Writing Tips From Fay Weldon
Words to look at twice
Avoid the sloppy use of ‘he’ or ‘she’.
Observe this lamentable piece of writing:
“Alice had brought her little girl Sonia with her, charming in her fur muff and little fur boots. (Who was charming? Alice or Sonia?) She was barely five, and so, accompanied by Isobel, she (who, Sonia or Alice?) went up with her immediately to the nursery, which she (who?) was relieved to see was well-kept and warmed. One never knew with other people’s nurseries what one would encounter. Some kept their children less comfortably than their horses. But here there was a splendid rocking horse, with a great quantity of toys and a little boy, a year or so older than Sonia playing happily amongst them. A pleasant nurse-maid, Molly, young but competent, took them (what, adults too?) in charge once Isobel had introduced the little boy as ‘Edgar, the son and heir’. This Alice thought a little strange, as she (sorry, I’m still trying to work this out) was obviously the grandson.
‘The mother’s gone visiting her parents in Chicago,’ she (who?) explained, in her sweet, cool voice, ‘I am fortunate enough to be in loco parentis.’”
Hopeless confusion. I’m sorry to say I wrote this. I knew it was sloppy at the time, but neglected to go back and put it right. I was tired. Excuses, excuses, but one does get tired. Repeating a name isn’t always ideal but is a much lesser sin than leaving your reader confused. Personally, I rather like repeating names even when it’s not strictly necessary, though purists may not, and copy editors certainly will not.The passage would have been better written like this, as it eventually was, thanks to an eagle eyed copy editor.
“Alice had brought her charming little girl Sonia with her. Sonia was barely five, and so Alice, accompanied by Isobel, went up immediately with the child to the nursery, which Alice was relieved to see was well kept and warmed, with a great quantity of toys and a little boy, a year or so older than Sonia playing happily amongst them. A pleasant nurse-maid, Molly, young but competent, took them in charge once Isobel had introduced the little boy as ‘Edgar, our son and heir’. This Alice thought a little strange, as Isobel was so obviously the grandmother.
‘The mother’s gone visiting her parents in Chicago,’ Lady Isobel explained. ‘I am fortunate enough to be in loco parentis.’”
Also, it would have been snappier with a full stop after ‘voice’ and a new sentence with ‘I am fortunate’ but too late now for the printer.
‘It’ can be even more of a minefield than ‘she’ and ‘he’.
Student: (reading from her work:) Last week she didn’t know it had been her last time. Me: Ouch! Surely, ‘the previous week she hadn’t known the visit was to be her last?’
Student: But that sounds so fussy. Me: Fussiness is a small price to pay for unintentional bad grammar, which shakes the reader’s confidence in you. ‘It’ refers to the last (or next) noun or noun phrase used, as ‘she’ refers to the last person. When reading your work through – and please, please always do – look out for any ‘it’ and make sure you have used the word properly and precisely. Fussy, perhaps, but no-one’s going to call you ‘a bad writer’ because of it. Fussy, like boring, is better than bad, if minimally. And please be precise about tenses. Something that happened last week just can’t have a present tense. It has to be hadn’t, not didn’t. Even if you’re not hot on grammar, just read what you’ve written aloud and listen to yourself.
Student: Climbing up the hill, a farm worker in thigh boots came towards him.
Me: Ouch again. You could say ‘While he was climbing up the hill, the farm worker, etc.’ or ‘ He was climbing up the hill, when -’ but starting a sentence with an ‘ing’ word is simply not a good idea. Go through your text and find every verb to which you have added ‘ing’, thus making a present participle. Are you sure your one sentence wouldn’t be better as two? Present participles, used to suggest two things are going on at the same time, are tricky because they so easily can elide and confuse time sequences. Very few things in life happen exactly at exactly the same time and it’s too easy to end up with ‘Crossing the room, she closed the curtains’ or some other shocker. Because, actually, no. ‘She crossed the room. Then she closed the curtains.’ The main verb in the sentence ‘closed’ is the one which takes precedence. You can get away with ‘Hoping against hope, she ran to meet her lover,’ but there’s probably a better way of saying something so interesting, if only you give yourself time and energy. An ‘ing’ on the end of a verb suggests to me you’re tired, you’re trying to save words when you shouldn’t, you’re using a shortcut and it’s time you stopped for a rest. Writing is tiring, invention even more so.