April 5th, 2012


Bad writing

Here are two sample sentences from a novel which I am reading.
But it was the sight of the creature looming over the two corpses that caused Miller's knees to almost buckle in terror.
That misplaced "almost" is really jarring. You don't cause something to "almost happen"; it either is caused to happen or it isn't. "Almost caused" would have been an improvement, though not much. Better yet would have been a more restrained "made his knees go weak with terror". Or indeed, why should poor Miller not be struck to his knees in shock? He is about to be killed anyway.

From a few chapters later:
He raised his cane and brandished it before him like a sword, as if warning the creature to keep back.
Many problems here. First off, one normally brandishes a cane like a cane; a sword is brandished in quite a different way. Is it significant that in this instance the cane is brandished like a sword? Or just, as I suspect, bad writing?

Second, that "as if" clause drops us out of the tight-third viewpoint of the rest of the sentence (and indeed this whole passage) to external narrator. The viewpoint character presumably knows what he is doing, and "as if" confuses the issue.

Third, the "as if" clause implies some potential uncertainty about what follows. But there can be no uncertainty here; our man is absolutely brandishing his cane, whether like a cane or like a sword, as an attempt to warn the creature to keep back. What other possibilities are there?

Rather than create a tight image of a man using the sole means at his disposal to try and warn off a threat, the sentence raises questions about his real intent, about the focus of the narrative, and about brandishing techniques, and leaves those questions unanswered.

Don't editors have a duty to watch out for this kind of thing? Or, shudder, perhaps this already is the heavily-edited, cleaned-up version...

(This is the same author who in another book wrote that someone's wounds "looked like huge purple welts", probably because they actually were huge purple welts.)