Tuesday, August 3, 2010

On Writing: Frequent Offenders In The Manuscript Analyzer

I recently got the following note via email, which I thought asked a great question:
I had recently discovered your Manuscript Analyzer program, which I've been using for a better understanding of the editing process.  But, what I don't understand is why the word "were" is a frequent offender?  When properly used with a verb, especially with one ending in -ing, the word "were" is perfectly acceptable.  Would I have to use my own discretion, or is there another explanation?

That's a really great question.  Here's my response:

With any of the frequent offenders, bear in mind that you have to use your own discretion and judgment -- the tool tries to give you a good overall idea of areas you might need to check, but these are at best red flags, not definitive notices of error. In most cases, anyway -- in the case of some of the frequent offenders, you've got words that are always wrong, like irregardless.

In the specific case of were, it's not even that the word itself is too much of a problem, but that if it is too prevalent it can be indicative of sentence structure that isn't varied or creative enough.

For example: "They were eating lunch.  The horses were in the pasture.  They could see the clouds were passing by overhead."  This is pretty unimaginative, and is something that tends to pop up in the first drafts of a lot of manuscripts. 

Much better construction might be something like: "They ate lunch on the terrace.  Horses grazed in the pasture below, with clouds drifting lazily by overhead."

Again, there's nothing wrong with saying "they were eating lunch."  You'll find sentences like that in any manuscript, and peppered throughout published books.  Sometimes that's the exact right thing to say, for reasons of pacing, tone, or simply because it sounds right.

On the other hand, you often read a lot of amateur manuscripts, or rough first drafts even of professionals, where the sentence construction reads almost like a monotone because of all those "was/were x-ing" constructions.  It's always up to the individual writer or editor to make their own judgments, and certainly in a rough draft it's better to just get the thoughts down on paper without worrying about the flow of the language, but when it comes time for revision this is one of the areas where a lot of writers spend a ton of their time.  I know I do!

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