By: Angie Byler
Chances are if you read any articles about how to be a better writer, you encounter the same advice over and over. These articles frequently reference terms such as active voice versus passive voice, showing versus telling, and overwriting. When I first read the advice, I was never sure what those phrases meant, so I couldn’t identify the errors in my own writing, much less correct them. Here is an overview of some of the most common writing mistakes that beginners make, and how to fix them.
The Advice: Show, Don’t Tell
Don’t explain to your readers what’s happening when you can show them instead. Telling creates distance between the reader and the story, and showing draws the reader into the story. Don’t tell us what your character is feeling; show us. For example, instead of writing “Sarah was angry,” write “Sarah slammed the front door shut. She nearly tripped over the dog, who took one look at her face and fled.” Not only is the image more visceral, your writing is much stronger.
The Advice: Write in Active Voice Instead of Passive Voice
A sentence written in active voice means that the subject of the sentence is performing the action. A sentence written in passive voice means that the subject is receiving the action expressed by the verb. Writing in passive voice is a good way to lose your reader’s attention, as it tends to create awkward sentences and issues with flow. Thankfully, there is an easy solution. Instead of writing “The sandwich was eaten by Sean,” write “Sean ate the sandwich.” Whenever possible, avoid to-be verbs like is, are, was, were, had, etc.
The Advice: Avoid Overwriting
Overwriting or wordiness can take different forms. One form is using too many words to express an idea that you could easily express with a few. Instead of writing, “The sink in the kitchen,” write “the kitchen sink.” Another form is repeating the same information in a couple different ways. For example, “The sun rose on a beautiful new day. Dawn broke over the treetops.” The second sentence is unnecessary because dawn means the same thing as sunrise. However, when writing your first draft, feel free to overwriting as much as you want. This is something to fix in revision.
The Advice: Subjects Must Agree with Verbs
The subject must agree with the verb in number in every sentence. If the subject is plural, then the verb needs to be plural, and if the subject is singular, then the verb needs to be singular. This gets tricky with collective nouns that seem plural but are singular. For example, “The congregation has a short attention span.” The congregation is a singular collection of multiple people, so while the people in the congregation are plural, the congregation itself is singular.
The Advice: Don’t Overuse Adverbs
Adverbs are shortcut words. It is tempting for beginners to litter their writing with adverbs, such as brightly, cheerfully, and angrily. This tip relates back to show, don’t tell; avoiding adverbs forces the writer to show more and tell less, which makes the writing more vivid. It’s tempting to through in adverbs to describe a common action, but replacing your adverbs with more specific descriptions will improve your writing tenfold. For example, instead of saying “He ate his burger quickly,” say “He devoured his burger.”
I hope that you find this short list helpful. If you are looking for more resources, check out https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/ and Strunk and White’s classic book The Elements of Style.