Article Archive

What Are the Five Most Common Mistakes of New Writers?

By Nann Dunne

In this month's "Question and Answer" column (below), I talk about five common mistakes made by beginning writers. I researched the question on numerous writing sites to learn the mistakes mentioned most often. Only one site mentioned "not enough editing." I found this a bit misleading, because all the mistakes listed would be noted by any experienced editor.

Unless you are a known writer, few publishing houses will accept manuscripts that need heavy editing. Perhaps writing tutors take for granted that authors understand lack of editing will doom a beginner's story. But one should take nothing for granted. I've seen manuscripts that hadn't even been spell-checked. Though writing may be a labor of love, it is hard work. Don't let your hard work be subverted by lack of attention to improvement.

Think of your story as a contestant in a beauty pageant, where the publisher is the pageant's judge. Present your story in the best possible wayócleaned up, slimmed down, clothed in colorful costume, well-prepared for an outstanding performance. In other words, edit and revise until you think it's perfect. Then set it aside for about a week, and edit it again.

Seek help outside yourself, if necessary. Perhaps you have a writer friend who will work with you. Or maybe you can afford a professional editor. Do whatever your story needs, and you will improve your chances of publication a hundredfold.

Q. What are the five most common mistakes of new writers?

From my own fledgling days as a writer, and even now, Iím aware that many more than five mistakes are common. For a large part of the past two years, Iíve immersed myself in books on writing and editing in order to improve my work and also to help others improve theirs. I still make some of these errors, and if any mistakes are left after my own revisions, I count on knowledgeable friends to smack my fingers and set me straight. Yes, it is painful, but one can learn a lot from others. After some mighty thought, and consultation with my associate editor, I narrowed down the list of common mistakes by new writers to these five.

  1. Feeble opening. In last monthís "Editing Bits and Bites" column, I explained in depth the importance of an intriguing opening to your story. That doesnít mean it has to be exotic or flamboyant, just something to rouse the readerís interest and keep her turning pages in anticipation.

    Examples often prove a point better than any other means. Hereís the first sentence from John Katzenbachís The Analyst: "In the year he fully expected to die, he spent the majority of his fifty-third birthday as he did most other days, listening to people complain about their mothers." Katzenbach has accomplished several important goals with this sentence. He introduces us to the main character, the analyst. The author hints that the man leads a dull life since his birthday is spent in his usual business of "listening to people complain about their mothers." Katzenbach nudges us with the manís acceptance of his boredom, yet the very first phrase casts the hook. The author tells us the man expects to die. Why, where, when, what, and how? Isnít that a great start for a book?

    Hereís Nora Roberts in Montana Sky: "Being dead didnít make Jack Mercy less of a son of a bitch." My mind leaped with questions. Who was Jack Mercy? How did he die? What did he do to the narrator? Was he really a son of a bitch, or was the narrator the villain of this piece?

    Both of these books are murder mysteries, so their opening sentences might be more dramatic than other genres, but Iím sure you get the idea. Maybe you need a whole paragraph or two to dangle your hook, but toss some tempting bait as soon as you can, and keep right on playing the reader as long as possible. Preferably through the whole book!

  2. Too much narration. Youíve heard this one a thousand times: Show, donít tell. When I edited on 8Ĺ" x 11" paper rather than on a computer, the old rule of thumb was if you could lay a dollar bill (top-to-bottom) on a single-spaced page without running into action or dialogue, the author should rewrite. So what does a dollar bill cover? Approximately two-thirds of the page? Thatís still a good way to measure, in my opinion. When I come upon solid blocks of narrative, I tend to skim through them, just catching the highlights, if there are any.

    Always do necessary research for your story, but donít use all the information in an attempt to impress the reader with your expertise. With every sentence you write, ask yourself if it adds anything to the storyódoes it advance the plot, develop a character, show motivation, or set the scene without smothering the reader? If the answer is "no," then leave it out.

    Narration slows down the story, so be especially wary of throwing it into the middle of an action scene, and avoid putting it anywhere in huge chunks. Good spots to squeeze in narration include: after some frantic action when the author needs to slow the pace, here and there in character thoughts, and at well-placed intervals when the situation calls for more detail.

  3. Shallow characters. Nothing ruins an otherwise good story faster than characters with no depth. In her article above, Lori Lake gives pointers on choosing unique characters. Follow her advice on ways to make your story people come to life. Give your major character(s) imperfections and idiosyncracies. Show (donít tell) a few individual mannerisms that set them apart. Donít just say, "Ellie is shy." Say, "As her turn on stage approached, Ellieís stomach churned, and she clutched her guitar with sweaty palms." Or write, "Brad slammed down the beer mug so hard the table rattled." Do we need to tell the reader Brad is angry?

    Go through your story following one character at a time. Make sure youíve given her some traits we can remember her by. If youíve told us her feelings, rewrite and show them instead, wherever you can. Strong characters can carry a story on their backs. But strong stories falter without characters we care about.

  4. Wordiness. Iíd have to give this mistake my vote as the most common one. Writers writeóand writeóand write. Then they should revise, revise, revise. Clean, tight sentences have strength and vitality. Picture yourself strolling through a neglected garden. Weeds and vines make it difficult to appreciate the flowers and decorative shrubs, no matter how gorgeous and exotic they are. On the other hand, clearing out the undergrowth displays their glory at its best. The analogy fits well. Donít hide the beauty of your story beneath a runaway growth of words.

    Seeing and fixing your own wordiness, however, proves extremely difficult for most authors. Another author-editor and I first revise our stories, then pass them back and forth to each other (as well as other beta readers). She takes out my useless words, and I take out hers. The strange thing is, weíre often fixing the same problems! I have no idea why I can see her extra words better than I can see my own, and vice versa. But itís a good lesson. Everyone should have someone knowledgeable edit a final draft, even when itís "perfect." (The important word here is "knowledgeable.") But before you get to that point, help yourself by deleting every unnecessary word youíve written. My earlier "Editing Bits and Bites" articles give examples of these. You can access them through the Article Archives link at the top of this page.

  5. Empty dialogue. Beginning writers need to carve this sentence into their desktops: Story people do NOT converse like real life people. Donít waste your readerís time with dialogue that has no purpose. Hereís an example:

    "Hi, Jo. How are you?" Sheila said.
    "Iím fine, Sheila. Whatís happening?" Jo answered.
    "Not much, Jo. How about you?" Sheila returned.
    "Not much here, either. So, have you seen Akim?" Jo wondered.
    "Yes. He was here a while ago, but now heís gone. He said heíd be back later," Sheila said.

    Besides being boring, this dialogue displays several flaws:

    Too many attribution tags. When two or three people are having a conversation, tags are necessary only to identify their first words, or not at all (see explanation below of Using Action Descriptions in Place of Tags). Use of "said" in most instances has become standard usage. (It took me a while to learn this!) Vary from it only occasionally, and never use a word like "sniffed" or "laughed" that one canít really "say" with.

    Overuse of character names. The reader knows one is Jo and the other is Sheila. In this instance, you should follow real life and avoid the annoying repetition of names.

    Very little news has been imparted and precious space has been wasted. Story dialogue exists to further the plot in some respect. Your character speaks for a number of reasons. She can inform the reader of a plot development, illustrate her personality or that of another person, reminisce over backstory, tease the reader over what is to come, etc. The possibilities are infinite. But something has to happen in a conversation. Donít have the participants merely exchange pleasantries.

    Using Action Descriptions in Place of Tags
    One way to avoid excessive use of "he said, she said," is to break up the conversation with bits of action, while helping the reader picture the scene:

    Sheila waited in front of Steecham Pharmacy for fifteen minutes before Jo rounded the corner. "Jo, Steechamís going to pitch a fit if youíre late. What took you so long?"

    "I was looking for Akim. Have you seen him?"

    Sheila nodded. "He just left, but heís coming back."

    Jo shielded her eyes with one hand and looked down the street as her other hand fumbled for the pharmacy door. "I hope he shows up soon. I have an important message for him."

    I think youíll agree the revised dialogue and action tell more, give an idea of the setting, and tease with the "important message" reference. With a few thoughtful revisions, the dialogue works for you instead of being a boring filler.

Unless youíre as driven as I am, donít fret about these mistakes in your first draft. Just write. There is time later, after the excitement of first draft work, to make these revisions. Be conscious of these issues as you revise. Searching them out one at a time helps cement them into your mind and later when you write something new, you are less likely to include the same mistakes. After a while, youíll weed out most of them automatically, and each successive first draft will have fewer errors to revise.

©2003, Nann Dunne
Editor and Publisher
Just About Write,


Back to Article Archive.