Saturday, April 29, 2017

The ABCs of Book Writing: H is for HACKNEYED writing . . .

Infographic for Weekly Blog Series on Book Writing and Publishing:  H is for HACKNEYED writing
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. . . and HOW to break its HABITS.

Hackneyed writing can afflict most writers from time to time. The challenge of effective writing is to become aware of the habits associated with hackneyed writing, and to do what is necessary to break them. The more you succumb to the lure of hackneyed writing, the more likely you are to create a tedious and unsaleable manuscript.

What is hackneyed writing?

Hackneyed writing is the repeated falling back on words, phrases, or narrative techniques that were once fresh but have now suffered from decades, or even centuries, of use, reuse, and overuse. The reason that hackneyed writing persists is because it comes easily to us. When we are writing, and our heads are full of points of argument, plot twists, lines of dialogue, and all the other ideas and images that we feel urgency to express, what often come first to mind are the clichés and familiar narrative techniques of hackneyed writing.

Hackneyed writing habits

The following are common habits associated with hackneyed writing:

1. Making outworn comparisons

busy as a bee, fat as a pig, hot as hell, light as a feathereasy as pie . . .

Break the habit by creating original similes, metaphors, or other images: She launched herself into a flurry of activity. His belt buckle was almost obscured by his stomach.

2. Relying on tired turns of phrase*

-that said/that having been said/having said that (try but, however, or even so)
-sooner rather than later (try immediate/immediately, prompt/promptly, without delay, or plain old soon)
-few and far between (try rare)
-in this day and age (try these days, now, nowadays, today)
-by leaps and bounds (specify the quantity: improved by 20 percent, tripled, grew by eight times the rate of last year)
-a good time was had by all (saying almost anything would be better than this; or just record the events and leave it to the reader to conclude whether it was enjoyable or otherwise)
-risked life and limb (risked his/her life)
-for all intents and purposes (can be deleted in most contexts)
-at the end of the day (ditto)
-it goes without saying/needless to say (delete these phrases; any point they introduced should be deleted or rewritten: If it goes without saying, why say it at all?)

Break the habit by deleting or using substitutes, as in the parenthetical suggestions above.

3. Overusing -ly adverbs, especially in dialogue sentences

 "I hate studying," Joe said angrily.

4. Expressing speakers' feelings with animal noises

"Stop that," he snarled. "I'd like that," she cooed. "Get away from me," she hissed. "I hate studying," Joe growled.

Break these two habits by choosing precise, expressive nouns and verbs to show feelings and create images around the dialogue: "I'd like that," she said, moving so close that he could smell the citrus scent of her shampoo. "I hate studying," Joe said and slammed the textbook shut.

5. Constantly reversing the construction of dialogue sentences 

"I hate studying," said Joe.
"Me too," agreed Mary. "Such a bore," said she.

Break the habit by routinely choosing the subject-verb construction in dialogue sentences:
"I hate studying," Joe said.
"Me too," Mary agreed. "Such a bore," she said.

While the subject-verb construction is the best choice for most dialogue sentences, there are some contexts in which the reverse construction is not only acceptable, but preferable. For example: "Such a bore," said Mary, who drove home the point with an elaborate roll of her eyes. (Rather than: "Such a bore," Mary, who drove home the point with an elaborate roll of her eyes, said.)

Dog sleeping on book
Outworn language and narrative style bore the reader.

6. Using too many substitutes for said

"Mary," he remarked, "I didn't know you were still here."
"I came back to rest for a few minutes," she replied.
"Can I get you anything?" he asked.
She shook her head. "No, I'm fine," she insisted.

Break the habit by using said or nothing at all:

"Mary," he said, "I didn't know you were still here."
"I came back to rest for a few minutes."
"Can I get you anything?"
She shook her head. "No, I'm fine."

7. Being an intrusive author

If you are writing a how-to or self-help book, it is appropriate to address the reader directly and possibly to include illustrative examples based on your own experience, perceptions, or expertise. Fiction, however, is another matter, and readers will not welcome the overbearing, omniscient author who indulges in the following kinds of intrusion:

As Mary enters the dark pathway you might think you know what happens next but, in fact, you are in for a surprise. Little did she know that her life was about to be changed forever. She was so worried that she did not feel the first drops of rain on her head and failed to see the murderer lurking behind a tree. She had no idea that disaster awaited her.

Break the habit by never stopping the story to address the reader directly. And do not tell readers what the character does not know or feel. Stay in the background and unfold the story through one or more strong character viewpoints:

As she entered the dark pathway, Mary's unease took control. Why do I feel like my life is about to change forever? she thought.

Sudden cold drops of rain on her head startled her into awareness of her surroundings. She glimpsed what looked like a shadowy figure trying to hide behind a tree, but dismissed this as a figment of her overactive imagination. Still, she could not deny that her fear was now as real and as cold as the falling rain.

Earning your cliché

Is there ever a time to give in to the habits of hackneyed writing? Some stylists argue that you can earn your clichés. That is, after a long passage of writing in your own unique voice, you might be able to make a point or create drama by deploying a cliché. Sometimes clichés can become ironic or otherwise effective in a new, well-conceived context.

If, however, you have any doubt about whether you’ve earned your cliché, bypass it and reach for a fresh turn of phrase or up-to-date narrative technique. Odds are, this effort will serve you better than even the most judicious falling back on the stock figures of speech and bygone narrative tropes of hackneyed writing. Whenever you can, turn the outdated into the original.

*The list of tired phrases includes examples from Judy Birnberg, WordThoughts (blog), March 14, 2017,; and Mark Evans, Grumpmeister (blog), January 14 and August 7, 2012, For additional examples, see Brian A. Klems, The Writer's Dig (blog), August 15, 2012,

Coming next week . . . "I is for INTERTEXTUALITY"

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