Pitfalls of Writing SF & Fantasy #14: Everything’s in the right place!

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McIntyre’s First Law:

Under the right circumstances, anything I tell you could be wrong.

Pitfalls of Writing SF & Fantasy #14: Everything’s in the right place!


If it were somewhere else, that would be something to mention.

A current pet peeve of mine is the ordinary event described as if it were extraordinary, because the situation is extraordinary. My hypothesis is that the writer overwrites the event under the misapprehension that excess results in intensity.

His heart beat in his chest.

Where else, ordinarily, would your heart beat? Your chest is where your heart is supposed to be. If you can feel it beating elsewhere, if it’s beating so hard you can hear your own pulse, if you’re seriously injured and you can see the pulse in the flow of blood, that’s worth mentioning.

I thought to myself.

Who else, ordinarily, would you think to? I can imagine writing a story about telepathy in which thinking to myself might be a challenge, but I can’t think of any other time when I’d need to mention that it was me I was thinking to.

She took off the cap on her head.

Where else would you keep your cap but on your head? If your character is wearing it someplace else, you might want to point that out. It could tell the reader something important about the character. Otherwise, just take off the cap already. If you’re being paid by the word, think of some better words to get paid for.

The taste of cold iron in his mouth.

Taste is something that happens in your mouth. If you taste something, it’s going to be your tongue that tastes it. Have you ever experienced tasting something that wasn’t in your mouth? It’s not that uncommon; one effect of some chemicals when they’re applied to your skin is that you can taste them. DMSO is an example. Where you taste them is in your mouth. If you taste them somewhere else, you’ve got something interesting going on. (You can’t have that idea; I’m using it.)

She looked down at the ground by her feet.

I particularly like this one. It’s a threefer. You convey the same information with “She looked down,” “She looked at the ground,” and “She looked at her feet.” If she looks down and she doesn’t see either the ground or her feet, you may have some explaining to do.

I was reading a novel the other day and encountered three overwritten and redundant phrases in one paragraph. This was one of the reasons I eventually gave up reading the book.

On the other hand, the novel was by a writer who regularly shows up on the bestseller list, so what do I know? Maybe we all should write using multiple redundancies.

– Vonda

Read all the Pitfalls.

Superluminal, by Vonda N. McIntyre. The eBook.I blog here every Sunday, and irregularly otherwise as the spirit takes me. You can find some of my science fiction at the Book View Cafe website.

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McIntyre’s First Law:

Under the right circumstances, anything I tell you could be wrong.



Pitfalls of Writing SF & Fantasy #14: Everything’s in the right place! — 15 Comments

  1. Shrugged his shoulders.

    Nodded her head.


    And this isn’t really related, but “gave a (gesture or expression).” Gave a laugh, gave a grin, gave a smile. To whom and for what purpose?

  2. Excellent examples.

    And, somewhat related to your second point, “turned on his heel.” I think writers who use that phrase have never tried to do it. When I tried, I nearly fell down.


  3. There’s a Tai Chi move in which you turn on your heel. You’re standing on one foot, and turn on the heel of that foot. I find it very difficult, and can only do it on a wood floor and when I’ve been practicing quite a lot.

    My mother — an editor par excellence — always got annoyed at the expression “at this point in time,” finding “at this point” quite sufficient.

  4. If I remember right, “at this point in time” was one of those political catch-phrases from the Nixon era where every extra word gave a politician an extra fraction of a second to consider how to obfuscate a reply. So I completely agree with your mom, Nancy. The extra part of the phrase is just padding.

    I was trying to think of any Aikido moves where you would turn on your heel, and I couldn’t come up with any. You don’t exactly turn on your toe, either. More like the ball of your foot. On the other hand, it’s been a while since I trained.


  5. Generally speaking for those of us with only average athletic abilities, I suspect that turning on the ball of the foot is easiest.

    “Turned on his heel” has become shorthand for conveying to the reader a certain annoyed attitude. I expect it’s more or less invisible to readers, except for conveying the attitude.


  6. If you add “describing it multiple times,” you’re describing Connie Willis.

    Good Godamighty that woman needs an editor.

    Whatever happened to editors anyway? Nowadays, every authorial brain wave swells the page count.

  7. I have to agree that I find being told the same thing over and over again make me feel like I’ve been hit with a big stick (over and over again); but the writers who do it are mostly extremely popular. I’m not sure why this is.


  8. Any soldier can demonstrate to you how to turn on your heel by doing an about-face manuever. He can also show you how to turn on the ball of your foot by turning to the right or left while marching.

  9. Oh, for pity’s sake, when is the last time you saw anybody in a regular non-military situation do a formal about-face? Which is clearly *not* what anybody is describing when they say “he turned on his heel.” (If they meant he did an about-face, they’d probably, like, you know, *say* he did an about-face, and I wouldn’t have any problem with that.)

    And where did I say it was hard to turn on the ball of the foot? I said it was *easier* to turn on the ball of the foot; why would I need somebody to show me how?

    This conversation has turned from a discussion of why writers write descriptions of actions that are hard to do and that *hardly anybody ever does* to nit-picky nonsense.

    Bored now.


  10. I am enjoying all of these tips immensely, and I wish that my former English teachers had your knack for teaching precepts in a humorous way. I’m bookmarking this series and plan to refer to it often (and pass it on as the link was passed to me).

    Thanks for all of the great advice!