editing / writers tips

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

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 verywriting
  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

I wanted to share other opinions about the Marshall Plan–it comes as a guidebook (which is the book I purchased), a workbook (bought that too but didn’t use it), and fairly pricey software–but the only 2014 (or 2013) review I found was Luc Reid‘s. If you love the book like I do and are considering the software, you might pop by his well-balanced informative post.

More on writing tips for the novice:

Writers Tip #56: Don’t Repeat Yourself

13 Tips from Bob Mayer’s Novel Writer’s Toolkit

17 Tips From Noah Lukeman

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Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is the author/editor of dozens of books on integrating tech into education, webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.com and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. 


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

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  4. This list is worth typing out and framing, hanging on the wall just above the spot where one sits to write – such clear logic in them we tend to often “forget” when carried away with writing.


    • Aren’t you nice. Unfortunately (or happily), you don’t need help.I read your first two Bequia Mysteries–outstanding. Love your retired-spy-hiding-out-and-finding-love guy. I reviewed it on Amazon I got so excited about it.

      Keep it up!


      • Jacqui, thank you so much! For your encouraging words, the review, and for becoming a fan. It means a great deal coming from you. Would love to discuss my work further with you. I’m always open to learning and improving my craft.


  5. Thanks for the tips, Jacqui. I put the book and workbook on my wish list at Amazon.

    Question: In your opinion, do you think new novel writers should write in 3rd person or 1st person? Why?


    • I’ve read 1st person is what lots of new writers pick, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right choice. It limits the way you can share information while putting you firmly in the perspective of one character.

      Surprisingly, in a writing workshop I took with renowned writer Richard Bausch, he said there are many times where third person is more intimate than first.

      I guess my answer is: Pick the one you feel better writing in.


  6. I went through my first novel and got rid of almost all the “was” sentences. It WAS so easy to change and always made for a better sentence. I don’t worry too much about it in the first draft.


    • That’s it–a checklist to use when editing. There’s nothing tricky about these and they won’t make a ‘breakout novel’ (as Donald Maass likes to call it), but they will get a writer past the basics.


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