Time is our enemy. Most people don’t have enough. This is why our writing must be tight, direct and hook early. Modern audiences have the attention span of a toddler hopped up on 2 liters of Coke. We can’t afford to let them drift.
I’ve edited countless books, many from new authors. I see a lot of the same errors, and this is to give you a basic guide of what to look for in your writing. Be your own Death Star. Blast away this weak writing so that, once you do hire an editor, it won’t cost nearly as much because the editor won’t spend precious time (charged often by the hour) to note or remove these basic offenses.
Tip #1—Use Other Senses. BTW, Sight is the Weakest
A lot of writers (new ones especially) rely on a lot of description regarding what a character sees, and while this isn’t, per se, wrong it can be overdone. Also, of all the senses, sight is one of the weakest, thus it lacks the power to pull your reader into deep POV (point of view).
Smells are very powerful.
Jane pushed through the heavy steel doors, plunging into the dark hallway of a school no one had stepped foot in since the city shut it down after the fire. The blackened walls and peeling paint testified to the tragedy that took twenty young lives.
Okay, maybe this.
When Jane pushed through the heavy steel doors, an acrid cloud of old smoke mixed with the sickening sweet of cooked flesh met her in the hall. Burned mildew pulsed from the crumbling walls of the ruined school, clear testimony of where the firefighters began their assault on the blaze. Instead of the familiar aroma of cafeteria food and drying finger paint, all Jane could smell was death. It invaded her mouth and clung to her clothes and skin.
Taste is very powerful.
Fifi tucked and rolled as shoe dove out of her captor’s van. The ground came up hard, harder than she expected.
Okay, not bad, but maybe try…
Fifi tucked and rolled as she dove out of her captor’s van. Her face met the ground, hard. At first, all she noticed was the bitterness of grass mixed with sand that crunched against her teeth. A moment later? The taste of old copper pennies gushed into her mouth, making her gag. Blood.
Try to use a combination of all of the senses. To rely solely on what a character sees will keep the reader at a distance. It will make her a mere observer and not a participant.
Tip #2 Don’t Coach the Reader
When we are new, we tend to think through stage direction, and that’s fine, but it doesn’t mean it should end up on the page. Readers aren’t dumb, so we don’t need all the details.
He raised his hand and struck her across the cheek.
Um, duh. We know he raised his hand to strike her. Otherwise, that would be a serious trick. Jedi mind powers, maybe?
He struck her across the cheek. Hard. Stars exploded in her vision.
We don’t need the character to step up on the curb or reach for the door handle. If a character makes it from one room to another, we fill in the missing (and boring) details. We also don’t need cues for emotion.
Tip #3 Don’t State the Obvious
She slammed the door and cursed in anger.
Okay, unless this character has spacial issues and Tourette’s? We know she’s angry. We don’t “need” the “in anger” part. We’re sharp. We get it. Really.
Tip #4 Don’t Introduce Too Many Characters Too Quickly
I can’t tell you how many writing samples I’ve received that make this mistake. If you have ten named characters by page two? I’m done. In life, we can’t keep up with that many names all at once, and, in writing, that doesn’t change. Too many names will confuse us and muddle who the protagonist is. We get lost, so we’re frustrated and we put the book down…or toss it across the room.
Tip #5 No Secret Agents
This error usually goes hand-in-hand with the previous error. We are introduced to who we assume is the protagonist. Also, unless something cues us otherwise, we assume she’s alone. When another character suddenly starts talking?
Also, tell us who this person is in relation to the character. Yes, you (the writer) know who this character is, but we don’t.
Gertrude awoke with a start. Her alarm clock hadn’t gone off, and panic gripped her. This was her first day at the new job, and being late could get her fired before she even started. She nearly fell as she scrambled out of the bed sheets and bolted for the coffee maker.
“I thought you’d be gone by now,” Ted said as he watered his Bonsai trees.
“Me, too. Hey, why didn’t you come wake me up?”
Okay, who is Ted? Brother? Husband? Boyfriend? Friendly home invader? We need to know. Maybe not right away but at least on the same page.
Yet, I see this all the time. A name, some dialogue but no introduction, so no sense of who that character is. We are book-readers not mind-readers.
There are a lot of other ways to tighten the writing, but these are common offenders and a great start. We all do this no matter how many books we write. It’s why we need revision. We can spot this stuff and clean it up and make it presentable for the public.
What are some of your pet peeves? What loses you as a reader? What tips or advice can you share?
I love hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of March, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.
I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
And also, winners have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.
At the end of March I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!
This is a terrific post. Thanks for the reminders and the wonderful samples. I will be posting a link to this on my blog this Sunday.
Great post! Very helpful…
Excellent tips. I used to be bad with number 4, but you are the one who straightened me out on that one. Tip number one is something I struggle with constantly. I’m always slowing myself down to figure out what other senses I could use to make the scene stronger. By now I had hoped it would come naturally for me, but it hasn’t.
Thank You not only for my writing but for every story that assaults me with flying body parts and phantom characters.
I love writing the other senses! I have to admit, when I really get writing I often forget to add it in, but I love going back to color it up.
BTW, I submitted a link to this post on a writer’s forum.
Great tips, especially about using the senses more, must check my WIP. Woops, I can see myself in the mistakes … she hurries away to correct.
Thought-provoking post! I giggled at your jedi tricks and not mind-readers jokes. Boy, I must try using taste and smell and the other non-sight senses now. Sounds captivating!
Thought-provoking post! I giggled at your jokes about jedi tricks and mind-readers.
Boy, I must try using taste and smell and the other non-sight senses now. Sounds captivating!
Fantastic tips! I have a problem with remembering to use all the senses too but it really does make for a better story. I’m a new follower and looking forward to reading more of your useful posts!
Great post, Kristen! Lack of visual character description always gets me. I like when a writer paints a good, detailed picture when they introduce us to someone new. 🙂
Another great post. I look forward to reading your blog every day. Thanks!
Loved these tips and especially your samples. These help a ton.
I needed this post/info this morning! Using all of the senses is something that I must work on. Wonderful inspiration. I will definitely be sharing this on my blog.
Loved this post, Kristen! Am working on my WIP, right now, and cutting all vestiges of “newbie”.
This is a very helpful post! Thanks, Kristen!
My writing is far from perfect, BUT…
Those filler words (sat down, stood up) send me to inner-edit-out mode. They’re a speed bump. Perhaps because I discovered it was one of my weaknesses.
I did a Wordle.net exercise on a chapter in my WIP. I’m sure you’re familiar with the program. The size of the word in the resultant word cloud indicates how often that word was used in the passage. The largest word for me? BACK.
ACK! It’s now on my search-and-destroy list. Well, except for the steam scenes. There? Usage might be appropriate and necessary. In the words of Jenny H: “Just sayin’..:
Great examples on use of the senses. I’m hog-tying my inner editor so she doesn’t bounce back to pages already written. First draft. Must. Get. First. Draft.
My pet, Peeves, growls at head hopping. “He saw her nervously scan the room.” All the POV character knows is that she looked around the room. The sweat on her upper lip could be from a hot flash. Off to pester someone else! Great topic, Kristen.
I’ve never heard of this Wordle program, but it sounds like a helpful editor. I always get pulled out of a story that uses the same words over and over again. Especially the word ‘din’ for some reason? Is it trending or what? Why does that particular word keep showing up everywhere?!
*drags soapbox back behind wall*
Hey, Jess! I bopped back over here to make notes and found your comment.
I think you’ll love http://www.wordle.net to spot overused words. The word cloud filters out standards such as “said, he, she, if, and, then, etc.). To get a full picture, I also scan the full alpha list of words in the passage to make certain I haven’t used some of my go to fillers. JUST? Big time issue with me.
What in the heck are you reading? I din know din created a din on recently pubbed pages.
LOL. I was reading Pope Joan – which I LOVED, but word came up several times and it annoyed me. And then I started seeing it a bunch of other books. So weird!
To make your reading experience more enjoyable, think of it as a dripping faucet.
ERK! Not the best advice. *Knuckles to noggin…bonk, bonk. bonk*
Pope Joan, there are stories of the followers of the Goddess Athena would cut their hair short and live like a man to infiltrate the Vatican. It is why, like social fraternal orders of secret societies, have to walk around totally naked during formal initiation rites.
And there are those that believe that the disciple John was really a woman and back when the first printing press were used the capital A (block letters) printed as an H so history recorded JOHN instead of JOAN.
In the movie Quo Vadis, Emperor Nero burned down the Library of Rome, which stored most of the worlds written and recorded knowledge at the time so it probably sent the world into the dark ages and created knew civilizations and languages because Rome could not teach the world with the truth. The truth of the beginning of time or the real story of creation was probably burned during the fire or the Roman Catholic Church would know instead of allowing all the alternatives of possibilities, throughout history.
I’m so glad you mentioned Worldle. I’ve heard of it and wanted to apply it to my WIP but couldn’t remember what it was called. Thanks for the helpful tip!
Great post, Kristen, and a useful reminder of what makes for professional writing. I too tend to do too much visual stuff and not enough use of the other senses – though if you trick yourself into a sort of trance-like state, it becomes possible to FEEL the scene in addition to seeing it…Not easy, the said trance often doesn’t come and I sit there waiting for it like an idiot, LOL!
great tips, Kristen. Reminders we all can use.
I love using all the sensory details to draw a reader into the scene, my issue being that the world-builder in me then requires reining in when I edit 🙂
My personal pet peeve is too much detail wasted on things I do not perceive as necessary to the story. I do not really ‘care’ enough to wade through descriptions of some woman’s tea set, the pattern on her cup, the lengthy decision making of whether it should be Earl Gray or Dajarleeng. Yawn. I am off flipping pages in search of something entertaining…maybe a good beheading? A dragon? ANYTHING that doesn’t make me want to toss the book, lol
My biggest pet peeve is when writers use “All of a sudden” and “suddenly” as transitions to another plot point. Especially if they do it a lot.
Very helpful, and very nice reading. In the name of Tightening: Thanks!!
I find that my first drafts usually include a fair amount of coaching. I’m not sure why. However, it is one area I look at closely during first revision.
What’s fun about this post is while the writer is addressed, it’s not always the writer coaching the reader or stating the obvious… Editors have a huge hand in how the final book turns out, especially if it’s through a publisher and I’ve had my fair share who want the readers led, coached, given step by step instruction, etc… Why did she slam the door? Was she angry? What is she feeling when she does this? She doesn’t just slam the door for no reason. The reader needs to know why. Expand on this. *grin*
I’ve been going through this with editors since I started writing. Sometimes it’s helpful and sometimes it’s not.
At the same time, I’ve had editors want more added then wanted it all taken out because it was tighter the original way without all the leading and obvious expansions. I agree writers can write tighter in many instances, myself included, but there are also the editors and publishers who want as much expansion and as much explained in detail (emotion, sex, description) as possible which can take away from the tight story we’re trying to tell.
Here’s some more tips: don’t use passive voice. Don’t do stage direction, i.e. tell the reader where people look, gaze, glance,see, saw ;and, don’t give eye directions- we know where the POV character is looking/seeing by indirect exposition or dialogue. Every scene must have conflict on some level. Every scene must move the story. Every scene must do more than one story thing. Every word should support the structure or have a thought-out story reason to be write. Always serve the story, every word.
Great reminders! Much like Gloria above, I am forcing the inner editor to STHU. First draft first.
Terrific post. Very helpful. I like the idea of using a word cloud for a search and destroy mission.
This is a post I can use again and again and again… Thanks for the examples too! It really hits home.
This came at just the right time. I’m editing and STUCK ON SIGHT! Ugh!
Back to the drawing board.
Solid suggestions and samples! Thanks for the reminder to ground the reader and include all senses.
Thanks for your examples. Struggling through a draft right now and these tips are just what I need.
I just taught a whole unit on writing settings with the senses. I will be posting something about it on my blog next week. Here are a couple of my notes:
Sight is the most obvious sense to employ.
Smell is the most “nostalgic” of the senses. Olfactory glands can truly store information right up into your brain. You know what Thanksgiving smells like, you know what rain smells like, and you know what a garage smells like. The scent of my mother’s spaghetti sauce takes me right back to being a child.
Touch can be tricky, too — try to think about both touch/feel and how your character is experiencing them (and thus, how it can be related to your audience).
Taste isn’t always usable, but when it’s done well, your reader will literally be able to taste what you’re describing. I always think of the sour candy (I think they were called Warheads?) that felt like I was putting a penny on the nerves in the back of my tongue. That candy was so sour that it used to make my ears hurt.
Sound: is very important. Music, natural sounds, a house settling, and, perhaps most notably, silence — all of these will make your setting come to life.
Note: be wary of hitting your reader over the head with too many unique descriptions. You might admire them in yourself, but the readers bore of them quickly. In my experience, writing can go from brilliant to blocky in no time.
Great notes and advice. Yes, seamless. Make it seamless. Good writing should be like good plastic surgery. We can’t tell ;).
Great advice! I’m working and revising constantly to use all the senses more. Beverly Diehl critiqued some of my work and that was her biggest suggestion. It makes sense. Thanks!
Good points, Kristen, and I like the examples that really drive the message home. I try to get my clients to see how they don’t need to detail every movement of a character – as in your example of the raised hand. Not only is that writing a bit tedious, it also insults the reader. As if the reader did not have the sense to know that a person would have to raise a hand in order to strike another person. LOL
Reblogged this on hic sunt verba and commented:
Great tips to writers on their toes… uh fingertips!
Reblogged this on Change is a Verb and commented:
Awesome! I agree with every point. In my current novel there are a lot of characters but I only focus on a few important ones. There are two tribes of people so there are a ton of people in the novel but there’s no need to even name anyone who is not central tot he plot. Sharing!
Reblogged this on Conservative Calmversation and commented:
I agree with every point Kristen has made – excellent advice!
Turning and looking are two things I find in lots of writing. Why are you telling me that the character looked at something? Show me what they saw and not what they looked at. Love your blog by the way.
Yes, I said, smell! I opened my first chapter of my WIP…then remembered I had my protagonist knock her nose during the train crash…so no smelling for her. But maybe she could taste that acrid smoke…
She would be able to taste blood and smoke also metal.
I always have to remind myself about #1… Thanks for extra reminder!
Number of characters is also taught that I have to keep in mind when creating a novel. No more than the magic seven, I heard it at an Ozarks Writers League conference (OWL). It is one reason that I am writing novelettes when I am not writing on novels. It is to try in developing the style of writing more condensed. Four 12.5 words novelettes are one 50,000 words novel; it is how I am dealing with it.
12.5K or 12,500 words novelettes, I will go make coffee. I am done reading E-mail
I especially liked your advice about introducing characters. It bugs me when a new character pops up with no introduction whatsoever. Thanks!
Great post. I am a blogger, so I guess you can say I am a writer. I love it and the better it is, the more likely it will be that someone will take the time to read it. lol I have filed this in my tip folder. Thanks again. Have a great weekend and set aside a little time for yourself. ^_^
Oh wow, terrific advice! I think my pet peeve is double adjectives that contradict each other. That makes me instantly put the writer in the category of fourth grade dropout.
For example “She smiled happily, nervously stirring the soup.”
That just drives me nuts.
Enough characters to populate a small town, all introduced in two or three pages. Done.
Can you name all the names of the small town? Or should I say, how many live in the small town. I have enough troubles trying to name my hero and heroine, to have a romance novel. I am not really worried about confusing a reader.
Really helpful hints! Thank you for this article. I’m reviewing my manuscript now for areas I know need a little touch up!
What good is using a “pen name” if one has relatives and acquaintances using intentional defamation of the character, of an individual, to prevent publishing with payment – for all the articles on enemies and needing a six sense to ignore them in order of lifelong writing and sending to be “published and paid”? I have been trying to tell the church and the government and my relatives; I can be published anytime. They cannot really stop it. You would need a Communist World. But in a global market economy, my enemies can prevent the payment. It might take a phone call from the president, but they can prevent the payment.
Thank you for this post! I’m reviewing my manuscript now to make sure I avoid these errors!
Nasty truths, but damn helpful, thanks!
A really great help. Thanks.
Usually I edit my own work. I write and I write and then when the wave passes, I sit down and look into editing my work.
I assume that you yourself are an editor, would you mind it immensely if I requested to stop by my blog and look through it and tell me if I am doing OK?
Excellent post! Great advice! 🙂 I think my biggest pet peeve (next to Mary Sue main characters) is when nothing really significant happens during the first few chapters…if the plot hasn’t moved forward by then, I usually stop reading.
Smacking my head like in the old V-8 commercial. So good! Thanks. 🙂
Bonk, bonk, bonk??? Sounds like, erm, erotica to me…
Thank you so much for this. I realized I make these errors all the time. Time to saddle up and rewrite… Again! Haha thank you
Great post. Just what I needed. I was actually hoping you’d be writing something like this soon, so wishful thinking works. It’s great when you share the key faults in amateur writing.
Do you have advice for me? I don’t write novels but thoughts, illustrations, analysis, and with the perspective of my investigative personality (Sherlock Holmes) I don’t write personality development I take my characters from the King James Version of the Bible and include my personal experiences. Here is a sample. Would you comment on this excerpt? There is more on my blog.
AT THE WATERFRONT
At Jack London Square, a cool breeze blows across my naked legs. My face is pleased and comforted. The hair on my arms moves with the wind. I am cooled by the breeze flowing, from the bay. The wind is so soothing to my tired body. The ships at dock, blue and white, their sails folded, fit the color scheme of the nearby buildings. To the right of them at the top of a tower is the word Waterfront. It is one of the nicer days I have spent here, enjoying the people and atmosphere.
I’m joined by two lovely ladies with their children. Her son looks just like her. She says everyone tells her that but she doesn’t see it. The other mother gives her daughter two dollars, to by a cookie. I tell her it only costs $1.25. The other shares her sandwich with her son.
A kind gentleman at a table a distance away assists another man. His ATM card does not work in the machine. He directs him across the street, to the Jack London Inn. He says there is a machine inside; he could use. The man is most thankful.
We exchange names. One of the ladies when she approached thought I was the others fiancée. I told her my wife left me, and moved to Texas. She says that’s too bad. I tell her it probably is a good thing. She says yeah, if she was aggravating you.
Nothing is happening. It’s pure description and no hook. Pretty description, but nothing really going on.
Jack London Square was my favorite hang out place. I wrote this piece some time ago. I am so glad I wrote this piece as I did for the tragedy is Jack London Square is no more. I have only this jaded memory committed to writing.
That is the point. There is no hook but descriptions of the day as we enjoyed each other. It was a moment we will always remember. I am afraid if I change it readers will miss the point. If you read the whole of it you might have been able to spend the day with us. It is on my blog.
I think I mention to you before that I will never be able to write a novel. I was a computer programmer turned writer. I was part of a Think Tank so I just did my part and they paid me for my thoughts and ideas. Often I would think out side of the box and do something nobody thought of.
Now after thousands of lines of thoughts I find myself again outside the box trying to gain acceptance.
Very helpful, thanks. I notice I usually put a lot of ‘she saw this-or-that’ in the first draft and then rework it in edits. I must try to remember to add more senses. You didn’t mention sound.
I wanted to let you know I’ve nominated you for an inspirational blog award, you can read my nomination post here:
Perfect read as I take a break from editing. Great tips, as always. Thanks!
These are great tips! I like the first one about exploring other senses besides sight. That is something that I try to do, but often find myself failing at. Thanks!
All of us screw this up. It’s why we need revision, LOL.
Yes, if a character opens a door, it’s a good bet they reached out and turned the knob. TMI is annoying.
On the other hand, there’s also such a thing as TLI. If someone gets up from behind a desk, it would have been convenient to know beforehand that there was a desk in the room and that the character was seated behind it.
Otherwise, a character I pictured standing in the middle of a small office having an intimate chat with a coworker is suddenly separated from her by a non-existent (I thought) desk. It always makes me go, “Huh?” when that happens, and I feel compelled to go back and re-read.
I once read a book that CONSTANTLY did this to me, and I cursed every time I had to re-read a scene with the corrected visual information.
I put up with it because the story was compelling, but if I’d known where the author lived, I’d have planted a tree in his yard overnight so he could experience what his readers went through.
I often find myself struggling to include all the senses and falling back on just telling. Thankfully I think I catch most of that in the edits.
What I don’t like to read is a story where the writer thinks it’s his mission to educate you. Which is why I can’t read Thomas Wolfe.
I’ve been reading a lot of Clive Cussler novels of late and some are great reads, while some are just too larded with details. I just don’t need to know the history of ice axes, just how it’s being used in the story.
I, for one LOVE a story which teaches me something I hadn’t known before. And I do hope each of my books has at least one of those moments for most of my readers.
More great tips! I will reblog this. 🙂
Reblogged this on Susanna Hartigan and commented:
More great writing tips to hook your audience. 🙂
So true about the senses. I can’t wait to get back into my WIP tonight and see where I can improve.
Great tips and reminders. Excellent examples to go with them as well!
I’ll be using these tips for sure. Saving it!
Great tips, Kristen!
I will definitely be using these tips when I write my first novel. This will be extremely helpful, I can sense it!
Wonderful post. Just stumbled upon your blog and I am loving your comments!
Happy to have you here!
I have been tightening up my WIP and have found a few instances of #2. Thanks for putting a name to it for me! I do use other senses in my writing so it’s encouraging to know that I’m doing SOMETHING right.
Reblogged this on thelissachronicles and commented:
As a newbie writer I’ve done quite a bit of research in regard to help with the writing process and I’ve found her blog to be extremely helpful. Check out this post on “5 Tips for Tighter, Cleaner Writing” as well as her other posts. I promise you, if you’re a writer, you’ll find her posts helpful. Thanks, Lissa
Your posts are so helpful. I reblogged this on http://thelissachronicles.wordpress.com/2013/03/25/2392/. Thanks so much for your help with my novel…each post just seems to talk to me as a writer. Thanks, Lissa
I blog about this stuff because I struggled with the same lessons. As an editor it was easy to point out something was wrong, but creating a story is different than critiquing one. When I started wanting to WRITE my own fiction, these are a lot of the lessons that took a lot of studying, listening and learning to finally grasp. My hope with these blogs is to help your learning curve be shorter than mine was, LOL.
Valuable post, Kristen. Thanks for some great reminders, especially as I look at chiseling away at previous drafts.
My daughter – an artist – is always complaining that my protagonist is too much “in his head”. I try!
Is four characters too much?
Too much for what?
Too much for the beginning of a novel.
As a first time author I found your post very informative. I often wondered what sorts of things editors look for. This is a great start!