The Basics

What’s the difference between a good writer and a mediocre writer? Sometimes it’s difficult to put our fingers on exactly what makes good writing good. And sometimes it’s easier to identify what makes bad writing bad. For surely, if you avoid bad writing, your writing will become, well, good.

The Devil of Rejection tempts every writer with the Seven Deadly Sins of Writing. They seem innocent enough—a misplaced comma here, an adverb there—but soon the writer finds himself sinking into the dreaded darkness of the Rejection Pile. Sadly, often the writer doesn’t even know he’s been deceived. So let’s reveal the Seven Deadly Sins of Writing for what they are: Death to your manuscript.

I. Poor Grammar and Spelling. Surely, nothing screams “amateur” as loudly as poor grammar and misspelled words. If your grammar is poor, take a class at your local community college. If your grammar is decent, invest in a good grammar reference book and use it whenever you are uncertain. See the Grammar Tips and Comma Usage Tip Sheets for help on this one.

II. Telling, not Showing. We must act out our scenes, through action and dialogue, in such a way that our reader feels that he is experiencing the drama as it is happening. See the Show, Don’t Tell Tip Sheet for details.

III. Passive Voice. Using passive verbs, adverbs, intensifiers, -ing verbs and unnecessary words suck the very life out of our prose. For examples of how to make your prose as active as possible, see the Keep it Active Tip Sheet.

IV. Purple Prose. Overusing adverbs and adjectives, using cliches and euphemisms, and getting carried away with description in inappropriate places is called “Purple Prose.” It’s a lot of fluff with little substance. Instead of using an adverb to make a weak verb stronger or an adjective to make a weak noun stronger, omit the adverb/adjective and choose a stronger verb/noun. Instead of reusing phrases that you’ve heard before, find fresh ways of saying things. Instead of using euphemisms (attention: romance and love-scene writers!) for parts of the body, use real words. Too much fluff is just like too much dessert-it leaves us heaving. See the Tip Sheet on Creative Dialogue Tags for another example of this disease, and check out the Controlling Character Emotion Tip Sheet for help in reducing the melodrama.

V. Repetitiveness. Not trusting our words to do their job or not trusting our reader to be smart enough to understand our words leads us to repeating ourselves. We change our wording, but still present the same idea in a slightly different way. This redundancy kills our prose. Say it Once, Say it Right!

VI. Point of View Breaches. Switching our viewpoint character without warning, “seeing” or “hearing” things our viewpoint character is not privy to, or switching from one type of point of view to another disrupts the flow of our prose and jolts our reader. Sometimes the reader isn’t even able to state what the exact problem is, just that “something isn’t right.” Always be aware of whose viewpoint you are in and why. For more help on this subject, see Point of View and Other Devices.

VII. Lack of Persistence. Surely, giving up is the deadliest of all the deadly sins. Writers who decide they “aren’t good enough” or “don’t have time” to write will never be published. Writers who fail to take advice and further their understanding of the writing craft will never be published. And writers who accept rejection as defeat will never be published. To quote my favorite uncle, “You aren’t defeated until you give up.”

So, don’t let any of the Seven Deadly Sins of Writing kill your chances of being published. Read. Write. Study. Persist. No one ever said it would be easy, but if you have that passion in your soul, nothing will stop you from succeeding. Go for it.

For additional tips, worksheets, and discussions, order your own copy of the The Plain English Writer’s Workbook.

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