Lessons in the Fundamentals of Writing, Part 2

This is going to be a post on a bizarre pet peeve of mine. This advice isn’t as universal as my dozens of other posts on writing. It’s an idiosyncrasy of my own personal taste. Yet, of all the writers I think of as taking the craft of prose seriously, I can’t find anyone that makes this “mistake.” It’s only found in books by people who pump out quantity over quality, so I think there’s actually something to it.

Here’s a quick refresher on definite versus indefinite articles. An indefinite article is used when talking about a thing in general. In other words, not a specific thing already known to the listener. Example:

A cat cried outside my window all night long.

The indefinite article is “a.” Definite articles are used to refer to a specific thing known to the listener.

There is a cup of water. The cup is brown.

In this case, “the” is the definite article. Here is the lesson for today: Do not use definite articles too early in a novel or story. This will take some unpacking, because, obviously, it’s often appropriate to use a definite article in the first sentence.

I know, this sounds like nitpicky nonsense. Here’s an actual example (kind of, modified like last time so you can’t Google the person and find their book). Here’s the first sentence of the entire novel.

Bob set the glass of water down before going to the bedroom.

Let’s ignore the fact that this also violates Lesson 1 in this series (come on, is setting the glass of water down really where this story begins or at least a vital detail?!). I’ll first say that this is a noble effort. She uses an active verb, and a specific detail is given (though, a glass of water is quite generic).

But why is there a definite article? The reader has not been exposed to the glass yet, so it isn’t known.

Don’t freak out on me that this is absolutely ridiculous. Every time I encounter this, I cringe at how strange it sounds to my ear. I hear your complaint: how can this be avoided? First off, something like “Bob set his glass…” reads much better to me. The possessive article is still somewhat definite, but it indicates Bob is the one familiar with it and not necessarily the reader.

Also, “Bob set a glass…” sounds correct as well. My guess is that many KU authors read other KU authors, and this creates a cycle of subconscious imitation. Using a definite article in a first sentence has become the norm, unfortunately.

There are times when it is fine.

The sun crested the horizon, and a streak of red jutted across the sky.

Here it’s fine, because the reader is already familiar with the sun, the horizon, and the sky. In other words, we know which one she’s referring to. But I’d like to return to a deeper problem and the core of this lesson. If you find yourself using a definite article for an object unfamiliar to the reader, don’t quickly change it to an indefinite or possessive. Ask yourself why that object is there.

In almost 100% of the times I see this, the more fundamental problem is that the object shouldn’t be mentioned at all. If the object is important enough, then really emphasize it by making it the subject of the sentence. In that case, it is okay to use a definite article.

The glass of water sparkled on the counter. Bob wondered if they’d be able to lift the killer’s prints off it as he wandered to the bedroom—the scene of the crime.

Now it makes sense. It’s not just “a” glass of water, but a highly specific one that plays a crucial role in the opening of the novel. This opening draws the reader in. There aren’t just objects and details for no reason. The glass is mentioned to create tension in the scene.

There are also hundreds of exceptions to this rule, so don’t go posting a bunch in the comments or something. I’ve seen books where this rule is broken and it works. It’s like all writing advice: break it when you have good reason to.

Here’s some obvious exceptions. You have to use a definite article if referencing a proper noun (It happened while listening to the Beatles). There are also common phrases and colloquialisms that use definite articles (It was the best of times). But the most common exception is if the scene has been set enough that the object in question could be inferred by the reader. Here’s the opening to A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.

It began in the usual way, in the bathroom of the Lassimo Hotel. Sasha was adjusting her yellow eye shadow in the mirror when she noticed a bag on the floor beside the sink that must have belonged to the woman whose peeing she could faintly hear through the vaultlike door of a toilet stall.

Pay close attention to “the” versus “a” versus “her” in that paragraph. Egan uses “her yellow eye shadow” because the reader hasn’t been exposed to it. She uses “the mirror” and “the sink” because Sasha is in a bathroom of a hotel. If a reader hasn’t envisioned a mirror or sink, they aren’t familiar with standard bathrooms. But Egan uses “a bag,” because the reader wouldn’t envision a bag on the floor from any of the previous information.


That vs Which: examples that compare apples to apples, which will help you out.

Many people take the loose view that grammar and language evolves over time, and therefore you should go with whatever sounds right. Others argue the that/which distinction has basically disappeared. I want to do a comparison to prove once and for all the distinction is necessary. It isn’t preference. They aren’t interchangeable. The meaning of the sentence gets changed by swapping one for the other.

Let me be clear. I am not some obsessive grammar person. I kind of suck at it. But the way people dismiss this point as unimportant and a matter of personal taste (including professional editors!) drives me crazy. It isn’t taste. It’s important.

Many great sources fail miserably in describing the difference between that and which. I’m looking at you Grammar Girl (I love you for everything else) and you Chicago Manual of Style (an excellent doorstop as well). I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a source that gives you the same sentence with “that” and “which” swapped to show the distinction. Everyone has one sentence with “that” to show the use and then a different sentence with “which” to show the use. How is that helpful? It’s like comparing apples to oranges.

Let’s start simple.

Example 1: I played with the marbles, which were blue.

When you use which, you imply that every single marble was blue. This is what is meant by “which is nonrestrictive.” You aren’t restricting your attention to just the blue ones out of a bunch of colors. You’re saying they were all blue. This implication matters. Consider what happens with a simple substitute of “that.”

Example 2: I played with the marbles that were blue.

This sentence has a totally different meaning! “That” implies you have a bunch of marbles of all sorts of different colors in front of you, but you’ve decided to only play with the ones that were blue. This is what is meant by “that is restrictive” or “that is essential.”

Example 3: The puppies, which were cute, ran across the yard.
Example 4: The puppies that were cute ran across the yard.

In example 3, all the puppies ran across the yard. It just so happens they were also all cute. In example 4, only some of the puppies were cute, and only those few puppies ran across the yard. Read these over and over until it makes sense.

Now be horrified at all the times you used these incorrectly and probably implied something you didn’t mean to (did you seriously just imply there are non-cute puppies? Are you sure?). Now look what you’ve done. He’s self-conscious:

Some people argue it’s the comma causing this change in meaning and not that/which. Walk away from that argument. You’ve found someone wrong on the internet, and it isn’t worth your time to engage them. They’re probably a troll anyway. What’s more probable: the distinction made for hundreds of years in a rigorous way still retains some meaning or the words have no meaning anymore and the meaning has magically shifted to comma usage even though the words are still there? Think about it.

I’ve seen a bunch of rules for trying to distinguish between that and which. To me, they’re all pretty terrible. Here’s the easiest rule, which will work 99% of the time.

Step 1: What noun comes before that/which?
Step 2: Does the thing after that/which apply to all of [insert Step 1 answer] or just the ones you’ve described?
Step 3: If Step 2 answer is “all,” use which. If Step 2 answer is “only those described,” use that.

Officially, I wanted to end the post here, but I just know that someone is going to complain I’ve only told you how to tell the difference between that/which when they distinguish between restrictive/nonrestrictive clauses. Not only is the other type of distinction easier, I’m much less concerned with it. Here things can be a bit more stylistic, because the use (often) doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence.

Rule: If you can delete the stuff after that/which without causing confusion, use which. Otherwise, use that.

These examples are slightly harder to give, because they often require context to know if the information is needed.

Example 5: I went to the store, which had roast beef.
Example 6: I went to the store that had roast beef.

If you’re writing a story and there’s only one store. You can delete “which had roast beef” without confusion. The clause “which had roast beef” is inessential. The store just happens to have it. No big deal.

If the story is about a person who must get a serial killer roast beef or they will kill again, and they find out that three of the four stores in their area are out, then “that had roast beef” specifies which of the four stores you went to. It’s essential information, because if you delete it, the reader will think: which store? Are they wasting time picking up some quinoa pasta at the Whole Foods when they need to be getting to the roast beef store?

As you can see, the meaning doesn’t change all that much if you use the wrong one here, but there’s still a correct choice between the two words. If you play fast and loose with this distinction, puppies aren’t going to start hiding their faces, so the stakes aren’t as high.

And there you have it. Some comparisons that actually make sense. I hope that helped.

Examining Pro’s Prose Part 4

Today we’re going to examine some prose from Nell Zink’s newest novel Mislaid. She came to prominence last year, when her debut novel, The Wallcreeper was championed by the New York Times as a notable book of the year. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

Unfortunately, this post is going to be quite harsh. I won’t focus on any single “writing rule,” but instead I’ll go through and point things out that catch my eye. I haven’t finished reading the book yet, but from a prose standpoint, it is pretty terrible. All the examples below occur within the span of a few pages. The examples are far from exhaustive. Almost every sentence breaks a rule.

First, the novel is a collection of sentences that tell you what happened. In my last post, we looked at the various levels of showing a scene, action, or character trait versus telling it. It is difficult to find even one scene in the first half of the book (what I’ve read so far) which shows you anything. Everything is told. Giving examples can’t give you a grasp on how large this problem is, but here’s an attempt.

“Soon the detective, a working-class townsman, sympathized with Peggy.”

First, we’re told he sympathized. Why not show it? Also, “a working-class townsman” adds nothing (and introduces point of view inconsistencies: how does the main character know this?). Extraneous bits like this abound in the novel and are weak attempts to “add detail,” but are without substance.

“Nor would they have found anything anyway. The runaway was keeping a very, very low profile.”

These sentence fragments occur on almost every page. A rule we haven’t talked about yet is: only ignore proper grammar and usage rules if you are going for a special effect. This should be done so sparingly that no one notices (three times over the course of a whole novel maybe?).

The effect is stilted, choppy prose. I can’t find it now, but there is a paragraph where there are more sentence fragments than complete sentences. Another rule is to minimize modifiers. If you have to modify a verb or noun, you probably haven’t put enough work into choosing the right words. Never use the modifier “very.” At least make it interesting if you’re going to break the rule. The use of “very, very” is inexcusable under all circumstances. Also, past progressive tense creeps in here.

I’ll do a whole paragraph now:

Lee looked up and down the street, watching for slight women with brown hair. He watched for women with blond children. He watched for anyone at all. It was a quiet afternoon, paced by the rhythm of traffic lights. He stood up and walked, thinking he might ask after her, if he happened to see her kind of store. He walked the length of town and as far as the railroad tracks. Ice cream, real estate, musical instruments. Porcelain figurines and teacups. He shook his head at his own dumbness, got back in the car, and sat.

He …

First off, avoid repetition. It is hard as heck when writing about one person to not start every sentence with “he,” but with work it can be done. Look at any of the greats we’ve already discussed. They will never have 8 out of 9 sentences start the same way. The sentence fragment thing appears again.

These sentences all tell you what he did but never do we get beyond a superficial level of showing. The longest sentence in the middle breaks the rule of being clear and direct (and is grammatically incorrect). I still don’t get the comma construction in the middle of it. It reads like an appositive, but can’t be, because then the if-clause makes no sense.

To prove it can be done, I’ll “fix” these problems without altering content or breaking with the intended effect of the style. I’ll even remove the “was.”

Lee looked up and down the street, watching for slight women with brown hair. He watched for women with blond children or anyone at all. The rhythm of the traffic lights paced the quiet afternoon. Lee walked the length of town and thought he might ask after her if he happened to see her kind of store. Along the vacant street, ice cream, real estate, musical instruments, and porcelain figurines caught his attention. Lee traveled as far as the railroad tracks before he shook his head at his own dumbness, got back in the car, and sat.

It’s better but not great. I would like for this to expand out into three paragraphs and really pull the reader in. The whole book suffers from this, because I always feel at arms length from the characters. This novel gets praised for making us think about complicated topics like race and sexuality. Since I never get inside the characters’ heads, all I end up thinking about is how unbelievable their actions are.

Another rule we haven’t discussed is point of view (POV). This is more important than most people want to believe. You either write something highly experimental or you stick to one clear POV. If you use third person limited and change POV, it must be clear. The fluid POV in this novel makes many sentences confusing and forces the writer to use even more extraneous phrases.

“Stillwater Lake retreated far from the bamboo grove. It stood in yellowish-gray mud streaked with reddish brown that looked to Lee like diarrhea.”

If it were clear that this is Lee’s POV, the phrase “to Lee” is unnecessary. It is almost always considered a bad writing practice to indicate a simile is a character’s opinion (unless in an open third person omniscient situation, which this isn’t). With clear POV and narrative voice, we understand all sentences to be the character’s opinion. It is redundant to specify. Also, that alliteration (looked to Lee like) is terrible and should be removed. It is interesting that removing “to Lee” fixes both problems at once.

The first sentence has an awkward choice of verb. It isn’t clear to me what exactly happened or what it means without more context (to be fair, more context comes a few paragraphs later). It is true that lakes can “retreat” if there is a drought or something. Is this what happened? Starting the next sentence with “it” is usually seen as a mistake, because the preceding sentence ends with a noun. This makes it unclear whether “it” refers to the subject of the preceding sentence or the ending noun.

Another rule we haven’t discussed is: all dialogue tags should be “said.” Using other words comes across as amateurish, because it is used by people who are not good at writing dialogue to make the dialogue sound more convincing. It is most commonly found in low quality pulp fiction from many decades ago. If you need to use another word, you haven’t voiced the dialogue properly. If you don’t need another word, don’t use one. I’m pretty sure this book must have been professionally edited, so I’m surprised to see the editor let these slide.

“I can spell ‘astronaut,'” Karen volunteered.
“That’s a third-grade word,” the clerk said. “You’re very smart for such a tiny little thing. You sure you don’t want to have her be white?”
“We’re black and proud,” Meg said.
“I’m blond,” Karen objected.
“There’s no blond race,” the clerk corrected her.

As you can see, “the clerk corrected her,” is redundant. Editors often write “RUE” for this type of thing: Resist the Urge to Explain. You don’t have to explain the clerk corrected Karen when we understand from the dialogue this is what she was doing. It isn’t even clear to me that “objected” is the right alternate to “said” in the above. “Said” works much better in that passage. On the next page we get, “Karen repeated solemnly.” Not only do we get an alternate dialogue tag, but it gets modified with an adverb.

I could do this all day, and I truly feel bad about it. I didn’t come to this post with the intention of bashing Zink’s prose. Philip Roth’s American Pastoral is sitting on my desk right now, because I intended to use him. I started Zink’s book and decided the opportunity was too good to pass up. We keep looking at excellent stylists. It is important to see something in comparison.

I know there will be a lot of excuses that sound good. She’s intentionally subverting the oppressive writing rules that stifle creativity to show they aren’t necessary to create a good novel. Or, she used a voice conducive to the satire and wit of the content of her material … or whatever. Let’s face it. She probably thought a lot about the plot, characters, themes, symbols, and so on and never put much thought in to how the prose came across.

This is fine. Some people write excellent prose with no content. We shouldn’t strive for either extreme. I’ll agree that rules are meant to be broken and that focusing too much on them will create mechanical, uninteresting prose. But they exist for a reason and those reasons became apparent when I had trouble reading this novel. Breaking the rules has to be a deliberate choice, and I’m not going to be convinced Zink did this deliberately until I’ve seen that she can follow the rules.

Syntactic Structures Downfall

So I’ve pretty much given up on Syntactic Structures. It wasn’t really as great as I thought it was. There was some linguistics jargon that I didn’t feel like learning, also. Before I stopped there was some interesting, yet unsurprising, things (especially for its time).

Chomsky talked about modeling languages using what he called (I think, I’m not actually looking it up) “finite state markov processes.” Apparently this was how linguists thought at the time. According to today’s standards, I’m not entirely sure he wanted to use the phrase “Markov process” as that usually implies randomly switching from state to state. Clearly when people speak, it isn’t random streams of words that come out (although it may seem that way sometimes).

Nevertheless, I assume that in today’s jargon he wanted to use “nondeterministic finite state automata” to model language, at least that is what his description was of. Now from basic theory of computation we know that if we could model a language using one of these, then it would have to consist entirely of regular expressions. No language consists only of regular expressions, thus the myth of being able to model in this way is debunked.

Chomsky obviously did not have that tool at his disposal, since he went on for pages considering different cases and why they wouldn’t work to conclude (in a pretty non-rigorous way) that you can’t model a language using an NFA (or DFA for that matter). Not surprising, but noteworthy I’d say. It really was a paradigm shift to claim that there is no way to have a grammar that can’t be modeled. Too many people are still trying to figure out how to do it. Things like online translators, AI, and many others work from the assumption that it is possible to get really close to being able to do it.

Since this little gem was in there, I feel like quitting is depriving me from some other interesting little tidbit that I hadn’t thought about, but oh well.