A common question I’ve been asked since starting this writing journey has to do with mistakes. Which makes perfect sense – everyone wants to know more than just what to do, they want to know what not to do.
I wanted to take the time today to talk about the five most common mistakes I see writers make (mostly beginners).
If you would rather hear me than read this
long-winded post, make sure to watch the video below!
Do not feel bad if you find yourself making any one of these mistakes. The first step to correcting it is realizing that you’re doing it, and the better you get as a writer, the easier it’ll be to naturally avoid these things.
That’s not to say that I never do any of these myself…I’m currently battling with a case of one of them in particular, but I’ll get into that in a minute.
These aren’t necessarily in any order, as I think all of them should be avoided equally.
A lot of new writers are concerned about writing enough for it to be considered an entire novel. Or they might be worried about writing every scene in fine detail so that the reader can picture it perfectly in their minds. Every beginning writer worries about this at some point, including me. I’ve come to realize, as most do, that I have plenty to write about. There’s no need to over explain a situation and oftentimes the reader can build an image in their minds with minimal description required from you.
One thing that greatly contributes to this is an excitement for writing. You’re finally doing it. You’re writing a story that’s been trapped in that brain of yours for months, sometimes years. At the end of a writing session, though, you might find that you’ve managed to write 1,600 words about your character getting ready in the morning. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being excited as long as you’re able to weed out the extra words in the editing phase.
To keep yourself from falling into the wordy McWord trap, you should periodically ask the question “Is this part really necessary?” Make sure that each word you write contributes something to the overall story. If it’s not developing your character or creating suspense, adding tension or setting the scene, then you probably shouldn’t take the time to write it.
Some people might say, “Well, I want people to get an idea of what my character is wearing so the scene feels real.” There’s an easy solution to this: describe the type of clothes they wear once and be done with it. “Robert was dressed in his usual way, always one to opt for comfort over style.” Boom. Done. Now every time after that you can simply say that Robert got dressed quickly and keep the story moving forward. You can always briefly mention their clothes, like “The dried blood had faded from red to a burnt brown, like rust on his white shirt.” But make sure you don’t shove a bunch of description down your reader’s throat. No one wants to read about a character brushing their teeth unless the toothpaste has poison in it or their neighbors house blows up at that exact moment.
Another thing that takes time for writers to discover is their own voice. When reading a novel, this can often be the feel of the novel. Rosamund Hodge’s voice makes any story feel like you’re sitting in front of a fireplace listening to ancient tales. Chuck Paliniuk feels short and choppy, like you’re in a car with touchy brakes. Your voice can be brief, eloquent, lyrical or fast-paced. Each author’s story feels different in some way, and this is what you want.
If you don’t have much of a voice, though, your writing can sound choppy. This is why it is so important to try to discover what your voice is and what you want it to be!
I think two big things affect the type of voice you have: the stories that you tell, and the way that you tell them. Rosamund Hodge’s voice fits perfectly with old fairy tales, in large part because that’s the broad topic she writes about. But the way that she tells them helps to support this. Many times, writers will be drawn to a particular subject matter because they’re passionate about it, which is very important for the writer. The way that each person writes that story, though, varies greatly depending on their sentence structure, word choice and individual stylistic preferences. Stephen King’s Little Red Riding Hood would sound nothing like Marie Lu’s.
If all writers had the same voice in writing, you’d get pretty bored of it, no matter what story they’re telling. Finding your voice can take time, and unfortunately the best way to do this is to continue writing. You’ll find your own rhythm and cadence of story-telling. You can also find your voice through reading, and noting which things you don’t like and which things you love. Over time you’ll end up incorporating these things and molding your own unique voice.
It’s good to be different from one another, but you should never try to copy someone else’s voice. If you’re inspired by someone’s voice, that’s a different thing. I found myself guilty of doing this after reading Harry Potter (because who doesn’t love J.K. Rowling’s voice in those books?). I subconsciously adopted her voice and felt like a creep when I reread what I had just written – because it wasn’t my voice. I was being an imposter. And many times, this sticks out to your reader just as much as it does to you.
I need action in a story. If I get to the end of a chapter and nothing has physically happened, I’m not a happy camper. I don’t need explosions and heavily panted running in every chapter, but physical things need to occur. And the best way to do that is through conflict.
There can internal conflict and external conflict, but I think each chapter needs at least one of those. When I read all about a character’s day and nothing happens it gets boring. I said this before, but each word you choose is precious. You need to hook your readers and keep them hooked – and the way to do that is always through conflict.
There is such a thing as too much conflict. A balance must be maintained, as with most aspects of writing. A TV show was particularly guilty of this, but I won’t give away any names. Not to give anything big away, but people die. And then they come back. Over and over and over. It got really old. It didn’t have the proper character-sympathizing scenes necessary for me to worry about them dying. They just killed them and brought them back. In this case, I felt numbed to their attempts at conflict, which is something you never want your reader to go through.
This is something that always stands out like a sore thumb to me. Why? Because this was one of my own biggest mistakes in my early writing. In high school I placed 4th (i.e. I didn’t win anything) in a writing competition at a conference. The judges actually came up to me to tell me why I hadn’t placed 1st – I had switched my tenses several times.
Somehow, up until that point, it wasn’t something that I really paid attention to. That one conversation with those judges changed my view on tenses BIG TIME. So how can something so simple be such a problem? A big mistake I see writers make is using simple past and past perfect incorrectly. A quick rundown:
Simple past is (obviously) recounting something that happened in the past.
Past perfect is recounting something that happened leading up to an event that happened in the past. This is the part that can get confusing while you’re writing. It’s simple when you read it here, but applying it is where it can get tricky (particularly for a tense violator like myself). Past perfect often has key words that can be giveaways like already, before, until, and (sometimes) after.
I went to pick up my car but they had already taken the engine apart.
She hadn’t thought of traveling to Zimbabwe before he brought it up.
He didn’t cheat on her until she had stopped loving him.
After is only used to indicate past perfect if it’s followed by a subject + verb (followed by a simple past):
Past perfect: After I’d had breakfast, I threw away all the scraps.
Simple past: After throwing away all the scraps, I was afraid my dog would go through the trash.
This can get even trickier when you switch from simple past to past perfect and back again in your story. If you’re already writing in past tense, and a character flashes back to a point further in their past, then past perfect must be used. If this sounds confusing at all, I recommend Googling various examples until you get the hang of it.
Most grammar rules can be naturally learned (by reading) without the confusion of an explanation, but this was one I had to take the time to research. Before I learned all these differences, I could read a sentence and tell that something seemed off about it. Since I didn’t know these rules, though, I was unable to pinpoint what exactly was wrong. If this happens to you, then I would take a look at your tense and see if there’s a hidden issue.
After re-reading this section, I realized there was an example in the first paragraph: “The judges actually came up to me to tell me why I hadn’t placed 1st – I had switched my tenses several times.” The second part of the sentence has to be past perfect because I’m referred to an event before the judges came up to speak to me.
You’re going to hate me for saying this, but this one’s definitely a balance. You hear all over the place that you should show and not tell your readers the story, but sometimes the latter is the better option. If it takes you 1,500 words to successfully describe a character’s emotion then you should either evaluate your method of description, or simply replace it with a statement.
Remember, show doesn’t have to be longer than tell, it just has to make us feel!
You might be wondering how to make a statement (a tell) into a description (a show). Doing this can sometimes immerse the reader more fully into your story by making it not seem like a story. If you make it real to the reader, then the reader will love your writing style! Many times you can make a statement into a description by making us of the five senses. Rather than stating your character is on a beach, write about the rushing sound of the waves and the salty taste in the air.
How do you know which to use? I typically use the ramble rule here. If I’m editing my writing and I see that I’ve dedicated an entire page to something, I check to see if it could better be explained through showing or telling. If what I’m writing doesn’t have much weight to the overall story, I typically switch that description with a statement. This goes very much hand in hand with number 1, in that you don’t want to drag your reader through your story. You want them to frolic through it like it’s a field of daisies!
I really hope you enjoyed reading this post. If you have any of your own tips you would like to share, I would love to hear from you!