From Sarah, With Joy

Writer querying two novels and some other word babies. I tend to effervesce.

New post every Monday

Monday, September 15, 2014

Top 7 Mistakes That Make Your Writing Look Unprofessional

Writing is subjective enough.

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.

Write on!

Sarah Allen

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SUBMISSION OPPORTUNITIES:

  • 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.

SPOTLIGHTS:


23 comments:

  1. No exclamation points?!
    Yeah, that's the one I still struggle with. Still searching my current manuscript for those pesky things. Most are easy to remove as they aren't really needed.

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    1. Yes, indeed. We all have our habits :) This is why editing lists and beta readers are crucial.

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  2. Great post. And great topic. I'm blogging about it myself this week. I'll link to this post! You have a few more on your list than I do. And Alex, thanks for the exclamation point reminder!!!!!

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    1. Thank you so, so much Anne for the linkback! I look forward to seeing your post. Very excited!!!!!!

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  3. Hi Sarah, thanks for visiting Chicken's Consigliere. This was a helpful post. My favorite book on writing is Stephen King's book. I think it might be called Stephen King On Writing, oddly enough, and I love it . You have the best tips I took from his book plus some I haven't read. This is great. I'm eating an elephant one bite at a time. Or maybe a car. Maybe a car named Christine. One spooky bite at a time. But I digress. Thanks again for the visit and I'll be back.

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    1. Thanks for stopping by :) (We welcome chickens and farm animals of all types ;) On Writing is an absolute classic!! Such a useful and inspiring book, and entertaining too. As King usually is. And indeed, this is a one bite at a time kind of project :) Best of luck tackling that elephant! Or car...named Christine... ;)

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  4. Wonderful tips. Most I've had drilled into me by members of my critique group, but I do like the occasional exclamation point - just! not! all! the! time! Would love to see you write a short short using all these errors...

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    1. Ok, now that sounds like a fun challenge :) I might have to try that!!!!!

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  5. Thanks for the tips. I can use all the help I can find :-)

    Anna from Shout with Emaginette

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    1. Oh, my pleasure!! I'm glad I can be in any way helpful. Thanks for stopping by!

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  6. Sarah, I've been so guilty of some of these mistakes, moreso in the earlier part of my career. It's good to have the reminders. Hemingway was the one I learned from regarding unnecessary adverbs. And you are so right, when you suggest simply using "said". It's enough.

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    1. I definitely think we all have to learn our way through these, especially, like you say, in the beginning. I'm glad these rules help, to my thinking just being aware of these guidelines can be a big step forward.

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  7. Oh man...exclamation points? That is one of my weaknesses. Great post. :)
    Edge of Your Seat Stories

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    1. Ah yes, we all have them. This list is as much for me as anyone else :) But I figure knowing and considering the writing "rules" is the first step in using the rules to our advantage.

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  8. (Just hating on the rule, not on your post!) I really hate and totally disagree with that exclamation point thing. We're writing fiction, not English essays. We use exclamation points. I really dislike it when a writer writes something like. "Look out," he shouted. It feels false and broken. "Look out!" has such a stronger punch. Or, say, when a character is thinking in his head, third person or first person. What if Michelle hated him? That would be horrible! I never understood why this wasn't acceptable. People shout, and it's often quicker and more effective to use the exclamation point than taking an extra sentence to "show" how the person is speaking.

    Just my two cents.

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    1. Ah, yes! Very interesting thoughts. And actually, if you think about it, what you said is still within the rule. As you pointed out, exclamation points are most often useful within dialog, like the examples you gave. Or within thought. I totally agree "Look out!" is much better than a flat "Look out." I just think we should be judicious in our use of exclamation points, and it seems as if you're doing just that :)

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  9. I save a lot of those bad writing habits for my blog whenever I want to have a bit of fun. On the serious side though, I have made an honest and sincere attempt to cut down on the exclamation points. I find that strengthening the description more often than not eliminates a lot of exclamation points.

    I also go with short paragraphs in addition to varying the cadence of the sentence too.

    Father Nature's Corner

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    1. Varying paragraphs, yes! That's another great rule that can really help. Thank you!

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  10. I just finished editing (stopping the editing, actually) on a manuscript that employed pretty much all these things. Everything but the clichés, in fact. At first, I'd started correcting and adjusting, and then realized I was practically ghostwriting to make it what it needed to be. I explained to the author all the same things you mentioned above, since they're instant red flags for me as well, and thankfully the advice was taken to heart and rewrites are happening. The funny thing is that this author is someone who always agrees with my Editor's Notes posts, but I suppose it's more difficult to recognize when it's your own work.

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    1. Oh boy :) At least the cliches were absent! That's a good sign, a lot of the other things can be fixed by a good editor (like you!) And yes, it is harder to be objective about our own work, which is why editors and beta readers are so vitally important!

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  12. 8. Skipping from 3 to 5 without a 4. While it can be good to break up your style a bit from time to time, if it is not done carefully it can be a bit jarring to the reader. Heh.

    (I really like the other six, though.)

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  13. If you are a writer you must have a glance at the web page to get super tips on writing so you will become the ultimate writer and your articles or essays would be perfect.

    ReplyDelete

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