Let’s face it. The goal of every newbie writer is a publishing deal. While we may write for the love of the game, we’re also in it for the love of the fame. Yet, for every J.K. Rowling who knocks them dead with her first novel, thousands of writers fail to make it past the slush pile. Some manuscript screeners are so cutthroat that something as simple as a wordy first line could cut a manuscript’s chances off at the legs. In light of this, I’ve identified ten habits every writer should avoid in favor of concision and clarity.
Avoid wishy-washy words. “It was as if…” “It seemed like…” “It felt…” “I heard…” “I saw…” “There was…” “It was like…” “She sort of…” “They kind of…” “He probably…” These are weak ways to start a sentence. They show no sense of commitment. Make the action immediate and definitive. “Bells chimed all around me,” is better than “I heard the bells chime.”
Avoid sacrificing clarity for duality. We are all guilty of this: “As Maria picked up a basket of laundry, she turned to face Leah.” We want to show two actions happening at once, but the sentence structure is convoluted. Trust the audience will understand the order of actions. This is clearer: “Maria picked up the laundry basket. She turned to face Leah.”
Avoid lengthy sentences. Check construction. Keep sentences succinct. Embrace one of the most popular lessons from Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style: “Omit needless words.” Avoid using “which,” “what,” “who,” “just,” and “that” as filler. For example, “Julia was the type of woman who used sex in order to manipulate people,” is not as great as, “Julia used sex to manipulate people.”
Avoid exclamation points and italics for emphasis. This is a sign of muddled writing. F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.” Instead, use strong verbs to convey the desired emotion. Find words that enlighten the senses and infer movement or rhythm. If the words require further emphasis, clarify the action.
Avoid excessive use of modifiers. Why use “he said angrily” when “he shouted” is more succinct and just as effective? Rely on strong verbs over adverbs.
Avoid unbalanced cadences. Use parallel construction when creating lists. Bad: Mike loved running, jumping, and to hop and slide. Better: Mike loved to run, jump, hop, and slide.
Avoid idioms. Clichéd sayings like “fast as a bunny” or “quick as a wink” are tiresome to the reader. Use unique metaphors or similes to create a vivid picture. Divine your own images, and don’t rely on obvious shortcuts.
Avoid the negative. Unless you’re writing for emphasis, as with this essay, structure sentences in the positive. “He’s never on time,” versus “He’s always late.” The first borders on being an opinion. The second borders on being fact. The reader will appreciate the more objective perspective that comes from using the positive phrase.
Avoid redundancies. “Don’t you dare,” Maria shouted—the meaning of the dialogue implies anger, and we can imagine Maria shouting without the addition of “Maria shouted.” This is an example of unnecessary repetition. The best way to correct this passage, especially if you want to avoid the dialogue tag, is to move the story forward with a beat of action: “Don’t you dare.” Maria slapped him before he could respond.
Avoid disruptive internalization. Don’t break up good dialogue with paragraphs of internalization. You risk losing the reader and destroying the flow of the scene. The scene’s body language and dialogue—what is being said, how it is being said, why it is being said, and where it is being said—should provide insight into your viewpoint character’s thoughts. Leave the internal monologue for when the character has a moment to reflect unencumbered.
Avoid recreating accents via text. “I vant too dreenk yer blood.” Nobody wants to read a bunch of nonsense words. If a character has an Aussie dialect, tell us he is from Sydney. Give us a few subtle indicators like, “No worries, mate.” Then leave it alone. Less is more. Besides, if you’re lucky, the audiobook and film versions will give us the desired accent.
Remember, the writing process is just as much about the exploration as the destination. Before submitting a project, ask yourself: What habits should I rid myself of so that my writing is clear and strong? Stand apart from other submissions by sharpening your self-editing skills.
Illustration by Josh Quick.