7 Easy Ways to Avoid Writing Like a Newb
Some people write for years and years making the same mistakes.
The mature writer takes a good, hard look at her writing and identifies the weaknesses. The immature writer fights to the death for every word she wrote as though it was inspired scripture. The latter might die with all her self-confidence in tact, but she won't die a better writer.
Along with a lot of pride swallowing, I've done a lot of research on writing. I've taken workshops and webinars, and read every article on writing that hits the bloggosphere, I haven't earned a place among those who teach writing by any stretch of the imagination, but I have discovered a few very simple ways to make sure my writing doesn't have that newbie smell. Agents i.d. red flags with lightning speed, so it's important to comb through a manuscript and rid it of any rejection-worthy mistakes.
Here are a few tips I've learned that lend a manuscript an air of experience in the writing world:
1. Don't let on that you love your own writing. Beginning writers fancy themselves to be the next Emily Dickinson, and so they'll pause in a moment that's really not all that significant to the story and stuff it full of adjectives and metaphors. Recently, Editor Adair had to cut out a sentence of mine because it was just shy of an aside that basically read "Didn't that last sentence just send a shiver down your spine? Wasn't the author so clever just then?" If you find that you won't trust the reader to enjoy what you've just written, and so you are writing more in order to make them like it, you're boarding the train to Self Indulgence Town. Never let your writing get in the way of the story.
2. Imagine yourself in the action, not in a movie theater. We are so steeped in a culture of cinematography, we forget why people still read books rather than watch movies. These are different forms of entertainment. As writers, we have to be very careful about description, because there are times when just a hint at the scenery is all that's needed. In the first drafts of my novel, I was describing the heck out of what everyone was wearing. It was soon pointed out to me that all that stuff is pretty boring in a book, especially if it is slowing down the action. In a movie, one can drink in a fabulous period costume while also watching a fight scene or a love scene, but the same is not true in a book. We must always choose action, character, and tension over set and lighting design. This is not a disadvantage! The movie-goer may be entertained through a compacted, boisterous medium, but her imagination barely lifts a finger. The reader exercises the imagination with all the stamina of an olympic swimmer, and she is happier for it. Let the reader's imagination improve upon your story.
3. Put a new spin on old sayings. Resist the temptation to write, "roared like a lion" or "locked in combat" or "a vision in pink" or "better late than never" or "it's no use" or "I was right all along" ... you get the idea. If it's a phrase that comes easily to mind, find a new way to say it. Flee from all clichés. I find this especially difficult when describing color (strawberry red instead of ruby red, etc.)
4. Adjectives are like dessert; too much of them spoils your supper ... I mean story. Adjectives are not to be trusted. They may seem like a wonderful way to juice up your prose, but that is rarely the case. All the famous authors seem to use them with such ease, but I'll bet for every gloriously executed adjective we've read, three more were cut from that same sentence. Use adjectives only when absolutely necessary. That is, the sentence would be lacking without it. In general, give the reader credit that he can see what you're spitting. [note: That's a phrase I made up. It makes me think of rapping.]
5. No fancy punctuation. If you are using ellipses in the first pages of your manuscript, I'll bet you anything it'll sink. Ellipses are the most overused punctuations by teenagers today ... mostly in their facebook statuses or tweets ... to indicate a morose yet romantic state of mind ... If you want to be taken seriously, use the reliable period. It is not moody or irritating. It doesn't distract the reader from the story. The same could be said for semi-colons, colons, and exclamation points. Use sparingly. Of these, I am most guilty of over-exclaiming. Everyone in the story is excited! Or angry! Or just shouting! That's newbie stuff.
6. No typos. Even when I post to this blog that no one reads, I make sure another pair of eyes has looked a piece over before it is sent out. Typos, although completely understandable, are a death sentence for writers seeking representation. It isn't fair, but the agent or reader simply thinks you don't have the chops if a typo mars your pages like a wart. Typo duty takes a lot of time and, for me, prayer. I have to really get in a peaceful state of mind to comb emails, blog posts, and prose for typos. In general, it is always important to find a way to put fresh eyes on your work, because the old eyes didn't see the mistakes in the first place.
7. Consistency. Whether it's point of view, verb tense, or the author's voice, it is imperative to pick one and stick with it until it makes sense to make a transition. Making a change in any of these should be done in a way that the reader can easily follow. Shaking it up is not always a bad idea, it's just that it should never be at the expense of your reader's trust.
These are just a few tips I've picked up during my adventures as an aspiring writer. I hope I can take my own advice, and one day fool an agent into thinking I'm worth my salt!