One time I taught a writing workshop in Salt Lake City and spent some time reading stories. In the past, I haven’t spent much time talking about stylistic problems, but I thought it would be interesting to bring up the six problems that I see most often:
1) Weak verbs. Very often, people will use the “to be” verb—was, were, had been, will be—when something stronger is called for. Other verb problems include the overuse of look: “He looked at the girl. She looked good.” In a situation like this, it’s doubly confusing because “look” is being used a couple of different ways. You can replace the first “look” with something like watched, studied, peered at, and so on. The second “look” can be replaced with “appeared.”
2) Sound/word repetitions. It’s easy to repeat sounds or words too much. In a structure like “Jacer studied the castle. The castle walls had eroded, so that the merlons rose up like rotten teeth, but a single pennant still rode the above the castle.” In a sentence like this, you look for a way to avoid repeating the word castle.
3) Hyphenation. Any twenty-year-old writer who doesn’t know how to hyphenate, really ought to read up on the topic in the CHICAGO MANUAL OF STYLE. The reason is simple: editors often look for reasons to reject a story, and an inability to hyphenate properly seems a bit sloppy.
4) Scottishisms. The Scottish often added an unnecessary S to certain words, and in some places in the world, the use of this S is considered to be substandard. Thus, we fall forward, not forwards. We step backward, not backwards.
5) Farther/Further. The word “farther” is used for distance. The word “further” is used for anything but distance. Thus, “I can throw the ball farther than you, and I don’t want to argue about it any further.”
6) Modifier’s Disease. Some authors can’t seem to leave a noun unmodified: So we see constructions like this: “The rusty sailboat floated upon a solemn sea, an unmanned derelict.” Eventually, the novel takes on a singsong quality. Because of this, I recommend that you never add adjectives to two nouns in a row.
Certainly, there are a lot of usage problems common to new writers, and on a different day, I might choose a few others, but these are some that you might want to pay attention to.
Note: One of my assistants, Diane, is looking for editing work. She is a published writer/editor and has a vast knowledge base of military history. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org