Recognizing Lazy Writing Habits

Recognizing Lazy Writing Habits

You’ve already laid the foundation for your story and given birth to intriguing characters. Some are people you knew needed to be in the novel from the beginning and some are strangers who unexpectedly appeared in Chapter Four and never seemed to leave. No matter how they were created, you need to make sure they have some authentic characteristics.

You may not realize Frankie always rubs his chin when he’s worried, but your readers will. This may be a great way to show, instead of tell, but the work becomes redundant if it happens every five pages. Before you query every agent or publisher in town, you need to place your characters, and your entire novel, under the microscope.

Dissecting Your Characters

  • List all of your ladies and gents in separate columns.

Read through your manuscript again and list each one of your characters’ gestures, expressions, sayings, and actions. Place a tally mark beside each action (along with a page number for reference) so you can see how many times you’ve made Alice twirl her hair right before she’s about to speak or how many times Ruth has said Cest la vie. Unless this is arunning joke, which you have executed perfectly, it will lose its steam and make eyes roll. There are many ways to convey a personality. Don’t think you are trapped with only a handful of words to describe these people.

  • Recognize a habit, then change it.

Once you have finished the tally marks, you can assess which characters need a little more definition. Maybe your tough guy is somewhat unimportant to the story and you never bothered to flesh him out very well. I understand. However, making your characters stronger will make your writing stronger. You will be glad you took the time to get to know them all.

  • Brainstorm a new list.

Dust off your thesaurus and look through all of the words you used to describe your characters in the last list. Now, create a new list with different words. Also, brainstorm other ways your characters can show their emotions without necessarily telling the readers how they feel. Write all these ideas on your new list.

  • Retrace your steps.

Now that you’ve warmed up your mind with fresh ideas, refer to all the page numbers you wrote down before. Figure out where you can add some new color to your people. Sometimes writers get too caught up in the plot and forget to give their readers a better view of the characters. If you return to your manuscript with one objective in mind, you will see all the tiny flaws you missed before.

Dissecting Your Prose

  • Make sure you’re showing, not telling.

This is very basic advice. Yet every writer can probably find places in his novel where the narrative is telling, instead of presenting an image. Raise the tension by painting the scene. This can be especially tough with first-person narrative because the main character is letting us into his head, but there are ways to avoid bland writing. Consider the following:

Telling: I couldn’t trust him anymore. I pulled away because I felt hesitant to show him affection.

Showing: I flinched when his lips brushed my skin. Every warm breath he sent down my neck made my heart race, but I couldn’t return the affection. Every touch felt like a lie.

  • Grammar, grammar, grammar.

I can assume you know when to use there, their, or they’re, but what about lie, lay, or laid? Who or whom? Vernacular can make murky the understanding of the most common grammar rules. Some people never use the word whom at all anymore! That doesn’t mean you’re off the hook. If ever you’re not sure,do your research.

  • Yearn and Urn and other stupid mistakes

We all have our moments. I can say, firsthand, that my editor actually had to point out a sentence in which I used urn (you know, a container for cremated dead people) instead of yearn. Do I know the difference? Yes. Yes, I do. But, clearly, I wasn’t paying attention! Always be on the lookout for these silly mistakes, because they can be embarrassing. If you discover them while waiting for a response from a literary agent, you will probably cry yourself to sleep.

  • Identify places in need of a parenthetical element.

In other words, don’t forget your commas. If you can extract a portion of the sentence and it still makes sense, surround the extractable portion with the proper punctuation.

Wrong: Blueberries despite their high sugar content are very good for you.

Right: Blueberries, despite their high sugar content, are very good for you.

 Wrong: I want to learn how to quilt but due to my work schedule I don’t have time.

Right: I want to learn how to quilt but, due to my work schedule, I don’t have time.

  • Avoid using a passive voice.

The door was opened. The cat was taken to the vet. The sentence was mutilated. All passive. You want to describe the action, not the result. Better options: Sarah opened the door. Eric took the cat to the vet. She mutilated the sentence. We all loved Curious George as children, but H.A. Rey was the king of the passive voice. Style preferences have changed along with what is considered acceptable behavior for a monkey in children’s literature. Enjoy the classics but don’t copy them.

  • Prepositional endings.

You can get away with ending your sentences with a preposition in dialogue. However, narrative, no matter how casual your tone, still needs to follow this basic rule. It may feel a little awkward at first because, again, slang has changed the way we view the written word. All I ask is that you make an honest effort!

Wrong: Which car was he riding in?

Right: In which car was he riding?

You’ll get used to it.

  • Always make sure to pass your work along to a beta reader.

This should go without saying, but some people avoid this crucial step. You may not agree with all of your readers’ commentary but you do need a pair of cold eyes to point out flaws you’ve overlooked. Thus,you may not make my urn/yearn mistake.

Tell me your opinion: What are your character action crutches?

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About Alythia Brown

Alythia Brown is an author and young mother, who decided she wanted to pursue publication when she became pregnant as a teen. She blogs about books, publishing, literary agents, and the querying process at


  1. After years of denying that I want to be a writer, I have finally given in. I do not plan to quit my day job, at least not yet, but I have started writing again. I am working on my first book, and have been amazed at how much my writing had degraded. I am still working on my first draft, but I regularly do research in order to ensure that I am not making common mistakes. Finding posts like this really helps to point out where I have gone wrong. I know I am guilty of most of the lazy habits you have mentioned. I can only hope that time and effort will help me to correct these errors and more.

    Thanks for the great advice.

  2. Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Alythia!

  3. So helpful. I need to make the list you suggested for my character’s actions. I’m sure it’ll help me! Thank you for going over this, Alythia. You’re timing, for me, is perfect since I’m editing with a focus on individual characters.

  4. The irony being, of course, spelling “Yearn” as “Year” in the subheading of that section.

    That being said, I’ll definitely come back to this post as a list of reminders when rechecking my work. Thanks for posting!

  5. @Jamie: Whoops! My bad on that, not Alythia’s. I had a dickens of a time getting that heading formatted for some reason. Thanks for pointing out the typo.

  6. Thanks for all of your lovely comments, everyone!

    @T.L. West: Writing the first novel is so exciting. Good for you! You’ll also be surprised by how quickly your writing will improve while working on a project that large. 🙂
    @Jennifer: I am so glad you found the advice to be helpful! That makes me happy!
    @Jamie: Haha! You scared me for a second there! Thank you for reading!

    And Katie, thank you very much for having me today!

  7. I’m in the middle of revisions on my current WIP. Thank you for the suggestions you made. I’m planning on implementing them as I work through this project.

  8. That’s great, Christina! Good luck with your writing and let us know how it goes!

  9. 95% of this is great advice. However, the so-called “rule” against prepositional endings is a shibboleth that was consigned to the bin many years ago. You’ll be telling us we can’t split infinitives or start sentences with conjunctions next!

  10. Haha, yes, I suppose that’s more preferential advice! My editor was strict about this “so-called rule” and now it feels odd to use prepositional endings. I know some do not view this as a rule anymore and that’s okay. Writing styles have changed. However, I get annoyed when I read a book filled with them at every turn. You should avoid overusing anything! For example, I’ve been known to abuse the word “just.” Haha! Honestly, I believe if you edit every other sentence where you’ve found a prepositional ending, you will enhance your work. I have the same advice on using adverbs. Often times, it’s an improvement when you figure out another way to word the sentence. Thanks for your thoughtful advice, Celyn!

  11. Great post. Good advice. I need to apply it my current WIP(s). You know, once I finish them. At least one of them is on the second draft stage, which is much better than where I was at the beginning of the year.

    Ms. Alythia, I read the blurb for your book. It sounds like something I will like. But, I couldn’t find it – or you! – on GoodReads. I was very disappointed by that as it sounds like your book should be out in the next couple of months. I can add the book to GoodReads myself, but then I won’t be able to edit the entry should I get anything wrong. Are you planning on joining GR? It can be a great way to get the word out about yourself and your books.

  12. I’m saving the link to this page, so I can keep coming back to it. Such great, practical advice!

  13. I have so many grammar mistakes. English is not my native language, but I’m learning it.

  14. @Tura Lura: Sorry for the delayed response. We all have works in progress! But it sounds like you’re doing great. I’m a firm believer that finishing the first draft is the gateway to successfully completing your current and future projects. Most people never get that far! So congrats!

    I’m not entirely sure why I’m not showing up on Goodreads! Maybe this will help bring you to my profile? I’m a little bummed because I just found out my book is scheduled to go to print this October, not this spring. Not TOO far off, but definitely longer than expected. And I believe (though I’m not entirely sure) authors can’t add their book until they have an ISBN. I’ll look into that more. Thanks for mentioning it!

    @Erika: Thank you! I’m so pleased you found it useful!

    @Louise: Even people who only speak ONE language make grammatical errors! Are you one of those amazing people who can learn new languages and go on to write novels???

  15. I am about to start revising my first draft of my novel. Thank you for the tip about making tally marks for characters emotion. I think it will help me look at phrases I use too much.

  16. Glad to hear that was helpful, Samantha! Thanks for reading.

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