Turns of phrase that drive your professor/editor crazy
Jackie O. naps beneath a blanket of Feature Writing papers.
I frequently edit student work with the assistance of my beagle, Jackie O. It’s not especially helpful assistance — she made a nest of my feature writers’ magazine articles last semester and usually insists on sleeping on my lap, providing a shifting surface for my laptop.
She’s also not a fan of loud noises. Sometimes, if I’m grading in a batch and I keep seeing the same pet peeves over and over, I get a little vocal.
“Currently! I’m currently sick of currently!”
“Say he said it! He didn’t confide! He didn’t comment! He didn’t state! He said it!”
“Why is there no chocolate in this house?”
That last one really isn’t a writing issue. It’s more of a tragedy of our times.
For this semester’s students, a list of the things that make your professor cringe:
- Currently. “He is currently enrolled at Emmanuel College.” You don’t need the “currently.” If you say something is happening right now, it’s current. Go light on the adverbs.
- When you’re quoting someone, write “he said,” “she said” or “he says,” “she says” (depending on the tense you’re using, which should be the same throughout the story). You can vary it with “added” or “adds.”
- While I’m talking about quotes, it’s name first, then said. WHO said it is more important than the fact that he said it. There are times when you may put said first (“said Jackie O., a retired laboratory animal”) if you need to include a title or detail about the person.
- And another thing about quotes: keep the punctuation inside them. It’s “comma, quotation marks” or “period, quotation marks.”
- When writing dates, don’t write “May 19th.” You don’t need the “th” in a date. When did that become a thing? Just write the date: May 19. If you’re writing about a date in 2015, you don’t have to write “May 19, 2015.” Look in the AP Style Book to see which months need abbreviations.
- Look in the AP Style Book when you need to write a number. Is it under 10? Write it out. Does it start a sentence? Write it out. Use the number if it’s 10 or more.
- Use the AP Style Book. I’m going to be doing a bit more with AP style than I have in previous semesters with my intro class, since the act of looking up words needs to become a habit.
- Paragraphs. They should be one to two sentences. You may want to break up longer quotes into shorter paragraphs. Quotes themselves usually stand alone as paragraphs, broken up, of course, with “he said.”
- FIRST PERSON. You are not the story. You shouldn’t be in it. Don’t say “I had the honor of meeting so-and-so, and I learned a lot about his thing.” The fact that you’re there is implied by the existence of the story. Write in the third person, and leave yourself out.
I have a semester to talk students through all of the above. These are, after all, writing classes.
Let’s close with Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing:
1. Never open a book with weather.
2. Avoid prologues.
3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.
5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. — Elmore Leonard