Monday, 23 January 2012

Crabbit's Tips for Writers - 5: Ingredients of Poor Writing

You may remember that last year I started a set of Crabbit's Tips for Writers. Here's No 5. To find the others, go to the list of labels on the right (scroll down) and choose Crabbit's Tips for Writers. You can also go here to download the pretty pdf and print it out, if you so wish.

Crabbit's Tips 5: Ingredients of Poor Writing
You will have spotted that I’m not suggesting you insert these ingredients in your writing! I believe that knowing the ingredients of poor writing is a very good start in your quest to making sure that your writing is not poor. What follows is a list of the most common faults we find in manuscripts that are submitted to agents, publishers and consultants such as me. All except No 12 apply equally whether you’re self-publishing or wanting to be published.

Clearly, this list can’t explain the points in any detail. I suggest you a) ensure you understand the error and b) bear it in mind when you are editing your work. Write to be Published (WTBP) explains each one properly and my blog also contains detail – use the search box top right.

1. Starting in the wrong place and giving far too much back story too early. It’s usually best to start in the middle of something dramatic and drip-feed back story only as necessary, and not before necessary.

2. Over-writing. This includes: too many adjectives, too many adverbs, horribly inappropriate and unnecessary similes or other imagery, and giving the reader far more detail or description or explanation than he wants or needs. Rein it in, writers! Stop trying to sound like a writer; just be one.

3. Low stakes. For a reader to be interested, she needs to know what the main character stands to lose if he fails. His life? Sanity? His lover? Or 50p for the parking meter?

4. Weak structure. Once you’ve worked out what your storyline roughly is, sketch it out to make sure that the structure is clear, strong and leads upwards to a great climax (or three). See this post.

5. Clunky sentences. If in doubt, simplify the sentence to avoid too many tangled clauses.

6. Lack of suspense. Drip clues of future drama/ terror/ angst/ disaster/ whatever. Think of how films set the mood and make us fear/expect etc.

7. Poor pace. All books need varying speeds; even fast, dramatic books need to slow sometimes. On my blog, use the search words pace and breathing, and you’ll find lots of posts, especially this one about chapters.

8. Inconsistent voice. Many highly successful books rely on a highly original voice (such as Room and Incendiary); but you don’t have to rely on this. What you do need is for the voice to be consistent throughout. Or if you have more than one voice, it must be consistent within that section.

9. Wrong or inconsistent POV. Point of view needs careful handling. WTBP tackles many aspects of it. POV slippages are irritating and even when not consciously noticed can interrupt meaning.

10. Saggy middle. Yup, beginnings are easy and endings don’t matter as much (people will always disagree about endings and you can’t please everyone) but a saggy middle stops readers reaching the end. WTBP has advice, and so does my blog but I can’t find the post now.

11. EITHER lack of originality OR not fitting genre expectations. Yes, only one is necessary but one is necessary. (That is, IF you are seeking publication by a publisher, rather than self-pubbing.)

12. Imperfect control of grammar and sentence structure. Obvs. And obviously I can’t go over every possible error (and nor does WTBP). But you probably know how strong your grammar is. If you feel it needs help, I suggest a) keep your structures simple (nothing wrong with simple) and b) get someone to check and possibly even help you improve.

13. Punctuation errors – especially in speech and the irritating comma splice. If you’re unsure, take steps to find out whether you’re doing it right.


The CRABBIT’S TIPS series consists of:
1. Writing Fiction
2. Getting Published
3. Submitting to Agents and Publishers
4. Publishing Yourself
5. Ingredients of Poor Writing
6. Synopses
7. Non-fiction Proposals
8. Author events
9. Teenage Writing
10. Children’s Writing

And more planned.


Shauna said...

Great advice - these things are always so obvious in other people's writing, sometimes harder to spot in your own. That's where a great writing group, or critique partner is so helpful.

David John Griffin said...

Exactly as Shauna wrote; thank you Nicola. :-)

Ebony McKenna. said...

Yes, yes and absolutely I agree.

In my crit group, we have beginners right through to trade pubbed authors and the newbies are super eager to get it all down . . . which results in all the backstory at the front of the book.

It's such an easy thing to spot, but hard to fix. The author needs to know the backstory but the reader doesn't. Not right away at any rate.

Scooter Carlyle said...

I honestly thought I had the POV thing completely in hand. I've been giving my manuscript a last look and have been horrified to find several slips. Crud! At least I can spot them.

World Famous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Nicola Morgan said...

"World Famous" - no spam, please. Many thanks.

Laura Mary said...

@Scooter - Me too! And my manuscript is currently colour coded to help me avoid such things! I do take some comfort in the fact that slips are far more obvious to me now - was something I hadn't even considered before reading WTBP!
Oh the shame.