No, I’m not talking about the fashion police coming after you. I’m talking about those little errors and bad habits that creep into your manuscript, weaken your message, and add up to an overall feeling of amateurish writing. The good news is that, unlike the more critical creative flow of ideas for plot and characters, these little bad habits are easy to correct, resulting in a much more polished, compelling manuscript.
1. Take out wishy-washy qualifiers like quite, sort of, almost, kind of, a bit, pretty, somewhat, rather, usually, basically, generally, probably, mostly, really, etc. Forget “He was quite brave,” or “She was pretty intelligent” or “It was almost scary.” These qualifiers dilute your message, reduce the impact, and make the imagery weaker. Take them out. Even very is to be avoided – it’s like you’re saying the word after it needs reinforcing. “She was beautiful” packs more punch than “She was very beautiful.”
2. Show us, don’t tell us how your characters are feeling. Avoid statements like, “He found that funny,” or “The little girl felt sad.” Show these emotions by their actions, words, and body language: “Eyes downcast, shoulders slumped, head down, she refused to answer as she pushed her food around the plate.”
3. Avoid colorless, overused verbs like walked, ran, went, saw, talked, ate, did, got, put, took. Get out your thesaurus (or use the MS Word one. Hint: look up the present tense: walk, run, eat, say, etc.) to find more expressive, powerful verbs instead, like crept, loped, stumbled, stomped, glimpsed, noticed, observed, witnessed, spied, grunted, whimpered, devoured, consumed, gobbled, wolfed, munched, or bolted.
4. Avoid –ing verbs wherever possible. Use -ed verbs instead – they’re stronger and more immediate. “He was racing” is weaker than “He raced.” “They searched the house” is more immediate than “They were searching the house.” Rewrite -ing verbs whenever you can, and you’ll strengthen your writing and increase its power.
5. Keep adverbs to a minimum. Instead of propping up a boring, anemic verb with an adverb, look for strong, descriptive, powerful verbs. Instead of “He walked slowly” go for “He plodded” or “He trudged” or “He dawdled.” Instead of “She ate hungrily” say “She devoured the bag of chips,” or “She wolfed down the pizza.” Instead of “They talked quickly,” say “They babbled.”
6. Use adjectives sparingly and consciously. Instead of stringing a bunch of adjectives in front of an ordinary, overused noun, find a more precise, expressive noun to show rather than tell. Overuse of adjectives can also turn your writing into “purple prose” that is melodramatic and overly “flowery.”
7. Dialogue tags – Stick with the basic he said and she said (or asked) wherever possible, rather than “he emphasized” or “she reiterated” or “Mark uttered,” etc. These phrases stand out, so they take the reader out of the story, whereas “said” is almost invisible. However, I like dialogue tags that describe how something is said, as in he shouted, she murmured, he grumbled, she whispered. You can often eliminate the dialogue tag altogether and just use an action beat instead: He picked up the phone. “That’s it. I’m calling the cops.”
8. Describe the stimulus, then the response: When writing an action scene, make sure your sentence structure mimics the order of the actions. The reader pictures the actions in the order that she reads them, so it’s confusing to read about the reaction before finding out what caused it. So describe the action first, then the reaction: Instead of “He yelled when the dog bit him,” write: “The dog bit him and he yelled.”
9. Avoid the passive voice: For greater impact, when describing an action, start with the doer, then describe what he did, rather than the other way around. Use the more direct active voice wherever possible. Instead of “The house was taped off by the police,” write “The police taped off the house.” Also, avoid empty phrases like “There is”, “There was,” “It’s,” “It was.” Jump right in with what you’re actually talking about.
10. Avoid negative constructions wherever possible – they can be confusing to the reader. Instead of “I didn’t disagree with him,” say “I agreed with him.”
11. Avoid frequent repetition of the same word or forms of the same word. If you’ve already used a certain noun or verb in a paragraph or section, go to your thesaurus to find a different way to express that idea when you mention it again. Also, avoid repetition of the same imagery. Whether you’re describing the setting, the weather, or the hero or heroine, vary your wording.
12. Avoid formal sentences and pretentious language. Rather than impressing your readers, ornate, fancy words can just end up alienating them. As Jessica Page Morrell says, “if a reader is constantly consulting a dictionary when reading your prose, you’re dragging him from the story. Words in manuscripts such as capacious, accretion, plangent, occluded, viridian, arboreal, sylvan, obdurant, luculent, longueur, rubescent, and mendacious always pull me from the story. Just say no to showing off.”
As Morrell points out, “Simple words are close to our hearts and easily understood…. simpler words are unpretentious, yet contain power and grace….Pompous words are alienating, boring, and outdated.”
Copyright © Jodie Renner, July 2011
Resources: Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us, by Jessica Page Morrell; Manuscript Makeover, by Elizabeth Lyon; How NOT to Write a Novel, by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman.