We are all guilty of this – overused words. Sometimes we do not even know we are doing it. If you are like me then you write whatever comes to your mind. You type and type and type and before long you have a book. A very long book. Over the years, my writing pitfalls have varied. First, I was a notorious head-hopper. For those of you who don’t know what that is – it’s where everyone has a point of view – the hero, the heroine, the sister, brother, mother, father, even the servants – have a point of view. The worst is when they all have a point of view in the same scene. YES – that was me when I wrote my first book over 30 years ago. But I was a writer! I was young and unknowing and was just thrilled I had written a 300 page long book. Friends read it and thought I was fabulous. Of course, then I thought it was fabulous too. Boy, did I have a lot to learn.
I have since learned to trim my writing. (I may not write tight here, but trust me – it’s so much better). So what are some other pitfalls writers fall into?
We have all been in this pit. What exactly is passive voice? Passive voice is where you are commenting on an action instead of showing the action. He was struck by lightning. Instead, think of Lightning struck him. Do you see the difference? If you’re not sure if you use it – look for verbs in the “to be” form. Look for “was”. Another clue – look for “by . . .” Remember my example “he was struck by lightning”? Do a search of the word “by” and you will find many instances of passive voice.
Think how passive voice leads into prepositions. We are all familiar with prepositions from our years in grammar school and that first painful year in high school. We were taught to use prepositions to add information to our sentences. Don’t just say “The dog ran”. Instead add details – The brown spotted dog ran across the street to get a ball that fell into a ditch”. I know I went a bit overboard on this sentence, but you get my meaning. Look at your sentences and see if there is a better way to say it without using all those prepositions. Now, I am not saying prepositions are bad. On the contrary, prepositions can add layers to your sentences – you just have to be careful not to use too many in one sentence. The sentence becomes watered down. Your reader starts to skim. When the reader does that, you have lost them.
POV – point of view
We have all been to workshops where they spoke about POV, or point of view. One of the best lessons I learned was – the POV is in the person who has the most to lose/gain. The reader needs to know what they are thinking and feeling during that scene. This is where GMC, or goal, motivation, and conflict are key. Every scene needs to be analyzed for these key points. If you read your scene and you realize this scene is more pivotal for the heroine, then make sure the point of view is hers. Otherwise, it can be a scene killer. Now, some people ask if you can change POV in the middle of a scene. Of course you can. You just have to know when to do it for the most impact.
Lack of Conflict
This is a major killer for a story. There has to be conflict. There must be something that stands in the way of your hero and heroine reaching their goals. If the road to getting what they want is too easy, the reader becomes bored. Challenge them. Throw roadblocks in their way. Think to yourself – what could really mess up this relationship big time, then mess it up. Give them a reason to fight back and come together so the ending is satisfying. You want the reader to cheer for them along the way. If they both realize they love each other too early, then there had better be something terrible keeping them apart to make you root for them. We know Romeo and Juliet love each other from the beginning but their families throw roadblocks in their way throughout the story. Okay, bad example since they both die at the end, but you get what I mean. Think of Gone With the Wind – Scarlet and Rhett – we know they both love each other, they just don’t know it. She thinks she’s in love with Ashley until the very end. What would the story be without that wonderful ending? Do we all still wish it had ended differently? Do we want him to turn around and go back? Sure we do, but then the book would not be the same book. Think of your favorite books – which ones do you read again and again because it’s such a satisfying story? Examine the conflict. Outline the conflict. Then look at your own book and outline the conflict. How does it compare?
Here is a section that could be a mile long and then some. There are so many overused words in our books. The “Find” section of your word processing program becomes your best friend. Remember those passive verbs? Look for them. Replace them.
Here are some of my favorite overused words – have, that, for, as, like, think, said, was, feels
I could make a longer list, but I am sure you have many to add to this list. Go to www.editminion.com and do a search of a passage and you will quickly discover words you overuse.
I remember a time when there was always an adverb to describe how the character said something or looked. The problem was they quickly became overused. Soon, you couldn’t read a passage without being inundated with the pesky little devils. Most of them are easy to find because they end with –ly. Others are more difficult to find – they answer how, when, why, where, or under what conditions something happens. Some of them are disguised as prepositional phrases – called adverbial phrases. When this occurs, reread the sentence and think of a more concise way to say it.
Repetitive words or phrases
We all do this. We have a favorite way of saying something and we give that phrase to one of our characters. Be careful because this could be overkill. While it’s true some of us say “seriously” far too often, but if you give that phrase to your main character then your reader is going to roll their eyes.
You have to be careful with clichés because some of them are time-based. We don’t even realize we are using a cliché that does not fit the time period. We are so accustomed to using that phrase that we don’t realize it may not have been used in the 1800s. Think about it – would say your hero “went over the edge” in a historical? Probably not. You would more than likely say he was addled, or some other clever phrase used during those times. Be careful – these too can become repetitive words or phrases that can bog down your work.
Too many characters
I am very good at adding too many characters. I am also very good at giving names to characters who do not matter. I name the maids and butlers, even if I know they are only in one scene. Then I go back and take out the names. Why do I take out the names? Think about it. Once you know the person’s name, you have a vested interest in them. You want to know more. The reader also starts to connect with that character. Do not name them unless they are important to the scene OR they will play a pivotal role later on in the story. Otherwise, you can probably get rid of them altogether.
I am working on a series of novels based on a group of men called the Order of the Golden Apple. I love each and every one of them. I also love the comradery they share. Guess what? The lovely scenes I wrote with them in the books could be cut. I hated cutting them. I loved those characters. I really wanted to show the closeness of the men, but what I came to realize was – they were not necessary for the development of the story I was writing. Too bad too because some of those scenes were fun. Oh, well, they are now in a file, tucked away on my computer, waiting to be resurrected some day (if ever).
Each one of the above pitfalls could have a post on their own. Perhaps in the future I will try to address them in more length, but in the meantime, check over your work and see if you have fallen into one of these abysmal pits. I know I have from time to time. I have pulled myself out through diligent editing and amazing critique partners. Don’t be afraid to have a friend read your work and look for some of these pitfalls. Maybe you have a friend who can look for the prepositions. Another friend can look for those pesky adverbs. And yet one more person can check for lack of conflict. Whatever your pitfalls, it’s always best to have someone help you locate them. We never find all those mistakes on our own. No matter how closely we read and reread our manuscripts, we are just too close to them to find everything that might be keeping us from becoming published.