I’ve been writing for over twenty years and mentoring MFA students for the last ten. After publishing thirteen novels and dozens of short stories, I’ve figured a few things out and I’ve spotted the same “mistakes” in not only my students’ manuscripts, but published novels, and even my own! Yikes! So here are a few mistakes to avoid so your writing stands out from the rest!
They’re all over the place, including published novels. Those passive verbs and wording just lurking in your writing. They’re not as active and bold as the active voice, and tend to be wordier in general.
Passive: The report was read by Karen.
Active: Karen read the report.
Passive: The crash was witnessed by a pedestrian.
Active: A pedestrian witnessed the crash.
When you see was before a verb ending in ing, it almost always is a passive sentence. After I finish a book, I do a search for was and were and replace as many as I can with an active verb. Sometimes the sentence just reads better with them.
Easy fixes of the most common:
was standing = stood
was running = ran
was jumping = jumped
was yelling = yelled
was talking = talked
was calling = called
Vague Nouns and Verbs:
Use specific, concrete nouns instead of vague ones like a car, a suit or a house. These nouns don’t give your readers a picture to imagine and plus you’re wasting an opportunity. These specific details will show your readers much more than vague ones. For example, does your protagonist drive a Chevy or an Audi? When you say he drove an Audi, the readers think, “this guy is rich.”
Verbs like happy, kind, and arrogant. Happy is vague – there are so many different degrees of happiness and again this is a prime opportunity to let your writing do double duty. Remember to limit modifiers.
Also avoid using some, something, somewhere, sometime, and someone – all are vague and can distance the reader from the story.
There was a robot working behind the counter. (vague and passive)
A glittering, magnificent, and spectacular robot was working behind the vast, shiny, smooth counter. (Modifier overload and still passive)
An X-14 Postal Robot sorted envelopes behind the customer service desk. (better)
The man was wearing a suit. (vague and passive)
The man wore a black Armani suit. (better)
The man smoothed his gray hair and straightened the lapels on his yellow zoot suit. (better or worse?)
The car raced down the road. (active but vague)
The Honda raced along the California freeway. (better)
The Honda Accord raced along Route One. (even better – we know which freeway in California)
The Honda Accord raced along Route One, leaving a cloud of smoke in its wake. (much better – now the reader knows it’s an older model which suggests the driver either doesn’t have funds to buy a newer car, or is nostalgic)
Floating Eye Balls:
You read them all the time and probably don’t give them a second thought. But they’re there and once I tell you about them, you won’t be able to miss them again.
Talented eye balls:
Their eyes met.
His eyes fell.
Her eyes bounced from the floor to his face.
“I rolled my eyes at myself.” (from a published novel).
His eyes bored a hole in my chest. (yikes!)
Lots of magic eyeballs in these sentences. It’s not the eyes doing all the work, but the character’s gaze.
Annoying Word Combos
This is purely a pet peeve of mine and you will see these in published novels all the time.
He made his way down the stairs. She made her way to the bedroom. Really? Did they build a path? What’s wrong with walked, sauntered, skipped, raced, ambled? One word for three.
He found himself thinking of Victoria. Karen found herself crying. So nice these character have “found” themselves – I didn’t know they were lost. Ugh. Far better – He thought of Victoria. Karen cried.
Gary picked himself up. Wow what a feat of strength.
Gwen started to fold the poster. Martin began to clean up the kitchen. “started to” and “began to” are unneeded almost always. Better to write: Gwen folded the poster. Martin cleaned the kitchen.
When using first person point of view – beware the word combo with myself. I.e. resigned myself, consoled myself, told myself, etc… The reader is in that character’s head – he/she knows if someone is resigned it’s the main POV. Trust me!
I hope these help you and that they will become a part of your writing arsenal. Now go forth and write!