Top 10 Signs of Bad Writing (Or How Not to Turn Off a Potential Agent or Publisher)

Last Updated on February 15, 2022

Whether you’re writing a snappy cover letter, traditional book proposal, or full-length manuscript to wow a literary agent or publisher, you need to steer clear of the biggest mistakes writers make in crafting their prose. Here they are, and with suggestions on how to correct them:

Mistake #1: Being too “writerly.” Use easily digestible words (12th grade level) in simply crafted sentences. Avoid hyperbole, exaggerated anything, and awkward and confusing sentences. Also avoid $100 words such as insouciant unless that’s your style and you carry it throughout. It’s important for your written work to sound like you.

Mistake #2: Using too many adverbs and adjectives. Write with nouns and verbs. And use the active rather than passive voice (I heard it through the grapevine vs. It was heard by me through the grapevine).

Mistake #3: Using weak, indefinite words such as maybe, probably, perhaps, few, some, something, anything, thing(s), stuff, many, a lot, lots of, plenty of, numerous, almost, quite, little, plethora, replete, hundreds, thousands, awhile, and several. Use precise numbers when needed, and if necessary preface with almost, nearly, or more than.

Mistake #4: Using clichés, jargon, and trendy buzzwords. Example: “My revolutionary book will expose a new paradigm in business thinking that arrives in the nick of time to be a huge bestseller and move the needle in corporate philosophy.” Say what? Stick with original, refreshing writing in your own words.

Mistake #5: Putting words in CAPS, itals, or “quotes” for emphasis. Let the writing speak (and jump off the page) for itself.

Mistake #6: Repeating words or ideas. Keep your language varied and your thoughts cogent.

Mistake #7: Using the dreaded dangling participle. A “dangling participle” is a participle (a nominal form of a verb, often in -ing form) that lacks clear connection with the word it modifies. In other words, your sentence seems to change subject midstream. Here are some examples of dangling participles:

WRONG: Working at my desk, the sudden noise startled me. (Working lacks connection with noise.)
CORRECT: Working at my desk, I was startled by the sudden noise. Or, even better: As I worked at my desk, a sudden noise startled me (avoids the passive voice)

WRONG: Turning the corner, the view was much changed. (Turning lacks connection with view.)
CORRECT: Turning the corner, he discovered that the view was much changed. Or: As he turned the corner, his view changed.

Mistake #8: Making serious errors in using apostrophes. The following are easily confused words: they’re vs. there vs. their; your vs. you’re; it’s vs. its.

Mistake #9: Inflating sentences by adding many prepositional phrases, which makes your work sound pretentious and could also make it difficult to read. For example:

Don’t say “in the event of” — say “if.”
Don’t say “In regards to” — say “about.”
Don’t say “I am of the opinion that” — say “I think.”

Mistake #10: Not consulting the experts when in doubt. The following are excellent resources:

The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White
Woe Is I by Patricia T. O’Conner
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King
Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss
The Copyeditor’s Handbook by Amy Einsohn
A Sense of Style by Steven Pinker

Here’s to good writing!

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