Writing Tips (Part 1): 5 Common Developmental Errors in Nonfiction
Editor’s Note: This is part 1 of a 3-part series featuring tips to improve your writing.
Words by Jenni Cannariato
I’ve been editing others’ writing for over a decade. Blog posts, book manuscripts, marketing materials, academic papers, you name it—I’ve edited the whole gamut.
But I’ll be honest. I wasn’t that great at editing my own writing until recently.
English grammar and writing have always come fairly naturally to me. When I’m feeling inspired to write, I can sit down and type out a decent piece. It’s generally cohesive, somewhat error-free, and pretty nice.
But decent pieces aren’t masterpieces.
Developing the skill of self-editing is just as important as honing your writing craft. In fact, I’d argue that one can’t be done without the other. You can learn all about crafting beautiful imagery, you can develop your vocabulary, and you can refine your tone and style until you have a crystal-clear voice as a writer. But if you can’t catch your own errors, if you can’t polish your writing, all your craft and skill are going to be buried under the bulk of unedited words.
Even the most conversational piece is different from a conversation, and even the most intimately shared story, when written, is much different than a story told to your best friend over a cup of tea. This is why writing has to be edited. Writing demands telling stories in a way that compels readers to follow along. Regardless of your skills as a writer, your writing will always require editing.
As an editor, I get the opportunity to see and fix a lot of errors. This has helped develop my self-editing skills immensely, because it has trained my eye to look for common errors. With each piece I edit, I do at least two rounds of editing. One round is focused on big-picture, developmental editing, while the other is focused on tiny, detail-oriented editing.
Developmental editing is used to make sure the piece is masterful as a work of art. This round of editing focuses on the theme, the main idea, the metaphors and imagery, and the structure and organization of the piece. And this round of editing is absolutely foundational to creating a good piece.
This is what I call the bones of the article, and working on the development of the piece often requires a lot of deconstruction of the first draft. If the bones of the article aren’t well-constructed, not even the cleanest grammar and perfect punctuation will create good writing.
Here are five common errors I see during my developmental edits of creative, nonfiction pieces. As you work on eliminating these, you will be creating pieces with strong, solid bones.
Error #1: No central idea.
Remember how I mentioned that writing requires much different communication skills than speaking? When we sit with our friends and chat over coffee, our conversations are often meandering, wordy, and…full of errors. This is what makes listening and speaking in person so beautiful, raw, and real. Our unedited voices “umm” and break and circle and mutter around different topics as we verbally uncover the depths of our thoughts and emotions. The best conversations with friends cover a million topics and back again in just a few minutes.
This is conversation. But this is not writing.
Writing is for the purpose of communicating an idea. One. Seriously, each great piece of writing can be boiled down to one, central idea.
I have a confession for you. Often, when I start writing a piece, I’m not yet aware of the central idea. My rough drafts look more like conversations—stream-of-consciousness rants circling a topic. After digging through the piles of my thoughts, I’ll finally discover the central idea I meant to communicate all along.
But then comes the hard work of editing, of getting rid of everything not pertaining to the central idea. I have yet to edit a piece that doesn’t have a stray idea floating around. Good editing requires picking out the one idea and everything that supports it, and then cutting out everything else. Which leads me to the next common error.
Error #2: Un-killed darlings.
Stephen King gave the notorious writing advice to “kill your darlings,” and this has become a refrain for me, both when editing my own pieces and when editing the work of others.
Every writer has crafted the “darlings.” That perfect metaphor. The most brilliant imagery. The exact, right word. But that metaphor, that imagery, that word just don’t fit into the one idea. That metaphor isn’t actually necessary for the development of the piece. That image of the sunset, though glorious, isn’t all that relevant. The phrase with that perfect word in it is extraneous. And the temptation lies before us: to leave pretty writing in our piece just because it’s pretty.
I’ve seen so many pieces of writing bogged down by the writer’s brilliance.
We must be brave and remove the things that don’t support the central idea. Again, good writing comes down to this: the excellent, well-crafted, focused, and concise communication of one idea. One story. One take-away. One.
Kill the rest.
Error #3: Telling, not showing.
I am guessing that so many of us have taken a creative writing class in which we received this advice. I can still see my English teacher’s green-ink script in the margins of my story: “Telling. Please work on showing.” Yet, despite receiving this advice often, I can slide right into telling rather than showing, and I know I’m not alone because of the pieces I’ve edited.
Writing is powerful in its subtlety. We aren’t inspired by a piece because it stands on a pulpit, scream-preaching at us about how to live better. Writing transforms us because the stories seep their way into our subconscious. That dialogue, that description, that gesture—they intrigue us, baffle us, surprise us, and leave us pondering. We are left as better people, not because we have been given a prescription for action but because the story has melded with who we are and has changed the patterns of our thinking. This is why, as writers, we work to show rather than tell.
The main tip I give to my clients to work on showing rather than telling is to ask themselves this question: How could I show this in dialogue, gestures/body language/action, or description, rather than stating it directly? Could a character say something that whispers of the state of his or her heart? Could the sunset be described in words that give insight into my current perceptions of life? Could I simply describe the action here, rather than providing interpretation, and allow my reader to come to his or her own conclusion?
Error #4: Too many adjectives and adverbs.
An adjective or adverb, used well, offers the perfect detail to bring our writing to life. But one too many adjectives and adverbs weakens the writing and causes it to fall flat. Overloading our writing with modifiers causes the prose to tip over the line between descriptive and wordy. Our imagery goes from effortless to forced and flowery, but in an over-powering perfume sort of way.
I commonly see writers using too many adjectives and adverbs when they are attempting to create a poetic tone. However, the strongest, most poetic writing happens when the strongest words are used as descriptors. The perfect noun or the perfect verb brings our writing to life in a way that adjectives and adverbs never can.
When we take time to make sure that our word choices are vivid and precise, our writing becomes all the more potent. A practical tip I offer for identifying an over-abundance of modifiers is to go through the writing and underline every adjective and adverb. This will not only draw your attention to how many are being used but will also let you identify places in which a more vivid noun or verb could be used instead. Or where a more vivid adjective or adverb could replace a couple less vivid ones.
Error #5: Mixed metaphors.
Using mixed metaphors also makes our writing overly wordy and convoluted. Just as it should center around one idea, a really good piece of writing should utilize one main metaphor throughout. The pieces of writing that really stand out to me are the ones that effortlessly weave the same imagery or metaphor from beginning to end.
For example, I edited one piece of creative nonfiction that started with a description of a candle. At one point in the piece, the candle was blown out, right at a time when the characters were feeling discouraged. At another point, another flame was lit, but this time on a cigarette, and this introduced a new theme of dependence to the piece. By the end of the piece, the author was describing a fire that was lit in the heart of the main character. The imagery of a flame was woven throughout the entire piece. This skillfully built the main idea and added to the cohesiveness of the piece.
Instead of filling our pieces with a thousand metaphors, in an effort to prop up our writing and aim for that “poetic feel,” what if we focused on developing that one, central metaphor that works as a tool to communicate our main idea?
By the way, this is another element of writing that doesn’t usually emerge for me until I’m editing my piece. While editing, I’ll notice that I’ve used an image or metaphor a couple times. I’ll then be able to go back and further develop that metaphor, adding it in another place, building it up a little here and there, until I have imagery that supports my main idea and ties the piece together.
The challenge here, yet again, is to kill the darlings. Once you’ve picked the main metaphor, kill (most of) the rest. While it’s ok to have a few other metaphors here and there, the more you utilize a central one, the stronger your writing will be.
So there you have it—the five most common developmental errors I see when I edit creative nonfiction writing. By eliminating these common errors, we can establish writing with really good bones. It’s then—and only then—that we can work on polishing up the little details that make the writing masterful.
About the Author:
When Jenni isn’t writing, editing, or gulping down the words of another great story, she can be found chasing her toddler, loving on her husband, stretching it out on a yoga mat, or hiking through the dense forests of the Pacific Northwest. Her friendship can always be won with a good cup of coffee, some quality time and deep conversation, or a square of dark chocolate - preferably all three. Learn more here.