When I teach creative non-fiction, I try to get my pet peeves out in the open right at the beginning. I act as bossy as possible and exaggerate to make my point. For lack of anything interesting to say, I here present my bossy writing tips, exactly as I share them with students. Of course, none of them apply to you, my most admirable fellow bloggers. And there is no reason you should listen to me, either. But it might be fun to think about how lucky you are not to be my student.
[UPDATE: I have decided to put the Mister's comment in the body of this post because it deftly breaks every single rule in a mere 36 words. Good job decimating the language, Mister! Extra credit to other readers: Can you spot all the egregiousness in his comment?
"Seemingly, its just very corroborated that your a very nice, savvy and judicious preceptor whose students are very much luckier then there ever likely to infer. And thats why you should always listen to your elders." ]
1. Excessive Use of Big Vocabulary Words: I know it’s tempting. But don’t do it! Multi-syllabic words do not contribute to an impression of intelligence when they are not the right words. They can obscure your meaning, prevent a reader from connecting with your work, or even mislead. Intelligent writing is, above all things, precise. Compare:
“To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.” — Bertrand Russell.
Now, my thesaurus version:
“To aggress and magnificently triumph over hysteria is the genesis and commencement of what has been heretofore known, and will henceforth be known, as sagaciousness.”
Which one sounds smarter? You’re right — the first one. Which one is more accurate? You’re right again– the first one. Keep things simple when you can.
2. Moralizing. Opening and/or closing paragraphs do not need to contain a moral lesson, such as “hard work pays off” or “keep trying even if you fail at first” or “family relationships are important.” For an essay to be worthy of existing, all it needs is to be interesting. Of course, interesting essays often contain life lessons. However, those lessons are part of the fabric of the essay, revealed in details and events, rather than tacked on at the end. Instead of using a moral assertion to end your work, try using an image that seems significant– you will likely find that the moral comes through elegantly without being stated.
3. Overwriting. Sentences which are full of repetition and piled-up adjectives suffer from overwriting. These characteristics indicate that you don’t trust your reader to be smart enough to figure it out. Readers resent this. They think, “I got the idea in the first three words, why does the author keep going on and on? I’m not stupid!” This admonishment is a little tricky, because I am always after students to add more detail to essays; but the key is to choose appropriate details. In many cases, less is more.
Example of overwriting: The tears that came welling up from her big, round, blue eyes were like beautiful pearls cascading from her eyes.
Better: Her tears shone in the lamplight.
4. Padding sentences. Avoid the following words, which add little to a sentence: just, really, very, nice, so, a lot, practically, seemingly. Most of these words are used to add intensity; try to replace them with more specific nouns, verbs, and adjectives.
Example of padded sentence: I was just so happy to get a really nice present; it was really big and very exciting, a lot more than I had expected.
Better: I couldn’t stop clapping when I got the present. It was the size of a washing machine and wrapped in fluorescent green paper.
5. Basic Grammar and Spelling Errors. Get your facts straight on your/you’re, their/there/they’re, then/than, its/it’s.
Correct usage of each:
Eat your peas.
I hear you’re the King of Spain.
We took their breakfast cereal when they weren’t looking.
He’s headed to the landfill? Why would he want to go there?
They’re full of big ideas.
I ate my pomegranate and then I went to the water park.
You have much bigger hair than I do.
We annoyed the dog when we combed its fur.
I’m going out because it’s Saturday night.