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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 53 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.

Show, Don't Tell: How to Master It (With Examples)
Read post

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

Point of View: First, Second, and Third Person POV
Read post

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!

Jos Poortvliet

I think it isn't such bad advice. Many writers use it and it is fine. And they do note that if a dialogue is bouncing back and forth and you don't need any tag - skip 'em. That would work fine.

Ricardo Fayet

Personally, as a reader, I can get very annoyed at a writer using 100 different dialogue tags, with characters that growl, yawn, howl, sigh, sob, whine, etc. when they're actually just talking…
"Said" has become transparent to me, so it doesn't interrupt the dialogue like these other tags do.
Of course, readers all have different tastes and depending on your genre, you should research those tastes.

DENavarro

Correct.

Lourdes Venard

Using "said" can be overdone. Many writers try to get around that by using other dialogue tags, but those only serve to stop the reader momentarily. Another way of avoiding "said" is to use dialogue beats, small actions by each character (for example: Karen put her coffee cup down. "I'm not going.") or just by using strong dialogue in which it is apparent who is speaking.

DENavarro

pk, this may seem jarring at first, but trust me, it is so very true. These are great tips. Work it and understand it and you will see. Many of these tips were jarring to me at first until I realized the greatness of them. What is far more annoying to the average reader is to have things said with a chortle, snort, grunt, chuckle, and other endless superfluous decorations to dialogue that weaken it immeasurably. If the dialogue words themselves are powerful, they will carry an inherent descriptor, and you should show by ACTIONS how a person feels, not… Read more »

cheryl

Or better yet:

Clara shook her head and pointed a stern finger in Andy’s face. “You did it to gain favor with her.”

Andy slammed his fist into his hand and pointing back. “That’s a lie.”

DENavarro

You're right, but the illustration was also trying to point out how invisible "said" can be. However, when you can eliminate "said" all together, that is the best. I'll have to find a better sample.

Pat W

You don't always need dialog tags.

He scratched his arm. "I think I have fleas."

The action tells you who is talking.

Jackson

You are dead wrong.

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.

Lourdes Venard

Gavin, the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (http://www.scbwi.org/) has useful information, including podcasts and classes.

Gavin Clements

Thank you for the reply, I will have a look at that.

Ricardo Fayet

Of course, we have a lot of top-notch illustrators and children's book designers on Reedsy as well, so that's another place you can take a look at 🙂

Grace Padua

I prefer dialogue than narrative. Narration is telling, dialogue is action. Actual conversation in your story will put your reader into action breaking the "telling" and "explaining of the narrator.

Lourdes Venard

Yes, and dialogue tends to move at a quicker pace.

Cynthia Stoerkel

thank you so much! this information has been incredibly helpful. I am 58 years old, and writing a book has been on my bucket list since my teen years. just getting started.

Lynnelle

Thanks for posting, very good points for beginners and reminders for those more experienced. I have to remind myself to put in information, its in my head, but sometimes not on the page.

Lourdes Venard

Yes, that's always a challenge in writing!

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'?

DENavarro

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 »

Lourdes Venard

Thanks, love the handlebar metaphor!

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 »

Lourdes Venard

Thank you, Beth!

kb

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...

Ricardo Fayet

Yes, I've read a few posts on viewpoint advice and every time I've thought "this is good advice, but George R.R. Martin does it differently". G.R.R.M. is unbelievably brilliant at having the reader empathize with 5-10 characters per book, and switching from chapter to chapter just makes you want to keep reading to know what happens to that character he just left on a cliff hanger. But as a general rule, I'd say that the more you focus your viewpoint on one character (or a limited number of them), the more the reader will be able to "connect" with that… Read more »

Wolfenden Heys

it just depends on what story you're trying to tell and what world you are trying to create. George Martin is one example but there are A LOT more authors who use more than one POV. I see what the author of this piece is trying to say, but in my opinion she's overstated the problem. But like I say other than that I agree with a great deal of her other points

Lourdes Venard

Ricardo made the point well. And George Martin and Stephen King have been writing for eons. These are two men who do play with the conventions of literature, and do it very well. My points were for newer writers, who often do multiple POVs in an attempt to show what one character cannot see (because that character was not in the scene) and not necessarily as a way to develop several characters. You are right, though, multiple POVs can indeed be done very well -- even by first-time writers, but it must be done with intention and thought.

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.

Lourdes Venard

Thanks, Nikki!

Sally Asnicar

Thanks for this useful article. Once writers become aware of these common errors, it's easier to avoid repeating them. I'm writing an article about overuse of glue words at the moment!

Lourdes Venard

I see "and then" or "suddenly" overused quite a bit. I'll be interested in reading your article.

ElgonWilliams Author

There is little wrong with using action statements as if they are tags, as long as they are presented grammatically correct. Not only does this indicate the speaker in dialogue, but also it ties speaking to relevant action within a scene. This is a way of eliminating he said and she asked in a passage. If done well it can also advance the story, indicate emotion or disinterest within a character for the conversation - as in suppressing a yawn with the back of a hand. A good trick I have found for creating natural sounding dialogue is to write… Read more »

Lourdes Venard

Yes, dialogue beats are also a good way to break up dialogue and can even enhance it, as with the yawning example you gave.

isolde100

I published my first novel last week, so I can address Ms. Venard's list of first-time author's writing mistakes. I agree with five of the items on the list, but the "head-hopping" mistake is different from point of view. When confronted with a first-time author's classic head-hopping mistake, the reader does not know who in a particular scene is thinking or saying something. That can be corrected easily. But to tell writers to keep their point of view to one or two protagonists throughout an entire novel is a bit too simplistic. Take War and Peace. In some scenes, you… Read more »

Ricardo Fayet

Hi Isolde, thanks for your thoughts on this. They certainly are in line with several comments we got through the social networks, and I agree with you: many fine works of literature (especially in the speculative fiction genre) have been written with several point of views. That said, I believe that limiting the viewpoint to one character is good advice because most authors are not Tolstoy, Mann, Tolkien or George R.R. Martin. For first-time authors, writing a novel through several points of view almost invariably tends to create head-hopping. Moreover, it is true that keeping your pov to one character… Read more »

Bec Nail

This was very helpful, thank you! I completed my first book a few days ago. I'm proud of it and I want it to be a successful seller. This advice will help me clean it up before I send it to a professional editor.

Ricardo Fayet

Glad it helped, Bec! We have another good post on cleaning up a manuscript before sending it to a professional editor: http://blog.reedsy.com/how-to-revise-a-novel-step-by-step-guide

And of course, when time comes to look for an editor, check out Reedsy: https://reedsy.com/editing/book-editor

Manuscriptable

An excellent list reminiscent of college intro. to writing courses. All good points that new and old writers can learn from. As many have said, one must master the rules before one can break them artfully.

Bradley Tatro

Thank you for these helpful tips.

Reedsy

I'm glad you enjoyed them!

darkocean

am seeing a new mistake that beginning writers are making in the Wattpad.com writing site and even on Amazon. Instead of bothering to take the time to learn things like time/scene transitions or how to switch pov they are trying to use icons and a key guide and passing it off as something new (when it’s just an annoying way of telling.) This is taken from the “Introduction” chapter of a new writer that has asked me to look at their book: Just a few things to help while reading. Certain images will appear at points in the story to… Read more »

Robintvale

am seeing a new mistake that beginning writers are making in the Wattpad.com writing site and even on Amazon. Instead of bothering to take the time to learn things like time/scene transitions or how to switch pov they are trying to use icons and a key guide and passing it off as something new (when it’s just an annoying way of telling.) This is taken from the “Introduction” chapter of a new writer that has asked me to look at their book: Just a few things to help while reading. Certain images will appear at points in the story to… Read more »

Reedsy

Ah that's quite an original way indeed of saying "I don't care about writing rules, here's how you should read my book" 😉

Robintvale

You are completely misunderstanding me. I care about the rules just at times they need to be bent in favor of the character's voice. Little things like blondy instead of blond, nothing that would make an editor want to pull their hair out. Along with the occasional extra comma (or lack of commas) to change the flow and pace. Sorry for taking so long to reply I couldn't log in. As for my wattpad story, ya I'm proud of it. (Not overly so mind you!) I want feedback to get better at writing so I will blatantly ask for people… Read more »

Robintvale

Actually I do care I just don't care for them being applied like word from up high there is a big difference. I posted Wattpad because I'm on their often as it's an easy way to talk with me. Another is my email: vaporlightATaol.com Pick one doesn't matter.

Robintvale

Sorry I took so long to reply I was having trouble logging in. Then forgot about this convo for a time.

Robintvale

Please don't take my enthusiasm for Wattpad as: "Me me me look at me" Okay? I'm also telling people about the website http://kissanime.ru/ because I love it so much.

Lewis Vinson

Using exceptionally technical terms or big words. Most authors think that if they use high highfalutin words on their content, they can make their readers believe that they are way smarter compared to other writers.

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copyedito

Excellent article for the first time writers. I hope this would help a lot of the first time authors. The important thing, however, in writing a book is not let it sleep on the shelf for a long time.

Regards,
http://www.copyedito.com

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