For better or worse, I read and write a lot of compositions. Here are three ways to avoid boobytraps in your writing, including examples of each.
While editing a memoir for one of my clients, I noticed some incongruities that made things a bit more difficult—and a bit less enjoyable—for the would-be reader. I call them boobytraps. Some are subtle enough that even an experienced writer might be unaware they’re laying them.
The good news is that you can quickly spot these boobytraps if you’re aware of them and willing to perform even a cursory proofread. You just have to know what you’re looking for. When I pointed these boobytraps out to my own client, it was like waking them up from a bad conspiracy theory.
Oh, they said. Ohhhhh …
To that end, here are the three foundational ways you can avoid boobytraps in your writing.
1. Be Consistent with Tense and Point of View
Have you ever been neck-deep in a good book? The pages fly by and you can’t wait to sit down to read again, assuming you don’t finish the entire book in one sitting. It feels effortless, the way the author hides all of the seams—all of the writerly stuff they orchestrate to make the piece so readable.
One of the elemental decisions that every writer has to make is about point of view and tense. That is, who is narrating the words on the page and when did the action happen. Here’s an example of first person in the past tense:
"Honestly, I wasn't sure I'd make it through the six-hour flight, not without a few drinks at the Berghoff."
As a rule of thumb, just stick with one tense and point of view. This is especially helpful for shorter compositions, in which consistent tense and point of view can work wonders for clarity and readability. For example, if I start a piece in the first person, past tense …
“On April 14, I wrote a LinkedIn post to help people improve their writing.”
… things get a little weird if I then switch to the third person, present tense:
“On April 14, I wrote a LinkedIn post to help people improve their writing. What a rush. Martin mashes the publish button and confetti rains down from the sky.”
Then again, never say never. Tense shifting isn’t always a bad choice. Sometimes a narrator reflects back into the past, for example, then comes back to the present tense in the same breath:
"I'm gin-sodden and hungry, for some reason, sitting in this airport bar. It's too early to be feeling this way, but it's not the first time. It's not the fifth. There was the time in Berlin before the train back ..."
As with any guideline for writers, no catch-all rule accounts for all the nuance. But when in doubt, stick with one tense and POV, especially for shorter-form work such as email, social media, and even blog posts.
2. Know Thy Crutches
Be honest: there’s some phrases, words, metaphors, and other trickery that you lean on a little too much. Sure, they make things easier for you (hence the term crutches), but can stick out and distract your readers. Don’t worry, I have them, too (parenthetical phrases, much?).
A common place to look for this boobytrap is at the beginning or end of paragraphs, aka your lead-ins and wrap-up sentences. Why? Because figuring out how to start and finish is always the most difficult, and a crutch offers you the path of least resistance. Here are some examples of overused crutches that you’ve likely encountered:
|From/to||“From accidents to negligence, we’ve got you covered.”|
|Whether/or||“Whether you’re already buzzed, or planning to be in the near future …”|
|Rhetorical questions||“Is it all bad? No. But mostly terrible? Absolutely.”|
|Superlatives||He’s always bumming around airports but never seems to make his flight on time.”|
|Telling not showing||“It’s really important to remember this critical writing tip.”|
|Repeated words in the same sentence or paragraph||“The odds were long that he’d make it home in one piece at all. And then he tripped down the escalator while running to the gate. What are the odds?”|
They’re not necessarily incorrect, but they’re heavily overused. Your best bet is to search your document to get the data on how many times you use certain crutches and consider swapping in an alternative.
3. Ask Yourself If You’ve Already Told Us That
This one is a bit more subtle. Trust the reader to remember what you’ve already established in a given piece or subsection. For example, if you tell us in paragraph one that …
"Pierre the Portuguese plumber has a red beard and drives a black ’69 mustang."
… there’s no need to include all that detail later on. “Pierre took the Mustang out to real rooter of a job” should suffice, as opposed to:
“Pierre the Portuguese plumber, the one with the red beard, drove his mustang—the black one from ’69—to a real rooter of a pipe job.”
Lastly, a Foolproof Way to Find and Remove the Boobytraps
To recap, here’s are the three boobytraps I covered in this post:
- Inconsistent tense and point of view
- Overused language
Being aware of the boobytraps is one thing. But these are three of many that writers tend to lay for readers. My advice is to heed the guidance of Deborah A. Lott: read your work out loud. You’ll catch a lot more than what I covered here.