In the final instalment of how to avoid bad writing, we’ll take a look at a few more common errors that writers haven’t yet understood, or have chosen to ignore at their own peril.
There are quite a few, but I’ve highlighted the ones that crop up all the time in narrative, common errors that can be and should be avoided.
One of many things that drive me crazy is the use of too many ‘ly’ adverbs (although they’re not to be confused with adjectives that end in ‘ly’).
Adverbs are used to modify a verb, an adjective, or another adverb. They’re words that don’t really belong in the narrative – that’s not to say you have to eliminate all traces of them, because you don’t have to go that far. Some are needed at certain points and can be useful, but on the whole, many are unwelcome. For example:
She looked up at him lovingly, his face so fetchingly constructed…
This is the kind of stuff found in a lot of romance-style novels, and it’s awful. The use of adverbs weakens the sentence. It seems as though many writers have left their creativity behind; they don’t consider the power and strength of the words in their sentence structures.
The use of adverbs also includes them being used as dialogue tags, too. Once again, they weaken the dialogue in the same way adverbs weaken narrative.
‘Oh, I didn’t see you there,’ she said, falteringly.
This sentence is better: She faltered. ‘Oh, I didn’t see you there.’
‘Your place or mine?’ he whispered lustily.
This sentence is better. His voice brimmed with lust. ‘Your place or mine?’
Adverbs are universally hated, simply because too many will make your narrative look as though a ten year old wrote it. And not only that, but editors hate them. So if you are out to impress editors with your writing skills, first make sure that you haven’t littered your novel with adverbs.
My absolute favourite thing to hate about fiction writing.
I detest seeing these whenever I critique, so much so it makes me breath fire. And if I hate them so much, imagine what agents and editors think about them…
Never start a sentence with a hanging participle. If you want to create ambiguity, or you want to confuse the reader; if you want to weaken the sentence structure and make it look like your 7 year old niece wrote it, or you want to make your potential agent choke on his coffee with your lazy writing, then go ahead and hang your participles.
If, on the other hand, you want to achieve a correct, tight and unambiguous sentence structure, then avoid starting your sentences with them. If you’re not convinced, take a look at these beauties:-
Carrying her coffee, she stormed into Derek’s office.
Turning from the door, he saw the shadow in the corner.
Reaching for her phone, she knew she had to call her mother.
There is nothing remotely good about these examples. And still writers start their sentences like this.
Instead, take the time to read what you have written, learn to spot adverbs and hanging participles. Learn to be creative with sentences; learn to care about what you write.
Another cause of bad writing is flat narrative (telling, not showing). This is down to either the writer isn’t that confident about writing descriptive scenes, they’re afraid and not sure about them, or they’ve been advised that too much description spoils the story.
There seems to be a lot of contradictory advice about how descriptive narrative should be. On one hand there are those that love description, because when properly used it builds a picture for the reader. Then on the other hand, there is a sturdy contingent of anti-narrative folks who are advising writers to keep it simple.
I personally think balance is important. Think of description as the cement between your building blocks. Without it, there isn’t much support. It’s that simple.
Those who advise against being descriptive are not helping writers; they’re hindering the creative process. Descriptive narrative is a must; all you have to do as a writer is keep the balance between sounding flat and boring, or being colourful and evocative.
Not every scene will require lots of description, but your key scenes, those that are relevant and need atmosphere and tone, senses and surroundings etc., are there to help the reader build a mental picture, and do require it.
Here’s an example:
He looked ahead through the forest. There was no one around. The coast was clear and he made his way back to the farmhouse.
While there is nothing essentially wrong here, there isn’t much for the reader to work with. The narrative is flat. It’s telling rather than showing. And, surprisingly, some people advocate this simplistic approach to description. That’s fine, but let’s compare it with some descriptive elements added:
He looked ahead through the forest, senses pricked. There was no one around and no sound, except for muffled heartbeat in his ears. Silence coiled between barren branches and swept low across the snow. Cautious, he made his way back to the farmhouse.
This second example doesn’t overpower with description, however this time there are enough snippets of information to help the reader visualise the scene. It’s balanced, and that’s what writers should be looking for.
Bad writing disappears with experience. The more you write, the better you become. The better you become, the more experienced you become with editing and spotting your own errors, so there is no excuse for bad writing once you have gained some experience.
Next week: Dialogue Dilemmas