Seven Bad Habits of Highly Unsuccessful Writers
By Scott Nicholson

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While writing, editing, representing, and publishing are all highly subjective skills, or even "arts" depending on your definition, repeated exposure to certain unsuccessful traits make them easy to identify. In short, it’s much easier to find what is failing rather than explain what makes a piece of writing succeed.

After working as a freelance editor for several years and logging a decade as a journalist and copy editor, I’ve found a number of minor problems that sap vitality from an otherwise compelling story. Some writers even believe those small errors will not hurt their manuscript’s chances, not realizing they are competing with hundreds or thousands of similar manuscripts. Careful editing is especially important in an era when editors spend more time meeting with the sales staff than scrawling notes in red ink. Whether you carefully pore over your manuscript on your own or trust someone else with the task, the ultimate goal is to have a manuscript that’s as flawless as possible.

In the manuscripts I’ve edited, I have encountered a number of recurring practical errors that make even a blockbuster story lose a little luster.

1. Comma usage. The convention of serial commas, as made famous in the book title "Eats, Shoots, And Leaves" appears to be undergoing a change, as some small publishers are now accepting the Associated Press style common in newspapers and magazines (where the preceding example would be published as "Eats, Shoots and Leaves.) While I use Strunk & White’s "The Elements of Style" as my bible, even publishers that stray from long-established rules still want consistency, so pick a horse and ride it.

Understand the function of clauses, as they are one of the basic building blocks of sentence structure. If you insert a clause in the middle of a sentence and start off with a comma, you might need another comma to close off the phrase. Don’t simply throw in a comma because you feel a sentence is running long or if you want a natural pause in the middle. Rewrite the sentence if necessary. Better yet, learn the simple rules of commas.

2. He said, she said. Some writers avoid using a character’s name too often because it might seem unnatural, but clarity is the ultimate goal of all good writing. A sentence like "He went for his gun, but he shot him first" could have several different interpretations, even if only two male characters are involved. Crooked Tom could be trying to steal Johnny Cop’s gun or Crooked Tom could be reaching for his own gun, and either could be squeezing off the first shot. If there are three characters in this scene, you’d really have a circus. "Crooked Tom went for his gun, but Johnny Cop shot Innocent Abe first" is clearer, even if the paragraph is already littered with their names. You don’t want your reader to pause and figure out which "he" is which. If your reader pauses too often, she is soon likely to stop altogether.

3. Wry Saidisms. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with using "said" over and over, and readers are trained to accept the word as easily as they do standard punctuation. You can get away with a character’s occasionally "whining" or "demanding," but use them as spice and save them for moments when you need a little extra punch. Avoid "stating" altogether, as it is a hallmark of badly written press releases, and the word only applies to a formal statement such as one given in authority or for a police report. "Whispering" and "shouting" are fine, because they are as much action as stage direction. If you insist on someone hissing a line, make sure it contains at least one sibilance, or "S" sound.

"Ly" adverbs slow down the sentence and often foil the writer’s intent. For example, "Bill quickly crossed the room" is slower than "Bill crossed the room," and the word "suddenly" is its own oxymoron. Such adverbs are especially cumbersome in dialogue tags. Indeed, they often become comical, as popularized in Tom Swifties such as "‘You’re going against the grain,’ he said wryly" or "‘The sun is out,’ he observed brightly."

4. Overexcitement! Hoard your exclamation points and only dole them out when necessary. Some preach avoiding them altogether and instead relying on dynamic writing to convey the excitement. In general, they can be effective when used sparingly in dialogue, but they quickly become boring when overused and should rarely if ever conclude an action sentence. Generally, dependence on exclamation points indicates a lack of power in your action sentences.

Adding a bit of visual oomph or dialogue tag is a better choice: "‘Look out,’ he shouted, diving for cover as bullets zinged overhead." The word "shouted" does the work of the exclamation point, though if you are in the book’s climax or a particularly brisk and intense scene, then one or two can do the work of unnecessary words, too. In this case, I’d let "Look out!" slide, assuming exclamation points weren’t already hopping all over the page like drunk celebrities begging for tabloid coverage. Anyone using two or more exclamation points together will not only be rejected but taken out and shot!!!

5. Heady confusion. Point of view is one of the fundamental keys to good fiction writing. Stories that keep a clear point of view immediately move themselves to the front of the class or the slush pile. Simply put, find out who is telling the story and stick with that character until there’s a clear shift to another point of view. In third-person limited viewpoint, make sure the character doesn’t "know" things happening outside her range of perception. Make sure the character isn’t experiencing the thoughts of another character unless one of them has ESP.

Omniscient viewpoint gives you the authorial power of God, knowing all and seeing all, but it can be a bit aloof and less successful at emotionally engaging the reader. If using first-person viewpoint, then you must be doubly sure you’re limited to your "I" character’s thoughts and sensations. Second-person is a bit artificial and calls attention to itself but can be effective if that’s what you’re after. Mixing first, second, third, and omniscient viewpoints can be hazardous to your reader’s (and your career’s) health.

6. Keeping Your Distance. Newer writers tend to rely on "He saw," "He felt," "He smelled," "He tasted," or "He heard" instead of just letting the actions or sensations occur. It shows a lack of a confidence. If you have done a good job of securing your character viewpoint, then when that stack of dishes clatters to the ground, the reader knows who hears the smash. Like any mechanism, it has a time and place, but several of these in the same paragraph really sap the energy: "He felt that what he heard was an elephant that sounded like it was in the jungle." Better: "An elephant trumpeted in the distant jungle." The more immediate the imagery, the more powerful.

7. Slow Death. Too many useless mannerisms, bits of business or trivia, and descriptions can bog your tale down right out of the starting gate. While the color of someone’s coat can be a revealing detail, make sure there’s a reason for its inclusion, and beware stacking up lots of physical description before the reader has a chance to build her own image. The reader’s less likely to care that Susan is of medium build with brown eyes and auburn hair than the fact that Susan is carrying a bouquet of wilted flowers, has wet mascara runs, and is missing one earring.

Whatever you do, don’t have a character enter a room waving a cigarette, inhaling between every two lines of dialogue, flicking ashes, lighting another, and repeating until the scene is mercifully expired from emphysema. The same goes for meals: avoid them just as you would avoid showing a character going to the bathroom. Unless there is a plot purpose or intriguing piece of character development at stake, let that type of business take place offstage or mention it in passing.

Now for the final bad habit of unsuccessful writers, one which makes all the above meaningless: the habit of not writing. In my career, I’ve only seen two kinds of writers. Those who succeed and those who quit. Be one of those who succeed.

(Originally published in Writer’s Journal)

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Scott Nicholson is the author of 10 thrillers, including the Bram Stoker finalist The Red Church, Drummer Boy, Disintegration, and The Skull Ring. He’s published over 60 stories in seven countries, as well as numerous writing articles, five screenplays, several comic books, and magazine features. He’s won three North Carolina Press Association Awards as a newspaper reporter and also has a freelance manuscript editing business, in addition to hosting pop-culture shows and an annual paranormal conference. More information at www.hauntedcomputer.com.

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