Common Writing Mistakes - Are These Holding You Back
From Writing Success?

by Marg McAlister

During the years that I've been teaching writing and participating in writers' critique sessions, I've seen some real talent. There are writers who produce such sparkling prose that you know publication is only a matter of time.

There are others who have wonderful ideas, terrific plots and lively characters, but who may never see their work in print. The reason? They are making one or more writing mistakes that will cause an editor to toss their writing aside. Often, when these mistakes are brought to the writer's attention, she makes comments like 'I can't believe I didn't pick that up!' or 'Oh no, I feel so stupid'.

It's so easy to see those mistakes when they're pointed out to us, but it's also far too easy to go on for years doing the same thing if we're not alerted to the problem.

Here are some of the most common writing mistakes. Read through them to see if there's a clue here about what might be stopping you from getting a 'yes'!

Technical Mistakes - Grammar, Spelling and Punctuation

1. Changes in tense

The writer starts in the present tense then slips into past tense or vice versa. Sometimes this happens only once during the scene or story; sometimes the tenses switch back and forth all the way through. Tip: Quite often this happens after the writer has moved into the present tense to show the character's thoughts. For example:

Laura ran down the steps. She shaded her eyes and stared down the road. There was a plume of dust at the bend. Is that Robin? Will he remember me?

She races off to meet the car, her heart leaping.

2. Changes in person

The writer starts off in third person then slips into first person:

Laura was incredibly happy. She had never expected to see Robin again. Now he was here, looking taller and more handsome than ever.

I flew into his arms. 'Robin! You're here!'

'Laura,' he acknowledged stiffly. He didn't return my hug.

Often this occurs at dramatic or emotional moments, when the writer tends to identify more strongly with the viewpoint character. Sometimes, as with changes in tense, it follows the use of the character's thoughts.

3. Misuse of the apostrophe

This is an incredibly common mistake. If your manuscript is peppered with apostrophes in the wrong place (or you leave them out altogether) you won't create a good impression. Some people seem to think that every word ending in 's' should have an apostrophe in it, so you get odd constructions like this:

Laura recognized the suitcase. It was her's all right, with it's broken clasp. She'd used it to store all of Robin's letter's to her.

In particular, learn to differentiate between the possessive pronoun its and the contraction it's. The possessive pronoun never has an apostrophe. (She recognized its broken clasp.) The contraction it's (which is short for it is or it has) always has an apostrophe. It's quite easy to work out which is which if you can substitute the longer form 'it is' or 'it has', then use it's. If you cannot substitute these expressions, then you are using the possessive pronoun which does not require an apostrophe.

4. Spelling

Your first resource is the spell check on your computer. However, this won't pick up everything - if you've made a typo that is also a real word (such as typing 'met' instead of 'meet') the spell check won't pick it up. Nor will it pick up the use of 'beach' instead of 'beech', since both are real words. If you know that spelling is a weakness, try to get a friend who is a strong speller to check your work.

Mistakes in Style

1. Head-hopping

The writer decides it would be nice if the reader could be privy to what was going on in everyone's mind, so hops blithely from one head to another. (I've seen stories with half a dozen viewpoints in one page.) Sometimes it works to let the reader know what is going on in the minds of two characters in a scene, but use this very carefully or you can lose your reader. You'll get much more emotional punch into your work if you let the reader 'become' your viewpoint character, seeing everything (and feeling everything) from one person's point of view.

2. Overuse of 'As, '...as' and '...ing'

Check your work to make sure it is not sprinkled with sentences that begin with 'As' or '...ing' words, or that have 'as' joining two actions. Usually this has the effect of slowing the pace and setting the reader at a distance. The participle construction ('...ing' words) has a particularly amateurish flavour when placed at the beginning of a sentence. When you can, use alternatives.

3. Overuse of qualifiers

Some writers like to use liberal doses of words like 'very', 'extremely', 'fairly', 'somewhat' and so on. This weakens your writing. Use strong verbs instead. Rather than 'he was extremely happy', say 'he was delighted'; instead of 'somewhat annoyed' say 'irritated' or 'irked' or 'furious', depending on the degree of annoyance!

4. Dull or stilted narrative

There are lots of reasons for this one - some of them fit into pacing problems (see following section) as well. However, if your writing seems flat, look at these things:

  • Repetitive sentence beginnings. When you revise your work, watch for too many sentences starting with 'He', 'She', or 'I'.

  • Repetitive sentence structure. This can apply anywhere in your text. In dialogue, it could be that you're using the same pattern all the time - e.g. speech + tag + action: 'I don't think I can do that right now,' she said, walking to the door, and 'Leave me alone,' she yelled, hitting him on the arm.

  • Overly formal and correct sentence structure. People don't think in formal sentences and they often speak in sentence fragments. Let your text reflect this.

Mistakes in Plotting and Pacing

1. Starting too early or having too much description in the early pages

Don't feel you have to explain everything to the reader in the first two pages - or even the first chapter. Yes, you should make it easy for the reader to identify with the main character, and that means giving some pertinent details - but don't feel that you have to give a detailed description of what the character looks like and long-winded descriptions of everything that led up to the present situation. Weave details in at pertinent spot - and never dump in too much information at once.

2. Pace too slow

Pace should be controlled through scenes. Create scenes with plenty of action and conflict, then slow things down to let the character (and the reader) catch his breath by using a 'sequel' - the aftermath of a scene, where the character decides what to do next. If you need to speed things up, keep the sequel short. If you want to slow things down, expand the length of the sequel.

If your story still seems to drag, look at these other things:

  • The length of your sentences (Too many long sentences slow the pace.)

  • The amount of description (Too flowery? Too wordy? Not allowing the reader to bring their own experiences and knowledge to the scene?)

  • The way you handle dialogue (Do your characters use overly formal sentences? Do you use too many speech tags or do you have too much narrative between exchanges of dialogue?)

  • Your use of flashbacks. Flashbacks always slow the pace. They stop the forward motion of the story while the character remembers something that happens in the past.

  • The amount of thinking done by the viewpoint character. She mulls over this and agonises over that until the reader is ready to scream. Think: action!

3. Lack of believable motivation

It's painfully obvious when the writer is forcing the characters to take action simply because that's what the plot dictates. Treat your characters like real people. Allow them to behave and react in a way that suits their personalities. (For example: don't let your heroine fail to take action just so you can place her in jeopardy, when any sensible human being would yell for help or run like hell.) Don't ever risk having your reader say in disgust 'As if she would really do that!'

4. Writing from an adult's point of view in a children's story

Many adults think they'd like to write for children. However, they forget that kids identify with other kids. Your young readers don't want to be looking on from an adult's point of view when the main character is involved in the action. (Ask: whose story is this? The adult's or the child's?) Learn to look through the eyes of a child. Plot your entire story from a child's viewpoint.

5. Plots that go nowhere

Beware 'slice of life' stories that are essentially scenes rather than stories. Your story should have a beginning, a middle and an end. There should be conflict and character growth. Make sure there's a story question (your reader keeps turning pages to find out whether the heroine does get her man (or how she gets him) or if young Jack succeeds in finding out what was causing the mysterious noises in the night'.)

Mistakes in Editing and Polishing

1. Not leaving enough time to edit

This is the number one problem with the work not only of beginners but writers at all levels. The temptation to go quickly through that draft 'one last time' so you can get it in the mail is almost overwhelming.

DON'T. Leave your short stories for a week. Leave your novels for at least a month - the longer the better. You need to see your work with fresh eyes. If you've just finished your story, you're far too close to it to be objective. You'd be doing yourself a favour to send it out to a few carefully selected readers when you finish, before you even look at it again.

2. Glossing over plotting problems

It's easier to fix errors in style than to fix plotting problems. If you strike problems with the plot, it can mean rewriting large chunks of the book. This is painful, so writers avoid it whenever possible. They become 'blind' to their own mistakes more because they don't want to face the pain of a structural edit than because they don't recognize the problems.

The best remedy for this is to ask yourself: 'Would I rather get a rejection from an editor because of the problems I can see myself, or fix them now and have a better chance of getting an acceptance?' Even more pertinent: 'Do I want reviewers to point out the problems with the plot after the book is published, or fix them myself now?'

These are just a few of the common mistakes that writers make. If you belong to a critique group, or you exchange work with another writer, try identifying these and other mistakes in each other's work.

(c) Marg McAlister

Marg McAlister's writing site and ezine are full of
up-to-date, practical advice for writers.
Get timely tips to ensure writing success
both online and in print:
http://www.writing4success.com

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