Good Writing Is ... #1 -- the two biggest mistakes made by new writers
Introductions and explanations
Some of you are familiar with my writing, others not.
Welcome to this, the first in a series on what makes good writing.
What credentials do I hold to presume to speak to others on this subject?
First, I’ve written all my life. In fact, the only interest that has consumed more of my time than writing is reading. One of my more common memories of childhood is the sharpness of my mother’s voice as she yelled, “Get your nose out of that book and do as you’re told!” That, and getting into all kinds of trouble for writing my own little books, complete with illustrations, instead of working on mathematics and science (which I still don’t get, and find terribly boring.)
I didn’t study English composition in university. No, strangely enough for someone who hates math, I studied business administration, economics and hold a post-graduate designation in, of all things, accounting.
This doesn’t mean I didn’t study writing at all. I did. For the past ten years I’ve held membership in Writers’ Village University on the internet; I’ve taken many seminars in creative writing and led a few for young people, and enough night courses to earn a dozen honorary degrees if anyone were to add them up.
I wrote my first novel at the ripe old age of fourteen – a historical fiction of a young girl living in the beginning of the twentieth century on the prairies of Western Canada, Picking Stones and Other Fun Things, which was published as a serial in a now defunct magazine, West Winds , an aptly titled journal dedicated to life in the Canadian west in 1966. Yes, I’m that old. Five more followed, two of which, fortunately, were accepted and published traditionally (by presses also defunct) more than twenty-five years ago. Two others were serialized, and one bit the dust (and rightly so.)
Raising children as a single mother, running a business, working with children, caring for foster kids, marriage and life in general, consumed me for many years, and I haven’t published another novel in some decades, but did write and edited journals for The Canadian Business Women’s Club, The Mastiff Club of Canada, Safe Place (a journal for child protection workers,) ARF – the Animal Rescue Foundation, among others. At present, I am working on the third novel in a series based on a professional in child protection. The first is currently winging its way around in search of an agent; the second is in the hands of my editor and the third lives in assorted files on my computer.
I also edit, not for professional writers, but for young aspiring authors, and inexperienced writers of all ages trying their hand at the art. I’m accustomed to receiving very rough diamonds, and at least handing back a pretty chunk of glass.
So, no my name is not a household term, but, I know what makes good writing. And, perhaps even more importantly, what does not.
Now, you know me, and I in turn have met a few of you.
I read a lot of the creative prose posted here on hubpages, and occasionally when I see some real potential in the voice and style, I’ve offered some assistance (quietly and privately for the most part, or with instructions to delete the comment once read, not wanting to embarrass anyone.)
I’ve never quite been sure if work is posted by an author looking for growth and critique (as mine is – criticism gladly accepted) -- or as a sample in a portfolio, which sometimes disturbs me. Without meaning to sound superior or condescending, or insulting, or um, um, gosh -- maybe I should just spit it out. May I suggest some of you want to find editing help, and not from me – I have plenty work to keep me busy. I will do a short passage for you, free, if you ask, but no, I’m not trying to drum up work.
A few of you out there in hubland have sent me a few paragraphs for edit and critique, and I’ve done my best to impart as much education as I can on this one time basis. I honestly can’t help myself. I want to “fix” it.
Twice now, someone has taken the free critique, written me back and said, “Look, everyone else loves it just the way it is. Look at my comments.” Okay, fine. I’ve yet to see a comment from anyone (other than bitchy me I suppose) that says anything but, “very nice” and “I enjoyed this, thanks.”
So rather than continue this thankless practice, I’m starting a series of articles discussing the most common mistakes I see in the work posted around here – and no, I won’t embarrass anyone. I’ll only use examples for those I think are good. How’s that?
Now on to the article itself. (And now that we've met, I won't have introductions and explanations on any of the subsequent hubs in this series.
The two biggest mistakes made by new writers
The biggest error I see in amateur writing is excessive use of the passive voice.
“We were walking down the beach. Our shoes were sinking into the sand, and walking was difficult. Mary saw a good looking boy, and we were all expecting her to leave us and go and talk to him. She was the one most likely to do this out of the three of us good friends. We had been friends since grade six, and we had spent every summer at this beach for as long as we could remember, so we were sure Mary would go and talk to him. Boy, were we surprised when she didn’t and Louise and I started asking ourselves why she was so different today.”
Boring! Tedious! Sorry, but it is. This has as much color and flavor as sawdust, and is equally as exciting. But we see this all the time. Such writing is acceptable in the rough draft when one simply wants to lay down the facts, but not in the finished product. The writer has a story to tell, yes, and we see where she is trying to take us. Do we want to go? Do we feel part of the scene – no.
Here’s why: the use of auxiliary verbs distances us from the action. It’s dull, slow and sounds like the author was probably an accountant or a lawyer. We need a sense of immediacy, of walking along beside these girls. We want a taste of their experience, not a slow recitation of the facts written in passive language.
Also, the use of this “we” as a narrator doesn’t ring real, and this distances us further. Stories cannot be told from the viewpoint of “we” because thoughts and ideas aren’t shared by more than one brain. How does whoever is telling this story know what “we” felt? If the passage doesn’t seem real, we can’t let go of reality and join in. This adds even further passivity – so passive we’re likely to go to sleep. Let’s rewrite correcting these two weaknesses.
“Our shoes sank deep into the sand adding resistance to each step, so we three girls made slow progress down the beach. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a good looking boy further down, and glanced at Mary to see if her head turned in his direction. Yes, she spotted him, and I caught Louise’s eye and winked. She smirked in return. Any minute now, Mary would offer an excuse, and leave us – we expected it. After all these years as friends, since grade six, we knew Mary well. Louise looked as surprised as I felt when Mary continued walking along at our sides. I wondered what was up with her.”
We’ve taken out most of the “were” and “was” that diluted the action. The only auxiliary verb left is “would offer an excuse” which we need to show a probable future action, but this doesn’t detract from the active voice we now hear.
Also we changed the viewpoint to one girl, added a tiny phrase of action. “I caught Louise’s eye and winked. She smirked in return.” Now our girls seem alive, with personalities.
But still, I don’t feel part of this experience. Instead, I’m sitting at a table listening to someone tell me what happened (thankfully in more interesting language.)
The second biggest mistake I see in amateur writing is “telling the story” not “sharing the story.”
“My calves are killing me,” Louise, the whiner of the group complained.
“Me too,” Mary added.
I looked back at our route across the beach, our footprints deep holes along the way. Even as I stood, my feet slowly sank further into the wet sand. “Wanna give up?”
“Nah, I need a coke.” Mary stuck out her tongue and clutched her throat. “The snack bar’s not much further.” She hunched her shoulders and continued, step, pull, step.
Louise dug her elbow into my ribs. “Hey, Lynda – look over there.” Her finger pointed at two boys throwing a football up on solid ground, away from the water’s edge.
“Wanna bet Mary takes off on us? She’ll be over there in thirty seconds flat.” I kept my voice low so Mary wouldn’t hear.
“Wouldn’t be much of a bet.” Louise threw me a smirk.”Have you ever once since grade six known Mary to turn down a chance to chat up boys?”
Mary’s head turned in their direction, and Louise and I stopped walking, waiting for the excuse, and subsequent abandonment.
“Well, now there’s a surprise.” Louise put out an extra effort and caught up with Mary, who still walked straight ahead.
“Hey, Mary – you sick or something?” I asked, struggling to catch up.
So what do you think? We’ve imparted the same information, but in an active way, drawing the reader in and sharing not only the facts, but painting a vivid picture of our three girls, their difficulty walking the sand, and a fair bit about their character. I might have added colorful details in prose form – have Lynda admire the cobalt blue sky, or the green waves, or described the good-looking boy were I seriously writing a scene and not an example.
Avoid the two biggest pitfalls of inexperienced writers’
- Stay active – avoid the use of passive language or equally passive errors in style. Here’s a hint – if you’re using MSWord, set your review parameters to include passive phrases. In editing, work at an approach that eliminates the use of auxiliary verbs, could have beens, and will be dones. They render your writing grey and boring.
- Share the story, don’t tell the story – show the reader what is happening, don’t describe it.
Tune in to the next installment of Good Writing Is… Coming soon.
- Good Writing Is... #10 What you need to understand about paragraphs
As promised, here is #10 in the Good Writing Is... series: everything you ever wanted to know about paragraphs; how to construct them, when to start a new one, what should be in one and how do they fit into the whole of our work both for essays and f
A link to my webhome and my writers' assistance pages
- This Bird Flew Away - Novel by Lynda M. Martin
This Bird Flew Away - Novel by Lynda M. Martin
Links to the other articles in the Good Writing Is... Series
- Good Writing Is ... #2 The author's voice has no place in his work
The second in the series Good Writing Is ... discusses why the author's voice should not appear in his work -- a common mistake by many new writers -- setting the stage.
- Good Writing Is ... # 3 What is the most important element of successful fiction?
Number 3 in the series on good writing asks the question: what is the most important element in successful fiction. The answer is good characters. Here we explore what makes good characters, how do we develop them and how to present them.
- Good Writing Is...#4 Why new writers get lost and give up.
Many of you wrote in with comments like, "I'll drag out the old novel" or "I was working on a novel but grew frustrated and put it away." Why does this happen? Why do we so often abandon our work? Come in, and we'll explore those questions.
- Good Writing Is...#5 The plot thickens -- plotting for beginners
#5 in the series, Good Writing Is... deals with plots and how to develop the plot in fiction, whether short story or novel. Called plotting for beginners, we discuss the form of plot, how to map a plot and how to prepare the plot for writing.
- Good Writing Is...#6 -- Plotting #2 -- The Scene Approach
Welcome to this, the second in our lessons on plot structure. We are ready to take our proposed plot and divide it into scenes -- and then build those scenes. Let's construct a novel.
- Good Writing Is...#7-- 10 common mistakes new writers make in writing dialogue.
No skill is more important to the fiction writer than a mastery of the mechanics of good dialogue. Here are the ten most common mistakes new writers make and how to avoid them. The ten rules of dialogue.
- Good Writing Is ...#8 Point of view -- the five big questions writers need to answer
There are five big questions the writer needs to answer in developing the point of view of his work.
- Good Writing Is...#9 The importance of voice #1 -- writing the child's perspective
The ninth in the Good Writing Is... series begins an exploration of 'voice' in writing. Today's discussion: writing from the child's perspective. The challenge of writing in the child's voice.