying what I just said. It’s embarrassing to have a character “arguing heatedly” at the scene of an arson, for example.

    With reference to those dropping, shifting eyes, I don’t see anything wrong with them if used sparingly. But sometimes writers (myself in particular) get desperate to inject action into a dialogue-heavy scene, with the result that suddenly eyes are wandering all over the place. Instead, why not have a character study his shoes or gaze out a window or even do something with some other part of his body, such as punching a hole in the wall?

    It’s less about literalism or fads than about finding fresh and interesting ways to tell the story. I imagine an editor who has had to watch eyes drop and flick and flit time after time after time after time might get a bit punchy and suggest that somebody pick them up for crying out loud. 😉

    1. I believe you’ve put your finger on it with “fresh and interesting.” There are a limited number of verbs to substitute for “look,” and most of them are very specific. Once you’ve used “looked” “glanced” and “stared” about seventeen times, you’re searching for something new, and believe me, the thesaurus isn’t a whole lot of help.
      It is up to a good editor to get over his prejudices and make his decisions on what the readers will accept, not what his jaded sensibilities may say. After all, if I’m editing a book with a dog as a character, and I’m afraid of dogs, I have to deal with that. If I have a thing about “suddenly,” I can’t ask my client to stop using the word completely.
      And remember, I’m not complaining about editors, here, but rather the less responsible members of the writing community, whose critical comments come from other agendas. Editors must react to the changing fashionscape of readerdom, if they are to help us sell our books.

  7. I agree with you wholeheartedly (hey, another adverb!!) (And exclamation points!!) Loads of them!!) I write the way I want to write, and it generally comes out making sense. I am also an editor, and when I work on projects I want to see anything that brings the written scene into a mental image for me. Adverbs are great for that, as far as I’m concerned.

    One question though–did you mean to use a question mark or an exclamation point in your title. Sorry, I sorta can’t help it…

    1. Actually, the question mark was from me. I added the second part of the title on because the question is, are these actually flubs or not? It’s really up to the individual to decide if they are flubs or if they are stylistic choices.

  8. I aged with you. Unfortunately some so called critics, or experts, are like the weather. You can do little to keep them at bay. I mean, if it’s raining you can use your umbrella, but you can’t bask in the sun…
    But one thing you can keep doing. And that’s writing the best you can according to your sensibility =)

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