Avoiding well-established writing crimes is like killing two birds with one stone . . .
or, to avoid using a cliché (which is a major crime—in case you haven’t read our first article on the subject), it’s like slamming two coffees in hour one of a Monday morning. Without the heart palpitations.
Removing these crimes from your writing will allow both you and your editor to focus on finessing your style and voice—instead of paying an expert in artistry to handle the everyday writing fumbles you should know better than to make. Trust us: do your homework. You’ll thank yourself later. And so will your editor. And your publisher. And your reader.
You get the idea.
1. Passive Voice
This writing crime is one we all make at some point, especially when trying to vary our sentence structure. But the very good reason whypassive voice is recognized as bad English is that it subverts the subject + verb + object sentence structure into something far less interesting.
In an active voice, the subject acts on an object: Gwen guzzled an entire bottle of wine.
In the passive voice, the subject of the sentence is passive: The entire bottle of wine was guzzled by Gwen.
Boring. Can Gwen not fend for herself? Why do we care about her if she can’t do the guzzling herself? What kind of heroine is she?!
The active voice simply makes for stronger writing by ensuring that the subject in the voice is doing something, rather than having something done to them. In order to have a plot, your character must act. They must do something and continue to make choices throughout your plot to be worthy of keeping your audience engaged. The same rules apply in simple sentence structure!
Keeping track of writing crimes can feel a bit overwhelming. Book a free consultation with Kate and learn how you can change your writing habits and stay on track of your goals by working with a professional editor.
2. Using a Thesaurus
Let’s face it, a thesaurus is an extremely useful tool. But when it comes to writing, heavy-handed use can be detrimental to your prose for several reasons. The first issue is that more ornate, latinate words don’t evoke the same kind of mental picture as their simpler counterparts. For example, when describing a sunset, using a word like ‘breathtaking’ is clear and to the point: it makes an impression on the reader immediately. However, when using a synonym like ‘cyclopean’ or ‘prodigious’ the image immediately becomes muddied by the flowery language, which then becomes the focus of the sentence, distracting the reader from what should really be the point. Additionally, as a writing rule, the word that comes to mind first is most often the best—the most instinctual, the most visceral, the most direct.
We’re not saying you should never use a thesaurus, but consider what language most simply conveys the image or scene you’re writing, and how it fits into the world you’ve built.
Stereotypes can sneak into your writing in a multitude of ways: from stock characters like the manic pixie dream girl to your potentially unique character's predictable actions and motivations, stereotypes have a way of tarnishing good writing by making it obvious, stupid, and lazy-sounding. Yes, ouch. But true.
In many ways, using stereotypes is taking the easy way out. Rather than creating a dynamic plot point or a vivid, rich character, you are relying on stereotypes to do the work for you. And your readers will know it immediately.
4. Using “Flashback” as a verb
Another common mistake is using the word “flashback” in place of a memory, recollection, or moment of nostalgia. This is a pet peeve of Kate’s (and editors worldwide, tbh).
For example, the main character has an encounter with something that sparks a memory of their past. She is reported to have “had a flashback,” followed by a scene or partial scene from the past. A flashback is a device a writer can use to give important backstory or clue in the reader; it’s a part of the story’s structure, in the same way changing POV between chapters would be. It’s not something that a character can have. This might seem like just a technicality, but it’s these kinds of logical issues that can take your reader out of your story and plop them right back into reality, where they will judge you. Harshly.
Oh, the age-old controversy that is the adverb. While at times very useful for modifying verbs and telling readers how, when, where, and to what extent an action was performed, they tend to be best used sparingly or not at all.
The reason this tends to be a bit of a controversial writing crime is that we are often encouraged to be detailed in our descriptions. No one wants to hear for the billionth time how your character “walked to the fridge.” That being said, we also don’t want to read how your character, “quietly and quickly walked to the fridge.” The truth is, adverbs tend to weigh down prose and can even muddy the sound of the sentence with the repetitive ‘-ly’ sound. If you’re keen on creating a more captivating sentence, consider using a different verb that doesn’t need to be modified to be interesting— “Jerry shuffled to the fridge with his hood pulled over his newly-shaved head.” Now that’s vivid.
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Editor, Writer & Founder of JEC. She's inspired, most often, to write about writing and how women (writers) can fix the world. She has a lot of opinions, actually.
Hayley is Copy Editor/ Editing Ninja for JEC. She is also an arts journalist for several online publications including Scene 360 and Illusion Magazine.
Georgia is JEC's Content Writer, a published poet, and past Poetry Editor for This Side of West, Modern and Contemporary Genre Editor for TheAlbatross, and Contributing Writer for The Martlet and Saltern Magazine.
Jaime is a Research Curator at Royal Roads University and as such knows a thing or two re: communications. She is JEC's Communications Specialist.