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HOW TO WRITE ALMOST READABLE FAN FICTION


Last updated in HALL OF SHAME on 6/13/2006.

First, a confession. Yes, Ms. Nitpicker, too, makes mistakes, hard though it is to believe. Although raised to read and write English (the American version, at any rate), she secretly harbors a deep-seated conviction that all words ending in "l" or "t" have doubled letters when suffixes are added, as in "traveled," but the computer spell-checker always corrects her misapprehension. For a long time, she was positive that the word to describe her villain's whisper was "silibant," not "sibilant"--it still sounds better--but when a better speller than she pointed out her error, Ms. Nitpicker reluctantly said farewell to the smoother, liquid "silibant." You, too, can give up your punctuation and grammar confusion.

Second, a defense. Before you ask, "Just who do you think you are to tell us how to punctuate things?" I shall tell you: I'm Ms. Nitpicker, that's who. Ms. Nitpicker was an English teacher in her youth (which wasn't as far away as some of you seem to think). She reads far too much, and has written various fan fictions over the decades. Not content to rest on the laurels of her GPA, she also went to the local library--God bless all libraries!--and consulted grammatical guides in the course of preparing this website, because she has a bad memory and because she preferred reading and writing to grammar in her actual academic studies. She suspects you did, too.

Explaining how to write a high-quality piece of fiction, however, is beyond the scope of Ms. Nitpicker's efforts here. This list concentrates on making whatever you have written, however amateurishly, APPEAR readable. No names are named, no story titles are mentioned--Ms. Nitpicker herself does not remember who the guilty parties are, and has mostly plucked these samples from stories she liked well enough to keep. The truly awful stories were usually not even read, let alone quoted. Face it; we ALL have made errors in our writing. Let us have a good laugh, or at least a snicker, and then try to remember the correct rules of grammar.

Is sloppiness in speech caused by ignorance or apathy? I don't know and I don't care.--William Safire


Laugh at a demonstration of bad writing largely stolen from William Safire.
Reflect upon some REASONS TO HATE THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE.
For a less educational but entirely authentic demonstration of bad writing, enjoy MAKE THE PIE HIGHER!, a mock poem composed of George W. Bush quotations.
Smirk at proof that years of expensive higher education did not enable your doctor to write a coherent sentence--GRAMMATICALLY INFIRM MEDICAL ENGLISH.
Note the silliness that ensues when BAD NEWSPAPER HEADLINES and classified ads are published.

IMPORTANT SECTIONS for those who like to pick and choose

GENERALITIES (We're already here, silly.)
DIALOGUE
CHARACTER THOUGHTS
PUNCTUATION (NOT JUST IN DIALOGUE)
VOCABULARY
REDUNDANCY AND REPETITION
MS. NITPICKER'S CONTINUING HALL OF SHAME
CHEAT SHEET INDEX, with character details for fan fic writers

MS. NITPICKER'S FANFIC GLOSSARY

GENERALITIES

  1. Put your name (or alias) on every section of your story, directly under the title. Ms. Nitpicker cannot tell you how many stories she has saved or printed apparently written by "Anonymous." Some fen don't even put their name on their web page, let alone their actual creations! Having made the effort to write this story/poem/filk, you deserve to get the credit (or blame) for it.

  2. Run a spell-checker, but don't stop there. Your computer, though helpful, is not of Star Fleet capability and doesn't know whether you meant "way" or "weigh" or "whey." Perhaps you don't, either. A dictionary is a great help.

  3. Find an excellent proofreader--a picky aunt who harps on correct grammar and punctuation, perhaps. Do not pick a beta reader who never reads books for entertainment, who got bad grades in English, or who does not speak or write English. (Don't laugh. Ms. Nitpicker has seen print fanzines boast of having proofreaders when there were a minimum of eight mistakes per page!) Remember, when the beta reader finds mistakes, that this is HELPFUL, and not a personal attack on you. Be grateful that your mistake was only seen by a handful of people, and not thousands.

  4. Don't apologize. If you, who created the story, feel it's so bad that you have to tell us about the bad spelling and other problems, then sensible people will say, "Thanks for the warning," and avoid reading it. Don't brag that it wasn't beta-read. Don't nervously confess to being a first-timer, or announce that you have never seen the show itself. Astute readers will notice any problems without your help--and many of us will avoid your fanfic if we see those disclaimers, possibly missing a great story. Again, if you don't love it, aren't even proud of it--and you created it--why should we waste time on it? Claiming that it is only a "draft" and posting it that way for years without ever once changing a "draft" tale to a "polished" one fools no one. DON'T PRINT OR POST YOUR STORY UNTIL YOU'RE PROUD OF IT--and be sure an English teacher sort of person has read it first. (If someone does find an error after you've posted, don't hesitate to correct it, of course.)

  5. Don't repeat yourself. Ms. Nitpicker is going to repeat this later on. It's important. The first time Diane Carey referred to Major Kira in one DEEP SPACE NINE book as being like Peter Pan, it was apt and mildly amusing. By the third time, Ms. Nitpicker was screaming. (She repeated a Sisko comparison more than once, too--in the same book. Diane, we got it the first time. We are Not Dumb.) (See REDUNDANCY AND REPETITION AND REDUNDANCY.)

  6. Watch the show. Watch it over and over again. Base your characterizations and dialogue on the show when you're writing "canon," not on other fannish productions or "fanon." For all you know, that other fan writer may have done lousy characterization, and the many fans assigning a middle name to the sidekick may all be copying each other rather than quoting from the show. (Obviously, if that other fan created an alternate universe, and you are adding to that AU, all bets are off, and you should indeed copy his or her characterizations.) Read your story aloud and try to "hear" the TV character saying those words. If they sound wrong, re-write!

  7. Write about the actual character, not your fantasy, unless you label the story "AU" or "alternate universe." Many SENTINEL fans picture Blair Sandburg as a frail, delicate flower, but if you watch the show, you'll note that the character is quite short, but also quite solidly built. He is not fragile or slender. He does not have thin wrists or thin shoulders or thin anything. Similarly, don't have Joe Dawson of HIGHLANDER kneel by anyone--Joe (like the actor who plays him, Jim Byrnes) lost both legs just above the knee and wears prostheses. He CAN'T kneel.

  8. Take time to do it right. Yes, in the heat of the moment some writers have dashed off instant productions that were enjoyable, but most creations benefit greatly from being re-read and re-written several times, and passed by a beta reader or two before being posted.

  9. Do not post a story or part of a story if the story itself has not been finished. Yes, Ms. Nitpicker has heard all the whining about this point.
    You need the pressure/encouragement from readers to drive you to write.
    [If you can't write fanfiction without outside pressure, you aren't a writer. Don't bother to start a story at all. Write for your own pleasure/satisfaction, please. If readers respond favorably, that's an added bonus.]
    Readers' comments may help you come up with ideas.
    [That's what friends are for. That's what beta readers are for. That's what beta mail lists and chat rooms are for. Oh, forget it--if you don't have enough ideas to write a complete story, don't start one.]
    Unlike all those other liars on the Web, you MEANT to finish the story promptly.
    [The road to hell is paved with good intentions, dear.]

    Remember, when you post a story, you are signing a contract with the reader. If real life or writer's block interferes and you never finish the tale, you have broken the contract. You have lied. You, in fact, have no honor. Do you promise children a Christmas, and entice them with tales of presents and Santa, then on Christmas Day announce that real life interfered or Santa ran out of ideas and Christmas is postponed? Even if, come July, the children arise to find presents under the withered tree, the event will be anticlimactic at best. All this is quite aside from the fact that all stories need to be re-read and proofread and edited, and characters and plot often change dramatically as you write, leading you to need to re-write earlier sections to foreshadow what is to come. If it's already posted...you have a problem on your hands. FINISH AT LEAST A FIRST DRAFT of the entire work before you start posting story chapters.

  10. If, despite Ms. Nitpicker's earnest pleas, you ignored her and posted your story in parts as you wrote it, for God's sake, don't post sequels before you bother to finish the story! This is rubbing salt in the wound. If you have the time and energy to write a sequel, there is no excuse whatsoever for not finishing the original story.

  11. Avoid mixed metaphors. In a recent fan fiction, Ms. Nitpicker's alter ego stupidly wrote, "Thunderstorms clouded her charcoal eyes." Huh? You ever see thunderstorms whipping around inside your barbecue grill? It should either have involved lightning flashing in her storm-dark eyes, or sparks igniting in her charcoal eyes. In the same story, she had Giles reaching out without looking, like an acrobat who knows his catcher will be there, followed in the next sentence by Anya circling them like a shark scenting spilled blood. Nuh-uh. Either they're both sharks, or they're both acrobats, or you should only tangle one of them up in a metaphor or simile. (These examples amply demonstrate why you should edit and rewrite several times before posting a story to the Internet.)

  12. Try to make sense in comparisons. One on-line tale announced that a "second shot rang out on its heels." Bullets don't have heels; people and animals do. Another tale made the comparison "like rewiring a pissed-off wild cat." Huh? Do undomesticated felines have wiring in them? Does the wiring wear out, and do Rangers hunt them down and helpfully rewire them? No doubt that would piss off the wildcat, but still.... Ms. Nitpicker applauds your attempt to avoid worn clichés like "white as a sheet," which appears in too many fan stories, but creativity has its limits. Can't you find or create a more understandable or more appropriate simile or metaphor? For instance, these fen wrote some interesting and original lines:
    Yet, most times, for a man with heightened senses, Jim could be as dense where other people were concerned as a forest primeval.
    The bruises from the previous day have faded to nothing, but the bruises behind her eyes are raw.
    The grey clouds that had been weeping all day made sunset invisible, and the fluorescent lights made the dimming of daylight unnoticeable
    When they arrived at the station, Blair immediately went for the coffee like a heat-seeking missile. He hadn't stopped shaking during the whole drive downtown.
    Rain fell so heavily, it looked like black paint running down a canvas.

  13. Try to make sense in general. Do not tell us, as one writer did, that:
    Jim heard Blair mutter some silent curses to himself when he tripped over an exposed root.
    Oh, he did, did he? Did you perhaps mean ALMOST silent curses? Another example of unlikely events:
    Kandros just stood there unmoving, waving his hand towards two of his men who were standing in the main door.
    If he's unmoving, his hand ain't waving, baby. Furthermore, people stand in doorways, not doors, except in the case of superheroes who can fade through the material of the door. This, too, is senseless:
    With a grateful sigh, he heard the blond-haired Alan call a rest stop.
    What does his hair color have to do with his speech? Can we "hear" his blond hair? If not, don't try to squeeze in his hair color, sexual preferences, school grades, and other extraneous data. Have your character glance or look at his friends as they walk and notice Alan's blond hair is sweat-matted, if you want to bring up hair color, as it's something we SEE, not hear.

  14. Do not write stories in which you and your friends get to enter the TV show and interact with the characters. Well, okay, you may write them--all writing is good practice--but you must not inflict them on anyone other than the friends who appear in the story.

  15. Do not write stories about the actors who play the characters you like. There have been some excellent fanfic tales about exactly this--Ms. Nitpicker was fond of a pair of BLAKE'S 7 zines in which first actor Paul Darrow got stuck in the B7 universe, and next Avon was the guest star at the convention Paul Darrow should've attended--but in general it is trespassing on the actor's private life, and very rude, even when well-done. This goes doubly for slash stories about the actor or actress. Furthermore, unless you're a close personal friend of the performer, you cannot accurately portray her/him in your story, whereas the character publicized in the media is familiar and easy to study.

  16. You may write a Mary Sue story--again, all writing is good practice--but if you post it or print it, be prepared to either be flamed or laughed at, even if a few people profess to like the story. What is a Mary Sue story? A story about a character--sometimes male, but usually female--who often has an unusual name, a tragic past, one or more incredible talents (such as telepathy, precognition, fantastic singing voice, amazing artistic talent, superb fencing skills, all of the above, etcetera), is related to or beloved by one or more of the main characters from the TV show/movie/comic book you're writing about, and may die after saving the day for everyone. In other words, your daydream alter ego. After discovering STAR TREK fandom (the original series), Ms. Nitpicker was mortified to realize she had been writing private Mary Sue stories about the younger sister of Mark Slate from THE GIRL FROM UNCLE. Like farting and burping, everyone does it sooner or later, but it is an embarrassment and should be kept as private as possible. (For more on the Mary Sue syndrome, visit TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE: 150 YEARS OF MARY SUE by Pat Pflieger.)

  17. Set the scene. Ms. Nitpicker's writer alter ego has a bad habit of starting each scene with a smart-alec bit of dialogue or character's thought, leaving the reader lost. Where are we? When are we? How did we get there? A header that gives the date and time is not enough. Give us descriptive details that appeal to the senses. What do we smell here? What do we hear? What do we see? Don't say Giles is in a warehouse; tell us that it looks new and clean but stinks of rancid grease, and he fears the boxes stacked neatly around him are stuffed full of McDonald's French fries waiting for delivery.

  18. Read! Write! Read some more! (Be sure some, if not most, of the reading you do is by professional writers with good reputations, because what you read will rub off on you, and if all you read is badly written tripe, you will tend to write badly written tripe. No, you are not required to read the classics, but read something other than novelizations of movies and TV shows.)

  19. Research! With the advent of the Internet, you may not even have to go to the library to do it. If you have absolutely no knowledge of policework, don't write police case stories without researching it first. Visit a library. Get on the Internet. Call on fellow fen for help--some may well be police. Too many fanfics involve the heroes not finding out until 2/3rd of the story is done that their fellow cop was intimately involved in the case in the past--fanfic detectives apparently don't read the case files when they're assigned to a case--or suddenly having the brilliant idea to call the FBI, astounding the boss, when the FBI would have been contacted first thing. Similarly, don't have Al Calavicci of QUANTUM LEAP shot in the heart and, after being dead for ten minutes, suddenly sit up, get off the gurney, and lead an attack on the bad guys, unless you're writing a story about zombies. Again, there are web sites specializing in medical facts useful for fan fiction--see THE CHEAT SHEET INDEX for the location of some of those links.

  20. Be consistent. If your villain is named "Gardner" in the first half of your story, don't call him "Gardener" through the second half. (Ms. Nitpicker's alter ego had a villain-like character named Allison who kept becoming Allyson or Alison or some other variation. If, like that writer, you have a shaky memory, try to pick memorable names that don't have common spelling variations.)

  21. Unless you have a literary reason that would thrill an English teacher, most of the time the passive voice should not be used. For instance:
    Joe complied and the sound of a rifle was heard, followed by several sparks.
    The sound isn't the subject and doesn't get to be heard; Joe is the subject, and gets to hear the sound. This sentence should say something along the lines of, "Joe complied, and heard the sound of a rifle, then saw several sparks." Better yet, since "sound" is so general and bland, make it the snap or bark or boom or crack of a rifle, and make those sparks shine for us.

  22. If you're new to writing, avoid using the present tense to tell your story. Although there are vignettes and stories which use it for a reason and do so successfully, it is very tricky. (On a personal note, Ms. Nitpicker uses it to outline her story before actually writing it, so your story reads to her as an unpolished first draft story idea, not an actual story.) Also tricky, as well as irritating, is writing in the second person--"You walk to the cupboard and are intrigued to find it stuffed with statues of Terry Pratchett." In most cases, it's best to either write a normal story, or put it in real script form if you want to keep saying "Mulder picks up the gun and turns to Skinner." If you do write a present tense story--and certainly you may--try not to slip back and forth between present and past tense unless you have some artistic reason to switch and can justify it to an English teacher.

  23. Use dialogue. If no one speaks in your story, you've probably written a summary, not a story. (See the section on Dialogue for details.

  24. This is very important: pick a p.o.v.--that is, a point of view--and stick to it within one scene.. We see what that character sees, think what he thinks. If everything else in that scene was told from Captain Kirk's P.O.V. and you desperately want to throw in a typically acerbic McCoy thought, either have Kirk reflect, "Right now, I bet Bones is thinking...." or have McCoy actually speak his thought or--in the next scene from McCoy's P.O.V.--have him remember what he thought earlier. When the reader is comfortable "being" Kirk, abruptly shifting to "being" McCoy and then back to Kirk is disruptive. Whomever you use for your P.O.V., stick to him/her/it for the entire scene. It takes extra thought and creativity, but it's the way to go. If Blair of THE SENTINEL is being tortured and we're agonizing through it with Jim, he's observant enough to pick up body cues and sounds that will make it clear to us just how Blair is reacting, and he knows his partner so well he knows what the kid is probably thinking, too; stick with Jim through that scene. If necessary, make the next scene Blair's P.O.V. as he went through the experience. Different scenes can have different P.O.V.'s.

  25. Avoid excessive use of bold or all-capital-letter "shouting" in your writing. Exclamation points (which are used singly, not in packs) and wording should make it clear to us which words were emphasized. Yes, Ms. Nitpicker just used bold formating in the example above; she is not telling you that bold is anathema, merely to cut back on your use of it in order to make it truly dramatic/useful.

  26. Your characters should speak ungrammatically, not in thesis paper language. Remember that in real life we use many contractions and slang, and we seldom deliver lengthy ponderous lectures in fancy terminology. We say, "I'll go, too" instead of "I will go, also" or "I shall journey, as well." HOWEVER, the non-dialogue parts of your story should use full sentences and correct English as much as possible. (See DIALOGUE and CHARACTER THOUGHTS.)

  27. Avoid purple prose. "Opal ocular orbs" is not an improvement on "blue eyes." Although Ms. Nitpicker praises your desire to widen your vocabulary, in writing, less is often more. Pick the exact word that conveys your meaning, not the words that sound smartest. Indeed, many writing guides advocate drawing a line through every other adjective you use. If your story reads like a breathless romance novel, with lots of tousled tresses, pouting, and tear-filled eyes, you have probably strayed into the violet prose zone, if not deep purple. For instance:
    Santiago turned death's ear to Sandburg's impassioned plea.
    Death has unusually shaped ears, does he?

  28. If you feel the need to tell us that the villain is sneering evilly, you've failed in writing. We should know from his behavior and words that he is evil; even the sneering is obvious when he asks our dungeon-bound hero, "Enjoying the accommodations?" Your readers are smart enough to know he's not seriously worried that the hero might not be comfortable. Adding a "twisted, evil smile" is overkill. Besides, most villains don't believe they're evil, they feel justified in and enjoy what they're doing. They're smiling with sincere pleasure. Ms. Nitpicker has a particular fondness for sneering villains, but admires most the writers who show the villainy rather than describe it.

  29. Vary your sentence structure. If every sentence starts with "He," you have a problem. Instead of writing, "He put his coat on and left," try, "Putting on his coat, he left." On the other hand, if every sentence starts with an adverbial phrase, try starting some with a subject. In addition, vary the sentence length. Long sentences are philosophical; when a battle or chase is going on, use short choppy sentences to mimic the rapid action.

  30. Don't use words whose meaning you don't understand. Turn to a dictionary--an online one, if nothing else--or a thesaurus if you have even the slightest doubt. For instance, this was wrong:
    Ellison came pounding after, but his senses must have warned him of the precipitous. [He's at the edge of a steep? His senses didn't warn him of an abrupt? No, you meant a "precipice," dear.]
    See the section on Vocabulary for help with words that aren't quite the right choice.

  31. Too many pronouns can be confusing, as in:
    ...he assured him with a smile and bob of his eyebrows...
    There is no reason to avoid using the character's name now and then.

  32. Don't TELL us what happened--SHOW us, with dialogue and action. Too many stories are summaries along the lines of, "Duncan let Joe know about the new Gathering, and Joe agreed to attend. He went there even before Duncan. They had a long talk about what it might mean." How did Duncan tell him? How did Joe react? Did he have qualms about attending? Did he bring or tell anyone else? Was he armed? What did they say in the long talk? Was it angry, amused, worried, all of the above? Give us a whole scene--in this case, probably two scenes, one of the discussion and one of Joe's arrival--instead of a few sentences summarizing it.

  33. Don't tell us too much. Ms. Nitpicker once read a fanfiction piece that opened with three pages on the history of the building that was going to appear in the story. Ms. Nitpicker skipped the entire thing. So will most readers. If your characters are going to be battling evil in a haunted house, let us find out about the house WITH them, in BRIEF documents found in the house, phone calls or e-mails seeking data, and conversations with neighbors or ghosts. Similarly, don't tell us the past history of the show and all about the characters' relationships; assume that we've seen the show at least once, and tell us only what we need to know to understand this story. Do it in little bits scattered here and there--don't tell us that Jim and McCoy had a fight and sum it up for us in a paragraph, let us pick up on it by their sidelong glances and angry snips of dialogue in the course of the story.
    Willow looked around, but the young woman who was both a computer hacker and a witch couldn't see any sign of their attacker. "Buffy, he's gone!"
    Riley and Xander helped the former librarian, and now magic shop owner, up. Giles groaned a little, as Riley looked around. "He disappeared?"
    Do we need to know that Giles used to be a librarian, in order to understand that he got knocked down? Do we need to know that Willow is a computer hacker and witch, perhaps to explain why she couldn't see any sign of their attacker? This, for instance, is appalling, even aside from the terrible punctuation and incorrect spelling of a main character's name:
    "Ethan Rain my ex-lover! It is strange to find you in Sunnydale expecially in the mall bathroom" Giles was in shock at seeing the mischevious man in the bathroom.

  34. It is very tempting to refer to our favorite sidekick as "the young Immortal" or "the young anthropology student." But after awhile it leads us to suspect that you are perhaps in your nineties. Furthermore, it's insulting, for you're assuming we never watch the TV show or that we can't remember (after the one reference) which one is the young one and which is the cop, or which is the Starfleet doctor and which is the alien. Use it ONCE, if you absolutely positively cannot think of another way to establish who the character is and you are addicted to clichés. (Wouldn't it be better to have Kira watch Julian stride away, and mutter something about him being too damn immature even if he can cure any disease ever heard of, rather than refer to him as "the young doctor"?) If there are so many pronouns like "he" in your paragraph that you think we are getting confused--and we may well be--refer to your characters by name. Tell us "He raised his fist, and Blair ducked" instead of "He raised his fist, and the young anthropology student ducked." Most of the time, you're probably referring to the "young man" immediately after a line of dialogue, as in:
    "Yes," said the bad writer.
    This leads us to an important point about 'said' in the section on DIALOGUE.

I'm thoroughly chastened, and I want to examine the story page to see if I can embarrass Ms. Nitpicker in turn.

Forget grammar, take me to the notes Ms. Nitpicker took on TV shows in her pre-Internet days; I want to see the Cheat Sheet Index for background data for stories.

I want to send praise, more examples of fanfic errors, or anthrax spores (or, as some yokels have been saying, "Amtrak spores") to littlecalamity@yahoo.com . Or just send me to her home page.

I think I need more guidance. Send me to HOLY MOTHER GRAMMATICA'S GUIDE TO GOOD WRITING or to THE BIG LIST OF FANFIC PEEVES. Maybe I should visit BAD FANFIC! NO BISCUIT! or Avoiding Mistakes in Fanfiction Writing: A Beginner's Guide by Valis2 or DR. MERLIN'S GUIDE TO FAN FICTION. I could even visit the open directory project for a list of fan fiction writing guides.

I feel I have learned all I need to learn, and want to take MS. NITPICKER'S FAN FICTION TEST--HOW WELL DO YOU KNOW GRAMMAR?

Laugh at MORE EXAMPLES OF BAD WRITING


Laugh at a demonstration of bad writing largely stolen from William Safire.
Reflect upon some REASONS TO HATE THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE.
Smirk at proof at that years of expensive higher education did not enable your doctor to write a coherent sentence--GRAMMATICALLY INFIRM MEDICAL ENGLISH.
Note the silliness that ensues when BAD NEWSPAPER HEADLINES are written.

Copyright 1999-2013, Jane Leavell. All rights reserved.