By Rachel Beck
Editors, agents and authors publish a lot of instructional pieces about the craft of writing, and the mechanics of creating a strong novel. These tips tend to focus on plot, character, conflict, story arc, narrative voice, tone, etc. After all, you cannot have a successful book without these pieces in place, and not only must they be present, but they must also work in tandem to build on the goals and motives of the characters and story as a whole. If these pieces aren’t working in unison, your story may be rejected by publishing professionals, though hopefully with some helpful advice for improvement.
So what if your story’s premise is cohesive, fresh and compelling but you’re still unable to sign with an agent or get a deal with a publisher?
If this is where you feel you fall, I would advise going back to the basics. Think of everything above as the frame of your house—narrative voice, tone, story arc and more. You need all of these for a strong house.
But on a more rudimentary, technical level, you can’t begin to construct the frame without the building blocks. Think of the simpler writing elements as your bricks, or your foundation. And if you’ve been told repeatedly you have a strong story idea and an interesting plot with realistic, sympathetic characters, perhaps it’s time to analyze the foundation of your story, and maybe even start from scratch when it comes to laying your groundwork.
What do I mean by “groundwork,” “foundation” and “building blocks”? I’m talking about sentence structure, grammar and word choice. Those things! To examine this, you must break down your writing and analyze it sentence by sentence.
Here are some of the biggest faux pas I see when it comes to writing style, and some likely reasons I’ll pass on a manuscript regardless of how much the plot may go on to suck me in, because it’s so easy to get stuck on these amateur-feeling errors:
- Repetitive sentence structure: Think about how dull repetition can be, in life generally. The last thing you want to do is bore readers with the same thing over and over, and one of the easiest and most common offenses of this is to have a “default” sentence structure that you mimic in your writing. Usually it’s NOUN VERB OBJECT, sometimes with an adjective or adverb thrown in for color. I’m not saying to go crazy with your word arrangements, to the point where it doesn’t make sense and the sentence loses meaning, but do a careful analysis of a few paragraphs of your writing to see if you fall into this trap. Then read it out loud—and if the sentence structures are all virtually the same, you’ll probably realize you’re quickly bored.
- Grammar mistakes: It would be pretty cruel of an agent or editor to close a submission after finding one grammar editor, but proper grammar does matter. While these things can be fixed at a later stage and don’t affect the strength of the story, it’s telling when I see a number of grammar errors early on while reading a submission. As with everything in life, first impressions matter, and they put up an automatic bias against the writer. It becomes an ingrained assumption that if the writer hasn’t bothered to get mechanics such as grammar rules down pat, then their story, characters and conflict are probably not super strong either. These things are easily fixable, with the internet and Grammar/Spell Check, so please, please, know the difference between your/you’re and their/there/they’re, and get these details right when submitting your work to a professional.
- Wrong word usage: There are many commonly confused words in the English language, and it’s easy for your mind to call up one word when you mean another. Usually this will happen on autopilot such that you never catch it, and simply move on with your story. (You don’t want to be slowed down with laying the bricks; you’re thinking ahead to what the frame needs to look like.) I challenge you to take care with every word, double check and proofread, and if you’re even remotely unsure you have it right, look it up. Your story will be stronger for it!
- Overuse of adverbs and adjectives: It’s tempting to liven up your writing with some impressive adverbs and adjectives. But too often, this pure intention can read as fluff, excessiveness, and just a distraction from the story. Some writing coaches say to not use any adverbs or adjectives, and the same goes for italics, exclamation points, etc. – that your writing itself needs to make these points rather than relying on these devices as crutches. I think a well-placed italics or adjective can go a long way, but be sure to use them sparingly, and question whether they really need to be there, i.e., what are they adding to the sentence? Try it both ways: Is the sentence stronger or weaker with them?
I am encouraging you to analyze your writing to a degree that you may never have done before. They say the devil’s in the details, and when it comes to writing, it really is! Character, conflict, plot and voice are all crucial, but these things are the frame of the house, and they cannot be achieved without first the bricks and mortar, the blueprints and building blocks that get us there. Don’t overlook the importance of grammar, word choice and a strong, varied sentence structure in your writing. You will have better responses from agents and editors you submit to if you pay attention to these technical elements just as much as you do to the larger story elements—I guarantee it!
Rachel is an agent with Holloway Literary. Follow her on Twitter @Rachel_C_Beck.