I’m a member of a writing critique group, and independently from that, I critique writing samples that people send me via email. I can’t read an entire book, or even a short story, but I usually will give some detailed commentary on the first few pages.
By going through these samples, I see a lot of common mistakes by new or aspiring authors, and I thought I would share them here in order to help a broader audience.
This is an easy one, as I’m guilty of it myself. I’m constantly fixing this in my own edits, or if I miss them, Robin will slash and kill them for me. Saying things like “He stood up” or “He sat down” should be trimmed. Yes the up and the down are just one extra word but seeing them can bring out the snark. “Of course, he stood up…was there really any question as to the direction of his standing?” Similarly, saying “a smile formed on his lips” almost always makes me think “Where else would a smile form?” Trimming unnecessary words cleans up your text and will prevent an eye roll, especially from agents and acquisition editors who, I suspect, see this often.
Using three words when one will suffice
A recently submitted piece had the following sentence:
A pounding throb rippled within his head as his mind wrestled with countless thoughts.
The definition of “throb” is: Pulsate or pound with abnormal force. So a pounding throb is redundant. In general, I’d say this sentence should be further trimmed as rippling the throb seems excessive and there is no reason to mention both his head and his mind.
Overuse of very, immediately, and suddenly
There are some who counsel never using any of the above adverbs. I won’t go that far, but I will say they are very often overused. (Yes pun intended). I think it is a good idea to go through your book upon final review and look at every instance of these words. Consider in each instance if they are really needed and more often than not you’ll find removing them will strength the scene.
Making every word count
What all three of these things come down to is that you should carefully consider every word and make sure it serves a purpose.
A great illustrative example
I’m a huge fan of the writing of Aaron Sorkin. Here is an example why. The following is from one of his West Wing episodes and it illustrates my point better than I could.
BARTLET: [reads] “Good morning! I’m speaking to you live from the West Wing of the White House. Today we have a very unique opportunity to take part live in an extremely historic event which”…Whoa, boy…
SAM: [waves and smiles] How you doing, Mr. President?
BARTLET: Who wrote this intro?
TATE: I did, sir. I’m Scott Tate from NASA Public Affairs.
BARTLET: [gets up and shakes his hand] Scott. “Unique” means “one of a kind.” Something can’t be very unique, nor can it be extremely historic.
C.J.: While we’re at it, do we have to use the word “live” twice in the first two sentences like we just cracked the technology?
Anyway, just a bit of food for thought, and I hope you find it useful. Now I’m off to write Rhune, which continues to make forward progress even with review of copy edits of Hollow World.
Can you call them rookie mistakes if the author has been using the same phrase through 11 books of a NYT Bestselling series? I definitely get snarky when I read “She folded her arms under her breasts” the first time (“I know where arms get folded!”) but after the 50th time or so it’s just “Really? Again?”
Haha – Exactly – I guess it’s not just for rookies but I don’t think I’m in a position to question the choices of NYT Bestsellers 😉 Hmm….going to have to go check if I’ve done this one.
I have a checklist that I run through at the end of each draft. Some of it is automated, but among the more useful items in the list is searching the document for all instances of “very” and highlighting the results. Another is search for the regular expression /ly(\.|\?|\!|\s+)/ which translates to finding any word that ends in “ly” and highlighting those results as well. I can then zip through removing unnecessary “verys” and adverbs, um, very quickly. 😉
Nice Jamie, leave it to a sci-fi guy to have a cool high-tech approach 😉
Regarding example #2, I would take it one step further and suggest that the voice is too passive. The passive voice lends itself to wordiness. Say, “His head throbbed as he wrestled with countless thoughts.”
I also love the Aaron Sorkin example!
Good point. I generally don’t take the time to wrestle each one to it’s best version- just point out things and turn them back over.
Oh, me, too. You don’t want to re-write someone’s stuff for them. Though I do wrestle with my own sentences, as much as my attention span allows.