Writing mistakes are not actions; they are outcomes. The problem with “bad” writing is not what the author did. It’s not how many adverbs he used or that he chose to say “red” instead of “blood.” It’s not what he chose to do, but how that affected a response. It’s about the undesired result for the reader. Until the writer understands what using said too much will do, he can’t readily know when the “rule” applies. And while many people believe the solution to this is that knowledge will be found in blind obedience, I believe the answers are far simpler, the reader’s abrasion attached to an underlying tone.
In many cases, it is the tone of insecurity.
Confidence is appealing in many contexts, and when a writer behaves as though he isn’t, it’s hard for the reader to put her own faith in him. And, unfortunately, like with most subtexts, an author’s insecurity of his own writing ability will leak into his word choice without the slightest hint it is happening.
1) The writer has long sentences meant to get information out quickly, fearing interruption, confusion, or boredom cutting him off.
There is a belief in the writing world that if a sentence can be shorter, it should be. I don’t believe this. I am not an advocate for the shorter the better, and I do not mean to imply that having a long sentence is bad. I do believe, however, that shortening a sentence can solve a whole group of problems, which is why it is so common for people to think it should be done all the time.
The long sentences I am talking about here are linked directly to the implication of insecurity. These are phrases that have several thoughts attached inside them, that take longer than the implied action, or are memories the character would have known but not thought.
For example: “[Dorian’s leg] was leaping up and down even as he sat in the office that Kera had fashioned from a disused library in the small house that she shared with her father.”
This exposes a lot of information and does give the reader a good image as to what is going on and what the room looks like. The problem is, for starters, this is obvious that that’s what’s happening. The reader knows the author is saying these things to explain the situation. The sentence itself is unnatural, most of the thoughts not actually connected with each other.
Prepositional phrases (in the office, in the small house, with her father, in, on, under, around—remember, anything you can do to a tree) tend to be the gremlins bringing a hint of self-doubt. The writer sounds like she is afraid of being interrupted, and that the reader won’t keep going if he doesn’t know everything upfront. Splitting this sentence would take more time to explain the same thing, so the author gets the description out quickly and soon.
A confident person, however, will take up space. He takes his time, stands his ground, and while a good author will never abuse his readers in a potentially pompous way, he has the ability to give them tough love. This makes the reader feel, for one, she’s in safe hands. He acts like he knows what he’s doing, and he expects her to think he does too.
A Quick Fix:
Hide the description within the point.
The point of the above sentence is that Dorian is impatient. Half of it, however, starts to be about where he is. Either she can separate them up: “Dorian’s leg was leaping up and down. He sat in Kera’s office fashioned from a disused library, waiting for her or her father to come from where ever she could be in the tiny house.”
Or she could use her first point (how he’s feeling) to discuss the second (where he is): “Dorian was even in Kera’s small house, already in the tiny office she had made from a disused library, and yet he still had to wait, leg leaping up and down as he sat impatiently.”
2) The author gives very specific and clear details for fear of expressing the wrong image.
A writer’s insecurity is directly correlated to his writing insecurity, i.e., his ability to tell a story in an accurate way. What happens for some writers is they focus all their attention on that accuracy, trying to be clear and understood. Fear of misinterpretation runs rampant in most people’s lives, but it is a kiss of death for the author. So the writer—who, if we’re going to go with stereotypes, already feels like an outcaste and misunderstood—actively works to explain himself in a unarguable manner. This, however, sacrifices tone, mystery, and atmosphere, sounding to the reader as, “I really want you to understand what is happening.”
That amount of pressure is undesirable, and the tone leads to metareading, the reader now more focused on the author’s motivation than what is happening in-world. She has a hard time of being sucked in, is instead looking at the word choice.
In order to be clear, the author again explains things that are true, and, again, that the character would often be aware of, but not think about.
For example: “The thing she pulled away from my left ear was released and hit the side of my head. My head jerked to the right and the ringing started instantly. I couldn’t hear anything else out of that ear for an unknown amount of time.”
Including words like “left” and “right,” specific measurements (“He pulled a six inch knife”), and overusing words, (in this case, ear and head) the author allows the reader to know exactly what had happened. There’s no ambiguity. But with this explanatory tone, the read comes more like a textbook than a story. I know exactly where he has been hurt, but I’m not feeling the pain he’s in. Again, prepositions become an issue because it is so easy to take them on and clarify what the author is talking about. They tell the reader specifically where something is happening, even when she probably already understood that, or it wasn’t really important.
A Quick Fix:
Describe images in the fewest words possible and play with ambiguity.
Change repetitive words, use pronouns, use active verbs in place of was, make two words one when possible, and cut down on prepositions. Most importantly, some actions can be implied and can be filled in easily. If we saw the fist and he’s now on the ground, we will know he’s been punched.
Of course, being too ambiguous is problematic as well, so use this advice sparingly. It’s just important to remember it’s easier to fix mistakes induced from risks than those made by playing it safe. So, take chances.
“The thing released my lobe before she smashed it across my head. I jerked as the ringing struck, the ear knocked deaf for an unknown duration.”
3) The author overuses adverbs.
Last time I heard someone giving the advice not to use adverbs, I just told him to cram it. I hate this whored out feedback more than anything, mostly because it is whored out.
That being said, while I maintain my—and everyone else’s right—to use adverbs, they too tend to indicate an insecure author.
Put simply, choosing the right two words is easier than choosing the right one word, so it is common for writers to tack on an extra term, “Just in case.”
For example: “‘Demon! Spawn of evil!’ the witness dramatically pointed at the clearly bored girl sitting casually while leaning her legs on the table in the most un-lady-like manner.”
This description gets the girl’s mood across before we even finish the sentence. By the time the reader finishes “dramatically pointed,” she knows the protagonist’s opinion of the scene. In a common, erroneous writing method, the author shows how she feels, then tells us at the same time.
Because adverbs are hard to misinterpret, it is typical for an author to put add them in just to confirm anything that might be vague. The problem is this is a safety net, and it will make the affect a lot less impressive.
The adverbs in this sentence explain things that the author already showed fairly well. While I like the word, “dramatically,” (it brings to mind a comedic image), I did already guess by her words that she was being ridiculous. There are some faith issues there—maybe I just think that she’s an overzealous writer who meant to be serious—but obliging my lack of faith just leads me to think that she believes I shouldn’t trust her either. Though “clearly bored” and “casually” lets the audience immediately know the character’s mood, she proceed to show us the same thing by how she was sitting. Despite that I have a hard time imaging the way she is “leaning her legs on the table,” that action by itself illustrates the apathy that “clearly bored” and “casually” already explain.
The whole of the sentence more accurately describes what is going on, but the audience feels less tension and is more inclined to think they’re being talked down to. It doesn’t sound like the writer has a lot of confidence in the words she’s chosen and so put in some more just to be sure.
A Quick Fix:
Turn the adverbs into verbs.
Verbs are actions, adverbs are how we do those actions. A verb: to run. An adverb: quickly. In most cases the overuse of adverbs mean either a reiteration of a verb (she screamed loudly), a weak verb (she was pale), or the combination of a simple adverb with a simple verb (she stood suddenly). By “verbing” words, using one word instead of two, and playing with unusual descriptions, the author takes more risks and allows for the imagination to be used.
“‘Demon! Spawn of evil!’ The witness whipped a gesture at the dull-eyed girl who, in response, didn’t even consider removing her legs from the table.”
4) Stand-alone sentences that tell instead of show.
Stand-alone sentences are phrases that hold all the information the reader needs to know. They don’t require knowledge from the last sentence, nor do they pike curiosity about the next. They, like everything on this list, are not bad in themselves, but they will add up pretty quickly if used too much.
Most stand-alone sentences “tell,” which is why they are stand alone. They are used best to give out information quickly and painlessly so as to not waste time with boring but important details. Unlike sensory sentences, they don’t have to connect to anything else.
For example: “Kara’s father didn’t like Charles. He called him effeminate. Charles was a computer programmer. He programmed pop-up advertisements for the Internet. He had programmed more than one thousand.”
I don’t actually contribute writing this way to insecurity, but I do find it appears like insecurity.
Like the others, the author won’t risk miscommunication or impatience. He doesn’t need the reader to follow each sentence. If she misses something, it won’t affect her understanding of the next. And it’s less likely that she will miss something because it’s to the point with no guise of atmosphere, hyperbole, or any sort of risky creativity.
A Quick Fix:
Smooshing is the process in which the author takes ideas or sentences and squishes them together so that more information is revealed closer together.
“Kara’s father didn’t like Charles, calling him effeminate. Computer programming was not a real job, despite Charles having created over one thousand advertisements on the internet.”
5) Over explanation/repetitive information.
They say don’t treat your audience like they’re stupid. I say don’t treat your audience like they’re going to think you’re stupid.
By far the greatest sign of insecurity is the actual over explaining of things. Above I suggested that not every action needs to be told for the audience to understand what is going on. What I’m talking about here is the exact opposite. Not only does the writer describe each portion of an event, he will often go on to explain it. Sometimes this adds to the story, but it can just as much take away from it.
For example: “She glared at me. Somehow, my words had angered her. ‘And you don’t think I would do the same?’ she demanded furiously.”
This is the “Show then tell” technique. Like sitting with that annoying friend at the movies, the author will do something, then proceed to tell you what had happened, effectively ruining the joke by explaining it.
The way I see it, writers don’t do this because they think readers can’t get it, they do it because they don’t know what the readers will get. When we look back to the fear of being misunderstood, it makes sense why the writer feels she should error on too much clarification. Unlike in regular day-to-day speech, where we would get interrupted if we try to explain ourselves too much, and will be asked if someone doesn’t understand, the written word has all the space in the world to say it right. But, instead of taking the time and actually saying it right, the author will say it a lot and hope it will stick.
A Quick Fix:
Take the unsatisfying section (or one unsatisfying section), and mix up the sentences. On doing so, the reader will become aware of a good deal of potential issues (from a repetitive sentence structure to stand-alone sentences), but primarily, it will become readily obvious when something has been said more than once.
Now rarely will the writer have said something exactly the same; each sentence will have a slightly different point and there will be viable arguments as to why it needs to be there. This is up the writer’s discretion, of course, so it’s up to him to decide when it is benefiting the piece and when it kind of just happened that way.