Writers Writing Badly

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. 🙂

*No longer available for free. 😦

Click to read Part 2.

About Fenraven

Fenraven happily lives in south Florida, where it is really hot most of the year. Find him on Twitter and Facebook by searching on 'fenraven'.
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35 Responses to Writers Writing Badly

  1. Elin Gregory says:

    http://editminion.com is another brilliant tool for spotting the things we write that make us sob in the corner when we see them in print and realise we should have edited them out. I don’t use it nearly enough.

    • Since writing this post, I’ve been told SmartEdit is no longer free. That’s a shame. I’m glad you posted the link to Edit Minion, because I have tried that one, it works, and it’s free.

  2. Good list Theo!!!!!!!!!

    #3: “Started” is my version of that. I’m taking an erotica writing class, and my teacher told us, no matter what she does, she overuses the word stroke. Having a list of your own problems is important before sending a piece out. Starting sentences with “ing” words is another personal problem of mine.

  3. AJ Rose says:

    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.

    BWAAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! (Yes, that exclamation point is valid there.)

    Here’s the thing about style: everyone has their own. While a clean style is always encouraged, it doesn’t have to be sparse. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with using more words to convey an idea if those words are interesting, well placed, and move the story forward. Some of the most beautiful prose can be description that comes in a paragraph as opposed to a sentence or two.

    Perfect example: The Pacific Ocean, vast and multi-hued, sparkled jewel-like in the setting sun.

    That’s me, in one of the few instances of non-wordiness you’ll see, because I’ve said before and I’ll say again–I’m a wordy motherfucker. But I’m trying to make a point.

    Here’s one of my favorite descriptions ever from Edmond Manning’s King Perry:

    Like every other tourist, we gawk and photograph the most magnificent alien creature ever witnessed, the Pacific Ocean. Instead of a body of water, I behold a twitching leviathan, slumbering on its side. This all-encompassing monster, Ocean, defies explanation. How can a thing hold all the colors at once? Every shade of midnight blue and saffron teal bob away, gradations of black and green in combinations I have never experienced. How can glittering orange and yellow crest each wave’s tips before cheerfully drowning? Ocean lies motionless on its side while every surface inch shivers with the ecstasy of life.

    Same time of day, same ocean. Vastly different descriptions, and while mine is sufficient, his sings.

    Clean style is always good to shoot for, but it doesn’t have to be Spartan to be clean and breathtaking.

    Sorry Fen, didn’t mean to take over your post. /hijacking.

    • No, you make a point. I like both examples very much.

      My list is there as a jumping off point. Writers should take a look at what they’re writing and get rid of the fluff and clutter. The description from King Perry is rich and beautiful but there is no clutter. Every word belongs there. And you’ll note the author didn’t make any of the mistakes I listed. ;/

      As an editor, I give that short excerpt an A+.

  4. fransiweinstein says:

    Great tips. Thanks. Where were you when E. L. James was writing Fifty Shades of Grey? Buying shares in Trojan, I hope.

  5. A.M.B. says:

    Great list. I’m sure I’m guilty of making each of these errors (except for the “cum machine,” but thanks for the warning!). It’s hard to spot these kinds of mistakes in our own writing. It definitely helps to have an editor like you.

  6. HBIC says:

    I would suggest turning it into a drinking game, but if some of the books I’ve read lately are any kind of gauge, you’d end up a raging alcoholic in under a month. As for Fifty Shades of Abusive Asshole, oops – I mean Grey, the best comment I’ve ever seen about it is “It offends me both as a librarian and a pervert.” I don’t know where that originated, but it’s apt.

    • AJ Rose says:

      That assessment is awesome!

      And while the drinking game sounds like fun, I’m sure Fen would need a new liver in a month and would have to lower his schedule from 50 edited pages a day to 5.

      No doubt, I’m guilty of some of this, but the day I stop learning to improve is the day I stop writing.

  7. HBIC says:

    I imagine everyone is guilty of some of this at least sometimes; it’s part of being human. I wouldn’t want to meet someone who didn’t because that level of perfection would be intimidating. I’ve read a few books lately, though, that looked like they never even entered the editing process much less finished it, yet some publisher felt they were fine to be unleashed on the unsuspecting masses. If they weren’t on my beloved Kindle they’d have hit the wall. Hard.

    • Editing doesn’t seem to be doing its job lately. I, too, have seen some poorly edited books from publishers I thought knew better. Are they having trouble finding good people? Or are they sitting on their editors, refusing to let them do their job?

  8. HBIC says:

    As much as I hope publishers are able to find/afford good editors, I hope even more the problem isn’t because they’re hamstringing their editors. It would suck for the editors if their work was ignored or overruled. I could see it happening, though – “I know you put a lot of time and effort into this, Bill, but I’m afraid we’re going to go with the shitty unedited version.” It would be a lose-lose-lose scenario; the editors get shafted, the readers get a sub-standard book, and the authors get a bad reputation.

    • Every publisher has editing standards they adhere to, a “house” style (which sometimes makes no sense at all). One publisher let me do whatever I wanted to, and I was able to really fix crap writing, making it publishable. However, I wouldn’t have had to work so hard if they’d accepted better manuscripts, and it didn’t take long until I was burned out.

      I think publishers have to start with high quality work from people that actually know how to write. Because there’s stiff competition right now between a lot of online publishers, their standards regarding what is acceptable has fallen to a level that places a LOT of weight on the editor to make it good. In cases like this, editors soon burn out. It’s no fun editing garbage you know is going to be garbage no matter how hard you work. It’s why I quit Silver. I couldn’t take it anymore!

  9. HBIC says:

    Hmmm…. being hamstrung or forced to choose between your job and sanity; either way, it would suck for the editor. I’m glad you got out of there.

    Here’s something mostly on-topic that showed up on my tumblr dash; I hope you get a kick out of it (and I hope it shows up – one never knows what different blogsites will do to a link in the comments): http://tinypic.com/r/2zf269s/6

  10. diannegray says:

    Great list, Theo. I usually do a search for “that” when I’m finished a novel because if anything annoys me, it’s “that”! 😉

    • It’s the first thing I notice when I read. Drives me nuts! And this one is so easy to fix, too. I’m surprised more writers don’t bother.

      And now I’ve brought it up, writers need to step up and do as much pre-editing on their work as possible before submitting. Do not depend on editors to find and fix everything. First, it’s a waste of their talents, fixing things the author should deal with before it comes to them. Second, if editors don’t have to waste time dealing with basic fixes, they can concentrate on corrections that will really make your manuscript come to life: plot holes, character inconsistencies, etc.

  11. Pingback: Self-edits | Life Is A Kaleidoscope

  12. Pingback: Writers Writing Badly, Part 2 | Theo Fenraven

  13. I visit this blogpost (and Part 1) often. I’m still struggling with a lot of these, but I come here to remind myself not only what not to do, but why. (Just realized it was written on my birthday. Huh.) This is the first time I’ve been back since reading Edmond’s books. I have to say that every other time, I haven’t understood AJ’s ‘ocean’ reference. Of the two examples, I far preferred AJ’s version because I tend to not like a lot of description when reading. But now, having read Edmond’s books since my last visit, I get it. It’s the first time I’ve read that description of ‘Ocean’ and been in awe of the words. No offense, AJ, but, wow. I’ll never reach that level, but I’d at least like to think this means I’m growing and learning.

    • I’m currently editing Emma Jameson’s next cozy mystery, first book in a new series, and her writing is so beautiful, so rich and funny and sly and full of dry humor, I am in awe of it and her. I will never write that well, but I hope reading something like this can somehow be picked up by osmosis. Emma’s style is different from mine, and that’s not what I’m talking about. It’s how she uses language and draws word pictures, and her dialog has made me burst out in appreciative laughter more than once.

      • Yeah – kind of like decorating. After working in the industry, I can now see a room that is totally not my style, but appreciate the beauty and the skill it took to make it look that way. And even though it’s not a look that suits me personally, I still might be able to steal a few ideas and use them in my own house.

    • AJ Rose says:

      Absolutely no offense taken. You’re just making my point, even now. Some people can just word paint. And it’s glorious.

      • It’s funny, AJ, because when I read King Perry and I hit that passage, I recognized it and remembered it from this post (I’m telling you – I really DO come here often. LOL) and I must’ve slowed down to read it because the passage that sang to me tied in with yours. This… this is mine. And I’ll never look at a sunset the same way again:

        “The sun seems fascinated to get closer to this paradise landscape, and keeps dropping half inch by half inch in the west. Tenderly he flies to his lover, the Ocean, who twists in delight with his imminent arrival. ‘Patience, my love,’ the Sun whispers in long golden rays. ‘Soon I am yours.’”

        GAH!!! I get chills every single time I read that. Seriously. The mental image of Ocean laying on his/her side (from the passage you like), now squirming in delight because Sun is descending on him/her. That’s just one sexy fucking sunset right there, buddy. Makes me wish I still smoked. ;o)

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