Common Writing Mistakes

The Graeme notes:

The following article I used to distribute to every participant in my VCON writers workshops. It is an incredibly useful guide to any writer on how NOT to write. Believe me. If you are at all serious about writing, you need to read this.


By Bruce Sterling

Literary Freeware:  Not for Commercial Use

(Edited for the VCON Writers Workshops by R. Graeme Cameron.)

Bruce Sterling notes:

“People often ask where science fiction writers get their ideas.  They rarely ask where society gets its science fiction writers. In many cases the answer is science fiction workshops.  

Workshops come in many varieties — regional and national, amateur and professional, formal and frazzled.   In science fiction’s best-known workshop, Clarion, would-be writers are wrenched from home and hearth and pitilessly blitzed for six weeks by professional SF writers, who serve as creative-writing gurus.     

We now come to the core of this piece, the SF Workshop Lexicon.  This lexicon was compiled by Mr Lewis Shiner and myself from the work of many writers and critics over many years of genre history, and it contains buzzwords, notions and critical terms of direct use to SF workshops.

Some Lexicon terms are attributed to their originators, when I could find them; others are not, and I apologize for my ignorance.”



“Said-book” ism.  –  An artificial verb used to avoid the word “said.”  “Said” is one of the few invisible words in the English language and is almost impossible to overuse.  It is much less distracting than “he retorted,” “she inquired,” “he ejaculated,” and other oddities.  The term “said-book” comes from certain pamphlets, containing hundreds of purple-prose synonyms for the word “said,” which were sold to aspiring authors from tiny ads in American magazines of the pre-WWII era.

Tom Swifty.   –  An unseemly compulsion to follow the word “said” with a colorful adverb, as in “‘We’d better hurry,’ Tom said swiftly.”  This was a standard mannerism of the old Tom Swift adventure dime-novels.  Good dialogue can stand on its own withouta clutter of adverbial props.

Brenda Starr dialogue.  –  Long sections of talk with no physical background or description of the characters.  Such dialogue, detached from the story’s setting, tends to echo hollowly, as if suspended in mid-air.  Named for the American comic-strip in which dialogue balloons were often seen emerging from the Manhattan skyline.

Burly Detective syndrome.  –  This useful term is taken from SF’s cousin-genre, the detective-pulp.  The hack writers of the Mike Shayne series showed an odd reluctance to use Shayne’s proper name, preferring such euphemisms as “the burly detective” or “the red-headed sleuth.”  This syndrome arises from a wrong-headed conviction that the same word should not be used twice in close succession.  This is only true of particularly strong and visible words, such as “vertiginous.”  Better to re-use a simple tag or phrase than to contrive cumbersome methods of avoiding it.

Pushbutton words.  –  Words used to evoke a cheap emotional response without engaging the intellect or the critical faculties.  Commonly found in story titles, they include such bits of bogus lyricism as “star,” “dance,” “dream,” “song,” “tears” and “poet,” cliches calculated to render the SF audience misty-eyed and tender-hearted.

Brand-name fever.  –  The over-use of commercial brand-names to create a false sense of gritty verisimilitude.  It is useless to stock the future with Hondas, Sonys, and Brauns without accompanying visual and physical detail.

“Call a Rabbit a Smeerp.”  –  A cheap technique for false exoticism, in which common elements of the real world are re-named for a fantastic milieu without any real alteration in their basic nature or behavior.  “Smeerps” are especially common in fantasy worlds, where people often ride exotic steeds that look and act just like horses.  (Attributed to James Blish.)

Roget’s Disease.  –  The ludicrous overuse of far-fetched adjectives, piled into a festering, fungal, tenebrous, troglodytic, ichorous, leprous, synonymic heap.  (Attr. John W. Campbell)

Gingerbread.  –  Useless ornament in prose, such as fancy sesquipedalian Latinate words where short clear English ones will do.  Novice authors sometimes use “gingerbread” in the hope of disguising faults and conveying an air of refinement. (Attr. Damon Knight)

Not Simultaneous.  –  The mis-use of the present participle is a common structural sentence-fault for beginning writers.  “Putting his key in the door, he leapt up the stairs and got his revolver out of the bureau.”  Alas, our hero couldn’t do this even if his arms were forty feet long.  This fault shades into “Ing Disease,” the tendency to pepper sentences with words ending in “-ing,” a grammatical construction which tends to confuse the proper sequence of events.  (Attr. Damon Knight)


Bathos.  –  A sudden, alarming change in the level of diction. “There will be bloody riots and savage insurrections leading to a violent popular uprising unless the regime starts being lots nicer about stuff.”

Countersinking.  –  A form of expositional redundancy in which the action clearly implied in dialogue is made explicit.  “‘Let’s get out of here!’ he shouted, urging her to leave.”

Show Don’t Tell.  –  A cardinal principle of effective writing.  The reader should be allowed to react naturally to the evidence presented in the story, not instructed in how to react by the author.  Specific incidents and carefully observed details will render auctorial lectures unnecessary.  For instance, instead of telling the reader “She had a bad childhood, an unhappy childhood,” a specific incident — involving, say, a locked closet and two jars of honey — should be shown.

Rigid adherence to show-don’t-tell can become absurd.  Minor matters are sometimes best gotten out of the way in a swift, straightforward fashion.

Laughtrack.  –  Characters grandstand and tug the reader’s sleeve in an effort to force a specific emotional reaction.  They laugh wildly at their own jokes, cry loudly at their own pain, and rob the reader of any real chance of attaining genuine emotion.

Squid in the Mouth.  –  The failure of an author to realize that his/her own weird assumptions and personal in-jokes are simply not shared by the world-at-large.  Instead of applauding the wit or insight of the author’s remarks, the world-at-large will stare in vague shock and alarm at such a writer, as if he or she had a live squid in the mouth.

Since SF writers as a breed are generally quite loony, and in fact make this a stock in trade, “squid in the mouth” doubles as a term of grudging praise, describing the essential, irreducible, divinely unpredictable lunacy of the true SF writer.  (Attr. James P Blaylock)

Squid on the Mantelpiece.  –  Chekhov said that if there are dueling pistols over the mantelpiece in the first act, they should be fired in the third.  In other words, a plot element should be deployed in a timely fashion and with proper dramatic emphasis.

However, in SF plotting the MacGuffins are often so overwhelming that they cause conventional plot structures to collapse.  It’s hard to properly dramatize, say, the domestic effects of Dad’s bank overdraft when a giant writhing kraken is levelling the city.

This mismatch between the conventional dramatic proprieties and SF’s extreme, grotesque, or visionary thematics is known as the “squid on the mantelpiece.”

Handwaving.  –  An attempt to distract the reader with dazzling prose or other verbal fireworks, so as to divert attention from a severe logical flaw.  (Attr. Stewart Brand)

You Can’t Fire Me, I Quit.  –  An attempt to diffuse the reader’s incredulity with a pre-emptive strike  — as if by anticipating the reader’s objections, the author had somehow answered them. “I would never have believed it, if I hadn’t seen it myself!”  “It was one of those amazing coincidences that can only take place in real life!”  “It’s a one-in-a-million chance, but it’s so crazy it just might work!”  Surprisingly common, especially in SF.  (Attr. John Kessel)

Fuzz.  –  An element of motivation the author was too lazy to supply.  The word “somehow” is a useful tip-off to fuzzy areas of a story.  “Somehow she had forgotten to bring her gun.”

Dischism. –  The unwitting intrusion of the author’s physical surroundings, or the author’s own mental state, into the text of the story.  Authors who smoke or drink while writing often drown or choke their characters with an endless supply of booze and cigs.  In subtler forms of the Dischism, the characters complain of their confusion and indecision — when this is actually the author’s condition at the moment of writing, not theirs within the story.  “Dischism” is named after the critic who diagnosed this syndrome.  (Attr. Thomas M. Disch)

Signal from Fred.  –  A comic form of the Dischism in which the author’s subconscious, alarmed by the poor quality of the work, makes unwitting critical comments:  “This doesn’t make sense.”  “This is really boring.”  “This sounds like a bad movie.”  (Attr.Damon Knight)

False Interiorization.  –  A cheap labor-saving technique in which the author, too lazy to describe the surroundings, afflicts the viewpoint-character with a blindfold, an attack of space-sickness, the urge to play marathon whist-games in the smoking-room, etc.

False Humanity.  –  An ailment endemic to genre writing, in which soap-opera elements of purported human interest are stuffed into the story willy-nilly, whether or not they advance the plot or contribute to the point of the story.  The actions of such characters convey an itchy sense of irrelevance, for the author has invented their problems out of whole cloth, so as to have something to emote about.

Wiring Diagram Fiction.  –  A genre ailment related to “False Humanity,” “Wiring Diagram Fiction” involves “characters” who show no convincing emotional reactions at all, since they are overwhelmed by the author’s fascination with gadgetry or didactic lectures.

White Room Syndrome.  –  A clear and common sign of the failure of the author’s imagination, most often seen at the beginning of a story, before the setting, background, or characters have gelled.  “She awoke in a white room.”  The ‘white room’ is a featureless set for which details have yet to be invented — a failure of invention by the author.  The character ‘wakes’ in order to begin a fresh train of thought — again, just like the author.  This ‘white room’ opening is generally followed by much earnest pondering of circumstances and useless exposition; all of which can be cut, painlessly.

It remains to be seen whether the “white room” cliche’ will fade from use now that most authors confront glowing screens rather than blank white paper.


The Jar of Tang.  –  A story contrived so that the author can spring a silly surprise about its setting,  For instance, the story takes place in a desert of coarse orange sand surrounded by an impenetrable vitrine barrier; surprise!  our heroes are microbes in a jar of Tang powdered orange drink.  (Attr. Stephen P. Brown)

When done with serious intent rather than as a passing conceit, this type of story can be dignified by the term “Concealed Environment.”  (Attr. Christopher Priest)

The “Poor Me” Story.  –  Autobiographical piece in which the male viewpoint character complains that he is ugly and can’t get laid.  (Attr. Kate Wilhelm)

The Grubby Apartment Story.  –  Similar to the “poor me” story, this autobiographical effort features a miserably quasi-bohemian writer, living in urban angst in a grubby apartment.  The story commonly stars the author’s friends in thin disguises — friends who may also be the author’s workshop companions, to their considerable alarm.

The Shaggy God Story.  –  A piece which mechanically adopts a Biblical or other mythological tale and provides flat science-fictional “explanations” for the theological events.  (Attr. Michael Moorcock)

Adam and Eve Story.  –  Nauseatingly common subset of the Shaggy God Story in which a terrible apocalypse, spaceship crash, etc., leaves two survivors, man and woman, who turn out to be Adam and Eve, parents of the human race!!

Dennis Hopper Syndrome.   –  A story based on some arcane bit of  science or folklore, which noodles around producing random weirdness.  Then a loony character-actor (usually best played by Dennis Hopper) barges into the story and baldly tells the protagonist what’s going on by explaining the underlying mystery in a long bug-eyed rant.  (Attr.  Howard Waldrop)

The Tabloid Weird.    –  Story produced by a confusion of SF and Fantasy tropes — or rather, by a confusion of basic world-views.   Tabloid Weird is usually produced by the author’s own inability to distinguish between a rational, Newtonian-Einsteinian, cause-and-effect universe and an irrational, supernatural, fantastic universe.  Either the FBI is hunting the escaped mutant from the genetics lab, or the drill-bit has bored straight into Hell — but not both at once in the very same piece of fiction.  Even fantasy worlds need an internal consistency of sorts, so that a Sasquatch Deal-with-the-Devil story is also “Tabloid Weird.”   Sasquatch crypto-zoology and Christian folk superstition simply don’t mix well, even for comic effect.   (Attr. Howard Waldrop)

Deus ex Machina or “God in the Box.”  –  Story featuring a miraculous solution to the story’s conflict, which comes out of nowhere and renders the plot struggles irelevant.  H G Wells warned against SF’s love for the deus ex machina when he coined the famous dictum that “If anything is possible, then nothing is interesting.”  Science fiction, which specializes in making the impossible seem plausible, is always deeply intrigued by godlike powers in the handy pocket size.  Artificial Intelligence, virtual realities and nanotechnology are three contemporary SF MacGuffins that are cheap portable sources of limitless miracle.

Just-Like Fallacy.  –  SF story which thinly adapts the trappings of a standard pulp adventure setting.  The spaceship is “just like” an Atlantic steamer, down to the Scottish engineer in the hold. A colony planet is “just like” Arizona except for two moons in the sky.  Space Westerns and futuristic hard-boiled detective stories have been especially common versions.

Re-Inventing the Wheel.  –  A novice author goes to enormous lengths to create a science-fictional situation already tiresomely familiar to the experienced reader.  Reinventing the Wheel was traditionally typical of mainstream writers venturing into SF. It is now often seen in writers who lack experience in genre history because they were attracted to written SF via SF movies, SF television series, SF role-playing games, SF comics or SF computer gaming.

The Cozy Catastrophe.  –  Story in which horrific events are overwhelming the entirety of human civilization, but the action concentrates on a small group of tidy, middle-class, white Anglo-Saxon protagonists.  The essence of the cozy catastrophe is that the hero should have a pretty good time (a girl, free suites at the Savoy, automobiles for the taking) while everyone else is dying off.  (Attr. Brian Aldiss)

The Motherhood Statement.  –  SF story which posits some profoundly unsettling threat to the human condition, explores the implications briefly, then hastily retreats to affirm the conventional social and humanistic pieties, ie apple pie and motherhood.  Greg Egan once stated that the secret of truly effective SF was to deliberately “burn the motherhood statement.”  (Attr. Greg Egan)

The Kitchen-Sink Story.  –  A story overwhelmed by the inclusion of any and every new idea that occurs to the author in the process of writing it.  (Attr. Damon Knight)

The Whistling Dog.  –  A story related in such an elaborate, arcane, or convoluted manner that it impresses by its sheer narrative ingenuity, but which, as a story, is basically not worth the candle.  Like the whistling dog, it’s astonishing that the thing can whistle — but it doesn’t actually whistle very well.  (Attr. Harlan Ellison)

The Rembrandt Comic Book.  –  A story in which incredible craftsmanship has been lavished on a theme or idea which is basically trivial or subliterary, and which simply cannot bear the weight of such deadly-serious artistic portent.

The Slipstream Story. –  Non-SF story which is so ontologically distorted or related in such a bizarrely non-realist fashion that it cannot pass muster as commercial mainstream fiction and therefore seeks shelter in the SF or fantasy genre.  Postmodern critique and technique are particularly fruitful in creating slipstream stories.

The Steam-Grommet Factory.  –  Didactic SF story which consists entirely of a guided tour of a large and elaborate gimmick.  A common technique of SF utopias and dystopias.  (Attr. Gardner Dozois)


Idiot Plot.  –  A plot which functions only because all the characters involved are idiots.  They behave in a way that suits the author’s convenience, rather than through any rational motivation of their own.  (Attr. James Blish)

Second-order Idiot Plot.  –  A plot involving an entire invented SF society which functions only because every single person in it is necessarily an idiot.  (Attr. Damon Knight)

And plot.  –  Picaresque plot in which this happens, and then that happens, and then something else happens, and it all adds up to nothing in particular.

Kudzu plot.  –  Plot which weaves and curls and writhes in weedy organic profusion, smothering everything in its path.

Card Tricks in the Dark.  –  Elaborately contrived plot which arrives at (a) the punchline of a private joke no reader will get or (b) the display of some bit of learned trivia relevant only to the author.  This stunt may be intensely ingenious, and very gratifying to the author, but it serves no visible fictional purpose.  (Attr. Tim Powers)

Plot Coupons.  –  The basic building blocks of the quest-type fantasy plot.  The hero collects sufficient plot coupons (magic sword, magic ring, magic cat)  to send off to the author for the ending.  The author decrees that the hero will pursue his quest until sufficient pages are filled to complete a trilogy.  (Attr. Dave Langford)

Bogus Alternatives.  –  A list of plot-paths that a character could have taken, but didn’t.  In this nervous mannerism, the author stops the action dead to work out complicated plot problems at the reader’s expense.  “If I’d gone along with the cops they would have found the gun in my purse.  And anyway, I didn’t want to spend the night in jail.  I suppose I could have just run away instead of stealing their squad car, but then….”  Best dispensed with entirely.


Info-dump.  –  Large chunk of indigestible expository matter intended to explain the background situation. Info-dumps can be covert, as in fake newspaper or “Encyclopedia Galactica” articles, or overt, in which all action stops as the author assumes center stage and lectures.  Info-dumps are also known as “expository lumps.”  The use of brief, deft, inoffensive info-dumps is known as “kuttnering,” after Henry Kuttner.  When information is worked unobtrusively into the story’s basic structure, this is known as “heinleining.”

Stapledon.  –  Name assigned to the auctorial voice which takes center stage to deliver a massive and magisterial info-dump.  Actually a common noun, as in “I like the way your stapledon describes the process of downloading brains into computer memory, but when you try to heinlein it later, I can’t tell what the hell is happening.”

Frontloading.  –  Piling too much exposition into the beginning of the story, so that it becomes so dense and dry that it is almost impossible to read.  (Attr. Connie Willis)

Nowhere Nowhen Story.  –  Putting too little exposition into the story’s beginning, so that the story, while physically readable, seems to take place in a vacuum and fails to engage any readerly interest.  (Attr. L. Sprague de Camp)

“As You Know, Bob.”  –  A pernicious form of info-dump through dialogue, in which characters tell each other things they already know, for the sake of getting the reader up-to-speed.  This very common technique is also known as “Rod and Don dialogue” (attr. Damon Knight) or “maid and butler dialogue” (attr Algis Budrys).

I’ve Suffered For My Art (and now it’s your turn).  –  A form of info-dump in which the author inflicts upon the reader hard-won, but irrelevant bits of data acquired while researching the story.  As Algis Budrys once pointed out, homework exists to make the difficult look easy.

Used Furniture.  –  The use of a cliched genre background right out of Central Casting.  We can, for instance, use the Star Trek universe, only we’ll file the serial numbers off it and call it the Imperium instead of the Federation.

Eyeball Kicks.  –  Vivid, telling details that create a kaleidoscopic effect of swarming visual imagery against a baroquely elaborate SF background.  One ideal of cyberpunk SF was to create a “crammed prose” full of “eyeball kicks.” (Attr. Rudy Rucker)

Ontological riff.  –  Passage in an SF story which suggests that our deepest and most basic convictions about the nature of reality, space-time, or consciousness have been violated, technologically transformed, or at least rendered thoroughly dubious.  The works of H. P. Lovecraft, Barrington Bayley, and Philip K Dick abound in “ontological riffs.”


Viewpoint glitch.  –  The author loses track of point-of-view, switches point-of-view for no good reason, or relates something that the viewpoint character could not possibly know.

Submyth.  –  Classic character-types in SF which aspire to the condition of archetype but don’t quite make it, such as the mad scientist, the crazed supercomputer, the emotionless super-rational alien, the vindictive mutant child, etc.  (Attr. Ursula K. Le Guin)

Funny-hat characterization.  –  A character distinguished by a single identifying tag, such as odd headgear, a limp, a lisp, a parrot on his shoulder, etc.

Mrs. Brown.  –  The small, downtrodden, eminently common, everyday little person who nevertheless encapsulates something vital and important about the human condition.  “Mrs. Brown” is a rare personage in the SF genre, being generally overshadowed by swaggering submyth types made of the finest gold-plated cardboard.  In a famous essay, “Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown,”  Ursula K. Le Guin decried Mrs. Brown’s absence from the SF field.  (Attr:  Virginia Woolf)


AM/FM.  –  Engineer’s term distinguishing the inevitable clunky real-world faultiness of “Actual Machines” from the power-fantasy techno-dreams of “Fucking Magic.”

Intellectual sexiness.  –  The intoxicating glamor of a novel scientific idea, as distinguished from any actual intellectual merit that it may someday prove to possess.

Consensus Reality.  –  Useful term for the purported world in which the majority of modern sane people generally agree that they live — as opposed to the worlds of, say, Forteans, semioticians or quantum physicists.

The Ol’ Baloney Factory.  –  “Science Fiction” as a publishing and promotional entity in the world of commerce.

And some additional material from:



Are the grammar, spelling, and punctuation correct? Is the writing easy to follow and understand? Can you just enjoy the story, or do you stumble over some of the writing choices?

Good things: variation in sentence structure, vocabulary, and imagery; a sense that the writing is carrying you along through the story.

Bad things: awkward repetition of words, clunky or confusing sentences.


Does the setting of the story feel real to you? Is the world-building convincing? Does the writer use the five senses to describe the world?

Good things: interesting details worked into the story, a setting that “comes alive,” descriptive phrases staggered throughout the exposition, narrative, or dialogue.

Bad things: infodumps about biology, politics, history, or other aspects of the story’s setting; the story coming to a halt to make way for description; characters lecturing each other in an unrealistic way; feeling confused.


Are the characters believable and sympathetic? Are their actions consistent with their personality? Do the characters show change and growth in order to solve their problems?

Good things: characters seem like real people and act in believable ways; characters reveal themselves by their actions and their words; characters grow or change during the course of the story.

Bad things: infodumps about the characters (their personalities, appearance, background history, motivations, etc.) that interrupt or slow down the story; wooden characters; characters whose actions are (and remain) inexplicable or contradictory; characters who don’t grow and change in reaction to the plot.


Does the story hold together and ring true? (This is a gut-feeling thing; you believe, when you’re reading a story, or you don’t.) Does anything pop you out of the experience of the story? Is there a beginning, middle, and end–does it feel complete?

Good things: The story unfolds in a way that makes sense to you–if you are in the dark temporarily, you sense that it’s on purpose, not accidental; the events are believable in the context of the story; the plot has forward momentum–the pace of it keeps you reading to find out what happens next.

Bad things: The story confuses you or makes no sense; the plot twists are so clichéd and familiar that you knew they were coming a mile away; the plot has unneccessary twists or underdeveloped or forgotten threads.


Does it sound believable? Does it develop the characters or plot? Do the characters have different voices?

Good things: Dialogue that matches the setting of the story, without anachronisms; moderate use of favorite phrases, accents, etc., to help delineate character; knowing who’s doing the talking as you read, even without a lot of dialogue tags.

Bad things: Stiff or boring dialogue; dialogue used as exposition; repetitive dialogue; characters with speaking traits (accents, favorite phrases, etc.) that are unbelievable; use of dialogue as infodumps.

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