Kicking Bad Writing Habits To The Curb

Happy New Year, everyone! It’s resolution time, when many of us commit to eating healthier foods, getting eight hours sleep, cleaning the closets, and watching less television.

I haven’t yet made a life-improving resolution for the year. What’s been on my mind these last few weeks are the bad habits I and many writers develop that, if left uncorrected, will result in manuscripts loaded with words and expressions that do nothing to advance or enhance the plot. They slow the story and make reading the work a chore rather than a pleasure.

Here are a few habits I’m mindful to avoid when I’m working on a Veronica Walsh mystery.

A Big As Problem

Type “Writer’s Overused Words” in Google and the search engine will provide links for the four, eight, ten, or thirty (pick a number, any number) words most abused by writers. You will also find articles offering plenty of advice on how to strengthen your writing if you just stop using “just.”

A word I have been guilty of using too much is “as.” It took me a while to realize I overused this two-letter word that can be used as (there it is again) an adverb, conjunction, and preposition. “She said as. . .” “As I walked . . .” “As if . . .” “It was as good as . . .” It’s so easy to load up a manuscript with the vocabulary equivalent of diet soda. All filler, no substance.

Along with “as,” “that,” “just,” “really,” and “very” are words that will boost word count but glut a manuscript.

Just say no to them in a really loud voice.

Giving Adverbs the Heave Ho

Adverbs are another class of overused words and, according to every article I’ve read on writing no-no’s, the scourge of manuscripts everywhere. The bane of every editor’s existence.

So why were adverbs invented if we can’t use them to describe how a line of dialog is said, or how the heroine ran up the street? Who knows, but “She sprinted down Broadway” and “He screeched in my ear” are more effective than “She ran quickly” and “He said loudly.” Don’t you agree?

I’ve divorced the adverb from my writing life, though we see each other from time to time. Casually, of course.

Too Much Description Can Be a Bad Thing

Writers use descriptive language to bring characters to life, plop readers in the middle of a setting, and put objects integral to the plot in the readers’ hands. Description deftly applied will leave readers salivating over the plate of lasagna a character feasts on, longing for a visit to a fictional country estate (despite the murder that takes place there), and twitching their noses for a scent of the femme fatale’s enticing perfume.

A little bit of description goes a long way, though, doesn’t it? I think it’s good to leave some things to the reader’s imagination. Draw the sketch and let us color between the lines, right? Let’s take, for example, a dinner party at the aforementioned country estate. It’s important to give readers a mental picture of the gathering, but we don’t need a head-to-toe physical description of all fifteen characters in the room, the minute details of every item on the mantel, and what type of booze is in every glass. Talk about information overload!

Writers sometimes use description to increase word count, but too much will stop the flow of the narrative and lead readers to skipping the paragraphs, sometimes even pages, of the writer’s meticulous reporting.

Eyes All Over the Place

“And please be careful about a character dropping his or her eyes. They could get stepped on.”

Thanks to that remark by editor Deni Dietz (the fabulous lady who opened the door to Five Star Publishing for me), my characters glance, stare, and gaze at each other and their surroundings. Their eyes never lock, fall, or, yes, drop, on any person, place, or thing. I smile and think of Deni whenever I encounter hyperactive eyeballs in other writers’ work.

I wonder, though, if I could occasionally write, “Her eyes popped out of her head” or “His eyes fell on the alligator-skin boots the woman wore” without causing irreparable damage to a character’s body. Maybe at the end of a scene, when everyone’s stopped moving around and the eyeballs can be retrieved and replaced in the proper sockets?

Here’s to a great 2017 for us all. And for today I wish you a good Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

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