Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Freelancer Advice

I've been reading a lot of work lately, and I see we're still making the same mistakes we made ten years ago. By "we" I mean writers. I'm guilty of a lot of these things, too, because in the heat of the deadline it's better to just get words on paper. Generally, I try to sit on a draft for a few days after it's done and give it an editing pass. I'm often horrified by what I read. Did I really think that was a good sentence? That paragraph isn't really a paragraph at all, but a collection of unrelated sentences....

In an effort to help people out, I'm going to talk a bit about these common mistakes.

Will: I totally get that the module is going to be played sometime in the future. This can often mess with a writer's mind. He ends up writing stuff like "the orcs will attack at dawn" and "the PCs will find a magic dagger." After all, it's not happening now; he's technically describing something that will happen in the future. The only problem is, this is horrible writing. You can totally drop the "will" from those sentences and they stand up fine. Moreover, they're more readable. "The orcs attack at dawn" and "the PCs find a magic dagger." Try to write in what is known as the "ever present now." The action is happening now, in your head. Write it that way. Because if I have to read another sentence about how the PCs will enter a room and will be attacked by orcs, and will find a rod of wonder, then I WILL kill someone.

To Be: I think there's a perfectly good reason the guy who invented the Klingon language purposely omitted the verb "to be." It's the single most boring verb in the language. Certainly, there are times when something just exists. "I am at the store." "He is angry." But because the verb is so broad, it can be easily applied. Why bother to find a more exciting verb? Because "to be" is boring. I can't tell you the number of times I read a sentence like "he is tall" or "he is sitting at the bar." Really? That's the best verb you can come up with? How about "he towers over the rest of the crowd"? Gee, that's pretty freaking tall. How about "he sits at the bar" or "he lounges at the bar" or "he hunches over the bar"? Not only are those more interesting to read, notice the subtle difference in tone -- he's either lounging (relaxed) or hunched (tense). The only time you should use "to be" is when no other verb works.

Very: I hate this word with a passion. How very is very? It's meant to convey a sense of degree or effect. It's very hot outside today. The tree is very tall. She's very mad. What they hell do those sentences even mean? How hot is "very hot?" How tall is "very tall?" How mad is "very mad?" Really, when you think about it, not much. The English language has millions of words, most of them defining precise degrees and effects; all of them are better than "very." It's sweltering outside today. The tree soars above the forest floor. Is your girlfriend angry you forgot to take out the trash, or is she furious that you hit on her sister? That makes a difference, which cannot be conveyed by the word "very." It also makes the sentence more informative and more interesting to read. Seriously, if I have to read about how the orcs are very angry about their stuff being stolen one more time, I will be very angry. Or rather, I'll be enraged to the point of finding a penguin and beating a kitten with it.

Passive Voice: If you don't know what this is, turn in your writer card. Let's try this on for size: The gnolls are angry that their totem was stolen by the PCs. That sentence just lays there. It does nothing for you. The way to fix this is to find out who acts and the action they take, and flipping the sentence structure around. It's actually an easy fix. "When the PCs stole their totem, the gnolls became enraged." Who stole the totem? The PCs. Passive voice is like going to a party where no one can eat, drink or dance. Yeah, you're at a party, but nothing really happens.

With a little bit of time and effort on our part, we can create some vibrant, exciting work. Moreover, we make the line editor's job easier. Take my advice, and write well.


  1. Thanks for posting this ... very timely.

  2. Excellent post - basic traps into which, I fear, we all fall from time to time.

  3. Well, in some ways, it's a function of time and deadline pressures. Often, I don't have time to re-read and edit my own stuff, because I'm a procrastinator and the deadline is tomorrow. So I just send off what I've got. Since I do it that way, I'm sure others fall into the same trap.

    It's a good idea, however, to try to be aware of these traps and correct for it in advance. It's easier to edit out of the work if you just don't do it in the first place.