Episode 51: That Which Kills Good Writing


Instant death comes to writing of all genres and styles. As an editor, I hate to see an otherwise good work ruined by something that could have been avoided. This is not an exhaustive list of the mistakes writers make to bring down their works, but it is a list of the main ones I see.

  • Lack of word/phrase variation: We all have comfort words and phrases that we use throughout our writing. They’re like duct tape that covers a multitude of transitions. I have them, and I struggle with them. I can’t tell you yours, but I can tell you that it’s easy to go through your writing and pick them out. What do you repeat often? Pay attention to idioms and colloquialisms especially, as those tend to jump out. A lack of variation makes writing dull.
  • Lack of sentence variation: Sentences need variety to keep the reader involved. If all your sentences are basic (noun + verb) or compound (noun + verb, and noun + verb), work on bringing in some variety. Make some short, some complex, some long, some lyric, some plain—you get the idea.
  • Logic fallacies: In truth, logical issues matter more to some types of writing than others. All writing, however, could benefit from understanding what makes an argument sound (or not). I’ve got two posts that introduce basic fallacies here and here.
  • Lack of coherence: This one is tougher to explain and fix. But good writing needs to hold together from top to bottom, and the arguments need to carry through to a conclusion. If you want to ensure this is happening, whip up an outline so that you can follow what’s happening. It’s much easier to see consistency in an outline than in a full text.
  • A lack of fresh air: If your novel begins with a description of the weather, you need to rewrite the scene. Genres and limitations aren’t detrimental to creativity; a lack of imagination is. Find what works and learn from it—and then transform expectations. Instead of weather, start with a pregnant pause between two characters, an odd observation (e.g., clocks striking 13), or a shocking image.

And the top thing that I believe kills writing on the spot is . . .

  • Telling the reader what to think: Blame it on our modern culture. Blame it on the rain. But part of the show-don’t-tell mentality in fiction especially means that readers want to at least have the illusion of control. As soon as there’s a hint of didacticism (discernible teaching/preaching), eyes tend to glaze over. It wasn’t always this way (e.g., read Piers Plowman), but it is now. You can get away with it in non-fiction. Even there, though, the idea is to lead the reader to a conclusion instead of dictating one.

Any writing kisses of death that you would like to share?

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