Classic Writing Mistakes, By Maria V. Snyder

Back to Advice.

This article is about the various mistakes of fiction writing that I've encountered as a mentor and teacher in the MFA program at Seton Hill University. You will see these in published novels, however they are a sign of weak writing and they're easy to fix when you're revising your manuscript.

Passive Voice: Can be found all over the place, including published novels. Even mine (Gasp!). Those passive verbs and wording just lurking in your writing. They're not as active and bold as the active voice, and tend to be wordier in general.

Passive: The report was read by Karen.
Active: Karen read the report.

Passive: The crash was witnessed by a pedestrian.
Active: A pedestrian witnessed the crash.
When you see was before a verb ending in ing, it's almost always is a passive sentence. After I finish a book, I do a search for was and were and replace as many as I can with an active verb. The sentence always reads better with them.

Easy fixes of the most common:
was standing = stood
was running = ran
was jumping = jumped
was yelling = yelled
was talking = talked
was calling = called
Vague Nouns and Verbs: Use specific, concrete nouns instead of vague ones like a car, a suit or a house. These nouns don't give your reader a picture to imagine. Plus you're wasting an opportunity. These specific details will show your character's personality traits and quirks, which you won't get with you use vague details. Same with verbs like happy, kind, and arrogant. Happy is vague - there are so many different degrees of happiness and again this is a prime opportunity to let your writing do double duty. Remember to limit modifiers.

Also avoid using some, something, somewhere, sometime, and someone - all are vague and can distance the reader from the story.

There was a robot working behind the counter. (vague and passive)
A glittering, magnificent, and spectacular robot was working behind the vast, shiny, smooth counter. (Modifier overload and passive)
An X-14 Postal Robot sorted envelopes behind the customer service desk. (better)

The man was wearing a suit. (vague and passive voice)
The man wore a black Armani suit. (better)
The man smoothed his gray hair and straightened the lapels on his yellow zoot suit. (a few more details help paint a clearer picture of the man)

The car raced down the road. (active but vague)
The Honda raced along the California freeway. (better)
The Honda Accord raced along Route One. (even better)
The Honda Accord raced along Route One, leaving a cloud of smoke in its wake. (again, an added detail of the smoke gives the reader a clearer picture)
Adverbs: You know them. There are those adjectives that are so tempting to turn into adverbs. Words like: quietly, slowly, softly, tenderly, deeply etc... Adverbs are everywhere and many writers rely on them. So what's wrong with adverbs? They're often accused of being a sign of weak writing and lazy writing. At one time, I was a staunch opponent of the adverb, editing every one of them from my writing with gusto. My critique partners called me the Adverb Police as I circled every adverb on their submissions. Almost always the sentence is fine without that adverb. However, I've mellowed and although I still believe they are to be avoided, an occasional adverb is fine. As long as there are no more than two on a manuscript page or I'll have to call the Adverb Police. ;)

Talented Eyeballs: You read about these extraordinary eyeballs in many published books and you probably don't give them a second thought. But they're there and once I point them out to you, you won't be able to miss them again.

Their eyes met.
His eyes fell.
Her eyes bounced from the floor to his face.
I rolled my eyes at myself. (from a very popular published novel)
His eyes bored a hole in my chest. (yikes - sounds painful!)
There are lots of talented eyeballs in these sentences--they meet and fall and roll. However in reality, it's not the eyes doing all the work, but the character’s gaze.

Annoying Word Combinations: This is purely a pet peeve of mine and you will read these in published novels all the time.

made her way He made his way down the stairs. She made her way to the bedroom. Really? Did they build a path? What's wrong with walked, sauntered, skipped, raced, ambled? One word for three!

found herself He found himself thinking of Victoria. Karen found herself crying. So nice these character have "found" themselves – I didn't know they were lost. Ugh. Far better: He thought of Victoria. Karen cried.

picked himself up Gary picked himself up. Dazed, I lay on the ground, but then I picked myself up. Wow what feats of strength! Better to say: Gary stood. Dazed, I lay on the ground, but then staggered to my feet.

started to / began to Gwen started to fold the poster. Martin began to clean up the kitchen. Vicky started to sob. "Started to" and "began to" are unneeded almost always. Better to write: Gwen folded the poster. Martin cleaned the kitchen. Vicky sobbed. or Vicky burst into tears.

myself / herself / himself In many cases the words myself, herself, himself are unnecessary because you are writing a scene from a character's POV. The reader is basically inside that character's head so you don't need to tell them it's the POV character. Examples: I resigned myself to telling Bob his car had a flat tire. This is first person POV - the closest POV of them all. Instead, you can write: Resigned, I told Bob his car had a flat tire. Another example: She stared into the mirror and told herself she could do this. Better: She stared into the mirror. I can do this. The italics are to signify a character's internal thoughts (a.k.a. internal dialogue) this is used for third person POV and omniscient. You don't need the italics for first person POV.
Head Bobblisms: Think of those cute bobble-headed toys - the ones where the head is bigger than the rest of the body and bobbles when you tap it. Many new writers will only include character's actions that are above the neck, therefore creating what's known as a head bobble (Term coined by Timons Esaias).

Examples: He smiled. He nodded. He cringed. He grimaced. He sighed. He laughed. He grinned. His eyes widened. His eyes narrowed. He winced. He frowned.

While it's okay to use these actions above the neck sparingly, you need to remember that people do other things while they talk and react to other characters. Some fidget with pencils or doddle. Some pace (although this is a borderline cliché). Some talk with their hands.

Cliches: I've mention this a couple times. They are words and phrases that have been used so much, they're considered cliches. They are to be avoided in your writing if possible.

Examples: her heart pounded, his eyes widened, her eyes narrowed, in the nick of time, as strong as a lion, fit as a fiddle, a diamond in the rough, time heals all wounds, every cloud has a silver lining, fall head over heels, the writing on the wall, scared to death, they all lived happily ever after, etc...

Turning, Opening and Closing Doors: There is a tendency for new writers to write out all the character's movements in detail. You can trust your readers to follow along without listing all the movements.

Examples: "There was a knock at the door. Darien turned from the window and walked to the door, opening it." Not bad, but that second sentence could be simplified to: "There was a knock on the door. Darien opened it." The reader will assume Darien walked to the door – unless he used magic, then in that case it should be mentioned. :)

Also many new writers seem to be fixated on telling the reader all about opening and closing the door. Readers are generally smart and if you write, "She left." They can make the natural intuitive leap that she opened the door and closed it behind her. Unless the character slams the door or does something unusual with the door that you want the readers to know about.

Turning can also be an overused word. Below are a few fixes for them:
He turned to me. Instead: He faced me.
She turned around. Instead: She spun.
Mary turned her neck. Instead: Mary craned her neck.
And while I'm fussing about overused words - look is another one that is overused by new writers. Here are some ways to avoid using look:
He looked at Joan. Instead: He gazed at Joan.
She looked like she would cry. Instead: Her face flushed crimson as her bottom lip trembled.
Karen went looking for her purse. Instead: Karen searched for her purse.
Gary gave me a look. Instead: Gary leered.
Filtering: I'm not talking about filtering coffee or water. It's those words that remind readers that hey, they're reading a book - there's a character between them and the experience. Which is fine for omniscient POV and distant third, but it becomes an issue when you're using first person POV and close third person POV. When a POV is already established, and the reader is firmly inside the main POV's head, there are certain words that are unnecessary.

Here's a definition from John Gardner's The Art of Fiction: "...the needless filtering of the image through some observing consciousness [the main protagonist]."

Example: Frannie heard the door bell ring. Frannie heard is filtering. To avoid this, delete it and the sentence becomes: The door bell rang. Since the reader is inside her head, the reader will automatically assume that Frannie heard the door bell.

Other filtering words: watched, saw, felt, looked, realized, noticed, knew, could see, could hear, could feel.

More Examples:
I heard my mother shout. Instead: My mother shouted.
She felt cold. Instead: Nancy shivered.
He looked up and saw the barn was on fire. Instead: The barn was on fire.
I realized I’d forgotten my shoes. Instead: I left my shoes at home.
Brian watched the football game. Instead: The football game blared from the television.
Kathy noticed her hair was a mess. Instead: Kathy's hair was a mess.
I could see John's car parked down the street. Instead: John's car was parked down the street.

If you follow all these suggestions, then your writing will be stronger and you won't annoy readers like me. ;)
Good luck with your writing!
Books & Excerpts |  Biography |  Appearances |  Writing Advice |  World Map
FAQs |  Short Stories |  Links |  News |  Home
All contents copyright © 2004-, Maria V. Snyder
Contact Maria at
Designed and Created By Depixelate Web Design