Nov 9, 2007

Hawks and purists

by Donna Hatch

After all the contests I’ve entered, critique partners who’ve edited my writing, and the process of revising and rewriting before going into publication, I though I’d grown a really thick skin. I always tell a new critique partner; “Be ruthless. Don’t worry, I can take it.”

Not always, I guess.

I recently got a critique the other day that managed to ruffle my feathers. Truly, I was so hurt and upset that my first reaction was “It’s hopeless, I can’t write. Why do I even try!”

Well, that’s silly. My editor thinks I can write. In fact, I’m committed to a four book familial series. But self-confidence is a fragile thing.

The critiquer (is that a real word?) wasn’t cruel, or even terribly nit-picky, she just pointed out some tendencies that I have. Her letter was very sweet, gentle and almost apologetic and most of it came either from a book or from other critiques she'd gotten.

She said that I should try to avoid:
using any form of the verb to be,(am is are was were be been being, etc)
adjectives (words that describe a noun such as old, dark, thin, ragged),
adverbs (words that end in ly, like quickly, lightly),
would and could (which are just another form of the verb to be, by the way),
and qualifiers (just, that, only, really, merely, etc).

I thought myself an advanced enough author that I was beyond making those new author mistakes, but I’m not arrogant enough to believe myself perfect. Far from it. But the thing that killed me, though, were her words, “Too much passive voice. Show, don’t tell.”

If you ever want to drive an author to suicide, tell him/her the ambiguous words, “passive voice” or “show don’t tell.” They are both things that are really, really hard to pin down, and is often based on a vague feeling, of “I didn’t love this piece of writing, and I need to say something intelligent, so this is what I’m going to say.” She did offer some suggestions of how I could show rather than tell.

And she’s right. These all CAN BE symptoms of passive voice. However, none of these things should be truly avoided. Without them, writing becomes flat and sterile.

After I soothed my wounded pride and cried on my friend’s shoulder (see my earlier blog about the importance of having a cheering section), I wrote back this one-time critiquer and asked for examples of these problems, rather than a vague letter that read like a chapter from a how to writing book.

She responded with very specific sentences or paragraphs from my writing that made her feel that my writing was passive and that I was telling rather than showing along with some suggestions of how to fix them. Armed with this information, I took a look at what she was trying to tell me and realized that she had a point…to a certain extent. In a few cases, I’d written sentences that could have been stronger if rephrased. Also, and more importantly, I should have had the heroine interact with objects rather than merely observe that they were in the room. Now, I had a clearer idea of what bumped her out of the story and made her feel distanced from the heroine – good symptoms of either the dreaded passive voice, or a lack of sensory details (taste, touch, temperature, smell, etc), as well as impassive observations about the setting. And by utilizing some of her suggestions, my chapter in question did read much better. She did help and I am grateful. Really.

Here are examples of what I’m talking about:
The overuse of adverbs to make up for a weak verb: “The girl walked slowly” reads better if you say “the girl trudged.”
“The wind gently blew the curtain” would read better as “The wind stirred the curtain” or even “the curtain stirred”

Show don’t tell: “It was raining” is telling. “Rain pelted him as he ran to his car” is showing.
“She was angry” is telling. “She clenched her fists until her nails dug into her palms” is showing.

Passive Voice: “The door was opened by the mother” is passive voice. “The mother opened the door” is active.
“He could feel the ship shudder under her feet” is passive. “The ship shuddered under his feet” is active.

Most of these “mistakes” are not horrible when used occasionally, but a book filled with them can slow down the pace and keep the reader at arms’ length from the characters. Many older books are written this way, but today's readers want a faster-paced read.

When I mentioned to my steady critique partner about my experience with this one shot critiquer, and asked if she noticed that I have a tendency to write this way, she said, “That other person sounds like a passive voice hawk to me.”

Hawks are those people who have odd little pet peeves about certain things. Some are POV (Point of View) Hawks. A friend of mine has been labeled the POV police because she always points out when an author switches POV too often. I’ve been called a POV purist, because it bugs me when I can’t tell if the hero is really thinking he regrets kissing her or if the heroine only believes that the hero is regrets kissing her. I never switch POV in the middle of a scene. I wait until a scene break or a chapter break to switch POV. So, yeah, I guess I am a POV hawk. Sometimes switching POV in the middle of a scene can be done well, and then it doesn’t bother me. But that’s another whole subject.

Another friend hates qualifiers like: just, merely, only, etc. She’s a qualifier hawk.

Many others are Hawks about the verbs “to be:” am, is, are, was, were, be, been, being, have, had, etc. Some particularly hate the use of "should, would, could," and call them vampires. “Was”, in particular gets booed whenever it shows up. I’ve done it myself, but only when it’s overdone.

Overusing these forms of the verb “to be” and qualifiers are symptoms of weak or lazy writing. I’ve blogged about it. I’ve marked it on the writing I’ve critiqued.

However, I’d like to remind people about the saying, “moderation in all things.”

Adverbs and adjectives are what bring books to life. They can be overdone, but they are necessary - especially the adjectives. Take them all away and you have a really dry read.

The verb “was” is not bad. It is not evil. It is not something to be avoided at all costs. It is something to used sparingly. Moderately.

Here’s what my critique partner, Frances, said:
Most sentences using "was" or "were" are actually set in the imperfect or past continuous tense. This can be overdone but is sometimes effective, not to mention necessary.
Example: He was walking along the street [past continuous] when he slipped [perfect, or past simple tense] on a banana skin. [i.e. walking is an action that takes some time, slipping is a quick, one-time (hopefully) event]

If the so-called “passive” hawks rewrote this sentence, it would become, “He walked along the street and slipped on a banana skin.” That might be better in some cases, but it does change the mood of the sentence. I think it takes away the impact.

Think of this example: “He was brooding on the misery of life when she walked in stark naked.”
All those wases, weres, shoulds, woulds etc make up the rich multiplicity of tenses in the English language (not to mention the “moods” - indicative, imperative and subjunctive). Yes, don't over do them. But really, writing that uses only the perfect indicative is dull - might as well just read Time Magazine or AP reports.

Couldn’t have said it better myself, Frances.

So, my advice is, when you get a critique that ruffles your feathers (and because we are sensitive creatures, many critiques, however well-intended, will hurt), step back and let it sit. Then go through the comments and see if there is any truth in them. Often, there IS something wrong, even if the judge or critiquer can’t nail down exactly what. Consider their suggestions. Appreciate them. Implement the ones you feel are valid.

But beware of the hawks who are hurting because they feel stifled by the rules of writing and have had some other hawk rip apart their writing. Often, the harshest critics are either very new authors who’ve just risen above the brutal and bloody world of contests and rejections, and aspiring authors who are still trapped in it. Let these writers help you, but don’t take their comments as gospel truth, or as an indication that your writing is worthless dribble that needs major surgery. Also, not every piece of writing will resound with everyone. Ever read a best-seller that you hated?

Remember, writing rules are merely guidelines, not absolutes. Refresh your memory on the rules only if you feel something isn’t working. Don’t allow them to suffocate your writing. Following ALL the rules ALL the time kills passion and your own unique voice.

Happy Writing!


  1. Thanks, Donna for the great information and advice. I enjoyed your specific examples of what to look for in our writing. I particularly appreciate your advice about moderation. I am one of the many who freeze up and fail to get things written because I stress about all the mechanics be fore I even get the ideas on paper. I am going to print out your blog and refer to it often!

  2. How true, Donna. Still, I just (qualifier) emaied a critique where I said about the same things, and as vaquely (adv). And, I felt she had too many simple(adj) declarative sentences, and even quetioned her POV. Yet, (qualifier) I agree wholeheartedly (adv) with everything you said. I was (woops) surprised to hear that your thick skin cracked and bled, but I suspect we're always (?)apt to feel vulnerable for brief moments here and there.

    Reminds me of the hymn, "Who am I to judge my brother when I walk imperfectly? In the quiet heart is hidden sorrows that the eye can't see." However, once in a while we do help, or are helped, so it's worth it. Here's to thick skins and gentle, specific nudges.

  3. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I loved this advice. I have been using way too many wases and beating myself up for them. I know what I'm doing wrong, but right now I just need to get the words on paper. I'll fix all that passive stuff later. Again, thank you for your insights. It really gives me confidence as a writer.


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