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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”).
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.
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.