1. Writing sentences in the passive voice—Watch out for excessive use of the passive voice of verbs. Replace was and were with verbs that show action:
Burglars stole a lot of jewelry.
A lot of jewelry was stolen by burglars.
2. Using the same words over and over—Watch out for pet words. Find good synonyms to bring variety and life to your writing.
3. Using too much punctuation—Avoid being showy or self-consciousness about punctuation. Save the semicolon for formal writing, and don’t use it in dialogue. For guidance, consult a good basic text like The Elements of Style.
4. Using too many contractions—Using many contractions in exposition (narration) signals an informal style that may not suit the target publisher or the audience. When in doubt, check the publisher’s style sheet or ask for advice.
5. Writing “purple prose”—A common affliction of new writers, who often use too many adjectives and too much description:
“The rich, red tropical sun rose brilliantly over the sparkling azure blue water, spreading its glorious warmth over the dewy dandelions, sensuous snapdragons, and sleepy morning glories, which opened their blue mouths wide to taste the delicious dawn.”
Arrgh! Gimme a break.
6. Overusing pairs of adjectives—Another way writers sometimes overdo it. Trim the fat. One good adjective almost always works better than two.
7. Using clichés—Writers should avoid clichés like (ahem) the plague. Find an original way to express your thought.
8. Overusing $10 words—Too many unfamiliar, highfalutin’ words will turn off most readers. You don’t want to sound as if you’re showing off or talking down to the reader. Academic and technical writing, however, allows more such terms.
9. Making all sentences the same length—Varied sentence length is one characteristic of good writing. The right combination of short, medium, and long sentences actually helps hold the attention of the reader and keeps things moving.
10. Adding information that’s off the subject—Is all your text relevant to the story? Do all the people mentioned add something to it? If not, determine where you have strayed, cut out the junk, and get the narrative back on track.
11. Using too many words (overwriting)—Some writers just go on and on, with no sense of getting to the point, piling on adjectives and adverbs, making vague or irrelevant statements, and using several words when one would do. Eliminate unnecessary words.
12. Being too general—Vague and general statements take the life out of your writing. Be specific. The best writing is packed with details that engage the senses and emotions, allowing your readers to participate in the scene being described. Fiction or nonfiction, the principle is the same: Give your readers details, details, details.
Thayer Literary Services
Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.
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