The Toolbox -- Free For All

Peter Graham

Well-Known Member
Apr 10, 2007

This thread is open to all members to contribute. However, as a result of a lot of questions raised and comments made, it's more than a little long-winded, and the more important and informative posts are perhaps a little buried.

A second thread has now been opened gathering together those posts, so they're more easily seen and digested. It can be found at The Toolbox -- The Important Bits
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I am hoping we can use this thread as a means of offering advice as to some of the common stylistic, grammatical and syntactical traps and pitfalls awaiting the new writer. If story and plot are the bricks and mortar of writing, then technique, imagery, word power and confidence with the language are surely the trowels, wheelbarrows, plumb lines, ties and PTFE tape needed for the job.

As many have pointed out, there are no "rules" as such. But there are guidelines and there are topics for discussion. I really hope that we can get a good number of contributions here and perhaps build up a "bank" of hints and tips for those who post in Critiques.

Right, I'll start with:-


Info dumping is the introduction of large amounts of apparently irrelevant background and explanatory information which does not take the immediate action forwards (and may even disrupt it entirely) and which is all too often presented in a bland fashion like a shopping list.

An example:-

"Peter opened the gate. The gate was wooden. He had come home as soon as he was called. Mrs Graham had said it was urgent and Peter was worried. Peter was very tall, standing seven foot three inches in height. He was very friendly and a bit scatty and his clothes were strange. He wore an old-fashioned Edwardian frock coat which he had bought from a vintage clothes shop in Leeds. It was plum velvet in colour and edged in lace. It had two pockets. He had a pipe, some dog biscuits, three elastic bands and a little tin of Gawith's Kendal snuff in one of the pockets. He wore flared trousers and silver stack heeled boots which were rubber soled with leather uppers. He was wearing a top hat and blue sunglasses. He was from Cumbria, which was a mountainous and rural region in the North west of England, where Wordsworth was from.

Mrs Graham ran towards him to tell him that the Scots had invaded again and that he was needed at the muster. The muster took place every time the beacons were lit. The Scots raided regularly, taking catttle, sheep and prisoners back across the border. The muster was made up of local men, led by the local village elders. Peter was an elder because he was old.

"Thank God you're here," she shouted. "The Scots have invaded again - you're needed at the muster!"

An OTT example, but the physical description of Peter is long, dry, boring to read and disrupts the immediacy of the action.

A better way to impart this sort of information is to work with a light touch - drop hints, make passing comments or weave things into dialogue or description. It may take longer to bring out all of the facts, but it will be more interesting to read. Remember that writing a book is a marathon rather than a race, so there is plenty of time to say everything that needs to be said. Keep it lean - if you are saying something that is not necessary or relevant to the scene you are describing, think whether you need to say it there or even at all.

Also avoid the trap of writing info dump masquerading as dialogue. This happens when two characters who supposedly know each other well start talking like this:-

"Hi, Dave" said Peter. "Fancy coming to the pub tonight?"

"Do you mean the only pub in the village, which we go to every Friday?" replied Dave.

"That's right! The Lamb and Flag on Chapel Street, where they sell Real Ale and have a Quiz night on Thursdays."

"I'd love to go," said Dave. "Do you think we'll see Sally, who is the landlady?"

"I should think so. She has worked there every night for the last seven years and only rarely takes a holiday."


...also known as the "As you already know, Dave" syndrome.

For reasonably blatant published usages of info-dumping, check out David Weber's Harrington books which, while being straight-forward enough reads, do require heavy and regular 'dumping to set the scene and explain the mechanics of FTL interstellar travel. They also feature regular instances of head-hopping, which I'm pretty sure will get covered here quite soon...
I'm by no means an expert on this aspect, but this is closely related to the INFO-DUMP problem; so, in the best Blue Peter tradition, this is something I prepared earlier** relating to:


Truscott was a foul-mouthed sexist buffoon and Claire felt nothing but contempt for him.

This is all telling. If there is a tell-show scale, this is right at one end.

'I feel nothing but contempt for that man, Truscott,' Claire confessed. 'He is a foul-mouthed, sexist buffoon.'
This is still telling, even though it is being said by Claire, because we are being told (a) what she thinks and (b) what we should be thinking about him. On the tell-show scale, it is a little along from the first option, because it is being given through Claire's voice and if nothing else it shows something about her (ie that she is the kind of woman who forms judgements of this kind and uses this sort of language).

'I tell you what, lass. That girl over there is a right cracker.' Truscott pointed out one of the visiting dignitaries. 'Reckon I could get into her knickers? Or d'you think she's one of those f***ing lezzies?'
Claire stared at him for a moment before turning away without replying.

This is all showing. We are not told what to think about either of them, nor what Claire is thinking about Truscott. We are being shown what is happening and we have to draw our own conclusions from it. On the tell-show scale, this is right at the opposite end from the first option.

Of course there is a problem with the third option. There is a risk that your readers might not realise what Claire is thinking when she turns away. (Even worse, some might not understand that Truscott is a foul-mouthed buffoon - they might see him as a straight-talking figure who has a good head on his shoulders. :eek: ) One way to avoid that is to use a few judicious adjectives/adverbs/comments - Claire could stare at him in disbelief or disgust or contempt; or she could turn away with a look of scorn in her eyes; or she could make a mental note to lodge an official complaint about him. But as soon as you start doing this, you are sliding back along the tell-show scale - how far you slide depends on how much detail of that kind you put in.

The other point is that option 1 is over and done with in 15 words; option 3 is a para of nearly 50.

Sometimes, telling is necessary, or at least, is the best available option - if the information needs to be given, then giving it quickly and smoothly before getting into the action can be preferable. Like everything in writing, it's a question of degree.


** on another thread. I don't have banks of these things just waiting to be wheeled out.
As you know Bob...

Could you remind him I still owe that long drink at the Null-g bar by the North air-lock ?


Sometimes you gotta be *sneaky*.

Problems start when half your potential readers lack arcane tech referents. Or, worse, learned their 'science' from ST/SW/B5...

I do read fan-fic but, too often, I haven't a clue *why* characters do stuff. Sure, it's all in canon, back-stories layered unto deep-time with optional ret-cons. Often I know more about Ancient Egypt...
And thanks to Chopper, we can now move seamlessly into


The use of multiple character points of view in the same chapter or even paragraph. Although there is nothing wrong with multiple p.o.v, it should be clear when one character p.o.v ends and another begins. New chapters, or clear breaks within chapters (the much maligned line of asterisks) help sign the shift from one character to another.

By way of an example:-

Dave downed his eighth pint and sighed. He was having a great evening, but Peter was already showing signs of advanced inebriation. Dave knew that another couple of pints of Old Frottage would see Peter either under the table or on a stomach pump. But Dave didn't care. It was Peter's round and he would have to get his hand in his pocket. But Dave knew he had to be careful and subtle. The wrong move now and Peter would just stagger off home.

"Oi, Graham, you big numpty. Get the air out of this glass and stop drooling!"

Peter stared back at Dave quizzically. He had just been thinking about whether he had forgotten Mrs Graham's mother's birthday again. He had no idea what to buy her this year. Perhaps a negligee. But he couldn't think so well at the moment. His brain felt like it was being redecorated by Motorhead's road crew. He stood up, grinned at Sally, felt suddenly very sick and fell over in a heap on the floor.

"Men!" said Sally, shaking her head. She didn't like drunks in her pub, but she was less bothered about this pair of middle aged morris dancers. At least they didn't fight. The worst you could expect was that they would load the jukebox up to play "The Skye Boat Song" endlessly.

In this extract, we see the action from the internalised perspective of three entirely different characters. It would be better fixed on one, main character with the events described (Peter's fall and Sally's views) being reported from the perspective of the main character only.

Some authors use head hop to great effect, but it is one of those things which you need to properly understand to make work. The problem with using it too frequently or badly is that you do not allow the reader to identify with your main characters or to relax into the scene. P.o.v shifts can too easily jar on the reader.


Moved to Aspiring Writers, and stickied...
A related Info-Dump problem is one of abbreviations.

As we all know things in common usage have abbreviated names. TV is a good example.

This will also be true in the future and an author has to take this into account when writing SF. It just doesn't feel right if a character in a story continually refers to the 'matter transmitter' instead of the MT just as a modern day character would seem odd if they continually referred to the 'television' instead of TV. This is especially true in dialogue.

In the past I have tried using the full name the first time followed by the abbreviation on subsequent occasions:

"The Lunar Positioning System says we are way off course."

"The LPS can't be trusted. I vote we carry on."

I have also tried making characters explain the abbreviation:

"The LPS says we are way off course."


"Lunar Positioning System."

Both these methods, however, seem false. The very nature of it being an abbreviation implies it's in common usage and therefore already known to the characters in the story.

More recently I have started to use labels and titles.

Fredericks scrolled through a few screens on the monitor until "Lunar Positioning System" displayed.

"The LPS says we are way off course."

"I've never trusted those things. I vote we carry on."

Not perfect but I'm working on it. :)
Thanks, Pyan.


Can be used in many exciting ways, but most commonly is used to denote the possessive (something belonging to somebody) or a missing letter (or letters).

1. Possessive use is fairly straighforwards. In the singular, it goes like this:-

Peter's car

Pyan's tentacles

Judge's ermine-trimmed robes of judicial office

When there is more than one possessor, the apostrophe comes after the 's':-

The Smiths' children - the Smiths here being used in the plural - in other words, the whole family or at least both parents.

This allows you to differentiate between singular and plural when you read:-

The cow's hooves - one cow.

The cows' hooves - more than one cow.

The first big caveat is when the singular already ends in 's'. In that case, the apostrophe also comes after the 's':-

Tom Burness' cat

The second big caveat is that you don't use an apostrophe when using "its" in the possessive sense:-

Its teeth

2. When denoting a missing letter, an apostrophe goes wherever the missing letter is:-

You're (a contraction of 'you are')

They've (they have)

She'd (she had or she would)

Peter'll (Peter will or Peter shall)

Fo'c'sle (forecastle - although strictly this should be either fo'c's'le or fo'c'stle)

It's (it is - see why you don't use it for the possessive now?)

The big pitfall in apostrophe use is what is known as the grocer's apostrophe (or grocers' apostrophe if there is more than one grocer!), which is when someone uses an apostrophe to denote the plural:-


Ten year's ago

As the years and the tomatoes don't possess anything and as there are no missing letters, there is no apostrophe.

Regards (and, of course, never Regard's!),


This helpful piece of punctuation has two main functions.

The first is to show a contraction in a word or words. So "I cannot" becomes "I can't" - the apostrophe taking the place of the missing "no"; and "he is" becomes "he's". Similarly, it is used when dropping the "g" or other letter(s) off a word to express a slangy way of speaking, so "he's goin' over there".

The more problematic use is when the apostrophe marks a possessive. Instead of "the pen of my aunt", most people would say - and write - "my aunt's pen". Without the apostrophe, the phrase becomes meaningless - "my aunts pen" indicates I have two or more aunts and even suggests that they might be called "Pen" but the capital letter has been omitted.

Where there are two or more aunts, then the apostrophe, instead of coming before the "s", follows it, so "my aunts' house". Where the plural isn't formed by an "s" though, eg "children", then again there is an "s" following, ie "the children's toys".

Whenever there is an "s" at the end of a word, there is a split as to usage as to whether to put another "s" after the apostrophe ie "James' toys" or "James's toys". Perhaps the answer is to say the word out loud and use the "s" accordingly; so "St. James's Park" because one pronounces it "Jameses"; but "Mrs Bridges' actions" because one doesn't say "Bridgeses".

The real problem with the apostrophe is when it is used with "it". Logically "it's" should either be a contraction of "it is" or a possessive "it's dinner". But at some point the rule became established that the apostrophe is only used to form the contraction with "it". So if the possessive is needed it must be "its" - apostrophe-less.

A recap:

"my aunt's pen" - correct if there is one aunt
"my aunts pen" - not correct
"my aunts' house" - correct if there are two or more aunts
"the children's toys" - correct
"Mrs Bridges's house" - technically correct but inelegant
"Sid James's house" - correct

"it's still raining" - correct as this is a contraction of "it is"
"the car has failed it's MOT" - not correct
"the car has passed its MOT" - correct


EDIT: Arrgghh - you weren't there when I started Peter... Double apostrophes - now there's no excuse for anyone getting it wrong!

SECOND EDIT: realised got something wrong! (Blushing smiley here if I could conjure one into an edit)
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At the risk of disrupting the thread - and worse: revealing my ignorance of grammar to the world - I would like to say that I have reservations regarding what has been said about the use of apostrophes at the end of singular words ending in s. IMHO, sometimes there should be an s after the apostrophe.

As it happens, I agree that with PG's example: Tom Burness' cat is the "correct" form, but that's because you ought not add a third s when indicating the possesive. Neither should one add an s with (certain? Classical?) foreign names, such as Xerxes.

So I would suggest that the following are "correct":
Tom Jones's cat;
Tom Burgess' cat;
Xerxes' cat.
* Goes to look for his coat.... *
An interesting point!

Subject to the views of our true grammatical gods (Judge and Chris), I'd say that your example of "Jones's" is actually an example of both types of apostrophe use (possessive and missing letter) in one word.

We were always taught that the possessive apostrophe did, once upon a time, indicate a missing letter. "Peter's coat" is actually "Peter, his coat". The only (relatively recent) survivor of this form of expression appears to be "Peter Graham, his mark" which used to appear on some legal documents.

So, Jones's cat means "Jones, his cat." I would agree that is perfectly correct. But if you miss that second 's', you still need an apostrophe to denote the missing letters, so "Jones' cat" also works, denoting as it does the missing letters and the possessive. The only difference is that there is an extra missing letter!

Phew! What's it going to be like when we get on to Oxford commas and split infinitives?


Interesting. That would make it:

Peter's coat -- Peter, his coat
Jane'r coat -- Jane, her coat

Wouldn't it?
you ought not add a third s when indicating the possesive.

At the risk of seeming belligerent, who says? This feels like one of those "rules" invented by some eighteenth century grammarian for no better reason than the sight of the triple-s offends his personal aesthetic.

The form suggested by the Judge (write it if you pronounce it, so Burgess's because you say "Burgesses") makes more sense to me.
Interesting. That would make it:

Peter's coat -- Peter, his coat
Jane'r coat -- Jane, her coat

Wouldn't it?

Strictly speaking, it would. If what I was taught was right, I suspect that the usage goes back to a more chauvinistic age.


At the risk of seeming belligerent, who says? This feels like one of those "rules" invented by some eighteenth century grammarian for no better reason than the sight of the triple-s offends his personal aesthetic.

The form suggested by the Judge (write it if you pronounce it, so Burgess's because you say "Burgesses") makes more sense to me.

I can live with that - the solution, not the belligerency (not in particular, that is :)).

* Makes note to avoid giving characters names ending in a double-s. *

And I may have read the bit about avoiding the triple-s from my copy** of the King's English (which seems to have disappeared for the moment :(). In fact, on thinking about it, I may have confused the double-s on the end of a singular word with the s at the beginning of the following word - which might lead to the symphony of sibilance that is "Burgess's system sucked".

** - Not that I expect anyone else's copy to be any different.
In fact, on thinking about it, I may have confused the double-s on the end of a singular word with the s at the beginning of the following word - which might lead to the symphony of sibilance that is "Burgess's system sucked".

So that's Ursa also showing the perils of ALLITERATION for us!

Before I realised that this thread had already kicked off, I had suggested in the mod forum that it'd be a good idea to start with an index post that could be updated by a mod regularly to include direct links to each topic. It occurs to me that such an idea might still work - if I start a seperate thread, lock it from replies, and then add links to individual post when and where they come up. The majority would point to this thread, but I can always point to other threads and other posts. If people PM me when they make a post, or find a relevant post, I can create a link. Thoughts?

A homophone is a word which is pronounced in the same way as another word but which is (usually) spelled differently and, of course, has a different meaning. So main/mane; here/hear; great/grate; baron/barren.

These kinds of mistakes are almost inevitable, certainly in the white heat of a first draft when there is a rush to get something down on paper/screen and there is a blip between brain and fingers. Usually a proper check through at second draft/editing will catch the problems - though, of course, that's dependent on knowing the difference between the words, so there is no substitute for having a good dictionary and a better vocabulary. :D

There are some words though which seem to cause more problems that others - possessives** and their homophones.

Possessives = words indicating possession so: my, his, her, our ie my = something possessed by/belonging to/associated with me. No problems with these usually. But their, your, its and whose all seem problematic and become confused with the contractions they're, you're, it's and who's - where the apostrophe is taking the place of a missing letter (see APOSTROPHE above).

Their = something belonging to them ie 'their football boots'
They're = a contraction of 'they are' ie 'they're on the losing team again'

Your = something belonging to you ie 'your common sense'
You're = a contraction of 'You are' ie 'you're so clever'

Its = something belonging to it ie 'its bleak wind-swept outlook'
It's = a contraction of 'It is' ie 'it's raining again'

Whose = something belonging to either an unnamed/unknown individual ie 'whose clothes are those?' or someone referred to previously ie 'she is a woman whose dress sense is impeccable'
Who's = a contraction of 'Who is' ie 'who's that at the door?'

If there is confusion as to whether to use, say, your or you're, think about what you are saying - if need be re-word it. If it is 'here is [your/you're] coat', re-phrased it is 'here is the coat belonging to you' - ie possessive, so it must be 'your'. If it is 'why can't you hurry? [Your/you're] always last', re-phrased/expanded it would be 'You are always last' - ie a contraction of 'You are' is needed, becoming 'You're'.


** I've always thought of them as possessive pronouns, but having checked I see they are possessive 'determiners', a determiner being 'a modifying word that determines the kind of reference a noun or noun group has' ... so that's made everything clear then... :rolleyes:
Not sure my opinion is worth much Culhwch, but here are my thoughts.

If I'm understanding it correctly, what you suggest would be more of a directory or index than a resource in its own right. So it could be a helpful adjunct to this thread, yes. Firstly it would direct attention to other threads where something important/interesting has been written. Secondly, in the event of this thread becoming too large and unwieldy, then it might be easier to check your main thread to see if/where a topic has been covered rather than scroll through numerous posts on other subjects.

Having said that (I'm a lawyer, I can argue both ways!)... if there are other threads with interesting posts, I dare say Peter will try to persuade someone to copy any such posts to here, or - even more usefully - to summarise the consensus of a number of posts if there has been discussion. And at the moment, there seems to be no sign of this thread getting out of hand so as to require an index.

So, the answer is a resounding perhaps! :eek:

I think, on balance, leave it a while and see how this progresses and/or if any other threads are found. Unless you moderators are so fed up of sitting on your hands and being idle you want to make work for yourselves... :D


EDIT: this is my 300th post!!!
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