If you're not into writing, you might want to skip this post.
Lately, via e-mail, I’ve been critiquing chapters for four people. Two are young beginning writers; the other two aren’t so young. I’ve noticed that certain writing problems are common to all four. I suspect these problems are common to most beginning writers.
Disclaimer: Keep in mind that I’m not qualified to be an editor. I lack certain creds. I’ve never taken a publishing course nor worked in publishing. The only things I’ve edited have been middle school lit magazines and an anthology from a writers group. Granted, I have a master’s degree in English, but it’s a Master of Arts in Teaching, not an MFA. So, I critique rather than edit.
These are the main problems I’ve found in the chapters I’ve recently critiqued:
- Too much “began to” or “started to.” The character either did something or didn’t. If Fred “began to” write his name, did he only write the first letter? If Ethel “started to” get suspicious, did she not finish becoming suspicious?
- Too much “turned and.” Or “turned and went.” Yeah, in real life, people turn and do something. But the reader doesn’t need to know about every turn. Every time I read a “turned and,” I picture the character spinning in place.
- Use of similes. Similes are wonderful in poetry, but they bog down narrative. Plus, some similes didn’t quite fit. (See this post in the Flights of Fantasy blog.)
- Too many adverbs. Especially “simply” and “just.” Most adverbs can be cut. How is “simply too tired” more (or less) tired than “too tired”? If a writer continually (Oops!—I used an adverb!) has to explain how a character did something, the writer needs to take another look at his/her nouns and verbs. If you have to use an adverb, odds are good that your verb is weak.
- Too much description in general. When a writer takes time out to describe, the action screeches to a halt. (See #8 & #9 in Elmore Leonard’s “Easy on the Hooptedoodle” article.)
- Too much explanation. In most cases, a writer doesn’t need to tell the reader how someone said something. What a character said is usually sufficient.
- Creative dialogue tags. “Said” is the invisible word that doesn’t call attention to itself. But if a character giggles, mutters, hisses, snaps, recalls, retorts, cajoles, coughs, or rasps, I stop paying attention to what the character said and wonder how the character was able to express himself in that way. When I read “responded with an ache in his voice,” I was puzzled: Toothache? Heartache? Sore throat? (See #3 in “Easy on the Hooptedoodle.” )
- Misplaced modifiers. If a character “sobbed on his knees,” I picture tearstained pant-legs. Here’s a misplaced participial phrase from the front page of the “Extra” section of today’s Roanoke Times: “While trying to carry a box of Christmas stuff out the front door, the door had swung open a bit too hard. . . .” (How did the door try to carry a box out of itself? Why doesn’t the RT editor catch this stuff?)
- Clichés. Examples include at long last, take to heart, broke the silence, screeches to a halt (Oops! Used that one earlier, didn’t I?) etc. While some clichés can act as shorthand to get an idea across, most bog down writing.
Writing is rewriting. The first draft is what you need to know to tell the story. It’s OK to over-write the first draft as long as you realize that you’ll have to cut it to the essentials in later drafts. Subsequent drafts are what the reader needs to know to understand the story.
You are writing for a reader, aren’t you?