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7 Common Writing Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them)

Writing is hard.

Editing your own work is, some would argue, harder.

What are some common mistakes editors watch for?

1) Let’s start with something pretty common: the overuse of “that.” Everyone does it; we use them when we speak, so they sneak into our writing. The trick is to go through and cut the ones that aren’t needed before the book gets handed off to someone else. Removing excess “that”s is a process a colleague and I used to call a “thatectomy,” and it never ceases to amaze me how many find their way into manuscripts.

2) One of the biggest issues I run into is the concept of “show, don’t tell.” I’m sure every writer has heard this one over and over, and that’s because it’s true. Don’t describe what’s going on directly; make me feel it, see it, believe it. Give me action.

3) Here’s a tough one: crafting natural-sounding dialogue. Dialogue should sound like how people actually talk. As in the rest of your writing, sentence structure should be varied. It’s okay to add a few ellipses (when someone trails off) and em dashes (when someone is interrupted), because this happens in real life.

3.5) Be careful how you use dialogue tags. In most cases, “she said,” “he answered,” or “he asked” are just fine. No need to run to the thesaurus to use “questioned,” “queried,” “opined,” “interjected,” or, my personal (not) favorite, “ejaculated.” Using these less-common tags throw the reader out of the story, which is the last thing you want them to do. “Said” and “asked” are common and easily read-over, which is just what you need here.

4) Speaking of not running to the thesaurus, don’t turn to synonyms unnecessarily. A thesaurus is great if you’re looking for that one word that you can’t quite put a finger on, but it should be used very sparingly.

5) One writing practice to cut down on is the use of passive voice—cut out as many unnecessary “to be” verbs as you can. Own the action, make the characters own the action. “There was a haystack in the middle of the field,” for instance, can change to, “A haystack stood in the middle of the field.” The sentence is not only a little bit shorter, but stronger.

6) Another common issue is adding too much backstory. It’s absolutely wonderful when every character has a story and a history, but the reader doesn’t necessarily need to know all that—or if they do, it can be doled out in small pieces, rather than dumped in all at once. That leads us to “info-dumping,” when a writer “dumps” all the relevant information of a place, person, or event in one spot. Parse out what’s necessary to advance the story, and what will only bog it down.

7) One final thing—be sure there’s conflict, a hook, a reason to keep reading. We read as a form of escapism. Without conflict of some sort, why will we keep reading? Conflict can be person against person, person against nature, person against god, person against animal . . . the list goes on and on.

How can one writer possibly look out for all these things while they write? Well, here’s the thing: with the first draft, don’t focus too much on all these at once. Or even any of them. The first draft can simply be getting the story down on paper, knowing you’ll be coming back later to fill in the blanks, fix the plot holes and mistakes, and tighten the dialogue. How many drafts this takes is up to each author. Each time you look at a draft, focus on a few different elements. For example, after the first draft, the next step may be to work on the deep, developmental issues—issues with the plot and flow. As it gets cleaner, move to focusing on the nitty-gritty grammatical issues.

Keep your favorite reference books nearby, and your favorite editor on speed-dial.

And remember . . .

Published inEditingUncategorizedWriting

4 Comments

  1. maria maria

    Love this!! My worst fault is using the passive voice. Always.

    • I struggle with this one, too (you should’ve seen the editing this one went through before posting). It’s so easy to slip into and so much fun to edit out—it’s like a game to see how to improve it.

  2. Very interesting suggestions. While the contrary part of myself that read Francine Prose wants to point out “there are no rules” to writing, you ably show the many important rules that editors like to follow. I can’t say I agree 100% with everything you lay out here but there is no denying the major themes of this blog post are extremely relevant. To me. 🙂

    5 and 6 I would say I especially struggle with, although I definitely see myself doing all of these at one point or another. Turning things from passive to present does tighten up the story and make it seem more real. On the “info dumps” – I also do this and agree that it’s better to spread out information like this throughout the character’s time on the page.

    Great post, and very informed by what you must have witnessed over the years at NSP and elsewhere. Thanks for the advice and support!!!

    • Yes, for every rule, there is a rule meant to be broken! For example, for years and years I followed the “no present tense” rule when reading through acquisitions, but . . . sometimes it really works and is worth accepting. It’s the beauty of writing and editing in this crazy English language—if it’s done well, there can be a lot of leeway. I think it boils down to something Corinne used to say, which is that you have to learn the rules and know how to implement them first, and only when you’ve proved that you can do that can you break them.

      Thanks for reading and commenting, John! Always fun to see your insights.

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