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  • Mark Stibbe

FIVE ESSENTIAL WRITING TIPS: Cutting Out Common Mistakes

Over the years, we’ve served well over 1000 clients at BookLab, nearly all of them emerging and aspiring writers. My experience is this: many budding writers commit the same five mistakes in their writing. If they could iron these out, they could create great products.


So, then, let’s look at what I call the Five As.


1. ADVERBS


I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that these are most often words that end in LY. Adverbs I see commonly (Oh, look! There's an adverb!) in manuscripts are,


SUDDENLY/GRADUALLY

FORCIBLY/GENTLY

SOFTLY/LOUDLY


Others are ...



In about 90% of cases, an adverb is an indication of amateurish writing. In all six examples above, the adverb is used to TELL the reader something that should be SHOWN.


We’ll look at the SHOW, DON’T TELL rule in future blogs. For now, look at two different ways in which you, as a writer, can convey the idea of someone doing something loudly.


“Shut that door!” Fred said. “Now!”


In this example, it’s implied that Fred is being loud and there’s a sense of urgency. No adverbs are needed.


Here’s the second example.


“Shut that door!” Fred said urgently and loudly.


In this second example, the writer is communicating through adverbs what in the first example was communicated through dialogue. The first is an example of SHOWING, the second, TELLING.


This over-reliance on adverbs is a sign of poor writing. I agree with Stephen King: “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” When you get around to editing your book, cut most of them out!



2. ADJECTIVES


As you’ll no doubt know, these are words that describe a noun. If the noun, for example, is the word “hedgehog”, then the kinds of adjectives that might be used in relation to it are,


STARTLED PRICKLY

PLODDING

SQUAT

QUILLED

HIDDEN


Many new writers use too many adjectives, or too complicated ones. For example, someone who is an aspiring rather than an experienced writer may pile on the adjectives, describing the hedgehog as “a squat, prickly, hidden animal that looked startled.” That’s four adjectives! I encourage my writing students and clients to think of one or at the most two adjectives. Resist the temptation to overdo your descriptions. Too many adjectives will slow the pace of your prose and distract the reader.


In addition, don’t misuse the thesaurus. I do recommend using a resource like www.thesaurus.com and finding interesting synonyms for boring and predictable adjectives. However, I am now quite tired of reading “cerulean” in 21st century writing. It’s archaic and you wouldn’t hear it down the pub. I love what Faulkner said about Hemingway, that he had “never been known to use a word that had the reader running for the dictionary!” Please remember the KISS principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid! Use simple, interesting words.



What do I mean by simple, interesting words?


In general, there are two types of adjectives. There are INTERPRETATIVE adjectives. These are adjectives that are so general and vague that they invite a wide range of interpretations. If you say that your character “entered a big house”, that’s an interpretative adjective. It will mean a hundred different things to a hundred different readers.


If you say that your character entered “a stately home,” the adjective “stately” is the second kind of adjective, which we call DESCRIPTIVE. These are more precise words that don’t invite a multitude of interpretations. They encourage readers to see more clearly what the writer is describing.

As Mark Twain once said, “As to the adjective, when in doubt, strike it out!”


3. APOSTROPHES


I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that apostrophes are


(a) punctuation marks that indicate something belongs to someone. For example, “Jim’s Black Labrador.” The apostrophe is at the end of “Jim’s”. It indicates that the dog in question is Jim’s possession.


(b) Punctuation marks that indicate a letter is missing. In the word “it’s”, the apostrophe signals that the letter “i” is missing before the “s”. “It’s” is an abbreviation of “it is.” “They’re” is an abbreviation of “they are.”


Learning how to use apostrophes is something that we should have been taught at school, yet it’s astonishing how many of our clients confuse “it’s” (it is) with “its” (belonging to it), and “they’re” (they are) with “their” (belonging to them) and “there” (over there).


If you can master the apostrophe, you’ll signal to literary agents and publishers that you are at least capable of mastering the basics of punctuation. Literary agents hate reading submissions where these sorts of basic errors are evident in the synopsis, pitch and submission.


4. ATTRIBUTIONS


Attributions are those words that attribute speech to various characters. I am referring to those moments when writers say, “he said,” or “she said”. These phrases attribute spoken words to individuals within the story. Hence, the technical term, attributions.


Most new writers need to learn two main principles about attributions:


a) Try not to Use Attributions at All


When you’re writing dialogue, try to make it obvious from the context who’s speaking. That way you avoid having to use attributions at all.


b) Use Simple, Legitimate Attributions


Most new writers become bored of saying “he said”, “she said”, and start hunting down synonyms. “He interjected.” “She remonstrated.” “They insisted.” “He ejaculated.” These are distracting to the reader. Stick to simple attributions like “said” and “asked”.


New writers, in order to avoid “he said”, “she said” (out of a fear of sounding boring or repetitive), write things like this: “You’ve got to be joking?” he guffawed. This is wrong! You cannot “guffaw” words. You can only say words with a smile on your face, or with a chuckle.


For more on this, see the book written by my twin sister Claire and me, Writing Great Dialogue.


You can order this from Amazon.


5. ACTIVE VOICE


In my fifth and final A, I recommend you decrease the use of the passive voice and you increase the use of the active voice instead. Many emerging writers who come to us at BookLab use the passive voice too often. So, let’s be clear what this is and what it looks like.


The giveaway word that signals the use of the passive voice in a sentence is “by.” Here’s an example:

“Fred was badly mauled by a tiger that had escaped from its cage.”


Here, the passive is signalled by “was mauled” and “by”.


To turn the verb into the active, you need to write it as follows:


“The tiger broke out of its cage and inflicted severe wounds on Fred.”


See how you turn the passive into the active voice by removing the words “was” and “by”.


Here’s another example.


“The form was completed by Mrs Smith.”


You turn the passive into the active voice by identifying the subject of the main verb and making that subject the lead in the sentence. So,


“Mrs Smith completed the form.”


This is a far more natural way of describing things, people and events. In normal conversation, we don’t say, “my bicycle was ridden to the pub by me.” We say, “I rode my bike to the pub.”


The only exceptions to this are when the action is performed by someone whose identity is either unimportant or unknown. Even these sorts of statements can often be turned from the passive to the active voice, and in the process sound much stronger.



So, these are the five As. They point to five bad habits that emerging writers need to turn into good habits. Here are the five good habits:


· Use Adverbs as a last resort. When you edit your work, remember what Mark Twain once said: “When you see an adverb, kill it!”


· Use precise not vague Adjectives and as few as possible, remembering that great writers are meticulous and disciplined.


· Use Apostrophes in the correct way. Don’t confuse “its” with “it’s” and “their” with “they’re.” Be thorough.


· Use Attributions that are simple, such as “he said,” she said”, and try to write dialogue so that these phrases aren’t necessary.


· Use the Active not the passive voice by identifying the subject of the main verb in your sentence and letting that subject act.


One final note: even great writers make mistakes. Here’s the mighty George Orwell with two writing tips:


1. Could I put it more shortly?


2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?


Aside from the use of the unnecessary adverbs, Orwell fails to apply his questions to what he’s just written. The first statement is ugly, yes! “Could I put it more shortly?” That’s a horrible sentence. “Could I be more succinct?” That’s a much less clunky way of putting it.


All this goes to show that Hemingway was right about writers: “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one becomes the master.”


Keep persevering.


And…


Happy writing!

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