Wednesday, March 12, 2008

5 Writing Gotchas

5 Writing Gotchas

If you want to improve your writing skills, attend a critique session. This is where a writer reads his (or her) work. It is verbally then critiqued by professional/published writers. Everyone in attendance benefits, not just the reader. It is an eye opening experience for some writers and for others it confirms what works and what doesn’t.

In the last few critique sessions I attended I saw a pattern of gotchas that a number of writers, included me, experience from time to time. Here’s my interpretation of five of these writing blunders:

One: Avoid ‘was.’ I attended a workshop led by editors last year and one of them talked about how many submissions crossed her desk each week. She could never read them all, so she developed a read/pass criteria to help speed up her work. She looked at the first page of each submission and saw how many times the word “was” appeared. If the page included more than one or two she passed on that piece and tossed it into the rejection pile. One of our critique panel members told us about early story she’d written. An editor who passed on it told her to count the number of times she used “was.” On the first 10 pages she’d used “was” more than 100 times. She rewrote the piece using “was” only twice. It vastly improved the story. What’s the problem? The word which must not be used makes your writing passive. Passive writing is not as immediate or exciting as active writing. “Was” is not the only culprit, but I challenge you to take out a piece you’ve recently written and count the number of uses of that word. Rewrite your piece without the offending word and see how it improves your work. (By the way, I had to struggle to write this paragraph without any use of the blighted word.)

Two: Watch your format. Another criteria editors use to quickly reject your work is the way the words look on the page. Before submitting anything, look at a publisher’s style guidelines and follow them. Usually, you’ll want your work to be double spaced with 1 inch margins. Use Times Roman or Courier font. Your printing should be clean and dark – always black on write paper. Some agents I’ve used insist on bright white paper, 24 pound. If you learned to type using a typewriter, you must forget some things. For example, don’t use a double dash - - to create a strong break in a sentence. Use an em-dash—(press Alt-Ctrl and the minus sign on the numeric keypad.) Also, don’t put two spaces after a period at the end of a sentence. If your typing teacher taught you to do it, forget it. It’s old hat. There are too many format issues to talk about here — check out the Chicago Manual of Style or other resources to make sure you’re not making any boo-boos that will put your work into the rejection pile.

Three: Watch for repeating words. Writers tend to get stuck on the same words over and over again. I have to constantly rewrite paragraphs to avoid this blunder. Enough said.

Four: Get to the point. If you’re telling a story, writing a how-to book, or composing a letter, make some point that will capture and keep your reader’s interest. Even if you’re creating a scene where the setting is important, don’t spend too much time describing the landscape, warehouse, toad-stool or whatever without injecting some action to keep the reader’s interest. Readers (maybe today more than ever) are impatient.

Five: Read your work out loud. We had a couple of readers in the critique group who stood up and “read” their piece—but what they read differently significantly from what appeared on the printed page. As they read, they rewrote in their mind, usually making a sentence clearer or more active. The panel members recommend that writer read his work out loud before finalizing it. Hey suggested that he record his reading, and play it back—and see what changed. Do this with your own writing. You might be surprised at how verbalizing your work can help you improve the flow and voice of your story.

There you have it—five things to help improve your (and my) writing.


Craig Case said...

Thanks for providing such helpful insight. One question about the use of "was": would you apply the same rule to other auxilary verbs as "have", etc?

Bald Writer said...

"Was" is a probably the most commonly used passive word, but there are any number of ways to write in the passive voice. I'd suggest a look at The Elements of Style by Strunk and White for other examples.


James A. Ritchie said...

Some good points, but while overuse of any word is bad, "was" is a perfectly good word, and does not make a sentence passive.

Construction makes a sentence passive, not the word "was," so while I'd probably reject a manuscript loaded to the breaking point with the word "was," I'd also reject a manuscript that overused any word to such an extent.

It bothers me that so many writers are afraid to use a simple and wonderful word such as "was" simply because they mistakenly believe any sentence containing it will be passive. I see manuscripts in the slush pile that jump through construction hoops in oreder to avoid "was," and it's simply unnecessary.

Do not avoid "was," learn what passive really means, and learn to use "was" correctly.

As for two periods after a sentence, any editor who objects to this is not very good at his job. I blame the Chicago Manual of Style for this. Chicago is a wonderful style guide for editors and publishers, meaning people who turn manuscripts into published stories. I suspect we all have a copy, and follow Chicago whenever a question arises. But I firmly believe Chicago is the worst guide out there for writers. Chicago is great for formating during the publishing process, which is really its intended purpose, but, in my opinion, lousy for formatting a manuscript.

As an editor, I prefer two spaces after a period. Why? Because writing with a word processor and using the fanciest laser printer out there doesn't change the fact that I have to read and edit a piece of paper that looks, acts, and smells just like a manuscript did in the typewriters era. To do this, I still must be able to insert prookreaders' marks easily, and the more space I have to do this, the better.

This is also why I greatly prefer Courier over Times. Times is small and cramped. Even at size 14the letters remain cramped, and this makes using proofreaders' marks considerably more difficult.

Anyway, trust me on this, any editor who notices that you have two spaces after a period during his first read has already lost interest in whatever you have to say.

Of course, I don't much trust an ediitor who counts first and starts reading second, either. It takes considerably less time to reject a bad piece of writing if you simply start reading at word one, and grab a rejection slip the moment you lose interest.

Anonymous said...


Wise words about was and other traps set up by editors to quickly reject a manuscript. In our writers group there is a man who writes the most laugh out loud comedy. Unfortunately he's never had anything published and probably never will. Trouble is, he's terrible at putting the stuff down on paper in an acceptable format. My experience is that if you can meet and editor and get them interested in your writing, then you can sometimes break through the gotchas. It's too bad that the editors are so overwhelmed with submissions that they don't hve time to look for the gem with the rough edges...

Bald Writer