7 Writing Habits That Bog Down Your Story

“Avoid on-the-nose writing.” —Jerry Jenkins

image by PixelAnarchy
image by PixelAnarchy

Here’s a passage from a book published in the 20’s: The Marriage of Barry Wicklow by Ruby M. Ayres. It contains 7 problems that bog the story for today’s reader. I’ve superscripted instances with the problem numbers from the list after the passage.

There was1,7 a moment of silence. Barry was looking2,7 at her with eager eyes. In a man’s indefinite way he was realizing2,7 vaguely3,4 that she had5 changed a great deal since he last saw her, though he hardly knew how or in what way.

Her hair was7 differently4 dressed. Her clothes were7 different3. There was1,7 something—a sort of flippancy about her whole manner that turned him cold.

“Good afternoon,” she said composedly4. She pushed forward a chair.

image by inez
image by inez

“Won’t you sit down?”6 Barry was remembering2,7 how Hulbert had said5 that she blushed whenever she was7 spoken to. There was2,7 no sign of agitation in her face now. Her blue eyes met his dispassionately4.

She was7dressed all in black, but such smart black, that somehow she did not look as if she were7 in mourning. Barry, glancing at her hands, saw that she no longer wore his ring, that she wore no rings at all.

He ignored the chair she had offered5. He went straight to his point.

“I’ve been7 talking to Hulbert—you know Hulbert. He tells me you are7 going on the stage under the management of that – that man Greaves.”

He spoke a little breathlessly6. “Well,” said Hazel. “What if I am7?”

“I won’t have it, that’s all,” Barry answered excitedly4. “You’re7 my wife, and I won’t have it3, I tell you3! The stage is7 no place for you. I told you when I first met you that I hated it. I repeat it now3, and I forbid you—I absolutely forbid you3—to have anything to do with it or that man Greaves3.”

7 Problems

  1. Weak opening “there was” surfaces three times.
  2. Progressive tense isn’t necessary and slows the pace; past tense works.
  3. Repetitive thoughts and dialogue mirror reality but bog down the story.
  4. Some adverbs are unnecessary or telling.
  5. Perfect past tense jars actions into “history.” Past tense works.
  6. Sentences placed in the wrong paragraphs.
  7. Sixteen forms of “to be” used.

One Rewrite

For a moment neither spoke. Barry scanned her lithe form. Since he last saw Hazel, what made her now seem like a stranger? For one thing, she wore her hair upswept and severer than the soft curls that once embraced her face.

Hazel’s gaze from her half-lidded eyes met his. “Good afternoon.” She shoved a chair forward. “Won’t you sit down?”

black-147098_1280Her flippancy iced his heart. What had happened to what Hulbert called the blushing woman? And, outfitted in her elegant ensemble, all in black, she didn’t look as if she was in mourning.

Barry glanced at her hands. She no longer wore his ring. She wore no rings at all.

He sidestepped the chair she offered. “I’ve been talking to Hulbert—you know Hulbert. He tells me you plan to go on the stage under the management of that—that man Greaves.”

Hazel arched an eyebrow. “What if I am?”

“You’re my wife, and I won’t have it!” Barry chopped the air. “The stage is no place for you. I told you when I first met you that I hated it. I forbid you to have anything to do with it—or with Greaves.”

Avoid these 7 habits that drain readers. Click to tweet.

What habits are you trying to break in your writing?

12 Solid Ways to Make Your Writing More Vivid

“Simplicity is a virtue in writing, true; but never the primary virtue. … Vividness is.” —Dwight V. Swain

image by Shawn7
image by Shawn7

I created the following paragraph, ignoring Dwight V. Swain’s recommendations for vivid writing in his book, Techniques of the Selling Writer.

Her car had stopped. She tried to start it again. The engine wouldn’t start. Lissa fearfully evaluated her situation. It was miles from a service station. McKinsey slept in the backseat. At least she wasn’t frightened.

She wished Colby was with them. He was a sizeable man. No one would mess with him.

She turned on her cell. It had no service. It quickly brought insects to her window. Lissa, though usually competent and strong, but realizing help would only come from her, started to cry. Lights reflected from the mirror.

Swain’s Suggestions to Add Vividness

image by geralt
image by geralt

1.  Use the character’s senses in action and movement.

2.  Fix monotonous length, form, and style of sentences to produce variety.

3.  Select specific, concrete, definite and pictorial nouns that create images in readers’ minds.

4.  Choose the singular of a noun. It’s usually stronger than the plural.

5.  Use active verbs; avoid forms of “is.” Show a character’s actions when he feels a certain way.

6.  Reword sentences in the past perfect tense (had) to put them in the past tense.

7.  Make sure pronouns refer to the correct nouns.

8.  Use adjectives to give the precise meaning of nouns when needed.

image by makamuki0
image by makamuki0

9.  Substitute action for adverbs where practical.

10. Add a metaphor or a simile relatable to the reader’s experience.

11. Avoid cramming too much into a sentence and distancing the subject from the verb.

12. Fix unintentional repetition of words and phrases in close proximity.



Look for Swain’s principles addressed in my rewrite to increase vividness.

The Honda Pilot’s engine sputtered and died. Her heart racing, Lissa wrenched the steering wheel hard right and coasted the SUV off the remote road, miles from help. She shot her gaze to the rearview mirror and then twisted her shoulders right and left. All locks secured. No attacker lurked outside in the night.

The low-gas light flickered. The Pilot was out of gas? Impossible. The gas gauge registered full two hours ago. She turned the key. The starter grated like a garbage disposal grinding a peach stone.

Lissa gave up, threaded her hand between the front seats, and brushed her index finger against sleeping McKinsey’s bare foot. Her daughter’s lips parted and closed in a soft snore. Hopefully her toddler would miss the entire frightening incident. Unlike herself.

Her hands shaking, she rustled her cell from her handbag and thumbed the phone to life. No service. She dropped her head against the headrest. What now?

image by Republica
image by Republica

A mosquito fluttered against the side window, determined to reach the glow from her cell screen. She could handle a mosquito. But not the brute with a crowbar invading her imagination and removing every bit of spit from her mouth.

If only her two-hundred-pound Colby sat in the passenger seat. McKensie’s Daddy could scare away a zombie. But a jet flew him to the other side of the US. As Lissa’s lips trembled and her face crumpled, headlights reflected off the rearview mirror.

If you don’t write vivid passages, here’s probably why. Click to tweet.

Would you share your rewrite of the passage?