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Six common writing mistakes by first-time authors, and how to fix them!

Posted in: Perfecting your Craft on August 18, 2015 52 Comments 💬

Six Common Writing Mistakes

Last updated: 07/10/2017

Today, one oLourdes Venardf our most experienced editors on Reedsy shares some invaluable advice for first-time authors! Lourdes Venard specializes in crime fiction, science fiction, Young Adult, memoirs, and other nonfiction. She also teaches for the University of California, San Diego’s copyediting certificate program.

When it comes to writing, every writer is unique. But mistakes made by first-time authors are not as unique. In a very unscientific poll, I asked fiction editors which errors they come across the most often. Not surprisingly, the culprits were the same.

Below are the six most common writing mistakes identified by fiction editors, with simple fixes that can be done in the revision stage. I've also included a video at the bottom where three other editors discuss most of these mistakes — and more! — more in-depth. So if you're writing a book for the first-time, make sure you avoid all of these.

Wordiness

Wordiness can come from over-description, over-explanation, and redundant language. Those of us who are editors see this all the time in descriptions, especially in the use of adjectives and adverbs. Many first-time writers believe they need to bolster their nouns and verbs with adjectives and adverbs, but this often marks the writer as an amateur. Instead, writers should focus on using strong nouns and verbs. Take the simple phrase “a small river rushing by quickly.” A river that is rushing will naturally be doing so quickly, so eliminate the adverb.

The fix: When revising your manuscript, look through your descriptions—are there unnecessary words? Are you relying on adjectives and adverbs, rather than strong nouns and verbs? Look to cut as you revise.

“Telling”, rather than “showing”

The second most common writing mistake is “Telling,” rather than “showing.” This comes from explaining too much and not trusting the reader to understand—or not giving the reader the opportunity to fill in the spaces with his own imagination. A subset of this, as one editor said, is having characters discuss things in dialogue that no rational person would: “Did you know, Ian, that the agricultural sector in England was transformed by the Black Death, which arrived in England in 1348 and killed many laborers, and by the Hundred Years’ War, which was actually a series of conflicts waged from 1337 to 1453,  as well as the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381?” If this sounds like a Wikipedia entry, it’s because it was indeed cobbled from Wikipedia—not from an actual conversation.

The fix: Dialogue can be used to effectively impart information, but is it believable and natural? Use dialogue to move the story ahead, to add tension between characters, and to impart—but not dump—information. Break up the information in conversation-sized tidbits.

For more about "show don't tell" and how to avoid the telling mistake, watch this excellent presentation by editor Jim Spivey.

A laundry list of descriptions

A character is introduced and immediately a description, head to toe, is given; hair color, eye color, glasses, what the character is wearing are all covered in depth. The author may repeatedly mention those “liquid brown eyes.” As you can imagine, this is the type of writing mistake that will put off the reader.

The fix: It’s much more effective to describe a character through their behaviors, actions, body language, and dialogue. Here, crime fiction author Ian Rankin gives a description that skims over a character’s looks but manages to give us plenty (because our mind’s eyes fill in the rest): “He was twenty years younger than Rebus, and a stone and half lighter. A bit less gray in his hair. Most cops looked like cops, but Fox could have been middle management in a plastics company or Inland Revenue.”

Head-hopping

You want to keep your point of view to one protagonist (maybe two, if the story lends itself, as in a romance or a story with two strong characters whose paths cross, as in the award-winning All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr). To have more POVs dilutes the bond that a reader forms with the protagonist. Even worse is to have a point of view bounce from character to character in the same scene (we start out in the head of one character, only to hop into another character’s head).

The fix: It’s more powerful for the story to be told through the eyes of the main character, so make that your viewpoint. It may be more work to recast your story, but it will be the stronger for it.

Inappropriate dialogue tags

Many new writers have a fear of reusing the same dialogue tags—“said” or “asked”—and so editors see an abundance of incorrect dialogue tags: he yawned, she growled, he laughed. These dialogue tags mark the writer as inexperienced. Someone doesn’t “yawn,” “growl,” or “laugh” dialogue and, besides, they are clichéd ways of marking speech. Dialogue itself should show the reader whether a character is angry, happy, or sleepy.

The fix: Stick to “said” or “asked,” which become invisible to the reader, or avoid dialogue tags when it’s clear who is speaking. If you must indicate that a character has missed his naptime, then write, “he said, yawning.” Or even better, use a dialogue beat: “He stretched and yawned, putting down his coffee cup.”

Misplaced modifiers

This is one of the most common grammatical errors. These are phrases or clauses that are not clearly related to what follows. This not only makes for awkward sentences, but often unintentionally funny ones. For example: “After making some repairs, the pigs soon found their way to the fixed trough.” If pigs could fly—or repair their own troughs!

The Fix: Locate the modifier and relocate it to the appropriate place, or rewrite the sentence with the missing information. “After the farmer made some repairs, the pigs soon found their way to the fixed trough.”

Finally, there’s one other “fix” that may catch these and other errors. Read your manuscript aloud (some writers even go as far as reading it into a recorder, then playing it back). You’ll be surprised at what you find—portions that are dull, dialogue that goes on for too long, and awkward constructions that trip up the tongue. Simply delete or rewrite these!

More writing mistakes by three other Reedsy editors!

Watch this webinar recording that lists twelve mistakes most first-time authors are prone to making. Three Reedsy editors go over all of them in-depth and discuss how best to spot them in the revision process.


What other writing mistakes are authors prone to? And what is the best way to catch them? Let us know your thoughts, or any questions for Lourdes, in the comments below!

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pk kinnes

I could not disagree more with the above regarding telling first-time authors to use only said or asked as dialogue tags. This is like telling a kindergartner to take up smoking and smoke six packs a day for the rest of his life!
Said and asked may become invisible to some readers, but for those of us who have been reading for more than 50 years, reading the word said 15 or 16 times on one page is nothing short of suicide-inducing exasperation!

Gavin Clements

I am about to try my hand at writing a childrens/family book. I have the lead characters in mind and a setting and storyline/plot. However having never done this before I would appreciate any help or direction as to how to craft a story and any suggestions where I could get help will be gratefully received.

Sally A Lundsten-Sanyang

Yes, I read a lot of advice while constructing my manuscript(s)... including avoiding the over-use of 'said'. On that advice, I worked through the dialogue and removed 99% of 'said's and replaced with something else, often a description of the tone used for the sentence while trying not to (as Ricardo points out) irritate my reader. Writing evolves, so what is considered better, after all? Surely, if the word used is not considered properly by the writer in its effect we should use 'said'?

Lourdes is right, she knows what she is talking about. If it seems jarring at first it is only because you have gotten used to the crooked handlebars and when they get straightened out it is hard to ride the bike until you get used to the right way again. Trust me, she didn't pull that out of the hat of opinion, it is a publishing industry standard for high quality work and any work that is published full of these errors or endless superfluous decorations to dialogue are rejected by most top editors. See my answer to pk below.… Read more »

beth d.

As a magazine editor (of non-ficition), I endorse this fully!!! The manuscripts I edit don't have protagonists, exactly, but to me, everything Lourdes says is spot-on. Misplaced modifiers make me crazy. Said is just fine, almost all the time. I find myself saying "show, don't tell" to writers all the time. I also try to assign word ranges rather than specific lengths because many writers will try to fiill out a story with needless extra words. My area is the visual arts (design, architecture, art, craft) so I'm much more lenient about adjectives as there's often less plot to carry… Read more »

As a writer I appreciate this information, which is helping me to develop my mistakes in grammar which I'm not as good as I should be.

Lucius Pixel

I think I am good with you here in Lemonaid

https://nickyisdeep.wordpress.com/free-novel-2-in-progress/

Wolfenden Heys

A good article, though I would disagree about the POV's. Check out George Martin's Game of Thrones series and Stephen King's Needful Things. Their stories rely on multiple protagonists. The POV's don't detract from the story, they add to them. I would also prefer less use of the word 'amateur' to describe a person who is making mistakes. It comes across as being elitist and is far too over-generalised...

Nikki Busch

Great article, Lourdes! You've perfectly captured the major issues editors see when working with new authors. There are many authors, and not just first-timers, who could benefit from this wisdom.

Nikki Busch

Great article, Lourdes! You've perfectly captured the issues editors often see when working with new authors. There are many authors, and not just first timers, who could benefit from your article.

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