Learning the Craft: A Writing Cheat Sheet for Newbies

Having been critiquing for a while now, I’m starting to recognize what I would call phases in a writer’s growth. These phases include making certain kinds of mistakes, similar to how children learning a language make predictable errors. In English, for example, a child often says “brung” as the past tense of bring. Which makes plenty of sense—it just happens to be that bring has an irregular preterite form (brought). But eventually the child figures out the grammar and learns to speak the way the adults and older children nearby do. Really, learning any art is like that: you’re a beginner stumbling your way through, first copying the work of those you admire, and then branching out and discovering your voice, and finally honing that voice so that you can tell/paint/sing in a way that’s wholly yours.

Most of us go through these phases—I guarantee my fellow Sirens and I have made many of the mistakes detailed below!—but it’s important to keep working at your craft so you get past them. Ways to do this include being in a critique group with people who are (currently) better than you, study the books you read to see why they work and don’t, and above all, keep writing.

And here’s a little cheat sheet of problems to look for and avoid in your own work to help you level up that much faster.

  1. Whether you’re writing in first or third person, never varying sentence structure and ending up with blocks of text that look like this: “I went to the market. I bought apples and mangoes. I spent a lot of money, and I carried home lots of bags.” Basically, I, I, I, I, I or she, she, she, she, she. Vary your sentences and find ways to avoid using all those pronouns!
  2. Using too many dialogue tags. If you do your job right, the reader will figure out who is saying what. Plus you can take the opportunity to add some action beats like “Sarita bit her nail. ‘I don’t know’” rather than “‘I don’t know,’ Sarita said” and show us what’s going on. (Don’t overdo this, either, though!)
  3. Using verbs that are actions to mean “say” like: “‘Close the door,” she sighed/laughed/shrugged.”
  4. Using weak instead of strong verbs. Here I’m not talking about grammar but precise language: see the difference between “The child was mad” and “The child screamed how unfair it all was.”
  5. Using cliché details again and again, like the color of a love interest’s eyes. “They were so blue, I lost myself in them.” “I stared into his blue eyes.” “His blue eyes were full of fury.” Once is enough. 😉 Also, eyes really don’t convey all that much specific emotion.
  6. Giving the reader too many details about things that don’t matter to the story, like every piece of furniture in the room.
  7. Conversely, not giving the reader enough details about a setting or what someone looks like. (White room syndrome.)
  8. Overexplaining a character’s actions through internal monologue instead of showing the reasoning through context.
  9. Not delving into the emotional consequences of a character’s actions. For example, let’s say a woman discovers her husband of ten years has been cheating on her but just shrugs it off and goes on with her life, no emotional reaction, or at most a shallow one, displayed. Not only is that unrealistic, but it cheats the reader. What ultimately makes a story work is the raw and difficult emotional struggles characters go through.
  10. Having characters repeatedly gasp, storm across a room, grab people’s hands, burst into tears, shout. Good characterization is usually much subtler. Look at one of your favorite books to see what I’m talking about. The dialogue, the choices the character makes, the way the character reacts to adversity . . . all these things will add up to form a much more believable person.
  11. People’s jaws rarely drop in shock in real life, just like their eyes narrowing in anger. These tics are something we learned from fiction.
  12. Flat characters who have only one or two defining qualities, like being brave or nervous or even the generic brooding love interest. Round your characters out!
  13. This goes for protagonists, too. Don’t tell us what they’re thinking or why/how they supposedly are as people; show it! Showing is much more powerful and allows the reader to connect to the character.
  14. Thinking every detail matters. This goes for internal monologue (what the character is thinking), adjectives, and adverbs. Less is often more; then every detail you give the reader will matter.
  15. Using too many punctuation marks that call attention to themselves. These include semicolons, em dashes, and exclamation points. Like salt in a dish, use them sparingly and trust your writing to do the rest.
  16. Adhering too closely to plots and formulas you’ve read rather than telling your own story. This one especially comes with time and practice.
  17. Not having a unique voice for each character.
  18. Forcing theme and message rather than letting them flow naturally from the story.

I hope these are helpful. Readers, can you think of anything to add?

Shveta Thakrar is a writer of South Asian–flavored fantasy, social justice activist, active dreamer, devourer of books and tea and chocolate, occasional harpist, and part-time nagini. You can learn more at www.shvetathakrar.com.

3 thoughts on “Learning the Craft: A Writing Cheat Sheet for Newbies

  1. The only thing I’d add for the newbies is that this list should be used for revisions and shouldn’t be in the forefront of their minds as they’re writing their first draft.
    This is a great list!

  2. Pingback: Writing: Level Up | Hallie Tibbetts

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