I should probably call this my Bottom Three, as in the Three Worst Mistakes I Make in My Writing.
No, no, wait. Let’s rephrase: Not the three worst, because I’m sure there are other bad things I do of which I’m not even aware.
So let’s try Three Random Writing Mistakes I Make. Out of a Possible Gajillion.
Okay, moving forward again.
We all have writing crutches. Words we cling to, turns of phrase we cannot give up. Tropes that we simply will not let go of, no matter how terrible, how eye-rollingly bad.
I’m going to pick three of my bad writing habits, in no particular order. Not because I’m trying to educate anyone out there, but because sometimes it feels good to know that we all screw up, we all like comfortable things—even in writing—and we’re all really bad at correcting those problems without someone else at our side, ready to poke us with a stick when we falter.
1. Weak Words
What are weak words? Okay, here goes:
“Just then, I felt a cool breeze blow against my skin.”
That’s great. Nice and wordy. Which would be fantastic if I were going merely for word count and not really giving a flying flip about the tightness of my prose.
How about this:
A cool breeze blew against my skin.
That’s it. Cool breeze, on the skin. We’re good. We don’t need the justs and the thens and the felts and so on. Get to the point already, and don’t let said point get lost in too many words. Noun, verb, adjective, etc. Stick to the main parts of speech and it should be good.
Note: I use weak words ALL THE TIME. It’s like a bag of chips, and someone tells me I can have only one. My first drafts (and second drafts) are a wasteland of “she just touched the doorknob” and “he felt her move behind him” and “then she walked upstairs”. I am terrible about it. But I’m getting better. I know what I’m doing wrong. Now I just (See? See how easy it is?) need to stop doing it.
What is an ellipse? Well… let me think… I mean… I could try and explain, or… I guess…
Okay. Think about how William Shatner talks. He talks in ellipses. Every… single… pause… and… hesitation…
Now, most of us don’t sound like Captain Kirk after a long day of being chased around the moons of Nibia, but we do pause. We stammer. We hesitate and stop to think before starting all over again. But not every single one of those needs to go into our dialogue. Cut them out. At least, a good number of them. If you have so many pauses and stops that it becomes distracting, you have too many. If you want to keep some in to show that someone is nervous, or has a particular speech quirk? Great. But don’t go overboard.
Note: This is my worst fault. Seriously. I cannot…. stop… using… ellipses. So in my first draft, I let myself go. I throw in as many as I want and feel great about it. And when editing and rewriting drafts comes around? I edit those suckers out like my life depends on it.
3. Over-descriptive Prose.
I grew up loving to read classic novels. Charles Dickens was a favorite. I’m also starting to fall in love with Herman Melville. The problem with that? They were paid by the word. They would spend pages describing a crooked window or someone’s hat. And I loved every paragraph of it. I loved the prose and the way it flowed and rolled off the tongue. To me, it was beautiful.
But not everyone likes it that way. And sometimes, when you’re trying to move your plot along, and something important is about to happen, and you don’t want to lose your narrative thread, you can’t suddenly get bogged down describing someone’s dress or the quality of the furnishings or the exact temperature of that crisp autumn day, when the leaves chased each other along the pavement, scraping along with each gust of wind, then skittering into a puddle, it’s glass-like surface disturbed by the curled edges of that golden scrap of vegetation, a forgotten remnant of a former season…
Yes, yes, I know. The air was crisp, the leaves blew across the sidewalk. Gotcha.
Note: I LOVE WORDY, DESCRIPTIVE PROSE. I’m sorry. I’m an unabashed word nerd. I will never stop reading it or writing it.
KHAAAAAAAAN! I mean, NEVERRRRR!!!
So that was my top (or bottom) three. Chosen at random. Honest. And that’s not even getting into characters, plot, subplots, being able to finish a story, to finish a scene, dialogue tags, em dashes, and so on. I could make a list 376 items long. But I won’t, because no one needs to be that depressed.
Now, what are your worst three? Go ahead and list them in the comments below!