We all have our writing pet peeves. You know, those small little phrases or words that make us roll our eyes and sigh whenever we hear them. For many it was George W’s pronunciation of “nuke-u-lar” and for others it’s mistaking cavalry for Calvary. When reading for fun or for editing, I always try to focus to listen diligently for the unique “voice” of the writer, but like most editors, I have a secret list of cringe worthy writing mistakes that will make me pull out my red pen and wield it like a light saber in an effort to save the writer-ly universe.
The list is small, but any one of these things can hurt your story.
1. “He gasped. She gasped. We all gasped.”
There is, perhaps, no other tiny action tag that makes me cringe more than this. In my opinion, gasp-worthy events are rare, and even when they do occur, those moments are almost always better described using stronger, more vivid verbs. Even steamy romance novels, which by definition should be filled with all kinds of gasping, aren’t really served by this overused verb.
So unless you are writing about a 1950’s Southern housewife who has a tendency to get the vapors and goes around gasping and passing out at every turn, try to find another way to better show your reader the shock and awe your character is experiencing.
2. Unusual words used unusually often
I love words. And I love when one I have never seen before pops up in something I am reading. I will even admit that there are certain words and phrases that tend to litter my own vocabulary on an all too regular basis. But, like too many bracelets or electric blue eye shadow, there is such a thing as brilliance in moderation. Go ahead and use words like adroit and clandestine and mercurial. I like them; they add a particular flavor and sophistication to your writing. But, if your reader spends more time with the dictionary than your manuscript, you might want to consider more opportunities to use plain, straight forward language.
Three little letters, but they hold a tremendous amount of dark power. Not only is this word so plain and boring that it can often leave your writing a bit flat, but it sets up the perfect storm for two other writing faux pas: “telling” and passive voice.
If I simply tell you he was sad, I’ve broken the first cardinal rule of good storytelling…I’ve “told”you what to think, instead of showing you what is happening so you can understand that emotion on your own. Add to that a tendency to use ‘was’ when dipping into the land of passive voice, and you can imagine why this word sends up red flags whenever I see it.
4. Superfluous, flowery, mind-numbingly long descriptions…repeatedly
This goes hand in hand with number two. I’m all for beautifully-constructed, vivid, sensory descriptions of the building on the corner of main street, or the color of a lover’s eyes, but when all of those words impede the impact of the description itself, it might be time to cut a few words.
Tell me that building glimmers in the morning sun, and that its stone façade has been bleached white from exposure. Maybe share that it’s older than any other building in town. Then move along and tell me why that building is important. I don’t need to know the exact dimensions or how many windows it has…unless of course those things are integral to the story itself. And as for those eyes. Tell me his eyes were a deep shade of jade green, fringed with thick, dark lashes. I can just see them, can’t you? But should the need arise again to mention those eyes, don’t tack on a litany of other shades. I don’t need to hear emerald, forest, or moss. I get it, they are green, now tell me a little about the rest of him.
5. Synonyms for the sake of synonyms
I think all writers, at some point or another, want to show off their writer-ly chops. We want to show how creative we are, how expansive our vocabulary is. So that simple chair in the next room becomes a four-legged, tall-backed stool, then an everyday wooden pedestal, until it finally becomes a solid mahogony, gold-encrusted dining room throne. Really? Are we talking about the same chair? Don’t confuse the reader; just tell it like it is. There are times when these kinds of literary gymnastics work, but when in doubt, if it’s just a chair, then just call it chair.
6. “Tryin’ ta Soond Like Sumun’ wit an Ayx-ent”
Sigh. This one might actually need to be moved to the top of the list. We all know that no two characters sound the same. They have their own little nuances, their own vernacular, and yes, even their own accent. But I think the key here, once again, is moderation. Pick a few words to present the idea of an accent, but use it sparingly. If I have to read the dialogue out loud in order to understand it, then you “my-ta goon too fir.” Consider just telling the reader her southern twang made the words drip off her lips like peach juice in the summertime, or his nasal tone swallowed the last half of all of his words. Trust your reader. They’ll here the character voice you want them to. I promise.