editing / writers tips / writing

Writers Tips #84: 20 Hints that Mark the Novice Writer

writers tips

When you read your story, does it sound off, maybe you can’t quite put your finger on it, but you know you’ve done something wrong? Sometimes–maybe even lots of times–there are simple fixes. These writer’s tips will come at you once a week, giving you plenty of time to go through your story and make the adjustments.

If you believe in formulaic writing, there is no better self-help writer’s manual than Evan Marshall’s The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing (Writers House Books 1998). Not only does Marshall lay out the exact steps required to produce a publishable novel, he includes a wonderfully pithy section called “How to be your own Editor”. Mine is dog-eared, highlighted and pretty much unreadable from the dozens of times I’ve scoured it during the editing process of my three novels. I can’t list all the hints he shares, but I’ll give you some. For more, you’ll have to buy the book:

  1. Make sure time tracks correctly in your story
  2. Make sure the character’s goals are clear in your writing
  3. Make sure character behave logically in light of what has already happened to them and in light of what they know
  4. Use adverbs sparingly. If you decide to use one, use only one
  5. Write in the language that comes naturally to your POV character, be that formal, casual, slanged
  6. In almost all cases, you can strengthen a sentence by removing very
  7. Be specific. It’s not just a dog–it’s a toy poodle or a white Labrador
  8. Use similes and metaphor that would occur to the POV character
  9. Use the five senses
  10. Give description in action, not narrative
  11. Treat walk-on characters as furniture
  12. Write in the positive. Tell what is, not what isn’t
  13. Delete redundancies like past history, tall skyscrapers
  14. Get rid of qualifiers like a bit, a little, fairly
  15. Watch for circumlocution
  16. Watch for autonomous body parts like His lips curved into a smile
  17. Get rid of began to, started
  18. Don’t tell reader something twice
  19. Don’t use mitigators like appeared to, seemed to
  20. Limit was, is, were


These are basics. They mark you as a novice writer and should be scrubbed early from your manuscript.

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Jacqui Murray is the editor of a technology curriculum for K-fifth grade and creator of two technology training books for middle school. She is the author of Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy midshipman.  She is webmaster for five blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.comEditorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing TeachersIMS tech expert, and a weekly contributor to Write Anything and Technology in Education. Currently, she’s working on a techno-thriller that should be ready this summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.

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10 thoughts on “Writers Tips #84: 20 Hints that Mark the Novice Writer

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  6. What a great checklist. I wish all writers would read a simple list like this before they publish. I just read a ms given to me for review that had a ‘was’ in almost every sentence and copious and unecessary use of ‘would do’ or variations of. If only he had known this, the work could have been quite good, as it was, the whole thing was more telling than showing because of those 2 simple things.


    • Isn’t that the truth? I’ve seen many a beginning writer who just doesn’t believe they need to follow rules like these. They’re wrong, but only experience can prove it to them. If enough of us publish the LIST, maybe we can save the newbies some time.


  7. Pingback: Lesson Fifteen from a Manuscript Red Line: How Many POV’s Can You Have? | Jennifer M Eaton

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