13 “Tells” of a Novice Writer

In the poker-playing world, professional card sharks have a term for a novice player who inadvertently gives away the cards he’s holding through some sort of gesture or tick of which he is unaware. The pros call it a “tell.”

pokerIn the publishing world, professional editors and agents look for the “tells” of a novice writer whenever they scan a manuscript. With practice, we can almost always pick out the amateur from the pro from reading just a page or two. Here’s a list of 13 Common “Tells” of an Amateur Writer that may give you an inside advantage at the publishing table.

  1. Too many clichés. If you find yourself using a common cliché–try changing it up for humor or effect. Instead of saying, “He marches to a different drum,” you might say, “She rhumbas to a different drum-ba.” You want to avoid cliches but they can also be springboards to creative alternatives.
  1. Too much telling, not enough showing. Use scene-setting, dialogue, metaphors and gestures to show your reader an emotion. Instead of, “She felt deep sorrow,” try instead, “She sat down, sighed heavily, staring out the window at nothing at all.  A slow trickle of tears turned to a river as her dam of resolve gave way to reality.”
  1. Too much preaching/didactic tone. Go through any non-fiction manuscript and take out words like “must” and “should” and any other words that feel like a finger-wagging nursery teacher who is scolding the reader.
  1. Sentences don’t vary in length and style.
  1. Manuscript is is too text dense.  Just looking at the page exhausts the eye because there are too many sentences crammed into one long paragraph, followed by another just as long.
  1. Page looks boring. There are not enough “reader treats” to keep today’s reader alert.   Especially in our current hyper-speed world, you want to make liberal use of shorter paragraphs and anything that breaks up and adds interest to the page.  Pull quotes, dialogue, lists, bullet points and stand-alone sentences here and there are some ways to keep the reader engaged.
  1. Dialogue is stiff and unnatural. The writer has not learned the art of professionally written dialogue. One sign of a pro is that they know to use a gesture to indicate the next speaker rather than over-using “he said” or “she said.” For example, rather than writing, “Joy said, ‘I love that crazy squirrel,’” a pro might write, “Joy laughed as she leaned toward the screen door. ‘I love that crazy squirrel.’”
  1. Main character is too unlikable or too perfect. Readers want to root for the protagonist so be careful not to make him appear either beyond redemption or too saintly. Make them flawed, human, and lovable.
  1. Too “Christianeze.” Christians are often blind to the phrases they’ve grown up using in church. Try sharing old religious phrases in fresh ways.  Instead of, “I’ve been redeemed,”  you might say, “I knew that God had taken the mess of my life and given me, in exchange, His love.”
  1. No transitions or weak transitions. This may be the #1 “tell” of a novice. You know what you are saying and where you are going, but your reader needs a very clear bridge from your former thought to the next or they will be confused and frustrated.
  1. Old-fashioned style. We see this in some classically trained, older writers who have not stayed current on how to grab the attention of today’s internet-savvy, fast-paced reader. Read popular blogs and note the style of writing that is reaching today’s generation of readers.
  1. Doesn’t use the art of “hooking the reader.” You don’t have long to grab the reader’s attention, so you want your first two sentences to be irresistibly compelling.
  1. Doesn’t end well. Pay attention to writers who end chapters or articles especially well. There is an art to tying up a chapter or a book. In fiction and non-fiction books alike, write a sentence at the end of the chapter that propels the reader forward, making it hard for them to put your book down. I often refer to the first paragraph when summarizing an article. (See example below where I will refer back to the “poker analogy” that started this post.)

By avoiding these common novice “tells” you will soon come across as a seasoned pro, and your chances in the game of publishing will improve considerably.

What other “tells” have you noticed that indicate an inexperienced writer?

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25 thoughts on “13 “Tells” of a Novice Writer

  1. Great post! These are fantastic points for all writers to brush up on! It’s so easy to fall into cliches because that’s what the mind goes to first. As for the rest, even seasoned writers can fall prey to everything you list.

    The one point I question in some circumstances here is #5. I think paragraph and sentence length often depends upon genre. In literary fiction, for example, what I tend to read, longer paragraphs are more commonly found than in genre fiction, in addition to less dialogue and more thought or reaction. I know some readers don’t like that, but, in my experience, those tend to be the readers who read genre fiction. 🙂

    But, to each his own. As one cliche goes: “rules are made to be broken.”

    • Good point, Kelsie. There are exceptions to every rule. There tends to be less dialogue in memoir, as well. But this means the writing really has be stellar to keep the reader’s attention.

  2. My comments deal with fiction, since that’s what I read the most, and what nonfiction I do read will almost always be by a professionallypublished author.

    1. Not having the customs and/or conversations match the supposed time period (historical fiction). Most common: having characters that speak with one another in a more casual or familiar way than was the custom of bygone days.
    2. Ambiguous time period.
    3. Ambiguous location.
    4. Not being clear about the passage of time. E.g. previous section had details of one full day; several paragraphs into the next chapter you realize that it is now supposedly a week/ month later.
    5. Poor grammar!

  3. Dialogue is a huge red flag, as you mentioned, and immediately turns me off as a reader. Also, the lack of contractions. “If it sounds like writing, re-write it.” That’s not to say that writers should use every contraction known to man (cliche), but there should be a balance between sounding stiff and nice sentence flow.

  4. I listened to a podcast which said changing character/points of view (without warning or clear breaks) were a sign of a novice writer

  5. These are GREAT points! (My list is now growing.) So funny, as I re-read this post when it went live, I caught several typos and spent another 10 minutes editing it again. This reminded me of another point: let your manuscript or article sit for a few days, then read it again with fresh eyes! You will almost always edit better when you allow your work to “sit” for a bit.

  6. Fantastic list and as another commenter noted – a great review for all writers. A big tell for me are the plot holes that you could drive a truck through. Everything is going along okay and then all of a sudden a complicated storyline is left dangling or easily solved with a ridiculous plot twist that no one could believe. And it isn’t just books – I see this often in wildly popular TV series or movies. Along comes a solution to the main characters problems that has the reader or viewing screaming to themselves – Come on. Seriously?

    • Yes, and this can usually be solved by having a few other pros (not your mom or sister) read the plot to see if it is 1) making sense and 2) plausible.

  7. Excellent points. I’m doing some final edits of my first finished novel and will take these into account, not that I haven’t heard them before, and hope readers don’t run away in digust shouting novice, novice!!

  8. These are so great! I am guilty of “must” and “should”. Would you say there’s some forgiveness in that one? I think I fall into it most trying to come off strong in my title.

    • Titles are a little different, especially if they are how-to blogs or articles. You will see a lot of “10 Secrets You MUST Know to Get Thin in 3 Days” or “Why You Should Dye Your Head Red TODAY!” …. (think of Reader’s Digest article titles or Huffington Post titles) and these can actually work to attract attention. But in the content, especially in books, it is nearly always best to avoid “should” and “must” or you can come off sounding like a school teacher or hyper-salesman.

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