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Good Writing Is ... #1 -- the two biggest mistakes made by new writers

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Introductions and explanations

Some of you are familiar with my writing, others not.

Welcome to this, the first in a series on what makes good writing.

What credentials do I hold to presume to speak to others on this subject?

First, I’ve written all my life. In fact, the only interest that has consumed more of my time than writing is reading. One of my more common memories of childhood is the sharpness of my mother’s voice as she yelled, “Get your nose out of that book and do as you’re told!” That, and getting into all kinds of trouble for writing my own little books, complete with illustrations, instead of working on mathematics and science (which I still don’t get, and find terribly boring.)

I didn’t study English composition in university. No, strangely enough for someone who hates math, I studied business administration, economics and hold a post-graduate designation in, of all things, accounting.

This doesn’t mean I didn’t study writing at all. I did. For the past ten years I’ve held membership in Writers’ Village University on the internet; I’ve taken many seminars in creative writing and led a few for young people, and enough night courses to earn a dozen honorary degrees if anyone were to add them up.

I wrote my first novel at the ripe old age of fourteen – a historical fiction of a young girl living in the beginning of the twentieth century on the prairies of Western Canada, Picking Stones and Other Fun Things, which was published as a serial in a now defunct magazine, West Winds , an aptly titled journal dedicated to life in the Canadian west in 1966. Yes, I’m that old. Five more followed, two of which, fortunately, were accepted and published traditionally (by presses also defunct) more than twenty-five years ago. Two others were serialized, and one bit the dust (and rightly so.)

Raising children as a single mother, running a business, working with children, caring for foster kids, marriage and life in general, consumed me for many years, and I haven’t published another novel in some decades, but did write and edited journals for The Canadian Business Women’s Club, The Mastiff Club of Canada, Safe Place (a journal for child protection workers,) ARF – the Animal Rescue Foundation, among others. At present, I am working on the third novel in a series based on a professional in child protection. The first is currently winging its way around in search of an agent; the second is in the hands of my editor and the third lives in assorted files on my computer.

I also edit, not for professional writers, but for young aspiring authors, and inexperienced writers of all ages trying their hand at the art. I’m accustomed to receiving very rough diamonds, and at least handing back a pretty chunk of glass.

So, no my name is not a household term, but, I know what makes good writing. And, perhaps even more importantly, what does not.

Now, you know me, and I in turn have met a few of you.

I read a lot of the creative prose posted here on hubpages, and occasionally when I see some real potential in the voice and style, I’ve offered some assistance (quietly and privately for the most part, or with instructions to delete the comment once read, not wanting to embarrass anyone.)

I’ve never quite been sure if work is posted by an author looking for growth and critique (as mine is – criticism gladly accepted) -- or as a sample in a portfolio, which sometimes disturbs me.  Without meaning to sound superior or condescending, or insulting, or um, um, gosh -- maybe I should just spit it out. May I suggest some of you want to find editing help, and not from me – I have plenty work to keep me busy. I will do a short passage for you, free, if you ask, but no, I’m not trying to drum up work.

A few of you out there in hubland have sent me a few paragraphs for edit and critique, and I’ve done my best to impart as much education as I can on this one time basis. I honestly can’t help myself. I want to “fix” it.

Twice now, someone has taken the free critique, written me back and said, “Look, everyone else loves it just the way it is. Look at my comments.” Okay, fine. I’ve yet to see a comment from anyone (other than bitchy me I suppose) that says anything but, “very nice” and “I enjoyed this, thanks.”

So rather than continue this thankless practice, I’m starting a series of articles discussing the most common mistakes I see in the work posted around here – and no, I won’t embarrass anyone. I’ll only use examples for those I think are good. How’s that?

Now on to the article itself. (And now that we've met, I won't have introductions and explanations on any of the subsequent hubs in this series.


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The two biggest mistakes made by new writers


The biggest error I see in amateur writing is excessive use of the passive voice.

“We were walking down the beach. Our shoes were sinking into the sand, and walking was difficult. Mary saw a good looking boy, and we were all expecting her to leave us and go and talk to him. She was the one most likely to do this out of the three of us good friends. We had been friends since grade six, and we had spent every summer at this beach for as long as we could remember, so we were sure Mary would go and talk to him. Boy, were we surprised when she didn’t and Louise and I started asking ourselves why she was so different today.”

Boring! Tedious! Sorry, but it is. This has as much color and flavor as sawdust, and is equally as exciting. But we see this all the time. Such writing is acceptable in the rough draft when one simply wants to lay down the facts, but not in the finished product. The writer has a story to tell, yes, and we see where she is trying to take us. Do we want to go? Do we feel part of the scene – no.

Here’s why: the use of auxiliary verbs distances us from the action. It’s dull, slow and sounds like the author was probably an accountant or a lawyer. We need a sense of immediacy, of walking along beside these girls. We want a taste of their experience, not a slow recitation of the facts written in passive language.

Also, the use of this “we” as a narrator doesn’t ring real, and this distances us further. Stories cannot be told from the viewpoint of “we” because thoughts and ideas aren’t shared by more than one brain. How does whoever is telling this story know what “we” felt? If the passage doesn’t seem real, we can’t let go of reality and join in. This adds even further passivity – so passive we’re likely to go to sleep. Let’s rewrite correcting these two weaknesses.

“Our shoes sank deep into the sand adding resistance to each step, so we three girls made slow progress down the beach. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a good looking boy further down, and glanced at Mary to see if her head turned in his direction. Yes, she spotted him, and I caught Louise’s eye and winked. She smirked in return. Any minute now, Mary would offer an excuse, and leave us – we expected it. After all these years as friends, since grade six, we knew Mary well. Louise looked as surprised as I felt when Mary continued walking along at our sides. I wondered what was up with her.”

We’ve taken out most of the “were” and “was” that diluted the action. The only auxiliary verb left is “would offer an excuse” which we need to show a probable future action, but this doesn’t detract from the active voice we now hear.

Also we changed the viewpoint to one girl, added a tiny phrase of action. “I caught Louise’s eye and winked. She smirked in return.” Now our girls seem alive, with personalities.

But still, I don’t feel part of this experience. Instead, I’m sitting at a table listening to someone tell me what happened (thankfully in more interesting language.)

The second biggest mistake I see in amateur writing is “telling the story” not “sharing the story.”

“My calves are killing me,” Louise, the whiner of the group complained.

“Me too,” Mary added.

I looked back at our route across the beach, our footprints deep holes along the way. Even as I stood, my feet slowly sank further into the wet sand. “Wanna give up?”

“Nah, I need a coke.” Mary stuck out her tongue and clutched her throat. “The snack bar’s not much further.” She hunched her shoulders and continued, step, pull, step.

Louise dug her elbow into my ribs. “Hey, Lynda – look over there.” Her finger pointed at two boys throwing a football up on solid ground, away from the water’s edge.

“Wanna bet Mary takes off on us? She’ll be over there in thirty seconds flat.” I kept my voice low so Mary wouldn’t hear.

“Wouldn’t be much of a bet.” Louise threw me a smirk.”Have you ever once since grade six known Mary to turn down a chance to chat up boys?”

Mary’s head turned in their direction, and Louise and I stopped walking, waiting for the excuse, and subsequent abandonment.

“Well, now there’s a surprise.” Louise put out an extra effort and caught up with Mary, who still walked straight ahead.

“Hey, Mary – you sick or something?” I asked, struggling to catch up.

So what do you think? We’ve imparted the same information, but in an active way, drawing the reader in and sharing not only the facts, but painting a vivid picture of our three girls, their difficulty walking the sand, and a fair bit about their character. I might have added colorful details in prose form – have Lynda admire the cobalt blue sky, or the green waves, or described the good-looking boy were I seriously writing a scene and not an example.

Conclusion

Avoid the two biggest pitfalls of inexperienced writers’

  • Stay active – avoid the use of passive language or equally passive errors in style. Here’s a hint – if you’re using MSWord, set your review parameters to include passive phrases. In editing, work at an approach that eliminates the use of auxiliary verbs, could have beens, and will be dones. They render your writing grey and boring.
  • Share the story, don’t tell the story – show the reader what is happening, don’t describe it.

Tune in to the next installment of Good Writing Is… Coming soon.

NEW!

Comments

johnmariow on September 10, 2016:

Thanks for an educational hub regarding creative writing. I enjoyed reading it and I learned from it.

Chris Mills from Traverse City, MI on June 24, 2016:

I appreciate this article. I learned about passive voice one year ago in a short story competition. We were discussing our stories in the forum, and a very experienced writer pointed out the excessive use of passive voice in my story. Since then, I have learned more about it. I agree with you that it takes the reader away from the action and slows the pace.

David Edward Lynch from Port Elizabeth, South Africa on December 15, 2015:

Thanks for the great advice here, I need to work on 'sharing stories' rather than 'telling them.'

Glenn Stok from Long Island, NY on February 26, 2014:

Great first lesson. I'll be studying your other lessons too. I'm always interested in advancing my writing skills, and I have to admit that I haven't been paying much attention to passive vs. active in my writing. I also didn't know that MSWord can catch passive phrases. I'm going to activate that parameter right now.

Firejay on November 04, 2012:

Thank you very much. :)

lmmartin (author) from Alberta and Florida on November 04, 2012:

I love writing in the first person, seems so natural for storytelling.

And that's your answer. Imagery (or descriptive passages as I prefer) is only another part of the story and should be handled by the story-teller -- you -- in a way that feels natural, as part of the story telling process. If it is necessary for the reader to have a description of the room where the action is taking place, then have your character describe it. Surely your character would have to be aware of his/her surroundings. But not all character have to describe the same thing the same way. One might be aware of the beauty of the furnishings while another may be checking out all exits. There are no hard and fast rules, but there is no need for description to be consistent for each character. No two people in the real world see things the same way, you know.

As to action. I don't know that I can answer your question without seeing the work. Sometimes action is over in a flash. Other times it can drag on for what seems an eternity.

Firejay on November 04, 2012:

Excuse me,

I am currently writing a book in first-person and I always find that I don't put enough imagery in my texts, and the setting and background for my characters has a tendency of vanishing into a blank. How do I prevent this from happening and how can I keep my imagery consistent enough without making my characters all sound the same, or dorky, as if they spend their time just looking everywhere but at the action in the plot?

I also had some feedback saying that the action got over and done with too quickly and didn't have enough details. Once again, how do I make it better?

Thank you very much,

Firejay

lmmartin (author) from Alberta and Florida on September 25, 2012:

You're so very welcome, DRidge. I hope you enjoy the rest of the series as much. Please feel free to leave comments as you work your way through them to let me know, and if you have any questions, or if I can be of assistance, feel free to contact me. Lynda

DRidge from Gulf Coast, MS on September 25, 2012:

I just happened upon your article but I am in F2K right now. You are teaching EXACTLY what I need to know! I know I have stories and that I love to write but getting things to come out sounding reasonably well-thought out and entertaining is just not happening for me. Thanks so much for this series!

lmmartin (author) from Alberta and Florida on March 30, 2012:

The consistent use of auxiliary verbs makes this passive. Thank you so much for your FYI.

Grammar guy on March 29, 2012:

FYI, there is not a single instance of the passive voice in your example paragraph. It may be boring, but it is not passive.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_passive_voice...

lmmartin (author) from Alberta and Florida on March 04, 2012:

You're welcome htodd. Hope you enjoy the rest. Lynda

htodd from United States on March 04, 2012:

That's really interesting advice to new writers..Thanks

lmmartin (author) from Alberta and Florida on December 27, 2011:

Thanks, Marlin 55. I hope the rest of the series is equally helpful. Lynda

Marlin 55 from USA on December 27, 2011:

Great article! I'm always looking to improve my writing and your hubs are always a reminder of what what great writing is about or I learn something that I need to change. Thank you for sharing your knowledge.

lmmartin (author) from Alberta and Florida on December 03, 2011:

Glad to know you're enjoying it, Angela. Always nice to hear. There was much to say about the teaching of basics back then. Along with it came discipline and that is something much needed for success. Thanks for taking the time. Lynda

Angela Blair from Central Texas on December 01, 2011:

Am enjoying this series immensely -- and it's much needed on my part. I tend fall back "on the old ways" a lot and then will turn right around and do something (which I discover later) that goes against everything I've ever been taught. Seems writing and "writing" were very important back "in the day" as I recall spending hours on cursive writing skills -- but that's no more, too! Great information and thank you! Best, Sis