TELLS, you might call them. They’re the sometimes subtle – sometimes not so subtle – stylistic, grammatical, and format errors that cry out “Amateur!” to readers.
I want to focus here on authors who actually can write, and have a decent grasp of grammar and spelling, but nonetheless indulge in certain foibles that label them as “amateurs” in the eyes of discriminating readers (especially agents and editors). In today’s hyper-competitive writing market, they’re the kind of subtle issues that separate decent but amateurish writing from professional, polished writing. Sometimes it can be just a word-choice here, a comma splice there. Those little issues make the difference between acceptance and rejection by an agent or publisher.
Some of these amateurish tells are insidious because you may read many sentences, perhaps even pages, without spotting any obvious examples. In these cases, the impression of amateurishness results from an aggregation of small errors/stylistic issues.
Here are a few of my favorite “amateur tells” for otherwise reasonably skilled writers.
You’ve spent years developing your writing skills and vocabulary, and you’re damn well going to let your readers know that! If you can describe something well in two sentences, imagine how impressive that description will be with twenty sentences! There’s an almost giddy quality to this kind of writing – like a teenager falling into a swoon over their first puppy love. Here the writer has a crush on the sound of their own words.
2) Constant Editorializing
A variant of overwriting. Here the main character is mentally chattering about almost everything in the scene. It’s like that friend who has to comment or explain every few seconds what’s going in the movie you’re watching. After a while, you want to strangle the character just as you would your friend.
3) Starting the Story without Actually Starting the Story
Sounds paradoxical, but this is what happens when you begin a story with a scene that goes nowhere – a static conversation or description that doesn’t move the story forward. A story in the hands of an accomplished writer moves forward from the first sentence..
The opening scene being utterly quotidian is one of my favorite amateur tells. One (real-life) example: a couple of old friends sharing coffee on a living couch while chattering “wittily” about various mundane things in order to provide “as you know” facts and fill in settings in advance of the actual story. If you begin your novel with a couple of friends chatting over coffee, please show us the common courtesy of having a character deliver a bombshell (or an actual bomb!), or perhaps arrange for a violent home invasion (I will be rooting for the invaders to take out the coffee-drinkers). Maybe even poison the coffee.
4) Failing to Keep Your Eye on the Writing Ball
This is something I see over and over again, especially in self-published works. It’s a lot like (3), except it appears at various, seemingly random, points throughout the novel. You’re reading about a hard-boiled detective pursuing a serial killer, and then suddenly it’s as if the writer calls a timeout. Let’s just step away for a few pages or maybe a chapter and discuss the weather, indulge in some pet-grooming, or maybe describe a minor character doing the laundry.
5) Telling Instead of Showing
Telling us what to think about people and their actions rather than showing those actions and letting us decide for ourselves. “I hate the way you’re looking at me,” he lied cleverly.
6) General Cluelessness
This is fairly subjective, but I suspect most of us know it when we see it. The story idea and execution strike us as lame or just plain silly. Sharks that talk and walk around playing pool, teaching us something about humanity. An elephant who speaks in a terrible Indian accent. A man who enjoys torturing people and having sex with dead bodies who pines for acceptance. Perhaps any of these could be made to work with sufficient brilliance (what couldn’t?), but absent incomparable brilliance they’re going to suck beyond measure.
I’m not talking about books where the premise seemed questionable or the characters and events struck me as non-credible; what I’m talking about is a more pervasive sense of the writer really not having a clue. They may believe they’re: being witty when they’re in fact (in your eyes) being silly; trenchant when they seem shallow; eloquent when their prose is florid; dramatic when they come across as melodramatic, etc. It’s the kind of writing that happens when you live in a cabin cut off from everyone long enough to begin talking to yourself.
7) Frequent Typos and Poor Formatting (Mostly Relevant to Self-Publications)
This doesn’t necessarily relate to the author’s writing ability, but perhaps more often than not poor formatting signals an inattention to detail that is necessary for skilled writing. Numerous typos and irregular formatting in self-published books does – sadly – cry “amateur,” at least as regards the self-publishing aspect.
How does one cross over from being a skilled amateur writer to being a bona fide professional?
The key factor, clearly, is improved awareness. This is a subject for another post, but in a nutshell, the solution lies in listening to the criticism of others, studying the writing of established, respected authors, and approaching one’s craft with an eye toward improvement.
Talk to writers you respect and ask for their honest opinion from a quick overview of your novel (not a review or in-depth analysis; most writers are reluctant to serve as your unpaid editor). It doesn’t take long to spot the above amateurish motifs. Join a writers group and ask them to be brutally honest.
Why would you suspect you haven’t “crossed over”? For starters, you’re consistently rejected by agents (most of us don’t deal directly with editors). That’s by no means a sure sign, but it is suggestive. Are you getting favorable reviews from dispassionate, intelligent reviewers (family and friends don’t count)? If not, another indication you may not have crossed the line. Are you quick to dismiss those who unfavorably critique your book? Do you have any interest in listening to such critiques? Do your writing group members look the other way and hum or make vacuous comments when you ask for an honest review?
If you find yourself getting defensive about your writing, if you believe that criticism is largely worthless, and if you stick your fingers in your ears and sing “la, la, la,” when you see bad or middling reviews, those are signs you’re probably still stuck in Amateurville.
Blessed be the critics, for they shall help you grow.