The Dirty Dozen

The combined wisdom of Fiction World says that these are the top twelve mistakes writers make:

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 instead of 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 that opened their blue mouths wide to taste the delicious dawn.” Barf!

6. Overusing pairs of adjectives—Another way writers sometimes overdo it. Trim the fat. One good adjective usually 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 at hand? Do all the people mentioned add something to the story? 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.

Paul Thayer