On Writing

I stole that title from Stephen King, but that’s okay, because I disclosed it and this is not a memoir of the craft. Well, it might be a little memoirish, but that’s only to make you believe that I might, perhaps, know something about the subject. Given evidence in the marketplace, I have to believe that the fact I have been published offers little proof.

More than a few folks have asked me for advice on writing. I don’t know why. I have edited and written, with mixed success at both, for publication and pleasure. Like I said, that doesn’t prove anything. What I can say is that writing isn’t easy. It takes courage and skill and patience, and a good editor always helps.

That’s why I owe a lot to my time as an editor. While I was one, I learned more about writing than I imagined possible. My writing improved immeasurably from skills and training I gained. I owe a lot to my mentor, the immortal Kim Mohan, and experienced colleagues such as Cal Moore, Jennifer Clarke-Wilkes, and Jeremy Crawford. (All of these folks are better editors than I am.)

If you can’t edit the work of others, though, you need to read and write, read and write. And rewrite . . . and rewrite. Give your work an unkind eye. Love nothing you write so much that it must survive. Slice and rearrange to make sure you’re saying what you mean and want to say in as clear a manner as possible. (This is all assuming you aren’t writing an experimental novella or poetry.) Achieve closure within your deadline because, if you’re like numerous authors and artists I know, you might never truly finish tinkering.

Paper Tigers

When you write, or most likely rewrite, keep an eye out for usage issues that might weaken your bold statements and sure sentences. These hobgoblins not only make your prose look flabby, but they also make it seem like you are less than sure of what you’re saying. Sometimes they look like mistakes, which can soften your reception either from your editor or from your audience.

Issues described here are very common in the writing I’ve seen over the span of my short career. Most of them also appeared in my writing at one time or another. Eliminate them and you’re a step ahead of the pack, especially when submitting to Wizards of the Coast. Also, your editors might learn to like you and say so to the right people. If you don’t submit to another party, then it’s your readers who might thank you.

Pronoun Problems

Their, they, and them see an awful lot of use these days, and they appear without warrant. I’ve had someone tell me, his editor, that the use of a plural pronoun (they) with a singular subject (someone) is correct, because a university professor said it is okay. News flash: If that professor ain’t* an English teacher, he or she is not to be trusted. If he or she is an English professor, for shame. In either case, he or she is wrong. Following that advice makes your usage look amateurish, because pronoun misuse is a common mistake among amateurs. (We misuse pronouns all the time when we speak, which is probably the source of confusion.) It’s simple, really. If you have a singular subject, use a singular pronoun.

In doing so, you can also avoid confusion that pronouns can cause. Imprecise usage can harm clarity in your work. Take this passage:

Psionic seers in the Gray felt the presence of many minds. They appeared as only shadows, a sort of interference in the psychic ether for as long as most of them could remember. It was not until certain psions realized these were living minds passing through that they tried to bring them out. They set up a teleportation circle in the location that corresponded to where the Gnomes wanted to appear in The Land Within the Wind. Setting a psychic anchor point, they focused on the circle. What began to spill out was shocking, and immediately killed the summoners.

When you read that, are you always sure what or whom each “they” or “them” is referring to? Context helps understanding, sure, but the passage lacks precision. Careful usage can clear that problem right up.

* I recognize that language evolves and is evolving. We aren’t, however, at that spot in time when a plural pronoun has become an acceptable replacement for a singular one. But, oh, how I long for the death of whom.

There’s No Place

Speaking of their, a similar sound starts a bunch of sentences I’ve seen in my days. There is no way you can start a statement with “there is” without weakening it. See? The quote “There’s no place like home.” has less punch and more flab than “No place is like home.” The latter version pounds the point home better.

My example is less than ideal, however, because it’s a piece of dialog. Dialog is different. People have all sorts of quirks in speaking that are acceptable when writing dialog. When your statement is other than dialog, though, it’s best to evict “there is” from your prose when you can. Minimizing your usage of “there is” can help you habitually make stronger sentences.

Future Upon Us

Especially in game or scenario writing, so much action hinges on preceding actions. That places scads of action in the future, a state of uncertain possibility. The normal tendency for writing about the future is to say something “will” happen. It’s true. Avoid using “will” anyway. It’s weak and hedges the excitement.

If the orcs attack when they spot strangers, say so. The orcs attack when they spot strangers. Easy. Adding “will” before “attack” in that statement is like adding a couple spoonfuls of sugar to your ice cream. It gains you and your consumers, the readers, nothing except empty calories.

Sometimes it’s necessary to use the word “will.” It’s clear when that’s the case, because trying to go without it hurts your head. Even then, though, other words can suffice. Skeptical? Look back to where I wrote about your readers thanking you.

Pointless Passivity

I have no idea why, but numerous writers use passive voice. (I see and hear it most commonly in the news, making me wonder if it’s some sort of journalistic style.) Do you want to sound passive? No, you don’t! You want to sound bold and sure. A giveaway that you might be using passive voice is the word “by” in your sentence.

Say you want to tell me the town was razed by goblins. Well, the important part of that statement sounds like someone on medication said it—the kind of drug that induces drowsiness and the munchies. Goblins razed the town! Now that’s a fit and trim statement worthy of an exclamation point. It also sounds like a frantic peasant might have said it, which is the point.

Samurai Way

It is said that it’s better to ask for forgiveness than it is to ask permission. I say it’s better, especially in rules prose, to avoid language that implies permission. Find the word “may” in your prose, and kill it dead when “might” or “can” makes a fine replacement. The reasoning here is precision in communication.

You can tell the people it may rain on Saturday, but they might wonder who you are to allow it. Tell them it might rain on Saturday, and they understand immediately that precipitation is a matter of chance. Similarly, a rule that says you may draw a card at the start of your turn implies permission and, perhaps, other factors. If a player can draw a card, say he or she can (not to be confused with “must”).

Weak Links

We, especially when speaking, hedge our language with modifiers. Some modifiers imply exceptions to generalities, while others are editorial. In writing, such modifiers serve poorly. They weaken your prose, making it sound wishy-washy or strange rather than inclusive or insightful.

Weak modifiers include words and phrases such as “usually”, “relatively”, “often”, “tend to”, “a bit”, and so on. Everyone can spot a generality, so you need not hedge it with weak modifiers. If elves typically dance among the branches at sunset, you can just say they dance among the branches at sunset. No one needs the word typically. (Sorry, typically, but it’s true.) Generalities imply exceptions.

Unfortunately, editorial modifiers make a statement sound meaningful in ways that are imprecise or unintended. In that last sentence what was unfortunate and who was it unfortunate for? Unless the modifier has actual meaning for the reader, it’s best left out. These words, even “even”, can be dropped with no real change in meaning or implication.

In Conclusion

All of what I’ve written here is to make you write with a critical eye. Don’t sweat it too much in the first draft. Put your ideas down, and then rework them. Also, ignore the rules when you intentionally want to break them. Just make sure you mean it.

You might make mistakes. So do all other writers, including me. Since I edit this blog myself, with some help,  and my self-imposed writing window for it is small, I probably left a few issues in this essay. It’s not about perfection so much as saying with clarity and grace what you intend to say. I, for one, wish you great success.

Aside: One of the best books, evar, on the subject of grammar is Woe is I. Check it out or buy one. If you’re an aspiring writer, you’re unlikely to regret it. You might also be surprised at some of the elements of style that are falsely foisted upon us. You’ll be ending your sentences with prepositions guilt-free in no time.

Special Thanks: Gratitude to Seamus Corbett (icu_seamus from Twitter) for allowing me to use a passage from his post (as the Opportunist) “Races of Athas – Gnomes and Shardminds” on RPG Musings. Seamus asked me about writing, and our correspondence inspired this blog post. Plus, Seamus is a cool name.

20 thoughts on “On Writing

  1. I was just re-reading your solo adventure for WotC: Dark Awakenings. I loved playing thru that when it came out, and wish there were more like it! Gamebooks and the like are OK, but you’re super choose your own adventure with Splug was the best!


  2. Verb agreement was something I was going to mention in this essay, but it seemed too far to go at the time. It can be tricky, especially with constructions such as: The party (want/wants) to go to the dungeon. (Answer: wants . . . at least in American English). Your “each” example is also very good. I learned by simplifying sentences by asking who is doing what. In this case “each” rather than “elves.”

    Interesting is the fact that Wizards of the Coast, for example, prefers the second person construction for rules to avoid the he/she dilemma more often. If the result of your unmodified d20 roll is a 20, you score a critical hit, for example. It’s a good policy for the sake of clarity, as well as designer and editor sanity.


  3. Nice post. I’ll throw in on the side of Chris against the use of singular they. However, I would argue against a strict “he” depending on the audience.

    When I write to the public, I use “he or she” to avoid offense. “If one wanted to mail a letter, he or she could go to the post office.” Rephrasing is often better. “If you want to mail a letter, go to the post office.”

    I was actually taught that “him” was the right way, but my writing has changed with the culture. Gimmicks like s/he are out as well.

    Verb agreement is a problem I have personally faced. Sometimes the right verb is easy to see, like “The trolls (grumble, grumbles) about the deal.” (Answer: grumble) But others might not be so clear, “Each of the elves (wear, wears) a crown.” (Answer: wears)


  4. It’s funny to me that this is a major discussion point for this posting. Early in my writing experience, I struggled wth the singular they. It seemed incorrect to me. Fast forward to now, after years of just accepting it, I discover that it was indeed poor usage. It seems that it is not necessarily incorrect, but it confuses meaning in usage, and weakens overall writing.

    Since getting these tips, I have been going over my writing, and rearranging sentences to avoid this has made my work much stronger.


  5. Eliminating passive voice has made me a better writer. Period. Full stop. I got that advice from my drama professor in college who made me go back over a paper I had written and change every permutation of the verb “to be” into an active verb. I’ve done that ever since, and I think looking for “was” uncovers more instances of passive voice than looking for “by”.

    Passive voice cripples writing by telling instead of showing. Would you rather be angry like a lump or rage against injustice like a freedom fighter? Don’t just be – do something, especially in writing where the words already lay there on the page. And I agree – in dialogue all bets are off.

    I’m still fighting my learned habit of double-spacing after sentences, especially since I started using Twitter.

    Great article. Thanks!


  6. @lektu: I’ll stand by what I wrote.

    This little essay is about basics, simply, not academic or philosophical debate over the state of the language or its history, noting singular they has been around a long, long time. It’s about what I’ve seen as common usage errors, given certain standards. Like I said in the end, it’s also about knowing the usual standards and then consciously breaking them. It’s about saying what you mean and trying to, purposely, ensure comprehension.

    As I said to Asmor, I’m more a fan of conscious rephrasing (in writing) than an enemy of the singular they. Minor uses of singular they, such as with ambiguous nouns (everyone), can work without harming comprehension (especially in speech). If the editorial standards one writes under allow the singular they, then great. Those standards won’t change the fact that countless professionals do and will see the construction as simply mistaken. A group of academics and philosophers might disagree, but I’m talking about the nature of the marketplace I’ve worked in for a while. Further, it seems to be the nature of the marketplace other pros, such as David Pogue, exist in. When you’re paid to write to certain standards, you follow those standards whether those who are paid to study and philosophize agree or disagree. In fact, you do so even if you disagree, supposing you wish to continue working for the same patron.

    The point is: Despite the natural usage of the singular they, the unnatural and clumsy usage of it is far more common. It’s easy for the inexperienced to think that if it’s okay in one place, such as coupled with “everyone”, then it’s okay in another. Those other places are the real problem. Further, as I said, countless editors are sure to mark you as an amateur because of your usage singular they, again, despite disagreement from the studiers of language. As the Chicago Manual of Style reads:

    “On the one hand, it is unacceptable to a great many reasonable readers to use the generic masculine pronoun (he) in reference to no one in particular. On the other hand, it is unacceptable to a great many readers either to resort to nontraditional gimmicks to avoid the generic masculine (by using he/she or s/he, for example) or to use they as a kind of singular pronoun. Either way, credibility is lost with some readers.”

    Using a singular pronoun is likely to help you in the marketplace, since pros such as Pogue, WotC editors, and me might find the singular they “jarring”. Rephrasing, though, avoids every possible loss of credibility mentioned in the CMS. That’s an important point that might not have been made without your comment. Language Log also supports me in my central point—the usual misuse of singular they, which is amply shown on the linked archive, including the instance Pullman thinks “sucks canal water.”

    This observation makes me feel better about my position. Thanks for linking to the archive.


  7. Just take a look at the entries about “singular they” in Language Log:


    And certainly they do know their English, these people. George K. Pullum is one of the authors of the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, for example. I’d say that is quite enough qualification.

    I think the root of the problem is that you say: “It’s simple, really. If you have a singular subject, use a singular pronoun.” Truth is, nothing about language is really simple.


  8. @Asmor: It depends. If you’re writing dialog, countless rules can be pitched. People do say “them” all the time when they mean “him” (or “her”). It’s part of where the confusion comes from.

    Strict grammarians prefer to go with the masculine pronoun as neutral in ambiguous situations. I prefer such a solution because the usage of a singular “they”, although popular (for a long time) for political and conversational-tone reasons, commonly creates problems in comprehension and agreement. A strict grammarian might insist on this phrasing: When I find the culprit, I’ll see him brought to justice! (No one will care that the pronoun was wrong in gender when the culprit is caught.)

    I really prefer, however, to rephrase to avoid the pronouns altogether. It’s easy to to do in most cases. If I were writing your example in running prose, frex, I’d rephrase to avoid the pronoun: I’ll see that culprit brought to justice! (That statement implies well enough that finding the culprit is necessary.)

    So, I agree with you when it comes to dialog. I disagree strongly when it comes to regular prose.


  9. “We aren’t, however, at that spot in time when a plural pronoun has become an acceptable replacement for a singular one”

    I agree completely. A plural pronoun isn’t an acceptable replacement for a singular one.

    Of course, in cases where there *isn’t* a singular pronoun, then a plural pronoun is acceptable, in my opinion. The English language lacks a gender-unspecific third-person singular pronoun.

    For example, “When I find the culprit, I’ll see them brought to justice!”

    Awkward, admittedly, but common enough in usage and at least as good as any other solution.


  10. @Chatty: Color me humbled.

    @Linnaeus: I just went through the post and eliminated most of my justs. Thanks for teaching me something today. Writers and editors unite! (PS – Just is such a weird word when you look at it.)

    @The Opportunist: Thank you!

    @Dave: One space is a must. Do it! My favorite controversial rule is never using “as” to mean “since” or “because.” I hate seeing as in the place of those words, but people do it all the time. It can lack clarity at times, too.


  11. All great tips. The “rules” of writing, editing, and grammar aren’t as set as many believe, so some rules are controversial, but these are all solid and I agree with all of them.

    However, here’s two of the more controversial rules from my writing professors in grad school, to mix it up:

    Use every exclamation mark as if it were your last: fine in conversations, use carefully in any kind of professional writing. I’ve ever heard rules like “you only get 5 ! to use in your writing, ever”

    One space after the period: The double space is a leftover from the typewriting days, and if you’re submitting a piece, you’re likely just creating more work for the layout person.


  12. What’s intriguing about the passive voice is that it’s a writing concept that is totally alien in French, at least in the classes I took (Grade/High school plus 2 years of pre-college). So I had to learn about that a lot.

    And you’re 100% right about word stuffing, I can often cut 20%+ from my blog posts and still find the meaning I was trying to convey… although, to a degree, at the price of the conversational tone I kinda grew accustomed to.

    It “just” is so true 🙂


  13. Passive voice is a pernicious habit that is very difficult to stamp out. If you import your text to MS Word (you should write in a text editor, not a word processor, folks) its grammar check is ruthless in flagging it, which is good training.

    And I just tweeted last night about how much editing has helped my writing. Seeing my bad habits in the writing of others has helped me spot them more easily.

    Finally, another “empty calories” word that I struggle with is “just.” It’s semantically empty 99% of the time and it makes you sound weak and condescending (at the same time!).


  14. Thanks for this richly written, very useful font of advice. Like all such text, my frontal lobe scoffs at these, saying that I mostly learned through reading hundreds of novels. But at the same time, my deeper brain structures are shushing it and distinctively recall the various hints and tips that Editor Dave has been giving me since we started collaborating.

    So the advice contain therein that masterfully crafted scroll of electrons shall hereto be confined in the darkest reaches of my creative soul, being churned with the other advice and best practices such that it eventually makes its way in that style of mine. 🙂


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