Tag s | Writing Craft

Fix Your Worst Writing Pitfalls

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.”
  3. 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.”
  4. 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.
  5. 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.”
  6. Not varying sentence length. Vary the length and the structure of your sentences.
  7. 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.
  8. Using passive verbs and construction. “Pain clutched his abdomen” is better than “he was in pain” or “he felt pain.”
  9. Generalizing. Avoid abstractions; be concrete and specific. For example, did he sit under a tree? Or was it a magnolia? A manzanita?
  10. 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).
  11. 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.
  12. Neglecting transitions. “Your paragraphs must flow into each other,” writes Osborn. Sometimes a single word will do: however, nevertheless, later, therefore.
  13. Not reading your work aloud. Read it aloud. Seriously, read it aloud. Or, better yet, have someone else read it aloud to you.
  14. 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.
  15. 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).

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The Curse of the Writer

Speaking from an agent’s perspective…
I have more conversations with clients about their feelings of anxiety, apprehension or insecurity than almost any other topic. Almost every writer I have ever worked with as an editor or an agent severely doubts themselves at some point in the process.

Doubts occur in the midst of creation.
Doubts occur when the disappointing royalty statement arrives.
Doubts occur … just because…

It is the curse of the writer. Writing is an introspective process done in a cave…alone. It is natural to have the demons of insecurity whisper their lies. And, in a cave, the whispers echo and build into a cacophony of irrepressible noise.

Once I had an author with dozens of titles in print and over three million books sold turn to me and say with a somber voice, “Do I have anything left to say? Does anyone care?” I didn’t quite know how to reply so tentatively said, “Well, I like it!” The author responded with a grump, “But you are paid to like it.” After we laughed, we agreed that this lack of confidence would pass and ultimately was very normal.

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Unnecessary Words

From my earliest days writing and communicating, I’ve needed to fit whatever I wrote or spoke into space and time required by the medium in which I was using at the moment. In electronic media, a clock runs everything. If you have 90 seconds to fill before the radio newscast, …

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Our Rapidly Changing Culture

Every year Beloit College creates a “Mindset List” which reflects the culture that the incoming Freshman class have grown up experiencing. It helps their faculty know how to relate to these incoming students. Click here for this year’s Mindset List.

I download this list every year and read it with increasing wonder at the speed of our cultural changes.

The college graduating class of 2014 was born in 1992. Think about that for a second. If you are a writer, you can no longer assume that your audience will understand your cultural references. In a mere six years, today’s 18-year-olds will be adults…possibly with families and jobs and children…they will be reading your books and articles.

And you will only be six years older than you are now.

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Don’t Write What You Know

I asked some of my writing and publishing friends to tell me what one “writing rule” they’d like to see go away…forever. Many of them gave the same answer. Emphatically. Author, blogger, and writers’ conference director Edie Melson said, “We need to quit killing creativity with the time-worn advice, ‘Write …

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Author Nuances

Writer and humorist Dave Barry wrote, “The one thing that unites all human beings, regardless of age, gender, religion or ethnic background, is that we all believe we are above-average drivers.” The same applies to artists and writers. Most feel they are pretty good at their craft. But success as …

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Every Book is a How-To

C.S. Lewis famously said, “We read to know we’re not alone.” I think that is true. But I have long subscribed to a similar statement that I see as sort of a corollary to “Lewis’s Law.” It is this: No one reads about other people. We read only about ourselves. …

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