People asked me if I was ever going to expand on my basic writer shit you gotta know post. You're reading the "yes" answer right now. In this post, I'll leave poetry alone and focus only on fiction.
- Adverbs are your enemy. Ruthlessly cull them from your writing except where necessary (see what I did, there?).
- Very, really, actually, seems, began to, and other qualifiers need to be eliminated. These are words we use when we're trying to figure out what to say during a first draft. They have no business in a manuscript after that - especially "seemed." "He seemed angry." Unless those words are from a character who can't know the mind of another person, he doesn't seem angry. He is angry. To quote Dead Poets Society: "A man is not very tired, he is exhausted."
- Telling vs. showing. Speaking of angry: don't tell me he's angry. Have him act angry so that I know he's angry. If you say he's angry, you're making the reader do YOUR job. Don't give readers 4, give them 2+2. Don't tell me something is horrifying - make me feel horrified.
- Don't forget setting. Stories have several main aspects: character, plot, and setting. Of these three, setting gets kicked to the curb the most. Setting is not just for horror, fantasy or science fiction. Do you think Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil would have been as good if it took place in Alberta instead of the deep South? Readers need to know where they are, when they are in time, and they love a great atmosphere to what's going on. You don't need to get carried away, just focus on the minute details that add to the story.
- Understand how scenes work. For a scene to be a scene, it has to have a beginning, middle, and end just like the story itself. And just as something has to change by the end of the story, something has to change by the end of a scene. Scene breaks exist because what happens between scenes is boring and doesn't move the story forward. As Elmore Leonard said, leave out the parts people skip.
- Eliminate cliches and trite phrasing. Whatever instantly and easily comes to mind for phrasing as you write is suspect. The less aware you are that you're writing, the faster you write, true, but you're also more likely to use stock phrases and cliches as shortcuts to meaning and understanding. This is how you develop your unique voice, by finding your way to say things. It's cliched to say he hits like a truck, but not to say he hits like a baseball bat to the face.
- Use metaphors and description that match the character and situation. I once read a story in which it said someone burrowed into a character's heart. You know what burrows? Insects, parasites, and rodents. Not romantic! I tend to choose themes for characters. For example, I'll use bird metaphors for one characters and predatory cat metaphors for another. In romance and erotica especially, avoid gross or inappropriate comparisons (dicks to sausages, labia to lunchmeat, or worse).