“To the Man With a Hammer Everything Looks Like a Nail.”


Google attributes this quote to Mark Twain, but I first encountered it in regards to writing in my Introduction to Literary Studies course during my Literature BA. Dr. So was referring to semicolon usage, something he’d picked up on in our papers. Once we’d learned how to properly use a semicolon, we were putting them everywhere. The point he was making was that just because you have a tool doesn’t mean you always have to use it. It’s something to watch for in your writing, and it extends to many things, not just punctuation. When we write there’s a certain level of comfort with what we know. We might embrace certain stylistic constructs or punctuation uses because they’re familiar, and we risk overusing them and giving our prose a flat, repetitive quality.

Eastlight’s first draft contained an insane amount of nodding. I was overusing that beat constantly. That was a problem easily solved once it was picked up on, but other repetitions were subtler. My history degree trained me to write more academically, more passively, and I still cling to weak phrasing like seemed as in it seemed darker versus it grew darker. One of the biggest patterns I’ve faced is making my verbs more active, and that took investing into the Oxford Writer’s Thesaurus* and using it daily. It’s fortunate that I enjoy word-smithing, though it’s easy to get lost in the weeds if you’re not careful and while away precious writing hours by picking sentences apart. The old adage of putting a manuscript away for a while is crucial here. You often don’t recognize a repetitive pattern while you’re in the middle of performing it. A little distance is a good cure. Reading back through a manuscript a few months later will definitely help you spot patterns both good and bad. All of this thought on process is teaching me that multiple drafts are never going to fade away. When I set out to write my first novel, I knew there would be lots of drafts, and there were. But I thought Eastlight would have fewer. It didn’t. It had the same number. It all goes back to that continual process of improvement: you stop making some mistakes, but you learn you’re making others. You grow in your craft and take bolder risks, introducing new patterns you need to work on. Widen your toolbox and use everything you’ve got on hand.

*I recommend the investment, though don’t stop there. The Thesaurus is strong, but I’ve found it to be incomplete. I supplement a lot with www.dictionary.com’s thesaurus, and that resource is free.

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