Jim's List of Writing No-Nos
James R. Muri
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Disclaimer:These are pet irritants of the Blizzard Guy's friendly Acceptance Editor.He has assembled this list from reading submissions over the years, and has compiled them for us.If you have other No-Nos you think belong on this list, send them along to firstname.lastname@example.org Or, do you want to read some really amusingly bad lines? Click here.
- I get very uncomfortable when the author overuses adverbs very often. It's very disappointing and sometimes very aggravating to see very superfluous adverbs detract from otherwise very good prose. So consider doing a global "search and delete" for the word 'very' in your stories. Lacking the visceral strength to do that, eliminate it from all non-dialogue. To juice up your writing, also search and delete for 'pretty,' 'somewhat,' 'fairly,' and other life-squeezing adverbs. In fact, it's a good policy to avoid adverbs altogether.
- Ellipses . . . They have their place. Perhaps once every 50 pages or so.
- It was. We were. They were. I was. She was. I am. We are. You are. Sentences are much stronger when they do not begin with or contain phrases like those above. To strengthen your prose even more, avoid tentative verbs like 'seem' or 'guess'.
- Dialogue is people talking. It should sound natural and human.
- This tip from the Washington State Department of Redundancy Department: Avoid redundancies, such as "We were in the process of leaving." Examine your phraseology to ensure you don't repeat the same thing again in the same sentence. (Extra points: I used a redundancy in the previous sentence. Did you catch it?)
- Metaphors, similes, analogies: Oh, you abusers of the comparisons! How you grind me into gravelly dust like the leftovers at the bottom of the pestle setting on the floor of a teepee, a mute ceramic goddess only made whole by the male mortar. Make your usage of those comparisons appropriate as a sparrow's wing, so that readers' eyeballs don't fly out of their faces and take off down the runways of confusion.
- Once I had had enough time to begin this effort, I thought I would mention that the word 'had' is often overused. You may not believe this, but I had had occasion to discover that it is possible that 'had' need never be used twice in a row, and that editors will strike one whenever they find two. It is also almost never necessary to use them as auxiliary verbs, such as "I had come to the store" instead of "I came to the store."
- Sentence fragments. Don't. (ps – How many sentence fragments have I used in this list? Circle them and laugh.)
- Prepositions and their proper usage are common subjects we are all familiar with. So what rule did I just violate? (extra points: correct the violation.)
- He said. She said. He said. She said. Ugh! How boring! How colorless, especially when used over and over! Use your word processor's thesaurus to find synonyms for 'said' and use them to convey a speaker's frame of mind or actions to the reader. For example: She asserted. He affirmed. She whispered. He breathed. She muttered. He stuttered. She offered. He reported. You get the idea.
- When narrating in an omniscient point of view (POV), do not use contractions. Reserve those for dialogue only. Omniscient observers are required to be grammatically correct and are not allowed to use colloquialisms, which all contractions are.
- When offered an opportunity to do so, let the characters show the reader the way of the story – do not intrude as the author to tell us and thereby shortchange the reader. Spoon-feeding the reader is the ultimate in author arrogance. By that, I mean telling them what to think, what to feel, what to conclude from the events being portrayed. Readers have life experiences – let theirs guide their interaction with the characters in the story you're telling. Again, writers should never intrude between their characters and readers.
- Watch your tenses. A common error is the use of the word 'now' when the author should have used 'then.' 'Now' is a word that implies the present – indeed, it means 'now', exactly as it says. So when telling a story in the past tense, the word 'now' should almost never be used, except in dialogue.
- Lay, lie, laid, lain – learn how to use these. They are among the most egregiously misused words in our language. If unsure, use synonyms instead. I once used the word 'layed' in a story. You can guess how embarrassed I was about that.
- Bunny trail run-ons are frustrating for readers, who might want to read a good story by the fireplace while sipping a homemade wine of theirs, vinted from dandelions they harvested in their own yards during the early spring before spraying for those blasted bugs that cause their yards so much trouble that they have to work all day in the sun to get rid of them.
- Hyperbole has its place, but most readers will respond more viscerally to austere prose crafted with a paucity of carefully-chosen nouns and verbs. So when in doubt, apply the rule that less is more.
- Pronouns and objects: make sure they agree. Example: "El thought that Debbie's backpack looked just like the one her boyfriend had." See the problem? Whose boyfriend is being talked about? Compare that to "El thought her boyfriend had a backpack that look just like the one Debbie carried." That's not as bad, although still a little nebulous, since 'her boyfriend' could still, to some, mean Debbie's boyfriend again. So better still: "El's boyfriend had a backpack just like the one Debbie carried, El thought."
- When doing dialogue, make sure the reader knows who is talking. Here's a bad example:The wind sighed in the trees."Can you tell me why?" Jane asked.
"Sure." Sandy scratched his head.
"Then –then maybe you should."
Again the wind sighed. Both thought for a time.
"Maybe it would be better if we didn't talk about it, though."
who said the last two quotes? Don't
know, right? And worse, the dialogue
would support either of them saying it. Avoid
- Passion is part of life. When writing about situations where passion would be normal, make sure the reader feels that passion. Escaping into clinical or analytical descriptions in order to avoid the embarrassment of writing passion is a cop-out that will infuriate readers. So if you're writing about it, feel it yourself and let your fingers flow it through your keyboard into your text.
- The current hysteria called Political Correctness has no place in creative writing about the past or, for that matter, any other time. You cannot change history, you can only write about it as it was, in the vernacular of the times (if you're doing a period piece). You cannot ascribe to people of earlier times the neuroses and eager victimhood of the present day population, so use the mannerisms, speech, and behaviors of the times as they actually were to tell stories. You will lend a richness and credibility to your work by doing so, and the shocked PC crowd be damned.
- Don't over-qualify. You don't have to sprinkle your piece with example after example of the results of your research in order to have credibility. One or two innocuous tidbits will suffice; too much will alert readers that you are trying too hard and they will look for flaws. For example, when describing a trip to the airport, there's no need to detail what highways you took, which exit, which gate at the airport, etc. unless they are central to the story. It's enough to say "we drove to the airport."
Do you have more examples? Send them to the Acceptance Editor
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