Crutches (again…)


I’m going to be away from the PC today, so I won’t check email until 5-ish. I’m hoping our regulars (both the bloggers and the commenters) will address the topic and examples. And *please* feel free to rework any of mine to make them better, or to offer examples you have seen in writing (yours, mine, other’s) and how you would write them differently.

The two *most* common errors in any writer’s work are:
1.  telling instead of showing and
2.  passive writing.

Sometimes, it’s almost invisible to us, an insidious way of writing that creeps up and takes over and suddenly it’s everywhere, in every paragraph, in every chapter. And rewriting to get rid of it is a PITA. On a good day, we’ll say, “I’d never do that. I don’t have to look for it.”  On a bad day, we reread our work and, dang if it isn’t there.

Mind you, there *are* times for the passive voice and for telling. Times when nothing else will work. But when we get into patterns, then it becomes a crutch. And crutches are weak writing, amateurish writing, and they can get our work canned. So I thought I’d toss in a few examples I’ve seen recently and ways around them, some doing double duty for scene anchoring, character development, or some other necessary device. I’m going to give the examples, and possible rewrites, and offer some explanations of what the changes accomplished, that the original didn’t.


A.  She felt tears slide down her face.

  1. Tears slid down her face. (Active.)
  2. Tears burned a hot trail down her chapped face. (Emotional reaction used to remind reader of previous injury or previous tears.)
  3. She didn’t know she was crying until tears dripped onto the backs of her hands and spattered onto the table. (Character development. Less showing, but more effective use of the more passive phrasing.)

B.  He spit out the blood and told him to go to hell. (This also has pronoun problems.)

  1. Charles spit blood and a tooth, aiming for the sergeant. They fell short and Charles laughed, the sound breathy and defeated. “Go to hell.” (Active. Characterization and/or development.)
  2. Charles choked on his own blood. He coughed and spit, managing a breath. “Go to hell,” he said. And his head snapped back from the force of the blow. (Active voice, characterization, followed by passive voice to indicate a change of mental status. Yes, we could have seen that from the original, but the writer didn’t make use of it. It was a lost opportunity.)
  3. Charles spat his blood to the floor and whispered, “Go to hell.” And braced himself for the next blow. (Ditto on voice and characterization.)

C.  He shot her a wild, hostile look.

  1. Mike slung his hair out of his eyes and spotted her across the dim room. He bared his teeth and growled, half wild with fury. (Scene setting or anchoring, more active voice, more showing.)
  2. As if he felt her eyes on him, Mike looked up. Blinked hard, once. And hissed with rage. (Characterization, development, and active voice, despite the use of the words *he felt*.)
  3. His eyes bored into her, promising retribution. Promising justice long delayed. Promising her death. (Ditto, and it has a bit of poetry in the build up, which I like.)

D.  Her body danced, sweating in the heat until exhaustion claimed her in late afternoon. When she fell to the floor. (The writer was trying to use the passive voice, unusual sentence structure, and punctuation to show the character’s exhaustion. The *When she fell…* only became confusing.)

  1. Emily danced, her toes in agony, bleeding through the pale pink silk of her slippers. The heat of day built, the sun punishing, the air still and heavy with the promise of rain or the threat of storm. Her steps faltered. She miss-timed a half-turn. Sucking in a breath, she forced her body to search for the rhythm. And stumbled. She put out her arms to find her balance. Her knee gave way. The floor slapped her like a huge hand. (Setting, scene anchoring, characterization.)
  2. Emily’s feet moved, the pacing and rhythm all muscle memory, requiring no thought, no planning, only the joy of the dance itself. The drugs that surfed through her system, sparking like wildfire, gave her power and endurance. And forgetfulness. The sun moved across the wide windows as she danced to music only she could hear, shadows sliding from horizon to horizon. And when she finally fell, drained, dehydrated, she was near death, quivering and helpless and in agony. (Altered mental status is a good use for the passive voice. Scene setting and time transition.)

E.  Rachel put up her clothes and stared into the bathroom mirror. “So who am I?” she asked. She turned off the TV, and grabbed her purse and keys. It was time for a change. (The telling and the short choppy transition of the emotional change are jarring.)

  1. Rachel dropped the stack of clothes and stared into the bathroom mirror. “So who am I?” she asked. Her eyes stared back her, so like her mother’s eyes. Her mother who had died broke, but surrounded by the love of family. Unlike Betty, who was rich, but sad and alone. She sighed, knowing that she was going to regret this, and reached for her keys. (Character development and showing.)
  2. Rachel dropped the stack of clothes and stared into the bathroom mirror. “So who am I?” she asked. Her eyes stared back her, so like her sister’s eyes, her sister who had died broke, alone, in some back alley. Just like Betty, unless someone stepped in to help. Rachel reached for her keys, wanting to stay safe, wanting to mind her own business, wanting to remain behind the locked, bolted doors, in her sanctuary. And knowing that this time she wouldn’t. The keys were cold, the brass sharp and cutting. She wasn’t staying safe this time, while someone else suffered or died. This time, she was going into harm’s way. (Character development and showing.)

Y’all got others? Rewrites of mine?
Hope you guys have a nice day! See you at 5-ish.


36 comments to Crutches (again…)

  • With regard to B….Hunh? How many words do you want in the middle of an action scene? Pacing matters, and fists arrive at 40 miles per hour.

    Not that I’m arguing the point about weak writing, but if you’re trying to make every sentence do double or triple duty, you can spend 1000 words crossing the room.

    “Charles spat blood in the sergeant’s face.”

  • akena.akena

    just wanted to say thanks to you for the useful post and for all others on this website. I am just getting to editing a work of mine and a lot of the advice around here will be very useful.
    But I have to admit that I also have an ulterior motive -not for the praise, that was meant 🙂 – I have a request for advice from you or anyone who would be willing to help. I have a major problem with editing larger works. Short stories, essays, no problem. But as soon as I get into the 60 000s and so, I just drown in the sheer amount. Does anyone have tips on how to prevent this?
    Do you work in chunks or do the plot first and then go chapter by chapter, paragraph by paragraph or …?
    Sorry if that sounded too confused, I am just looking at the stapled pile and panicking…
    Thank you,

  • Not to be contrary, but if B) is more of a torture type scene where the sergeant is extracting information, then it is not necessarily just an action scene. It could be a protracted scene where it goes at a snail’s pace to build drama.

    What is fun is that we all see how to make a sentence tell so much more, and also what each of us gets out of it. Het got action, and I got slow torture out of it.

    I agree Het, pacing matters, but it all depends on what the whole scene is about.

    Thank you Faith for another crutches post. Since I’m in revisions now, I’m seeing weak (lazy maybe?) sentences that need help.

  • part of my first line should have been: “Not to be contrary to you Het, but…”

  • I got caught in the passive voice trap a while ago. I didn’t even realize it till I sent the short story in and it got rejected for too much passive voice. I ended up looking up passive voice at that point to relearn the rules, then looked at the story with a fresh perspective, so to speak. Yeah, it was full of passive. I eventually went back and tried to fix it all, but now I don’t have a future for that particular short story.

    I believe I looked it up here:

    It was a good reference.

  • Hey Faith! Another good one 😀 I *just* broke myself of the passive voice problem. Of course it still comes out in rough drafts, but I am much more prepared for it now than I was a few weeks ago.

    Also the “telling,” PITA is right. Of course revisions and edits always help, but I’m hoping to make it more of a habit before those are necessary. I just wrote another short story where I tried to incorporate everything I’ve learned, without taking the muses freedom away and I think it worked out pretty well. Despite a few grammar problems I *think* I nailed that little crutch down. I know it will probably come back, but I feel relief now that I have the other tools to help me through it 😀

  • Hi Het. Good point. In action scenes I am known for short, almost choppy, writing, and yoru version would have been perfect for that. But, as Alistair caught, I was going for the drama of a torture scene — mainly because I’m curently reading Lee Child’s GONE TOMORROW. If you haven’t read the Reacher novels, you are missing a … well, a teaching program on how to make a character who seems flat and 2 demensional explode into depth and intensity, and dramatic scenes into action with a blink of an eye.

  • Akena, my favorite book on editing is Chris Roerdon’s Don’t Mudrer Your Mystery, and only partly because my AKA is used as an example in it. (grins)
    Amazon link is

    Then, I print out and read once straight through before I start an edit. I mark it up with highlighters, colored pencils, and / or colored sticky notes. (I’ve done it several ways, but I personally like the sticky notes.) One color is for main character development. One color is backstory. One color for action. One for description. I always use BRIGHT BLUE stick-in-your-eyes stickys for plot progression. And one color for boring spots. That one is always pink.

    An ink pen is for line edits (the little things that you spot when you aren’t trying to.) At the same time I read and mark, I make notes on things that jump out at me, using the same color method as above with page numbers on them, notes, and questions. The notes go on a table, in page numerical order.

    When I’m done, I have a visual of my manuscript that I can see at a glance. It’s amazing how much it helps to see the book like that.

    I usualy start with the little things, the micro edits, then I tear into the bright blue stuff and the pink stuff at the same time. And suddenly I need to print out another book and start all over. But this is just how I do it now. I’ve done it different ways in the past, and will likely change it in the future. I’m sure others have better ways.

  • Alistair, it’s nice to meet a fellow contrarian!

    Daniel, it’s a an easy thing to start. In my free time (laughing at the concept) I edit books for a small press pub and after I edit a book, it takes a while to get my own author’s voice back and break the passive habit I’ve gotten into from other writer’s work.

    BTW, Akena, when I edit for others, I track changes and make small comments / notations. They fell under different categories than the ones I do for myself.
    Pass = passive voice
    Info D. = infodump
    Voice = um, er, voice.
    WC = word choice
    Tense = verb tense
    ProN = pronoun error or confusion

    The bigger things get more full explanations. Like … Character A is supposed to be 14 and sounds, in this chapter, like she’s 11. Reread and correct voice pages 115 – 130. Especially note conversations with parents. They sound agreeable, when to date whe has been a PITA.

    Like that.

  • Sounds similar to what I do for editing, but I use hi-liter markers and an ink pen instead. Though I dropped the multiple colors and just work now with a yellow or orange hi-liter and an ink pen. I’ll hi-lite my trouble spots and use the pen in the margins to add my thoughts, changes, etc.

  • I’m also lucky that my brother was a high school English teacher and he gave me a lot of good grammar feedback with his beta notes, as well as some weak plot areas and general observations.

  • Hinny, that is great! Some things I have fought all my life. For me that isn’t passive voice, but short choppy sentences, like a series of rapids on a river. One thing I always do with a rewrite is take the short choppies and put them together, make them flow like a smooth fast river.
    (Can you tell I spent the day on the river?!)

  • Daniel, A good Beta is priceless! (which sounds weird, doesn’t it?)

  • Faith, I am loving these crutch posts. Such excellent examples are hard to find! Thank you!

  • You are welcome. It’s easy to find examples and I always adored writing exercises back in school. Teach would ask for one and I’d give her three. No, I wasn’t teacher’s pet. I asked too many questions to be that. But that teacher did give me my start in writing and my very first positive feedback. (Waves to Carole Koler.)

  • Hope you had a good day on the river. Another great post — I love the examples and can’t begin to imagine the amount of time you must put into these posts. I’ve spent the last few days going through the WIP looking for my various crutches and getting rid of as many of them as I can. I’ve shortened the book by about 1200 words — 2 and 3 words at a time. That’s not a lot of words, but the book is tighter, smoother. So thanks.

    I do have to admit that on C, I don’t mind “He shot her a wild, hostile look.” It’s active and descriptive, while remaining short and direct. But that’s just me.

  • @Daniel R Davis
    I love the high lighter suggestion. I’ll use that.

    I’ve been looking at my writing more closely while I write now. These examples were great as a reference. thanks.

  • These are great examples, Faith, and a good refresher for me right now. I’ve been sinking a bit into telling lately, the more subtle kind like you’re showing here, and just can’t seem to think of alternative ways to phrase things. I think it’s been a signal of a lack of energy for the scene, which I’m thankfully through. Right now my big issue is in looks, facial expressions, and the like, such as your ‘wild, hostile look’ example. I agree, just stating the look tells us how to interpret it without actually showing what it looks like, but I noticed all your examples are from within the POV of the hostile individual. It’s other characters I feel stumped on right now. I don’t want to over-abuse facial descriptions (ie: clenched jaws, drawn brows, etc), but sticking emotional cues onto them feels like telling rather than *really* showing it. What would you say is a good way to go about those sort of descriptions, conveying the mood without just telling it?

    I’m also still mindful of your mention of smirks from last time. I seem to love smirking characters, but the word’s not too clear. Now I’m working for some alternatives of my own.

  • It seems I’m late to the game and I don’t have much to add, but I loved the examples and discussions. In particular, I like how Faith showed each example written several ways and identified what the reader gets from each.

    The only things I’ve learned about different sentence structures and their affect on the reader’s experience are though critiques. Short sentences to speed up the pace and long ones to slow things down are great tips, but I’d love to dig into this further.

    Does anybody have a good resource for sentence structures and how they affect the reader’s experience? Or does that sort of thing hit any of Faith’s buttons for a future post? *wink*

    At any rate, I’m off to get some highlighters and sticky notes for my next revision.

  • oops. Can the administrator please delete the erroneous first post. Thanks,

  • Thanks Faith and Alistair. I’ll admit that I’m one of the people who, when I get into such a boggy scene, checks how many paragraphs or pages the torture scene runs, skips to the end, and reads on. Often in the multi-page scenarios, I can read the first few and last few paragraphs and know everything I need to know about how the plot advanced in between.

    Be that as it may, I think Hayley’s missing something in the “show, don’t tell” advice: cross-cultural nuances. Or, in my case, interspecies communication. If you’re going to show something that’s not a normal American (human) gesture, you have to explain it to the reader, at least the first time. Telling someone a parrot’s eyes pinned, or it slicked its feathers down are strong signals–if you know parrots. If you don’t, they’re random words with little meaning. Similarly, people giggle and smile for lots of reasons, and a grin and laugh from a stereotypical asian female communicates nervousness and uncertainty, where you can use the same gesture to mean that a stereotypical American male is relaxed and appreciating a joke. Sometimes words like “nervously” can be useful in providing context with little space.

  • David … um … I have to admit that I spend less than half the usual time on crutch posts. Like I said — I *love* writing exercises. My big fear is that I’ll toss out something stupid and not notice that I did. As to the wild hostile look … (grins) … what does wild mean? Insane? Out of control? Horsey? I think it could have been stronger, the meaning hammered down.

    And I think dropping 1200 words is great!

  • You are welcome, Heather.

    Hayley, conveying emotion without just stating what it is can be just a matter of subtile clues. In teh book I mentioned, the protag was watching a silent snuff film from Afganistan, with the antagonist listening in on the phone. She (antag) told him what was happening to the victim and when he asked how she knew what he was seeing, she chuckled and said, “I can hear your breathing speed up.” The writer didn’t tell us he was angry. The protag gave no evidence of it at all. But antag told us. It was brillient.

  • NGDave, I deleted the original comment. I do that all the time. I think it hasn’t posted and hit the button again… Sigh. As to blogs about emotional content, well, I think that would be interesting. Let me think how I might go about that.

  • Het you are so right. In the case of non-human communication or body language, world building is vital, especially the part where the writer *tells* the reader what things mean. The key, as I’ve always seen it, is to include the main character’s reactions to, and development because of, the communication methods, to prevent it all beign infodump.

    There was a book by Trevanian years ago, called Shibumi. Or maybe it was Shubumi. Not sure. Anyway it was one of the best I’ve ever read about cultural biases and communication, in the middle of an action novel. The Eric VanLustbader ninja novels were great for this too. (Yeah. I used to read ninja novels… I’m giving away all my secret vices….)

  • Each time you write one of these crutch posts (which I love) I have to go back and look at my WIP. Then I sigh, get out a pencil, and start correcting. Where were you when I was cutting my teeth in this business? You could’ve saved me an enormous amount of time. 😉

  • Kat was one of those fortunate souls who happened to be immune to vampirization. She hated that. It got to the point where vampires would run upon catching a wiff of her, and one nosferatu went so far as to get a court order forcing Kat to wear a crucifix at all times.

    Then Billy — a decent, upstanding vampire — woke up one fine summer day cured. Cured of his vampirism, and quite alive. All because he’d had some Kat blood.

    The reactions were mixed.

  • Thanks Suart. You are very kind. But… Ummm… Are you calling me an old lady?

    Alan, that is great! As a blood bank tech and a writer of vamp stories, I got a double chuckle out of the last line.

  • Thanks for posting all about crutches lately. They’ve been very timely, as I’m in rewrites at the moment myself.

    My WIP adds an interesting twist to this: the story is first person, present tense. So a word like “said” that tends to be invisible often stands out more to me, because it comes out as “say”. Then I wind up using way too many alternate words, which just clutters up the narrative. But I think my biggest crutch is that I rely too much on dialogue and not enough on description. I get so into the character’s perspective that I forget to mention important details, or she rushes to experience events.

  • Well, I wish I could explain this better. I normally just write the words in a way that sounds right. Often I struggle with a paragraph because I know there’s something wrong, but not sure what. The Principles of Composition section in Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style” is great. It mentions varying sentences to avoid repetition, but gives no guidance on how different sentence combination affect the reader.

    Here on MW, I’ve noticed a few times that Faith and others have shown specific understanding of some of these structural usages. For example, in AJ’s post about Writing Action Scenes (sorry no link), Faith’s first comment illustrates the sort of thing:

    “AJ, I think the very most important part of your post (great post, BTW!!!) was >> In the middle is something a bit longer, a bit more abstract, which provides a turn for the paragraph, a transitional moment in which the attacked becomes the attacker.”

    So I was wondering if there were two or three tips that could be provided about how different structures affect the prose and reader. ie. short, short, long, sentences, or long, short, short. Or short, complex, short. or something like that. Now I’m blabbering. Time to shut up. lol


  • Moira, I think you hit the nail on the head on why most writers avoid present tense. Most of us (okay, I’m talking about myself, here) have no clue how to do it. It feels clunky when I attempt it in manuscropt format. Yet, saying that, proposals and outlines are suppsed to be *always* in present tense, and present tense feels right for that shorter format.

    As to the crutch you mention, that may be partially the world we live in now. When I pick up a book from the early 1900s, the description (even when spare) has a much higher importance, taking up much more word count than we use today, in our faster paced lives. Dialogue speeds things along and so we lean that way. But that is not to say it’s a problem. Description is an easy thing to inset on rewrite, though I admit it’s time consuming, and a line-by-line, word-by-word activity.

  • NGDave, I totally agree with this! >>I normally just write the words in a way that sounds right. Often I struggle with a paragraph because I know there’s something wrong, but not sure what. >>

    It’s what I do too. Sometimes in a rewrite, I’ll think about a paragraph, “Something is wrong with that.” And I have no idea what. I sometimes will highlight it in the PC file as a trigger to my mind to work on it later. Or sometimes I’ll open a new file post the para there, and start over as a writing exercise. And sometimes I just can’t figure out the problem. At such times, I’ve just left it for the editor to see if she mentions what is wrong with it. Unfortunately, unpublished writers can’t do that on a book they are trying to sell. They have to figure out the problem, which is where critique groups (if you can find a good one) are valuable.

    ANd you said >> So I was wondering if there were two or three tips that could be provided about how different structures affect the prose and reader. ie. short, short, long, sentences, or long, short, short. Or short, complex, short. >>

    I taught a seminar a few years ago about this. I’ll see if I can find it, and make it blog-worthy. It may not be next week, (God knows where I filed the thing) but if I can find it, then this month. I’ll update you on the progress, Dave.

  • Thanks, Faith. In the meantime, I’ve ordered the Art of Styling Sentences by KD Sullivan.

    I guess I’d like to know why I’m putting sentences in the order that I am and would like to learn new ways to make my prose sound better. I’ll let you know how the book is. Take your time with blog posts, I’m just a curious monkey.

  • Me too.
    sign me George….

  • akena.akena

    Thanks for help, Faith, I am off to figure out how to get my hands on the book you talked about over here 🙂

  • Akena, It’s a great, easy to understand book on revisions, with examples of what *not* to do and what to do.