My Five Worst Writing Habits (And How You Can Avoid Them)
[This post was originally published a few months ago but I wanted to resurrect it because (if you couldn’t tell) I’ve been in a bit of a writing slump and thought it best to revisit my bad habits in order to create some good ones.]
There’s a troubling dichotomy that exists in the mind of a writer between thinking what you’ve just crafted is the most brilliant prose to brush against the blank page and wanting to run so far away from your own writing you reach a distant land where words don’t exist and people communicate using only their left eyebrow.
But while lauding your cleverness is a worthy exercise in confidence and self-affirmation—and why shouldn’t you be proud of your work?—it’s the writer-on-the-run who really produces the most scintillating stuff. Think about it: If you’re so incredible at writing, improvement becomes irrelevant. Why get better when you’re already the best?
The problem is, writing tends to be a craft predicated on the concept of evolution; each word you set down should be even more precise and well-placed than the last.
That means when you’re about to begin a new blog post, a print marketing piece, a ghostwritten editorial for a senior executive or any project that calls for your word-wise expertise, you should be nail-bitingly afraid what you produce will be terrible. Because the blank page is not your friend, or even a casual acquaintance you can chat with over soy lattes and cranberry scones. The blank page is forever your archenemy and if you find yourself face-to-face with its daunting blankness, you must take a deep breath, stretch your fingers, swig your coffee, then figure out how you’re going to Game of Thrones-style decimate this thing … with nothing but well-chosen words.
OK, fast forward. You’ve conquered your fears and finished whatever it is you’re supposed to be writing. You’ve even managed to use “loquacious” in a sentence and not sound pretentious or affected. What’s next?
Step away. Slowly, deliberately, close your computer, shut your notebook, turn off your iPad and do something else. Really. Your writing at this precarious stage is like a fine wine. It needs time to breathe before you can sip again.
Once you’ve aired your words out sufficiently, come back and read through what you’ve written with the harshest, most critical eye. At this stage, it’s helpful to know your perpetual bad habits. To understand your recurring errors and most trite turns of phrases means you have the knowledge to eliminate them where they fall. I know several of mine, so I figured I’d tally up five of my worst offenses in the hopes you’ll sidestep them in your own communications:
Adverbs. In a review of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Stephen King once berated J.K. Rowling—though he has elsewhere declared her a storytelling master—for abusing the poor adverb, noting that Rowling “never met [an adverb] she didn’t like.” Harry, King described, “speaks quietly, automatically, nervously, slowly, and often—given his current case of raving adolescence—ANGRILY.” (Disclaimer: Harry Potter is one of my favorite series and King one of my favorite authors. Before an angry fanbase finds me on Twitter, these are just examples.) However, I’d guess most of us tend to work adverbs to their death, too, and are often repeat offenders. Not only do I use a whole cornucopia of these in my writing but I also like to collect five together in a sentence when one would do. As I re-read, I hunt (dare I say voraciously) for adjectives and delete.
The word “swathe.” I don’t know what it is about “swathe” but I’ve never written an article without thinking it’s a fantastic idea to somehow fit it in there. (No, it isn’t.) Watch for words you depend on like faithful, old armchairs of prose and when you spot one of your trusty go-tos, swathe them in better synonyms. (There’s no shame if Thesaurus.com is one of your bookmarked sites.)
Alliteration. No matter how poetic it sounds to say a new office opened in a quaint spot surrounded by “gobs of glimmering, green grass,” avoid the phrase. Alliteration, much like its offensive co-conspirator, the adverb, should be used with the most delicate and sparing touch. Then, when you do deploy the mechanism in your writing, it becomes a much more effective device.
Unwarranted tense changes. Even for seasoned professionals, tenses can be sly, shifty creatures and when you’re not looking, they tend to change direction, turning a “had” into a “has” or a “said” into a “says.” Suddenly, within my very own press release, I’ve invented a time-machine made of incorrect verb tenses and fill with astute business people who now offer declarations that sway from present to past. Trust me, no corporate story with a time-traveling plot-line ever ends well for the writer.
Business jargon. An entire post—or maybe a War and Peace-length book—can be written on the topic of stale business jargon and its overuse in communications and marketing. (Sign up now! We’ll help your business grow! Your success is our success!) But sometimes, after hours of writing, my mind boards a one-way train to Tired Town and these phrases appear. The problem with them isn’t just their cliched nature, it’s also their counter-productiveness to the goals you want your copy to achieve. They’re empty, meaningless space fillers and the discerning public, especially in our current attention economy, is much too smart and busy to heed whatever message it is you’re attempting to convey with bromidic words. In most cases, tumbling into platitudes will cause your desired audience to evade—rather than embrace—the call to action you’re trying to communicate.
And there you have it. My five most commonly made mistakes. Now excuse me while I walk away and return hours later to re-read and question the efficacy of this post. Just kidding, I’m one of those confident writers. Maybe. Kind of. Well, who knows?