Dun Writin’—Now Whut? – 56 ‘Shoulda Woulda Coulda’ (A series by Susan Uttendorfsky – Owner of Adirondack Editing)

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Shoulda Woulda Coulda

These three words are sometimes used together as a phrase, implying regret: A writer should have hired an editor, would have used some beta readers, or could have spent more time on self-editing in order to dodge the poor reviews he’s received.

While that shoulda-woulda-coulda phrase might be accurate for an Ape blog post on how to improve your sales or reviews, that’s not what we’re focusing on today. We’re going to look at the actual words.

First, let’s clarify the correct usage. Slang in speech has reduced this to “should of,” “would of,” and “could of” in writing. That’s completely incorrect, even in dialogue, although an editor might leave “shoulda” alone in slangy dialogue. What you’re hearing is the contraction for “should have,” aka “should’ve.” The same with “could have/could’ve” and “would have/would’ve.”

But we’re not even looking at dialogue today. We’re looking at should, would, and could when they’re used in narrative, or descriptive, writing.

Should” is mostly a problem in non-fiction books, especially self-help books. Would you want to read a dieting book full of “you should do this” and “you should do that”? Using “should” in such a pointed way can come off as judgmental and demeaning. Few people like to be told what to do—even when they’ve purchased a book to do just that! You might want to couch advice in a different way (see what I just did there?) so the reader can own the decision to take the action you’ve advised. Some alternatives are:

  • Might consider…

  • Consider trying…

  • What do you think of…

  • Perhaps a trial of…

  • Some people have…

Using “should” is not inherently wrong, but consider keeping it to a minimum. Perhaps use it just for your most important statements.

Would” and “could” are more generally a problem in fiction.

Would” has many uses. This page has a chart which explains them all. The problem in fiction comes with its use in repetitive activities in the past: “Mother would always read me a story at night.” You can tell if you’re using the repetitive form of “would” if you can replace it with “used to.”

When authors start describing a past event in text that is already written in past tense, somehow you have to indicate that it’s not “present past” (i.e., right now, but written in past tense), but in “past past*.” (This page has some basic graphics that show the different levels of “past.”) I have no idea how else to explain it, so let’s try an example:

  • My wife reminded me of my mother. My mother was a kind, pleasant lady who would bake cakes for returning soldiers. She would purchase the flour at the local store, after the grocer would weigh out the proper amount, and then she would spend the afternoon sifting, mixing, and baking. The soldiers would always appreciate Mother’s goodies. And then she would always read me a story at night. Beth liked to read at night, too.

The first sentence is written in past tense (“reminded”) that is normal for many books. Even though it’s past, it’s not the…umm…recent past. Do you see how the author became trapped in the overuse of “would”? (This sometimes happens with “had,” too.) Once you’ve indicated that the time you’re speaking of is previous to the current past, you can simply use the past tense of the active verbs and cut out all those extra “would”s. (Same thing with “had.”)

  • My wife reminded me of my mother. My mother was a kind, pleasant lady who would bake cakes for returning soldiers. She purchased the flour at the local store, after the grocer weighed out the proper amount, and then she spent the afternoon sifting, mixing, and baking. The soldiers always appreciated Mother’s goodies. And then she always read me a story at night. Beth liked to read at night, too.

Now we come to “could.” Like “would,” it also has several uses and this page explains them well. The usage a writer needs to be aware of is the conditional usage. Many times I see “could” in a sentence where it just isn’t necessary (or, if it is necessary, it hasn’t been explained well). For instance: “Off in the distance, Roger could see the mountain’s white-capped top.”

Why was it written as conditional? If he can see clearly enough to see the white top, then he’s obviously not having any problem seeing it. Is the view obscured by a ring of tall aliens? Is Roger straining to peek through the tiny bits of space between tree leaves? Has he just stepped out of a raging torrent and has water dripping in his eyes? Is the fog so dense that a normal human being wouldn’t be able to see it and Roger’s using his x-ray vision?

If none of these, or similar, reasons are present, then there’s absolutely no reason to insert “could” in there. “Off in the distance, Roger saw the mountain’s white-capped top.”

However, if your scene does present a very good reason why the action is conditional (“Raymond could crawl through the mud to safety from the man-eating dinosaur even though the protruding bone in his compound-fractured leg made every movement agony”), then I’ll leave it alone.

*PS: If anyone can come up with a reasonable explanation of “present past” and “past past” (or simply better terminology), please feel free to leave it in the comments! 🙂

We’re Dun for today, so keep on Writin’!

Susan

Susan Uttendorfsky

Owner, Adirondack Editing

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38 thoughts on “Dun Writin’—Now Whut? – 56 ‘Shoulda Woulda Coulda’ (A series by Susan Uttendorfsky – Owner of Adirondack Editing)

  1. Really useful distinctions, especially the example of overuse of “would.” The doubling of “would have” in constructions like “If I would have known that, i would have done this” drives me nuts!
    I always think of “could” as the past tense of “can”: Roger can see the mountain today; Roger could also see the mountain yesterday. However, in a creative writing textbook I used to use (Janet Burroway); I learned that most of the time we don’t need to hear that Roger can or could see it. If it’s there, he sees it. She calls the tendency to preface every description with the character’s awareness of it “filtering.” So “Off in the distance, Roger could see the mountain’s white-capped top” would become something like “Off in the distance, the mountain’s white-capped top rose into the sky.” I found that following this rule forced me to look for verbs that positioned elements more actively. Not “She heard a car horn,” but rather, “A car horn blared” (or whatever it did).
    Thanks for a good read!

    Liked by 2 people

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