Writers should know how to write. Right?
But that is easier said than done. “Monsters. . . lie in ambush for the writer trying to put together a clean English sentence,” says William Zinsser in On Writing Well. Numerous dangers line the road to becoming an accomplished and published (and much-published) writer. As a writer, editor, and agent, I see the same mistakes over and over and over (such as repetitive wording). Here are some of the most common:
- Overwriting. Never use a dollar word when a dime will do. Your object should not be to impress with the size of your vocabulary, but to communicate.
- Using too many adverbs and adjectives. Let nouns and verbs do the heavy lifting. “In general,” write Strunk and White in The Elements of Style, “it is nouns and verbs, not their assistants, that give to good writing its toughness and color.”
- Using unnecessary words. Eliminate all unnecessary words (as well as sentences and paragraphs, of course). “If you give me an article that runs to eight pages and I tell you to cut it to four,” says Zinsser, “you’ll howl and say it can’t be done. Then you will go home and do it, and it will be infinitely better. After that comes the hard part: cutting it to three.”
- Using cliches, platitudes, qualifiers, jargon, and overdone words. Like “white as snow.” And “God works all things together for good.” Like rather, very, little, pretty. And “washed in the blood of the Lamb.” And if I hear about someone being “impacted” again, I’ll scream like a banshee.
- Using long, run-on sentences. “When a sentence is shorter,” writes Susan Titus Osborn in Write Now, “it usually becomes stronger. Try to keep your sentences under 25 words.”
- Not varying sentence length. Vary the length and the structure of your sentences.
- Not explaining your terms. Readers aren’t stupid, but they’re not mind-readers, either. When you use a term that may be unfamiliar, define it. These days, this applies especially to Bible quotes, references, and allusions; don’t assume that your reader knows anything about the Bible.
- Using passive verbs and construction. “Pain clutched his abdomen” is better than “he was in pain” or “he felt pain.”
- Generalizing. Avoid abstractions; be concrete and specific. For example, did he sit under a tree? Or was it a magnolia? A manzanita?
- Exaggerating. “Don’t overstate,” writes Zinsser. “You didn’t really consider jumping out the window.” And “literally” literally means “literally” (for example, please don’t say “he literally hit the ceiling” unless he literally hit the ceiling).
- Telling. “Show, don’t tell” means letting such things as action, dialogue, and (sparingly) flashbacks—not exposition—convey what you want the reader to know.
- Neglecting transitions. “Your paragraphs must flow into each other,” writes Osborn. Sometimes a single word will do: however, nevertheless, later, therefore.
- Not reading your work aloud. Read it aloud. Seriously, read it aloud. Or, better yet, have someone else read it aloud to you.
- Overwriting dialogue tags. “He said” is better than “he interjected,” “he exclaimed,” or “he whispered.” And it’s always better than “he interlocuted.” Better yet: let action and pacing indicate who is speaking.
- Not inviting or accepting criticism. Henry James self-published his books before allowing a publisher to print them; he passed them out to friends whose opinions he valued and invited their criticism. You may not go to that extreme but you should invite others to edit and critique your work and learn to accept wise feedback.
These may seem obvious to you, but you would probably be surprised (as I often am) at how many writers make these mistakes—and then show them to an agent or editor! Don’t be that person. Exterminate these fifteen mistakes in everything you write, and you’ll be glad you did (and so will your agent or editor).