Most Common Writing Mistakes
One of the most useful resources I've found for improving my writing is K.M. Weiland's blog, Helping Writers Become Authors, but most specifically her collection of the most common writing mistakes. I refer to this all the time, not only because she's got them right, but because she explains them so well. It doesn't matter that she writes in a different genre, these mistakes are pretty much universally important to avoid.
K.M. Weiland makes the point that even established authors encounter these issues. So here's the list, and be sure to subscribe to her mailing list as she adds to the list frequently and has a host of other writing tips.
Mistake #1: Verbs That Tell Instead of Show
Learn how to keep your eyes open for places where you can effortlessly strengthen your scene by using verbs that show instead of tell.
Mistake #2: Are You Using “There” as a Crutch?
Whenever you see the word “there” used as a pronoun, you can be sure it’s being used as a crutch to hold up a weak and passive sentence.
Mistake #3: Poor Cause and Effect
If you can strengthen the narrative of your story by showing a logical progression of cause and effect, you’ll end up with leaner prose, more honest character reactions, and more involved readers.
Mistake #4: Vague Writing
As the creator of your story’s worlds and characters, you don’t have to wallow in the quagmire of vague details and fuzzy ideas. You can make statements of authority because, if you’re not the authority in your stories, who is?
Mistake #5: Incorrect Speaker Tags and Action Beats
Let’s a take a look at two means for indicating speakers and varying the rhythm of speech and narrative: the speaker tag and the action beat.
Mistake #6: Overpowering First-Person Narrator
The first-person narrator, more than any other type of narrator, is inclined to lapse into self-centered telling, in which he overpowers the story, at the expense of the other characters and even the plot itself.
Mistake #7: Opening Lines That Lie to Readers
Your opening line may be bristling with energy, danger, and barbed fishhooks with which to reel in your readers, but if the paragraph that follows pulls the old switcheroo, your reader is more likely to be irritated than impressed.
Mistake #8: 10 Stylistic Mistakes
Make sure you’re not letting any of these potentially tragic gaffes sabotage your readers’ trust in your competency.
Mistake #9: Nothing Happening in Your Scene
Let’s take a look-see at some of the signs your scene may be more of the nothin’ sort than the happenin’ sort.
Mistake #10: Character Overload
When authors are dealing with large casts of characters, readers sometimes find themselves in grave danger of character overload.
The wrong choice of just a single word can be enough to give readers a completely different (and wrong) perspective of your character.
Mistake #12: Flabby Flashbacks
To flashback or not to flashback? Sooner or later, that’s a question every writer is confronted with.
Mistake #13: Too Much Explanation
Always be aware of why you’re including a particular explanation, then reevaluate it to determine its value. Don’t be afraid to chop it if it’s interrupting the information that’s of true importance to your story.
Mistake #14: Vanishing Setting Syndrome
Authors see everything so perfectly that we don’t always realize we’re not providing readers the necessary details to allow them to properly visualize the setting.
Mistake #15: Non-Reactive and Over-Reactive Characters
Character reaction can be difficult to portray without falling into one of two pitfalls: non-reaction or over-reaction.
Mistake #16: Not Enough Tension
Tension is the threat of conflict. It’s conflict’s calmer–but no less potent–cousin.
Mistake #17: Characters Who Lack Purpose
The result of any of these purpose-sapping boredom causers will be treacle-slow scenes that fail to move the plot forward–and probably don’t do much to advance character either.
Mistake #18: Skipping the Best Parts of the Story
Sometimes, without even realizing it, writers can end up skipping the best parts and leaving readers growling their frustration.
Mistake #19: Overusing “Suddenly”
“Suddenly” has this ironic tendency to mitigate the very effect it’s trying to create.
Mistake #20: Poor Use of Dialect in Dialogue
If you can’t use phonetic spellings to indicate a character’s accent or dialect, then what can you do?
Mistake #21: Over-Explaining
Over-explaining can manifest in several ways, but the core of the problem is always repetition–and it’s usually symptomatic of authorial insecurity.
Mistake #22: Scenes That Focus on What Isn’t Happening
When we place the emphasis on non-actions, we’re failing to tell readers what they should be visualizing.
Mistake #23: Overly Complex Prose
Used wrongly or too often, complex prose can create distance between your readers and your words–or, worse, just leave them confused.
Mistake #24: Animate Body Parts
Animate body parts can create ludicrous or even confusing images and remove the emphasis from the primary actor.
Mistake #25: Characters Who Lack Solid Story Goals
If you can give your character solid story goals that keep him running through your plot, you will never have to worry about boring readers.
Mistake #26: Under-Explaining
Avoiding under-explanation comes down to a few key techniques.
Mistake #27: Weak Character Voice
Weak character voice is often due to the simple problem of too much telling in your narrative.
Mistake #28: Choppy Prose
Authors need to be aware of the difference between lean prose and choppy prose–and learn to avoid the latter.
Mistake #29: Stories That Begin Too Early
If you are wondering whether or not you might have opened your story too soon, ask yourself these questions.
Mistake #30: Nonsensical Character Choreography
Surprisingly, one of the most difficult parts of describing character movements is sometimes simply remembering to describe those movements in the first place.
Mistake #31: One-Dimensional Conflict
Conflict is an essential ingredients of fiction. But one-dimensional conflict is not enough to plumb the depths of a story’s potential. Find out why!
Mistake #32: Boring Opening Lines
Consider some standard types of boring opening lines and what you can do to flip them around into something fascinating.
Mistake #33: Telling Important Scenes, Instead of Showing
How do you know when a scene is important enough to warrant full-on showing? Consider the following checklist.
Mistake #34: Repetitive Dialogue
At first glance, repetitive dialogue may seem to be nothing more than lazy writing. But even experienced authors can get caught in the trap.
Mistake #35: Random Story Elements
Random doesn’t sound so bad upfront. But give this insidious little devil half a chance, and it will unravel your story’s cohesion in the blink of a scene.
Mistake #36: Too Much Introspection, Not Enough Interaction
When you end up with characters doing more observing than acting, this is often a sign you’re avoiding the best parts of your story.
Mistake #37: Unnecessary Filler
As we continue to discuss the most common writing mistakes, we’d be remiss to leave out the all-too-prevalent faux pas of unnecessary filler or padding.
Mistake #38: Irrelevant Book Endings
One of the easiest writing mistakes to fall into in your book endings is actually one that has much to do with book beginnings–and, indeed, the entirety of your book.
Mistake #39: Referencing Characters by Title Rather Than Name
In the time it takes to write two words, you might distance readers from your narrative. Luckily, the fix is an easy one. Find out what it is!
Mistake #40: Unnecessary Scenes
Discover four types of unnecessary scenes that may be sinking your book – and three ways to find them and kill them.
Mistake #41: Inferring Non-POV Characters’ Thoughts
Is your narrator killing subtext by inferring other characters’ thoughts too accurately? Find out!
Mistake #42: When Your Story Stakes Aren’t High Enough
There are two different ways you can blow your story stakes–and both of them have the ability to ruin your book. Find out how to avoid them!
Mistake #43: Too Many Exclamation Points!
Sometimes, exclamation points will be legitimate. But more often than not, they’re simply going to be overkill. Learn how to tell the difference!
Mistake #44: Too Many Participle Phrases
Find out when participle phrases (those “-ing” words) are acceptable–and when are they not. Will using them make your book unacceptable to editors?
Mistake #45: Avoiding “Said”
Turns out if you get your story’s narrative voice right from the very start, everything else has a much better chance of falling into place like magic.
Mistake #46: Anticlimactic Endings
Here’s how to write books readers love–and yet still hate you for. It’s easy. All you have to do is divebomb into anticlimactic endings.
Mistake #47: Ineffective Setting Descriptions
Setting descriptions can be surprisingly tricky to detail effectively. Are you committing these three mistakes? Find out how they’re harming your story.
Mistake #48: No Conflict Between Characters
Are you characters happy? They shouldn’t be! Learn to tackle this common writing mistake caused by lack of interpersonal conflict.
Mistake #49: Weak Conjunctions
Bad news: most authors are blind to their weak conjunctions. Good news: once you are aware of them, they’re super easy to fix.
Mistake #50: Info Dumps
Learn how to avoid four lethal types of info dumps, and, even better, how to use them as opportunities to strengthen every part of your writing.
Mistake #51: One-Dimensional Characters
Is your character a one-trick pony? Learn four tricks for turning your one-dimensional character into a three-dimensional bombshell.
Mistake #52: Stagnant Story Conflict
Too many authors write story conflict that isn’t so much conflict as a delaying tactic to fill their books. Learn how to fix this problem before it starts!
Mistake #53: No Contractions in Dialogue
Find out why contractions in dialogue need to find a place in your writing—along with a few exceptions, in which it is actually best to avoid them.
Mistake #54: Story Events That Don’t Move the Plot
Once you understand what to look for, you can find and fix even the most extraneous of story events before they derail your book’s narrative.
Mistake #55: Beginning Your Story Too Late
If you have the sadly sinking suspicion you might be beginning your story too late, consider these six signs and solutions.
Mistake #56: Unfulfilled Foreshadowing
Learn the three ways you can go wrong with unfulfilled foreshadowing, as well as five ways to avoid accidentally creating it in the first place.
I think it's worth commenting that all advice of this sort can be useful to consider, especially if you find anything new in it, but that it should be applied judiciously and critically--or rejected critically when it doesn't suit you. That's, of course, the hardest part: finding out what works in context and what fits your own style or goals. Usually we don't know what those are when we set out.
One bit of basic advice which has helped me was to one to avoid using "suddenly." A lot of sudden things happen in my writing. As I've said elsewhere, I tend to describe a pretty anarchic world. So I don't use the word "suddenly" as much as I used to, but I don't avoid it altogether, I just check each sentence to see whether paraphrasing, finding a synonym, or simply eliminating the word "suddenly" will work. And, yeah, very often just cutting it out is best.
That can be radical too, in a way that readers won't even notice is radical. At times, by avoiding this kind of language, I've found it's possible to approach the kind of "no-style" style that you can see in Njal's Saga: Many simple declarative sentences without adverbs, without many adjectives, without metaphor, without simile, using fewer conjunctions that most writers use--just this happened, this happened, this happened. It's radical because soon there's no authorial perspective, just events. It can be opaque in terms of purpose, and character motivation may also be largely absent. It becomes fatalistic writing.
The Bible, too, can have this strange kind of opaque, non-editorial voice, as when God says to Moses to return to Egypt, and Moses goes along as told, and God meets him and attempts to kill him, and Zipporah cuts someone's foreskin off and places it on someone's feet (the pronouns are ambiguous here) and problem solved. Huh, what?! Okay, then we move on to the next event...
Yet, there are times when "suddenly" is just the right word.
It would be interesting to attack each of these writing-mistake tips with counterexamples from good writers. The first obvious counterexample that came to my mind was for the advice to avoid an "overpowering first-person narrator." Where would Nabokov and his Lolita be if he were not willing to jettison this advice right out the window?
All fair points. I think such great writers are the exception though. For example, it is possible to write a really good book with the worst spelling and grammar, but for most of us, we're not good enough to throw common conventions out the window and still have a chance of success.