Writers Writing Badly, Part 2

The idea of what an editor does seems to have changed. Previously, we were given a free hand (this is the only time you should ever use ‘free hand’ in a sentence; see #7 below) to whip a MS into shape. Now we’re often expected to pussyfoot around the writer, not hurt their little duck feelings, not cut too deeply, because we might be infringing on that writer’s style.


Being published is a privilege, one you earn by learning your craft and being a professional, and if some pain goes along with that, tough shit. No one’s forcing you to write. Take up knitting. I hear that’s popular now. Get a goat, milk it, and make yogurt. Move to the country and stop wearing clothes when you garden.

If you write for publication, you should never stop learning, never stop trying to improve. Don’t assume you know it all and can rest on your cushy laurels. Your personal standards should always rise, not hover around ‘good enough.’

You want an editor that’s going to slap you around, make you cry, even make you bleed, because that person is going to help you put out the best work you’re capable of. They’re going to help you take that piece of coal and turn it into a diamond.

Oh, you were out of coal that day and handed in a a block of petrified wood? You were tired, you were sick, your aunt who lives in another state was sick, the cat puked in your favorite shoes, a dark cloud crossed the sun, you just didn’t feel like going over that manuscript even once before submitting? Shame on you. If you do this, you’re not a writer. You’re not a professional. You’re not taking yourself seriously, and no one else will, either. See previous paragraph about knitting and goats.

Where is the line between the author’s style and plain bad writing? If I can’t get through one paragraph without highlighting something, you’re either lazy (didn’t re-read or get it beta’d) or you can’t write. Either way, you’re wasting everyone’s time.

I can’t say this often enough: learn your craft.

Read. Observe how good writers handle this description or that action. Write write write, always seeking to make your sentences better, leaner, more powerful. You’re in love with the word actually  and use it at least once on every page? Get over it. Time to break up with that bitch and move on.

Become your own harshest critic. Never hesitate to slash and burn if it means you’re turning your work into a diamond. Your editor will appreciate it. The reader will love you for it. And in the end, who doesn’t want a diamond? Coal is easy. Go for precious gems.


More things a writer should never do:

1. Head anywhere, i.e., we headed out of town, headed to the kitchen, headed up the stairs. “Head/headed” seems to have become the universal word for moving characters from one place to another. USE SPARINGLY, because it’s really getting irksome to see it used to the exclusion of all other ways to accomplish your goal. He went to the kitchen. She trotted up the stairs. They slunk out of town. “Head/headed” is lazy writing.

2. He made as if to rise. Even writing that made me laugh. Uh, what? He rose. He stood. He leaped to his feet. Write cleanly, simply. Don’t throw a lot of extra words in there. It scrambles readers’ brains.

3. Dialog tags. You know what those are. “Leave,” he said. ‘He said’ is the dialog tag. Get in the habit of using them only when necessary. You’d be amazed how much better your story flows if there is not a surfeit of dialog tags. Let your characters talk and move in a sea of soaring narrative. Dialog tags only slow things down, especially when they are anything other than ‘he said.’

4. Expand your vocabulary. I don’t want to read “He nodded,” “he nodded again,” “he nodded a third time” in the space of three paragraphs. If you can’t think of anything else to write, see previous paragraph about knitting and goats. Stop relying on the same old words and phrases. Come up with new ways to say old things. Avoid repetition like the plague, because that’s what it is: a plague, and on all our houses, not just yours. (If you didn’t get that reference, you aren’t reading enough: Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare.) 

5.  “He grabbed his own cock.” “She got into her own clothes.” “He closed his own car door.” UGH. Take ‘own’ out of there please! I’ve been seeing this too much lately and it pisses me off. I get that you think it’s necessary to put that in there when there are two or more people in a scene, but don’t. If John is grabbing a cock, it’s either gonna be one he owns or a friend’s, in which case, that would be stated: He grabbed Mike’s cock. If he’s grabbing his cock, ‘own’ doesn’t belong there. It’s a junk word.

6. “He felt,” “she felt,” “they watched.” For the love of all that is holy, NO. If your point of view (PoV) is clear, there is no need to phrase the action that way. “He felt William sag against him.” Nope. William sagged against him. Or: “He watched Suzie rearrange the furniture so it was sure to trip him.” Nuh-uh. Suzie rearranged the furniture so it was sure to trip him. Learn this one. It will save us all a lot of eyerolls.

7. “… and with his free hand, he gingerly touched her pigeon-shaped mole.” The ‘free hand’ thing makes me laugh and then want to punch something. All of you is free, not just the spare hand. Remember our discussion on body parts in the last post on editing? Find it here.

Enough ranting for today. See you next time!

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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10 Responses to Writers Writing Badly, Part 2

  1. cindyls1969 says:

    I love the things you pointed out here. I have a problem with seeing the “he said” thing all the time. Drives me insane as a reader and never use it as a writer. I agree completely with eveything you said, especially the part about learning continually. When I go back and look over the stuff I first wrote, I find myself cringing and whining how terrible it was but it also shows how much I’ve grown as a writer and it makes me feel good.

    • We all start somewhere and most of us steadily improve. My early stuff shows promise, but yeah, it sucketh. 🙂

      I think there are writers today getting published that shouldn’t be. Simply: they aren’t good enough yet. It’s kind of a slap in the face to those of us who learned how to write well. I mean, why bother then? Why spend all those years learning how to put a sentence together if someone who does it slapdash can get a contract?

  2. diannegray says:

    Very well done, Theo!

  3. Sienna says:

    Thanks for another great list! I think I’m guilty of one or two points above. 😀

    In the interest of continuous learning, any good craft books you use/read and can recommend?

  4. Pingback: No Tempest in Our Teapot | Theo Fenraven

  5. s.a.meade says:

    I agree with absolutely everything you’ve written here. If you’re writing for ‘traditional’ publication or ‘e-pubs’, you should write to the highest possible standard and you should always recognise that you never, ever stop learning.

    • Thanks for the comment. 🙂

      All writers start out writing badly, but with diligence and determination, we all get better. It’s then that writing becomes truly fun and always engaging. When you no longer have to worry about how you write, you can start thinking about what you write.

  6. Pingback: Writers Writing Badly | Theo Fenraven

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