Writing Crimes III: 5 More No-Nos to Add to Your List
Image by Freddy Castro
You thought we were done with writing crimes, and yet here we are. They just keep coming, and no one, not even the greats, are immune from them all.
We’ve got a whole new list of writing don’ts for you to keep in mind next time you sit down to write (don’t forget to brush up on our last two posts on the subject). We’re determined to give you all the insight we can to make your writing and publishing journey that much easier, and that means sweating the small stuff. Read on if you’re keen to give your manuscript a leg up in the eyes of editors, publishers, and your future readers.
Let’s get to work.
Writing an Inventory
This crime goes hand in hand with an overabundance of description (see below). When we say “writing an inventory,” we’re talking about giving readers a very specific list of items that trails to the very brink of our attention. For example, a writer may feel the need to list every dish a character eats when they sit down at a restaurant. We all like food, but YAWN. We do not need to hear about the spag bol, medium-rare steak, Caesar salad, fries, garden salad, French bread, custard tarts, and so on—at that point, you’re clearly just writing in a haze of hunger. Reign it in. Kill those oh-so-unnecessary darlings.
Describing a Setting in Too Much Detail
We get it; you’ve invested a lot of thought into your setting. You know exactly what your protagonists bedroom looks like or how their apartment is set up. But the truth is, your reader doesn’t need to know everything thing the protagonist has on their bedside table, because chances are it’s irrelevant to your plot. You care—of course you do!— but remember that you need to hold your readers’ interest, and giving them a six-page rundown on the layout of the supermarket isn’t really the way to do that. Unless a detailed description is key to your plot, it should take up an appropriate amount of space. Now that’s not to say that your book should lack vivid imagery or detail, but know when to cut it off. Give your reader the opportunity to interpret the setting using the selective information you’ve given them. Chances are you’re hung up on excessive description because you don’t know where your plot is headed; if this happens to you, it’s time to step away from the computer and do some rejigging.
Repetition in Character Descriptions
Repetition is a tricky one, especially for new writers who often use one defining physical trait to make a character distinct. One of the most obvious uses of repetition is an ongoing obsession with eyes: whether they’re sapphire, golden, sea foam, or bronze, they tend to be established as such over and over again in the text. Basically, a writer chooses one descriptor for a character’s eyes (or any physical trait) and any time the character shows an emotion, the very same combination of words is used: “His sapphire eyes glowed with fury.”; “His sapphire eyes shone in the light of the moon.” The thing is, your reader has a pretty decent memory; they recall the colour of that character’s eyes because, thanks to your earlier description(s), they have a clear image in their mind’s eye.
Repetition can, of course, come in all areas of writing; often, writers make the mistake of using a specific verb too frequently, or the same adjective or noun in a single sentence or paragraph, creating a manuscript with very little variation. If you find this is an issue in your own work, try reading aloud; you’re much more likely to hear the repetition than you are to see it. And if it’s a trend across a multitude of work, consider expanding your writing vocabulary! Your readers will appreciate it.
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Using “Started to”
This is one crime that might seem picky, but trust us, the more you think about it, the more you’ll come to realize how common it is. For example: “Suddenly, it started to rain.” Seems simple enough, right? Here’s the problem; it didn’t start to rain, it rained, it’s raining. Why do we continue to report on something as it starts, rather than just telling the reader that something happened? He shook, she sang, he laughed—not he started shaking, she started singing, he started laughing. When a character performs an action they do it instantly; it doesn’t start, it happens.
Take it or leave it, but this rule can improve a writer’s prose instantly. We’re talking about gerunds—those verbs that look like nouns and always end in –ing. Don’t get us wrong, they certainly serve a purpose: after prepositions, as the subject of a sentence, following phrasal verbs . . . the list goes on. Using excessive gerunds introduces other smaller “to-be” verbs like is, am, are, was, were, and been. You’d be surprised how quickly they add up, creating unnecessary bulk.
I have been drinking a glass of wine a day. When I am drinking, I feel my feet start to tingle.
I drink a glass of wine a day. When I drink, my feet tingle.
The revised sentence is simplified and demonstrates word economy—a nearly impossible feat when you’re prose is drowning in gerunds.
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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.