70. 4 Writing Habits to Unlearn

Your teachers meant well when they taught you the rules of formal academic writing.

But if you want to connect to your audience in a more authentic, human way you’ll need to reconsider how closely you stick to many of those rules.

Following them too closely can make your book dry and boring.

In this episode, you’ll discover four writing habits you can leave behind to make your book more accessible and enjoyable to read.

For more writing tips and inspirations, follow me on Instagram @candiceldavis.

Mentioned in This Episode

Jump-Start: A free guide to help you jump-start your nonfiction book.

Episode Transcript

Hey there, and welcome to Nothing but the Words. I’m your author coach, Candice L Davis.

I hope your week and your writing are going well.

Earlier today, my sister and I were having a discussion about the state of self-publishing.

She’s a successful self-published author of children’s books, and of course, she’s my coaching client and editing client, which gives me the opportunity to tell her what to do and actually have her listen for once in our lives.

Like me, Amanda’s really invested in the quality of the books she puts out.

But today, we weren’t discussing her books. Instead we talked about our shared frustration.

There are so many bad books being published right now.

Here’s the truth. Some people don’t really care about the quality of their book.

They just want to get something out there and sell it.

But I don’t believe that’s the case for most authors.

In my experience, most people want to produce a great book.

They’re not all out there trying to win Pulitzer’s—and they definitely don’t need to be—but they do want to publish something they’re proud to put their name on.

I am a huge fan of self-publishing.

It has removed the gatekeepers who once decided who could publish a book and who couldn’t.

Traditional publishing still has a long way to go to become truly inclusive, and I firmly believe that work needs to be done.

With self-publishing we don’t have to sit around and wait for permission to tell our stories.

You don’t have to spend months and years only to be disappointed because you can’t find a publisher willing to take a chance on your book.

You can still follow the traditional publishing route if it works for you, but you have options.

Those options allow anyone who can type a document to publish a book.

Of course, removing the gatekeepers also means, to some extent, removing the quality control.

Don’t get me wrong.

That same quality control historically silenced the voices of anyone who wasn’t a white man—with a few exceptions.

Self-publishing allows us to hear from a pool of authors just as diverse as the world we live in.

But the authors now have full responsibility for the quality of their books.

As a self-published author, it’s up to you to make sure your cover design, your layout, your illustrations (if you have any) are all up to par.

In most cases, you’ll do that by hiring professionals to handle those jobs. For most of us DIY is not the way to go.

From my perspective, your self-published book should be able to stand on a shelf full of traditionally published books and fit right in.

So your design should look professional, but the quality of your book starts with the writing.

Obviously, I’m going to encourage you (or even beg you) to invest in professional editing for your book.

Even if you’re a fantastic writer, a professional editor will spot typos, errors, and inconsistencies that you’ll miss.

In episodes 15 and 16, I share ways you can improve your writing.

Now, I want to tackle some of the habits many of us were taught in school that may have worked for formal academic writing but don’t really work for a book.

If you can unlearn these habits, you’ll produce a better book and make your editor’s job easier. (Trust me. It’s in your best interest to give your editor the best manuscript you can produce.)

#1. Double space after a sentence.

There seems to be a generational divide with this. Some of my younger clients never learned to double space after a sentence, but almost everyone currently over thirty-five did.

You only need to use a single space between sentences.

In Microsoft Word, you can clean that up with the Replace function by finding all double spaces and replacing them with single spaces, but it doesn’t always work.

So do yourself a favor and break the habit of double spacing after sentences.

#2. Using creative dialogue tags.

Dialogue tags are just the words we use to indicate what character in a book is speaking.

Malik said, “Stop.” Kenya asked, “Why?”

But many of us learned to throw in words like “exclaimed,” “screeched,” and “cried.”

Our fourth-grade teachers wanted to expand our vocabulary, and that was great for that stage of life.

Sometimes, it makes sense to use a word like “whispered” or “explained,” but honestly, two words, “said,” and “asked,” can meet almost all your dialogue needs.

Getting wild and crazy with the dialogue tags is distracting and it can even make your writing seem juvenile when that’s not your intent.

Most of the time, your best bet is to stick with said or asked.

#3. Avoiding contractions.

Some people are hesitant to write books because they feel like they don’t have enough education.

But I’ve found that the people with the “most” education often have the hardest time writing for a non-academic audience.

They’ve had so much formal writing trained into them that they struggle to loosen up and write in a more accessible way.

Unless you’re trying to reach a formal, academic audience, you’re best served by getting away from an overly formal tone.

All that formality is boring, y’all.

One of the easiest ways to strike a more casual or more accessible tone is to allow yourself to use contractions in your writing.

Again, I know your teachers and professors told you not to use them, but trust me, your readers will appreciate it.

That doesn’t mean you have to exclusively use contractions, but allow yourself to use them. Read the work out loud and see how it sounds. You’ll notice a difference.

#4. Remaining neutral. 

You are the expert behind your book. We, as your readers, expect you to have a perspective. We expect you to have opinions and we want to hear them.

Depending on your topic, you may or may not state your opinion blatantly, but the sum total of your book will communicate your opinion.

In formal academic writing, we’re often taught to remain neutral, which results in using a lot of passive voice.

Overuse of passive voice is deadly to your book.

This is about to get a little geeky, but it can really transform your writing.

Look at the example of a statement often used in politics. When politicians want to avoid taking responsibility, they often say, “Mistakes were made.”

What does that even mean?

Who made the mistakes? Who is responsible, your honor?

Minimize the use of passive voice.

How about writing: The president made mistakes, or even more shocking, I made mistakes.

Another way this shows up is in taking the long way to say a thing.

Cut out the middleman, which is usually a form of the verb “to be,” like was, were, is, or am.

Listen to the difference between these two sentences:

A great deal of money is controlled by the top one percent and is kept out of reach for the rest of us.

The top one percent controls a great deal of money and keeps it out of reach for the rest of us.

These two sentences are saying the same thing, but when you eliminate the passive voice (those forms of the verb “to be,”) your point is conveyed with much more strength.

You clearly identify the action takers.

That doesn’t mean you can never use “is” or “was” in your book. I just caution you to avoid these attempts at neutrality, and say what you mean.

As you’re writing and revising your book, keep in mind that unless you’re writing a textbook or a technical manual of some sort, you’re probably not writing for an academic audience.

You need to follow the basic rules of grammar, for the most part, but you don’t need to adhere to all the rules of formal writing.

You’ll do your readers a favor if you:

  1.     Use a single space after sentences.
  2.     Avoid getting wild and crazy with your dialogue tags and stick mostly to said and asked.
  3.     Use some contractions in your writing.
  4.     Minimize the passive voice and assign ownership for actions by writing “I made mistakes” rather than “Mistakes were made.”

Keep in mind that these are all writing habits that can be corrected when you revise your work, so you don’t have to struggle to get it all right in the first draft.

Don’t let these suggestions slow you down in getting that first draft written. Make the changes in the revision process, and over time, these will become your new writing habits.

That’s all for this episode my friends.

For more writing tips and inspiration, follow me on IG @candiceldavis.

Thanks for listening to Nothing but the Words. I’m Your Author Coach, Candice L Davis. And I’ll see you next time.

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