How to get better at writing

How do you become a better writer, anyway? This is a question we see frequently. It’s fairly straightforward.

  1. STUDY. Read books and articles on how to write. If you only write, without learning how, you’ll waste time generating a large quantity of low quality work. This work may be fixed in editing, but it’s much more efficient to write the best first draft you can. We have a good list of learning resources on our Resources page.
  2. READ. Study the work of good writers, especially in the genre you want to write. Combined with a study of writing techniques, you will see how writers construct stories that entertain their readers. Remember, you are writing for your reader—not for yourself! Pay attention to what the writer is doing, and how it affects you as a reader. Take notes if you want, and review them at the end. Studying high-quality writing is crucial: check out the National Book Awards, or for Sci-Fi and Fantasy, the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards, or any other relevant literary awards.
  3. WRITE. Practice your writing skills, especially short stories. You can start a huge novel project, but a better choice is usually a series of short works such as journal entries, short stories, or articles. Short pieces are faster to write and edit, so there is less risk of burnout, and you will be able to see your progress as you improve. Writing prompts can be helpful if you are not sure what to write about. We have thousands of writing prompts available via a chat bot on our Discord server as well as monthly short story themes.
  4. EDIT. Most of the work of writing is really editing. You may edit as you go, or edit at the end, but most first drafts need a lot of editing. Give yourself permission to write bad first drafts, then polish them into decent second drafts, better third drafts, and so on. Most successful authors revise their work dozens of times before it is published. Editing or critiquing the work of others, and having your own work edited or critiqued, can help you see your blind spots. Studying, reading, writing, and editing (as above) will build your skills so that you can give good critique, and understand the critique that people give you. We have active writing and critique discussion on our Discord Server.

That’s it, those are the steps! The rest is up to you: be disciplined and spend the time to build your skills—or don’t, and you won’t.

You don’t have to do those steps separately; you may get better results and find it more interesting to switch between the different tasks as needed. Just make sure not to neglect any of them and you’ll be on your way. Good luck!

Easy fixes: Point of view

Types of Point of View (POV)

Personage – Impacts the pronouns

First person: tells the story directly through the character:

Example: I parachuted off the Empire State Building, and I loved it.

Second person: tells the story to the reader (rare in fiction).

Example: You could have parachuted off the building too, but you chickened out.

Third person: tells the story from outside the character:

Example: Bob parachuted off the building, but his chute didn’t open and he splatted.

Scope – impacts how much you know

It’s a spectrum in terms of how close you get into the head of a character (primarily for third person, since in first person, you’re in the character’s head automatically).

On one end of the spectrum, the reader has intimate knowledge of all the character’s thoughts, and can’t know anything the character doesn’t know. On the other end, the reader remains distant, watching events like a fly on the wall.

Intimate (close): the reader has access to the thoughts and feelings of the character who is telling the story. Intimate third person is a popular choice for fiction writing today.

Example (intimate third person):
Ralph sailed down and landed on the bloodied street. Poor old Bob. He should have double-checked his parachute. Now he just looked like a pile of spaghetti. Which might be an improvement really. Ralph chuckled softly to himself.

Omniscient: the reader has access to all the thoughts and feelings of ALL the characters, even if the author/narrator may not write about all of them. In an omniscient point of view, the author/narrator may include the thoughts of any character, or stay detached and simply narrate a story as an outsider, or zoom in/out as needed.

Example (omniscient third person):
Jim stepped off the elevator and walked out of the Empire State Building. He saw Bob’s splattered remains and smiled. This was the easiest hit he had ever done, and Ralph was none the wiser, he thought. Now all Jim had to do was meet his contact and collect his twenty thousand. He sauntered off, dodging Ralph’s landing.

Ralph unbuckled the straps from his parachute, trying to avoid breathing in deeply. Bob’s mess had already begun to stink, and the sooner he changed out of his jumper, the sooner he could join his best friend Jim at the pub for a post-parachuting beer.

More on POV in writing.

Head-hopping

Note that the example above shifts from Jim’s point of view to Ralph’s. This is often called “head-hopping” and is supposedly to be avoided.  However, it can be used to great effect in an omniscient point of view.

Headhopping is all about how frequently you do it and how well you do it. Few readers would balk at a book that switches back and forth between two primary characters with each chapter.

On the other end of the spectrum, a story that jumps from one character to another after each sentence is usually tiresome to read. In general, there’s no reason to head-hop frequently unless it’s crucial to telling your story.

Don’t (painful head-hopping):
Sarah glared at Betty. That bitch had taken the last blueberry scone, she just knew it. A scone for a crone. Betty glared back. Sarah was such a skank. Never mind that it was her ninetieth birthday. And then there was Jezebel, who claimed to have a PhD but everyone knew it was fake. Jezebel knew Betty was thinking about her as she watched Betty glance at her fake diploma on the wall. Of course, no one could ever prove that she hadn’t finished her dissertation, except Sparky of course. Sparky wants biscuits, thought Sparky the dachshund. He really wants them. Maybe if he barks enough Sarah will give him some.

In the above paragraph we shift POV from Sarah to Betty to Jezebel and finally to Sparky the dog. It’s a bit nauseating to read, isn’t it? There are authors who have pulled off this type of narrative shifting, but those that do tend to do so smoothly and give the reader time to rest in each character’s POV.

Even with just the addition of line breaks, it’s easier to read.

Don’t (but it’s better with line breaks):
Sarah glared at Betty. That bitch had taken the last blueberry scone, she just knew it. A scone for a crone.
Betty glared back. Sarah was such a skank. Never mind that it was her ninetieth birthday. And then there was Jezebel, who claimed to have a PhD but everyone knew it was fake.
Jezebel knew Betty was thinking about her as she watched Betty glance at her fake diploma on the wall. Of course, no one could ever prove that she hadn’t finished her dissertation, except Sparky of course.
Sparky wants biscuits, thought Sparky the dachshund. He really wants them.  Maybe if he barks enough Sarah will give him some.

Imagine how this story would change if we spent a paragraph, a page, a scene, or a chapter in each character’s point of view.

Another way to improve it would be to step back and be a fly-on-the-wall narrator, with access to all information.

Do (an omniscient narrator describes the same scene, telling us the character’s thoughts):

     Sarah glared at Betty, eyeing the crumbs on her lips, the crumbs of the last blueberry scone Betty had carefully purloined. It was a game of scones and crones, and the parlour was filled with the scents of both. Betty glared back at her. Even now, on Sarah’s ninetieth birthday, the sting of Sarah’s adultery with her first husband had hardly faded in seventy years.
Jezebel, Sarah’s daughter, caught Betty’s eye with a knowing smile. Of course, Jezebel knew all about the affair, and of her feelings towards Sarah, but Betty still had the upper hand: Jezebel had never finished her dissertation, and the PhD that her mother were so proud of was fake. She was no more a doctor than Sparky the dachshund, but that didn’t stop Jezebel’s smug smile as she watched Betty glance from her to the diploma.
Tonight, Betty would spring her trap, finally realizing a revenge seventy years in the making, humiliating Sarah and Jezebel together at the birthday gala like she had been humiliated so many years before.
Sparky the dog yapped, jarring Betty out of her reverie. He wanted biscuits of course, but a scone would do, or perhaps, even better, she would give him a bone to gnaw by the night’s end.

As you can see, an omniscient POV gives access to everyone’s thoughts and feelings, and allows for more to be described, as the narrator knows everything and doesn’t have to wait for thoughts, dialogue, or action to reveal important plot details (through “showing”) and can simply “tell” the information to the reader.  This is closely related to some considerations on “show versus tell“.

In general, you’re better off sticking a single point of view in each scene or chapter and developing the character for your reader to enjoy, then switching at a natural break in the story.

Even in omniscient point of view, where knowledge of multiple characters thoughts may be expected (but is not mandatory), authors that use it well follow a single character at least long enough to make a point, if not for a whole scene or chapter.  In some cases, narrators stay out of heads entirely, merely reporting the scene as it happens, with the backstory and musings, but without access to any thoughts at all (other than the narrator’s own).  In this case, the writer is still sticking to a single POV — that of the narrator.

More on head-hopping POV.

Establishing a Character’s Voice

Is your language right for the viewpoint character? Can you tell how he/she feels? Or does the character not match the point of view?

If your character is a college professor, they’ll use big words. If they’re a high-school drop out, they’ll speak differently. Likewise, they’ll have different thoughts, reactions and dialogue if they are introverted or extroverted, optimistic or pessimistic, religious or agnostic, angry or calm, mature or childish, neat or sloppy, creative or analytical etc. etc. etc. It all comes down to knowing your characters and living inside of their heads.

On “The Simpsons”, the character Dr. Hibbert is an educated physician who went to Johns Hopkins Medical School.  He’s no dummy, and tends to be solemn when making diagnoses.

Don’t: Dr. Hibbert put his feet up on the desk. “Well shucks Homer, you’re in a dilly of a pickle. We’ve gotta pre-form some surgery on your old noggin.”

Do: Dr. Hibbert tented his fingers. “It’s a serious matter Mr. Simpson.  If we don’t remove that crayon from your brain, it could damage your cerebral cortex.”

Likewise, the character Reverend Lovejoy is kind and a bit depressive. He’s typically not the type to start a fight, take the lord’s name in vain, or swear at people.

Don’t: Reverend Lovejoy glared at the atheist protestors, then flipped them the bird. “Hey! Jesus says to kiss my ass you bastards! I’ll kill you! I’ll kill all of you!”

Do: Reverend Lovejoy sighed when he saw the atheist protestors, but then tentatively smiled when he didn’t see any members of his flock among the group. He shook his head and headed home to play with his model trains.

More on character voice.

Filtering Words

When you write, you want the reader to experience what the characters experience. Unless you are writing in a distant third person (fly on the wall or narratorial voice with no access to thoughts) you’re going to have to write thoughts and feelings. But how to write about them?

The first instinct is usually to write thoughts like dialogue, like so:

Don’t: I stepped into the mausoleum. That mummy’s got to be here somewhere, I thought. I lit a torch.

While there’s nothing wrong with that approach, it becomes tiresome to read if we see the character’s thoughts frequently. Many authors instead write the thoughts “straight” with no filtering words like “thought”.

Do: I stepped into the mausoleum. That mummy had to be here somewhere. I lit a torch.

Filtering words can take many forms, because they can include emotions.

Don’t: Sarah saw her bees out the window. She loved them so much. She expected a good harvest this year. She heard her husband snoring in the bedroom. She wanted to drown him in the honey vat and make it look like an accident.

The verbs are a mix of senses and emotions: saw, loved, expected, heard, wanted. Here is it without the filtering, and with more showing rather than telling.

Do: Sarah glanced out the window at her beehives and smiled. The bees were busy, and there would be a good harvest this year. Her husband snored in the bedroom. Her smile twisted into a sneer. After the harvest, she could finally drown him in the honey vat. It would be so easy to make it look like an accident.

In general, just remember to “stay in your character’s head”.

That said, in an omniscient point of view, filtering words may become more appropriate, because the world and the characters are in fact being filtered—usually through a narratorial voice.  The crones-and-scones example above gives an example of how to do this.  This approach may seem somewhat old-fashioned today, but when executed well, is just as enjoyable as anything else.

More on filtering words.

Easy fixes: telling and showing

You may have heard the phrase “show don’t tell.” It’s a subject that permeates all aspects of writing, and it is very important to understand.

What’s the difference?

Telling is explaining or summarizing something literally, which is common in non-fiction writing. For example,

Telling: William ate a sandwich.

Showing is detailing an event to deliver the experience to the reader including all of the sights, sounds, smells and emotions of the characters. Showing almost always requires more words than telling. For example,

Showing: William picked up the BLT. His mouth filled with saliva as the smell of fresh sourdough reached his nose. With the first bite, the crunching bacon and lettuce brought him back his childhood, when his mother would cook bacon for breakfast on Sunday mornings.

Both of these examples communicate the idea of William eating a sandwich.  The first one summarizes with a quick, generic statement.  The second one dramatizes with specific, unique details.

Showing is important because it provides an experience for the reader and creates an emotional connection with the characters by allowing the reader to live in the character.  It also helps a reader visualize and imagine your story, which is crucial to keeping a reader engaged.

Audiences who grew up on TV and movies often expect 100% of the story to be shown to them, and not narrated to them (the scrolling text intro to Star Wars excluded).  In the last century, English literature has shifted to include much more showing rather than telling.

There is nothing wrong with telling, assuming you can tell it well.  Whole books have been written as essentially a story told by a narrator, with virtually no showing.

However, if you are writing contemporary fiction, the important parts of your book should usually be shown to the reader, not told, as this is what most readers have come to expect, and it is often easier to write interesting passages of “showing” versus interesting passages of “telling”. Be careful though—a book that is all showing, with no telling, can become tiresome to read.

When to show versus when to tell

On one end the the spectrum, you have pure telling. Phrases like “he drove his car to work” explain literally what happened, and can be very useful for summing up boring parts of a story quickly.

The other end of the spectrum is pure showing, where every bit of action is detailed extensively, revealing the experiences, thoughts, emotions, and actions of characters. Pure showing is useful for extremely dramatic scenes, such as a critical turning point in a story.

Most successful modern creative writing is primarily showing with a bit of telling mixed in.

The general guidelines are:

Tell when it’s boring and you need to get through something for the story to make sense, or when you want to fill in the reader on a backstory, a description, or a piece of information without taking the extra pages to fully dramatize it.

Don’t: Stan got in his car, turned the key, and warmed up the engine. Backing out of the driveway, he glanced in the rear-view mirror and sighed. It was another boring Monday. He turned onto Maplecrest Drive and headed for the freeway, just like every other day. He flipped through the radio station but nothing good was on. He pulled onto the freeway. After forty-five minutes in moderate traffic, he arrived in his usual parking spot, right on time. As Stan walked into the building, Jimmy bumped into him and spilled boiling coffee on Stan’s crotch.

Do: Stan drove to work. As Stan walked into the building, Jimmy bumped into him and spilled boiling coffee on Stan’s crotch.

Show when it’s interesting and you’re writing the good stuff.

Don’t: Billy stabbed his brother in the heart. The end.

Do: Billy raised the knife over his brother’s sleeping body. It was time to put an end to this damned werewolf curse, even if it meant the end of the family. Candlelight flickered off the silvered blade. Beads of sweat formed on Billy’s brow. He bit his lip and slammed the knife into Carl’s back, forcing the ten-inch blade between two ribs. Carl’s yellow eyes shot open and Billy stepped back from the older brother who had saved his life a dozen times or more. They locked eyes. Carl reached out to Billy for a moment, then slumped and lost consciousness. Billy took a deep breath. It was finally over.

Point of View considerations

Show versus tell is a nuanced decision. It will affect the tone of your writing, the pacing, and the style. Here is a quote from bestselling, award-winning author Ursula K. Le Guin:

“Thanks to “show don’t tell,” I find writers in my workshops who think exposition is wicked. They’re afraid to describe the world they’ve invented. … This dread of writing a sentence that isn’t crammed with “gutwrenching action” leads fiction writers to rely far too much on dialogue, to restrict voice to limited third person and tense to the present.”

One point here is that eliminating all telling from your story can lead to a story that reads like an action movie script (many Young Adult novels fall in this category).  Another observation is that there is a connection between point of view and showing versus telling.  Specifically:

The closer in to the character’s POV you are, the more you’ll likely be showing, and the less likely you’ll be telling. 

For example, if you are in a deep third person POV (the reader only sees what the character sees, and only knows what the characters knows), then it will be difficult to step back and “tell” parts of the story—for example, to fill in the background of a place or person that the character doesn’t know about.

For exploring places, this can lead to a “white box” story where settings aren’t described enough, and for people, it can generate tons of dialogue to get another (non-POV) character’s backstory out in the open.  Writing tight dialogue, switching POVs from scene to scene, and remembering to include all the POV character’s senses in the scene can help mitigate these problems for deep third person POV.

On the other end of the spectrum, a narratorial voice with an omniscient POV can alternate between telling (narrating the story to the reader) and showing (describing the action in detail through the eyes of a character or a as a fly on the wall).  This type of POV is more complex to write and to read, but done well it is transparent and and can be beautiful.  It can also create an intimate connection between the writer and the reader, as in many works by Charles Dickens or Alexandre Dumas, where the reader feels that the story is being told by a master storyteller who has a persona of their own.

Author Kim Stanley Robinson has a good essay in defense of telling in Wonderbook, a writing guide by Jeff VanderMeer. However, I personally have struggled with some dull exposition dumps (usually research dumps) in Robinson’s novels. Learning to write a story that includes significant amounts of telling without showing is an art form, and is likely best studied reading pre-1900 fiction.

Exposition and Info Dumps

The general rule: only include details that matter to the story. Weave them into the scenes and action, don’t just info-dump on the reader.

Info dumps can take many forms.  Some writers will spend pages detailing a character’s clothes.  Others will drone on about the scenery when a few well-chosen sentences would have been fine.  Frequently, writers will “research dump” and spend pages on a subject that they researched (or one that they are fond of) even when it doesn’t matter much to the story. If it is important, weave it in—don’t dump it.

There are exceptions to this rule, even whole books written in telling exposition, but unless you are particularly good at crafting interesting, well-written, and thought-provoking exposition, it’s better to stick to the story, rather than the research behind it.

Don’t: The Destroyer-class Hand Operated Plasma Cannon (HOPCAN) operated on 1.29 Gigawatts of energy, fueled primarily by a barium-ion nuclear fusion generator (contained in a gallium-carbide water jacket) as well as a radio-invisible solar cell array and an inverted plasma recycler.

Do: Dirk wrenched the plasma cannon out of the dead soldier’s hand. A peeling sticker read “Now with 1.29 Gigawatts!” Dirk grinned. It was time to melt some moon worms.

Info-dumps can also occur in dialogue:

Don’t: “As you know Susan, we’re all police detectives hunting a psycho killer who has been exploding expensive chihuahuas all over Beverly Hills for the last four years. Now that you’re our new boss, we’re all looking to you to lead our department and catch this guy once and for all.”

Likewise, info-dumps can occur in an internal monologue:

Don’t: Susan sipped her coffee. How was she supposed to catch a guy that these police detectives hadn’t caught for four years? Sure, they weren’t the best and the brightest, but still. And what kind of psycho killer would go around exploding chihuahuas all over Beverly Hills? Well, it was up to her to lead this rag-tag group of misfits to victory and rid the city of the puppy-popper. She was going to need a lot more coffee.

Both of the above examples dump information on the reader, explaining everything. Your reader is smart! Resist the urge to explain.

Do: Susan sipped her coffee as the sergeant fumbled through the ending of his slideshow. The puppy-popper. These numbnuts were pathetic. Crawford must have put her on this ridiculous assignment because of that joke she made at the Christmas party. She smirked. She’d catch this jerk and be back in her old desk in a week. That’d show him.

Again, you must resist the urge to explain or dumb things down for your readers. Readers are reading to find out what happens next and to unveil the characters and the world you have created. If you explain everything from the get-go, there’s no reason to read on. The reader should always have a question they are waiting for an answer to. If you answer a question, you must raise a new, bigger question immediately!

Don’t: Roxanne was a prostitute. She worked hard for the money, but her clients didn’t treat her right, nor pay her enough. She came from a broken home too. Her pimp, Upgrayedd, was coming by soon, and he would want his pimping money. She didn’t have it, so she was going to run away to her cousin’s in Canada and start a new life.

That’s all telling, and basically ruins the story. Do we really need to explain everything?

Do: Roxanne shuddered, partially shielded from the rain in a doorway. The bad weather kept business away, and tonight had been light. In the distance, the familiar blare of a novelty car horn playing La Cucaracha made her jump. Any other night, she would have taken it, but not tonight, not after what happened to Misty. She took off her heels and ran down the rainsoaked alley.

This passage, while not perfect, at least only hints at what Roxanne does for a living, and who is after her. Further, it raises the questions of what happened to Misty, where Roxanne is going to go, and who, exactly, is after her?

A final problem caused by info-dumps is proportionality. Is the amount of writing appropriate relative to the importance of the subject/character/theme etc. in the story?  Or is there too much detail on unimportant things and not enough on good stuff?

If you spend a lot of words on a subject in your writing, readers will assume it’s important.  For example, if you detail a character for a page, and then he never shows up again, it’s not only a waste of space, but likely to disappoint your reader.  This is related to the show-versus-tell decision—write the details for the important stuff, and minimize the unimportant stuff.

Cause and Effect

Cause should precede effect when you are showing action. When an event occurs, an emotional reaction or conscious thought follows, then a physical reaction or speech.

Don’t: Bob hit the brakes. In the headlight beam, a jackalope tried to cross the road. “Oh great,” Bob muttered. The jackalope thumped under Bob’s car. The hiss of a flat tire filled the warm summer night.

Do: In the headlight beam, a jackalope tried to cross the road. Bob hit the brakes. The jackalope thumped under Bob’s car. The hiss of a flat tire filled the warm summer night. “Oh great,” Bob muttered.

Linking verbs tend to tell

Linking verbs are the verbs “am is are was were be being been” and a few others (essentially, the conjugations of the verb “to be”). There’s nothing wrong with using them, but the overuse of them often leads to repetitive prose, passive voice, and telling rather than showing.

Make your verbs specific and interesting! Search your documents for “was were wasn’t weren’t” if you’re writing in the past tense. For present tense, search for “am is isn’t are aren’t” etc. In the example below, the verbs are highlighted.

Don’t: She was red-haired and slim. She was in her bedroom, and there were a dozen empty whiskey bottles there. There were no lights on, and the room was stuffy and smelly.

Do: Messy red hair fell around her narrow shoulders as she lay on her bedroom floor. A dozen empty whiskey bottles scattered the sty she called home. Shadows played across the filth, and the heavy musk of stale cheese pervaded the air.

There’s nothing wrong with using “to be” as the verb, but don’t make it the only verb you use.

Adverbs tend to tell

Adverbs are words that modify a verb. They often end in -ly. For example, “The dog bit his leg viciously.” and “He walked slowly to the hospital.”

By themselves, adverbs aren’t bad. They serve an important purpose in the English language. However, if you can swap out your verb + adverb into a more specific, dynamic verb, you should. Doing so will create a cleaner and more visceral story.

Don’t: “The dog bit his leg viciously.”
Do: “The dog ripped into his leg.”

Don’t: “He walked slowly to the hospital.”
Do: “He limped to the hospital.”

Particularly, adverbs that follow “said” shouldn’t be necessary: the dialogue that you’re writing (and any accompanying actions) should show the emotion and leave no need for an adverb.

Don’t: “I can’t believe you slept with her,” she said angrily.
Do: “You cheating bastard. I hate your goddamn guts,” she said.
Do: She threw the panties in his face. “You cheating bastard.”

Note that there are a few exceptions for adverbs that actually modify said (change the way someone says something), such as “softly” or “slowly.”

Similar to adverbs, the same goes for most verbs other than “said”—they are usually telling when you should be showing, or at worst, they are ridiculous.

Don’t: “You never have time for me,” he replied/countered/announced/etc.
No need for the weird verb. The fact that he’s replying is obvious.
Do: “You never have time for me,” he said.
Do: He shrugged. “You never have time for me.”

Don’t: “I guess I killed him,” she snarled/growled/barked/groaned/etc.
No need for the weird verb. Make her dialogue or action show the emotion.
Do: “Yeah. I killed him. He deserved worse,” she said.
Do: She glowered at the prosecutor. “Yeah. I did it. So what if I did?”

Don’t: “Everything will be OK,” the priest consoled/reminded/soothed/etc.
The consolation is obvious from the dialogue, no need for the weird verb.
Do: “Everything will be OK,” the priest said.
Do: The priest patted her hand. “I asked the governor for a stay on the execution. He’s had an unfaithful wife, and I think he may understand.
No need to console twice – the hand pat is enough to communicate the consolation to the reader. We can move on with the plot.

Easy fixes: word choice

Word choice issues don’t fit in as grammar or punctuation problems, as they may not be “technically” wrong. However, many word choice problems will bore, annoy, or confuse your readers.

Repetition of words, phrases, or ideas

Writing takes longer than reading. Writers often repeat themselves because they don’t realize that a reader will have read the same thing only seconds or minutes beforehand. Repetition can also happen when working on a piece, quitting, and picking it up later.

The easy way to solve this problem is read your story aloud before you post it. Don’t just read it in your head—actually read it aloud. You might also try word cloud generators or other tools that list the frequency of all the words in your manuscript.

Don’t: He walked out of the room. He walked down the hall. He walked into the bedroom, then walked to the window, then climbed out.

Do: He walked out of the parlor and crept down the hall. He tiptoed through bedroom, past the sleeping rottweilers, and climbed out the window..

This applies to repetitive ideas as well as words.

Don’t: Beneath John’s hat brim, his face bore the creases of long days working in the sun. He smiled and grabbed my butt, wrinkles turning his browned face into an aerial view of eastern Utah. When I slapped him, his face fell like an old leather handbag full of doorknobs hitting the floor. I wasn’t going to take that kind of behavior from any man, much less a man with skin like a crumpled paper bag.

OK, got it, he’s got a wrinkly face. Is there anything else interesting about him?

Do: Beneath John’s hat brim, his face bore the creases of long days working in the sun. He grabbed my butt, grinning with jagged, rotten teeth. I slapped him, and his shoulders fell with his smile as he jerked away from me. I wasn’t going to take that kind of behavior from any man, much less a creepy old circus magician.

Repetitive sentence structure

When all sentences are the same length, the prose becomes boring to read. Vary the structure.

Mix short sentences with long, flowing sentences. Short sentences have impact. Long sentences are wonderful when you have a clear idea to communicate to the reader and want them to follow it through to the end. Sentence variety is another issue that can usually be discovered by reading aloud.

Don’t: “She was a thief. You got a belief. She stole my heart. She stole my cat. Then we broke up. I met someone new.”

Do: “She was a thief. Believe me, she stole my heart and my cat. I ended up leaving her, and eventually I met someone new.”

More examples

Passive voice

Passive voice is caused by a reversal of the verb and subject from the more conventional active voice. Nothing is technically wrong about these sentences, but passive voice results in extra words, and typically an over-use of the verb “to be”, often in the form of “was” or “were”.

In passive voice, the object (the gold medal) comes before the verb (won).
Don’t:
A gold medal was won by the snowboarder.

In active voice, the subject (the snowboarder) comes before the verb (won).
Do: The snowboarder won the gold medal.

Don’t: The laser gun was fired by the solders.
Do: The soldiers fired the laser guns.

Passive voice can also result in misplaced modifiers, resulting in nonsense (Robert didn’t drink the fridge, he drank the beers).
Don’t: There were beers in the fridge that Robert drank.
Do: Robert drank the beers from the fridge.

More examples

Overuse of filler words

The fact is, the list of words that don’t really need to be there is very long indeed.
Wait.
The fact is, The list of words that don’t really need to be there is very long indeed.
Wait.
The fact is, The list of unnecessary words that don’t really need to be there is very long indeed.

Filler words and phrases muddy your prose, making it hard work for your reader to wade through. Besides obvious phrases such as “due to the fact that,” “the fact is,” and “in order to”, there are countless other filler words that sneak by more easily. In general, if you can remove one of these words, and the story still makes sense, you probably should:

a bit, a lot, actually, all, almost, anyway, apparently, basically, definitely, especially, essentially, even, honestly, just, like, literally, obviously, only, perhaps, probably, quite, really, seriously, simply, so, something, truly, very, well

Use stronger, more specific words if you can:

If someone is very tired they are exhausted
If someone is really sure they are convinced
If someone is suddenly attacked they are ambushed

Be specific rather than approximate:

If someone is about six feet tall they are six feet tall
If someone is perhaps forty years old they are forty years old
If someone is a bit under the weather they are under the weather

Overuse of vague words and phrases

Closely related to filler words, vague words add meaning, but often not enough. Look out for vague adjectives like “beautiful, nice, good, kind” etc. Look out for vague nouns like “thing, something, somewhere, somewhat” etc. That’s not to say you should remove these words altogether, but be aware of them.

Don’t: The Mona Lisa was a beautiful painting.
What makes her beautiful?
Do: The Mona Lisa’s soft, knowing smile, blushing cheeks and deep eyes struck a chord in my soul.

Don’t: Something about the room troubled him.
What was this ‘something’?
Do: In the bedroom, a velvet painting of a clown family loomed over the bed.

Don’t: He leaned against a tree and began to smoke.
It’s descriptive, but it’s not specific. The more specific, the more real it will be to the reader (as long as it’s not ridiculous). Compare the different images here:
Do: He leaned against the rough bark of a bristlecone pine, pulled out a Marlboro, and lit it with a match in his cupped hands.
Do: He leaned against the gray trunk of a weeping willow, packed some tobacco in a corncob pipe, and lit it with a stick from the campfire.
Do: He leaned against the bigleaf maple in the shade of its red canopy, carefully positioned the brass hookah, and lit the bowl with a miniature blowtorch.

Overly realistic dialogue

Everyone wants their dialogue to be realistic right? The problem is that no one actually wants to read realistic dialogue. Small talk, throat-clearing words (“Well,”) and pauses (um, uh, y’know) are normal in real life, but reading it is dull.

In the distant past, long-winded and relaxed conversations were the norm in literature, but if you look at the classics that are still widely read (from Pride and Prejudice to Tale of Two Cities to Huck Finn), you’ll find that they keep the plot and dialogue moving briskly. Today, readers are so used to prose and dialogue without fluff, they will be annoyed or bored by it.

Don’t: “Well, the thing is, um, so, you know, the other day I saw my ex-wife at the bookstore.”
One of those openers is more than enough to convey hesitation, or you can leave them out entirely.
Do: “The other day I saw my ex-wife at the bookstore.”

Don’t:
Bill waved to Dan as he approached. “What’s up?”
Dan took a seat at the cafe table. “Not much. Nice weather though.”
“Yeah, sunny and warm. Did you see the big sportsball game?”
“Oh yeah, our team scored so many points. Good game.”
Bill squinted. “Anyway, here’s how the diamond heist is going down.”

There’s no need for all the filler! Just get straight to the good stuff.

Do:
Dan glanced around and joined Bill at the cafe table.
Bill squinted. “Here’s how the diamond heist is going down.”

Easy fixes: grammar

Grammar is invisible to a reader, up until it strays from the standards of the English language. At best, poor grammar will confuse your readers; at worst, it will annoy and frustrate them.

In the same way that you need to know traffic rules to successfully drive a car, or you need to understand music notation to be a successful composer, you need to understand grammar to be a successful writer—no matter what your definition of success is!

Sentence fragments

Sentence fragments are also known as incomplete sentences. Sentences can be as short as one word, but they need to have a verb and a subject. It may be tempting to write without using complete sentences because. It. Feels. Dramatic. but it will quickly annoy or confuse your reader.

One-word sentences, like “Move!”, have only a verb (action word), and the subject (usually “you”) is implied.

Don’t: Bob pushed Tim away from the soda machine. Hard. “Move!” he yelled.
“Hard.” is a sentence fragment—it is not a complete sentence. Only verbs can be one-word complete sentences.

Do: Bob pushed Tim away from the soda machine. “Move!”
“Move!” is a complete sentence—it’s a verb issued as a command.

Two-word sentences have a verb and a subject.

Don’t: My dog Barfy ate his dinner. Super fast. Then Barfy barfed.
“Super fast.” is a sentence fragment.

Do: My dog Barfy ate his dinner super fast. Barfy barfed.
“Barfy barfed.” is a complete sentence because it contains both a subject (Barfy) and a verb (barfed).

More on sentence fragments.

Subject/verb agreement

This is very simple stuff that can usually be caught by reading your story aloud. Most people know this stuff intuitively because it will “sound wrong”.

Don’t: “I were running in the woods. I thought monsters was chasing me.”
Do: “I was running in the woods. I thought monsters were chasing me.”

Long sentences with large separations between subject and verb can still be troublesome.

Don’t: “The gray dog, that is, the oldest one of the hundreds of sled dogs, were resting inside his dog house.”
Do: “The gray dog, that is, the oldest one of the hundreds of sled dogs, was resting inside his dog house.”

More on subject/verb agreement.

Pronoun antecedent problems

Pronouns are words like “he” and “she” and “they” and “it”. They are used as placeholders for another word (usually a person, place, thing, or idea). When in doubt, play it safe and re-use the original word rather than the pronoun.

Don’t: “Stan and Bill went fishing. He caught a red snapper.”
In this case, we don’t know WHO caught the red snapper.
Do: “Stan and Bill went fishing. Stan caught a red snapper.”

Don’t: “The Bloods and Crips were ready to rumble. Then they ran off.”
Which gang ran off?
Do: “The Bloods and Crips were ready to rumble. Then the Bloods ran off.”

More on pronoun reference issues.

Mismatched verb tenses

A verb is an action word. The “tense” of a story is usually past or present. The tense affects the form of the verb that you use. Make sure to be consistent throughout the story and stick to one tense unless you need to change it to be clear about when something happened.

Past tense: “The judge sentenced me to twenty years. I swore my revenge. I broke out of jail, found the judge, and threw a pie in his face.”

Present tense: “The judge sentences me to twenty years. I swear my revenge. I break out of jail, find the judge, and throw a pie in his face.”

Future tense: “The judge will sentence me to twenty years. I will swear my revenge. I will break out of jail, will find the judge, and will throw a pie in his face.”

Note that the past perfect tense is used when describing an event that happened before the current point in time in a story.

Past tense: “I took my dog outside to poop, and he dropped a big one.”
Past perfect tense: “I had taken him out to poop the day before, but he didn’t go.”

More on tenses.

Using the wrong word

We can all think of examples that sound foolish, but we’ve also all been guilty of either mistyping or misunderstanding words. There are so many of these, but here are a few of the most common:

Affect – a verb (action word). – The movie didn’t affect me.
Effect – a noun (a thing). – I loved the movie’s special effects.

Could of, would of, should of – these are wrong
Could have, would have, should have – these are correct

i.e. – means “that is”. – He was a moldy soul, i.e. he never bathed.
e.g. – means “for example”. – He was rotting, e.g. mushrooms grew on his toes.

It’s – a contraction of “it is” or “it was”. – It’s cold out today.
Its – a possessive pronoun. – The dog chased its tail.

Lie, lay, lain – to recline or to rest.
I lie on the couch. I lay on the couch. I had lain on the couch.
Lay, laid, laid – to put something down.
I lay a new asphalt driveway. I laid a new asphalt driveway. I had laid a new asphalt driveway.

Lose – a verb meaning to misplace something. – Don’t lose your marbles over this.
Loose – an adjective meaning sloppy or untied. – His necktie was too loose.

To – specifies a direction, or is used with an infinitive verb. – I flew on my dragon to the castle. It is nice to have a dragon.
Two – the number (2).My dragon burnt up two soldiers at the gates.
Too – meaning “also.” – The king and queen got torched too.

Their – indicates possession. – Their house is falling down.
They’re – a contraction of “they are.” – They’re the weirdest people I know.
There – a place. – Don’t go in there, honey.

Then – indicates what happens next. – We went in the mausoleum then the crypt.
Than – used for comparison. – The zombie was nicer than the mummy.

Weather – what the climate is up to. Hey Larry Bird, how’s the weather up there?
Whether – indicates a choice. – Larry couldn’t decide whether to ball or retreat.

Your – indicates possession. Your dog is ugly.
You’re – contraction of “you are”. Therefore, you’re ugly too.

Here are a longer list and another list of commonly-confused words.