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?

When You Should Grace Your Stories with Telling

“A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”  —William Strunk, Jr.


Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Show, don’t tell, is pounded into the pores of writers. In last week’s post, we observed how showing instead of telling brings the reader into the story. But we mustn’t overdo the showing.


  • Telling instead of showing in stories sometimes gets the job done the best way.
    click to tweet

Would you’ve gone to these lengths to SHOW in these situations?

My Rewrite 1: Marla’s gaze trailed his retreat, her face taking on a more and more puzzled look with each of his steps. When he turned the corner and was gone, she rotated her body around toward me. “What’s he up to?”

Actual Excerpt from Word Gets Around by Lisa Wingate:

Marla watched him disappear down the hall, then swiveled toward me. “What’s he up to?”


The “pop-action thriller star” has just told his miffed assistant, Marla, to tell his waiting manger to “chill” and then leaves.

Image courtesy of stockimages / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of stockimages / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

My rewrite showing what Marla looks like as she watches the star leave is overdramatic and slows the forward motion of the moment. Wingate’s telling us that Marla watched him is enough.

Wingate’s “disappear down the hall” is good because to me the word disappear is probably what the star wants to do when surrounded by demanding assistants and managers. My mention of his steps in showing Marla’s watching added little.

Wingate’s “swiveled” trumps my showing Marla rotating her body around.

The “What’s he up to?” dialog is enough to show Marla’s curiosity without my repetition of showing her puzzled face.

Wingate “showed” much by choosing her words carefully and using the telling word “watched” to move things along.


  • Readers expect authors to avoid bogging down stories with too many showing details.
    click to tweet

My Rewrite 2: Watterboy crouched over, extended his weapon before him, sweeping it to the left and to the right, and rushed to the man. He patted the man’s body for weapons while Heath scanned the area around them.

Actual Excerpt from TRINITY: Military War Dog by Ronie Kendig:

Watterboy moved in to search the man while Heath kept watch.

Comments: This is a fast-paced prologue. Kendig keeps her sentences short and peppered with “military” words. If she goes into many showing descriptions, the reader will have too much time to rest. That’s a no-no for an action scene like this one.

by beat0092
by beat0092

Kendig chooses her showing moments carefully. In this case, she chooses to use “military-friendly” telling terminology to keep the action going. Her “moved in” is an understood term used in such a military operation that naturally depicts the careful movement I showed. The same goes for “kept watch.”

Kendig keeps her showing concise and uses it on the more important characters, such as Trinity the war dog and her partner, Staff Sergeant Heath Daniels. The man Watterboy approaches is only one stop in the action and not worth trading off moving the action along for showing.


  • Often the moment is too insignificant to show, and telling moves the story along.
    click to tweet

For what other reasons, besides moving the story along by avoiding insignificant showing, do you think telling is appropriate?