Throughout my over ten years of being an avid reader, there are many mistakes that have cropped up in published books that have made me cringe, both as a reader and as a writer. A lot of self-published, as well as traditionally published books contain these cringe-worthy mistakes and make a perfectly good story lose a star in quality.
Today, I am going to show you those mistakes through an example piece I’ve written up in hopes that it helps you better your own writing.
Let’s take our writing to a new level by following these ten tips.
The girl walked across the street, her long fingers tucking her blonde strands behind her ear as she kept an eye on the traffic. She glanced at her watch, then down the street as she hurried her steps. Anxiety gripped her heart. Already she was late.
In her haste to reach the opposite sidewalk, the girl bumped into another pedestrian. The man looked at her with a furious scowl.
“Sorry,” she said hastily. Then she looked at the man again. “Richard?”
The man now looked confused. “Sarah? Is that you?”
Sarah nodded, her blue eyes sparkling.
Alright now, let’s pick apart this seemingly innocent paragraph and bring the discrepincies to light!
#1 – POINT OF VIEW
One thing I see done most often in books, especially self published ones is, the author tends to take the reader out of the character’s point of view whenever they describe movement. For example: ‘My fingers brushed across the cover.’ ‘Her eyes swept across the horizon.‘ ‘His hands clenched into fists.’
Sound familiar? This is on my list of no-noes because, honestly, every time I read a sentence like that, all I can imagine is the appendage moving by itself. Which in and of itself is a disturbing image. Not only that but it takes you out of the character’s head. After all, we don’t think, ‘my hand reached for the cup’, because that’s an illogical thought. Your hand can’t move by itself. Instead, you would think, ‘I reached for the cup.’
Now do you see the problem in our little story above? ‘…her long fingers tucking her blonde strands behind her ear.‘ Here, the girl’s limbs are moving on their own. Let’s rewrite this.
The girl walked across the street, tucking her blonde strands behind her ear as she kept an eye on the traffic.
See? Much better.
Speaking of being outside of the character’s POV…
#2 – NAME THAT CHARACTER
This one I don’t see too often, but often enough. A lot of beginner writers like to write their opening scenes like the one above. This is all well and good… if you have a someone else watching the girl crossing the street. Because you’re outside of her head. We don’t go around calling ourselves ‘the girl’ or ‘the boy’ or even ‘the man’ or ‘the woman’. Not unless we a) didn’t know our own name, or b) had some sort of mental disorder. But because our protagonist has neither of those problems, we should probably give her a name. So let’s rewrite that first sentence and give her a name, shall we?
Sarah walked across the street, tucking her blonde strands behind her ear as she kept an eye on the traffic.
Now that sounds much much better. Keeping your reader inside your character’s head not only allows them to empathise better, it also makes them feel like they ARE the character.
Which then leads to…
#3 – I SEE MYSELF
This one is overlooked a lot, but really bothers me. Just today I read a sentence in a book that went something along the lines of ‘My pale green eyes sparkled.’ That is very much a cringe-worthy line. Because we are not only outside of the character’s head, the character is also describing herself to herself. I think she knows what she looks like. She doesn’t need to tell herself what color her eyes are, or that her eyes are sparkling!
Something similar happens in our own story. Let me point them out to you:
‘…tucked her blonde hair behind her ear.’
‘Sarah nodded, her blue eyes sparkling.’
I think people don’t really think about this one much when writing in third person because, after all, ‘he said, she said’ isn’t very personal. Only you want to make it personal, so that we’re not floating through the story as a nameless, bodiless conciousness, and are actually there as the protagonist (or the antagonist or the supporting character…).
So how do we fix this one? Easy. Don’t describe what she looks like, unless she briefly sees her reflection or another character is describing her. The ‘blonde hair’ sentence isn’t that bad, but let’s try to make it more personal.
‘Sarah walked across the street, tucking her dishwater blonde hair behind her ear as she kept an eye on the traffic. She wrinkled her nose, once again reminded of the ugly color. If only she had the money to dye it.’
Now we’ve given her a reason to be thinking about the color of her hair. This isn’t 100% necessary when it comes to hair that’s long enough for the protagonist to see, but it certainly adds a bit more to get you inside their head.
The next sentence is worse.
‘Sarah nodded, her blue eyes sparkling.’
The latter half of this sentence we can throw out altogether. Sarah isn’t thinking about how her eyes are blue or that they’re sparkling. She’s thinking about the man that she recognizes. That she is excited to see. So let’s put a new sentence in its place.
‘Sarah nodded, grinning so wide her cheeks ached.’
There. Mission accomplished.
#4 – EMOTION, EMOTION
‘Anxiety gripped her heart.’
‘The man looked at her with a furious scowl.’
Okay, let’s dive into emotion. The first seentence is bad. The second one is okay. Let me explain.
In the first sentence, we are telling Sarah’s emotion. Anxiety. And telling is never good.
On the other hand, the second sentence is about someone outside Sarah’s head. The man is furious. This she can see in a glance. Since she’s not the man, we don’t necesarrily have to describe his emotion, but it does help if we describe body language to better paint a picture. Now let’s rewrite his sentence.
‘Annoyance shone in the man’s green eyes. His thick black brows drew together in a scowl.’
Ta da! We suddenly have a better picture of the man. We have suddenly turned an okay sentence into two great ones.
Now let’s fix Sarah’s sentence. We want to show her emotion instead of tell it.
‘Her heart sped up a notch and she bit back a groan.’
We can now feel Sarah’s emotion instead of just reading it. We are also more inside her head. Doesn’t that sound a whole tons better?
#5 – DESCRIPTION MAKES IT BETTER
‘In her haste to reach the opposite sidewalk, the girl bumped into another pedestrian.’
This whole sentence is telling. And, it’s just plain lazy. We are not only thrown outside Sarah’s head, we’re told what’s happened. When someone picks up a book, they want to experience the protagonist’s entire journey. They don’t want it summerized. They want to live it.
Here’s how we can fix this sentence. Break it up and add some description.
‘Sarah hurried her steps, her heels clacking across the pavement, sending jolts of pain up her shins. She grimaced. One of these days, she would work somewhere other than an office where she could wear sneakers all day. She stepped up onto the opposite sidewalk and looked back as a car whipped by. Her heart skipped a beat. That person could have–
Something heavy slammed into her. Sarah stumbled and looked up. A man the size of a football player stood before her.’
In just two paragraphs, we’ve brought Sarah’s world to life. The description is just enough to show just how much she’s not paying attention to what’s around her, without taking us outside her head.
#5 – HASTILY, REPEDITIVLY
One thing K. M. Weiland on her blog Helping Authors Becom Writers speaks out against is ‘-ly’ verbs. One or two scattered throughout the story won’t harm anything, but throwing them all over the place makes for a messy story. Finding other ways to describe the action will make the story sound much, much better. The sneaky little ‘-ly’ I used?
“Sorry,” I said hastily.’
In the paragraph before this, we already used the word haste, so not only is this an ‘-ly’ verb, it sticks out from being used twice. Which means we have to ditch it. Repetative words are also a no-no. They sound awkward when read out loud, and make the reader do a double take. Keeping the story alive and fresh with different words can make the story sound much more professional. Words like ‘and’, ‘as’, and ‘but’ are invisible repedetive words, meaning their harder to see. But trying to replace at least one or two with a different word can freshen up the storyline.
Now let’s fix the above sentence.
“I’m sorry, I–” I began.
In five words, we have shown that our protegonist is speaking hastily and is apologetic. Not only that, but the sight of the man makes her stop, bringing attention to this stranger that she’s bumped into.
Now, let’s put it all together and see what we have.
‘Sarah walked across the street, tucking her dishwater blonde hair behind her ear as she kept an eye on the traffic. She wrinkled her nose, once again reminded of the ugly color. If only she had the money to dye it.
She glanced at her watch, then down the street as she hurried her steps. Her heart sped up a notch and she bit back a groan. Already she was late.
Sarah hurried her steps, her heels clacking across the pavement, sending jolts of pain up her shins. She grimaced. One of these days, she would work somewhere other than an office where she could wear sneakers all day. She stepped up onto the opposite sidewalk and looked back as a car whipped by. Her heart skipped a beat. That person could have–
Something heavy slammed into her. Sarah stumbled and looked up. A man the size of a football player stood before her.Annoyance shown in the man’s green eyes. His thick black brows drew together in a scowl.
“I’m sorry, I–” she began. Blinking, she looked at the man again. “Richard?”
Confusion clouded his eyes and his scowl deepened. “Sarah? Is that you?”
‘Sarah nodded, grinning so wide her cheeks ached.’
And there we have it. We have turned a mediocre story beginning into a good one.
It’s always good to keep these five simple tips in your writer toolbox when scratching out a first draft so that you don’t have so much to fix later. Bringing your writing to life, and keeping your reader inside your character’s head will bring your writing up to a whole new level and make your writing sound much more professional.