Sunday, May 03, 2009

Ten Writer Mistakes

Writtenwyrdd posted this great link to 10 universal (and avoidable!!) writer mistakes. SO TRUE. Take it from someone who's seen the work of MANY good authors--no one's immune! Everyone read it!

The ten are:

1) The crutch word (Have I told you about my author who used the word "gyrate" 16 times in a 300 page manuscript? Or my other author who used the word "emotional" 67 times in a 400 page manuscript? Has anyone seen my red pen? And my wet noodle?)

2) Flat writing (ugh, YUCK--usually, if you think about a boring sentence for a couple minutes, a more interesting way to say the same thing will pop into your head; the challenge is spotting your own boring sentences)

3) Empty adverbs (Actually, totally, absolutely, completely, continually, constantly, continuously, literally, really, unfortunately, ironically, incredibly, hopefully, finally--words that "promise emphasis but do the reverse"--clever way of putting it)

4) Phony dialogue

5) No-good suffixes (humm, I kind of like words like characterlessness; but maybe that's my general lack of good taste)

6) Am Is Are Was Were (who doesn't love a little unnecessary passive voice? not you? no? no takers?)

7) Lists

8) Telling instead of showing

9) Awkward phrasing

10) Commas (I love commas. But I love them in the right places.)

My one quibble--where is TERRIBLE DIALOGUE TAGS?!?!?!!? Because those are the WORST THINGS IN THE WORLD. Except spiders. Well, they're much worse than small spiders, or daddy longlegs.


angelle said...

"What?" angelle queried. "You don't like bad dialogue tags?"

"No," moonrat commented. "They piss me off."

"But how could you not?!" angelle exclaimed.

"They're distracting," moonrat insisted.

"I always thought they spiced up boring dialogue," angelle retorted.

"Perhaps you're right," moonrat conceded. "They ARE also easier to throw in instead of having to come up with other things to show a person's response."

"I'm glad you see my point," angelle returned. "Now I shall go eat a cupcake."

"I want one too!" moonrat keened.

moonrat said...

heehee i'm totally keening right now

Anita said...

My crutch word: Just.

I don't have a list in my manuscript, but I just (hah) read a book with a couple lists and I liked the little suckers.

Kim Kasch said...

Okay, I really don't like ”Daddy Long Legs”Guess we all have our own PET peeves - some people have spiders in aquariums - ewwww

PurpleClover said...

"apparently" is my crutch word.

And apparently I actually totally have a really big problem, unfortunately, with literally every incredibly empty adverb. Really. Unfortunately. Really. No really.

Awkward phrasing? Yoda-hater. Hmph.


*rewriting wip*

Rebecca Knight said...

"Seemed to" is the crutch phrase I'm combating right now :P. Awful, no?

All of these are so true!

B. Nagel said...

#6. But how can I tell the 400 page story of my MC's internal existential quandary without using the words 'am' or 'is?'

You mean that wouldn't sell?! But I wrote it when I was 17! It's prodigy gold!

Whirlochre said...

"Sigh," he evaporated.

Glen Akin said...

Lol avoidable? I've seen most of these problems in many books today - I doubt they're THAT easy to avoid.

Chris Eldin said...

LOL at gyrated! I used that Word Bubble site (forgot what it's called though) to let me see what words I used most often.

darkened_jade said...

Great list, but you are right, dialogue tags need to be added to it.

Stuart Neville said...

I hadn't realised my fondness for the word "point" until my editor, ahem, pointed it out to me. My characters did a lot of pointing, like five times in two pages.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this as I dive into my revision.
No Boring Sentences. Yes.

beth said...

I overuse words so much! My crit partner pointed out in my last ms. I used "hissed" 24+ times (as in "I hate bad dialog tags!" Moonrat hissed.)

Vesper said...

Good list! We all have our "crutch words"...
I was watching a movie the other day, I don't remember the title - in fact it had already begun when I switched on the TV
and I was so tired I just couldn't change the channels - where they repeated the word "instinct" so many times, it was unbearable. How come they didn't notice that?

stephanie said...

*laughs* @ angelle. Perfect.

Shrugging is my big crutch. My characters shrug too much until revision.

Love this list. Since seeing it the first time, I've cut adverb use by 90% and adjective use by maybe 70%. The writing is cleaner and, yes, less boring.

WendyCinNYC said...

I admit it. I'm an "actually" abuser. Every time I write a first draft, I have to go back to search and destroy. I'm aware of my problem and a few STILL seem to sneak in.

I probably say it all the time, too. How annoying.

Pamala Knight said...


And everybody sing along to the Ray LaMontagne song "Trouble" with me, because that's what I'm in. I've got stock in all of those mistakes. I mean 401k-ruining, Bernie Madoff-type stock. But I'm taking consolation in that I am at least aware of the state of things.

Off to edit those awful dialogue tags and to show instead of tell.

Thanks for the list, MR. *waves*

Scobberlotcher said...

This is a great list. I'm with all the other folks who lean on "actually." Now that I'm aware of it, I tend to backspace over it as soon as I type it in. :) Great post.

Linda said...

Those crutch words... first draft the crutch was 'sigh'. Then, 'shrugged'. Now it's 'gasp' (and not used in conjunction with a dialogue tag).

But there are also are those $5 words that should be used once per manuscript. And I have my faves there, too... thank goddess for my writing group. Peace, Linda

Anonymous said...

Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU for posting these mistakes. I am 10,000 words into a new novel, and my current crutch word is "counter."

As a noun.

I'm not even sure how that's possible.

I'm absolutely printing them out and really keeping them next to the computer while I write.

Especially the list of empty adverbs.

Bre said...

I'm a Twilight fan (yes, I admit it openly), but I have to say, Stephenie Meyer's overuse of the verb "chuckle" kind of kills me. Everyone chuckles in those books! All the time! Almost every page! You'd think these were books about clowns. Dangerous, sexy clowns.

I suddenly have an idea for my first novel.

Alice Kildaire said...

Guilty as charged! I am especially going to hell for my use of empty adverbs and my current crutch, "of course."

My time with the newspaper is helping with the overuse of empty adverbs, "make every word count," but I will always loathe all dialogue tags...the good, bad and the ugly!

Melanie Avila said...

I just added "Am/Is/Are/Was/Were" to the sticky on my monitor reminding me of bad telling phrases (he felt, he thought, he watched...).

THANK YOU for this post! I'm editing now and it's very helpful.

Dorset Girl said...

That post was so useful. I'm in the middle of an edit at the moment (hence I'm on the interweb rather than actually working). I realised that I have people nodding at each other quite a bit. Did a 'find' search. 57 nods. Oh god. There are now 10, but in 300 m/s pages,I'm hoping that's ok.

Also, the word 'sage'. So, in one chapter my wonderful editor found, 'sage nod', 'sage corrugated iron', 'sage tweed suit'. I don't even like sage...

I'm slightly dreading what other lovelies the copy-editor will find.

I'm off to eat some sage...she nodded...

Rick Daley said...

"Ok, so, I'm supposed to try for a low score on this test right, like in golf?" he posed the question abruptly.

Kaytie M. Lee said...

I like the occasional list in certain contexts. Holt Uncensored is a great blog.

My Word Verification is "shatact." No, really.

Jill Myles said...

My editor recently slapped my hand because I used the word 'erstwhile' about eight times in my 2nd book. Sigh.

I've also noticed that the phrase 'no doubt' tends to creep in quite insidiously.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with #3, the adverbs. Open any bestseller and it's literally loaded with adverbs--it's actuallyl impossible to find any 2-page spread without one!

The no adverb thing is one of those cliches that wannnabes latch onto as a way of confirming that they're "part of the pack" that "knows" how to break into publishing. But in fact, the bestsellers use them as a way of establishing rhythm in a sentence, of lending familiarity to the unfamiliar.

Also, "show don't tell" is easy to parrot but difficult to ACTUALLY practice.

Anonymous said...

isn't there a way to turn these stupid captcha's off, like a one-time verification so you don't have to type the words in anymore, like they have on the social networks?

So primitive!

BuffySquirrel said...

OH GOD not another source telling writers that any use of the verb "to be" is passive voice.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

I'm with you. I hate most bad dialogue tags.

My characters are always looking or gazing or staring or seeing each other. I always have to go rip a bunch of those out.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

No doubt, Buffy. That irritates me no end. It's a weak verb form, but not passive. Drives me crazy.

Ulysses said...

I don't think of the "to be" verbs as passive. However, in the majority of cases, whenever I encounter it in my work, I can usually replace it with a more dynamic verb.

When I was thirteen, I read a book in which the author used "ejaculated" as a dialogue tag: "No!" he ejaculated. I (pardon this) came across it so many times that I finally resorted to the dictionary. It was an interesting word to learn mid-puberty.

I could no longer read that book without the simplest conversation conjuring up images of which my parents would not have approved.

Carradee said...

Passive voice usually includes a form of "to be", a la "The door was shut" against "She shut the door." It can also be linking, as in "The cake was delicious."

In either case, writers can find more dynamic ways to express what they're saying.

I've always thought the weird dialogue tags an indicator of novice writing.

Not sure what my crutch word is, personally, but I do know that I have problems with transitions. Would that have anything to do with me not thinking in transitions, y'think? ;D

Anonymous said...

Please avoid the chuckling, smiling, shrugging, nodding, shaking head, sighing, grinning, sighing -- and find something better for your characters to do than sit down, stand up, walk over to, or smoke!

Sarahlynn said...


Charley said...

I must be getting old. "Dialogue tags" used to be called "saidisms" -- anything other than the word "said" (although "asked" occasionally seems to be acceptable).

Thank goodness for computers with Find and Replace. Crutch words are not the exception, a couple per book. They're everywhere. And every time I recognize one and go on a search-and-destroy mission, I have to make a note of whatever I replace it with, and do a search for that one. And the next. And....

Seems to me that some words are basically invisible, though, and you can use them lots without a problem. You can only have someone "raise their eyes" or "peer" or "squint" so many times, but having a character "look" at a noisy squirrel is showing their action without a distractingly unusual word. Maybe we all have different sensitivities to certain words, of course, and are bugged by what's invisible to someone else.

Great blog. Thanks!