What are your bad writing habits? Lexa Hillyer is the author of PROOF OF FOREVER, a debut young adult novel published by HarperCollins. Below, Lexa analyzes the bad writing habits that stop you from reaching your full potential.
Since long before penning my own first novel, PROOF OF FOREVER, I have been an editor of teen fiction. I worked for several years at Harper and then at Penguin before I started Paper Lantern Lit, a boutique literary development company. I’ve always said that editing is kind of like therapy—your most important job as an editor is to help your writers better articulate what they want. Often what that really means is helping them get out of their own way and freeing them of whatever “bad habits” are holding them back.
In order to discover your own bad habits and become your own best therapist, I’ve put together a few key steps:
1) KNOW THYSELF.
The first thing you need to establish is the answer to the following questions:
What kind of writer AM I?
What exactly is it that I’m trying to do?
What is it that makes my project “ME”?
2) STUDY YOUR HEROES.
It’s just as crucial that you know what you are NOT trying to do. Avoid vague and general ambitions like “I want to become the next J.K. Rowling.” Instead, really zero in on the strengths that you particularly pride yourself in, the things you love most about Rowling’s work, the elements you are striving to emulate, and why.
The more granular you can get, the better. Here’s where a lot of us trip up. We think: Rowling is so good at making up an alternative world, and that’s what I want to do. Then we go crazy creating a super-complex, potentially even impenetrably convoluted fantasy world that lacks all the appeal of the Potter franchise. Basically, we over-deliver. Instead, you want to figure out HOW she does what she does so well. Try and break it down into concrete actions. In what chapter does the character depart from the real world and under what circumstances? What are the characters’ very first impressions of the alternate world? How much of the rules are established right off the bat?
3) WHAT’S YOUR BIGGEST FEAR?
In your heart of hearts, what’s the worst-case scenario—the worst review someone could write for your book, the criticism that would devastate you the most? As soon as you write out your fears, you’ll begin to see that they are worth the risk. It’ll free you up to stop over-compensating and allow your writing to become more natural.
4) WHAT’S YOUR HANG-UP?
Most of us have some key underlying belief about ourselves and our process that simply doesn’t have to be true. If you’re not sure what your hang-up is, try these questions:
- Are you trying to prove something? Some of us are so desperate for a pat on the head and to be told we’re good writers that we add seventeen descriptors where only one is needed. Notice me! Notice me!
- Are you trying to avoid something? Some of us are afraid of the emotions or revelations that could come out if we let them.
- Are you afraid you are not up to the task? Some of us fear we’re not equipped enough to do justice to the fictional world we’ve created, and so we shy away from the level of specificity it should have.
- Are you too focused on the competition? Some of us worry too much about other writers and don’t spend enough time connecting to our own work.
It’s okay if you answered yes to one or more of these questions! After all, you need a diagnosis to create a treatment plan. Illuminating the real issues will give you the knowledge you need to create a strategy that will work for you.
5) BREAK FREE FROM BAD HABITS.
Now that you’ve done all the groundwork to better understand yourself as a writer, you’re ready to figure out what your worst habits are—and throw them away. I’ve noticed there are a few universal habits that a lot of us share, so these are a good place to start. Some common problems:
Floral prose. We want to sound lyrical and smart and profound. So we take three paragraphs to describe a crack in the wall, or we keep the thesaurus tab constantly refreshed so we can drop in giant words we’d never actually use in real life.
Cure: You know when a kid at the dinner table tries to sound smart by using big words—but ends up mispronouncing them? That’s the feeling readers will get towards you. Your attempts to sound sophisticated are actually making you sound less-so. Play it cool instead. You don’t need to prove yourself with your big ole’ vocab. Write it how you would say it. Allow yourself only one adjective for every two sentences. You can always go back and pretty-it-up later if need be.
Over-explaining. My right arm was to the right of the shopping cart, and my right fist was clenched around the painted metal handle of the cart, using my weight to push it forward, while my left hand was on my left hip… WHAT? Sometimes we’re so worried that readers won’t follow what we’re trying to set up, that we get into WAY too much detail. We end up making things way MORE confusing.
Cure: How would you tell this story on the phone to a friend? Maybe you’d just say, “She was pushing a shopping cart.” Readers are not idiots. They will assume the character had two hands attached to two arms at the time.
Rose-colored lenses. As writers, we get used to having a certain way of seeing things. Maybe we always go for the visual description first. Maybe we always attempt to convey what a character is like through his smile or how his hands move. I know as a writer I love to describe colors. But recently I realized that while color can make the image last longer in your mind, (which is certainly helpful to some extent) it does very little to help the reader better understand the world or the circumstances or the character in question.
Cure: Try not using color at all in the first draft of your book (or whatever your habitual descriptors are.) What else does it force you to notice? How does it change the rhythm of your sentences and scenes?
Playing catch-up. This is a big one, and I know I’m guilty of it. Often writers start every single chapter of their novel the same way: a big long catch-up period. “Over the last few weeks, this and that happened, and our characters were feeling X and they were doing Y.” This always seems very useful in the writer’s mind, but to the reader, it slows things down.
Cure: Try taking a risk and imagine that the reader will figure out what happened on her own. Now, go back and start your chapter instead RIGHT in the middle of dialogue or action. Try having the first sentence of the chapter be: “SPLAT!” Or “’I knew it!’ she screamed.” Or “The charcoal dust of a thousand hooves created an ominous storm cloud, and it was moving towards him, ready to swallow his world. He had no choice but to gallop towards it.” Plunge us right in!
Of course, there are many other specific habits unique to each writer. It may take you awhile to spot them all, and that’s fine. With each novel you write, you’ll become savvier and savvier about those habits—you’ll start to see and feel them as you do them. And it’s okay to admit how hard this is going to be! Trust me, I’m still working on discovering—and correcting—my own.
“But my habits are what make me special and without them my book will be boring or it won’t feel like ‘me,” you might say. That’s simply not true. Once you break the bad writing habits, you’ll be able to judiciously use those strategies when they serve you. But YOU will be in control of the writing habit, rather than it controlling you.
Have tips for how you broke a bad writing habit? Share on the Book Country discussion boards or in the comments below!
About Lexa Hillyer
Lexa Hillyer is the author of PROOF OF FOREVER, a debut young adult novel published by HarperCollins on June 2nd, 2015. Her poetry collection, Acquainted with the Cold (Bona Fide Books), was the 2012 gold prize winner of the Foreword Book of the Year Award for Poetry, as well as a recipient of the Melissa Lanitis Gregory Poetry Prize. Her work has been featured in Best New Poets 2012, and she has received various other prizes and honors for poetry. Lexa earned her BA in English from Vassar College and her MFA in Poetry from Stonecoast at the University of Southern Maine. She worked as an editor at both Harper Collins and Penguin, before co-founding boutique literary incubator Paper Lantern Lit. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and a very skinny orange tree. Connect with Lexa on her website, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Also check out The Studio, a boutique digital imprint where you can collaborate with Paper Lantern Lit editors to make your eBook the best it can be.