Recently, I read a really terrible short story. I mean really bad. To be fair, everyone writes crap when they start out. It is called paying your dues. The trick is to know when your writing is terrible. I’ve been writing since I was twelve. I had years of writing absolute garbage. As a writer, you read more and you write more and you start to improve. That’s just how it works. Consequently, I think this is where most people get discouraged and give up writing.
Sometimes I still write crap, but I am at the point where I can (generally) recognize when my writing stinks. There is such a push to become published that many writers submit work that is painfully not ready yet. I’m not trying to be offensive and I do applaud these writers for producing something and putting their work out there. Most people can’t get past the blank page.
That being said, here is some advice for the new writers out there. This is just my opinion so feel free to disagree. If you balk at this and you are a beginning writer, consider why you are resisting. It’s like Alan Rickman says in the trailer for Seminar, “if you’re being defensive, you’re not listening.”
1) Exclamation points: Use these sparingly or, preferably, not at all. If someone is yelling, find a way to convey it through their word choice and body language.
2) Semicolons: Use these sparingly too, especially if you don’t know how they are supposed to function in a sentence. Semicolons are used to link two complete sentences. The semicolon indicates a close relationship between the two sentences. Check here for more info.
3) Adverbs: If you are using lots of adverbs (verbs ending in ly), your writing is not strong enough. Don’t tell me she picked up her teacup daintily. Tell me she pinched the cup with the tips of her thumb and forefinger and extended her pinky. You can use some, just don’t overdo it. It will really stick out in a flash piece or short story.
4) Use quotation marks. I’ve seen this several times. Some writers think it is original or cool to omit quotation marks around dialogue. This just makes it harder for the reader to separate what is said from the action that is taking place. Here’s an example of a section of text from Sarah Waters’ novel Tipping the Velvet: A Novel with all of the quotation marks removed:
I can, I said with a show of carelessness, but I’m not sure that I shall. I turned to my mother, who sat sewing by the empty grate. You won’t mind, will you, I said lightly, if I go back again tomorrow night?
Pretty hard to follow right? It does not come off as clever or avant-garde. It is just confusing.
5) Each action does not need to be in a paragraph of its own. Movement is difficult to write, I’ll admit, but making each movement a paragraph of its own makes it hard to follow. Action aside, try to shy away from single sentence paragraphs. They are alright every now and again but become unbearable when there are a lot of them.
6) Make sure the subject is clear. If I say that the fence ran past her, I am not saying that she was running past the fence and the background became a blur. What I am saying is that the fence is literally running by her. The reason for this is the fence is the subject of the sentence so the verb ran is showing the action of the fence not of the woman.
7) This is primarily for non-fiction writers: don’t name drop. No one really wants to hear about that yacht trip I took with the Princess of Monaco…well, not unless something really interesting happened. Otherwise, the reader just thinks I am bragging.
8 ) This should go without saying but don’t be racist. I get that some characters are racist and that it can be part of characterization. My thought is though, if there isn’t a reason for it don’t include it. Be aware of where you are writing from. I recently read a piece with a privileged, white main character working in retail who believed he had suffered as much as a migrant worker. This could have been used to show more about the character and his skewed perception of the world, but it was presented in a serious manner with no hint of irony. One issue I’ve come across a few times is the word Oriental. Oriental is a term used for objects not for people.
So that’s it for now. I wanted to get up to ten but I’m tired from too much turkey. A disclaimer to this is that you can get away with a lot more in a novel. Why? Because it is such a lengthy work that some of these writing issues go by unnoticed. The story is generally more involved and sweeps the reader past such problems. That is, if you can get the reader to get past the first few pages. There are exceptions to these rules, I know. Sarah Waters uses adverbs but she’s Sarah Fricking Waters. I think a lot of beginning writers equate experimenting with rules (breaking them that is) with voice and originality. All I can say is don’t worry about your voice, it is something that will develop with time. In the meantime, just keep writing and try to create polished pieces that are easy for the readers to follow.