So many important decisions that influence our careers depend on if an assistant got the right coffee that morning, or the timing of editors moving from one house to another, or a magazine editors daughter laughing at your story, or a myriad of other subjective things all out of our control. In many ways we writers are constantly subject to the whims of peoples moods and tastes. An editor or agent looking for say, historical romance, still needs to like our historical romance.
So what can we poor writers do when so much is out of our control? I think one aspect of dealing with that is acknowledging that in many ways this is an endurance game, and that those who stick with it will succeed in the end. However, the other aspect of all this is focusing on the elements we can control.
That means our writing.
When we submit to an agent or editor or anyone for that matter, we may not be able to control what kind of day they're having, or whether they prefer werewolves to vampires, but we can make our submission as clean as possible. We can stand out from many other submissions by sending prose that is polished to a shine and absolutely professional.
And we do that by avoiding several key mistakes that will make our writing look amateurish. Keeping these errors out of our writing can help us convince those agents and editors that we are serious writers, regardless what side of the bed they woke up on that morning.
1. Getting creative with the dialog tags. I'm pretty sure this isn't new to anybody, but it's definitely one of the biggest red flags. I know that as a reader I get a little eye-rolly when people are "bellowing loudly" and "exclaiming vehemently" and "vowing solemnly." Stick with said. Maybe sprinkled with the occasional asked. And if you really, really want to mix it up, maybe use a whisper. But the basic rule of thumb: just plain said.
2. Using exclamation points. In regular prose, the basic rule of thumb is "No Exclamation Points." Just no. Occasionally...strong emphasis on occasionally...they can be useful within dialog. Outside of that, they tend to read as a bit comic kampy. Bang! Womp! Pow! If you're feeling the need to use exclamation points for emphasis, there's a good chance that's a symptom of week prose that might not be bearing the emphasis on its own. Don't get me started on interrobangs...
3. Overuse of adverbs. Before you roll your eyes at yet another someone telling you to avoid adverbs at all costs, just hear me out. I'm not one of those who think of adverbs as pure poison, the smallest dose of which can kill a pet project in its infancy. No, I think every word has its use. Including adverbs. The issue is when you get attached. People often say to avoid too many adverbs because they are too strong, but I think it's just the opposite. Some writers tend to rely on adverbs to show the scene, when really they are some of the weakest descriptors of all, unless used carefully. It's like with exclamation points--mixing it up can lead to stronger writing.
4. Other Grammar Mistakes: There are a lot of options of mis-step here, but I'll just point you to a wonderful blog that can give you a crash course in good grammar and usage: The Story Polisher.
5. Sentence length never varies. Words and sentences have rhythm. Like singing a line of song. Readers get into a set pace. That pace gets old very fast. But if you're conscious of that rhythm, you can take advantage by changing it up. Write short sentences. Then write sentences that wander, that meander, that add to your prose a little bit of syncopation. The change in pace will move your reader forward and keep them interested. That's how you look professional.
6. Switching point-of-view. Otherwise known as head hopping. This can make things very confusing for your reader, and make your writing appear unprofessional. This is when you're in a scene with your point of view character, let's call her Betty, and your secondary character, Martha. If we're in this scene and suddenly we get:
"These croissants are delicious," Martha lied. She knew Betty couldn't cook to save her life.then suddenly we're in Martha's head, seeing what she thinks. We've hopped from Betty's head to Martha's. Switched point-of-view. An automatic red-flag of unprofessionalism.
7. Using cliche phrases. There's not much to say about this one. And no quicker way, really, to know all the phrases to avoid than just by doing lots and lots of reading. A good rule of thumb is to avoid any phrase you remember hearing before. Saying a character is "cold as ice" doesn't really say anything anymore. Saying a characters eyes are "blue like the ocean" will generally just make your reader roll theirs. Then suddenly all hell will break loose.
I hope these tips help, but first a reminder: writing rules are, to quote the inimitable Captain Barbosa, more actual guidelines. It is important to know the "rules," and follow them probably the vast majority of the time. That is how you make your writing professional. But to make your writing personal--to make it memorable to your readers--add your own style and flavor. Be you. And if that means tweaking a few of these rules every once in a while, then try it out. See if it works.
This Week on Social Media:
For more frequent updates, writing tips, and funnies, follow on Facebook, Twitter, Google+,
YouTube, Pinterest, Tumblr, GoodReads, and/or Instagram.
- Madcap Review: Madcap Review, a semiannual online journal of art and literature, will be accepting submissions for its second issue from September 1st to October 31st.
- Allegro Poetry Magazine: Allegro Poetry Magazine seeks to publish the best contemporary poetry. Issue 1 will be published at the beginning of October and the editor is looking for poems on the theme “New”. Due Oct. 31.
- The Great American Lit Mag: Online literary magazine Inaugural Issue! The Great American Lit Mag is looking for fearless and inventive fiction and poetry. We publish quarterly. Due Sep. 30.
- Howl Magazine: Howl, edited by Deltona High School students, is currently seeking submissions of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and art for our brand new online literary magazine. Please feel free to send up to five poems or art and no more than one piece of prose at a time. Year-round.
- Lunch Ticket Magazine: Literary magazine Lunch Ticket (Antioch University) is accepting submissions for its Winter/Spring 2015 issue. Submissions welcome in the following genres: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, writing for young people, visual art, and translation. Due Oct. 31.
- Working for Free: When it Makes Sense (The Write Life)
- 5 Tips How to Write and Sell a Picture Book (The Plot Whisperer)
- How Can You Stand Out on Social Media (Social Media Today)
- The Secret to Publishing Success in the Era of Social Media (Anne R. Allen)
- 34 Blogging Topics Just for Writers (Social Media Just for Writers)