Writing is hard work. It is often exhilirating, but it can be exhausting, too—both physically and mentally. Sometimes we get tired or burned out, and it’s tempting to cut corners. But don’t. That mindset is not going to get you to your best writing. When you feel yourself leaning toward taking the easy way out, that’s when it’s time to take a break. Come back to it when you’re energized and ready to do the hard work that writing often is.
Here are a dozen lazy writing habits to break if you want to elevate your writing:
Habit #1: Overusing adverbs.
I know, I know. You’re sick of hearing “show, don’t tell.” It’s an old saw, and it’s not entirely true. Sometimes you do need to tell. But do so with intention in those places where it’s the right thing to do. Don’t do it with adverbs. Don’t do it because it’s easier than figuring out how to put your writing skills to work to show the reader what your character is feeling. Don’t use adverbs in dialogue tags as a shortcut way of telling your readers how your character said a line.
Habit #2: Assuming your writers don’t know something.
You may want to give your writers the entire background of the thing because it’s fascinating to you, but at best it may not be fascinating to your readers, and at worst it may come across as patronizing. Always keep your readers in mind. Will what you’re writing be interesting to them? Do they need to know this much about the thing in order to understand the book? If so, consider, do you need to recast something?
Habit #3: Assuming your readers do know something.
Don’t leave your readers out of the club. This is something called “the burden of knowledge.” Sometimes, when we are experts on a topic or know a lot about a thing, it’s hard to grasp how much our readers who aren’t experts know or don’t know about that thing. Again, consider your readers—what will your ideal or average reader know about this thing? What will they need to know about this thing so that they aren’t pulled out of the story? How can you give them that without patronizing them, or worse, boring them?
Habit #4: Too much exposition.
This is a piece of show don’t tell. Editors call it R.U.E.—resist the urge to explain. Don’t give your readers long passages of narrative prose telling them what happened or giving them information about a thing (info dumps). Let them see it in a scene. Let them hear it in dialogue. Let them feel it in your character’s interiority. Excite all the senses to immerse your readers in the experience.
Habit #5: Head hopping.
It’s hard to get everything in that you want to get in when you’re writing in one point of view. It’s easier to write it in multiple points of view, but often that doesn’t serve your story. It’s even easier to just hop into another character’s head, just for a line or two, but that’s cheating! Head hopping is pulling out of a scene’s point of view to get information in that the point-of-view character couldn’t know, e.g., that the character they’re speaking with is secretly plotting against them. Head hopping is often confused with omniscient point of view, but true omniscient means writing a narrator who knows all things at all times. I’m a firm believer that there’s always a way to get the information in (assuming it’s even necessary to get it in) without resorting to multiple points of view (unless that is an intentional choice) and without head hopping (which is a huge no-no).
Habit #6: Overuse/Misuse of Flashbacks.
A character’s backstory often adds depth, texture, meaning, and richness to a novel. But the way to get it in isn’t through flashbacks, dream sequences, info dumps, or stilted, pointed dialogue. Get it in organically, as it comes up, e.g., when something reminds your protagonist of that time that such-and-such happened. And get it in with sensory details and emotion—how does that past event make your character feel? What does it remind them of or make them think about? What do they do or say as a result of that memory?
Habit #7: Using Clichés.
Clichés are a sort of shorthand that lets a reader know what a character is experiencing. Why put in the work to show readers how sad our protagonist in when there’s a perfectly good cliché like “down in the mouth” out there? Why slave over the perfect words to show readers our protagonist is cranky or having a bad day when we can just write that they “got up on the wrong side of the bed”? The problem is, we say the word cliché as if it’s a bad word because it is. Clichés are phrases that have been so overused they’ve lost all meaning. Your readers will slide right past them without absorbing any meaning or emotion.
Habit #8: Writing too much.
As a writer, it’s part of your job to be aware of the conventions of the genre you’re writing in and to pay attention to things like word count. I suggest it’s far easier to write a 150,000-word novel than it is to write a tight, 75,000-word novel. If you’re not willing to put in the work to self-edit your novel and tighten it up so that it falls into genre convention, you’re not going to find much luck with agents and publishers, or ultimately, make a positive connection with your ideal readers. Readers are fully aware of what the books in the genres they love should feel like, and that includes in terms of heft.
Habit #9: Thinking revision means line editing.
Revising the first draft of a novel, or better put, rewriting that draft, is a big, big job. It is a macro job. It may mean trashing entire chapters. It may mean writing several new chapters. It may mean restructuring the novel, creating new characters, and ditching other characters. Until you’ve been through probably three drafts of your novel and have undergone developmental editing, you’re not ready for line editing. Those are final tweaks that make a well-structured, finished novel shine before it goes to copyediting. A big mistake beginning writers make is thinking their first draft just needs those micro, line-level revisions.
Habit #10: Being too “on the nose.”
If you have a message you want to get across to your readers, don’t hit them over the head with it or preach to them. Subtly get them thinking about it. Weave your themes throughout your novel like delicate threads. (Will it annoy you if I suggest you show them instead of telling them?) Give them what they need to allow them to think about things on their own. This is so much more powerful. I love a story that leaves me satisfied but also leaves me wondering what will happen next and thinking about the themes of the book. I don’t love a story that tells me what I should be thinking or feeling about the story.
Habit #11: Using Contrivances.
A contrivance is a convenient way to fill in a hole in the plot without doing the work to fix it properly. It’s like putting a tiny Spider-Man Band-Aid over a gaping stab wound. A contrivance might be a character happening to overhear exactly what they need to know to solve a crime. It might be a character getting a lucky break, e.g., the character’s best friend happens to drive into an alley where the character is collapsed and is not breathing, just in time to save his life. It might be something happening that makes no sense to the story but helps the character get from one place to another in the story. Contrivances can pull the reader out of the story and make them suddenly hyperaware that it is a story.
Habit #12: Being sloppy.
Writing sloppily, and expecting a copyeditor to correct all your grammar and spelling errors for you, is lazy writing. If you make a living as a writer, you must know how to write. That doesn’t mean spelling or grammar have to come easily to you. They may not. You may have to take a course or read a book to help you get better at those things. You may have to hire an editor to help you get your manuscript ready. You may need to consult a dictionary or grammar guide often. But the worst thing you could do is send a manuscript out to an agent replete with spelling and grammar errors, especting them to see past that to the brilliance of your story. Readers, even professional readers, are human. They can’t help but be distracted or put off by those things. My dad had difficulty with spelling all of his life, but he carried a pocket dictionary with him and used it whenever he was unsure. He put in the work to make certain anything he wrote for his job was free of errors. And he wasn’t even a writer—he was an engineer! You’ve worked hard on your novel, so do everything you can to make it shine before you send it out. Give it its best chance.