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


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.


  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? 😉

    ~ Tam Francis ~

    • 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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