by Pam McCutcheon
Here are some more pointers for you this month to clean up your prose, ones that I often see misused in print. Be a savvy writer and don’t make these mistakes:
She poured over the book, looking for answers.
To “pour” means to dispense liquid. So, the only time you should say she is pouring over the book is if she is really dumping fluid over the book to answer her questions. How does that work . . . washing the answers out of the pages? Divination by sogginess? I don’t think so.
However, to “pore” means to read or study intently, so it makes more sense to say: She pored over the book, looking for answers.
She was renown for her delicate tatting.
I understand where the confusion comes from with this error. “Renown” looks like the verb “known,” so many people think that if she is known for her delicate tatting, she should also be renown for it.
Sorry, the words aren’t related in this way. You have renown (a noun), meaning fame or honor, but you are renowned for what you do. So, the sentence should be written this way: She was renowned for her delicate tatting.
He was a shoe-in for the position.
This is a widespread problem, even in published manuscripts. I’m not sure what “shoe-in” would really mean—that they’d boot him in? The correct usage, “shoo-in,” originated in racing circles when it was suspected a race was fixed and the winning horse only had to be “shooed in” the right direction to win. These days, of course, the phrase has lost its negative connotation and is used whenever the outcome of a competition seems predetermined. The proper usage is: He was a shoo-in for the position.
Pointer to Tighten Your Prose:
Beginning writers often have their characters “begin to” or “start to” perform actions. However, most people don’t begin to walk across a room—they either do or they don’t. If they’re stopped before they complete the action, then saying “begin to” makes sense. Otherwise, it doesn’t.
For example, you wouldn’t say, “He started to eat breakfast,” when what you really mean is, “He ate breakfast.” However, you could say, “He started to eat breakfast, but was interrupted by an emergency phone call.”
So, before you publish that manuscript, do a word search for “start” and “begin” and ask yourself if your character stopped in the process of doing that action. If the answer is no, you might want to remove the unnecessary words.
Pam McCutcheon is a freelance editor, writer, and speaker who pens romantic comedy, fantasy short stories, and nonfiction books for writers under her own name, and YA urban fantasy as Parker Blue. Her books include the popular Writing the Fiction Synopsis and The Writer’s Brainstorming Kit (with Michael Waite). Learn more about her at pammc.com.