Are you a bad writer? Make sure you avoid these common writing mistakes.
The problem with bad writers is that they’re usually very attached to their poor habits, or don’t consider them to be problems; thus I’ve framed each issue as a positive statement – if the statement fits you, you agree or you’ve thought something similar before, then WATCH OUT! You might be a bad writer.
1) “I’m brilliant at making metaphors”
Lots of authors try to pull the whole world into their writing, by referring to everything and anything. For example – you’re using an example of being good at golf, then switch to tennis, then throw in some basketball jargon, then all of a sudden you’re talking economics, politics are an example about motherhood. This weakens your writing!
Example: “Life is like being in a boat on a stormy sea, during a storm, and you have to hang on tight during the rough spots because when the sun comes out you won’t need an umbrella anymore, and can go on a picnic. Because you can only hit a hole in one if you keep on dribbling through the half-time, and when the chips are down you don’t bet big, you just conserve your chips until you get your day in the sun.”
What to work on: Always explain first. Say what you want to say, explain it in simple terms until it’s pretty much understood. Then, use a metaphor or example as support. (Lots of writers use examples and metaphors without actually saying anything! If you use a metaphor, develop it, alone, without diluting it with references to anything else. Finish it, close it, then leave it behind (don’t refer back to it 3 pages later.
2) “I have a superb vocabulary”
Quit it. Knock it off. Simple words are good words; it’s almost always better to be clear, concise and use ordinary words than it is to pull out your dictionary and find some 17th century jargon because you think it sounds cool.
Example: “I’ve altered every utterance I may well conceive to change in this proclamation by employing a thesaurus and unearthing the least conventional words.” Is it easier to understand? Doesn’t it make you want to pull your hair out? (Ok, I didn’t really do it justice. What really ticks me off is a writer who uses pretty normal language, but then has about three strange or old-fashioned words they like to use; after the 20th instance pops up you really want to scream.)
What to work on: Use good words, but simple words. If a better word expresses more concisely exactly what you intend, by all means use it! But be wary of using a specific unusual word more than ONCE; the second time it will draw attention, the third time will attract scorn.
3) “I use really long, windy sentences that sometimes have no clear thought, no verb, the point.”
When I was younger, used to love long sentences. The ability to set a ball in motion and keep it up in the air as long as you can, watching it bounce and fly freely, catching the air and rebounding in a new direction, is a skill that when handled appropriately and judiciously can set your writing apart with a certain literary appeal. However the sentence must keep moving forward. It must have an aim, an agenda, and as it unfolds, its purpose is manifested. All too often writers use long sentences because they don’t know where they are going, where they’ve been, how to say what they want (or know what they want to say), and by the end of it the author has brought you deep into the abyss of his uncertainty.
Example: “One day when I was a boy I went to the well with my friend Jill, well it was Julia but for some reason I called her Jill, maybe because her older sister always called her that as well, but she had blonde hair unlike her sister’s dark brown hair and her sister was much cuter than her; they moved next door to us when I was 5 and we always used to climb this hill to get water so we went that day to get water and I fell down.”
What to work on: Each sentence has a purpose, it has one thing to say, and it says it as clearly and as beautifully as it can. (Beautiful writing is really just precise writing. Say exactly what something is with the absolutely most suitable words.)
4) “My writing consists of basically a bullet point outline of different topics.”
This is a problem of organization; the author has lots of things they want to talk about under one broad heading. This can be done successfully if each chapter has a subject, and each item fits under the subject, and each subject fits the theme of the book. But it still demands a lot of good writing, introductions, transitions; some guiding to get the readers through the material and understand what it all means.
Authors with this problem write about 100 different headlines, and fill in the spaces, and jump between the headlines with no transition. To my knowledge, the only time this has ever been used successfully was by Kahlil Gilbran in “The Prophet”.
Money: I think money is the root of all evil. Although, I still want some.
Family: Family is the most important thing in life. Except my cousin Bill.
Education: Education is the single most important factor to success. I didn’t finish mine, though.
What to work on: Make an outline first, to put everything in it’s place. Stick to the topic, explain how it relates to what came before and to what’s coming next.
5) “I put in quotes things that really have no source, or no reliable source. Or I quote things that are really famous but don’t cite the source.”
Examples: “Some great teacher once said ‘the spokes on a bicycle wheel go around and when moving make the illusion that they are not moving, because you can’t see the spokes of a bicycle wheel'” (because this sounds stupid and there is no specific quote, we’d assume the author made it up.
“Some great teacher once said, ‘Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.'” (Everybody knows that’s from Forest Gump).
What to work on: Sources are great – but always find and cite the source correctly. Don’t make things up. Never say “Scholars agree” or “Everybody thinks that…” or quote from some tiny newspaper or from your best friend; only reliable sources will do.
6) “I use examples that have almost nothing to do with what I’m talking about, or sometimes even make the OPPOSITE point that I’m trying to make.”
This one is hard to explain, but I’ve seen it in practice. Mostly, the author takes a quote or story and ties it into his writing only because it is loosely about the same concept; or because it share a word in common. So for example, they want to talk about the security of having your own home, so they’re throw in a few stories or quotes about home ownership – even a story about a burglar breaking into a home and killing a woman or a quote that argues against home ownership – which they produce but then say “but I don’t agree with that because…” or “unlike the story…” If it doesn’t agree with what you want to say, don’t include it.
7) “I can see both sides of every issue.”
Some authors fail to close an argument by, at the last minute, reversing everything they’ve just argued. It’s great to appreciate and understand the contrary point of view, especially if you’re introducing something controversial, but you always want to take a stand and show why your view is the best view.
Example: “Abortion is wrong. It’s wrong because babies have feelings and emotions. And it’s wrong because humans don’t have the right to take life, and also because it can hurt the mother, and also because it promotes immorality and irresponsible sex. So, abortion is just totally wrong. But some people say it isn’t, and that’s ok too.”
What to work on: Stick to your guns. It’s nice to bring up “Other people may say….” but always end with “However they are wrong because (a, b, and c).”
8 ) It takes me 5 sentences of repeating the same words in different orders until I feel I’ve explained the meaning.
Example: “I repeat myself. I mean, I – as in myself – or in other words the person that is me, often repeat myself, or say the same thing over and over and over again, like repetition. And then I try to explain something that is really simple by explaining it.”
What to work on: try to use as few words as absolutely necessary, and whenever possible, never repeat the same word in one sentence.
FOR NOVELISTS AND FICTION WRITERS!
9) “My characters get happy or sad easily with little reason, or insecure, can’t decide on a course of action, overreact to everything, are painfully self-aware and self-conscious.”
10) “I have some great scenes, full of action and witty dialog, where nothing happens that’s at all related to the overall plot. (For example a party scene in the middle of a huge war, where none of the main characters are there, and nothing really happens that’s important).”