5 Writing Crimes We've All Committed and Should Remedy ASAP
Like most things in life, writing is an enlightening-yet-often-exasperating process of trial and error. No one is born a Hemingway overnight; heck, even Hemingway wrote what many critics consider to be a “bad book.” There’s no foolproof scheme to earning your status as an esteemed author; truth is, you’re going to make mistakes, and that’s okay. The key is to learn from them and leave them behind.
With that being said, it is good to know what kinds of crimes (a.k.a. honest mistakes) writers make—again and again and again. As an editor, I see them all. Regularly. And as a writer, I make them myself. Often, writers commit these “crimes” because they offer some kind of shortcut (except for the last one, which is just complete avoidance). However, it helps to be aware of these crimes so that you can identify them and maybe even dodge them in the future. After all, writing is a craft, right? It’s a process of honing, and knowing to avoid these mistakes will do wonders for upping your game.
So, here are five TERRIBLE writing crimes.
1. Using Clichés
Since the dawn of time… Nope. Webster’s dictionary describes… whoops. Ahh, clichés.
Clichés are a great way to say words without saying anything at all. They are overused expressions that, at some point in the distant past, may have been extremely original. We hear clichés every day. For example: “Every cloud has a silver lining.” “Let a sleeping dog lie.” “It was raining cats and dogs.” But what do these statements actually mean? Through endless repetition, these expressions have become completely divorced from their original context, and now they’re just empty words.
While using clichés in your writing may seem to help you or your character get an abstract point across, in the end it just looks lazy. Clichés can be acceptable in dialogue here and there, provided they match the character (perhaps the character is feeling lazy and resorting to banal comments, or perhaps it’s an idiosyncracy of theirs to use clichés on the reg), but in your original writing, you should avoid them like the plague if you want to avoid readers asking themselves, “What, you couldn’t come up with your own fudging words?!”
The solution? Try to convey the same meaning or experience the cliché describes by creating your ownmetaphorical imagery. Use your own creativity to explain the nuances of human experience. Use your own words, and you will doubtlessly reveal something unique and unexpected that will resonate with your readers.
Sometimes writing a book feels like an extremely taxing workout. You’re in class at the gym; you’ve been gritting your teeth for what feels like forever; you’re exhausted. You look at the clock, and realize that there’s just fifteen minutes to go. That means you can stop trying, right? You’re almost at the end. You’ve basically already done it! However, it’s important to pace yourself so you can extend your stamina throughout your workout—and your book. Too often I see writers who reach the climax of their plot—the moment they’ve been building towards, all the while developing characters and creating intrigue—only to scrap character consistency, rush through the main events, and let the book fall apart at the end. This is very unsatisfying—not to mention frustrating—for the reader.
So breathe, and slow down. Writing is like a mindfulness practice. Take your time with writing the end. Remember that the characters you’ve built still have their own feelings and desires in tact through the climactic events, and they deserve a resolution befitting their voyage so far (whether bright and happy or bleak and dismal). Take your time.
3. Too! Many! Exclamation Marks!!
YOU KNOW HOW IRRITATING IT IS WHEN SOMEONE WRITES TO YOU IN ALL CAPS? Editors feel that way about exclamation marks!!! Sometimes, writers want to convey that a character is yelling or saying something emphatically, so they rightfully—and occasionally—use an exclamation mark. That’s what it’s there for. But perhaps you have a dramatic character who is always freaking out about something. That’s okay, too. Just use exclamation marks sparingly!!!!
(Side note: avoid using exclamation marks with italics. That’s just sheer overkill.)
Why should you relax on the exclamation marks? Because you are a talented writer, and you don’t need to lean on them. You are a wordsmith; you craft your words in a way that tells readers what the tone of the narrative or speech is like. Describe stress or panic by describing a character’s frantic actions. Emphasize your points by speaking from the heart and using strong words. Use dialogue tags like “he yelled,” if you need to. There are so many ways to show emphasis and intensity. So break up with exclamation marks.*
*Never, ever use multiple exclamation marks (!!!). That’s a crime of its own calibre.
4. Cop-out Ending: It Was All a Dream!
There are several types of cop-out endings: the happily-ever-after ending, the mysterious hero who walks away into the sunset. These are plot clichés (connecting back to point #1—clichés are a no-no!). But I want to emphasize this cop-out ending in particular: Don’t ever, ever end a book by having a character wake up at the end.
This is especially common for writers who are delving into the weirder, darker sides of literature: your grotesque surrealism, Lovecraftian horror, dark fantasies, etc. When a reader walks down a rabbit hole with you, the last thing they want to discover is that the protagonist has been dreaming the whole time, and that everything is A-okay at the end. It’s too easy, it’s too predictable, and it undermines the twisted or imaginative world that you’ve created. Don’t fool your reader in this way. It’ll leave a bitter taste in their mouth. And you’re more intelligent than that.
5. Not Writing
While the previous four crimes have largely been about how writers try to expedite their process or the crimes they unconsciously make while writing, this one is different. And it’s the biggest one.
So many writers simply don’t write.
There are so many legitimate reasons for this: chronic writer’s block, a feeling of low confidence, the exhausting demands of daily living. Days, months, and maybe even years pass, dust gathers on your notebook, and your precious ideas remain locked away in your brain.
Remember: writing is a muscle, and you need to practice. It’s hard, it’s not glamorous, and it takes work; throw out the idea that you have to be a pro from the outset, or that everything you write has to be perfect. If you know there’s a story in you, or you have a message you want to share with the world, practice writing every day; set a goal, say, 300 words or so.
Whatever you do, “don’t wait for the muse,” as Stephen King advises in his book On Writing. The muses are fickle fairy people who rarely come around. The energy and creativity you need already exists within you; sometimes it just takes practice to access it.
I hope this post has helped you consider the types of writerly crimes you’re likely to commit (or be tempted to commit) during your career as a writer. Seeing them coming is the best defense. Be compassionate to yourself when you make them; everybody does. And use these insights to avoid ‘em the next time. Mistakes are all part of the process.
Want to know more about how a professional can help you develop your writing craft, improve your work, and change your writing habits? Take a look at our writing coaching page!