When you write your first and second drafts, you should write freely and without censorship or judgment. This will prevent you from running into that brick wall we writers call “writer’s block”.

After you have exhausted all your creative juices, stop. Take a break. Live your life. Think about your piece, daydream about the plot and characters on long walks or during bike rides. When you feel nice and mellow, come back to the desk but allow your logical, analytical left-brain to take over. This time when you work, think like a tailor or sculptor–stitch together the loose parts, reshape the lumpy areas. Think sequentially, think organization. Be patient, and don’t work for long hours.

Consider the following style/grammatical problems that many writers have in their first and second drafts.

1. Telling and not showing, when showing would be more effective:

  • Not effective: Logan had to take full control of her and Matthew’s emotions.
  • Effective: Logan grabbed her purse and Matthew’s hand. “We will not get hysterical over this.” Then she dragged Matthew with her out the door.

2. Passive Voice versus active voice

  • Passive: The brother was smacked by the sister.
  • Active: The sister smacked the brother.

3. Unnecessary gerunds versus precise verbs and/or gerunds.

  • Unnecessary: They were leaping about and were screaming at the boys.
  • Precise: They leaped about and screamed at the boys.
  • Unnecessary: The car was going fast, and she was taking her cell phone out of her purse.
  •  Precise: She drove the car fast, while rummaging around her purse for her cell phone.

4. Inconsistent tense versus consistent tense

  • Inconsistent: She walks to the store and went through the back door. When she sees her boss, she cried about the money she took and begs him to forgive her.
  •  Consistent: She walks to the store and goes through the back door. When she sees her boss, she cries about the money she had taken and begs him to forgive her.

5. Use adverbs that end in –ly instead of showing the “how” or “why”.

  • Not effective: She politely declined his incredibly great offer.
  • A little better: While his offer was enticing, she rejected it, adding, “But thanks anyway!”
  • Best: “No thanks,” she said handing him back the money.

6. Pronoun/antecedent problem versus proper positioning of pronouns and antecedents

  • Problem: John and Brad didn’t know if he needed help with both his truck and car. It had a flat tire.
  • No problem: John and Brad didn’t know if the man needed help with both vehicles; the truck had the flat tire and the car didn’t. It appeared to be fine.

7. Losing track of characters/props/furniture in a scene.

  • She carried the candle into the dark room and searched for the missing book.  Suddenly she smacked into someone. “Ahhh!” she screamed but then realized it was just her brother David.  She threw her arms around him and laughed. [Where did the candle go?]
  • She carried the candle into the dark room. “Where is that damned book?” she wondered. Suddenly she smacked into someone. “Ahhh!” she screamed, almost dropping the candle.  “David!” she yelled at her little brother.  “What are you doing?” She put the candle on the ground and threw her arms around him in relief. “I just wanted to help you find that book,” he told her. [We know that she put the candle down.]

8. Redundancy:

Dad was angry. “Not in my house,” he yelled. [We don’t need “Dad was angry” because he’s yelling.]
“Okay,” I obediently responded. [The obedience is implied.]

9. Dialogue that serves only to provide background information that could be woven into the action of the story:
“I know you are the youngest girl in the family and the only one who likes to draw. Your older sister is always getting the attention, too. It must be hard for you.”
10. Trite, clichéd language:

  • “It’s like a whole new world,” Abby whispered to herself, not knowing Daniel had heard her. He smiled, unable to take his eyes off her; she was as bright as day.
  • It was as bald as the top of an old man’s head.

11. Awkward and clichéd use of similes and metaphors

  • A feeling like warm honey spread through her chest
  • He felt a pulling on his heart.
  • Her heart shattered in two.

Other Special Issues in first drafts

1.    Opening your story with a lot of exposition and background versus getting right to it. Just begin. Don’t explain it to us. Telling is a tool to use, but you must choose the right moments where action simply can’t show what the reader needs to know. Deb Caletti uses a telling technique in Honey, Baby, Sweetheart to open the novel. But it has movement and intention that helps propel us into the conflict.
2.    Inconsistent point-of-view.  Georgia McBride advises that when writing in 1st person only show things through the five senses of the protagonist. “1st person knows only what the 5 senses allow. Otherwise (s)he assumes or presumes. Easy to slip up here.”
3.    Including details that are irrelevant to reader.
4.    Not using precise details to enhance setting and characters.
5.    Not using precise details to propel the action of the story.

Some odds-n-ends:

Overused phrases
Swallowing tears
Lumps in throat
Pit in stomach

Words to Avoid

Just something that annoys me personally: Try not to use start or realize too much. Also, in first person work, count how many “I’s” you have per page. Find ways to reduce. Another tidbit, avoid awkward pop culture references that sound dated instead of cool.

Remember that rules are meant to be broken at times–as long as you have a reason and intention for doing so.

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  • Mandy  On July 10, 2011 at 4:51 pm

    Love these tips. I’m going to print them out.

  • Candy  On July 10, 2011 at 6:32 pm

    Super tips! Thanks!

  • Lauren W.  On July 11, 2011 at 6:27 pm

    I always have the hardest time to not use the “words to avoid” or “overused phrases”! Thanks for the tips, they are very helpful!

  • Dee Jordan  On September 7, 2011 at 1:53 pm

    Thank you for these tips. I, too, am going to print them and study them daily.

  • robyn corum  On April 13, 2012 at 7:11 am

    This is probably the best list of concise editing advice I’ve seen. Kudos! You are one ‘happening’ editor!

  • Jo Lauer  On May 25, 2012 at 4:09 pm

    Thank you. We’re never too accomplished to be reminded of the basics. The list was invaluable.

  •  On December 7, 2012 at 9:47 pm

    When I initially commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and now each time a
    comment is added I get several emails with the same comment.
    Is there any way you can remove people from that service?

    Bless you!

    • suckerliterarymagazine  On December 11, 2012 at 9:30 am

      I’m not sure what I can do on the back end as WordPress doesn’t really make that easy but I will see what I can do. Sorry for the inconvenience.


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