1. Develop a thick skin.Or at least to pretend to. It’s not easy. But we writers need to listen to our editors—even if that means listening to ourselves!
2. Avoid throat-clearing.
This is a literary term for a story or chapter that finally begins after a page or two of scene setting and background. Get on with it.
3. Choose the normal word over the obtuse.
When you’re tempted to show off your vocabulary or a fancy turn of phrase, think reader-first and keep your content king. Don’t intrude. Get out of the way of your message.
4. Omit needless words.
A rule that follows its own advice. This should be the hallmark of every writer.
5. Avoid subtle redundancies.
“She nodded her head in agreement.” Those last four words could be deleted. What else would she nod but her head? And when she nods, we need not be told she’s in agreement.
“He clapped his hands.” What else would he clap?
“She shrugged her shoulders.” What else?
“He blinked his eyes.” Same question.
“They heard the sound of a train whistle.” The sound of could be deleted.
6. Avoid the words up and down…
…unless they’re really needed. He rigged [up] the device. She sat [down] on the couch.
7. Usually delete the word that.
Use it only for clarity.
8. Give the reader credit.
Once you’ve established something, you don’t need to repeat it.
Example: “They walked through the open door and sat down across from each other in chairs.”
If they walked in and sat, we can assume the door was open, the direction was down, and—unless told otherwise—there were chairs. So you can write: “They walked in and sat across from each other.”
And avoid quotation marks around words used in another context, as if the reader wouldn’t “get it” otherwise. (Notice how subtly insulting that is.)
9. Avoid telling what’s not happening.
“He didn’t respond.”
“She didn’t say anything.”
“The crowded room never got quiet.”
If you don’t say these things happened, we’ll assume they didn’t.
10. Avoid being an adjectival maniac.
Good writing is a thing of strong nouns and verbs, not adjectives. Use them sparingly.
Novelist and editor Sol Stein says one plus one equals one-half (1+1=1/2), meaning the power of your words is diminished by not picking just the better one. “He proved a scrappy, active fighter,” is more powerful if you settle on the stronger of those two adjectives. Less is more. Which would you choose?
11. Avoid hedging verbs…
…like smiled slightly, almost laughed, frowned a bit, etc.
12. Avoid the term literally—when you mean figuratively.
“I literally died when I heard that.” R.I.P.
“My eyes literally fell out of my head.” There’s a story I’d like to read.
“I was literally climbing the walls.” You have a future in horror films.
13. Avoid too much stage direction.
You don’t need to tell every action of every character in each scene, what they’re doing with each hand, etc.
14. Maintain a single Point of View (POV) for every scene.
Failing to do so is one of the most common errors beginning writers make. Amateurs often defend themselves against this criticism by citing classics by famous authors who violated this. Times change. Readers’ tastes change. This is the rule for today, and it’s true of what sells.
15. Avoid clichés.
And not just words and phrases. There are also clichéd situations, like starting your story with the main character waking to an alarm clock; having a character describe herself while looking in a full-length mirror; having future love interests literally bump into each other upon first meeting, etc.
16. Resist the urge to explain (RUE).
Marian was mad. She pounded the table. “George, you’re going to drive me crazy,” she said, angrily.
“You can do it!” George encouraged said.
17. Show, don’t tell.
If Marian pounds the table and chooses those words, we don’t need to be told she’s mad. If George says she can do it, we know he was encouraging.
18. Avoid mannerisms of attribution.
People say things; they don’t wheeze, gasp, sigh, laugh, grunt, snort, reply, retort, exclaim, or declare them.
John dropped onto the couch. “I’m beat.”
Not: John was exhausted. He dropped onto the couch and exclaimed tiredly, “I’m beat.”
“I hate you,” Jill said, narrowing her eyes.
Not: “I hate you,” Jill blurted ferociously.
Sometimes people whisper or shout or mumble, but let your choice of words imply whether they are grumbling, etc. If it’s important that they sigh or laugh, separate the action from the dialogue:
Jim sighed. “I just can’t take any more,” he said. [Usually you can even drop the attribution he said if you have described his action first. We know who’s speaking.]
19. Specifics add the ring of truth.
Yes, even to fiction.
20. Avoid similar character names.
In fact, avoid even the same first initials.
21. Avoid mannerisms of punctuation, typestyles, and sizes.
“He…was…DEAD!” doesn’t make a character any more dramatically expired than “He was dead.”