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Common Writing Mistakes

on June 9th, 2010 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill and last modified on January 12, 2011

No writer pens a perfect first draft. Sometimes it takes 10 drafts before a writer is satisfied and still the manuscript will likely not be perfect.

Every writer (and editor) makes mistakes. Whether due to ignorance or sloppiness or the sheer number of possible writing errors, no writer of long fiction will produce a flawless draft. Not without more time than most of us have to produce one manuscript.

Yet, we can lower the number of mistakes by looking at common writing mistakes and then proofing our own work to see where we can eliminate those mistakes.

This list is by no means complete, but I’ve listed very common mistakes that I’ve seen as an editor, made as a writer, and heard about from other writers. (While this list is intended for the fiction writer, writers of non-fiction can benefit from an awareness of these common mistakes as well.)

~ Starting the story in the wrong place ~
Whether the story opens in the lead’s childhood when it should instead start at the moment a car races toward the 35-year-old detective or we meet the heroine as she sits in front of a fire after confronting her ex (which we didn’t get to see), we need to recognize that sometimes our stories just don’t open in the right place.

The fix for starting a story in the wrong place is to begin it instead at a point of action or heightened emotion. Dump the reader into an incident from the character’s day. An incident of importance. A moment of change for the character. An instance after which his life will be different.

~ Filling the opening with back story ~
Some writers want to tell everything about a character (or two or three) before jumping into the story. Resist the temptation to try this yourself. Give us story before back story.

~ Giving all characters the same voice ~
All people don’t speak the same—characters shouldn’t either. Make sure your characters speak with different rhythms and use different expressions. One may rattle off at the mouth while another is the king of one-word answers. Reveal your characters through their dialogue, not only by their actions.

~ Muddled genre ~
Some writers try to stuff every stylistic trick into one book, hoping to make their story appeal across genres. Pick one genre (and a sub-genre if appropriate). But don’t try to write to please every reader of every genre. It won’t happen and you’ll weaken your story.

~ Overuse of cliche and common phrases ~
Cliches and common phrases are someone else’s words. Create your own phrases that fit your character in his situation in his story. Common phrases make your work sound like a hundred other books. Go for the novel phrase for your novel. The work will be better for your creativity and the extra time you invest.

~ Switching POV ~
We’ve all heard of head hopping, switching points of view every page or paragraph or even within paragraphs. Yes, you can get away with it. But why try? Why not give your readers the best and the least confusing read possible? Don’t make them struggle to figure out what’s happening and to whom. Each time a reader has to re-read because she’s lost track of who’s doing what, she is pulled from the story. And you want that reader fully engaged in your book—don’t give her an excuse to put it down.

~ Not enough plot to sustain the story ~
If your story’s thin, throwing in extra descriptions won’t fix fatten it. You may fill it with hot air, but you won’t make it any meatier. Make sure you have enough story to your story. Are there low-level climaxes before the big moment? Have you woven story threads for different characters? Do your main characters face setbacks and obstacles before they triumph?

~ Too many plot threads for your story ~
Too many characters or problems or incidents or locations can overwhelm a story. Combine characters if you have a few who exist only for one scene. Cut out obstacles for your lead if he’s living under a black cloud every day and nothing positive ever happens to him. Keep the story full and rich, but don’t overburden it with extras that smother.

Take a hard look at your plot threads. Do they add to the tension and tone of the story? Or do they distract the reader, pull him in too many directions? Have you blended the threads into a tight story, or do threads dangle, maybe start tied to another thread but then lead nowhere?

Does your main character have an ex-wife and a business partner and a younger brother all demanding his time and attention? Is he trying to save the President’s daughter and prevent a toxin from reaching London’s water supply? Did he just find out he could have cancer and that the man he always thought of as his father was really the man who accidentally killed his birth father?

Decide what the story’s about and which elements add flavor to that story. Then cut threads that distract. Combine threads (and characters) that aren’t strong enough to stand alone. Remove anything that might have the reader scratching his head, wondering why that scene, that event, that person, even that phrase were in this story.

*****

There are exceptions to any writing rule or suggestion, to any of the practices that make up good fiction. Yet what we’re looking for are ways to produce good writing and better writing. We’re not looking for what we can get away with—our focus is on what makes the story work and work well.

Always keep that in mind when you’re writing, rewriting, and editing. What works best for this story?

***

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13 Responses to “Common Writing Mistakes”

  1. Sia McKye says:

    Boy oh boy, I know I’ve committed some of these. I finally figured out the need to start the story in the right place and still, I usually have to cut or move chapter one up.

    Great list Beth.

  2. Oh boy, Beth. Been there, done that.

    My biggest err of late is too many plot threads. I open can o’ worms, after can o’ worms (see my use of cliche there? hee hee…) and then when I get near the end, I think “oh crap, how am I ever going to get these worms straightened out and resolved?”.

    Excellent tips, Beth.

  3. John Philipp says:

    Beth, an most excellent articles, as are all the others. Thanks.

    I never make any of these mistakes and it’s so rewarding to know that :)

  4. Beth says:

    Sia, I’ve discovered that a writer—and I include myself in this—typically repeats the same mistakes. But when he becomes aware of what he’s doing and discovers what will fix those mistakes, he becomes very strong in that same area.

    Olivia, if you can tie all those threads together without overwhelming the story and the characters, I’m sure your stories are richer for those many threads. I love stories that are thread heavy, as long as the threads are connected and the picture or pattern they create makes sense by the time the book is done.

  5. Beth says:

    John, I mentioned exceptions but forgot to mention that there are exceptions in writers too. There are those, such as yourself, who don’t make any of these mistakes.

    Of course, I do have another article coming soon—More Common Writing Mistakes…

  6. Kat Sheridan says:

    I may be guilty on the latest WIP of being plot heavy–then again, I do adore that sort of thing. From judging writing contests lately, teh biggest errors I’ve seen are way too much backstroy too early, and way more telling than showing. That last one is the worst, and I end up at a loss to explain to writers what the difference is and how to fix it.

  7. Beth says:

    Kat, I find a lot of telling too. That’s one of those concepts that’s turned on as if by a switch. Once the writer finally gets it, he’s got it forever. It’s just that until the writer understands the difference between telling and showing—reporting and inviting the reader into the story—he’ll probably write a lot of telling scenes.

    I’ve got a brief article on telling vs. showing.

  8. Kat Sheridan says:

    Oh, I LOVE that article! From now, I will simply link folks to it and let them read for themselves. And you’re right, I think once folks get it, they get it. Until they do, it’s like trying to explain probability analysis to a child.

  9. Beth says:

    Steve, do you mean you do all of these? Perhaps if we join you and John we’ll have a more typical writer.

    Nice to see you here.

  10. Vivian A says:

    Great list. I’m definitely guilty of multiple mistakes. Where did I put that eraser?

    Oh, even better- delete, delete, delete…

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