Don’t settle for good when you could be better
So you want to write a short story or maybe even a novel. Your idea is ready, you have an outline, and you’re raring to go. Or you’ve finished a piece and you’re wondering if it’s good enough to release into the world.
You don’t want the editor or agent to pass on it because of errors you could and should have fixed before submission.
You also don’t want to give your reader any reason to put down your manuscript or click away from the page.
Just because you’ve read published work that wasn’t that good doesn’t mean your work should be sub par.
Here are ten common writing errors new writers make and how to correct them.
1. Weak Concepts Don’t Fly
What’s the central drive of your narrative? What differentiates it from the next story and the others that came before it? If you’re writing about a married woman who is unhappy with her life, you’d better have a unique take on that.
Sometimes you’re writing an anecdote rather than a story, and that isn’t enough to hold a reader. An anecdote stays in one place but a story moves. The characters are changed in some way by the events.
Make sure your story has a start, middle, and end. Follow genre conventions, even if you leave some loose threads for the next book. A romance must end with the main characters together, at least for the moment. A mystery must be solved.
2. Poor Pacing is a Drag
Readers have multiple media competing for shortening attention spans. It’s vital to hook their attention and hold it.
- Starting too early kills the pace. We don’t care about the journey to work, it’s what happened at the office that matters.
- Failure to raise the stakes as time goes on can cause readers to lose interest.
- Too much action without actual plot leaves your reader wondering why any of it matters.
To correct these try the following.
- Follow the screenwriters’ rule: get in late and leave early. Write the interesting part where a situation develops or characters interact, and leave the rest out.
- Check that your characters are facing larger challenges as a consequence of their earlier choices. Making their life difficult is more interesting.
- Starting in the middle of things is good advice, but we need to care about the characters first. A huge battle only matters when the readers are invested, so spend time establishing who the players are and why they act as they do.
3. Overwriting Weighs a Story Down
Don’t let your love of words get in the way of your story. Less is more when you’re writing for the reader and not yourself. An overly detailed description can stop a story in its tracks.
Trust your reader. Give each character one or two interesting features without describing everything and you’ll inject more life into them than a list ever could. Let the reader fill in some details in her head; that’s one of the joys of reading.
Tighten up your prose by removing crutch words.
This tool helps you find and destroy clichés.
4. Telling not Showing
Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
Telling robs significant moments of their power.
When the cop finds the third body, don’t say he was angry.
Describe his actions so we can work out what he feels. Show him walking away, throwing his latex gloves on the ground; gripping the steering wheel, his stomach churning; drinking his third whisky, ignoring his team playing on the screen above the bar.
Telling is essential of course. Telling summarises action and gets us from one scene to the next. Rather than describing the cop’s uneventful drive home, jump to him fumbling with his front door key. Instead of walking us through every hour of his restless night, he wakes bleary-eyed.
Give your pivotal and climactic scenes the page time they deserve so the reader doesn’t feel shortchanged. Whenever you’re tempted to write a perception such as he thought, felt or knew something, stop. Find another way and let the reader do some work.
5. Dialogue Tag Troubles
Dialogue tags are a frequent source of errors new writers make.
Many writers and editors advise that ‘said’ is the only dialogue tag you need. It’s the most versatile and tends to disappear when read. The dialogue should make the emotional tone clear.
There will be occasions where ‘said’ isn’t precise enough. Avoid adverbs such as quietly, loudly, angrily and so on. Use a stronger verb such as whispered, called, yelled, but consider whether you’re telling what you should be showing by actions.
You can get around overuse of ‘said’ and make your writing more varied by using action tags.
“Is this okay?” She held out the report.
He scanned it, then put it on the table. “I think it’s all there.”
Notice that the tag is on the same line as the dialogue it belongs to. Getting this wrong is irritating and confusing for the reader, who can’t follow who is doing what.
If you have dialogue between two people, you can leave out some tags. Be sure your reader can follow, either by using different speech patterns or by actions.
6. Point of View Problems
Point of View (POV) ranges from the distant, omniscient third person typical of fairy tales to the immediate, internal first person typical of modern YA novels. For example:
Once upon a time in a land far, far away, a poor boy was making his way home. A great storm was brewing over the horizon.
My ragged shirt was no match for the rain and I shivered, already soaked to the skin.
Emma Darwin discusses the use of different POV here but you must make your choice and stick to it.
Imagine there is a camera stuck to your POV character’s head. It sees only what he sees. Therefore write what he sees and knows and nothing else. Things that happen outside his view can only be revealed in dialogue unless you’re writing in the omniscient 3rd person.
This avoids head-hopping, where the camera jumps from one person’s perception to another in the same scene. The character can’t see his own expression unless he’s looking in the mirror. So you can write that his face felt hot but not that he looked embarrassed, which his companion can observe.
It’s tempting to write something like, “I didn’t realise then that this storm would change my life.” That destroys both POV and pacing. As the author, you know everything. Resist the impulse to give your plot points away, and leave the reader guessing.
7. What Time Is It?
Is your character’s story unfolding now or in the past? Use of present tense is more popular now, especially linked with first person POV. It gives the narrative immediacy and is immersive. You live the events with the narrator in real time.
Past tense remains the most familiar choice.
Tense is not the same as POV. You can write first person, present tense: I run to the store.
Or you can write first person, past tense: I ran to the store.
Shifting between past and present can be an effective stylistic device when used deliberately and with care. Be certain of your choice before you start. Rewriting a whole work is tedious and careful editing would be even more essential than usual.
8. You’re Unbelievable
It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.
Fiction makes a contract between reader and writer. The reader agrees to treat the events as if they really happened by suspending their disbelief. The writer pledges to make the events seem believable. If not, the reader is pulled out of the story.
You’ve experienced a character doing something that makes you scratch your head or just say, “No way would that happen.” You know how frustrating that is.
Characters need to behave in ways consistent with the story and their motivations. As the all-seeing author, you might make them do something unexpected as long as it’s in line with the story’s resolution.
This means that you can add twists and surprises, but they must be foreshadowed in clues beforehand or explained by later events. Your hard-boiled female detective is unlikely to foster orphaned kittens, because of the different demands of each activity. But if she does, there’d better be credible explanations of how and why.
Having the protagonist get exactly what they need out of nowhere is lazy writing. Known as Deus ex machina, this device introduces a new and pivotal item just in time to save the day. You can use coincidence to get characters into trouble, but they have to fight their way out.
Don’t make life too easy for the characters. Make it impossible to reach their goal, and the eventual victory will be sweeter.
9. It’s All Too Much
Have you chosen a theme for your story or a symbolic motif? Be careful.
It’s okay that the weather mirrors your heroine’s mood. But it’s not okay if it’s always sunny when she’s happy, raining when she cries, stormy when she’s angry… you get the point.
Use a light hand with symbolism. Often theme only emerges when you read the complete story, and sometimes it’s clearer to other readers than to the writer. During editing, you can decide whether to add extra clues or tone it down.
Similarly, too much action in one scene can feel like being hit over the head repeatedly. Movies might get away with blowing things up every two minutes but most novels need some quieter space in between the action sequences.
Don’t go on so long that the reader gets bored. Show the aftermath and let the character’s development shine through. Strong language and strong emotion lose their power if overused, so add some contrast whether it’s a fight or a love scene.
10. Not Looking Good
Your words must look good on screen or in print. Correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation are essential.
Whether you self-publish or aim to be traditionally published, make sure the work you send out looks professional. Nobody wants to read work that’s littered with errors, giving the impression that the author doesn’t care.
You care, so fix your work. This 12 step self-editing checklist covers a range of tips and resources that will help you polish your drafts.
Finally, Get To The End
The secret is not following the right path, it’s following that right path to the end. Don’t quit, my friend, until you’ve arrived.
Unfinished works linger in the back of your brain, slowly draining your energy. You feel anxious and guilty about them.
Do whatever you need to finish. If you can’t let go, that’s a sign. Complete your piece somehow. You can’t query half a novel or publish half an article.
Eliminate as many of the issues above as you can, or trash the piece and start fresh.
Go to it. Your readers are waiting.
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