Home : Writing is Design: Avoid Bland Pronouns and Boring Verbs

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Writing is Design: Avoid Bland Pronouns and Boring Verbs — 18 Comments

  1. Great advice, Dave. I’m particularly struck by your call to whether we could replace an easy pronoun with something more powerful, or at least informative. “It” and “they” may fall easily from our fingers on the keyboard, but when we go back to edit and re-write, could we be more intentional? Could we actually convey more with fewer words?
    Yes, some people may carry this to an extreme and stuff sentences with unnecessary variation, but the tendency to excess doesn’t negate sound advice. Thanks!

  2. As I said on LinkedIn, I think this is bad advice. It is what Fowler (whom, with adequate caution, you all consider reading) called ‘Elegant Variation’. I’m not as stubborn as he is: I think variation can be a good thing, but overdone it can appear tacky, cheap and laborious. Repetition is mostly harmless. If you want more vigour, re-write the sentence.

    You’re right about re-writing a sentence without verbs, though it’s hardly revolutionary. Writers from Nabokov to Pynchon do it all the time. I think the only people that have a problem with it are those that have a too rigid idea of what makes a sentence.

    • I don’t advise elegant variation. I advise using writing patterns to identify opportunities to make a conscious decision whether to modify a sentence or leave it as is. Quite often, the simpler form does the job. Quite often it doesn’t. Certainly, as in the “deadly weapon” example, it’s easy to transform a simple and vague sentence into an overwritten clunker. What constitutes overwritten prose is subjective, but the judgment should be made consciously and carefully. Writing by blind habit, whether it produces bland pronoun/verb combinations or “elegant” variation is money in your editor’s pocket.

      • Like most things, I think language (how it’s used) is largely a matter of balance coupled with matching the surroundings? Like not shouting in a library or a place of lamentation? Or yelling your head off at the race track…

        If you’re writing something dramatic then of course you’re going to use extremely evocative language at some point, but often bare minimum force can be as effective to counteract the rich layers of action or atmosphere. It’s a question, as you say Dave, of when to keep things simple and when to season liberally and that has to be very much a selective and deliberate process to make the words gyrate, or sizzle, or whirl, or brood where they’ll do most good!

        • And that is exactly what I mean when I say “Writing is Design.” Too many of our writing habits are invisible to us. Any pattern we can use to highlight prose in a way that exposes it to objective decision-making will only benefit the writing. Thanks as always for your participation here.

  3. Quite interesting and useful too for budding writers! writing is an art. Grammatical accuracy is one thing but, making your writing impressive by adding style is another. Style, individual and distinctive, will make your writing last longer. The article on ‘design’ is the first step in shaping and developing your style.

  4. Quite interesting and useful too for budding writers. Grammatical accuracy is one thing but, making your writing impressive with a touch of style is another.

  5. I do, therefore I “am.” Sometimes I “am” stuck as to which word to use. The verb “to be”- a state of being.
    Dave, loved your article. I too have finished a manuscript and need to revisit word choices.

    • Thanks, Journey. As I write this series on style problems, I should mentioned that my primary qualification for doing so is that I’ve been busted for making these mistakes myself. Glad to know you found this useful and good luck with your book.

    • And verbs ARE doing or being words; you and Jan are both correct. But something can simply “be” or it can jump, dance, fly, or smile. “There are” and “It is” are correct and functional statements of being. But writers should at least consider the option to go beyond merely asserting existence. By finding instances of pronouns combined with simple infinitives, opportunities to enhance the prose are revealed. Sometimes the simple form is best left as is but quite often, the writing gets stronger when these spots are given some creative attention.

  6. I don’t know whether this is common globally or if it’s just my age and location but in kindergarten/infant school (so 5 years old and in the UK) we were always told that verbs were ‘doing’ words and so I’ve always had difficulty with ‘is’ and ‘was’ etc – some things just stick I guess?

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