People who know me know this: I don't see the forest for the trees. I don't read stories. I read lots of words strung together. Yes, I know the words have meaning, and I see the meaning, but what many people fail to realize is that a forest is made up of trees. And if enough of those trees—or words—are rotten or ill-chosen, it makes the entire forest look rotten.
For this reason, I analyze prose to death. I am far from an expert (if I wrote good prose, I probably wouldn't care so much about it), but I am an attentive observer, and these are slips I notice- I've made them, my friends have made them, published authors have made them (ever read a book and thought 'gee, he doesn't sound like he knows what he's doing'?), and people on the various writing sites I belong to have made them. No one mistake is specific to anyone, nor are they always 100% wrong if an experience writer consciously chooses to use them for a specific effect, but I hope if I draw enough attention I can prevent these mistakes being committed unwittingly, at least in the works of those who read this and care.
The Mistakes, listed in the Very Important Order of As I Think of Them:
1. Too Many Prepositions. 'Too many' being the operative words here, since of course prepositions are needed. It's just that they aren't always needed where they're put. For example, in stuff I wrote when I was younger, and frequently in a story I once beta-read, characters did not walk, they 'walked forwards'. It seems this is to assure the reader they are not walking backwards.
A similar problem is too many prepositions in one sentence: 'They walked forwards towards the girl sitting under the tree.' It's not a bad sentence, but the frequency of prepositions in it gives it an odd rhythm. Similarly 'The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog' also has a rhythm, in the way each noun has an adjective (or two) describing it. Try to avoid this (in adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, or any other part of speech), or your readers will find themselves nodding their head or tapping a foot as they read in time to a beat they don't consciously notice.
I've since learned the term 'pleonasm,' or a word that doesn't do anything. Many times redundant prepositions are pleonasms. Omit pleonasms from your work.
2. Quantifiers. Phrases like 'a few', 'every so often', 'once in a while', 'a couple of,' and 'occasionally' suggest that a specific number isn't really needed, therefore making the circumstances sound unimportant. 'Every so often during Godzilla's attack I saw a guy's head being ripped off,' nothing special or noteworthy, right?
When it comes to qualifiers, strong ones like 'very', 'extremely', 'super-duper', and so on, are often unnecessary. Try using a stronger adjective rather than qualifying a weak one—I'm not 'very unhappy' about bad prose, I'm furious about it!
3. 'At random'. Randomness has similar problems with 'every so often' and the fact is, if something is in fact happening at random (lightening strikes, cancer diagnoses, spinning bottles) most of the time the reader will already know that. In a real, published book (Robert Newcomb's 'The Fifth Sorceress') I found the sentence 'severed limbs were scattered at random'. This sentence is disturbing not only because of its semantic content, nor the redundancy of 'scattered' and 'at random', but because of the inference that somehow, somewhere, there are severed limbs being scattered deliberately and methodically.
4. The –ing Mistake. Don't worry, it's not a cuss. Words ending with –ing occur simultaneous to the action in the rest of the sentence. 'Running up the stairs, she opened the door' is an impossibility. You can't open a door while running up the stairs. Lots of the mistakes I list here have exceptions, but this one is a grammatical rule; do not do this. It won't make a reader close your story and leave (probably) and it won't make an acquisitions editor reject your manuscript on its own (probably), but it's a warning sign to anyone who already is disposed to be critical of your writing. Don't give them any excuses.
5. The Wrong Word. Not just 'your/you're' or 'to/too/two' but 'then/than', 'allusion/illusion', and 'affect/effect'. And many others, too many to list. Learn the words you use; it never hurts to double-check the dictionary definition if you're unsure.
6. Political Campaign Words. Or Courtroom words. Or words that you'd hear at the Geneva convention. Any word that is overformalized or too modern or 'politically correct*' for the situation. Often occurs in fantasy. Examples: 'civil rights', 'trauma', 'assertive', 'authoritarian', 'generativity', 'special needs', the concept of 'war crimes', 'on a regular basis', precise units of time in a society that doesn't use wristwatches, post-modernism.
This may be difficult if you're trying to express these concepts in a fantastic or historical setting, but the modern reader will be familiar with them anyway. If your character feels she is being treated unfairly because of the color of her skin, it will be clear she's confronting racial prejudice without you saying so outright. Being unable to use specific labels may even encourage creativity, since you can't fall back on a one-word 'tell' but have to 'show' what you mean through description and action.
*I would not consider actual 'political correctness' a problem in a story, especially if it's considered as simple politeness rather than artificial-sounding please-don't-sue-me-ness. For example, think carefully before adding a slur into a story, with the realization that some readers will take that with a physical shock as at an unexpected slap in the face. Perhaps their sensitivity must be overridden by the demands of setting and characterization, but that's a decision that should be made with a bit of thought. Using gritty, nasty words does not automatically make your work more realistic or adult. Thoughtfulness and maturity, though, will go a long way.
6.5 'Eye of Argon' Words. Named after the truly horrible fantasy story read at Sci Fi conventions as a game, with the person who reads longest before collapsing with laughter the winner. These words range from outdated to embarrassing and vaguely naughty. Examples: wench, steed, the word 'lustily' in any context, thrust, ferocious, lest (instead of 'unless').
(Speaking of 'naughty' scenes, thoughtful word choice is even more important there. Check out the 'Bad Sex in Fiction' awards to see why. If you want to arouse a strong reaction in your reader, take care that the reaction is not laughter, unless you absolutely intend it to be.)
7. Flat Description. By this I mean 'She had red hair and wore a red dress.' This does not mean you have to work description into action, but you should make description active, lively, and flavorful. 'Red hair flowed to her shoulders.' 'She bowed in a ripple of red silk.' 'Her smile was wide and toothier than he had expected.' Although you probably don't want to use all 3 of those in the same paragraph, or you start having the opposite problem with your description. (I wrote an entire essay on description and its perils and opportunities; this really just scratches the surface.)
8. Revealing Character Traits with Adjectives and Adverbs. 'He laughed manically'. 'She smiled evilly.' Pretty self-explanatory. Don't spoon-feed character development to your readers, especially extreme ones like those listed here in single words. If someone is truly manic or evil (and they're not the same thing), this should be shown to the reader through many manic or evil actions, not through adverbs Another problem with this, as reviewer Dark Blue Lover pointed out, is that you're using adverbs rather than more precise verbs, or adjectives rather than more precise nouns. "She smiled evilly" could be replaced by "She smirked". A smirk on its own doesn't prove anybody evil (at least I hope not, for the sake of my soul) but if someone is constantly smirking or smirking at the wrong things—"I see you're an orphan now." She smirked.—her evilness will become clear without you having to spoon-feed it to the reader.
9. 'Said-bookisms' have been discussed often enough. I have met a lot of picky readers-as you can tell, I'm one myself-but I have never met anyone who closed a book because it used the word "said" too much. Default to the word 'said', or 'asked' if they're asking a question. Avoid adverbs unless they add something not immediately obvious, like if someone is being sarcastic. Avoid synonyms for said unless they are more accurate and not distracting.
Some readers and writers claim the word "said" is completely invisible, while others find it as distracting as any synonym while also more boring. A middle group between these two camps is to try to eliminate dialogue tags altogether.
" 'I see you're an orphan now,' Imelda said. She smirked.
'Smirking is a very evil thing to do under these circumstances,' Howard wailed."
" 'I see you're an orphan now.' Imelda smirked.
Howard turned away from her. 'Smirking is a very evil thing to do under these circumstances.' He bowed his head over the corpses of his parents."
It's clear who is speaking without needing dialogue tags at all. The small actions characters do instead are often called "beats". Also note that Imelda is not "smirking" her dialogue; a smirk is a facial expression, not a way to talking (the jury is out on whether this is also true of "sneered". I'll give it a pass if characters "sneer" their dialogue; I find it more jarring if they smirk, smile, or laugh it).
10. 'Then' or 'After That' as Transitions. These make it sound as if your character is following directions in a recipe or crossing out items on a to-do list.
Transitions are hard. I find they usually work best when they're invisible, or passed over as description to set the new scene: "She took the Metro escalators down, and then entered the train waiting on the platform. 20 minutes later she was at work." can become "She got to the train just as it was about to depart the Metro station. With this good luck, she was only 15 minutes late to her job. Her boss wasn't happy, but at least he didn't seem about to fire her. Not today."
11. Relying On A Cliché To Do Your Description. 'They entered the haunted mansion'. This simply does not do. Tell us what the haunted mansion looks like, even if you have to repeat the occasional cliché to do it—but don't just have the reader pull up a mental file on 'haunted house' and use that as the setting of your story. Make things different enough that your typical 'haunted house' won't fit.
12. Exclamation Points! They can be used in dialog. Otherwise, they don't make the reader feel excited, they make you sound sugar-high.
13. Characters Who Sound Like Stupid Teenagers. This means the Valley Girl dialect—"Like, totally"—phrases like "just" and "random" and other vagueness people tend to spout when they aren't sure what they mean exactly, the phrase "that's gay" used when someone is too homophobic and lazy to come up with a better adjective (you may use this phrase to show a character is homophobic and lazy. If you use this phrase, you have shown your character is homophobic and lazy whether you meant to or not). Even if they are stupid teenagers, it is annoying. Have a higher breed of protagonist.
13.5 Characters Who Sound Like Narrators. 'He looked at me in utter shock' might be okay in from a first-person POV, but it should never be used in dialogue. Real people don't speak like that.
Also watch out for characters giving too much information, speaking with too much emotional distance or specificity, or otherwise straining their point of view. "The day my daughter was brutally butchered, I stood on the front steps of my tasteful 4-story mansion, unaware of how much was missing from my life. Life has a funny way of working out." Uh-huh.
This is not to be confused with characters who sound extremely formal. Characters can, in fact, have very formal dialogue. However, this should not be their default. I've met some pretty formal types, and they've still finished their sentences with "...um, and stuff" when off the record. They've still greeted me with "Hi" instead of "Salutations!". And I'm pretty sure they talk to their friends in even less formal ways. When a character's dialogue is especially formal, this is a sign that they have prepared their speech-either they're making an important presentation, or they've rehearsed a lot for reasons of anxiety or intended deception.
14. Using 40-dollar words when 10-cent ones will do. Or even cheaper.
Why? Because when you used a 40 dollar work you're asking your reader to shell out that much (less likely in actual currency, more likely in time or mental effort) when you could have asked a dime. It's inconsiderate, and it's irritating, and it's especially irritating when, after getting up and going to the dictionary, I suspect that you didn't do the same, because the word you used is incorrect.
If you use a complex or specialist word, only do so because no other word could properly convey what you mean. Readers will often be happy to learn interesting new words-say, a medical thriller might teach me some scientific terms, making me feel smart as I follow along with it. We will not be happy if we have the feeling you yourself don't know the words you're using.
This feeds right into thesaurus syndrome: the words you have sound boring, so you try to spice them up by looking up synonyms. Well and good, until you pick a synonym with connotations you don't fully understand.
Only use a thesaurus if: 1. You'd repeat a word otherwise or 2. The word you have isn't completely accurate, and you can't think of a better one off the top of your head (or you've forgotten the word you really mean, but you know it exists). Even in these cases, you're using the thesaurus to refresh your memory of words you already are familiar with. Never use a word without being able to define it. Look it up in a dictionary if you aren't certain.
15. Words like 'just', 'even' or 'almost' when used like 'He just stood there' ('he stood there' is good enough, 'he only stood there' or 'he simply stood there' sound more serious and less like teenagers), 'he couldn't even remember the page number' ('even' if overquantifying it and, as I have been informed, sounds both teenagerish and amateurish), or 'she stood up almost quickly' (what is 'almost quickly'? Average speed? If someone isn't doing the action completely or doing it completely the way you're describing it, find another word).
Now, avoiding every one of these mistakes is not a magic formula for succeeding in your writing. After all, you can avoid every mistake simply by never writing a word! But ultimately, learning to be more careful and thoughtful in your word choice will make you a more precise, evocative, and vivid writer. It's also an ability that grows with practice, so don't be discouraged if you recognize a lot of yourself in this essay.
Update 3/2014: A lot of the information from this chapter-plus a whole lot more-has now been published in my book, The Starter Guide for Professional Writers. I'll keep my plug short, but if you want to find out more about the book, which is jam-packed with information to help new writers with improving and publishing their work, please do check out my profile!