Posted On October 12, 2015 by Print This Post

Are You Waving The Novice Writer Flag? by Rayne Hall

Rayne Hall returns with advice on how to avoid the tell tale signs of a newbie writer. Happy to have you back, Rayne!  

Editors can tell if a writer is a novice or a veteran from the words appearing on the first page. New writers unconsciously share the same word set.

No matter how much you polished your prose, it probably still contains ‘beginner flags’ – and you may not want to draw attention to your inexperience.

When I worked as an editor for magazines and book publishers, I could spot a novice’s submission by simply glancing at the first two paragraphs. If they contained certain words, I knew this was a beginner who had not developed a unique voice yet.

For most acquisitions editors – who may routinely scan two dozen manuscripts in the first hour of their work day – this is sufficient reason to consign your manuscript to the ‘reject’ pile. They won’t tell you the reason, because they don’t have the time to explain, and they don’t want deal with irate writers’ protests. They just send you a standard rejection note.

If you’re an indie (self-publishing) author, you may think that beginner flags don’t matter, because books pass directly to the RayneHall - Fantasy Horror Author - reduced size Portrait by Fawnheartreaders without a gatekeeper. The average reader perusing samples is unaware of ‘novice words’, and doesn’t use them as a filter – not consciously, that is.

But the reader’s subconscious registers that all the samples they’ve downloaded sound the same, with the same words and phrases. After reading several same-sounding book samples, their interest perks up when they gets to one with a fresh, original voice.

So, what are the ‘beginner flags’?

I’ve compiled a list of words, phrases, and sentence structures. They’re not wrong, but they’re stale. Several of them on the first page of your manuscript submission or your published sample can doom your book.

Here the main ones to watch out for:



could see, could hear, could feel

start to

begin to








deep breath






Go over your manuscript, and weed them out where possible. Keep only the ones you need.

If you’re submitting your book to an agent or editor, try to present a first page without any of these words.

Watch especially for combinations of these words, such as ‘He/she turned to look at him/her’ and ‘He/she nodded slowly’ – they are an obvious signal of your novice status.

How you structure your sentences can also reveal that you’re a newcomer to the craft.

Consider these two sentences:

Grabbing her coat, she ran down the stairs.

Clenching her fists, she fought for composure.

Nothing is wrong with them – but if both appear on your manuscript’s first page, the editor knows you’re a novice.

That’s because new writers often start sentences with a Present Participle (the ing-form of the verb), while veteran authors seldom do. Once per chapter is fine. Once per page is ok. But more than one per page reveals the beginner. I’ve received manuscript submissions where almost half the sentences began with a Present Participle.

Best reduce the number of sentences beginning with Present Participles in your whole manuscript, and avoid them altogether on the first page.

In the above examples, you could use simple past tense:

She grabbed her coat and ran down the stairs.

She clenched her fists and fought for composure.

Of course, you could also structure these sentences in less predictable ways, showing your individual author voice. But I can’t tell you how exactly you should do this, because this would defeat the object.

Another sentence structure to watch out for is parallel actions linked with the word ‘as’.

Melanie reached the bus stop as the number 94 was leaving.

As she ran down the stairs, she heard a sharp crack.

These sentences are not wrong either – but this construction is more popular with beginners than with veterans. If you don’t want to be classed as a newbie, use it with restraint.

Now brace yourself for the challenge. Open the file of the manuscript you’re working on – or, if you’re brave, the one you’ve submitted! Which of these ‘beginner flags’ appear on the first page?

TheWordLossDiet reduced 2014-01-07THE WORD-LOSS DIET – Tighten and tone your writing style, and use simple revision tricks to slim down your manuscript. Shed thousands of words without changing the plot. Strip away the word fat and reveal the muscle of your unique author voice. This book is short, but potent. It is perfect for – self-editing before you submit your book to agents and publishers, or before self-publishing – understanding why your stories get rejected, or why so few readers buy your book after downloading the sample chapters – taking your writing craft skills to the next level – polishing your writing style for the move from amateur to professional The book is based on Rayne Hall’s popular class of the same title which has helped many writers shed word weight and develop a leaner, stronger writing style. Some authors say the class was the best investment they ever made. Now you can study the techniques in book form at your own pace. Please note: This book assumes that you have some fiction writing experience. You’ll benefit most if you’ve already mastered the basics of the craft and want to learn specialist techniques. It is not recommend for absolute beginners.


WritersCraft 10Books RayneHall 2015-01-19

Rayne Hall’s Writer’s Craft books are for writers who want to take their craft skills to the next level.


Bio: Rayne Hall has published more than fifty books in several languages under several pen names with several publishers in RayneHall – Fantasy Horror Author – reduced size Portrait by Fawnheartseveral genres, mostly fantasy, horror and non-fiction. She is the author of the bestselling Writer’s Craft series (Writing Fight Scenes, Writing Scary Scenes, Writing About Villains, Writing About Magic and more) and editor of the Ten Tales short story anthologies.

She is a trained publishing manager, holds a masters degree in Creative Writing, and has worked in the publishing industry for over thirty years.

Having lived in Germany, China, Mongolia and Nepal, she has now settled in a small dilapidated town of former Victorian TwitterPic Sulu WC 15grandeur on the south coast of England where she enjoys reading, gardening and long walks along the seashore. She shares her home with a black cat adopted from the cat shelter. Sulu likes to lie on the desk and snuggle into Rayne’s arms when she’s writing.

To learn more about Rayne, visit her website or follow her on Twitter where she posts advice for writers, funny cartoons and cute pictures of her cat.

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56 Responses to “Are You Waving The Novice Writer Flag? by Rayne Hall”

  1. This is a great list. Saving it. Hopefully, I’ll weed mine out!

    Posted by Carol Baldwin | October 12, 2015, 7:14 am
  2. Rayne does it again. As an editor I do exactly what she has pointed out and change out these tired words for more exciting ones.

    The sooner a writer discovers these flags, the better!

    Posted by April Grey | October 12, 2015, 7:16 am
    • Yes, writers would do well to discover these flags soon, and remove them from their manuscript – before sending the ms to an editor.
      If the writer has hired the editor to improve the manuscript, then changing those words takes a lot of time and leads to a huge bill – and the editor’s word choices may not reflect the author’s voice.
      If the editor works for a publisher and is selecting manuscripts for publication, then the beginner flags can (and usually do) lead to automatic rejection.

      Posted by Rayne Hall | October 12, 2015, 7:28 am
  3. I’m guilty of using a few of those words listed. And, yes, I do use the ‘ing’ too often too. Thank you for the lesson, Rayne.

    Posted by Glynis Jolly | October 12, 2015, 8:31 am
  4. Awesome post! I’m framing it and hanging it over my computer.

    Posted by Andrea | October 12, 2015, 9:07 am
  5. Great post, thanks Rayne. It’s so easy to overlook the most obvious mistakes sometimes and this is a good reminder to check and check again.

    Posted by Jonathan Broughton | October 12, 2015, 9:30 am
  6. Rayne always has great ideas. The Word Loss Diet is one of favorite books.

    Posted by Kathy Frost | October 12, 2015, 9:44 am
  7. An invaluable help.

    Posted by DougK | October 12, 2015, 10:43 am
  8. Had to share this on Twitter! As much as I edit, there is always something I missed. Your list was more extensive than I had seen before, so thank you. Making my corrections now! I know this is good for me….but oh, do I feel like editing is a long road to walk down!

    Posted by Elizabeth Torphy | October 12, 2015, 11:10 am
    • Hi Elizabeth,
      Yes, it can take a long time to edit all those words out of your manuscript, but the once you’ve done it, your mind will be alert and won’t let you use them often anymore. So with future projects, it’ll be less work. 🙂

      Posted by Rayne Hall | October 12, 2015, 11:13 am
  9. Oops. I do the parallel actions linked with the word “as” and “while.” Bad me! Great post.

    Posted by Mercy | October 12, 2015, 11:53 am
  10. Thanks for a great post. It articulates problems I’ve found in my own writing and elsewhere. Saved for future reference.

    Posted by Maggie Bolitho | October 12, 2015, 1:08 pm
  11. I have gone over the list. I have committed two or more these sins. Alsi, I stuck in a flashback in the first two pages of the story. There probably more errors on the list that I committed.

    My novel is being published this fall.

    Honest to gosh, if writers paid attention to every little sin that editors deem as deadly to the sale of a manuscript, writers wouldn’t have time to write.

    My own suggestion is that editors (I used to be an acquisitions editor) get off their high horses and READ the stories that writer submit, instead of playing gotcha with the manuscripts, the writer and publishing worlds might actually collide and produce more entertaining, formidable fiction.

    Posted by Jim Porter | October 12, 2015, 1:59 pm
  12. I spent a number of years as an editor too, and I gift Rayne’s book to young writers, It’s amazing to me how many variations on laugh, smile, grin show up in dialogue. I would say at least a third of writers unconsciously defer to the laziness of “happy” dialogue rather than trying to block action into to the conversation.

    On the other hand whenever I like to pick up Rayne’s book before I edit my own writing just to get in the mindset and I’ve been writing for forty years.

    Posted by Phillip T. Stephens | October 12, 2015, 2:39 pm
    • I think ‘unconscious’ is the crucial word here. Writer don’t realise that they’re doing these things. It seems that at some stage – no longer beginners, but not yet accomplished professionals – most writers use the same words, the same body language, the same structures.
      I hope my post helps writers grow out of this phase faster, so they present a unique, confident, fresh voice.

      Posted by Rayne Hall | October 13, 2015, 2:15 am
  13. Great list – I’m going to run it by my opening paragraphs. I have a horrible feeling I’m going to have some newbie-word deleting to do!

    Thanks for sharing the information about your writers guides – I’ll definitely check them out!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | October 13, 2015, 12:29 am
  14. Will you let us know how many of those words you find in the opening paragraphs? (Rejoice for every one you find!) 🙂

    Posted by Rayne Hall | October 13, 2015, 2:19 am
  15. A well thought out, practical post. Something that in time, and with practice many people will benefit from.

    It also, gives a nice list, something that can be put into settings and ensure that these words are at least highlighted and reviewed, if not outright replaced.

    Posted by Mike S | October 13, 2015, 9:43 am
  16. Such a helpful post for all writers, and so clearly presented.
    I still hold my first-written book in its pristine condition. After reading your post I looked at it again. Were my cheeks red!! Time has taught me, but I wish that your list had been on my desk four years ago.
    Judith Rook

    Posted by Judith Rook | October 15, 2015, 9:48 am
    • LOL. I know that feeling. When I look at the writing I submitted for publication years ago, I cringe. The embarrassing part about it is not that my writing was so bad, but that at the time I thought it was brilliant!
      In retrospect, I’m glad most of that stuff got rejected. And the stuff that got published… I’m glad it was under a different pen name. 😀

      Posted by Rayne Hall | October 15, 2015, 11:01 am
  17. Thank you Rayne – what a fabulous post! I am feeling scared to look back at my incomplete MS now. Lol – maybe I should start over. So glad to have this list and these tips now – think it needs to be framed.

    Posted by Jo'Anne | October 15, 2015, 8:41 pm
  18. If it’s an incomplete MS, you can go over it at a later stage. It’s only urgent if you want to submit it soon. 🙂

    Posted by Rayne Hall | October 16, 2015, 12:43 am
  19. Wow! I had no idea I was using words that gave off I was a Novice Writer. Thank you for listing the suggestions, I never would’ve known. I guess when I’m writing, I put down as I see it playing out in my head and saying what I would say in real life as if I was talking to someone. But even as I’m writing, it does feel safe using those words. Really going to watch out for that now.

    Posted by Christine Antosca | August 23, 2016, 1:54 pm
  20. I admit I do “ing” a lot. I can see how too much of that can make your writing sound like a Mad Lib or something. I’ll make sure to cull them out of the first draft.

    Posted by Aimee Mandala | August 24, 2016, 5:27 pm
  21. Interesting…
    Some of the words from the forbidden list sounded as if from a workout video. I get it. “Breathe, shrug, nod, exhale, deep breath, slowly, immediately”.
    And I understand that overusing -ing is a bad idea either, but what to use instead of “look”, if it comes to that? Or instead of “smile”.
    Just not to smile on the fist page? Even if the smiling was planned to be there?

    Posted by Lilit Galatea | August 25, 2016, 4:56 pm
    • Hi Lilit,

      LOL, yes, how you point it out I can hear the sounds of the workout video. 😀

      It’s not a ‘forbidden list’, just a ‘use sparingly list’.

      What to use instead of ‘look’? Well, you can use words like glance, observe, watch, study, peer, peak, gaze, stare… But frankly, most of the time it’s best to delete that sentence or phrase altogether.

      When two people converse, it’s not necessary to tell the reader that they’re looking at each other. Phrases like “She looked at him and said” can usually be deleted.

      The same applies when you show an object. You don’t need to tell us that the point-of-view character sees it.
      “She looked at the mountain towering above the valley.” can often be tightened to “A mountain towered above the valley.”

      Regarding smiles – just use them sparingly. Some novice writers use the word several times on a page.

      Again, you can often delete that phrase or sentence altogether. Keep just the most significant smiles. Vary the way you write them. For example, instead of “He smiled.” you could write something like “His face brightened”, “His eyes lit up”, “His lips curved”, “The corners off his eyes crinkled”, depending on what kind of smile it is.


      Posted by Rayne Hall (@RayneHall) | August 27, 2016, 3:30 am
  22. Nice list and it can easily be much longer. I wish someone would write a comprehensive list of words and sentence structures to avoid. Like these 6 rules of writing by George Orwell:

    Posted by aditya thakur | August 29, 2016, 4:50 am
    • I wouldn’t want to prescribe a list of words to avoid, or set rules for other writers to follow.
      I merely offer suggestions.
      Even the ‘novice flag’ words aren’t wrong, it’s just best to use them sparingly.
      I’ve written a book ‘The Word-Loss Diet’ about unnecessary words many writers use habitually, and how to eliminate them. But that, too, is just a collection of suggestions, not rules.

      Posted by Rayne Hall (@RayneHall) | October 25, 2016, 12:41 pm
  23. May I have a moment to reflect on the fact that I’m guilty of almost everything mentioned in this article? My favorite one is paralleling two events using “as.” Do you have any recommendations for a good substitute? While I’m not currently thinking of becoming a published author, it would be good to know that my novel would be worth publishing. I’m definitely saving this list. I have a feeling that it might come in handy.

    Posted by Shenae Richards | September 1, 2016, 8:39 pm
    • Hi Shenae,

      It’s ok to have all these words in your early draft. That’s what drafts are for. 🙂 As long as you kill most of them before you submit or publish.

      I don’t have an alternative to use in place of as/as. If I did, that would just be another overused sentence construction. You need to find your own variations, preferably several of them. 🙂


      Posted by Rayne Hall (@RayneHall) | October 25, 2016, 12:43 pm
  24. I am busy working on my first book and I did not realize how many weeds I have to get rid of. This post was definitely worth a read.I am going to fix my work now and try not sound like such a newbee

    Posted by ashlee | September 3, 2016, 6:36 am
  25. This is the REAL hip-hop!

    Posted by Mitchell Toews | December 16, 2016, 8:30 pm
  26. As ever, good advice from Rayne Hall. Her book The Word Loss Diet is extremely helpful with weeding and pruning over-worked, unnecessary words/phrases!

    Posted by sheila williams | April 26, 2017, 3:57 am
  27. Interesting! Makes sense. I have experience reading CVs/ resumes. The first time I give it only 6-15 seconds.
    In a similar way one can distinguish “teenage speech” from “adult articulate speech” even if it is only written and you do not know who the author is.
    I have experience assisting politicians give speeches or interviews. It is very easy for me to “spot” a novice. He/ she usually wants to “”TELL you” something. An experienced one is “communicating WITH you.”
    Of course, every rule has exception and the overall picture is more than the details. But still – there are signs that a professional can easily spot.
    Never thought about the list of words – very helpful!
    I have done exercises asking trainees to make a statement/ speech WITHOUT using “but” or any negative words. At the beginning feels strange, even “impossible” then you can develop it as a habit or even style.

    Posted by Nikola Yordanov | July 31, 2017, 9:18 am
  28. I’m a beginner – I’ve published my first novel two months ago, but I don’t use present participle in my writing. Perhaps it’s because of my experience as a journalist, I don’t know. But, you are totally right – some words and expressions show that a writer is not very skilled.. or talented.

    Posted by Ralitsa | August 2, 2017, 2:56 am
  29. Rayne,

    Thank you so much for the highly informative read. I am teeming with boisterous excitement to scavenge through my old writings and revise them! Not to mention I look forward to further developing my voice as a writer and growing in my observation of my language! This is totally satisfying my inner-nerd right now. I really like how you said that you can’t reveal how to do it the ‘right’ way because that would defeat the purpose. I really enjoyed that and find that to be very reminiscent of what the teacher might say to the student. Thank you for sharing all of this wonderful knowledge! Cheers!

    Posted by Dylan Hunter | August 4, 2017, 8:41 pm
  30. This is such a helpful post! As a newbie, I am so glad I came across it. I will be saving to refer back to it in the future. Thanks so much, Rayne!

    Posted by Shelby Dowden | August 7, 2017, 9:04 am
  31. I definitely overuse some of these. Especially the “-ing” form and “as”. “As” is my favorite 😀

    Do these rules apply across the literary genres?
    What about other forms of creative writing like esssays, scripts, memoirs etc. ?

    Posted by Vesso | August 8, 2017, 9:46 am
  32. The Present Participle come naturally to novice writers. This list can really help many beginner writers. Thanks for sharing an opinion from an editor’s PoV. All of the novice writers MUST save this article, it is an invaluable lesson on how to avoid these mistakes. Saved! Thanks, Rayne!

    Posted by Mark Johnson | August 9, 2017, 12:32 pm
  33. Wow. I must admit that that is a long list of words to avoid in the very first chapter. Thanks for these great tips, now I know to avoid using the ‘ing’ too many times in my first chapter. I am really looking forward to reading more from you. You’re an inspiration.

    Posted by Victoria | August 14, 2017, 2:31 am


  1. […] Are You Waving The Novice Writer Flag? Rayne Hall on the Romance University blog asks if you’re making newbie errors and how to fix them. […]

    November Links | Becky Black - November 14, 2015

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