Writers' Common Mistakes – Part 1

Editing Pencils

Many colors for many issues.
Many colors for many issues.

"Great Story, Poor Prose"

I'm a freelance editor, and I discovered a long time ago that my clients shared, to varying extents, certain common mistakes. Let's begin with… well, the beginning.

ATTITUDE: "As long as I tell a good story or write an informative piece of non-fiction, I don't have to worry too much about the prose." Yikes! This attitude will get the door slammed in your face almost before you've even knocked. Believe me, no matter how clever your story or article, an editor/agent won't see it if you prove, in the first couple of paragraphs, that you don't know how to write. They'll have reached for the rejection slip long before discovering your… um… brilliance.

Okay, so now that we've agreed on that and your attitude is wonderful and positive, let us move on to the technical mistakes that drag down the prose of most writers. I'll address each of these subjects in detail in future posts, but for now, I'll summarize and, perhaps, point you in the right self-editing direction.

1) Poor Punctuation: This is as basic as it gets, yet nothing bedevils beginning writers (and some seasoned ones) quite like the rules of punctuation.

          a) Commas, in particular, lie at the center of the dilemma.

               i) When do you need one? When must you include a conjunction? When should you use a semicolon instead? When should you just use a period and start a new sentence?

          b) Colons versus Semicolons

          c) Colons versus Dashes

          d) Dashes versus Ellipses

          e) Periods versus Exclamation Points versus Question Marks

2) Passive Voice: I've already posted three entries on this subject, which I duplicated from another site because it's such a critical issue to writers.

          a) Passive Voice sucks the life—the action—right out of a story. Things may happen, but nobody does anything. See those three posts for more.

3) Weak Knees: As the author, you are the authority, and the reader counts on you to provide strong and decisive prose.

          a) Beware the deadly "state-of-being" verbs, for they generate no action; they just are.

               i) Am, are, is, was, were, had been, etc.

          b) Beware weak verb qualifiers that drain the life from the subsequent verb.

               i) Starts to, seems to, could have, should have, might have, thought that, possibly, apparently, maybe, appeared to, found (as in found myself doing something), etc.

          c) Beware weak verbs that suggest limited or dull action at best, that evoke no real image in the reader's mind, and that often arrive on the page buried under a slew of weak, nasty adverbs, or as preface to a bunch of adjectives.

               i) Came, got, went, had, did, took, kept, made, etc.

          d) Beware sensory verbs that steal from the reader a sensory experience, and give it instead to the character.

               i) Hear/heard, see/saw, feel/felt, sounded, listened to, looked at, etc.

               ii) This also falls under the heading: SHOW, DON'T TELL.

4) Wordiness: Writers fall into this trap for one of two reasons, in my opinion: laziness, inexperience.

          a) You must not say in 20 complex or roundabout words what you can say in 12 simple, direct words.

          b) If you want to elevate your prose, you must not confuse quantity for quality. Pith is not your enemy; it is your friend.

          c) You must not say the same thing over and over, or say the same thing two or three different ways. Your reader is not an idiot. She'll get it the first time.

5) Flinging INGs: I refer to verbs (or verbal nouns) that end in "ing" as INGs, just to simplify matters, as they travel under many different names.

          a) One of the worst habits writers develop is opening sentences with Infinite-Verb Phrases—INGs. In most cases, they should restructure the sentence to provide clearer Subject-Predicate logic.

          b) Another nasty habit is the use of Present Participles—another form of ING—in a Past Tense narrative. Yes, you may use them from time to time, when the narrative calls for an ongoing action at that moment in the scene. However, most of the time, the action is complete (it's a Past Tense narrative, after all) and a Past Participle (verb ending in "ed") is more appropriate.

6) Adverbs: Most writers use excessive adverbs because they use weak, ineffective verbs to begin with, or because they somehow feel it necessary to cram the descriptive down the reader's throat. I agree with Stephen King, who said in his book, On Writing, "The road to Hell is paved with adverbs."

          a) Use a stronger verb that stands alone and provides powerful imagery.

          b) Consider using metaphor or simile to create an image in your reader's mind.

As I said earlier, I'll address these issues in greater detail in future posts. In the meantime, I hope this kick-starts your self-editing engine and forces you to stretch yourself a bit.

While you're waiting for my subsequent posts, you can get started on #3 above. Search your document for those weak verbs and create something that's more evocative, more action-centric.

'Til next time, remember this: To write well, you must work hard. To succeed in this tough gig, you mustn't be lazy.

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