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  • Jack McDevitt

Blog #41

Readers with writing ambitions frequently ask about the common mistakes they might make. What are the most frequent errors made by someone trying to get published by a professional magazine?

A good approach is to discuss what a fiction writer is trying to do. If we think it’s telling a good story we’ve got it all wrong. Usually, in ordinary life, when someone starts telling a story, unless he’s Jerry Seinfeld, the rest of us shut down.

So what then is a writer trying to accomplish? Basically, he or she creates an experience. We don’t want the reader simply reading about a trip in a starship. We want him on board, maybe hanging out on the bridge, feeling the acceleration. Or if we’re doing a story about a character at a beachfront who looks out to sea and discovers a tidal wave coming in, we’re not interested in having the reader think how good the writing is. We want to put him on the boardwalk when the screams begin, when the sirens begin to sound. And anything the writer does to compromise that, to remind the reader that he’s not actually caught up in a panicked crowd watching a giant wave roll in but is rather sitting in a leather chair at home near a fireplace, kills the work.

What specifically are we talking about? I’ve asked a number of editors about the most common problem they see that causes them to pass on submissions. Almost all of them have the same response: overwriting. The would-be writer is aware that most magazines pay by the word, so he may take every opportunity to lengthen the text. Or maybe it’s because of the school years and teachers asking for an essay that’s a minimum of 500 words.

To anyone starting out and looking for a model for compact writing, I suggest Ernest Hemingway. He said somewhere we should let the nouns and verbs carry the freight, keep the adjectives under control, and get rid of the adverbs. The word most commonly used by most people and of little or no significance is ‘very.’ She was very beautiful. He is very ambitious. The word is very pointless.

Where else do we go wrong? Explaining too much. Adding characters who don’t do anything. Geting off to a slow start. Setting up a conflict about which the reader won’t care. Like a struggle over a corner office. Sometimes we give characters similar names (Brian, Barry, and Bradley). Show off with info dumps. (The reader doesn’t care how the star drive works.) Use words like postulational, which drive the reader to a dictionary.

There are other things that can go wrong, but I suspect these are the killers.

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