I’ve noticed several common mistakes in work submitted on CC that could easily be fixed to improve one’s writing. For the most part, they are very simple, and would require only a search and replace.
One: Take out extra words. Words like: even, really, some, seem/seems/seemed, appeared, somewhat, almost, very, well, and others. You can do a Google search to get a full list. These words weaken and bog down the narrative, without adding anything to the story or the description.
Mark Twain said to replace “very” with “damn.” When your editor deletes “damn,” then your writing will be as it should be.
Consider the sentence, “He wore what appeared to be a red hat.”
Was he wearing a red hat, or not? If he was wearing a red hat, then just say that he wore a red hat: “He wore a red hat.”
Another very common thing is for new writers to use “almost.” “The sun was almost too bright.” Why tell me that? It was not too bright if it was almost too bright. So show me. “The glare of the sun made it difficult for him to see. If it were any brighter he would have been blinded.”
The last example I’ll give is the word “really.” “It was really dark.” What does that mean? Show me how dark it was. “He found himself in blackness so intense it pressed on his eyeballs.”
“I didn’t really want it.” Why not say, “I didn’t want it?” Sure, there are times when it might fly, such as “I told him I wanted it, but I didn’t really.” (Although that can also be written better).
Do an experiment. Make a copy of your story, then do an auto search and replace on the copy (not the original) to delete all these words. Just take them right on out. Then read it. See what you think.
Two: Take out the word “that.” One of the best pieces of advice I got about writing was to go on a “which hunt.” Go through and take out the word “which” and replace it with “that.” Then go through and take out the “thats.”
There are times when the word “that” is necessary. For example, in answer to the question, “Which one?” “That one.”
But I submit that 90% of the time, it’s unnecessary and wrong. To wit: “She is the one that I want.” In dialogue, if the person speaking is not highly educated, you can probably get away with it. But in narrative, it’s wrong.
Go through your story and take out all occurrences of the word “that,” except in cases where the sentence makes absolutely no sense. In the example I gave, “Which one?”, the answer cannot be “One.” So, you need the “that.” Otherwise, you probably don’t.
You might say, “Well, that’s how my character speaks, and it’s first person narrative.” I still say take it out.
Do the delete experiment with “that” too.
Three: “Ly” words. Elmore Leonard said he would never use a word ending in “ly” (and adjective), even as a dialogue tag (“He said sharply). That’s a bit radical, but it’s a good practice to see if you can avoid them.
Leonard’s theory was that a writer should be able to evoke the nature of the thing said by the context.
If you have to tell me “he said, wryly,” then you haven’t done your job as a writer. Go through your writing and see if you can’t 1) simply delete the adjective, or 2) if you feel you need something there, find a way to say it without using an adjective.
Four: Passive voice. If you are using the word “was,” or “were,” or any form of the verb “to be,” you are probably using passive voice.
There are two problems with it. One, it’s weak, and two, it’s telling, not showing.
Don’t tell me “he was a nice guy.” Show me by what he says and does.
Don’t tell me “there was a red barn in the middle of the field, and the field was green.” Say, instead, “A large, weather-beaten red barn stood in the middle of a sun-drenched field of green winter wheat.” (Okay, it’s not going to win any awards, but you see what I mean.)
Go through your story and highlight the words “was” and “were.” Then think of how you might say the same thing in the active voice.
Five: Dialogue tags. Use only “said” or “asked,” except on rare occasions. (“shouted,” “mumbled,” “spat,” etc., may be used sparingly)
Dialogue tags should generally be used only to the extent necessary to allow the reader to keep track of who’s speaking.
In good writing, one can tell the nature of the conversation by the context, and by the words used.
For example, I see a lot of “he replied,” or “he answered.” If the person speaking has been asked a question, then by definition what he says in response is an answer or reply. You don’t need to tell me. If it’s necessary to have a dialogue tag to keep track, then just say “he said.”
Conclusion: Writing is a craft. By mastering a handful of techniques and principles you can improve your writing substantially. Many of you aspire to be published. If your writing contains any of the five things I've listed above, the chances of publication, or of getting an agent, are slim, no matter how wonderful your story idea. Apply these rules to your next piece and see how the comments compare to the last. Thanks for reading. Happy writing.