Five common writing mistakes

Writer

As you can see from the ‘about’ section, I’m an aspiring author. There are a lot of us, all looking to get our masterpieces published. Unfortunately, when you look at what people produce, you find a lot of those masterpieces suck. I’m not going to say my own masterpiece is better, but there are some rookie writing mistakes I’ve made in the past that I don’t make (as often) any more, and I thought it’d be a good idea to share those.

So, as the clickbaitified title implies: a list of five mistakes new writers tend to make.

1. Grammar and spelling errors

Have you ever met a carpenter who can’t drive a nail into a wooden plank straight? Or a cab driver who didn’t know how to drive? Maybe you have, but they were probably not your first choice for return business. When you’re a writer, you need to know how to write properly.

Once, at a birthday party, I had a discussion with somebody who argued that spelling and grammar are not important. She argued it’s what you’re trying to get across that counts. Sounds plausible, but it’s simply not true. If a story were just something to ‘get across’ you could forgo with prose and just write down a summary. The Lord of the Rings could be condensed to: a group of folk from Middle Earth travels to Mordor and throws the ring of power into Mount Doom to defeat Sauron. Not an improvement, is it? In other words, The way you tell your story is more important than what you are telling.

Everybody makes mistakes, but you should make as few as possible. Language is your most important tool, and thus one you should master.

2. Sparseness

I’ve seen stories where the main character doesn’t get a name until a few pages in and they don’t say anything until five pages after that. We don’t know who they are, or what makes them tick. Or, the character’s motivations are explained like you would see in a psychology magazine.

Don’t.

Show, don’t tell. Get specific. Don’t say ‘There was a man with OCD’, but say ‘Whenever John got home, he had to turn the handle three times, then click the lock twice, and his shoes once.’ You don’t have to highlight every detail, but you should pick those that most characterise your characters.

3. Wishy-washing

Some people cannot decide if they want to use an idea or not, or cannot decide between one idea and another. An example:

John almost raised his fist to punch the gangly youth, but managed to control himself.

John is not really doing anything here. He almost does something, but then he… doesn’t. You could have an internal monologue that freezes the action like this, but I see this a lot for no reason. I think this kind of writing is an attempt to increase the tension, without actually pushing the story in a different direction (in this case, a fight). So, either do something, explain it properly, or leave it out.

I still see this slip into my writing sometimes, but I’ve learned to pick it out during editing.

4. Emotional scenes without characterisation

We see death and violence on the news every day, but it affects us a lot less if it doesn’t hit close to home. The less we identify with somebody, the less we care about what happens to them. That’s not bad, that’s just how human minds work.

When you translate this to writing, it means readers won’t care what happens to your characters unless they can identify with them and whatever is happening to them. Without characterisation, there is no emotional response.

What I often see in writing, is a story that starts with a very dramatic scene. Because I don’t know who the characters are, I don’t care, and because of that the scene becomes melodramatic, or boring. For example:

John got hit by a truck in front of the hospital.

Not that dramatic, is it? Feel any emotion? Let’s add two sentences.

A misstep on their honeymoon, and John had almost lost his life falling down the stairs. It had pushed him and Sarah to try and have a baby, though. Now, half a year of recuperation later, he took his first walk outside, smiling broadly, a pregnant Sarah at his side.

He got hit by a truck in front of the hospital.

More dramatic, I think. Still not very good, I admit, but I hope you see my point.

5. Not listening to criticism

I’ve been a part of several writing groups and I’ve run across a few people who didn’t handle criticism very well. I don’t mean people who got angry, but people who simply did not hear or understand the criticism. They would usually only improve very slowly, or not at all.

Even if you’re not such a person – a lot of you probably aren’t – it’s good to think about how you handle criticism. Not all criticism is equal, but before you dismiss any criticism, you had better know exactly what the other person meant and if it is really something you want to ignore. That often means following up with questions to figure out what is the actual root issue. This can be hard.

Somebody is saying bad things about your work! Your hours of toiling at the keyboard are being devalued!

I think we all feel that way, but the trick is to find people who are nice about their criticism and who say things in a way that actually helps.

The flip side is giving good criticism, of course. Never say ‘this sucked’, without explaining why it sucked. Preferably, don’t say ‘it sucked’ at all, but say something positive followed by ‘but I felt this and this was not as good, because…’ I prefer to emphasize that it’s my opinion, as well. Sweeping generalisations like ‘nobody could like this’, or ‘any woman reading this’ are overly aggressive, and usually not true.

 

Author: Martin Stellinga

I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands