Thursday, July 7, 2011

C is for...Clumsy

"Practice, practice, practice writing. Writing is a craft that requires both talent and acquired skills. You learn by doing, by making mistakes and then seeing where you went wrong." --Jeffrey A. Carver

It's been awhile since I went back to the basics, and started my own version of a writer's ABC's. I started here: A is for Amateur, B for Bathtub. Now, thanks to John Gardner's classic book, The Art of Fiction, I'm back with letter C.

My choice for C? Well, C is for...clumsy. Clumsy as in clumsy writing. Thank you, Mr. Gardner, for helping me see more of my mistakes, and where I still miss the mark in my writing!

"Clumsy writing," Gardner says, "is...(a) common mistake in the work of amateurs, though it shows up even in the work of very good writers...(it) alienates the reader, or at very least makes it hard for him to concentrate on the fictional dream, and undercuts the writer's authority."

Gardner  goes on to identify forms of clumsiness:

1. inappropriate or excessive use of the passive voice
2. inappropriate use of introductory phrases containing infinite verbs ("sentences that begin with such phrases as 'Looking up slowly from her sewing, Martha said...' The introductory infinite-verb phrase chops the action into fits and starts and loses what effectiveness it might have had.")
3. shifts in diction level or the regular use of distracting diction
4. lack of sentence variety
5. lack of sentence focus
6. faulty rhythm
7. accidental rhyme
8. needless explanation
9. careless shifts in psychic distance (meaning "...the distance the reader feels between himself and the events in the story, e.g. 'It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway' When p.d. is great, we look at the scene as if from far away, remote, formal.")

Each of these categories is a study in and of itself, but on this latest read-through of my WIP, I'm concentrating on #s 4 and 6--sentence variety and rhythm.

Of course, there are any number of other "C is for..." words we could consider: character, conflict, crisis, craft, creativity, connection, clarity, criticism, courage, maybe even coffee. Just don't get careless (or clumsy) with coffee at the keyboard!

Is there a category of "clumsiness" in your writing that you've had to concentrate on more than any other?

*photo courtesy of


  1. I've had passive voice issues before~ I try to keep an eye out for them now :)

  2. I have lots of things I try to check although I don't always catch them.

    One thing that I see in your list that bothers me when I see it in my writing, which is rare and I don't do it on purpose, but it happens, is when two back-to-back sentences rhyme. Ugh, I try to fix that right away. For me it's like scratching fingers down a chalkboard - not sure why it affects me like that. :)

    Awesome post!

  3. My issue is the excessive use of the passive voice. I am consciously trying to avoid it.

  4. My manuscript is 56,000 words. I did a check for typical unnecessary words recently such as "that," "really," "even," and "but." Not much problem with the first three words, but there were about 300 uses of "but," that I could eliminate, resulting in more a powerful juxtaposition of the sentences that were connected by the backpedaling word of "but." Sometimes, it's necessary. More often, it's not.

  5. What a great reminder! I need to go through my WIP for clumsy spots. There are more than I care to admit out loud. Oops, guess I just did!

    Thank you, Kenda, this is appreciated!

    Have a great weekend. :)

  6. Thanks for stopping in, all! It is helpful to see the things we writers have in common. Passive voice has been a problem in my work, too, big time in the past, but I'm finally able to spot it earlier now :-) And those redundant words still plague me. One of my best friends is the search feature in Word...

    Practice may not make perfect, but it most certainly will bring improvements!

  7. Can I add a category?

    One of the things that bothers me in my own writing or in someone else's is excessive wordiness. I'm constantly trying to use fewer words. And since I write for children or YA, I have to watch my vocabulary, too.

  8. Great suggestions, Kenda! I constantly struggle with #2--as you may recall!