How do we become good writers, besides writing a lot? Read a shit load. And how do we become better writers? Read a shit load and critique the hell out of it. No, not just the work of your peers here on Scribophile (although you should critique the hell out of that, too). Those authors who are published but used to be just like me and you sometime in the not-so-distant past.
It can be easy to adopt the mindset that just because a writer is published, and does well, that all their words are perfect, or, at least, should be regarded as the standard. Of course, this is not true. In an art gallery you can find bad art, in a movie theatre you will DEFINITELY find bad movies, and just the same you will find bad writing in the bookstore. Every book you read is a lesson and as a writer it’s your job to go to class as often as you can, learn as much as you can, and take your newfound knowledge home to bang out the best report anyone’s ever read.
That’s what I try to do. So, naturally, I’ve come up with a few pet peeves over the year. These are the top, and since I hate these, my biased opinion is that if you rid your writing of them, it will instantly be better.
1) Adjective/adverb use. Yes, I’m sure you’ve heard it, but it doesn’t mean it can’t be one of my pet peeves. It bogs down the writing and makes it feel, frankly, cheap and unprofessional. In editing, these are usually the first that can go, especially the adverbs. Adjectives can be your friend, and are a small part (see, there goes a non-annoying one!) of my pet peeve, but sometimes they need to go, too.
The large man cautiously peered around the sharp corner into the long and menacingly dark hallway. His breathing was laboriously slow, the polar opposite of the ferocious beat of his drugged-out heart.
The large man peered around the corner into the dark hallway. His breathing was slow, the polar opposite of the beat of his heart.
Which do you like better? How different of a picture do these sentences really draw for you? I’ll spare you the task of going through why I kept vs. scratched certain words (and your choices may have been different, which is fine), but I’ll explain one. I took out cautiously because it is already implied by the mood I set (peering around corners, dark hallways, fast-beating heart) that he is being cautious. On the contrary, I kept large because it’s a characteristic of the man I want the reader to know that he or she would not know otherwise.
In the end: if in doubt, cut it out.
2) Dialogue. And no, I don’t mean the existence of dialogue in writing annoys me. If it would, I’d probably try out a different profession, maybe become a mime. What I’m talking about is when the author replaces ‘said’ with….well, with just about everything.
“Where’s my money?” Jack blurted out.
“Calm down, honey,” his wife soothed.
Jack turned to her. “Don’t tell me what to do!” he barked. Now back to the skinny man at the other end of the gun.
“You have three seconds,” he hissed.
“I spent it!” the skinny man ejaculated.
“That,” sighed Jack, “is not the right answer.” He pulled the trigger.
“I’m . . . dying,” the skinny man gurgled.
See? Annoying. Of course, it may be written a little bit better than this in an actual novel, but just like the adverbs, many different labels for a character’s speech is distracting. Besides that, it’s just not needed. A reader’s imagination is superb and, if you set the scene the right way, they will be able to sense what tone your characters are using. Also, the speech itself should hint to how it is being said.
“Damn, bro, are you okay?” I asked.
“Yes, I couldn’t be better with this bullet hole in my arm,” he replied sarcastically.
Of course he’s being sarcastic! My advice: used ‘said’ as your standard. When you feel like it is absolutely needed, stray from this norm, but it should be for things along the lines of ‘yelled,’ ‘whispered,’ etc, etc. Again, like any ‘rule’ (and this is hardly one), it can be bent, broken, or just flushed down the toilet.
3) Extremely long paragraphs (see, that could have just been ‘long paragraphs’ and you would have gotten the gist just fine). Turning over a new page to find a big, unrelenting square of words is like getting to the airport and discovering there’s a two-hour delay. I’m NEVER excited about verbosities, even if it’s supposed to be some kind of art (House of Leaves). To me, it means a break in action. A time without dialogue and, most likely, a time where I’m not getting any closer to the things I want to know. I’ve found that usually they are descriptions, whether that is of emotions, locations, characters, or history. As a writer, I recognize that as something that can be cut down.
Oh, and it gives the reader an unneeded feel of commitment. As a reader, the last thing you want to do is stop in the middle of a paragraph when you have to put down a book for whatever reason. When you return later, it’ll be twice as hard to find where you left off. So when you come to the beginning of those one, two, three pages of text with no break, you may very well choose to put down the book, quit now while you’re ahead, and just tackle the beast later.
How to fix it: Take your long paragraphs and ask yourself, why is it long? Does its length serve a purpose? Are you using too many descriptives (see #1)? If you go through all the checks and still decide that all this material is worth keeping, at least break it up into workable paragraphs.
Don’t do it for me….do it for the readers.