Franz III's picture
Franz III from Colorado is reading Perdido Street Station by China Miéville May 26, 2013 - 11:52am

What's your opinion (do you have one?) on the phrase "it was all I/he/she could do to/not to..."?

It's generally used as a way to illustrate either extreme perserverance or extreme restraint. 

Thing is, it illustrates absolutely nothing. It's lazy, vague, and it pisses me off whenever I see it. How has this dull turn of phrase slipped through the cracks?

I don't know. Every time I read it, I grumble at the text and want to ask the writer what the hell it's supposed to mean. It was all I could do not to rip the page out, slap a postage stamp on an envelope, and send the underlined infraction to the author's home address. What is it? And exactly what fits into the broad category of all? Add in could, and you've got a helping verb that's in fact doing next to nothing for the also vague verb do

The phrase is an orgy of bland, lazy words used to try and showcase a rather strong emotional response, be it perserverance or restraint. All it does is say "I had to try real hard". So if it really took all you had not to hit your sneering boss or just lay down to rest on the sixth straight night of trudging through the arctic tundra, don't you think the reader deserves a little insight into what it meant for you to push yourself to do the right or necessary thing?

At the very least, add some detail to replace it, all, and could do, that develops the writing a bit. Franz had to channel each ounce of respect he has for Joe Abercrombie not to send a manic letter about the use of a phrase no one cares about. It's not perfect, nor is Joe Abercrombie the best example, but doesn't it reveal a bit more than saying "He forced himself not to do it"?

Maybe I'm too nitpicky, or maybe the author needn't always expand on what it means to push through your gut reaction, but the use of this phrase irks me deep down in that sacred space that respects a great author for their attention to detail.

What do you think? Does this irritate you too? Am I missing something?

Strange Photon's picture
Strange Photon from Fort Wayne, IN is reading Laurie Anderson lyrics May 26, 2013 - 12:02pm

In short, I'm with you.

The only times I would feel alright with reading it in a story is if it were dialogue from someone who would likely say such an empty phrase.

Renfield's picture
Renfield from Hell is reading 20th Century Ghosts May 26, 2013 - 12:43pm

I think it's an okay phrase, mayhap showing revulsion and restraint playing together a little comically. No big deal, I wouldn't blame the writer who uses it knowing they have 300 or so pages to fill up with stupid words.

You know what one really grinds my gears, though? The "Would that I could/Would that it were." I just need to punch things whenever I read that. GRRM is a horrific offender of this one.

Covewriter's picture
Covewriter from Nashville, Tennessee is reading & Sons May 28, 2013 - 6:41pm

Love hearing writer pet peeves. I agree with you on  this one. One of my pet peeves is the  use of "just," which is always over used. I just called to say, I just wanted to blah..... It's not needed either. What other pet peeves do people have that could help us improve craft? 

Liana's picture
Liana from Romania and Texas is reading Naked Lunch May 28, 2013 - 9:20pm

I just saw "it was all I could do..." in a Marquez book today and I thought of this thread. To be fair, it was a translation.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like May 28, 2013 - 10:44pm

Truth is, you can parse any contextless word or phrase into oblivion, but you usually don't.

Nathan Scalia's picture
Nathan Scalia from Kansas is reading so many things May 29, 2013 - 10:31am

It was all I could do to keep myself from responding to this thread sarcastically.

Chacron's picture
Chacron from England, South Coast is reading Fool's Assassin by Robin Hobb June 1, 2013 - 8:03am

I don't mind the phrase that much if it's used once or twice in a text. What I really hate is when authors constantly repeat phrases like that every time a character has a strong reaction to something. It's one of the phrases I sometimes use without thinking about it, or if I need to keep writing quickly and I can't think of anything better, but I tend to edit it out on later readthroughs - that's when I DO bother to think of a better description of character response. Or I just cut describing altogether.

It's a phrase that's usually used to depict high levels of self control, but I agree with Franz that there are better ways of doing this. Or sometimes better still, ask yourself if your character really could manage to keep themselves from obeying their impulses.

Sometimes when 'It was all I could do not to punch him in the face' becomes something like 'That's when I slammed my knuckles into his teeth' you've got a totally different scene on your hands that shakes things right up. Providing of course that it's true to the narrator/character in question.

Other thought, I wonder if some writers use 'It was all I could do' in an attempt to make a character seem self-aware. Something like 'It was all I could do not to punch him' perhaps gives an indication that this is someone who if driven far enough would punch someone, and that he or she is partly aware that this is how they react because they're stopping themselves from doing it, but I think there are still better ways. When I edit something like that, then if I do keep the self restraint rather than kick the fight off, I usually end up with a reflection like 'I would have loved to have seen him picking up his teeth for what he'd done, but even if I got away without jail time again then I'd still be having to find a new job.' Or something relevant to the person/situation concerned that also shows character.

ScriptWriterDave's picture
ScriptWriterDave December 31, 2017 - 1:22pm

I know this is an old post, but I'm with you Franz III. this phrase absolutely drives me nuts! It's like nails on a chalkboard. "It was all he could do" is one of the laziest writing cop outs I've ever seen yet nobody seems to care because it has always been there.

My problem with it is that it explains nothing. Here's a vague example: Frank was losing his mind. He lost his job, his mother had just died, and now his girl was dumping him?! It was all he could do to stop himself from diving off the bridge to a watery death below."

WHAT?! What was all he could do? Nobody cares so lets move on... No! Stop accepting degraded forms of the english language people. It's silly to accept weak phrases just because it's what's always been done. Speak up! Raise awareness of battered languages. There are sobbing, malnourished words who go to bed cold and unloved every night because words like "ginormous" and phrases like "a whole nother" are allowed to exist. Stop language degradation and correct all those assaulting it.

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal January 1, 2018 - 10:22pm

It's telling, not showing. And it still takes 6 whole words to do. Yeah, I don't like it.