Top 10 Writing Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

This blog entry is an excerpt from a chapter in my book, How to Write a Book That Sells YOU, coming out Fall 2013.

In writing, every rule has been broken by an author who did it so well you may wonder if it should be a rule. Unfortunately, most writers fall into these holes unconsciously, and the work suffers. Overall, if you can avoid these pitfalls, or at least have the savvy to spot and correct most of them, you will enjoy quick and painless edits. One caveat: please note that none of these rules apply to dialog. Perfectly polished dialog sounds phony and stilted.

  1. Weak beginnings and endings: Don’t wait to build up to a sentence that will grab the reader’s attention. Come out with it upfront and early. Give your reader a reason to keep reading. Use a compelling opening statement to hook them in and keep them hanging on. Good techniques include: start with a personal story (or a client’s story), a bold statement, or a dangerous or odd situation. Novelists often use cliffhangers at the end of each chapter. You can apply this effectively to non-fiction as well as fiction. Provide an enticing thought that makes the reader want to go to the next one. Make the reader hate to put your book down.
  2. Verb-tense hopping and other inconsistencies: Writing affords many options. Present tense, past tense, first person narration, omniscient narrator, you can write OK or okay to mean “it’s cool,” and abbreviate United States with U.S. or US and be correct both ways. Just be consistent! Before the book goes to the editor, decide how you want to treat these style items and make sure you do it the same way each time.
  3. Clichés: Let’s throw caution to the wind, summon every ounce of courage we can muster, to look a gift horse in the mouth, and discover the light at the end of the tunnel as we brainstorm clichés. Good. Now go to your manuscript and take them out. Clichés indicate lazy writing. Come up with your own way to say it. If you must, you may include one or two clichés in your entire book―but it’s better you didn’t. However, I encourage you to sprinkle in a clever twist on a cliché where appropriate. For example: “Arriving late to meditation class, I went tip toeing through the devotees to claim the only remaining space at the front of the room.”
  4. Passive verbs: To be, or not to be. That is the question. Okay, so the greatest writer in history’s most famous line is made up entirely of passive verbs. Call it the exception that proves the rule. “To be” verbs, and any conjunction of “to be” (is, was, were, been, being, etc.) should be used with discretion. Why? Two reasons: passive and vague. For example: It is often the case that writers who use a lot of ‘to be’ verbs are coming across as remote and superior, and the reader is left confused and sleepy. See how the ‘to be’ verb distances both writer and reader from the sentence and makes reading hard work? Here’s the same information in a sentence without any conjunctions of the “to be” verb. Writers who use a lot of ‘to be’ verbs make it hard for the reader to stay awake or find the point.
  5.  Pesky prepositions: Prepositional phrases can provide detail, clarity, and add color to your work. Unfortunately, including too many prepositional phrases can bog down your writing faster than parking a Porsche on quicksand will end a Sunday drive. To keep it moving, avoid the irrelevant and the redundant. Extraneous prepositional phrases slow the flow of ideas and wear out your reader while redundancy insults your reader’s intelligence. Examples:
    • Extraneous
      • I like that one in particular. Do we need to say “in particular”? Try I like that one.
      • In a manner of saying, yes. Try Yes.
      • In the event of… Try If…
      • I need for you to…Try I need you to…
    • Redundant
      • In other wordsTry saying it clearly the first time.
      • The CEO of the company. Trust that your reader can figure out the title CEO is intrinsic to having an affiliation with a company.
      • Let’s try to do it differently in the future…when else would we do it differently? In the past? Try Let’s do it differently next time.
  6. General nouns: General nouns, such as therethat, and it, remind me of the blank tile in a Scrabble game. They fit with everything, but you don’t gain any points for using them. They do the job, sort of, but when you use them you are missing opportunities to engage your reader’s imagination and senses.
    • Example:
      • It lasted an hour leaves the reader blank with no imagery.
      • The rain lasted an hour is better, at least we know what “it” is. Two points for that one.
      • The downpour lasted an hour. With this, we finally see something specific and clear. Give yourself ten points.
  7.  Really, more, very: In speaking, we often use non-specific adjectives and adverbs such as really, more, and very for emphasis. In writing, these words can convey a wishy-washy vagueness that weakens the work. Why would you say “it’s really hot”? It’s either hot, or it’s not. If you feel tempted to add a qualifier, trust there’s a better verb or adjective you could find that would eliminate the need to say very, or any of its lame counterparts. For example: It’s very hot in here. Could be stated as, It’s sweltering or I’m burning up in here. Other similar words to hunt down and remove from your manuscript include: quiteactually, somewhat, usually, fairly, particularly, and a bit. Can you leave a few here and there? Sure. But most people exhibit extreme overuse of these words, so be ruthless. Cut them. Really.
  8.  Verbal tics: Every writer has a tic. If you haven’t noticed it in others’ works, it’s because they have a good editor or some writing instructor has already beaten it out of them. By tic, I mean a word or phrase that you repeat over and over because your mind finds it pleasing. Examples of common tics, in addition to every one of the words listed in pitfall #7, are: awesome, suddenly, surprisingly, overwhelmed, keep in mind, in other words, in reality, and in fact. I tend to overuse certain words, and before I turn in my work for editing, I go on a hunt and destroy mission and take out most of them. You can do the same. Figure out your ‘tic’ and go through and delete most uses.
  9.  Adverb Abuse: Adverb abuse is a terrible addiction that has ruined many a promising writing career. “Adverbs are a part of speech that changes the meaning or modifies any part of speech other than nouns.” (Wikipedia) While they have a use, adverbs too often become a crutch for writers who haven’t yet figured out the value of a Thesaurus. Think about it. If adverbs change the meaning of verbs and such, why not just pick a word that already has the meaning you want? For example: The directors were extremely happy! Try: The directors were ecstatic! That’s an easy one, because we can tell what the writer means by ‘extremely happy,’ but what if the adverb is so incredibly vague, we can’t tell? In those instances, look at the context of the rest of the sentence or paragraph to discern the essence of the meaning intended.
  10.  Wordiness: Be concise. If the extra words add to the reader’s experience, leave them in. If not, they’ve got to go. Example: Keep in mind that if you initiated the call, it is proper etiquette for you to end the call. Be sure not to do it in an abrupt manner, as it may disappoint or annoy the caller, can be simplified down to: If you initiated the call, etiquette dictates that you end it―gracefully.