I am starting a series for new writers based on the common mistakes most of us make as first timers. If you know someone who harbors a secret, or not so secret, passion for writing, please pass it on!
Common Writing Pitfalls #1
Mechanics and Style: Adverbs, Passive, Adjectives
- 1. Passive voice (using was, is, has been, was verbs plus -ing) You can use passive sometimes to keep the flow and cadence going, but it’s better to make it an exception and not the rule.
Example: He was heading to the store. vs. He headed to the store.
Most of the time, you can pluck the was or is out and make the verb past tense.
Example: She was walking toward the tree. vs. She skipped toward the tree.
Not only do we need to fix the “was” but we needed a stronger verb to paint a better picture. Now we know she exuded happiness! She could have sauntered, strolled, paced, etc. Pick the verb that best describes the tone and mood you are trying to get across.
2. -ly adverbs. Adverbs distract and take away from the pace of the story. Replace weak verb/adverb combinations with one strong verb that sets your tone. If you absolutely have to use an adverb, like I just did, make sure it’s one among pages and pages of no adverbs.
Example: Gloria ran happily to her stash of candy buried in the backyard. vs. Gloria dashed toward her stash of candy in the backyard.
Using dashed, a strong verb, conveys her mood and means the same thing.
3. Don’t overuse adjectives. Make your descriptions clear and concise without overload. Describe what you need to in a clean, precise manner.
Example: “The hard, steel door slammed loudly behind me and I cringed in absolute fear as I stared at the wide, metal table in the lone, empty room.”
First look at all the adjectives—hard, steel, absolute, wide, metal, lone, empty. Then I have an adverb, and a few redundancies. Steel means hard. Lone means empty. If you slam something, it’s usually loud. If the room is truly empty, there would be not be a table. Also, it’s a long sentence and some of the punch gets lost in the wordiness.
Try this instead: The steel door slammed behind me, leaving me alone in the room. I stared at the metal table and cringed.
4. Be clear and specific when you write sentences and descriptions. Don’t use vague words such as it or things. Also, to build a stronger sense of setting, use specific nouns rather than general ones.
Example: She sat beneath the tree. vs. She slumped beneath the towering oak.
5. Showing vs. Telling. I find this one of the hardest things to catch. Think of it as painting a detailed word picture without actually blurting out what’s going on. What does this mean?
Example: (Telling) “I love chocolate,” Mary said.
Now we know Mary likes chocolate. Big deal. How fun was that. You told us and we didn’t even have to visualize it in our minds. No painting of a word picture here.
Try this: (Showing) Mary scooped another chocolate candy from the dish and held it by her nose, breathed in the delicious smell, and popped it into her mouth.
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