As I mentioned in my last blog post, I am in the middle of working on editing stories for a science fiction anthology entitled NEMESIS. There are 10 authors, and I am editing 8 of the stories. Since I've been through many professional editing experiences since I've become published, I wanted to pass on what I've learned to writers who may not have had that opportunity.
It is interesting how you can't see the forest for the trees when you are a writer. You read over your story and think it is amazing and has hardly any problems...so why isn't an agent or a publisher interested in it?
Well, I am here to share with you some common errors that most writers make. I am not saying these errors are incorrect in sentence structure. These are errors that weaken your writing. Who wants to do that?
If you take the time to learn a few of these, you will come across as more seasoned writer. True confessions: every single one of these errors I have made in my writing.
1) WAS -ING construction. This one EVERYBODY does. Because it is a very common sentence construction. Here is an example of what I'm talking about:
Sally was choking on her toast, and Jim was smiling.
Reads like a perfectly normal sentence. But look what happens when we take away the 'was':
Sally choked on her toast, and Jim smiled.
See how that one small change makes the action more immediate? And also makes Jim reaction a little more disturbing?
Try to eliminate this from your writing, if you can. Sometimes, it is a necessary construction...but I would say 95% of the time, you can get rid of the 'was' in the sentence, and it comes out as a better, stronger sentence.
2) STARTED TO, TRIED TO, BEGAN TO, etc. This is also very common. I think it comes from the deep recesses of our brain. It is a crutch phrase that gets spat out on the page. As the writer, you are envisioning your character and his actions...as you move from one action to the next, you feel like there must be a connector to the next action. Guess what? Unnecessary.
Let's take a look:
David began to press on the brake. The car started to slow down.
Okay, this is also correct grammatically. Can you see how a writer got to this construction? He is imagining David bringing his foot down to the brake...and then visualizing the car afterward and what happens. But look what happens when you take away the crutch language:
David pressed on the brake. The car slowed down.
The actions still read as if they come one after the other, and the visual is still the same. I can imagine David pressing the brake just as I did before. The mind fills in the gaps. You don't need to lead your reader by the hand through every moment and every small action. But doesn't it read more cleanly? And the action seem more immediate?
3) Dialogue with no tags. I will admit. This construction drove me batty when reading the Harry Potter series. Not only did J.K. Rowling add dialogue tags all over the place, she also added adverbs. "He said menacingly." "She mumbled quietly." Etc. Guess what? You don't need tags after every piece of dialogue! You can use action or thoughts of your main POV character in between dialogue bits to enliven the scene and even reveal character.
Let's try an example:
"I don't want to marry you, Billy," cried Sheila forlornly. "I'm in love with someone else. I'm sorry."
Sure, you know Sheila said the words with a certain emotion because the author was kind enough to spell it out for you in black and white. But this assumes the reader is lazy and has no imagination! Let's make it better!
"I don't want to marry you, Billy." Sheila thought about the opal ring she'd hidden away in her sock drawer a week ago. Josiah had slipped it to her during lunch and had professed his feelings for her. "I'm in love with someone else. I'm sorry."
Which one tells you more about the character? Which one is more fun to read? You can do it with action as well. Let's try another version of the sentence above:
"I don't want to marry you, Billy." Sheila hid her hand behind her back and slipped off the opal ring Josiah had given her during lunch. "I'm in love with someone else. I'm sorry."
In both examples we know who is talking, but we also get more information about Sheila. And, boy, did we find out some interesting information!
Those are my three quick lessons for how to improve your writing! I hope you learned something useful that you can put into practice. Funny thing is, once these writing crutches are pointed out to you, you will never be able to look at your writing without seeing those problems.
Let me know in the comments if you have any tips for better writing that you want to share!