As another writing year draws to a close, it’s worth looking at the basic errors all writers make at some point, so that you ensure they don’t reoccur in your own writing. Learning about the most common ones will help you avoid them in future and thus make your writing better.
The ones I’ve listed are very common mistakes that all writers have made during their writing. There are, of course, dozens and dozens more well-known writing mistakes – and certainly more complicated ones – but as an editor, the following five are the most common that I encounter:
Lack of Planning
One of the biggest mistakes to make is to not do any planning at all, especially if you’re embarking on something as complicated as a novel. No rule exists that writers must plan, but it’s a simple fact that even a small amount of planning – some characterisation, plot points and perhaps some themes etc. – will result in a better story than one thrown together without any real thought.
Editors know when a writer hasn’t done any planning. The story is often incoherent, it rambles, there’s little pace, there’s weak characterisation, no meaningful plot points, it sags in the middle or the story stutters because the writer ran out of ideas and often the plot is peppered with too many mistakes. To an editor it stands out like the proverbial sore thumb. A well-structured novel has had some kind of planning. Any writer that argues until they are blue in the face that they’ve written a great story without any planning isn’t being entirely truthful - it never works.
Even established writers who call themselves ‘pantsters’ do actually plan to a degree. They’d write some pretty crappy stories otherwise.
Incorrect Verb forms
This is about knowing the difference between past, present and progressive tenses.
Most writers use past tense, but by doing so they rely heavily on the progressive tense- denoted by the use of the verb ‘to be’, and used in conjunction with the present participle, the narrative becomes clogged with words ending with ‘ing’, for example:
He sat at the table, drinking his beer and dealing the cards to himself, thinking about what would happen in the morning...
The narrative relies too much on the ‘ing’ constructions (or gerund constructions), which leaves the whole structure weak. Keep narrative strong by controlling the use of progressive tense, for example:
He sat at the table, drank his beer and dealt the cards to himself. He thought about what would happen in the morning...
The example shows a much stronger narrative which keeps to the past tense. There are occasions when the progressive is needed, but writers need to learn to spot where they are required, as opposed to when they’re not.
Use of Was
Without doubt the single most reason for telling rather than showing. ‘Was’ renders the narrative passive, but it also strangles any chance of being descriptive. Writers – new authors especially – rely too much on this innocent looking little word.
Jenny was by the door when David approached. It was still raining, but that didn’t matter. He was home at last, after almost two years away.
She was smiling and almost crying, knowing that there was every chance he’d never make it home...
There are five instances of ‘was’. There are also several instances of unnecessary gerunds. Without ‘was’, the narrative can breathe. It can show the reader, not tell them, for instance:
Jenny stood by the door when David approached. It rained fine silver threads, but that didn’t matter. He had made it home at last, after almost two years away.
She smiled; tears brimmed. She knew that there remained a real, dreadful chance he’d never make it home...
The example no longer tells the reader. It shows more descriptive words. That’s because it’s not being stifled by ‘was’ every few words. It’s more expressive and it’s stronger by comparison. Not only have that, but the gerunds – ‘ing’ words – have also vanished.
If you want better, stronger writing, cut down on the use of ‘was’.
The hanging particle is the most common cause of bad sentence structuring and misplaced ambiguity. Editors don’t like them much, and for good reason. Writers liberally pepper their writing with these horrible constructions, by mixing the arrangement of words (participles should describe an action performed by the subject of the sentence), to leave the participle hanging.
Pulling back the curtains, she saw the sun.
She either pulled back the curtains or she saw the sun. The participle at the beginning of the sentence is hanging from the subject.
The correct version would be: She pulled back the curtains and saw the sun. Here’s another example of the participle incorrectly placed to leave it hanging:
Flicking on the kettle, she opened the mail.
Again, by arranging the words correctly within the sentence, the construction becomes instantly better:
She flicked on the kettle and opened the mail.
And lastly, here’s an example that shows the ambiguous nature of hanging participles:
Opening the car door, the hazy light smiled.
The ambiguity here is that light – smiling or otherwise – can’t open a door. These constructions are the worst, yet writers don’t realise how bad the sentence structures really are. The correct version is:
He opened the car door and that the hazy light smiled.
If you dangle your participles, you make the narrative look amateurish, it weakens the structure and you’re in danger of creating ambiguity, the kind that will have the reader sniggering.
But famous writers use them...right? They do, unfortunately, and they ought to know better. But that’s a reflection of poor editing as well as bad writing. Being a famous writer does not make them immune to writing crap.
If you want to make your writing better, don’t dangle your participles.
First person or third person?
Very often, writers choose first person POV without understanding just how complicated it can be, especially for a full length novel. They also choose it because it’s popular with certain genres, but first person doesn’t suit all. And it’s not until it’s too late that the writer realises they’ve made a mistake. That’s because first person is so restrictive and complicated.
Third person is the best POV to gain writing experience. It’s not restrictive, it allows multiple viewpoints, more tension, atmosphere and emotion, but most of all, the writer can exploit conflict in unprecedented ways.
If new to writing, avoid first person until you’ve gained some experience. Practically every writer thinks they understand it. But they truly don’t.
Once you’ve gained some writing experience using third person, then practice with first person. That way, tenses won’t prove as daunting.
So there are the most common writing mistakes that editors will immediately spot. But there are some others, such as run on sentences, bad dialogue, editing while writing, lack of conflict or pace, hackneyed phrases and so on. But if you get these basic five right, you’ll find your writing will become so much better and tighter, and the overall quality will improve dramatically.
Thanks to everybody for stopping by throughout the year to read some of the articles and hopefully become better writers.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to everyone.
AllWrite will return in the New Year.