The Number One Sign of an Amateur Writer

First, the usual disclaimer: as an unpublished, unpaid writer myself, I am by definition an amateur. However, I’ve been writing seriously for a decade now, and I flatter myself I’m edging closer to professional-quality work. At any rate, I have a blog, which surely qualifies me to dispense all manner of dubious advice.

Let’s get to it.

For me, the number one sign that I’m reading an amateur is that their writing is loose. Not, like, morally loose (“Give me back my semicolon, you hussy!”). What I mean is, it could be tightened.

Which, you might be saying, is a pretty crappy definition. So let me give an example.

Read this sentence: “We would be looking to hire someone who has the ability to help us by contributing his or her talents in the area of project management.” What’s wrong with it?

It feels…wordy, doesn’t it? Like you’re wasting a lot of breath (ink? pixels?) to say something pretty simple. So think about how you’d rewrite it with fewer words.

No, really, give it a shot. What would you say? The current word count is 26. How low can you go?

I can get it to five: “We need a project manager.”

Maybe you say that’s cheating; I removed the word “hire,” which might not be clear from context, and I said “need,” which could imply desperation. Okay, then, we’ll go with seven: “We’d like to hire a project manager.”

We can quibble over details, but the point is, the original sentence was more than three times longer than it should have been. That’s what I mean by “loose.”

Loose writing is everywhere in the business world, but that’s only because it’s everywhere everywhere: blogs, personal e-mails, you name it. Usually it’s not as extreme as the example above, but it still makes for exhausting reading. I’d say the number one best exercise for a new writer is to reread what they’ve written and think, “How can I say this with fewer words?” Or, to say that with fewer words: “What can I cut?”

Serious writers do this already, of course, but even for professionals it’s tricky. When I read novels, I constantly see places the writing could be tightened. That doesn’t mean I’m better than those authors, it just means that every writer has their own blind spots. Other authors can and do find plenty of loose spots in my writing.

You tell me…what red flags alert you when you’re reading something iffy?

8 responses to “The Number One Sign of an Amateur Writer

  1. The content itself. I know a writer is new when the plot is less of a plot and more of a bunch of stuff the characters do. Also when the main characters are unlikeable or do things that are questionable just because it’s “cool”.

    I agree that wordiness is definitely a tell tale sign. By the way, I often hate saying these things cause the idea that I am a better writer than others makes me queasy…

    • Agreed, when a “story” is just a jumble of events that doesn’t go anywhere, it isn’t really a story.

      I only get queasy when I think I’m worse than other writers. Fortunately, my ego protects me from feeling queasy as often as I should. 😉

  2. “At any rate, I have a blog, which surely qualifies me to dispense all manner of dubious advice.”


    Most excellent observations and advice. I couldn’t agree more. I do find myself editing when I’m reading sometimes — but the really good books turn that part of me off.

    Another big one — less novice but still widespread — is unclear pronouns. “When Carson picked James up from school, he helped him with his backpack before he got into the car.” There are 4 he/hims there, and sure we can figure it out based on context, but that requires us to stop and think/reread. It would be better to rewrite it to avoid that confusion, and even repeat names if needed.

  3. Red flags? Iffy? I assume you mean to exclude that time the police busted down my door, after I inadvertently viewed a certain disgusting story (with its equally disgusting accompanying photos), under the mistaken belief that “young bucks in love” would yield the mating rituals of deer.

    Seriously though, I like your points, but I also think cutting sentences to the bone can go too far — at least in a novel. I personally have no wish to read fiction which sounds like a caveman drafted it, such as: “I want pie. Pie is good.”

  4. Oooh! Oooh! How about four words?

    Position vacant: Project manager.

    Possibly that’s cheating. And possibly that was a rhetorical challenge…

    The other ‘red flag’ to me is that nothing terribly bad happens to the protag. Or, if it does, there’s someone conveniently nearby to fix everything immediately. There’s no need for the beloved protag to actually suffer, is there?

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