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Hone Your Writing Craft


Waves of Hoo-Haw, Howlers,
and Other Bits of Hilarity

© 2011 Lori L. Lake

By now many of the readers and writers of Just About Write will have heard about the strange and amazing behavior of an author named Jacqueline Howett. Ms. Howett, the author of a recently released e-book called The Greek Seaman, became incensed when she read a review that commented upon poor sentence construction and numerous spelling and grammatical errors in her book. Big Al, an even-handed reviewer whose tagline is "Reviews and more from the world of the Kindle," politely stated that if one could make it through the book, the story was good, but "spelling and grammar errors…come so quickly that, especially in the first several chapters, it's difficult to get into the book without being jarred back to reality as you attempt unraveling what the author meant."

Ms. Howett's response ( upon reading the review was dismissive at first. She upbraided Big Al for reading the wrong version and defended her book by posting some of the reviews readers had placed on Amazon. Big Al commented back to cite some of the poorly constructed sentences early on in the book:
"She carried her stocky build carefully back down the stairs."
"Don and Katy watched hypnotically Gino place more coffees out at another table with supreme balance."
The author continued to argue, and then, as critical comments were made by readers of the blog, she became increasingly hostile until she had what I can only describe as a complete and total meltdown culminating in cursing and ranting like an enraged three year old. In the aftermath of this abysmal behavior, and within less than 48 hours, 75 critical 1-star reviews were added to her page. The review that Big Al had placed there suddenly had 1,590 of 1,601 people clicking YES to say the review was helpful.

Ms. Howett's public comments well and truly sunk her book.

This article, however, is not about how to treat reviewers (with respect, even if you disagree) or how to respond to negative criticism (with a thick skin and very little commentary). Instead, I want to discuss clichés and poor description, both of which can mar a reader's experience of a book.


As writers, we don't always see and hear when we've written a "howler," a sentence that is constructed so poorly that it means something quite different from what was intended. We see these all the time, particularly in news headlines. For instance, consider these real-life howlers:
• Prostitutes appeal to Pope
• Miners refuse to work after death
• Juvenile court to try shooting defendant
• Island monks fly in satellite to watch Pope funeral
• We spent most of our time sitting on the back porch watching the cows playing Scrabble and reading.
(I'm not sure why the Pope figures so heavily in many howlers.)

These sort of laughable statements are further compounded by misspellings. In Ms. Howett's book, she includes this accident:
"Autobiography? Ah yes, a book but like a diary?" Rita smiled.
"Yes, like dairy."
So the autobiography is milky? Perhaps her cows play Scrabble and read at the dairy?

Transposing letters or including misspellings can also have disastrous results:
• Henry the Navigator sent out many navel expeditions to explore the lower regions.
• The earth holds on to everything with its grabity.
• Hats for Sale: If you know just what that "right" hat can do for low morale, for a new suit, for flattening a face, you'll come to us.
Those "navel" expeditions are particularly hilarious. It's a shock to discover what happens to the sentence when naval is replaced with navel.

One letter can make a huge difference: A friend in advertising once stayed up all night affixing tiny corrections on a corporate stock report that had to be presented first thing in the morning. She'd accidentally left the "L" out of the section that talked about "Public Offerings."

Poor Description

Let's go back to one of Ms. Howett's poorly constructed sentences:
"Don and Katy watched hypnotically Gino place more coffees out at another table with supreme balance."
If you're even the slightest bit analytical, you'll find yourself wondering why Gino's waiting skills are hypnotic. And is it Don and Katy who are so well balanced while they watch? Or Gino? And why is the mundane process of coffee delivery worthy of such intensity? You are jarred right out of the reading, and every time that happens, the reader gets more irritated. Pretty soon the reader doesn't trust the author or her version of the story world at all.
"She carried her stocky build carefully back down the stairs."
Ouch. I imagined her carting her doppelgänger to the lower level, slung over her shoulder like some sort of caveman dragging his reluctant conquest into his lair. This is not the impression that we want our readers to have when they read our work!

As one of the readers of The Greek Seaman said in an Amazon review: "Carry your stocky build back to the editing table."

Ah, yes. Editing. It's a crucial component apparently left out of Ms. Howett's writing process. Here's another line from The Greek Seaman to use as an example:
"All the different kinds of characters wearing various fashions going about their lives brought about a harmonious buzz of voices that mesmerized her while she spooned her ice cream."
I have an image of the character lying on the street, literally spooning her body around a bucket of ice cream. I don't think that's what she meant! In addition, the watching "hypnotically" of the earlier sentence and being "mesmerized" in the sentence above constitute poor description. Both are overkill. The phrases and clauses are twisted up, modifying the wrong nouns. The reader can't help but be confused and befuddled by such clunky writing. Why would serving coffee or hearing voices while eating mesmerize a person? What's the point in these states of being?

The Howett piece is even worse when she explains characters' internal feelings:
"Don leaned in and kissed her, something he never normally would do in public. A mutual urge passed between them, that it made him feel bashful."
Emotions do not pass between people in this way. People have their own specific, definable responses, and those reactions - and the reactions to the initial actions - simply must make sense if you want your reader to stay with you.

Waves of Hoo-Haw

Timons Esaias, a poet and writing professor in the Seton Hill University MFA Program in Writing Popular Fiction calls this sort of writing "waves of hoo-haw." Quoting Tim from comments he made on an online writing listserve:
"Waves of hoo-haw washing through the protagonist is a pet peeve. It's perfectly all right to say that a wave of panic swept through Protagonessa; but once or twice in a whole book is enough of that. I often see it twice a page, and if your character is afflicted with rising tides of fear, chills of panic running through their spine, and roiling senses of panic, well, it tells the reader that they are a victim. A victim of their body; and so your character becomes pathetic, rather than interesting."
I would add that not only does the reader grow irritated and impatient with this state of victimhood, but often the word choices and descriptions put the reader off so much that even if the story is good, the reader doesn't finish it. For instance, unless you're writing a book meant to be gross or intentionally tacky, readers don't want descriptions that turn their stomachs. This is especially so if the descriptions make you queasier than the character:
• She could feel her breakfast roiling in her gut.
• She could feel a wave of fear clench her gut.
• She felt so frightened, her gut cramped up.
• A wave happiness started in her gut and it spread...
These are examples I found in a manuscript a few years back. The writer was stunned to learn that she was overusing this "hoo-haw" and that readers were repelled by her repeated use of the word "gut."

She was also shocked to find out that she had 352 uses of the word "could" - as in "she could feel," "she could see," "she could hear..."

Instead of "could" (which throws the reader into a Tell, not a Show situation that's often passive in construction), she needed to write clear, concise and active sentences. Some examples:
• Her hand hurt
(instead of "she could feel how her hand was hurting")
• Flashes of lightning tore across the sky
(instead of "she could see lightning over the hill")
• The carillon bells rang out, surprising her with their depth of tone
(instead of "she could hear the loud bells")
The author had her work cut out to fix those types of problematic lines because the manuscript was shot through with them. In some cases she needed to re-envision the entire scene and figure out other ways to show how the character was feeling (instead of telling it so flatly). In other cases, she had to delete the repetitive references (such as to "her gut") and bring her "hoo-haw" usage up to a much smarter and more effective level with fewer clichés.

Go Body, Go!

Then the other major revision task involved going through her manuscript (a subjective third-person-perspective novel) and making sure body parts weren't working independent of their owner:
• Her mind whirred and she could feel it burning.
(What is she - a computer?)
• Her eyes darted around the room.
(Wow! Hope they make it back into her head.)
• Her hand reached out for the wall and she could almost feel the rough texture.
(She doesn't have control of her hand? And how can you *almost* feel something you're actually touching?)
Those are all subtle issues, to be sure, but for anyone who's a visual reader (and research tells us about 60% of readers *are* primarily visual), the mental pictures those lines evoke are humorous "howlers." They drop us out of the story and into questions of the author's writing capability. We end up asking, "Is this author's book going to take me from beginning to end with frequent interruptions like this? If so, do I really want to read it?"

Clichés and Euphemisms

Clichés are terms, phrases, or old sayings that may or may not be true. You've seen them and heard them all your life; they're flat and boring, and they provide no new images or ideas. Example:
• Once she heard those pearls of wisdom, she saw the writing on the wall and decided to let sleeping dogs lie.
• She wished she was fit as a fiddle, but she was so upset by the way her gut was roiling that she leaned against the car window and took a trip down Memory Lane.
When I read that sort of narrative, my eyes glaze over!

Euphemisms are even more insidious. They take blunt, painful, critical - sometimes even offensive - words or descriptions and make them softer edged and less explicit: "shrinkage" instead of shoplifted items; "downsized" instead of fired; "remains" instead of dead body; "comfort woman" instead of whore or prostitute.

Both clichés and euphemisms are best avoided in your writing, unless you have a specific reason for using them. One thing you can do with clichés is have characters play with them in dialogue and re-cast them so that they're funny or meaningful:
• "It takes two to tangle, and those two sure are tangling, regularly!"
• "She's skating on thin reasoning pretty much every time she opens her mouth."
• "Life gave me lemons, so I loaded 'em into my paintball gun and blasted him."
Revision Solutions

It's critical that every writer edit and revise her work. If you find that you can't see your own howlers and clichés or that you totally miss your poorly constructed sentences and paragraphs, then get someone you trust to read your work and point them out. Even if it costs you money. Such revisions can be hard, especially since we often don't hear or see our own mistakes and clunky constructions.

By the way, I wrote a 2-part article in a previous issue of JAW about how to write active, engaging sentences that "show" rather than "tell" that some people might find helpful:
How to Improve Your Writing Style: Write Active, Engaging Sentences That "Show" Rather Than "Tell" (Part 1 of 2)

It's a lot of work to write spare, evocative scenes that give the reader the picture you want them to have, but would you rather have a clear and cleanly written work out on the market - or be like Jaqueline Howett? Don't bore your reader to tears - take the high road, and avoid bad writing like the Plague!
© 2011 Lori L. Lake
From her untitled book about writing, a work in progress.
Not for distribution or copying without the express permission of the author.
If you have questions, comments, or divergent points of view, please drop Lori an email at Lori welcomes questions and comments.

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