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For much of the past month, I’ve had my head down, ploughing through the first chapters of more than twenty different novels, offering critiques and advice on how I thought they could be improved. While doing so, I noticed the majority of the authors were making the same 'rookie mistakes’. Put more simply, they were writing in ineffectual ways; telling rather than showing, saturating their work with unneeded adverbs, offering only the vaguest of details, and a whole host of other things that are usually advised against.

I’m no expert, but I’ve reached a stage where I know a thing or two, and have some useful advice to impart. So in this post, I’ve outlined a list of the main errors that kept popping up. I’ll do my best to explain why these are best avoided, and how to improve upon them. None of this advice will be unique, but I hope I can collect a few important points here and explain the whys and why nots in a coherent way. Here goes!


On the 25th of June, 2016, I celebrated my 36th birthday.

If you’re writing a Facebook update, a blog or a Tweet, by all means use the numerals. If you’re writing a novel, use words!

On the twenty-fifth of June, two thousand and sixteen, I will celebrate my thirty-sixth birthday.

Avoid Double-Punctuation!! One is Enough!!! Always!!!!

If you’re writing dialogue which is supposed to be dramatic, but is also a question, do not use both an exclamation mark and a question mark (!?). If it’s a question, use only a question mark. If you need to make the dialogue more dramatic, do so, but the fact that it’s an exclamation, or is intended to be dramatic, should be obvious from the dialogue itself, not from added punctuation marks.

Also, avoid the urge to overuse exclamation marks. Advice on what constitutes too many will vary, depending on who gives it, but I’ve found more than about two or three per chapter is too many. If overused, they lose their impact, and become both meaningless and distracting. Save them for special occasions, like that bottle of expensive wine collecting dust in your cupboard. Bring them out only when absolutely needed.

Being Specific and Choosing the Correct Verb

I moved into the hallway and looked at my mother, who looked unhappy.

There are several problems with this sentence. The first is that looked unhappy tells, rather than shows. Sure, I understand that she’s unhappy, but I have no idea how she’s expressing that unhappiness. What does her expression look like? What is her body language?

Next, it uses the vague and unspecific verbs move and look (and look is used twice – another no-no).

But why are these verbs ‘bad’? Every verb is a form of movement in some way, other than verbs of thought. As such, move doesn’t provide any info here, other than to say you were at Point A, and you’re now at Point B. In what way did you move from A to B? Being more specific can add a whole extra layer of dynamism to your writing. Using a more specific verb can define your mood, or the urgency of your actions, or just avoid over-using a verb (since if you used move here, you’ve likely used it numerous other times as well).

Suggestions for how to fix this: you could say you sauntered, ambled or strolled into the hallway. This suggests you were happy or carefree, which contrasts with your mother’s unhappiness, thus creating more conflict (conflict is good!). Alternatively, you could trudge into the hallway, indicating that you’re miserable, or stomp in if you’re angry. The fact that your mother appears unhappy might be trivial, had you been in a good mood, but since you’re not, it might make you fly into a temper if she starts nagging. This all adds to the atmosphere, the context and the subtext.

None of these examples use any additional words, but all contain more description. They each characterise your movement in a more specific way, which the reader will understand, and can use to add to their impression of what’s happening, thus immersing them in the story to a greater degree.

Just as move is vague and unspecific, the same is true of the verb to look. This pops up all the time. Look is also a noun, which compounds the problem. Instances of it tend to accumulate. Before you know it, you might have twenty instances of look in one form or another scattered throughout your chapter, leading to repetitive writing that lacks precision and reads as if the author is lazy, or has a poor vocabulary.

Look is one of the most overused and least specific verbs you can choose. In what way did you look? You can stare, glare, gaze, glimpse, glance, peer, study, scrutinise… The list goes on. Avoid look wherever possible! On occasion, it will be the most suitable word, but most of the time, it won’t be. Vary your word-palette, and your writing will be immediately more interesting.

So, getting back to our sentence: 

I moved into the hallway and looked at my mother, who looked unhappy.

How about:

I strolled into the hallway and glanced at my mother, whose brow creased into a frown that framed her eyes in piercing accusation.

Yes, this is a little longer (and perhaps a little overdone!), but it contains way more information. It’s far more specific. It suggests an underlying tone. It describes my mother’s appearance, allowing the reader to become involved in the scene in a deeper way, and to more clearly picture what’s happening.

(Continued in next post. Click here)

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