Some writing memoirs tell a story that feel like destiny. Stephen King talks in his book on writing about how he had a 9-inch spike in his bedroom wall and practically filled it with rejection slips before he reached adolescence. Lawrence Block talks about wallpapering his dorm room with rejection slips. Christopher Paolini, author of Eregon had the good sense to have parents in the publishing industry.
For the rest of us, the road to professional writing is fraught with errors, omissions, and false starts. Don’t fret, though. Here’s a list of some of the most common mistakes. Use it to avoid them, so you can go bravely forward to make new, unique, and exciting mistakes of your own!
1. Apostrophe Abuse
If you’re guilty of this at the beginning of your writing career, don’t beat yourself up too badly. You see this mistake on signs made by professional signmakers, for business names lawyers and other educated people thought were okay. Here’s the thing:
- Use an apostrophe when contracting a word, for example that is becomes that’s
- Do not use an apostrophe when indicating a plural. One ski plus another ski is skis. Never, ever ski’s
- Use an apostrophe to indicate possession. If the ski belongs to Nancy. It is Nancy’s
- The exception to the possession rule is with the word its. It’s always and only means it is. If the ski belongs to it, you write its ski.
Memorize and learn to love these rules.
2. Editing Your Own Work
I get it. Editing your own work has a few serious advantages. It takes less time, usually, than waiting for a professional to do the work. It costs significantly less. It gives you a greater level of control. But there’s a problem.
We’re all terrible at editing our own work. Real editing, especially proofreading, takes fresh eyes on the page. Even if you edit professionally for other people, you will still be bad at editing what you’ve written.
Spring for a professional editor before your work goes public. If you’re really hard up for cash, get two editors on Fiverr.com for ¼ to 1/10th of a cent per word each. Neither will catch everything but between them they’ll catch most errors.
3. Fear of Marketing
The legend of the artistic writer living in a garret and never dealing with the sales and business side of writing may never have been real, and it certainly isn’t real now. To succeed as a writer, you need to learn how to sell your writing…and to enjoy it.
But there’s good news.
You’ve sold books before. Every time you recommend a book you love to somebody in your life, you’ve sold your book. Now it’s time to go do the same thing with books you’ve written. If you can’t get excited enough about your work to recommend it, go back and write better books.
4. Getting Too Fancy Too Soon
One cool thing about writing is you can get really ambitious with the kind of story you want to tell. Experienced authors try cool tricks like:
- Large casts of multiple viewpoints
- Cleft sentences
- Unreliable narrators
- Sweeping, epic stories over multiple decades
- Reverse long openings
- Extended metaphors
These can all make a good book great, and they’re a lot of fun to write, but they’re often too tricky for beginning writers to pull off. Start with a simple narrative told cleanly and directly, and save the advanced stuff for when you’ve grown in the craft.
5. Grammatical Dialogue
Imagine the following conversation:
“How are you today?”
“I am fine, how are you?”
“I am doing well, thank you.”
The dialogue in that conversation is grammatically correct, but rings completely false, because people don’t speak with proper grammar. They use sentence fragments, slang, and colloquialisms. They stop and start abruptly. Good dialogue reflects this:
“Oh, hey Carl!”
“Can’t complain. You?”
“Not too shabby, mate. Thanks for asking.”
6. Inconsistent Point of View
Point of view refers to the lens through which your writing shows the reader what happens in your story. It might be through the experience of a single person inside their own head, or from an outside observer sticking close to one person, or even through the experiences of a wide variety of characters each visited in sequence.
Your choice of point of view is entirely up to you. What’s not up to you is whether or not you remain true to that choice throughout your book. If you’re writing from the point of view of one character, that character can’t know the secrets of other characters until they witness those secrets. If you’re bouncing from one character to another, each scene must stick with the perspective, knowledge, and even biases of the appropriate character at all times.
Readers rarely pick up a book knowing everything they must about the setting, characters, and context of the story inside. That means one of your jobs as an author is to give them enough of that knowledge to stay oriented during the action on the page.
Never do this in large blocks of expository text. These drop the reader out of immersion, and are one of the main reasons people put books down and never pick them up again. Instead, dole out single sentences of information over the course of several scenes, giving readers just enough knowledge to keep up. This keeps them immersed and adds a mystery to their experience.
And no, infodumping in a single conversation between several characters is still not okay. It’s such a common and disliked technique it has a slang term: “Maid and butler conversation.”
8. No Hook
Your book has to start strong. If it warms up slowly, many readers won’t have the patience to get to the good part. your first sentence gets them through the first paragraph.Your first paragraph gets them through the first page. Your first page gets them through the first chapter. Forget this at your peril.
One good technique to keep a strong opening is to start late. Open your story at the last possible moment you can without losing vital scenes and information. You’ll usually start in the middle of some action that way, and take the reader along for the ride.
9. Overusing Your Thesaurus
I blame middle school english teachers for the prevalence of this one. At some point, you had to do an exercise or even an essay where you varied your word choice arbitrarily because your teacher thought that was good writing.
It rarely is. Although varying your word choice, and intentionally avoiding words you overuse, is important, digging into your thesaurus because you want to be varied and fancy rarely works out. Most of the time, readers want simple, accessible words they understand. Your instincts are almost always right when it comes to word choice. Don’t go far afield unless the writing demands it.
10. Research Problems
This mistake comes in two varieties: too little research, and too much.
If you do too little research for the story you’re telling, readers who know about it will be kicked out of immersion. For example, if you set a story about a detective who lives in Chicago, readers familiar with the Windy City will be annoyed when you use the wrong slang or ignore how the streets are laid out. If you write a fantasy novel without at least passing familiarity with horses, you’re setting yourself up for a problem.
On the other hand, there’s a fine line between research and procrastination. More than one writer has wound up far behind schedule because they went too deep, and ultimately used it as an excuse to not do the harder, scarier work of actually putting words on the page.
Strike the balance in between. It’s the only way to be sure.
11. Passive Voice
Passive voice creates a distance between the reader and what’s happening on the page, and generally you should avoid it. For example:
- I ate a pie vs. The pie was eaten by me
- He hit the mugger vs. The mugger was hit by him
- The dog bit the car vs. The car was bitten by the dog
In all three cases, one of the phrases is more vibrant, direct, and action-packed. For the most part, you should avoid using passive voice.
There are times, especially when you want to create that distance, that passive voice is useful and important. Your best bet is to eliminate passive voice, then change back any sentences that don’t feel right after you’ve made the change.
12. White Room Syndrome
This is writing that lacks context in physical reality, where you put dialogue or action on the page without descriptions of what’s going on around that action or dialogue. The scenes you write seem to happen in a blank, white room. That’s how it got its name.
Although it’s also important to avoid unnecessary detail that bogs down the story, look for a handful of details that can help immerse the reader in your scene. Use two or three of the five senses, and put in just enough to make the scene live and breathe.
All Right Then…
The purpose of this kind of advice isn’t to freeze you with fear of making these common mistakes. Instead it’s to give you the benefit of what I learned while making these mistakes an embarrassingly long time into my career as a writer.
That’s the great thing about writing. Your keyboard has a delete button. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, but don’t give yourself permission to keep them in the final draft.