A few months ago I was digging through the boxes of my old stuff at my parents’ house looking for goodness knows what and happened upon the flash drive containing all of my high school writing endeavors. I was so excited to plug in the flash drive and start reading. But man, am I happy high school me refused to let anyone read her stories!
It seems I was a huge fan of what I can only assume was supposed to be “witty” dialogue, using Word’s built in thesaurus, and starting every story with the main character waking up. Every. Single. One.
As an editor, I wanted to delete every single story immediately. Or maybe set the flash drive on fire, run it over with a car, and figure out a way to weigh it down and drop it in the middle of the Atlantic. But as I read through and saw all of these mistakes, I was actually happy to be seeing them. It means I’ve grown, right?
So, if you’re just starting out or if you’re looking for ways to polish your writing before sending it off to beta readers, agents, or editors here are eight ways to avoid making rookie mistakes in your writing.
When you’re writing, chose the word people know. Simplifying your vocabulary is a fantastic way to keep readers engaged in the story. Using words that have readers reaching for the dictionary will pull the reader from the world you’re trying to create.
Using the biggest word possible at all opportunities will also give your writing a pretentious vibe. If you’re dying to bust out the seven syllable words, maybe pick one or two and make them a character trait. Maybe you have a know-it-all character who says facetious instead of sarcastic? Even in this case, however, use sparingly.
- Said is so not dead
This goes hand in hand with simplifying your writing. Dialogue tags are really supposed to blend in with your writing. When you have characters whispering, shouting, breathing, or exclaiming everywhere it will draw focus away from what is actually happening. While you don’t have to use “said” for every dialogue tag, it’s the one tag that readers will naturally skim over and so it won’t pull attention from the story itself.
Varying your sentence structure is your best bet for maintaining your writing’s flow. I feel like this aspect of writing is really something that comes with time and experience. The more books you read, the more you internalize what writing is supposed to sound like and the more your writing starts to imitate that sound. If you have a section where you’re just not sure on what’s not right, take a look at the sentence structure and see if you’re stuck in simple sentence land.
- Avoid the cliché
Black as night, pretty as a rose, soft as silk, etc. Avoid these. If you find yourself using these kinds of phrases try to rethink how you can word those sections. If your style is more poetic, think of new ways you can describe everyday things.
On a larger level, avoid plot clichés. Don’t make my mistake and open with your character waking up to her alarm on a typical Tuesday. You want to hook your reader from the first word so drop them in the story right where the action starts.
Another rookie mistake I made in my high school writing was in formatting. Oh my gosh did I love the italics button. I used it to set off character thoughts, to show dream sequences, and emphasize words in dialogue-all in the same story! Sometimes italics are a great formatting tool, but always aim to be able to write well enough that they aren’t actually necessary. Use the text around that emphasized word to get the reader to read the dialogue the way you intend and write the character’s thoughts in a way so they flow with the rest of the story. If you’re going to utilize italics, make sure it’s only for one specific purpose. You can set off a dream sequence, but you shouldn’t use italics for anything outside of dreams after that point.
- Pick a point of view
As an editor, this is one of my biggest pet peeves. While I’m just as much a sucker for the dual point of view love story as the next person, I can’t handle it when there are two points of view in the same scene or chapter. There needs to be a break between narrators so that readers can adjust. Otherwise it ends up being about as confusing as I’d imagine it would be to be able to read minds in a crowded room.
“Adjectives absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac.” – Mark Forsyth The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase
Have you ever learned this rule for modifiers? Please, please avoid needing to reference the entire thing for your story. Modifiers are a wonderful part of our language, but if you can use a strong verb then ditch the adjectives and adverbs. Find all of the –ly words in your story and make sure they aren’t taking over your writing. While you’re at it, make Robin Williams happy and get rid of “very” in its entirety.
Another edit note that I harp on pretty consistently is repetitiveness. This can be as specific as sentences or as broad as major concepts. On a sentence level this can be a really difficult habit to break, but once you see it you’ll notice it easily. An example would be, “He was so angry. He slammed the door” really only needs to be “He slammed the door” By cutting the unnecessary words you can really clean up your writing.
On a larger level, you want to make sure you aren’t repeating facts from the story or ideas. Sometimes it’s tempting to relate everything back to a character’s traumatic past, but that gets to be repetitive. So, for example, if Joan has a horrible relationship with her mother and the reader knows this, you don’t have to explain the relationship again when Joan won’t go to the grocery store her mother frequents or when Joan immediately dislikes the motherly figure in her office.
So if you’re reading through your writing and finding some or all of these mistakes, no worries! No one’s perfect. If you can see the places where you slip up, you can edit them. Once you work through editing them, you’ll find that you naturally avoid them in your next work. It’s all about learning and growing and putting your story down on paper in the best way you can, and then looking back at the early stuff and laughing (sometimes out loud) at some of the silly mistakes you made then but never make now. Happy writing!