I’m a freelance writer and blogger, but I’m also an editor. The kind of editor that pays people for quality travel stories they write, for a publication that wins awards year after year. So I see things from both sides of the desk more than most. That includes seeing common writing mistakes that are not in the idea, but in the execution.
I just spent the morning editing some music reviews, a couple travel narratives, and a hotel review for a different pub. Here are some problems I ran across that I almost always run across. Before you send something off to an editor who cares enough about quality to pay for it, check your article against this list for matches. Then get rid of them.
1) Your sentences are way too long
Magazine readers like short sentences. Web readers like them even more. I just edited something where three sentences were more than 40 words, one coming in at 62. (It was a whole 5-line paragraph on its own.) In some cases long sentences are fine, necessary even. If you’re writing a book, go to it when that makes sense. Book readers have a different type of attention span. The occasional one in a narrative travel article that’s a “long read” is fine. In most cases, however, find a place to stick in a period. Or two.
Gut check hint: If you have trouble reading it out loud without taking a breath, it’s twice as long as it should be.
2) There are too many parenthetical asides
I edited something this morning where in around 1,100 words, there were 33 parenthetical phrases. Half were actually in parentheses, the other half set off by dashes (see #5 below). This is hard to read and sounds both schizo and wishy-washy. Expressions like this are fine in moderation, but using them too much just makes you sound spastic. Focus your thoughts and make a point without all the side notes.
Gut check hint: If you’re doing this more than once every two or three paragraphs (and can’t resist sticking in a side note to half your points), then you’re doing it too much.
3) There’s no variation in tempo
Fiction writers and script writers talk a lot about tempo in their writing, but travel writers almost never do. Except the great ones. You need to vary the length of your sentences, speed up sometimes, slow down sometimes. Alternate between exposition and dialogue, scene-setting by you and scenes that play out without commentary. The best way to get good at this? Read good books regularly. Then emulate what makes them good.
Gut check hint: Read your article out loud and imagine someone sitting there listening to it. Does it sound flat, monotonous, or gray? Or is there enough variation to keep the listener from tuning out?
4) You’re repeating the same words in the same paragraph
I have my wife read almost everything I write for magazines or Perceptive Travel because she was an English major in college and is good at catching the mechanical mistakes I miss. And I miss a lot. We all do. There’s a well-documented problem that writers have trouble seeing their own mistakes. Spell check and grammar check have rectified some of this, but Word won’t catch it when you use the same word four times in one paragraph. When you do catch the duplications, find synonyms or rewrite those sentences to avoid the redundancy.
Gut check hint: If you don’t have a human checker to call on, read what you wrote out loud. Also/and use an online text-to-speech program that will read the document through your computer speakers. It’ll sound like a robot, but a robot’s better than nothing for catching word duplication.
5) Too many dashes
Some writers seem to love dashes as much as they love their pet or their smartphone. I once edited a 2,000 word story that has 42 of them in the original draft. I don’t know what the golden ratio is, but it’s a small fraction of that. Unless there’s extensive dialogue in your article where you’re really quoting speech patterns word for word, an overuse of dashes is clumsy and annoying. This relates somewhat to problem #2 above, but many other times it’s just bad writing.
Gut check hint: Print out your article and circle the dashes, or highlight them on your computer screen. If you’re seeing more than four dashes on a page, you probably need to dial it back. Find a way to say what you need to say with more clarity.
6) Poor article structure
This one is especially rampant in narrative writing drafts I receive, about half of which need to be restructured. For the web especially, if you don’t grab people in the first two paragraphs and then lead them by the hand through your story, they’re gone. There’s something else shiny and fun to click on and your “time on page” has been five seconds. In magazines and newspapers too though, the lead matters more than anything. Start with the drama, then get to the back story. Do that in reverse and you’re dead.
Spud Hilton of the San Francisco Chronicle teaches writing classes that focus a lot on structure and he gave a talk a couple years ago at TBEX on good writing. I liked his analogy so I’m paraphrasing it here. “Think of how a James Bond movie works. First you’ve got some kind of exciting chase, a fight, explosions. You’re hooked. You can’t wait to see what happens next! Then you find about about the problem, what the evil villain is up to. Then James goes and saves the day, having some fun interludes and action sequences along the way. There’s a climax, then a nice wrap-up that ties it all up before the credits roll..”
It’s a tale as old as time, and it works. It doesn’t just work—we expect it. Nearly every great movie you can think of starts with something exciting, intriguing, or wondrous. Something pulls you in. If it doesn’t, the film is probably going to fail. The same goes for your narrative article. Give us a reason to keep reading or we’re gone.
Gut check hint: Have a brutally honest friend read the first two paragraphs of your story and then ask that person, “How badly do you want to read the rest of this?” Their body language will probably tell you the answer before they even open their mouth.