The 7 Deadly Sins (of Writing): Common Pitfalls of Prose...and how to Avoid them

The 7 Deadly Sins (of Writing): Common Pitfalls of Prose...and how to Avoid them

by Angie Kiesling


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The 7 Deadly Sins (of Writing) takes a whimsical approach to correcting common “pitfalls of prose” that any writer can use to grow in their craft. Borrowing an idea from the Middle Ages, the book likens each of the seven Deadly Don’ts to the Seven Deadly Sins—and flips each one on its head so the reader can take away a Divine Do instead. As a veteran book editor, the author shares the most common mistakes she sees writers make and how they can avoid them.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781683506850
Publisher: Morgan James Publishing
Publication date: 05/01/2018
Pages: 82
Product dimensions: 3.80(w) x 5.40(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Angie Kiesling is a writer, editor, author coach, and speaker with more than thirty years in the publishing industry. She has written more than a dozen books and edited hundreds of manuscripts, both fiction and nonfiction. She is the founder/owner of The Editorial Attic, an editorial services company that provides a full range of “wordsmithing” services to authors. She also serves as fiction publisher for Morgan James Publishing, a New York-based hybrid publisher that combines the best of traditional and self-publishing. Visit Angie at her website,, or contact her directly at Angie resides in Sanford, FL.

Read an Excerpt


Deadly Don't #1

Passive Voice

Use Active Voice.Teach yourself to write in active voice rather than passive voice. Why? Because it makes the difference between strong writing and weak writing. If you need a more practical reason, here are two. Agents reject manuscripts loaded with passive voice. And readers find active voice engaging. Stories told in active voice carry the reader along with the action and involve the reader in the action.

The next time you pick up a good book or read an article in a leading magazine, stop and really look at the way the sentences are constructed. Anybody can string words together, but learning to write in active voice is an acquired skill — you get good at it by doing it over and over again.

Let's get down to business. Below are three examples of the same information rendered two different ways — in passive voice and active voice. If left untrained, most people write passively, but watch what happens when we turn that weak, limping sentence around:

PASSIVE: Two alleged drug dealers were chased by police deputies after a routine traffic stop today. One was apprehended and the other got away.

ACTIVE: Police deputies chased two alleged drug dealers today after a routine traffic stop. They apprehended one but the other got away.

In the first example, something was done to the drug dealers; in the second, the police do something to the drug dealers — chase them. The same goes for the secondary sentence describing the result of the chase.

PASSIVE: The reason she was late for work was a migraine headache that kept her up half the night, tossing and turning.

ACTIVE: A migraine headache that kept her up half the night tossing and turning made her late for work.

Again, look for a way to turn the action around so that one thing (in this case, a migraine headache) triggers something else (being late for work) — not the other way around.

PASSIVE: John and Penelope were handed an eviction notice by their landlord.

ACTIVE: The landlord handed John and Penelope an eviction notice.

Do you see the distinction? By simply turning the action around — and getting rid of weak verbs such as was — you create more muscular sentences. Practice writing sentences like this and before long you'll start to think in active voice.

I turned to for more examples of passive- and active-voice sentences. The following is only a partial listing. You can find the rest on the website.

Harry ate six shrimp at dinner. (active)

At dinner, six shrimp were eaten by Harry. (passive)

Sue changed the flat tire. (active)

The flat tire was changed by Sue. (passive)

The crew paved the entire stretch of highway. (active)

The entire stretch of highway was paved by the crew. (passive)

Mom read the novel in one day. (active)

The novel was read by Mom in one day. (passive)

The critic wrote a scathing review. (active)

A scathing review was written by the critic. (passive)

I will clean the house every Saturday. (active)

The house will be cleaned by me every Saturday. (passive)

The staff is required to watch a safety video every year. (active)

A safety video will be watched by the staff every year. (passive)

She faxed her application for a new job. (active)

The application for a new job was faxed by her. (passive)

Tom painted the entire house. (active)

The entire house was painted by Tom. (passive)

The teacher always answers the students' questions. (active)

The students' questions are always answered by the teacher. (passive)

The choir really enjoys that piece. (active)

That piece is really enjoyed by the choir. (passive)

Who taught you to ski? (active)

By whom were you taught to ski? (passive)

The forest fire destroyed the whole suburb. (active)

The whole suburb was destroyed by the forest fire. (passive)

The two kings are signing the treaty. (active)

The treaty is being signed by the two kings. (passive)

The cleaning crew vacuums and dusts the office every night. (active)

Every night the office is vacuumed and dusted by the cleaning crew. (passive)

Larry generously donated money to the homeless shelter. (active)

Money was generously donated to the homeless shelter by Larry. (passive)

No one responded to my sales ad. (active)

My sales ad was not responded to by anyone. (passive)

The wedding planner is making all the reservations. (active)

All the reservations will be made by the wedding planner. (passive)

Susan will bake two dozen cupcakes for the bake sale. (active)

For the bake sale, two dozen cookies will be baked by Susan. (passive)

The science class viewed the comet. (active)

The comet was viewed by the science class. (passive)

Reading through that list might feel like doing memorization drills, or practicing your scales at the piano (anyone take piano lessons as a kid?) — but drills and scales have their purpose, and they do accomplish something. By the time you stagger away from the flash cards or the piano, you'll be that much more proficient.

Divine Do: Write in active voice for strong writing.


Deadly Don't #2

Weak Verbs

Here's another one Strunk & White (The Elements of Style) as well as your English teacher probably told you. Like the wisdom inherent in Mom's advice to eat your veggies, this method for producing great copy is so grounded in real-world results it's hard to deny.

Author Roy Peter Clark, a senior scholar with the Poynter Institute, said it better than I could, so I won't try to improve on his advice:

... Strong verbs create action, save words, and reveal the players.

President John F. Kennedy testified that his favorite book was From Russia With Love, the 1957 James Bond adventure by Ian Fleming. The power in Fleming's prose flows from the use of active verbs. In sentence after sentence, page after page, England's favorite secret agent, or his beautiful companion, or his villainous adversary performs the action of the verb.

Bond climbed the few stairs and unlocked his door and locked and bolted it behind him. Moonlight filtered through the curtains. He walked across and turned on the pink-shaded lights on the dressing-table. He stripped off his clothes and went into the bathroom and stood for a few minutes under the shower. ... He cleaned his teeth and gargled with a sharp mouthwash to get rid of the taste of the day and turned off the bathroom light and went back into the bedroom.

Bond drew aside one curtain and opened wide the tall windows and stood, holding the curtains open and looking out across the great boomerang curve of water under the riding moon. The night breeze felt wonderfully cool on his body. He looked at his watch. It said two o'clock.

Bond gave a shuddering yawn. He let the curtains drop back into place. He bent to switch off the lights on the dressing-table. Suddenly he stiffened and his heart missed a beat ...

You already know, from that long list in Deadly Don't #1, that weak verbs such as was, is, and will be make for limp writing. Yes, at times you'll need to use them; just be sure it's not most of the time.

As you write, train your brain to think of strong verbs to carry your story or message across. Your readers will thank you for it — even if they can't quite pinpoint why your writing is so enjoyable.

Divine Do: Use muscular verbs in your writing.


Deadly Don't #3

Adjective/Adverb Overload

Ah, adjectives — those beautiful, billowy, evocative words that describe other words (nouns) and make them so much more special. Right? Yes and no. Adjectives are useful when describing a person, place, or thing, but if you string too many together, or use them too often, your writing will come across as "flabby."

Merriam-Webster reminds us, "The word red in 'the red car' is an adjective." This is straightforward stuff. Readers in fact prize imaginative adjectives, and today writers work very hard to mix adjectives and nouns that haven't historically been best friends.

So what's the deal with adjectives, you say? Keep reading and we'll discover the answer together.

Below are the most common adjectives used in the English language:

List of Adjectives


afraid agreeable amused ancient angry annoyed anxious arrogant ashamed average awful bad beautiful better big bitter black blue boiling brave breezy brief bright broad broken


defeated defiant delicious delightful depressed determined dirty disgusted disturbed dizzy dry dull dusty eager early elated embarrassed empty encouraging energetic enthusiastic envious evil excited exuberant


gorgeous greasy great green grieving grubby grumpy handsome happy hard harsh healthy heavy helpfu l helpless high hilarious hissing hollow homeless horrible hot huge hungry hurt

List of Adjectives


bumpy calm charming cheerful chilly clumsy cold colossal combative comfortable confused cooing cool cooperative courageous crazy creepy cruel cuddly curly curved damp dangerous deafening deep


faint fair faithful fantastic fast fat few fierce filthy fine flaky flat fluffy foolish frail frantic fresh friendly frightened funny fuzzy gentle giant gigantic good


hushed husky icy ill immense itchy jealous jittery jolly juicy kind large late lazy

light little lively lonely long loose loud lovely low lucky magnificent

List of Adjectives


mammoth many massive melodic melted mighty miniature moaning modern mute mysterious narrow nasty naughty nervous new nice nosy numerous nutty obedient obnoxious odd old orange


repulsive resonant ripe roasted robust rotten rough round sad salty scary scattered scrawny screeching selfish shaggy shaky shallow sharp shivering short shrill silent silky silly


successful sweet swift tall tame tan tart tasteless tasty tender tense terrible testy thirsty thoughtful thoughtless thundering tight tiny tired tough tricky trouble ugliest ugly

List of Adjectives


ordinary outrageous panicky perfect petite plastic pleasant precious pretty prickly proud puny purple purring quaint quick quickest quiet rainy rapid rare raspy ratty red relieved


skinny slimy slippery slow small smiling smooth soft solid sore sour spicy splendid spotty square squealing stale steady steep sticky stingy straight strange striped strong


uneven upset uptight vast victorious vivacious voiceless wasteful watery weak weary wet whispering wicked wide wide-eyed witty wonderful wooden worried yellow young yummy zany

Adverbs too are a legitimate part of speech. The ones that become problematic are what I call "-ly words." Some of the most common ones are:

very really extremely simply nearly exactly particularly clearly certainly generally quickly recently usually suddenly eventually directly

William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well, said, "Most adverbs are unnecessary." Take a gander at the list of adverbs below and it's hard to disagree with him. The list is mind-boggling. Almost every sentence that includes one of the following words could be rewritten without it.

In this Deadly Don't we'll consider adjectives the leaven I mentioned earlier. A little goes a long way (after all, there's no other way to say "red car"); too many and you'll have a big mess on your hands. Some writing coaches take a more hardline approach. Zinsser considered most adjectives and adverbs "clutter." Mark Twain encouraged readers to "kill" any adjectives that survived their first drafts.

What you want to avoid is a construction that looks like this:

David was usually late for chemistry lab, but today he was very determined to be on time. The new science teacher that all the kids were talking about was said to be really kind and overwhelmingly lovely, with stunning green eyes and long, flowing, bright red hair.

As he stood outside in the sunny school courtyard, waiting impatiently to go inside, David listened to the idle chatter of his classmates, many of whom never dreamed that their words were being mentally recorded by their zealous classmate.

This may seem like an exaggerated example on my part, but a lazy writer can fall into this trap. If you write prose that's riddled with these "helping words," your manuscript will nosedive.

In an article for Writer's Digest, William Noble writes:

Many inexperienced writers throw in "pretty" words to make their prose more dramatic and meaningful. But such cosmetic touch- up often turns out to be redundant or simply uninspiring. Take adverbs such as "lovingly" or "speedily" or "haltingly." They each point to some circumstance or emotion or movement, yet do they offer solid impact?

... Mark Twain had it right: "As to the Adjective: when in doubt, strike it out." The tendency is to try and beef up the noun being modified. It's human, I suppose; most of us can never be that sure we're getting our point across. Decorate that noun some more, your fragile self-confidence hears. Don't run the risk the prose will fall flat because it isn't distinctive enough.

Bottom line: watch those "pretty words." Pare down your paragraphs by taking a hard look at them.

Divine Do: Use adjectives with care; ditch most adverbs.


Deadly Don't #4

"I Began to Start ..."

Here we come to a phrasing habit that will mark your writing as amateurish, or at least undisciplined, quicker than you may think. So many manuscripts that cross my desk for editing fall into the same traps, and this is one pitfall I see again and again: the overuse of verb qualifiers such as "began to" or "started to" in sentences.

Other common verb qualifiers include:

sort of

tend to

in order to

kind of

must have

seem to

could have

used to

Does this mean you can never write "I began to ..." or "He started to ..."? Some wordsmiths take a radical approach, claiming these constructions should be outlawed except in the hands of a master. Or in realistic dialogue. I allow an exception, as you'll see below. This is an example of phrasing that gets overused to your detriment as a writer. Consider the following examples.

I began to feel goosebumps breaking out on my arms.

Edited for tightness:

Goosebumps broke out on my arms.

We started to run across the field, catching fireflies and laughing like small children.

Edited for tightness:

We ran across the field, catching fireflies and laughing like small children.

Caveat: sometimes you need to write "began to" or "started to" to show a progression in time (another action interrupts what was begun almost immediately) or some other development. These phrases are good and right and necessary in those instances. Just watch out for the unnecessary ones.

While editing a novel for an author client, I did a universal search for the phrases "began to" and "started to" to see how many instances might need paring. I found about one hundred of these pesky phrases. One culpable sentence read something like this: "She began to worry and started to fret about the upcoming weekend."

Taking a cue from the above scenario, let's look at a sample passage that abuses Deadly Don't #4 and then rewrite it for clarity, simplicity, and tightness. Please note that I invented this paragraph to illustrate my point for this book; it was not plucked from an anonymous writer's work.

Claire wasn't sure she could cope anymore. The pressure to keep Tom's advances at bay was starting to build, and as she thought about the upcoming weekend she began to imagine all the ways she could avoid him at the barbeque. Would he be there? Of course, she reminded herself. Wherever she went lately, he managed to be there.

If only James paid me the attention Tom does, Claire mused.

It started to drizzle outside, and as the rain picked up it began to lull her to sleep. That night she dreamed of a summer barbeque at a house she didn't recognize — and two very different men in the crowd.

Okay, now let's see how we can render this passage with a little self- editing.

Claire wasn't sure she could cope anymore. The pressure to keep Tom's advances at bay was starting to building fast, and as she thought about the upcoming weekend she began to imagined all the ways she could avoid him at the barbeque. Would he be there? Of course, she reminded herself. Wherever she went lately, he managed to be there.

If only James paid me the attention Tom does, Claire mused.

It started to drizzle outside, and as the rain picked up it began to lulled her to sleep. That night she dreamed of a summer barbeque at a house she didn't recognize — and two very different men in the crowd.

Notice that we didn't need to excise the phrase "started to drizzle" because it would sound awkward to write "It drizzled outside." This is an example of a time when "started to" or "began to" show a progression or development of something. You could also rewrite this clause to avoid the dreaded "started to."

A pattering sound drummed at the window, and she realized it was drizzling outside. As the rain picked up it lulled her to sleep.

Are you curious to find out what happens to Claire at the barbeque? I am too! :)

Divine Do: Eliminate "began to," "started to," and other verb qualifiers from your writing (see exception above — or get creative and rewrite).


Excerpted from "The 7 Deadly Sins of Writing"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Angie Kiesling.
Excerpted by permission of Morgan James Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

If Writing Were Baking ...,
How to Use This Tiny Tome,
The Deadly Don'ts,
Deadly Don't #1 - Passive Voice,
Deadly Don't #2 - Weak Verbs,
Deadly Don't #3 - Adjective/Adverb Overload,
Deadly Don't #4 - "I Began to Start ...",
Deadly Don't #5 - That, That, That ...,
Deadly Don't #6 - There Is/Are Overload,
Deadly Don't #7 - Telling vs. Showing,
Now It's Your Turn,
About the Author,

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