I want to start by saying two things. Number one is that while this list applies to any kind of writing, it is probably rather more relevant to stories (such as novels, fanfiction, etc.) than to a Tweet or Facebook comment. Number two is that I don’t expect everyone to have perfect spelling, grammar, and punctuation, but that’s why spell checkers and other people are useful. If you are aiming to write something that people will take seriously, it is probably a good idea to use those sorts of tools to help you. Anyway, now that the disclaimer is out of the way let’s get to the actual list.
1. Unnecessary adjectives. This one should be fairly self-explanatory. I’m not complaining about description. Description is great; it’s necessary in order to be able to understand what characters and locations look like, and it is what transforms a simple retelling of events into a great story. No, I’m complaining about when a character’s eyes were described as blue at the beginning of the story, and from then on every time that character’s eyes are mentioned the writer feels the need to repeat that information. Usually a different word for blue is retrieved from the thesaurus each time, and an extra adjective is added to help inform the reader of how wondrous or stunning or cerulean this person’s eyes are.
I’m also referring to such original and unique phrases as “molten lava”, “happy smile”, and so on. If you find yourself writing something like that I would suggest considering if you really need to remind the reader of lava’s default state of existence, and perhaps just referring to it as “lava” instead. However, the final and worst kind of unnecessary adjective is not when the description is repetitive or obvious. It is when the writing descends into such pretentious self-worship that reading it makes you want to give up on the decrepit, devaluated debris of your exhausted, existential existence (yes, what I just wrote is exactly the type of self-important wankery I’m talking about). If I see tears described as anything resembling “opalescent salty drops saturated with the black sorrow of my dark soul” one more time I may jump out of the nearest window.
The ultimate example of this sort of purple prose, however, has got to be from the supposedly classic Frankenstein: “[…] his full-toned voice swells in my ears; his lustrous eyes dwell on me in all their melancholy sweetness; I see his thin hand raised in animation, while the lineaments of his face are irradiated by the soul within”.
I’m just going to leave that there.
2. Sudden changes in a character’s voice. No, I don’t mean that it annoys me if a character suddenly goes from a soprano to an alto. I’m not referring to their physical voice, I’m talking about the words they use to express themself. What I mean is when a character communicates somewhat monosyllabically in dialogue and then in their thoughts the same person turns into someone akin to a poet from the Romantic movement. I am not going to buy it if someone uses 10 times as many words in their head as they do when they speak, not unless there’s a very good reason for why they would not speak the same way they think. For the record, I am also not going to buy it if a character is generally about as friendly to other people as Scrooge is to carol singers, but when they speak to the person they have romantic feelings for they suddenly launch into sentimental soliloquies. People may change their manner slightly when communicating with different people, but the kind of vocabulary they use is not going to change completely.
3. Excessive analogies or metaphors. This is another pretty obvious one. Poetry is the only kind of writing where you can use constant metaphors without coming across like a tosser, and if you try and keep an analogy going for three paragraphs of a novel you will lose track of it and end up writing something very weird and quite possibly sexual when you didn’t intend to. If you’re writing prose and not poetry, please just describe things as they are; the good metaphors have been used so much they’ve become clichéd, and any original one you think of has probably not been used before for a reason that will become apparent after you’ve written it.
4. Misuse of apostrophes. It’s bad enough when writers leave out apostrophes (I once saw a sign at a well-regarded university that said “artists impression” instead of “artist’s impression”), but it is even worse when they put apostrophes everywhere except where they’re meant to be. It doesn’t matter if the word is a possessive or not, apostrophes will appear wherever you can think. “Motives” becomes “motive’s” and “hers” becomes “her’s”. “It’s” and “its” swap places like twins trying to confuse everyone, making “it’s bad” become “its bad” but “its strength” become “it’s strength”.
In case you’re one of the people who gets confused by the apostrophe, here’s how it works. If a single person/object possesses something then add “- ‘s” to the end of the word (e.g. “Clare’s book”, “the army’s leader”). I would like to add that plurals are not the same as possessives. Sorry, but you can’t get away with “the stories beginning”, it’s “the story’s beginning”. When either the word ends in “s” or multiple people/objects possess something then just add “- ‘ “ to the end of the word (e.g. “Chris’ hair”, “the countries’ alliance”). A final note: “hers”, “his”, “yours”, “their”, and “its” are possessives but do not contain apostrophes. Yes, it’s weird but that’s English for you.
5. Confusion of similar words. I’m going to make this simple. “Shudder” is not the same as “shutter”. One is “a convulsive movement of the body, as from horror, fear, or cold”, and the other is “a solid or louvered movable cover for a window”. “Then” is not the same as “than”. One is a connective used to indicate the order of events (e.g. I did this then I did that), and the other is a comparative (e.g. she is faster than I am). Finally, “your” and “you’re” are not the goddamn same. One is a possessive used to indicate ownership of something (e.g. your shirt), and the other is a contraction of “you are” (e.g. you’re tired).
6. Words used in inappropriate ways. Here are some basic rules that should help you avoid this kind of mistake. Do not use the word “moist” in any kind of positive way. Ever. Do you want food that is “moderately or slightly wet”? I didn’t think so. Do not try and use the word “caress” in any kind of romantic or sexy way. Not only is it horribly overused, it also just sounds creepy. Ask yourself if you would write the following sentence: “He lightly stroked her”. You wouldn’t? I rest my case.
7. Sections in other languages with no translation or indication. I’m looking at you, Jane Eyre. Please, if you must write more than a few words in a language other than the main one you’re using, provide some kind of explanation or indication of what it means. Otherwise it seems like you’re just showing off that you know this awesome language that the reader doesn’t. And that’s not cool. That’s being a supercilious dickmonger.
8. Phonetically spelt dialects. I understand that you want the reader to know that a character is from Yorkshire, Birmingham, etc. But, for the love of the mythical dictator commonly known as God, do not spell out said character’s dialogue phonetically as a way of showing what accent they have. Just mention the first time they say something that “they had a strong Yorkshire accent”, or something like that. That way the reader will actually be able to understand what the character is saying, and no one will be offended by your butchering of their dialect.
9. Overzealously described detail where it is not needed. I’m talking about times when one paragraph is needed but the writer decides to use five because why the hell not. For example, if a character is cooking, then unless you’re writing a cookbook, I do not need to know the step by step guide of how to cook some (usually posher than is necessary) meal to perfection. All I need to know is that “they cooked [insert meal here] and it tasted great”. And here’s the great news, you don’t have to spend line after line describing the taste of the food either. The same rule applies to clothes too. Whatever your characters are wearing will probably be out of fashion in ten years or so (yes, even those black fishnet tights from Hot Topic that you think will make your protagonist so trendy). Therefore, spending five sentences describing exactly what clothes your characters are wearing is pointless, and will just put future readers off.
10. Characters being referred to by a trait (e.g. their profession) because the writer thinks it makes a change from using their actual name. I get that it can be hard to write scenes that predominantly feature two men or two women without feeling like you’re repeating their names too much. But that’s why we have the words “he”, “she”, “him”, and “her”. Unless your narrator does not yet know a person’s name, it is not a good idea to refer to characters as “the doctor”, “the scientist”, etc. You can make these monikers even worse by using a personality trait rather than their profession, and adding an adjective for good measure (e.g. “the temperamental policeman”, “the blue-eyed vixen”). Now I think about it, you could make a hilarious character generator with some of those examples… Anyway, referring to your characters that way demeans them, and there’s no better way to make someone laugh hysterically and then stop reading.