Weak words and faulty phrases
Most of us have heard admonitions against using certain weak words and phrases, and I’ve talked about some of these previously:
If you do a Google search on “weak words” or “weak writing,” you’ll find much good advice, along with many repeats, indicating the prevalence of certain problem words and phrases.
Here’s one article that deals with SO and VERY:
Every time either Scott or I have talked about bad writing habits, we have always cautioned you not to go overboard with a search-and-destroy of every occurrence of a potential problem word or phrase because you’ll often end up with something worse.
The key concept here is OVERUSE. There is nothing wrong with using “there is/there was” (as I did here). Sure, I could revise that sentence (Nothing is wrong with using “there is/there was.”), but in this case, it comes off as a trifle awkward sounding, to my ears anyway.
However, in fiction writing, a sentence like “There were bullets flying everywhere and there was little Steve could do to protect himself from being hit” is weak and could be made a lot stronger. I’ll leave it to you to play with that one.
In dialogue, we often use weak words and phrases, but that doesn’t give you license to overuse words like “just, so, very, actually” even if the characters would talk that way. Consider how annoying it is to listen to a speaker saying “uh” all the time. The same is true in your writing. Repeated words and phrases give the writing a less-than-professional feel. Don’t use “that’s how my character would talk” as a cop out. Make intelligent writing decisions.
At the same time, do be true to your characters’ use—or improper use—of grammar. But pay attention to the difference between dialogue and non-dialogue. One mistake I often see is writers writing the way they talk. Your writing should not be about how YOU talk, but about how your characters talk. Again: make intelligent choices.
Now, let me get to what prompted this particular blog post, which was not any of the things I’ve mentioned so far. It came about because a writer I know often uses the phrase “look to” instead of “look at.” (John looked to Ellen, who shrugged. vs. John looked at Ellen, who shrugged.)
This made me look up the phrase to be sure it really was a problem. I was right. While both phrases are valid, the sense in which each is used is different.
Both phrases have literal and figurative meanings. In the literal sense of casting one’s gaze or focusing one’s eyes upon something specific, then “look at” (not “look to”) is what you want.
—Look at that gorgeous dress she’s wearing.
—Tim looked at Mary with admiration for having finished her first marathon.
—I looked at the check Mr. Winston handed me. It really was made out to me for a million dollars.
When we mean “to look in the general direction of something,” then “look to” or “look toward” may be a better phrasing (with “look to” being a shortened form of “look toward”).
—At the corner, look to your right and you’ll be looking at the new school my company built.
—If you go out tonight around 11 PM, look to the northern sky to see the aurora borealis.
But “look to” also has a figurative meaning, not to be confused with its literal one. In this sense it means to seek advice or guidance.
—I always look to my older brother for advice on dating.
—Tim looked to Mary for inspiration when he decided to run his first marathon.
—Henry often looks to his co-workers for advice.
—Look to the future to fulfill your hopes and dreams. (BUT)
—Look at the future you can have with a good education.
We also find that “look up to” has both literal and figurative meanings.
—Look up to your left. Is that a cat up in that tree? (literal)
—Sarah always looked up to her high school English teacher, who helped her overcome her fear of speaking in public. (figurative)
One of my favorite sites for looking up (ah, another sense of “look up”) such things online is the English Language Learners Stack Exchange. Here’s the article I used to help me write this part of the blog, and I recommend the site for other questions because I’ve found it to be reliable most of the time.
I find a good lesson for all writers here. Many of us have picked up one or more bad habits in our speech and thinking, and we carry those over to our writing without realizing our errors. This is why it is SO important that writers be critical readers and why you need to read a variety of material. Study how other, established writers write and compare it to your writing. If something doesn’t match, look it up. It may that you’re the one in error, but that’s not always the case.
Some established writers have bad habits that their publishers simply let pass (like head hopping). This is also why it’s so important to have critical reviews look at your work. It’s better to learn your mistakes BEFORE they make it into print.
While “look to” in place of “look at” might seem harmless enough, it will strike some readers as odd. Whether it will have a negative impact by itself if difficult to say. But I generally find that writers guilty of one slip are guilty of others as well, and it’s the combination of errors that will likely leave a negative impression with readers.
When I’m looking at purchasing an indie writer’s novel, I always look at the sample, paying close attention to the grammar and punctuation and how the sentences are cast, in addition to the flow of the writing. The quality of that sample directly affects my purchasing decision. And if I find the books’ synopsis to have even one grammatical or spelling error, that does not bode well. If the writer can’t produce a few grammatically clean sentences, then what hope do I have that the book is any better?
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