GALEN BLINKED HIS ELBOW

 

“Vigorous writing is concise.”

—William Strunk, Jr., The Elements of Style

 

What else but your eyes can you blink, what else but your legs and feet can you kick with, and what else but your head ever nods? If those three things are true, should you ever write a sentence like:

Galen blinked his eyes, but still couldn’t see past the hazy curtain of smoke.

But inexperienced writers do it all the time. Heck, experienced writers do it, too. But one thing I can almost guarantee you is that if you pay attention to the rest of these examples, you’ll become sensitized to this dumb but common little mistake, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll join me in helping to make it go away.

Her eyes blinded by tears, Bronwyn fired an arrow into the black smoke.

Good thing we know it was her eyes that were blinded. I might have thought her nose was blinded, or her kneecap. Oh, wait, no, only your eyes can be blinded, really, right, so what if we just removed the first two words from that sentence?

Blinded by tears, Bronwyn fired an arrow into the black smoke.

The new sentence says precisely the same thing, but without the unnecessary language.

The next sentence . . .

Galen nodded his head and replied, “I agree, but we should eventually go back for Bronwyn.”

. . . actually has two things wrong with it. Now read it with those two things fixed:

Galen nodded and replied, “But we should eventually go back for Bronwyn.”

What other part of his anatomy might Galen have been nodding? It’s just not necessary to specify his head. And if he’s nodded, that could certainly take the place of, “I agree.” The nod signals the affirmative, and the shorter line of dialog follows with his conditions.

Since it’s possible to shake your hand, shake for booty, shake . . . all sorts of things, you do need to say:

Galen shook his head and replied, “Not until we go back for Bronwyn.”

And there are a few other times when the body part matters. This is not one of them:

Bronwyn kicked her feet at the three booglemen that approached her, scattering them.

It should read:

Bronwyn kicked at the three booglemen that approached her, scattering them.

Generally speaking you only kick with your legs and feet. No one has ever kicked someone with his eyelid, so it really isn’t necessary to specify—unless, frankly, there is some reason to specify.

Bronwyn kicked her feet and waved her arms as she fell, screaming the whole way down.

Might tempt you to try:

Bronwyn kicked and waved her arms as she fell, screaming the whole way down.

The second sentence would seem to imply that she’s kicking her arms and waving her arms, which doesn’t make sense. The former version, though we really shouldn’t have to specify what she’s kicking with, makes it clearer that her feet are doing one thing while her arms are doing something else.

I could offer page after page of similar examples, but I think you get the idea. Now, blink your toenail, nod your instep, and go back to writing!

—Philip Athans

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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4 Responses to GALEN BLINKED HIS ELBOW

  1. You know I’m going to have to run through my ms and check for this now …

    I’m reasonably certain I don’t do it, but I’m paranoid enough to check.

  2. ec says:

    ::nod:: Good post. Just found this site through a link on facebook.

    I notice you use the term “fires an arrow.” So do I–always have. It’s concise and gets the image across neatly and quickly and with the right feel and rhythm. But recently I’ve come across an argument that it’s anachronistic, as “firing” indicated the ignition of an explosion, as in a canon or musket. There’s no fire involving in the act of loosing an arrow, even if you happen to be shooting flaming arrows.

    Do you use this phrase colloquially and edit it in manuscript, or are you okay with “firing arrows” ?

  3. Philip Athans says:

    Elaine’s right, but up till now I have let “fire an arrow” slide right through. And that from an editor who obsessively changes “he backpedalled” to “he backstepped” or more often “He stepped back” because no one in the FORGOTTEN REALMS world has thought to invent the bicycle yet.

    I think it is probably lots better that we avoid firing arrows, though a counter argument can be made that at some point you go too far and we start writing fantasy in Middle English, like a Mel Gibson movie without subtitles!

  4. Okay, here’s one on the “firing an arrow” vein — how about “shooting an arrow”?

    I’ve had my arguments that “shot” is perfectly valid term predating firearms.

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