So recently I went back and looked at an older draft of Cambiare out of sheer curiosity. I wanted to see how far I’d come in the past couple of years and umpteen drafts.
And I noticed some patterns. Writing tics that I’ve also noticed in beta reads, but common mistakes I also made. Here’s my “Top 5” list, with examples from my own early draft.
1. Weakening words and phrases.
As a general rule, you want to avoid words that weaken the impact of your narrative. (Dialogue is an exception).
- Seemed to
- A bit/A little
- Appeared to
- Looked like
A couple of examples from my own writing:
His lips turned downward, his eyes narrowing slightly.
The “slightly” is completely unnecessary, and actually undercuts the impact of his eyes narrowing. Just trim it entirely.
When picked up and shaken out, it seemed to be a cloak of fine, light wool in a middling gray hue, lined in rich black cotton. It spilled over her hands with a pleasant weight.
Again, just swapping the bolded phrase with “was” makes the description stronger.
I’d wager you could eliminate 95% of the instances of the words/phrases in that list and it would only strengthen your story.
2. Rephrasing and repeating.
This is one of my most frequent and egregious errors. I’m an over-writer, and this is how a lot of extra words get added to my manuscripts. It’s pretty common. You’re working your way around how to phrase an idea, and will write it twice in two different statements. The key is to pick the best one and delete the weaker one during the editing phase.
Example from my own draft:
She traced one of the constellations with a fingertip, a familiar gesture. It was soothing, and she worked through the entire ritual, finding it helped ease her panic.
The two bolded phrases basically say the same thing. I’d actually eliminate the “it was soothing” since it’s the more passive of the two phrases, then rearrange things a bit to say this:
She traced one of the constellations with a fingertip. As she worked through the familiar ritual, her panic eased.
3. Sentence structure errors.
Run-on sentences. Comma splices. Fragments. These can be used judiciously at times to add to the voice of your narrative, but need to be used deliberately and consciously.
Examples from my early draft:
At her palace, a sculpted and painted mural served this purpose, the constellations were carved into marble and painted brilliant blue, images of the gods and goddesses surrounded them.
The problem here is the improper use of commas to separate full sentences. If I were to line-edit this, I’d rephrase as follows:
At her palace, mural served this purpose. The constellation lines were carved into marble and painted brilliant blue, while sculpted images of the gods and goddesses surrounded them.
This might be the hardest mistake to fix. It requires a deep knowledge of grammar and sentence structure. If you find that beta readers are pointing out frequent errors, studying up on grammar and craft might be necessary.
4. Dialogue tag adverbs.
Hoo boy, did I misuse this one. I’m not going to say adverbs are always bad. Personally, I feel they do have their place. But they’re particularly noticeable in dialogue tags, and these should be used judiciously. (And yes, I’m aware I used three adverbs in this paragraph).
No. This could not happen. Her voice, when she spoke, was hoarse. “Can we just go home now?” she croaked quietly.
This one is a double-whammy. On top of the unnecessary “quietly”, it also has the whole “repeating oneself” problem from point #2. It states that her voice is hoarse, then uses “croaked” to describe it. I’d fix it this way:
No. This could not happen. “Can we just go home now?” she croaked.
This version feels stronger.
A simpler example:
“Get dressed!” She snapped at him angrily.
In this case, the bolded part can be eliminated. “Snapped” says it all.
Bonus side note: I do want to point out that both these examples do use “said-isms”, which are words used to replace “said”. (Exclaimed, shouted, hissed, snapped, croaked, whispered, murmured, muttered, etc.) These stand out more than “said”, and tend to work best when used sparingly.
5. Telling emotion vs. showing
I know, I know… “Not show vs tell again“. While I’m not a complete stickler for the whole “show don’t tell” adage, it is most noticeable when it comes to character emotion.
In my early draft, I would often just state how my main character felt. It’s usually necessary to get the draft complete, but can be finessed in revision. It often lacks oomph and falls a bit flat. Example:
Cirelle was suddenly very tired. Waking up at night and sleeping during the day was a wearying shift from her usual habits.
(Side note: The use of “very” is another common habit that can weaken prose. “Exhausted” would have been better than “very tired”).
That aside, declaring Cirelle’s tiredness misses an opportunity to immerse us more deeply in the story by showing us cues. It also helps the emotion resonate more deeply. Here’s how I’d fix that:
Cirelle yawned. Waking up at night and sleeping during the day was a wearying shift from her usual habits.
For showing emotion, I highly recommend The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. It’s one of my favorite writing resources. You can look up a particular emotion and it will provide a list of internal and external physical reactions that accompany it.
So that’s it. My Top 5 Mistakes. The good news: all of these mistakes are easy to fix once you know what to look for. Revision is your best friend. You’ve got this, and good luck implementing those changes!