First, the usual disclaimer: as an unpublished, unpaid writer myself, I am by definition an amateur.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?