For Writers, Writing Tips

The Seven Deadly Sins of Writing

Dante may not have mentioned it, but I’m sure there’s a special circle of hell for bad writers.

And I don’t mean those with lack of talent.

I mean those with the ability to write, but who sabotage their own writing – through sloppiness, bad habits or refusing to heed good advice.

The list below are things I’ve noticed (from myself and colleagues) throughout my career.

No-one’s perfect. Every writer has ‘sinned’ at some point.

Which is why it’s a good idea to indulge in some honest self-appraisal from time to time.

NB: This list only applies to non-fiction writers. Fiction authors have their own set of issues to deal with, and I’m not qualified to write that blog post.

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The Seven Deadly Sins of Writing

#1. Inaccuracy

This one definitely deserves the top spot because it’s not just sloppy to write something inaccurate, it’s a potential lawsuit.

How not to commit this sin:

Pro tip: it’s rarely the big details that trip writers up.

Instead it’s the small, forgotten parts of a story such as the way someone spells their surname, or a statistic with too many zeros.

Check and double-check every detail. No matter how small.

And if there’s any doubt whatsoever, don’t be afraid to go back and ask your source – they’re just as invested in the piece’s accuracy as you are.

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#2. Lack of clarity

The one job you have as a writer is to communicate.

You are telling your reader a story and that story falls apart if he can’t follow along with you.

How not to commit this sin:

Clarity is a result of two main elements

  • Structure
  • Language

Get these nailed down and you’ll have a piece that has a clear beginning, middle and end.

Don’t use language that’s overly complex and alienates the reader.

Always map out (either in your head or on paper) where you want the story to go and how it’s going to get there.

Are you telling it chronologically? Or from different perspectives?

One of my journalism lecturers once gave me a useful tip – think of your story as a circle.

If you can link your ending paragraph with your first, it’ll give readers a satisfying sense of closure.

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#3 Carelessness

I used to work with a writer who made a point of not re-reading her copy before she submitted it to our editor.

“I don’t have time. That’s your job,” she said when the editor called her on it.

Needless to say that response did not make her popular.

Everyone makes mistakes. Careless writers not only make mistakes, they can’t be bothered to fix them.

How not to commit this sin:

It’s pretty simple – your writing is your work. Take some pride in it.

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#4 Narcissism

Think your time is too valuable to waste checking your own copy?

Insert your own opinions into each article you write?

Habitually make yourself the central character of the piece?

If you answered ‘yes’ to any of the above, you might be suffering from writer narcissism.

How not to commit this sin:

As a writer, you are merely a mouthpiece for whatever you’re writing about.

This is not about you, readers don’t generally want to hear your opinions (unless you’re writing commentary) and they definitely don’t want to read about what you ate for breakfast.

Think about what’s relevant to the article, what will further the reader’s understanding, and how you can tell this story most effectively.

In other words, keep your ego off the page.

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#5 Defensiveness

When I was training to be a journalist, we had a weekly ‘show and tell’ session where each writer’s story would be read aloud to the rest of the class for critique.

It was mortifying.

But it was also very instructive.

When you’re constantly being judged (and my classmates were not tactful), you learn very quickly that being defensive gets you nowhere.

It was a good day in my career when I learned to shut up, listen and take advice from more seasoned writers.

How not to commit this sin:

Invite your editors/readers/colleagues to give you feedback and make an effort to act on their recommendations.

Understand the difference between criticism for its own sake, and criticism that’s meant to help.

Discard the former, cherish the latter.

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#6 Complacency

Complacency is the death knell for any career.

Because skills stagnate. To be at the top of your game, you’re not just competing with yourself, you’re competing with every other writer out there.

So you should be constantly asking: “How can I make my writing better?”

How not to commit this sin:

Do some thinking about where you have skills gaps, and then try to plug them.

There are a number of online learning platforms such as Udemy, Lynda and Coursera.

And if you want to learn another language, there’s a few options for paid and free services online.

If you want something more tailored to journalism, I recommend The Poynter Institute’s News University.

I joined up a few years ago and have taken several courses (mostly in social media and digital copywriting) that have been extremely useful.

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#7 Impatience

Impatient writer are the ones who have an eye on deadline – to the exclusion of all else.

This race to file copy can lead to other sins piling on.

And before you know it, you’ve ticked off carelessness, inaccuracy and lack of clarity.

As one who makes to-do lists purely for the thrill of ticking things off them, I understand the compulsion to get things finished.

But you should never sacrifice quality for speed.

How not to commit this sin:

Be a good planner.

This means organising your time effectively so you have a lot of breathing room between deadlines.

Once that pressure is removed, you can slow down and dive into the story.

The writing’s the best part after all, we’re in this business because we love language.

So give it the respect it deserves and don’t rush it.

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