Last week, I mentioned a college professor of mine who taught me–in an Arthurian legend seminar that required lots of response writing–two major yet common components of weak writing. Her writing tips are largely responsible for my style. (Well, her and Stephen King, thanks to his “On Writing.”)
Get rid of these two things, she said. Get out of the habit of writing this way, and your writing will vastly improve. You’ll sophisticate your style. You’ll engage a reader. Your writing will be strong. Powerful. Who doesn’t want that???
The first of her tips I wrote about last week. She said we should never use “it” as the subject of a sentence when “it” has no antecedent. I’ve linked to that post because if you haven’t read it yet, you should. It’s one of the best received articles I’ve written.
Tip two I’m going into today. This snippet of wisdom is simple but effective: Use “there is/there are,” and all variations thereof, as infrequently as you can.
Like all the style points I’ve been covering over the last days, the problem here isn’t grammatical incorrectness. Everyone, grammatically, is fine to use “there is” or “there are” as often as they’d like.
That structure is highly overused, though. And for what It doesn’t give your reader much guidance in terms of interpretation. In fact, it’s extremely vague.
Now, maybe you want to be vague. Maybe you want to give your reader the power to create his or her own image of the scene you’re developing. Maybe you want to provide, purposefully, as little guidance as possible.
That’s your prerogative, certainly. How much detail to give–and what things to describe, versus what not to–is a major component of every writer’s unique style.
- Do you describe clothes in great detail?
- The physical appearance of your characters? And posture?
- The setting?
No one does description exactly the same way as someone else. And no one should, because every two stories, every two blogs, are different. Personally, while I don’t seek to lay out every little thing, I do strive to give enough information to avoid confusion and to set a clear tone.
Here are some examples of how much more explicit your description can be minus “there is/are/was/were”
- There was a cat on the sofa. (But in what position? Doing what?)
- A cat lounged on the sofa.
- A cat sat licking its paw on the sofa.
- There were seven quilts in the closet. (Arranged how?)
- Seven quilts were stacked in the closet.
- There were seven peaches in the bowl. (How big is the bowl? How much space is left in it?)
- Seven peaches filled the bowl.
The bottom sentences provide such a greater wealth of information! They give more precise an image. Now, again, you might prefer to give your reader a bit more flexibility.
Or, you might have you realized above that you could be more precise while still using “there is.” (Thought you’d pulled one over on me, eh?) 🙂
The problem is, being more precise with “there is” leads to extra words you don’t need clogging up your sentence.
- There was a cat lounging on the sofa.
- There were seven quilts stacked in the closet.
- There were seven peaches in the bowl, almost overflowing.
The sentences I gave originally–the ones minus “there was/were”–provide the same level of clarity, minus the fluff. Minus the stuff you can do without. Remember, the most basic rule of editing, on the most basic level, is always this:
Any word that doesn’t need to be in a sentence, shouldn’t be.
You should always be looking to cut things like “there is/are” as often as you can.
Does that mean you can’t ever use this structure? Of course not! It sounds stilted to avoid it in dialogue. And sometimes, you would have to distort a sentence so much to get rid of “there is/are” that it would hardly sound like normal, natural English. It wouldn’t flow. It would sound jarring. It would be convoluted, in a bad way.
Remember rule two of editing:
Never distort your writing into something that’s worse than using a common, go-to phrase. Don’t change “weak” style points on principle; change them when you can see a clear way to make your writing better by changing them: a way to be clearer, simpler, and less redundant.
Please, don’t read this post–or my posts from last week about “it” without an antecedent; about “just,” “only,” and “simply;” about overusing “is” in a passive sense; and come away thinking you should never, ever write that way. That’s not at all what I mean to say.
Just use such structures sparingly, and for a reason. Use them when you can’t get around them because, when all is said and done, they fit the moment you’re creating.
A quick plug: the first novel in my Herezoth trilogy, “The Crimson League,” is free today and tomorrow (April 23-24) on amazon.com. Check it out, and familiarize yourself with the land of Herezoth before “The King’s Sons,” the third Herezoth book, releases on May 31 to bring everything to a close.
Don’t forget to spread the word! Please do let your reader friends know about this opportunity. Thank you all so much!!!