We continue our look at the kind of things that cause bad writing, and ways to avoid them so that they never crop up again. As with most things, once you learn to recognise them, you’ll be better equipped to deal with them when editing.
In Part 1, we looked at sequence of actions and separating character actions in order to achieve better sentence structures and avoid some of the flaws which are commonplace in fiction writing.
This week we’ll take a detailed look at a couple of more bad writing examples, and ways to eliminate them from your narrative.
Unnecessary Speech Attribution
There is one thing that many writers still do when it comes to writing dialogue; they continue to get sentence structure incorrect by attributing speech tags when they are not actually necessary.
In laymen’s terms speech tags, or attributions, are a way of identifying the speaker.
For agents or publishers it can be especially infuriating when writers do this, because dialogue structure really isn’t difficult to do, and for writers seeking a foot in the door to being published, it can be the difference between rejection and acceptance.
Here’s a simple example which is very similar to the type I see all the time, especially in self-published stories, where the writer hasn’t taken the time to learn the craft of writing, nor understood the process of editing:
John pointed and smiled. ‘Ha ha,’ he tittered.
This is a classic mistake. Firstly, the writer has denoted who is speaking – John – by placing the action ahead of the dialogue. There is no further need for speech attribution and therefore “he tittered” is not required because we already know that John is speaking.
In this example, the attribution becomes superfluous and the writing suffers because of it. The correct structure is as follows:-
John pointed and smiled. ‘Ha ha.’
This is clear and concise. The action before the dialogue tells the reader who is about to speak, and because it’s clear who is speaking, there is no need to add speech tags.
Here’s another example:
‘Another time perhaps, and I would have paid more attention,’ John said. He shrugged. ‘But I guess I was just too busy concentrating on other things,’ he added.
You can see that the writer has made it clear that John is speaking by the ‘John said’ attribution. Then after the action, the writer has made the mistake of adding a further attribution of ‘he added’ which is surplus to requirements and should not be placed in the sentence. This shows the writer’s lack of skill in dialogue structure and the result is bad writing.
The correct structure should be:-
‘Another time perhaps, and I would have paid more attention,’ John said. He shrugged. ‘But I guess I was just too busy concentrating on other things.’
If you have already denoted who is speaking, you don’t have to put ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ etc. Speech attributions are just that, they tell the reader who is speaking.
Any instance of this kind of error is a sign of bad writing. Make sure that you fully understand action versus dialogue structure. It’s imperative that something as basic and as fundamental as this is presented correctly when submitting your work to agents and publishers, otherwise you will fail to impress them.
Shifting Point of View
Another common faux pas, and a sure sign of bad writing, is the ever changing POV.
This is another common error by writers who have not studied how POV works. The result is that scenes swap viewpoint from character to character and therefore have no cohesion.
POV is fixed for whichever character you are concentrating on in any running scene or chapter. If you start a chapter with one character, you should stick to that character’s point of view until you have a chance to swap viewpoint with a new scene or a new chapter.
Never switch viewpoints during a scene. In other words, don’t start off the scene with Character A’s viewpoint and then swap to Character B’s viewpoint halfway through. It causes untold confusion for the reader trying to follow the story, the characters and the plot points etc., and they don’t want the task made more difficult with ever changing POVs. It also makes the story disjointed, which means the reader will find it hard to empathise or connect to any characters.
The other real danger, of course, is that you may well end up inadvertently letting another character take over the story completely.
Writers who are not careful sometimes find that secondary characters take over the story, leaving the main character – whose story you are telling – out in the cold. Or they might find that during the reading stage, another character seems to have more scenes or chapters than the main character.
When this happens, it means the writer has lost the story pathway. It also means they have also lost focus.
There are so many good reasons for keeping a tight rein on POV. It improves story cohesion by allowing the reader to follow the main character’s journey, it helps your reader keep track of your characters, it helps them connect with those characters and above all, it ensures your main character remains the dominant character throughout.
Remember, bad writing can mean the difference between published and unpublished.
Next week: How to avoid bad writing – Part 3