Five Habits to Avoid in Fiction Writing

Another great article from Scribendi I just had to share. This site is so great in giving meaningful writing advice, i’ve made it a part of my reading schedule. Make sure you visit this site during your writing journey. I’ve noticed a change in my own writing and it’s just been a week!

Bad Habits You Must Avoid In Your Writing!


1. Generic verbs and nouns

Imagine trying to paint everything in the world using only four colors. The results would probably look pretty generic. When you are a writer, your language is your medium. People, places, and things (i.e., nouns) have names, and it’s your job to know what they are. Precise nouns work wonders in fiction writing because nouns have connotations or meanings that go beyond their dictionary definitions. If one character gives another character flowers, tell readers what kind of flowers. Are they tulips or columbines or snapdragons or peonies? This information could hint at what time of year it is (tulips are pretty scarce in September) and could also tell us something about the character who gives the flowers. Four dozen roses are expensive—does this person have money or like to show off? A bouquet of wildflowers might have come from the character’s backyard—perhaps this person likes to garden.

A similar thought process should be applied to the selection of verbs. There are at least 12 synonyms for the verb to laugh, and each one evokes a specific image. A character could express amusement by cackling, chortling, chuckling, giggling, guffawing, snickering, sniggering, tittering, crowing, whooping, simpering, or smirking. Precise verbs contribute greatly to characterization. If a man walks into a room, all readers know is that he has entered. He could be anybody. But if he limps in, right away readers want to know if he is old or injured or tired. If he gallops in, readers know he is energetic or excited about some piece of news. If he swaggers, readers wonder if he is full of himself or perhaps just drunk.

2. The exception: He said, she said

Reading good dialogue makes readers feel like they’re actually listening in on a real conversation. Because of this, it can be very disruptive if the author keeps butting in to tell readers that the speaker intoned or declared or asserted or retorted. It could seem that using “said” repeatedly in dialogue tags is repetitive, but in fact the little word is so inconspicuous, it just fades into the background—which is exactly what we want when we’re trying to listen in on a good conversation. The rare deviation is fine (asked, in particular, seems to be okay once in a while), but if you find yourself using a colorful synonym for every dialogue tag in your manuscript or screenplay, you may be doing more harm than good.

3. Adjective/Adverb-a-rhea

Sometimes a well-placed and specific adverb or adjective strengthens or clarifies an image. However, many writers, in a misguided attempt to make their fiction writing descriptive, overuse these words. If you master the use of precise nouns and verbs (see tip number one), you’ll almost certainly avoid the bad habit of propping up a weak verb or noun with a host of intrusive modifiers, as in the following example:

Carrying a steaming and fragrant mug, she walked angrily and loudly into his office.

Why write that, when you could have simply said:

Carrying her peppermint tea, she stormed into his office.

The second sentence actually gives us more information using fewer words.

Furthermore, when editing your manuscript, be especially wary of adjectives that don’t actually convey much…

interesting, lovely, exciting, beautiful

…and adverbs that introduce redundancy…

stereo blared loudly (blared implies high volume)

scrubbed vigorously (scrubbed implies intensity)

…or contradict the meaning of the verb or adjective they modify.

slightly pregnant (with pregnancy, you either are or aren’t!)

very unique (something is either unique or not unique)

4. Inconsistent point of view

An author of fiction must choose the perspective, or point of view, from which a story will be told. In first-person narration, one charactertells the story in his or her own voice (using “I”). Third-person narration can be either limited (an objective narrator tells the story by focusing on a particular character’s thoughts and interactions) or omniscient (the narrator sees and hears all). No single point of view is better than another, but once you have made a choice, be consistent. If your story is told in first-person, then remember that the narrator must be present in every scene he describes to the reader; otherwise, how would he have the information? If a limited third-person narrator who hears only Tom’s thoughts tells the story for the first four chapters, the reader should not suddenly be privy to the mailman’s daydreams in chapter five.

Of course, there are some fine examples of novels that experiment with point of view by switching between narrators. But even in these stories, some kind of predictable pattern is imposed for clarity, such as a change in narrator from one chapter to the next but not within a chapter.

5. Unnaturally expositional, stilted, or irrelevant dialogue

Read your dialogue out loud. Does it sound like the way people actually talk (without all the ums and ahs and boring digressions, of course)? Do the characters rattle off factual information you are trying to jam into the story? Are they talking about the weather? Because if they’re talking about the weather, you’d better have a good reason for it. Otherwise, the reader will feel bored, and a bored reader closes his or her book and turns on the TV.

All this advice is important, but by far the worst habit a fiction writer can develop is the habit of giving up too easily. Keep writing every day. If you need help, remember that our manuscript editors are available 24/7 and they can help you tackle all of your manuscript mishaps.


Ten tips to help you avoid telling writing

Hi All!

My editor keeps telling me I ‘tell’ a story instead of ‘showing’. She did explain it to me but I still had no idea what she was talking about so I went looking for a detailed explanation. I found this article on Scribendi and it helped me a lot and i thought to share it with you. It has a lot of helpful tips on showing writing.

How to Avoid Telling Writing in Fiction



Creative writing teachers love to dole out wisdom or advice about fiction writing, as if they’re part of some esoteric order that guarantees enlightenment to all who memorize their pearls of wisdom. One of the most often quoted axioms is: “Show, don’t tell.” The idea is to keep students from explaining the story, that is, to stop them from using telling writing and get them to use showing writing instead. Creative writing students have heard this phrase so many times it has essentially lost all meaning. In fact, it has become such an entrenched part of learning how to write that we seem incapable of recognizing the statement fails to fulfill its own standards. “Show, don’t tell”? Pfft… Have you ever read a more telling sentence in your life? Never one to be content with the status quo, I have compiled ten tips that actually describe how to avoid telling writing.

1. Use dialogue

This is probably one of the easiest ways to avoid telling writing. Dialogue allows readers to explore the scene as if they were there. Dialogue can also help with characterization, providing emotion, and accentuating mood. Here’s a fun exercise: try to write a complete story using only dialogue.

2. Use the senses

Another way to avoid telling writing is to make use of the five senses. Evoking the senses requires readers to recall their own experiences. Try to focus on the underused senses. Writers tend to focus on the senses of sight, touch, and hearing, but smell and taste are just as evocative. One of my favorite books as a kid was Jerry Spinelli’s “Maniac Magee.” It’s the book that made me want to be a writer, all because of one phrase: “sweet onion smelling grass.”

3. Description

Description is sometimes problematic because it’s so easy to overdo. Remember the job of description is to paint a scene, but only the necessary parts of that scene. You don’t need to include every detail. Describe what is relevant and describe it in a new and fresh way. For example, instead of this telling writing sentence, “John was very tall,” try something like, “John kept bumping his head on the top of the doorframe.”

4. Look for adjectives

This is a great technique for finding instances of telling writing in your manuscript. Nearly every instance of an adjective is an undeveloped opportunity for some great showing writing. Consider the phrase “smelly dog.” As a phrase, it’s fine, if boring. Try to show the smelly dog: “Joanna wrinkled her nose as the dog approached and then tried to sneeze the scent away.” Your turn: try to think of other ways to describe a smelly dog.

5. Use nouns that work for you

Nouns are the laziest parts of speech in the English language. They don’t really do much. Whatever they are, that’s what they are. But nouns can be whipped into shape and used to avoid telling writing. Consider the difference between the words “husky,” “dog,” and “mongrel.” They might all refer to the same thing; but ask yourself, which would you rather pet?

6. Avoid adverbs

Avoiding adverbs is another relatively simple technique that will help turn your telling writing into showing writing. These little words are very easy to spot. Look for any word ending in “ly” and consider expanding it to show the story action. Instead of “She ran tiredly,” consider the phrase “She ran until her legs pumped battery acid.”

7. Metaphors

Using metaphors is another great way to avoid telling writing. However, as with description, you must be careful when using metaphors because they can cross into the realm of clichés in the blink of an eye. If creative writing has a crime worse than telling, it’s being clichéd. If you use “in the blink of an eye,” I will personally come and poke you in your blinking eye.

8. Be on guard for emotional qualifiers

I don’t have many pet peeves in writing, but emotional qualifiers drive me absolutely nuts. Whenever I read the word “anguish” in creative writing, I see red. Words like “amazement,” “happily,” and “sadly” make my blood boil. Instead of using these empty words, find new and refreshing ways to describe emotional states, or better yet, allow your characters to convey their emotional states through action and dialogue. That being said, writers should also avoid clichéd gestures for emotion (e.g., biting fingernails to convey anxiety).

9. Be specific, not vague

The above points could be accurately summarized by stating that writers should be specific rather than vague. Telling writing does not deal in specifics, which allows writers to rely on generalizations. For some reason, writers sometimes fear that being too specific will alienate their readers, but the opposite is actually true. The more specific you can make your writing, the more accessible your writing becomes—and the larger your potential audience.

10. Don’t overdo it!

Now that you know how to show, you must remember one other axiom–with great power comes great responsibility. “Show, don’t tell” is not a license to overwrite. While researching this article, I came across sample after sample of over-written prose submitted as examples of “showing” writing. Good writing should mix showing and telling. Telling writing is boring. Writing that only shows has a tendency to be so over the top that it detracts from the story. Ultimately, your goal as a writer should be to engage your reader with interesting, fresh, and concise prose. Admittedly, this is sometimes difficult, but’s book editors can critique your story and ensure that it is the best it can possibly be.