Common Style Problems (FenCon Writer's Workshop Part 3)

Editors and publishers all have their pet peeves, and most of them are founded on reasonable principles. Ultimately, writing style is all about making your story easier to read, and good editors will always try to push you in that direction.


The following series comes to us from guest blogger and author Tom Howard.

Learn more about Tom by visiting his Amazon Author Page, and check out Tom's latest story in The Good Fight, an anthology of superhero vs. monster stories.


FenCon--a long-running science fiction and fantasy convention in Dallas, Texas--hosts an affiliated writers workshop every year, where professional writers share their own experiences with beginning writers in intensive workshops.

My own writing is at a too comfortable plateau, and I attended to learn some new skills to improve my writing. I've enjoyed FenCon writing workshops before and always find something to take away.

I attended the workshop with my friend and frequent collaborator, Belinda Christ. I think she has attended them all. Like me, she's always searching for community and new tools to improve her trade.

This year, 2015, urban fantasy writer, Jaye Wells, did a four-day class for a dozen writers on critiquing each others' work. Ms. Wells used our comments as a springboard to present sessions on structure, conflict, and the other areas writers need to learn their craft.

Part Three - Common Style Problems

The following list of style problems rank among the most aggravating to editors and publishers. Do everything to avoid them.
  • Too many that's. The word "that" is almost always clutter. Occasionally, you need it for clarity, but 75% of the time, it can be left out.
  • Bad Dialogue Punctuation. Not knowing where to use your commas and periods is a sure path to the slush pile. Pick up a novel and punctuate the dialogue as the author does. [Pete: and check out my post on dialogue mechanics.]
  • Missing comma before direct address. "Good morning, O'Dell." not "Good morning O'Dell."
  • You don't need the speaking verb (said) if you have an action line surrounding the dialogue. [Pete: for more on this, check out my post about beats]
  • Fancy synonyms for "said". Action lines are best, but some old-school editors insist on only using "said". But the worst thing you can do is use a thesaurus to keep from using "said". Obscure synonyms are distracting, and adverbs and adjectives should be avoided in dialogue.
  • Too many subordinate clauses and participle phrases. "As" and "ing" phrases are a matter of timing. They show two actions happening simultaneously, and some things you can't do simultaneously.
  • Cliche beginnings. Don't start the story with a line of dialogue. Or with a character waking up. Or with the weather.
  • Ellipses fever. It's tempting to use ellipses every time you want a drawn out pause, but it also gets annoying to look at, and readers skip over them more often than not. Know how to use them correctly. In dialogue, ellipses indicate trailing off, an em dash (—) indicates interrupting.  One in every paragraph is not acceptable. And don't use ellipses to indicate pauses in middle of dialogue. Break up dialogue with action.
  • Tense shifts. Past tense should be past and present should be present for the entire thing. No shifting back and forth.
  • Risky grammar. If you're going to use conjunctions at the beginning of sentences, know what rules you're breaking. Every time you do this, you risk looking like you don't know.
  • Uncommon punctuation. A semi-colon should be used sparingly or not at all. Colons, too.
  • Too much narrative distance. Character's voice should not only be dialogue but also the narrative. Third person point of view should be close and not omniscient. Distancing words like "she saw", "she looked", and "she felt" separate the reader from the character. Watch your narrative distance closely.
Jaye Wells' general suggestions:
  • Get a copy of Strunk and White's Elements of Style and look up specific questions. No need to read it from cover to cover.
  • Use Grammarly to check your work.
  • For the Oxford comma (a, b, and c), use the publishing house's style guide, but use the serial comma for clarity.
  • Don't spend a lot of money on marketing (cons, readers) when you should spend it on learning the craft. Use margielawson.com if you want to workshops from Margie Lawson personally.
  • RWA (Romance Writers of America) does great Craft and Business workshops that apply to all writers.
  • The MFA program at Seton Hill is a crash course on writing that equals ten years worth of experience.
  • The Rule of Three: If a writer brings up something three times, it is IMPORTANT and will be part of the plot and climax. Conversely, if you mention something more than once, you'd better involve it in the plot.
  • Pope in a Pool: Look for opportunities to break up exposition with active events. The pope could be swimming laps in the background during a long exposition dump.