Just 'cos I'm a grumpy so and so, here are some things that really bug me, which are extremely easy to remove:

the weak comma.Oh, how I hate the weak comma. I mean, how hard can it possibly be? If it's a new clause unrelated to the previous one it's a new damn sentence! Example:

  • John was 15 years old. He hated being 15.

NOT

  • John was 15 years old, he hated being 15.

If it works with an 'and' or a capital letter the chances are it needs one.

Pointless repetition or clunkingly obvious deliberate non-repetition.OK, I know that sounds like I want it both ways. But although I find it extremely annoying, like most people do, when a writer can't be bothered to be imaginative enough to phrase something differently, I find it even more annoying when their attempts at avoiding this are so smug and obvious they have an even more detrimental effect.

Some examples:

  • Sometimes Sarah was angry because of Simon's lies. His lies were so childish and petty.

could be more effectively phrased

  • Sometimes Sarah was angry because of Simon's lies. They were so childish and petty.

or in myriad different ways.

But equally, if repetition is necessary:

  • He owned a dog, but his mother owned a cat

don't bloody put

  • He owned a dog, but his mother possessed a cat

It's entirely superfluous and distracting. It makes the reader wonder why there's a change.

There's a good example of this in the brilliant H.W. Fowler's 'English Usage', taken from something called the Westminster Gazette: Fowler has not room to record at length the elegant variety of fortune that attended certain pictures, which (within twenty lines) made, fetched, changed hands for, went for, produced, elicited, drew, fell at, accounted for, realized, and were knocked down for, various sums. This is clearly just silly.

tautology. People think this looks sophisticated when in fact it just looks stupid. I used to do it myself the whole time, and came up with such gems as:

  • He was joyful, elated, euphoric.

These all mean the same thing, more or less. Say what you mean, and mean what you say: ask yourself if he really is all three or if you just want him to be because tricolons are pleasing to the ear and you like using all those words. The overriding rule of thumb, as always: keep it simple.

This one really bugs me. NEVER USE A LONG WORD WHEN A SHORT ONE WILL DO. Many people seem to believe the opposite.

Another example from Fowler:

  • One of the most important reforms mentioned in the rescript is the unification of the organization of the judicial institutions and the guarantee for all the tribunals of the independence necessary for securing to all classes of the community equality before the law.—Times.

should be:

  • One of the most important reforms mentioned in the rescript is that of the Courts, which need a uniform system, and the independence without which it is impossible for all men to be equal before the law

This also applies to single words. Don't say the books are 'homogenous' when you mean they are 'the same'; don't say you 'concur' when you 'agree'. It betrays a lack of confidence in your writing and a desire to hide behind the breadth of your vocabulary.

I have many more such bugbears, most of which I commit myself on a regular basis, but I don't have time for them all, so, finally, a couple of brief points: don't use semi-colons or colons unless you're very confident you're correct - consult a book - and don't use quotation marks to excuse a bad or wrong register phrase which you can't be bothered to think out properly.

There's enough of this stuff for a book, and I'd finish by recommending several very good ones. 'Fowler's English Usage' is the basic text, Kingsley Amis' 'The King's English' is funny as well as instructive, and 'The Economist Style Guide' is a straightforward instruction manual which that excellent magazine sticks by more or less religiously.

Good style matters because bad style is obvious and uncomfortable, and takes the reader out of what he is reading to remind him he is reading it. Good style (in journalism, at any rate), like a good referee, should be more or less unnoticeable except by it's absence.

post-node note: I got about a million messages after writing this pointing out typos - fair enough, I guess, given the subject matter. But I'd maintain that there's a difference between a conscious decision which leads to a stylistic error and a misspelling of a word as a result of pushing the wrong key or not capitalising an 'i'. Still, I'm pretty embarrassed that I put 'it's' rather than 'its'!

I agree with saint for the most part, but I would like to add some qualifiers and a few extra points.


Don't try and use 'style', as it often results in incomplete phrases, or sentences overloaded with adjectives. The rule of thumb here is to read what you've written again and think to yourself, does this flow properly? Would I, or a real person ever be able to say this in real conversation, given the proper context? Follow your own instinct when writing, unless, of course, you speak irritatingly anyway, in which case, follow these guidelines (the common comma can never be overused :P).


I've recently started to use the following method on my pieces of creative writing, in an attempt to give people who read it more freedom with their imaginations.

  1. Write your piece/story/paragraph (I find sections of four paragraphs at a time works best).
  2. Reread it, and edit it so that it flows.
  3. Now go through it and remove any adjectives you can that don't set the scene or add to the mood. Ordinarily, there will be at least two or three that can be edited out, and if you have been overloading your sentences in an attempt to be more concise, there will be many more. Rip them out if you want to be concise. They don't matter.
  4. Reread it again, and edit it so that it flows. Much of the time, this will involve undoing the previous edit, but thinking twice is far better than not thinking at all.
  5. (Optional) repeat several times from step two.

I would like to make it clear that I'm not against the use of adjectives, and to most people this method need not apply. But it is seriously painful, reading examples like the following, which is essentially one big adjective-phrase jammed into the middle of a sentence:

"A man with a nervous walk and posture that just screamed, "I'm a target for office abuse!" and then sat down again and hid under the seat appeared through the wall which rippled as he came through."


Don't make your readers think you're bouncing off the walls when you're writing.

If you notice, there is nearly never any appearance of the '!' in serious literature, be it classical, popular, journalistic... Once, reading a Gemmel book, I was 200 pages in and I found one '!'. Out of all of his books, he has used the exclamation mark once, at the end of a character's exclamation, which was very well done. But if you try and use it to make a point, 90% of the time it will just make you sound rushed and unsure of yourself.

This may not apply to humorous literature, but face it, it has been done, and you're not breaking new ground if you use it to show comic amounts of anger.

Never abandon your grammatical control when one of your characters make a dash for the prison gates. The book is not excited, the people in it are. Avoid exclamation points like the plague (the only sure preventation is total abstinence).


Finally, I'd like to say that there is no fixed formula for a good writing style, only common 'errors' that people often hate. I read enough that distinctive authors have come to be associated in my mind with a flavour. For example, Philip K. Dick, with his depressed and paranoid themes always reminds me of an aftertaste of battery acid - although his style is perfect, and the range of possible styles of similar value is incredible. No one could ever pin down all forms of 'good writing style'.

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