Correct use of words—nothing will throw the reader out of the story faster than incorrect word usage. Know the difference between effect and affect. Capital and capitol. Site and cite. Complement and compliment. Lie and lay. Just because journalists and politicians make these mistakes doesn’t mean it is all right for serious writers. On the Internet you can look up lists of often confused and misused words. By using words correctly, you build the reader’s trust.
Sentence formation—vary sentence length, making sure sentences are constructed properly, without dangling modifiers, or incorrect referents. A scene with high tension might have shorter sentences, and even some fragments. A sequel that describes place might have lush, longer sentences. Notice the rhythm your sentences have, and vary it. We writers need to become aware of our tendencies, and work to overcome them.
Economical writing—our prose is dragged down by extra words: two (or three, or four) adjectives where one would do; extra attributions—he said, she said—where the meaning is clear without them; wandering, or circling descriptions, or weak verbs where a powerful one could eliminate unnecessary adverbs.
Hint: I participate in a weekly critique group. Each week, we bring up to ten pages. For the six nights prior to that group, I review the section—honing, searching for strong verbs, deleting extra words. Every night I find ways to strengthen the writing. As I near the evening of the critique group, I read my selection out loud. It is amazing what I catch by listening to the words rather than reading them.
Avoid cliches—cliches are the easy, fall-back way that people describe a situation: “time will tell,” “old as the hills,” “scared out of my wits,” “fall head over heels.” Writers need to do better! Cliches are a sign of writerly laziness. It’s fine to use one as a placeholder in a first draft, but by the second draft, come up with an original phrase.
Retain standard punctuation—avoid multiple exclamation points !!!, or the useful ?!. They do not have a place in serious writing. Instead, use words to create that feeling.
Strong verbs—using strong verbs reduces the need for adverbs and adjectives, and lessens our reliance on the verb “to be.” Search your work for “was” and “were.” You may be stunned by how many instances you find.