Over my years of fiction editing, I’ve collected a bunch of things that drive me nuts. Here they are, in no particular order.
1. Superfluous thats. I notice them every time, and have actually gotten to the point where I mentally skip over that word when reading, I hate seeing it there so much. Try the sentence without it; if it sounds good, if it makes sense, take that damn word out.
Other often superfluous words that drive me and other readers crazy: well, so, even, up, just, and believe it or not, back. That last one sometimes gets used over and over in a paragraph. You can make dialog sound natural without taking it from real life. I mean, none of us write the way we talk and that’s a GOOD THING, otherwise, the books we write would make us all insane. An occasional “uh” or “well” is okay, but don’t start every line of dialog with it even if, in real life, that’s exactly what you do. In real life, you’re boring. Let’s try not to mimic that in fiction.
2. Guys who are come (or cum, if you prefer that spelling) machines. They get it up, they come, and instantly, they are hard again, ready for another round. Even at age 18, it takes a couple minutes, and if you’re over thirty? I know there are some machine gun cocks out there, but please allow refractory time for the merely mortal men. Use the waiting time to talk or cuddle or throw darts at a wall, but do give them a bit of time.
3. I began to walk across the room or He was beginning to dance. Stop that! Be firm. Be brave. Say I walked across the room or He danced. Take out those useless extra words and clean up your writing. Say what you want to say. Get to the point, because I’m beginning to hate seeing this kind of writing, and so many inexperienced authors do it.
4. He tried to kiss her. I tried to fill the sink. As Yoda said, “Do or do not. There is no try.” This one is a particular thorn in my side. While there are instances when “trying to” do something applies, mostly it’s just more clutter. Do it already. Kiss her and then fill the sink.
5. Independently moving body parts. He moved his eyes around the room. Oh yeah? Nifty trick, moving eyes that way. Did they like it better on the shelf by the pothos or next to the window? His feet shuffled along the path, going right at the fork in the road. Nuh-uh. Feet don’t have a mind of their own. He shuffled along the path.
6. The hand problem, which a lot of writers seem to suffer from. He moved a hand up and tweaked her nipple. He used his free hand to stroke the inside of her thigh. This one should be obvious. You can’t tweak or stroke without using your hands, so stop writing this way. Just tweak her nipple and stroke her thigh. She’ll thank you for it and so will the reader, who understands you are using hands and not bionic metal parts that are cold and might hurt.
7. Detailing gestures. He shook his head no. Shaking your head implies no; you don’t have to say it (unless you’re in a country where the usual gestures don’t apply, in which case, publish there, not here). He shrugged his shoulders. What else is he gonna shrug? His hips? His knees? He shrugged. Short and sweet.
8. Authors who use ten words when one will do. Complex, convoluted sentences do not impress. They wear the reader out, and if you make them tired enough, they’ll toss your book aside. Always write as simply as possible. Beautiful sentences don’t contain a plethora of adjectives and adverbs.
9. Overuse of exclamation points! Very rarely does someone speak in a way that requires their use! If you want to impart excitement, terror, or other strong emotion to the reader, put it in the writing, not the bang! Someone please stop me now! <whew> That’s better. If you use too many bangs in your story, you will be thought of as an amateur.
10. They all looked in his direction. The group of chanters all passed out as the poison gas hit them. Spot it yet? ALL. For some reason, this one gets thrown in the oddest sentences. It’s another one of those often superfluous words writing can do without. Reading aloud, or having your writing read to you, can be eye-opening. I’m pretty sure you’ll hear these things even if your eye misses them.
11. He stood up. She sat down. Minor quibble here, but worth pointing out. If you sit, down is implied. If you stand, up is implied. Think about it.
12. Repetition. Ooh, this is a bad one with some writers. In their head, they are writing beautiful sentences but in reality, their mind got into a rut when they weren’t looking and started repeating the same word or phrase, over and over and OVER again until the reader upchucks in disgust. I’m really good at spotting these; I’ll nail you for them every time. If you want to get ahead of the game, download the free program SmartEdit, which will do the looking for you. It doesn’t fix them, it only points out the sheer number of times you wrote He rolled his eyes or She lifted an eyebrow.
If you actually think about what you write, you’ll be amazed how quickly you improve. Becoming aware is the first step toward developing your own style. Writing well is a huge accomplishment in this world full of mediocre writers. But remember, all writers, even the best, need someone with a critical eye to tweak their manuscript. I’m talking about a discerning beta or a good editor. I happen to be both. Keep that in mind if you think you’re ready to self-publish or submit that novel to a publisher. I even have testimonials, which one day I will post. 🙂