Learning how not to write from editing older drafts

Our own older drafts can often teach us far more about how to write, and how not to write, than all the guidebooks and critiques in the world. We constantly grow and evolve in our craft, and the way we wrote 10 or 20 years ago, even 5 years ago, can make us cringe in the present. Sometimes it’s not even about the writing being bad per se, but a case of not being very polished or developed.

Some of the facepalm-worthy no-nos and issues I’ve come across in my older drafts:

1. A profound lack of contractions! This wasn’t even confined to fictional writing, since I see it in my older Amazon reviews too. Unless you’re going for very formal language for a reason, or want to emphasize a particular word, use some contractions.

2. Long, uninterrupted monologues. This is what happens when you mostly have an interior life of the mind and read a lot of older literature. Normal, real people don’t talk uninterrupted for five pages, or even one page. If it’s conveying important background information, you can turn it into flashback chapters. Otherwise, break it up into a back-and-forth dialogue, not one talking head.

3. Pairing non-standard speaking verbs with adverbs. Older books are replete with this silliness, even when there’s nothing about this scene or situation which seems to necessitate the use of such an adverb. For example, screamed explosively, whined forlornly, smiled mysteriously, giggled politely, oinked obscenely, snickered crudely.

4. Using an excess of non-standard speaking verbs to begin with. I don’t think writers should only stick to says/said and asks/asked, but other speaking verbs should be used appropriately, in moderation, not gut-loaded onto every single page.

5. Unprompted infodumpy dialogue. So many times a character will be asked a simple question and then go off on his or her whole life story or give way more details than the other person probably expected. Like, if someone just asks how many siblings you have, you don’t proceed to state their names and ages, along with giving mini-biographies of each one.

6. Unnecessary wordiness. Why say “the phone situated on top of the table” when you can say “the phone on the table”?

7. Overstating established information. If both the reader and other characters are already quite well aware of a past event or ongoing issue, why belabor the point?

8. Providing exact dates and timespans. Normal people might recall some important event as having happened almost two years ago or say they’ve been in an ongoing situation for over four years. They might even just state “a long time” or “awhile ago.” They don’t give the exact month and year something happened, or the exact number of years and months ago something began.

9. Starting too many sentences with “And.” I really only became aware of this bad habit very recently.

10. Usually unnecessary filler phrases like “We know,” “I think,” “Apparently,” “Remember,” “I mean,” and “Of course.”

11. Opening a book by giving backstory about the characters, setting, and situation. So many older books start with such introductory paragraphs, like “Mary Smith was eight years old and lived at 515 Popcorn Lane in London with her parents, two sisters, and one brother.” That just slows the narrative down and doesn’t let us get to know the characters and their story on our own.

12. Unrealistic dialogue. People think, write, and speak differently. Just because someone might express oneself a certain way in writing doesn’t mean that translates to good, realistic dialogue. You also want to avoid the “As you know, Bob” trap.

13. Overuse of the word “that.” You really don’t need to use this word nearly as often as English teachers might have you believe.

14. Overuse of nodded/nods as a dialogue tag. I know you can’t literally smile or laugh a line of dialogue, but I think most people understand it’s supposed to be interpreted as someone smiling or laughing while speaking. But nodded/nods is too much of a stretch.

15. Using the phrase “all of” where “all” generally suffices. This is like not using contractions and overusing “that”; it’s something English teachers drum into our heads, even though it doesn’t translate into natural, realistic speech patterns.

16. European characters not using the metric system! Europeans measure distance in meters and kilometers, not feet and miles. Height is measured in centimeters, not feet and inches.

17. Giving the location of a very well-known city. Everyone knows where cities like London, Paris, Florence, Rome, Chicago, Tokyo, Vienna, Berlin, and Delhi are. By providing the country or state, you insult your readers’ intelligence. You should only specify the location when it’s not such a well-known city, the geographical context isn’t already clear, or it’s a city with a famous name in a place you don’t expect.


2 thoughts on “Learning how not to write from editing older drafts

  1. LOL. This is one of Jung’s synchronicity coincidences. Over the weekend I found a hardcopy of a gargantuan SF novel from 20 years ago and started reading it. I didn’t find all that many stylistic issues, but the story simply isn’t GRIPPING. I’m a born writer but not a born storyteller, if you understand the difference, and that shows in this MS.


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