Once I was editing a novel set in World War Two. When the author referred to an ‘MP’, I thought she meant ‘Member of Parliament’ – which, in the context, didn’t make sense. I queried it and discovered that by ‘MP’ she meant ‘Military Policeman’.
Watch out for jargon and acronyms and anything else that might be second nature to you but not, perhaps, to a reader who lacks your knowledge of the subject. And while you’re at it, watch out for plot holes. You know your story so well that sometimes you won’t notice it when some vital facts haven’t made it from your head to the page.
This is a surprisingly common mistake. I’m guilty of it myself; once I wrote a scene in which my character was on a verandah, but in the next breath he was at the bottom of the stairs. I’d seen him tumble down the stairs in my head, but I hadn’t written it down. Luckily, my editor picked it up. (Note: this is one of many good reasons to hire an editor!)
Don’t leave your readers scratching their heads!
Authors are so fond of saying this that it’s become a cliché, but it’s valid advice just the same. Consider the two passages below, adapted from my current work in progress. The first one ‘tells’ and the second ‘shows’. Sometimes ‘telling’ is more appropriate – and remember, variety is important too. But often you’ll find that ‘showing’ will make your writing more powerful.
Here's the first version:
Meggy knew Mrs Scott didn’t like her, though her sister Jean said Mrs Scott was just annoyed because Meggy had turned down the job offer. Meggy didn’t care.
They heard voices, and Henrietta’s stooped figure appeared in the doorway. Mrs Scott hovered behind her.
‘Meggy,’ Henrietta said, clearly delighted to see her daughter.
‘Ma.’ Meggy said warmly, rising to greet her mother. ‘Good day to you, Mrs Scott,’ she added.
Mrs Scott said, ‘The Lovies are feeding you well.’
‘They look after me,’ Meggy said, embarrassed.
And here's the revised version:
‘Mrs Scott’s a mean old thing. She doesn’t like me.’
‘She thinks you’re a fool for turning down Scott’s offer—that’s all.’
‘Phht.’ Meggy raised her chin. ‘What would she know.’
Jean sipped silently.
They heard voices, and Henrietta’s stooped figure appeared in the doorway. Behind her, the shadow of Mrs Scott hovered. Henrietta's eyes creased into smiles when they lit upon her younger daughter. ‘Meggy!’
‘Ma.’ Meggy rose and kissed her mother. ‘Good day to you, Mrs Scott,’ she said over her shoulder as she grasped Henrietta's arm and steered her towards the fire.
Mrs Scott nodded, looking Meggy up and down. ‘The Lovies are feeding you well.’
Meggy coloured. ‘They look after me.’
Inconsistency in tense is one of the commonest writing errors I see. Writing in the present tense is quite difficult to maintain, so authors who start off in the present tense often find themselves drifting back to past tense. Switching like this is distracting and indicates a lack of attention to detail. Decide from the outset whether you’re writing in the past tense or present – and stick to it!
In this passage from my book Captain Starlight: The Strange but True Story of a Bushranger, Impostor and Murderer, I’ve deliberately messed up the tenses:
They continued on, up and on towards the Warrego. It was nine o’clock in the morning when they reached William Shearer’s Warrego Inn. Senior Constable McCabe and Constable McManus dismount and pass their reins to the trackers, instructing them to take the horses to the waterhole half a mile away. The trackers obeyed. McCabe and McManus mount the wooden steps onto the verandah and make their way into the bar. It is a typical bush public house: simple and rough; a mere ten feet by eight. They passed a door to the bedroom and settled themselves at the counter, McCabe opposite the door and McManus to its right.
Can you spot the inconsistencies in tense?
In a sentence that consists of two independent clauses, those clauses should be separated by a semicolon, not a comma. Separating them with a comma but no conjunction is a very common writing error called a ‘comma splice’.
Where you have two independent clauses, they should be (1) separated by a semicolon, OR (2) joined by a conjunction OR (3) broken into two sentences.
Here's an example: ‘It was a long trip home, I had to catch two buses and a train.’
I could rewrite this as:
‘It was a long trip home. I had to catch two buses and a train.’ (separate sentences) OR
‘It was a long trip home; I had to catch two buses and a train.’ (substitute semicolon) OR
‘It was a long trip home, because I had to catch two buses and a train.’ (add a conjunction).
Speech tags are words that tell the reader who is speaking and, sometimes, how they’re speaking. Using too many and trying to be too creative with speech tags can result in writing that’s awkward and amateurish. For example:
‘Don’t you dare go out that door,’ Frank shouted.
‘But I’m bored with staying inside,’ Mary complained.
‘I don’t care,’ Frank insisted angrily.
‘I miss all my friends,’ Stephanie lamented.
‘Friends!’ Ralph laughed. ‘You don’t have any.’ [Can you really laugh a word?]
Minimise your speech tags and keep them simple. Use them only when you need to identify the speaker and omitting them would cause ambiguity. If your dialogue is expressive enough, you shouldn’t need elaborate speech tags to convey the manner in which the words were spoken. If you stick with a good old ‘said’, the speech tag will be almost invisible.
‘Don’t you DARE go out that door!’ said Frank.
Stephanie folded her arms.* ‘But I’m bored with staying inside.’
‘I don’t care.’
‘I miss all my friends.’
‘Friends!’ Ralph said. ‘You don’t have any.’
* Having the speaker perform an action helps to identify who’s speaking without a speech tag; it can also show the reader how they’re speaking.
About this blog
Through my experience as an editor, a reader and a book reviewer, I’ve noticed that some writing faults keep just popping up again and again. As an author, I’m especially aware of those writing crimes that I’m frequently tempted to commit myself. This series of brief tips addresses the common writing problems that I’ve encountered. Following them will help make your writing clear, accurate and stylish.