7 Deadly Sins of Writing

In the first book, there was a list of the Seven Deadly Sins of Screenwriting. 16 of the little pests. I found a few more.

Using Find (Ctrl F or Apple F) in your computer, chase down these words in any form you find them. Losing them or changing them will strengthen your work.

“Find” spaceisspace should find only the word you’re looking for, not every “is” in your screenplay.

is
He is grinning… becomes… He grins.

are
The convicts are singing opera… The convicts sing opera.

the
Nacho hightails it out of the town… Nacho hightails it out of town.

that
Ralph can’t tell that she’s French… Ralph can’t tell she’s French.

then
She laughs. She then looks at Alice… She laughs. She looks at Alice.

walk
Tika walks down the hall… Tika prisses down the hall.

sit
Sitting at the poker table, Doc deals the cards… At the poker table, Doc deals…

stand
The surgeon stands at the operating table and works… At the operating table, the surgeon works…

look
Cheryl is looking at Stephanie… Cheryl studies Stephanie.

just
I am just totally exhausted… I am totally exhausted.

of the
Tom sits by the entrance of the mall… Tom sits by the mall entrance…

begin
The tape begins playing… The tape plays.

start
She starts moving toward the den… She moves toward the den.

really
Betty is really pretty… Betty, hot as a two dollar pistol, struts in.

very
The kids sing a very old song… The kids sing a traditional song. (“very” means the following word is weak…)

turn
She turns and looks at him… She looks at him. (Don’t overdirect the read.)

the phone
Bonnie hangs up the phone… Bonnie hangs up.

some
He pours some coffee… He pours coffee.

still
Kevin, still in paint covered overalls… Kevin, in paint covered overalls.

the room
He puts on a tie before leaving the room… He puts on a tie before leaving.

his face
Nora has an amused expression on her face… Nora is amused.

seems, appears
Tony seems upset… Tony is upset… So, is Tony upset, or just appear to be?

her way
Carol pushes her way inside… Carol pushes inside. (“his, its way” too!)

both
They both stare slackjawed at the comet… They stare slackjawed at the comet.

realize
Jonah realizes Sam is the killer. (A script’s not a novel. Stay out of their minds.)

ly
(as on the end of an adverb!) search for lyspace Also search for ly. and ly, as lyspace will not find an adverb at the end of a sentence, etc. Grade school writers go wild over adverbs. You’re past that now. Use them, um, sparingly. If at all.

Search for and (most of the time) change these words in whatever you write and the results will be tighter and more clear. Okay, so it’s twenty six deadly sins. So sue me.

FYI… “priss” as a verb really threw the person who translated the book into Japanese!

You don’t HAVE to take these words out all the time… duuuh… but you do need to be aware that a lot of the time, you don’t need them.

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11 Comments

Filed under Bad Writing, Good Writing, Rewriting, Screenwriting, Uncategorized, Writing Process

11 responses to “7 Deadly Sins of Writing

  1. I have a nuanced opinion on this matter. Certainly, it’s important to be aware of weak word choices and sentence constructions. In that regard, a reminder of this sort can be helpful. Utilizing the “find” function in your writing software to “find” potentially weak words and sentence structures can help to raise awareness of them, which can subsequently improve sentences here and there. As such, this approach can also improve a screenplay. However, I’m inclined to suggest there are limits to the level of improvement this tactic can create. I have no doubt it can be useful in turning a bad screenplay into a mediocre screenplay, or perhaps a mediocre screenplay into an above average screenplay.
    However, I don’t think it gets to the heart of the actual problems if one is trying to create a brilliant screenplay. Once again, I’ll say awareness is important and this can improve awareness. Simultaneously, this approach can improve writing to a certain extent. However, I think there’s a limit to how much improvement it can offer. As such, one must be aware of the allocation of resources spent utilizing such an approach, knowing that it won’t likely get a screenplay to a level of brilliance. Basically what I’m saying is, allocating too much time to this approach can be a waste of finite resources.
    In other words, I don’t think the mere use of this approach will ever turn a non-brilliant screenplay into a brilliant screenplay. And, focusing too much on an approach that will never get you to brilliance can be a waste of time (assuming you seek brilliance.) Granted, this approach can be comforting to a novice writer who sees their screenplay improving before their eyes. But, if the improvements are only slight when great strides are needed, one must be aware of time allocated to such an approach. One must realize that they must grow beyond these approaches, in order to achieve brilliance.
    And, I would also say that brilliance requires a little bit of magic. And, I know it’s not comforting to hear that. After all, “how does one create magic?” I don’t have the answer for that, but I have a theory: One must jump off a cliff, without a net, without a parachute, without any way of landing safely. And, if you’re lucky, you’ll magically write something brilliant. It sounds risky, but so is thinking you’ll find brilliance by literally using the “find” function.

    • yourscreenplaysucks

      A very nuanced opinion. For which I thank you.
      You are totally correct, almost.

      I don’t know if trimming these words (or anything you can find with “find”) will raise a script’s overall level one iota. Especially if your categories are as big as Mediocre to Above Average. Probably not. In fact, certainly not.
      But.

      It is still worth doing because it can improve the level of the prose on the page. Tightening your sentences will do nothing for story, structure, or character, which are the big ones… but it will help the physical writing, which is something the reader sees and takes note of on page 1. They can’t tell if you can write a good character, but they will know on the first page if your prose is kinda bloated.

      Taking too much time is silly, but vs. the overall time it takes to write a screenplay, an afternoon spent weeding out “stand” or “of the” is an afternoon well spent. You won’t find brilliance, but you can eliminate a bit of mediocrity.

      As I said, I was surprised how many “look”s I had in my script, and I get paid for this stuff.

      • There’s no doubt that in early drafts of a screenplay I will utilize a less than stellar word or phrase (with an intention of returning to it later) because I’m rolling along with a sequence and want to stay in the zone. Naturally, I’ll re-find those instances later, to improve them (and I’ve often marked them). Even if a less than stellar word choice, phrase or sentence structure hasn’t been marked to return to (or especially when that’s the case) using the find function can be helpful, ASSUMING the screenplay basically works from a story, structure, character standpoint.

        However, if your story needs a complete top to bottom renovation, which is going to include gutting the foundation, then it’s pointless to perform touch up painting throughout the house beforehand. And, in such an instance, is a waste of time. That is all. So, it’s important to first make a realistic assessment of the degree of issues a screenplay has (which can be hard for novice screenwriters to determine).

      • yourscreenplaysucks

        Oh my yes!
        Thank you so much for mentioning this.

        This is tough for me to do, so I can imagine it’s difficult for lots of other people. I LOVE polishing a sentence until it glows. It’s really fun. But, it is a total waste of time to spend time getting the sentence to read beautifully (other than the pleasure it gives me) and then to cut it later because the page didn’t fit into the story.

        I love your house foundation / touch up painting image. It is so easy to understand. I have to force myself to wait on the prose until the very end, when the story works, when the character works, when the script works… and THEN go back in there and start honing.

        Wasting time is going to happen by accident. Try not to do something on the front end that might very well end up being a waste of time.

        We all have so little time…

  2. Clint Robertson

    Great stuff, as usual, Mr. Akers! Another word to stop using is “utilize,” and replace it with “use” anywhere it appears.

    One question, though: We’re not supposed to use forms of the verb “to be” yet it seems oaky to use it as a contraction, as in the example for “that,” where “Ralph can’t tell that she’s French… Ralph can’t tell she’s French.”

    What to do?

    And then there’s this drivel: “Basically what I’m saying is, allocating too much time to this approach can be a waste of finite resources.”

    Not so. Here is that same sentence rewritten and corrected: “What I’m saying is not only incorrect but far too verbose for one simple thought.”

    There… that’s better!

  3. JR

    In the “his face” example you use a sentence with “is” as the better sentence yet you list the word “is” as a word to avoid. Explanation?

    • yourscreenplaysucks

      “Is” is not to be 100% avoided. Trimming it is just a suggestion. Look at the sentence with it, and then without it, and decide. These are not iron clad rules… they are suggestions. Each sentence must be judged on its own. “Is” is a very useful word, at times. It just can be cut a lot of the time. But not all.

  4. Richard

    What’s your opinion on the shortest a screenplay can be to make a sale? As in the number of pages. Could a script of 85-90 pages sell these days?

    • john

      Depends on comedy or drama. Around 100- 110 for comedy. (give or take a little) and possibly more for drama. I’m not sure though if anythings changed…

    • yourscreenplaysucks

      90 can be okay. Less than, isn’t considered a real movie. But 100 is safer. It’s a lot harder to add pages than it is to take away… so if yours works like a Swiss watch at 95, don’t worry about it.

  5. I think the key to this exercise isn’t in finding and fixing these things but realizing how often you do it and training your brain to be more visual and active in your writing. The ‘stand’ example stands out. Truth is, if you find yourself going back and fixing a lot of these time and time again then it probably is a waste of time.

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