What Killed it For Me #5: Weak Writing

Today I want to talk about one of the most common reasons I stop reading: weak writing. I’ve been putting this one off because 1) it’s highly subjective, and 2) it’s not a simple fix.

thumbs downBy definition, weak writing is writing that weakens the story or narrative—annoying things that jump out at me and pull me out of the story. For me, weak writing includes things like

  • too much telling
  • repeated words and sentence structures
  • reliance on dialogue to convey information to the reader
  • characters using each others names repeatedly when talking to each other (Angela, where’s the bacon? I told you, Becca, I ate it all. Why do you have to be so selfish, Angela? Because you’re a piggy pie, Becca.)
  • wordy writing
  • superfluous adverbs (he said angrily, she walked quickly from the room)
  • play-by-play; describing character movements that should be inferred (picking things up, crossing rooms, standing and sitting, etc.)

These are some of the things that drive me absolutely bonkers when I’m reading. No doubt, your list of offenders will look different from mine, but weak writing—particularly in the beginning of a book—is a major problem for me. Authors put so much emphasis on a story’s opening; if I pick up a book and have to slog through the first chapter or two, I can only guess that the rest of the book is going to be just as bad, and there are simply too many well-written books out there for me to waste my time trudging through a poorly written story.

So how do we overcome such a vague and nebulous problem?

Read. Read a lot. I know this can be hard for some of us because reading takes time and time is something that we don’t have. But, imho, if you want to become a better writer and overcome weak habits, this one is kind of a deal-breaker. Chefs eat other chef’s foods. Musicians listen to other people’s music. Some of this is for enjoyment, but it’s also for inspiration and education—to see what other artists are doing and how they’re doing it. Reading, on a conscious and a sub-conscious level, introduces us to new and better writing techniques. If you want to write but you don’t have time to read, make that a priority.

Learn. Some writers might be lucky enough to learn great writing through osmosis. I don’t happen to know any of those people. The vast majority of us have to educate ourselves on what weak writing consists of and how to purge it from our stories. Attending conferences is one way to do this. If you’re uncomfortable with attending a physical event or you don’t have the money or time to do so, consider an online conference like WANACon or IndieRecon; they offer great flexibility of schedule and content. Another way to educate yourself is to read nonfiction books that focus on overcoming weak writing. The First Five Pages (Lukeman) was a huge help to me when I first started writing, and Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (Browne and King) is one that I still refer to.

Critique. When new writers ask me for tips on how to become a better writer, my first bit of advice is always to get into a critique group. We’re so close to our writing that we often can’t see what’s wrong with it. It often takes someone else to point out the weak areas that need work. Letting other people read your work is PIVOTAL to growing as a writer, but I would argue that critiquing someone else’s work can be just as important. Using a critical eye to review a piece of writing helps us to recognize what works and what doesn’t. It helps us to see new techniques that we may never have considered before. It’s also a great confidence booster; recognizing the good and the bad in someone else’s work helps us see that we’re growing as writers. It’s rewarding to know that we’re able to positively contribute to someone else’s journey.

Write. You’ve probably heard it said that it takes a million words to become a master writer. Now, before you get out the pitchforks, I know that “a million” is a nice round arbitrary number that can’t be applied to all people; some people will need less and some will need more. But the principle is true: becoming good at anything takes practice. You can read all the craft books, attend every conference, and become Stephen King’s crit partner, but if you don’t practice the lessons you’ve learned, you’ll never master them. If you choose to own just one piece of advice from this post, own this one. Write. A lot. As much as you possibly can. It’s only through writing that you’ll start to recognize weak writing and learn to replace it with strong technique.

So…you’ve heard my rant about weak writing. What constitutes “weak” to you? And what craft books do you recommend that can help us overcome weak writing?

Also, I’m at Susan Quinn’s blog today sharing some of my favorite Indie resources. Susan is not only a prolific writer of awesome books, she’s wicked smart and very generous with her information. If you haven’t checked out her blog, get thee hence!

Thumbs Down Image: Geralt @ Pixabay

About BECCA PUGLISI

Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.

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65 Responses to What Killed it For Me #5: Weak Writing

  1. Pingback: Books I Didn’t Finish, AKA, What Killed it For Me – WRITERS HELPING WRITERS™ | !nk+Engineer

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  4. Aften Brook Szymanski says:

    Sadly I think this is where I struggle the most.
    Probably THE major reason my writing isn’t getting anywhere with querying. It’s a hard area to fix- because strengthening a weakness is –well weakness- requires rigorous training (writing) nourishment (reading) and diligence (don’t give up on yourself sucker- no matter how much proof is telling you to drop it- keep those sweaty barbells in hand. Besides if you dropped everything in this position I’m pretty sure you’d break a toe).
    Thanks for posting honestly, we need to hear it and fight to do better. How else will we improve?
    I’m glad for it.

  5. Becca,

    I am fresh out of the Pikes Peak Writers Conference in Colorado Springs and a few of these points were covered in a presentation I attended on realistic dialogue given by Sarah Peed.

    She cautioned us on the use of stilted speech, walls of dialogue, using acronyms and explaining what they mean right in the dialogue, as well as going overboard with adverbs in dialogue tags.

    Even though I read often, this advice is essential for new writers like me. Advice like this sometimes doesn’t pop out at you when you are absorbed in a story, and you have to read like a writer. Even better – to have it highlighted as you did in this article.

    I will keep absorbing any and all advice. Looking forward to the next one.

    Lori

  6. Tam Francis says:

    Interesting and I agree with most. I’m sharing with my writer’s group. We were just talking about using names too much in dialogue. The only slight disagreement I personally have is with “wordy writing.” This seems a bit vague. I love rich description in reading and writing, so hopefully that isn’t what you mean by wordy? 😉

    Thanks,
    ~ Tam Francis ~
    http://www.girlinthejitterbugdress.com

    • Thanks for sharing with your group, Tam. By “wordy writing” I mean writing that includes unnecessary words. She spoke in a rasping voice that sounded like an elderly woman’s could be written tighter: Her voice rasped like an old woman’s. Or, …she said in her old woman’s voice So by “wordy writing” I mean writing that has words that could be removed to make it tighter.

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  8. Mark Henwick says:

    Excellent article, thanks Becca.
    I’d add this to the ‘Read’ advice: to read ‘analytically’. I don’t mean you have to spend all your time pulling apart the arcs and structure of every book, but pick up a book you love and read it slowly, working out how that darned author has managed to manipulate you into enjoying it. Copy passages and try and make them even better. Extract a bullet point list of things the author did to make you like the character or get involved in the plot and then check those against your draft.
    I know, I know, it all takes time. But it will probably save you time later.

    • S. J. Dunn says:

      Mark, I’ve done the bullet point list several times, e.g., THE SHIPPING NEWS by E. Annie Proulx.

      Her main character is Quoyle and in many ways he’s either singularly unlikeable or he’s uninteresting, and yet, she makes him so interesting that you want to read on. (Of course, her prose is wonderful, so that makes you want to read more, too.)

      I also did it on another scene in the same novel, where the mood she creates when the family first sees the old homestead is incredibly moving. I examined every verb, adjective, noun, blah, blah, blah.

      Specific words can be so powerful, and yet many writers don’t examine their word choices…they’ll spend hours with a Thesaurus, looking for a synonym. You’ll see the verb ‘danced’ in a passage that’s supposed to be dismal, for example, when the use of a thesaurus to find a synonym for the verb ‘danced’ is a total waste of time. Makes me want to scream. (Keeping in mind that as I travel the road toward excellent writing, I find things in my own writing that make me want to scream.)

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  11. Becoming a writer has almost ruined me as a reader. I’m slower and pickier, and about half the books I start I do not finish. Reading time is too precious to waste on something I don’t enjoy, for whatever reason that might be. Below is my blog post on this very subject. Hope it’s okay that I attached it. Becca thanks for some good tips. Will follow and RT.
    ps: when I first saw “writershelpingwriters” I read it as “Writer shelping writers” and laughed out loud. Sometimes that’s how my critique group works!
    http://8greatstorytellers.wordpress.com/2014/01/30/why-writing-and-reading-dont-mix/

    • Julie, I agree 100%. I’m a much more critical reader now than I ever was before I started writing. And, like you, my reading time is too valuable to waste on poorly-written books, so I have no problem putting down the ones that don’t draw me in.

      • :Donna Marie says:

        Me, too, ladies! I USED to push myself through books I started, and I learned from the bad ones, but I think I’ve read enough of them. There are way too many good ones I’ll never find time enough to read, so the bad ones—no way.

    • :Donna Marie says:

      lol…at least it wasn’t “Writer Shleping Writers” 😉

  12. :Donna Marie says:

    Oh, I forgot to mention!!!! My Negative and Positive Traits Thesauruses arrived yesterday! I got SO excited. Now I have all three looking pretty with their blue, purple and green spines adding color to my “writing” bookshelf 🙂 You ladies are truly amazing. THESE are the kinds of tools I long for because I know it will save me a lot of time during the writing process, and help me enrich my work more easily. Thank you SO much for creating them. I really can’t wait to be putting them to full use! 😀 😀 😀

  13. :Donna Marie says:

    Oh, Becca, I’m SO with you on this! What I get irritated at the most is that weak writing even GETS published *sigh* Your list is definitely a good one. I’ll add another to it: facts that conflict or don’t make sense. Anything at all that pulls me out of the story is a bad thing. I don’t want to be conscious of the bad writing, and when it’s really well-written, I appreciate it, but it doesn’t keep me from getting absorbed. HATE weak writing.

  14. Wendy Barron says:

    Weak writing is a real challenge, isn’t it? A couple of types I’ve encountered recently are
    (a) the independently-functioning body parts – “my eyes scanned the room”, “her hand reached for him” – rather than “I scanned the room” or “she reached for him” and
    (b) The narrator narrating the narration – “I noticed that she didn’t look at me as she spoke”, “Joe saw her come into the room”, “they heard a car screeching to a halt”.

    The latter one always makes me wonder which the author thinks is more important: the noticing/seeing/hearing of a thing, or the thing itself? I think the construction has its uses, but I mostly encounter its overuses. 🙂

    • Wendy Barron says:

      Oh, and craft books… I have dozens (including all of the Thesauruses you and Angela have written), and find them all useful. But the one I recommend to everyone, without fail, is Elements of Style by Strunk and White.

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  16. Weak writing was/is a big problem for me. In the beginning, I spent too much time telling the reader how someone was feeling. Then, one day, while Googling how to describe a forest, I found The Bookshelf Muse, and eventually, The Emotion Thesaurus. My alpha readers (the ones who read before the betas) told me my writing improved tenfold.

    My next flaw was spending too much time on back story. In my current WIP, I’d opened up with about 1,500 words to tell you my main character was a bit of a genius, had a weakness for redheads, and loved role playing games. Thanks to the wisdom of my Ideal Reader, Jen B., I cut those 1,500 down to about 100.

    The current area I’m working on is writing crutches: My characters smile, raise eyebrows, grin, chuckle, etc., too much. And, once again, you ladies are helping me find these areas and clean them out.

    You two are epic. Thank you both.

    • The cool thing about the writing profession is that we all go through (mostly) the same stages. Angela and I have been able to share what we’ve shared because we’ve worked through those battles and learned some lessons. We’re so glad that they’re helping others, making the journey easier, and maybe quicker. Thanks for the encouragement, Robert!

  17. Great advice. I’ve been in a position to critique when most of those unfortunate elements are present. Sometimes it’s tough to be helpful and diplomatic at the same time.

  18. Julie Musil says:

    I can forgive some weak writing if I love the character and know the stakes up front. If not, I have a hard time reading. I rarely set a book down without finishing it, but I did that two weeks ago. And this book was written by a super famous person with a string of novels behind her. Goes to show you we all have something to learn and we never STOP learning.

  19. I’ve recently made reading a priority. I used to read when I could before, now I try to reserve a half-hour every night to do so. Plus, when I’m out doing errands, or sitting at a doctor’s office, I keep a book handy. Learning and studying my craft are important to me and I try and absorb as much as I can. With writing, it helps me to juggle projects. I’ve just learned how to outline them and this is helping a LOT.

  20. Great post! I have actually put down a few book whose story I know I would have loved had it been not for the slow writing. For a particular book I stopped reading midway recently, I knew more about the trees and the mountains of a scene than what the protagonist or the other characters are thinking, feeling, planning, etc. The writer felt the need to describe every little nook and cranny, with action and plot development scattered about. I gave up on the book halfway through. The story moved at such a snail’s pace that I had to stop.

    As for critique groups, it’s harder than I thought. I’m bold enough to give someone my full manuscript for an overall analysis, and can even handle negative comments and such, but for me to critique someone else’s work… it’s a scary thing.

    • I had the same experience with The DaVinci Code. So many people loved it, but I couldn’t get past all the architectural descriptions being given while the main character was running for his life.

      And I feel your pain when it comes to critiquing other people’s work. It always bothered me when I didn’t have anything to offer, so I came up with this critique checklist of things to listen for when other people read at group. It helped a lot :).

  21. I just had this experience with a ‘bestseller’ that had been recommended by several people. The story was well thought out, but the writing style was a disaster.

  22. And there’s so much to learn and keep learning. I don’t think we’re ever “there”.

  23. Jean Shorney says:

    Read article. Have to say my biggest problem was in repeating names in dialogue. My proofreader critiques me quite brutally. My first drafts are gobbledook,but I need to get story onto paper,then do second draft . Third,then send to proofreader. Am an avid reader. Through reading I became a writer.

  24. Rosi says:

    Many great tips and reminders in this post. Thanks!

  25. Julie Glover says:

    Agreed. Great points!

    I worry about the standing, sitting, walking part of my own writing. I need to watch for that.

    Also, I hate when someone overdoes dialect. That feels weak to me — like they can’t simply build the setting and give a few clues about the characters’ accents. The reader can be trusted to fill in the rest.

    • Yes, dialects can definitely be a turn-off. But, like so much of writing, I find this to be a really subjective area, too. I’ve read books with really strong, in-your-face dialects that I loved (Above, by Leah Bobet), and others I couldn’t stand to read more than a page or too (Forrest Gump). But gajillions of people loved Forrest Gump. So what do I know? ‘)

  26. Susan says:

    This is a great post. Personally, I’ve found that about 80% of my first draft is made of of weak writing — for me, it’s a byproduct of fast writing, the mad dash to just try to get everything on paper first. Editing is all about rewriting, unearthing the good bits and transforming the rest into something edible.

    My biggest weakness in writing is over-explaining. Ladling in tons of back story and filler instead of letting a story unfold. My second biggest weakness is using weak words. When I get lazy or get too fast, characters start to “feel like everyone was judging her”, instead of just “everyone was judging her”. Luckily, I’m a big believer in editing and in receiving critique — and I completely agree that writers need to be readers, too. There’s no better way to figure out how to get out of an awkward writing corner than to see how someone else did it.

    Thanks you for the resources, too. I will be checking them out!

    • Yes, good point, Susan. I know of a few writers who can write well on the first draft; these are mostly writers who’ve been doing it for decades and have written literally millions of words. Until we get to that point, our first drafts are going to be weak. And like you said, that’s what the revision stage is for.

  27. Mart Ramirez says:

    Great list, Becca! I’ve noticed that if I am lost and can’t pick up on the MC’s goal upfront, I am not as hooked and it’ll take a lot to win me over. Great advice!

  28. Becca, great post to explain the vague phrase “weak writing!” I saw all of these issues as a first-reader for the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency. In this role I learned to deconstruct writing and why it did, or didn’t work, and how to see these issues in my own work as well.

    I also, highly recommend using a developmental editor at some point for your writing, especially early in your writing career. I learned so much from mine and continue to apply what I’ve learned. It’s added to my writer’s toolbox immensely. Also taking craft workshops are a huge help. My regional writer org. holds them once a month for free to members, and I also know authors who hold monthly craft workshops at their home for a small fee. These are inexpensive avenues to keep learning your craft vs. attending writing conferences which have a bigger price tag but are worth it as well (just research them to make sure a good fit and value for what you’re seeking to learn).

    My fave writing reference books are Plot & Structure and Conflict & Suspense by James Scott Bell. Here’s my full list of writer resources:
    http://www.donnagalanti.com/writers-corner/

    🙂

    • Oh, Plot and Structure is another good one! I haven’t read the other one, but anything by James Scott Bell is gold, imo. I’ll definitely check that one out :).

  29. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers in on my nightstand and The First Five Pages is on my Amazon wish list. I’m a huge fan of the learning–probably three quarters of my TBR pile is research of some type, either writing craft books or YA novels (trying to emulate the best).

    I’m bookmarking this post as I wade through revisions. Thanks!

  30. Gwynneth White says:

    As always, a good post. I especially appreciate the books your recommend. I have bought a couple ad have found them very helpful. I’m going to check the self-editing book today.
    A special day to both of you.
    cheers
    Gwynn
    http://gwynnethwhite.blogspot.co.uk/

    • So glad the recommendations have so far worked out for you :). I absolutely love the self-editing book. It’s been pivotal in helping to improve my writing. Let me know what you think of it!

  31. Without the #atozblog challenge I might not have found your blog. Grateful to find great information for a writer and gratitude for all the time and care you take to give your readers something worth their time. Congratulations-love it.

  32. Sara says:

    Another great article, Becca! I was wondering about one of the weak writing points you listed: play-by-play or describing character movements that should be inferred. Could you elaborate a little more on how this can weaken one’s writing? I’m curious because I sometimes wonder how many physical cues / movements I should give during scenes, and whether I’m doing too much. Are there any craft books you’d recommend that could help with this?

    • The Self-Editing for Fiction Writers book that I referenced discusses play-by-play quite a bit in chapter 4, entitled Proportion. Here’s a writing sample they include to show how play-by-play weakens the writing:

      Eammon flung the peavey to the shore, reached down, and lifted Sunshine by grabbing his jacket collar with his left hand and his belt with this right hand. He then spun around, clutching the Indian’s left shoulder, leaned down to put his right shoulder into Sunshine’s belly, his right arm between the Indian’s legs, and straightened up. He slowly turned on the log that was supporting them, moved down its length toward the bank, jumped to another log…

      Here, the character Sunshine is injured. The reader wants to know how badly and if he’s going to be ok. But the play-by-play of how he is rescued slows the pace. Not only that, it’s boring writing. Readers don’t care which hands Eammon used to do what. They don’t want to have to follow every step that he takes. These details are minor points, unimportant; spending so much time on them throws the scene out of proportion, which resonates with readers. Readers may not be able to identify the problem, but they’ll recognize that the scene was boring or slow or “off” in some way. Play-by-play like this also doesn’t leave any room for the imagination; it spells everything out for the reader, and no one wants to have every little thing explained to them.

      When it comes to movement, leave out what can be inferred and isn’t important. Does it matter that someone has to cross the room to open the door? Probably not. Just have them open the door, and the reader will know that the room was crossed. Everyone knows that when the phone rings, you have to pick it up to answer it. No need to include the character picking it up. Just show the phone ringing and someone saying “Hello”. If you’re not sure that you’ve reached the right balance, critique partners will be able to tell you where things aren’t clear or where too much detail has been included. Gotta love those crit partners :).

  33. Andi says:

    I’m with you on all of those things, especially the overuse of character names in dialogue. And I hate the repetition of sentence structures – Stephen did this and Stephen did that.

    Your recommendations for fixing it – all good, too, especially study. I think sometimes we read lazy – just taking in the story but not studying how it’s constructed. I need to do more of that.

    thanks for the post.

  34. Heidi says:

    I have to laugh about the actions – the inferred actions. I have had so many contests and critique partners overwrite the actions in a scene to the nth degree – over detail until it feels like you’re directing a play. Balancing that has been a challenge for me.

  35. Micki says:

    Thank you for such an interesting article. I will certainly relook at my WIP. One point that really sticks out is play-by-play. My last editor hammered into me three things. POV–cause and effect–transitions. I just couldn’t get my head around why I had to add transitions when it was obvious when one goes to have a shower, they are going to get undressed before they get in the shower!

    • I agree: if it’s obvious that someone has to cross the room to open the door, there’s no need to show him crossing the room. Transitions should be clear, of course, and not jerky. But those obvious movements definitely should be trimmed out :).

  36. Sheryl Dunn says:

    I’m glad you had the guts to address this issue, because weak writing – and it usually stands out on page one – turns me off a book more quickly than anything else.

    The sad part is that so many writers don’t recognize that their writing is weak, and definitely not ready for the public.

    What’s even sadder, in my opinion, is that the vast majority of the reading public doesn’t recognize weak writing either, so poorly written books do well more often than they should. When that happens, those of us who want to become good writers might wonder why we bother studying the craft.

    I suspect we carry on studying and improving as a matter of pride.

    • This is an interesting point. It bothers me A LOT that the average reader may not have a problem with weak writing. As writers we work so hard to hone our craft and do it right——I could echo my four-year-old and whine that it’s not fair for us to put in so much hard work if other authors are going to cut corners and be rewarded for it. But I wonder how accepting the public actually is of weak writing. The books that I’ve put down because of the writing don’t go on to do much of anything. The public may be more tolerant of some of the things we turn up our noses at as writers, but I think there’s a threshold where even average readers are turned off. You can only include so much lazy technique before it negatively impacts the reading experience. Average readers may not be able to identify what the problem is, but they can get that feeling of the story not really grabbing them, or something being “off” about it. And sometimes this may be due to the writing.

      So I agree that as writers we’re probably overly picky about writing technique and what should or shouldn’t be done. I guess we have the choice of continuing on and learning to write the best we can, or giving up on craft altogether. The latter becomes a slippery slope that I personally would like to avoid.

      Thanks for chiming in, Sheryl!

      • Becca, I think this is a double edge sword for us writers in a way. In this instance ignorance can be bliss – because once we improve our craft we want to read better written stories ourselves. I thought I lost my love for reading over time after I started writing books, but discovered that I lost my love for what I USED to read and now need more challenging reads and cross-genre books to open me up to different stories and techniques. I still have my Danielle Steele stacks hidden away, and can remember reading them for an easy escape. I guess I want to work now for my escape – and say “I want to write a story like that!” ! LOL

        • Oh my gosh, this is so true. My husband says I’ve ruined movies for him because I’m constantly pulling apart the story structure and character arcs. It’s the same with books. I’m a lot more picky now than I used to be. But on the flip side, I have a much greater appreciation for strong writing than I ever did before I started studying technique.

  37. Dawn Brazil says:

    I agree fully with what you see as weak writing. And I don’t understand writers who don’t read. Really. I know it’s hard to find the time but I see the benefit of reading in writing. Even stories I don’t like. I’m always open to learning new things and reading in and out of the genre I write. It is so important but I don’t think all writers understand it. And reading alone isn’t enough…the more I write the better. Learning should be a lifetime endeavor.

  38. Kelly Miller says:

    Great article! I would agree that being in a critque group or at least having one really good critique partner is the best thing you can do for your writing. I’ve learned more in my group about my writing than I ever could on my own. We can’t fix what we don’t see.

  39. M-E Girard says:

    Great blog!
    Just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed your summary of what critiquing can do (giving and receiving). I get so much insight into my own writing by looking at someone else’s critically. The weak areas in my own work stick out so much more when I’ve spotted them before in others’ works.

    Something that sticks out to me as weak writing is when it comes to first-person POV and finding that the author’s voice comes out into the character’s voice. Such a pet peeve of mine, and I’m always so aware of it in my own writing. I’ve even realized that it was the writer’s voice and not the character’s voice later on, after reading multiple first-person POV books by the author and seeing similar expressions and turns of phrases reused.

    • This is why I’m blown away by writers like Laurie Halse Anderson, who can write similar characters that sound totally different from each other. There’s definitely a learning curve there——being able to maintain your authorial voice while letting the character’s voice shine through.

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