If you’re a budding writer, or even an established writer who still needs a bit of help, you should definitely check out the list of Ten Mistakes Writers Don’t See (But Can Easily Fix When They Do). I’m intellectually aware of the existence of all of these mistakes, but my ability to put them into practice varies wildly. I’ll go over the list of all ten and briefly discuss each one.
1. Repeats. I will admit to suffering from this problem, not so much the phrasing variety but definitely the word variety. I rely on certain useless words with far too much frequency. I’m especially thinking of the words “really” and “very”, which I use with such depressing regularity in first write-throughs of my sentences and then have to go back and excise. At least I’m aware of the problem though, and have been working to rectify it.
The biggest example of this problem in professional fiction I can think of was in a book by either Arthur C. Clarke or Robert A. Heinlein (sorry, I can’t remember which author or what book, but if you’ve ever read it you know exactly what I’m talking about). The word “presently” was overused to such a degree that it became immensely distracting. Pick any random sentence in that book and the odds are good it started with “Presently”. By contrast, you can go through entire novels by other people and never once run across that word. It’s not a good word. It doesn’t convey much information, and there are much better conjunctive phrases to be bandied about. I’m thinking whoever the editor of that book is was derelict in their duty.
2. Flat writing. I’m thankful that I don’t have this problem (or at least I don’t think I do). If anything, I have the opposite problem: language that is unnecessarily flowery. Regardless, I have a good eye for spotting flat prose, and as soon as I realize I’m producing some in my own work, I’m very quick to spice it up. Believe me, I hate writing sentences like “He parked in the lot, entered the grocery store, picked up some milk, eggs, and bread, and brought it to the register” just as much as you hate reading them.
3. Empty adverbs (such as actually, completely, totally, and literally). I like to think I’m decent at this one, and when I’m not it’s more for a lack of editing than an inability to spot them. I believe I acquired my eye for these guys during my time as an opinion columnist for The Diamondback. When you’re limited to 600–650 words and you have a lot you want to say, you get good at making every word count.
4. Phony dialogue. Yeouch, this one gets me all the time. It’s almost a given that the first draft of any dialogue I write is usually stilted. It’s like I’m making a framework for what I want the characters to be able to say, then I have to go back and actually make it sound like those characters are saying it. Otherwise, the dialogue is likely to come out sounding omniscient and in author’s voice.
A great example of phony dialogue that I saw recently was in the pilot episode of the television show The Secret Life of the American Teenager (don’t ask why I watched that). The show is about high schoolers, but the dialogue is way out of the league of anything teenagers actually say. One kid has a long string of witty repartees with his guidance counselor which actually has the guidance counselor looking like a bit of a fool. Two other students have a minutes long conversation on religion, abstinence before marriage, and sex that sounds like a back and forth one might hear in a debate. None of the students have their own voices; they all share the intellectual, grown-up voices of the script-writers, and it’s a major failing of the show. You’d think a show all about the supposed “secret lives” of teenagers would need to get the teenagers’ voices right, but alas, they didn’t manage.
5. No-good suffixes (or making up words that don’t exist by adding a few standard suffixes to them). I will agree that words such as startlingly, harrowingly, angeringly, lameness, suckitude, ownage, etc., have no place in proper English writing, and I’m never even tempted to use them. My basic reading/writing style involves verbalizing the words in my head, so if I can’t pronounce it, it’s a major stumbling block to the sentence’s flow. But I do think Holt’s advice goes a bit too far — fantasize is a perfectly cromulent word.
6. The ‘To Be’ Words (am, is, are, were, was, be, being, been, etc.). I will admit that I am not attuned to noticing this problem at all, and it’s probably the #1 thing I need to work on. And believe it or not, there is a writing style that completely forbids the use of any form of the verb “to be”. Not only is it actually doable, the results are pretty neat, if a bit awkward on occasion. The best mix, I suspect, is somewhere in between.
7. Lists. Another one of my weaknesses. Merely listing off features of a scene is no excuse for giving that scene a proper treatment. I am at least aware of this particular problem, so I’ll make more of a conscious effort to avoid it. I’m also prone to overuse “etc.” Most lists I write out have etc. at the end of them as a kind of hedge against having left anything out. It’s distracting and there are better ways of saying the same thing.
8. Show, don’t tell. Okay, I’m not looking too good with this list right now, having had problems with several in a row. Add telling, not showing to the list. This was specifically the main feedback I got on a short story I wrote about a year ago. And I’m still not the best at noticing it. Yet another thing to watch out for.
9. Awkward phrasing. I like to think I don’t suffer from this problem most of the time. The main part of my editing process consists of reading each sentence over carefully to make sure that it flows, and so I’m likely to notice awkward phrasing. I’m also not shy about spending minutes hacking a sentence to death and re-assembling the pieces if necessary.
10. Commas. Ah-ha, finally a point that I can say with near 100% certainty that I do right. I’m very particular about my commas, always making sure to insert them where they are needed and remove them where they are not. I even use all of the other punctuation where appropriate, including semicolons and colons. I’m also a big fan of the serial comma, and anyone omitting it in an instance where it doesn’t remarkably improve clarity is committing a typo as far as I am concerned.
So that’s it for the ten rules! They’re definitely worth keeping in mind for anyone doing writing. I’m just so glad that the three rules I love to hate were missing from this list: Don’t start a sentence with a conjunctive, end a sentence with a preposition, or split infinitives. Those rules are complete scheisse.
Also, as a disclaimer, if I violated any of these ten rules within this post itself, I’m going to say that it was my intention to do so jokingly rather than unknowingly.