Writing 3.6 – Write and Wrong


Too many people spout off about too many things about which they don’t know enough.  And then there’s me.  I spout off about things about which I am certain, unlike those fools.  I mean, what do they know?  They’re just uneducated people with uneducated opinions.  Am I right?  Well, sometimes, yeah.  I suppose.  Of the few things about which you can’t argue with me, language is one of them.  When I make a statement on language, don’t waste your time arguing.  Just learn from it.  Ready to learn?  Too bad.

I don’t read.  I listen.  I don’t read books in print or ebook.  I listen to books on CD during a combined two-hour daily commute.  Listening to books on CD is a mixed blessing because it makes the well-written passages sound like music.  For example, I wasn’t a fan of The Hunger Games, but I loved the sentence in which Katniss climbed a tree to “get as far away from today as possible.”  Unfortunately, books on CD also make poorly written sentences sound like a coffee can full of nails rolling down a concrete path.  I can’t nail it down verbatim, but there was a line from The Shining in which Stephen King referred to a brass bar that moved “vibratorily.”  That was a great/bad one, but unfortunately it escapes me at the moment.

Please keep something important in mind:  there’s a difference between a poorly written sentence and poor writing habits.  Poor sentences can be a one-time thing, but this post is about habits because habits are both repeatable and correctable.  Fix a habit and you prevent future bad sentences from ever happening.  It’s like that “teach a man to fish” proverb, thing, line from the Bible.  The Bible. 

Anyway, there are a few language issues that you might have that you don’t even know you have, and I’m going to do you a big favor and straighten you – I mean – straighten them out.  Some of you might have seen these examples from me already, but that was about five years ago.  If this is redundant for you, deal with it.  I mean, thanks for reading it again.

1. Eithertypewriter

Have you read or written a sentence like this before? 

The highway stretched miles into the distance and was lined by tall trees on either side.

Well, it’s wrong.  “Either” means a choice, one or the other.  You use “either” for something like “You can either have pizza or a sandwich for lunch.”  Or “We can either go to the beach or camping.”  One or the other, not both.  In the above sentence, I don’t think the trees were either on one side of the highway or the other side.  The trees were on both sides of the highway.  Or, the trees were on each side of the highway.  The correct sentence should be

The highway stretched for miles into the distance and was lined by tall trees on each side.

“Each” means both sides.  “Either” does not.  Stop using it incorrectly.  I don’t believe I have ever – not ever – seen that used correctly in any book ever.  When I hear it on CD, it is like a kitten clawing at my ears.  It means well, but it’s ripping my skin.  Please get it right.

2. I Knew Ittimeworn-old-rusty-typewriter-ohio-stock-photography

Here’s another sentence element I hate:

When I saw the gun aimed right at me, I knew I was going to die.

That’s not true.  You didn’t know.  If you know something, then it is real and inarguable.  Not sure if that’s a word, but what you know is a fact that cannot be undone or untrue.  What writers are getting wrong is that a character may have believed or was convinced he or she was going to die, but – unless one actually died – one could not know it. 

I don’t care what you find on dictionary.com or Merriam-webster.com.  You can always find a fourth definition that leans in the direction of “having a belief,” but good writing does not stretch or twist the most significant definitions of language.  Don’t use know unless it is a fact or dialogue.  If through dialogue someone says they know something, it is okay if they don’t actually know it.  However, if written in first person, then the person still can’t know they were going to die because they would never have lived in order to tell the story.

It could be this usage is a poor attempt to make a reader think the character might actually be about to die, although ten times out of nine we already know the person will survive the moment.  Either that or it is just lazy writing.  Although I’ve seen this in some of the most popular books on the shelves, its use can’t be justified.

3. Lost and Foundbehave

Here’s another element you have definitely read and probably have written more often than you would guess, and I hate it.

I was walking mindlessly at night when I suddenly found myself in a bad section of town.

Can we please stop?  Can we find a new way of explaining that you weren’t paying attention to your surroundings or actions, causing you to be in an unfamiliar or unexpected situation?  Of course, that’s too much, but I’m tired of found myself.  I swear I just finished a book in which that was used at least ten times, and it was a relatively short book compared to most fiction.  Let’s find alternatives…

…when I suddenly realized I had wandered into a bad section of town
…when I noticed I was somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be.
…when I wasn’t exactly sure where I had gotten off to.
…when I seemed to be in an unfamiliar place.
…when nothing around me looked as it should have.
…when things around me were not what I expected.

I can do this all day, but I know I won’t ever write that I suddenly found myself.  And I hope that each of you never writes it either.

15 thoughts on “Writing 3.6 – Write and Wrong

  1. You share such good, practical advice. I do look forward to your writing posts. I learn and it helps my practice of the craft. Like I no longer use anything but “said” as a quote attribute. I used to have people proclaim or exclaim. Such silliness. Thanks for helping me do better.

    • yes, they do sneak in. i have to work a little extra sometimes to avoid them because they are very easy to let slip by. but that’s one of the things that separates better writers from not-so-better writers: the ability to make better word choices so that your writing doesn’t sound like what everyone else is creating. thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts. happy wednesday.

  2. Haha Rich I actually pulled up a copy of my working draft to see whether the trees lined either side of the street. They did not! I then checked to see if my characters suddenly found themselves somewhere. Despite actually being lost in the woods, they did, in fact, NOT find themselves anywhere. Two out of three isn’t bad! My characters seem to “know” a lot, but they’re only kids so they think they know everything 🙂

    • yes, they think they know everything, but they actually only “believe” or “are convinced” or “thought” or…thanks very much for reading and sharing your comments.

  3. (Very late coming to this.) Don’t you ‘find yourself’ in India? On a technical note, is ‘found myself’ incorrect or only lazy language? And can we have a post on the use of just and only? Pretty please.

    • found myself is a figurative expression, not incorrect but to me it represents a laziness or a forgivable ignorance when someone doesn’t try to use something different. it’s cliche and should be avoided. to hear a certain phrase too often means it is being used too often. part of good writing is to be original, and that means avoiding what everyone else is writing or saying.

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