Bad Habits of Beginning Writers

(RE: latest on the Bubba saga, see below)

In my years hosting a writers’ critique group, I found that beginning writers frequently made the same writing mistakes, over and over. These were not necessarily due to inability or illiteracy, but simply to bad habits, habits that could be fixed. Here’s a brief summary of what I encountered.

Sentences all the same length. Readers are not machines, they need variety in input and, like many endeavors, writing is not a science, but an art. A writer must develop a feel for implementing variety in his/her writing. Make some sentences long. And some short. Like this. I have written long paragraphs consisting of a single sentence, followed by a single word in its own paragraph.


It relieves the eye.

Overusing conjunctions and similar “helping” words. Beginners love to sprinkle their writing with “began, but, and, so, still, also, then, finally, suddenly, even, that”, etc. These are as bad as a “case of the hads”, i.e., when beginners include a flashback to a previous incident and use “had” repeatedly throughout the flashback. This is unnecessary and overwhelms the reader with a pox of hads. The “hads” are a disease, cure your writing of these. Typically only the first sentence or two require “had”. The reader understands that s/he is in a flashback scene and doesn’t need to be inundated after that.

Conjunctions work the same way. Use “began” once or twice in a chapter, but no more than that. Obviously, “and” must be used often, but try to break up sentences to get rid of as many as possible.

Incomprehensible names for important characters. One attendee at my group was an Indian who used lengthy, complex names for his main characters. I understand that he wanted to remain authentic to Indian culture, but he was writing for an American audience. American readers will not bother with a name in a foreign language that is 20 letters long with multiple syllables. Strive for simplicity and names that are instantly memorable to your targeted audience.    

Using a Prologue. A prologue is used when a writer wants to portray dramatic action before developing his characters. In general, prologues should be avoided, especially because writers tend to expand them until they become as long as a complete chapter. This puts the cart before the horse. If you must have a prologue, restrict it to one or two paragraphs, then get on with the story.

Flooding the story with adjectives and adverbs. Beginners often get carried away with emotion when writing and they want to impart their emotion and involvement in the scene by including many adjectives and adverbs. These don’t help. They hinder. They are stumbling blocks for the reader. A writer should take them out, line them up, and mercilessly shoot them. And shoot “mercilessly” which I just wrote.

An obsession with dialogue tags. In general, a dialogue tag is a bad idea because it distracts the reader from the content of the dialogue. “I’m sorry, I wish I had better news,” Ralph said, dropping his gaze to the ground before eyeing the door and combing his hair in anticipation of anyone entering. The reader doesn’t need this tag. The most that should be written is “I’m sorry, I wish I had better news,” Ralph said, dropping his gaze. Better: “I’m sorry, I wish I had better news.” Ralph dropped his gaze. Or even better: “I’m sorry, I wish I had better news.” Period. Assuming we know who is speaking, “Ralph said” is unnecessary. Try to eliminate “he said, he replied, he asked, etc.”

Get rid of Exclamation Points. Or at least keep them to a minimum, or they lose their efficacy. Use them sparingly. For shouting!

And don’t write “period”, as I did above. A period terminate a sentence but if you write “Period.” as I did above, then you are doing the reverse, essentially a run-on. Same with “Full stop”. Writing this reverses the meaning of what you intend to communicate. But as with most rules, an exception can be made provided it is occasional. Very occasional. As in almost never.

For action scenes…

Break them up.

Knock them down.

Write the action…




The reader will focus. And remember what s/he read.

Also, look out for “lead” versus “led”, and “lie” versus “lay”, and “its” verses “it’s”. Avoid using ‘s for plurals—a simple “s” or “es” is almost always correct. Avoid the modern obsession with ‘d as in “he’d” for “he had” or “he would”, and “she’d” for “she had” or “she would”. Most conjunctions are only appropriate when spoken in dialogue, and then only if consistent with the personality of the one speaking. And avoid Elizabethan gibberish like “thou”, “thy”, “thine”, etc. They are a worse tangle than a Congolese rainforest. Who needs them?

Remember “Less is more.” Meaning strive to write with brevity, eliminating as many superfluous words as possible. You are not Nathaniel Hawthorne. And your readers don’t have the spare time for reading that readers did in the 19th century. Modern readers want their stories short and to the point.

More. On. All. This. Later.