>I just finished reading a book that I bought as a gift for someone. It looked like a great story, mixed with history of the type he enjoys. However, I didn’t get past the first page before I realized the writing was awful and I couldn’t give this book to anyone.
I will not embarrass the author by sharing his name or the title of the book, but I do want to look at some of the things he did that made me want to toss this $15 paperback into the trash. They’re subtle things that add up to a negative impression, whether you’re writing a novel, a newspaper article, or a story on the web.
1) Clunky sentences. Every sentence in the first paragraph has the same structure and rhythm, and most of them should be deleted because they don’t tell us anything. Every sentence should have a job to do, and sentences should vary enough to keep the writing interesting. Mix short and long, simple and complex. Always read your work aloud to see if it flows naturally.
2) Too many modifiers. This author has a hard time leaving any noun or verb unmodified: “A quivering circle of smoke,” “blazing blue eyes,” “smartly indented brimmed felt hat.” “The two women’s shadows stretched over the opened trunk and bed like silent, eavesdropping specters.” We could just say “smoke.” Find one word that gives the idea of “blazing blue eyes.” Call that hat a fedora. As for the women’s shadows, it not only adds nothing to the story but makes me stop to figure it out.
3) Three mentions in one page of a woman’s bounteous bosoms. “She was holding a stack of papers that rose up to her shapely chest.” Why is this important? Is the woman just two walking breasts?
4) Unnecessarily inflated language. The girl with the shapely chest didn’t just walk; she “sashayed.”
5) Overuse of the same word. Ben gulped down his coffee, gulped down his whiskey, gulped down every beverage he came across. Enough gulping. If we need this at all, find another word.
6) Buried lead. We don’t find out what this story is going to be about until the third page. We should know by the third paragraph, no matter what you’re writing. Write whatever you need to write to get started, then go back and cut off the excess to get right into the story.
7) Here’s a habit that has bothered me in several things I’ve read recently: an overdose of quotation marks around certain words. Think twice before you “quote” a word because it makes readers stop and read the word differently. Is it “necessary”?
8) Typos/stupid mistakes: I found words missing, words misspelled, it’s for its, and much more. Proof your work, let it sit, then proof it again.
The biggest problem in the overall story is an abundance of ridiculous coincidences and stilted dialogue. I read the whole book in a gulp 🙂 because I wanted to see what happened, and I wanted the history that came through in spite of the book’s flaws. But if I were an editor receiving this manuscript, I would reject it.
This book was self-published. I have nothing against self-publishing, but everybody needs editing. A good editor could have turned this into a wonderful book. Never assume that your writing is perfect the first time around. Let it flow in the first draft, then go back and examine every word. Content is important, but presentation counts, too. Don’t let bad writing ruin your stories.
Have you purchased your copy of Freelancing for Newspapers yet?