Saturday, August 24, 2013

Twelve Rookie Writer Mistakes and How to Mend Them

For the past couple of weeks I've been critiquing several young writers' works. I like helping them out, and it helps sharpen my eyes for critiquing my own works. But while I was doing it, I noticed some errors common in all of them and were also very common in my own past writing.

When I sent some critique back for a friend, she liked it when I explained how to fix each problem. To me it's easier when I'm shown exactly what's wrong then I'm shown exactly how to fix it. So that's what I'm going to do for you all.

I'm not a professional or anything, but I've been seriously studying writing for four years, including attending four writers conferences. I hope these tips can be helpful. :)

1.) Telling of the Senses: Saw, See, Look, Heard, Listen, Felt, Knew - These words are cumbersome to sentences. They slow down pacing. 90% of the time they can be cut. There are a few instances where they are necessary, but if you use them over and over they get repetitive. They're an easy fix and they make the point of view deeper.

Incorrect: Cora walked along the road on the side walk. She saw a dog cross the street.
Correct: Cora walked on the wet sidewalk. A dog crossed the street.

2.) Telling Emotions - I see this a lot. Telling emotions doesn't allow the reader to be as immersed in the story as much as she/he could be. A lot of common ones I've seen are: sadly, angrily, and surprised. This is a little bit tougher to fix. You have to think of how to show the emotion, but it's possible and your reader will feel more connected with your characters. Sprinkle in some interior monologue if you have to.

Incorrect: "You stole my boyfriend!" I said angrily to Lana.
Correct: "You stole my boyfriend!" I yelled at Lana and clenched my fists. How could my best friend do this to me?

3.) Crowding the Dialogue - A lot of times I see a line of dialogue with someone else's action at the end or even more than one action. That's incorrect. Every character needs his own line for speech. Sometimes it gets very confusing especially when there are a lot of pronouns and the reader doesn't know who is doing or saying what.

Incorrect: Casey giggled. Laura's cheeks burned. "That's so mean." She said as Clara walked into the room and sat down. Why does she have to say things like that? Coco the cat jumped up on her lap curled into a ball.
Correct: Casey giggled.
Laura's cheeks burned. "That's so mean." Why does Casey have to say thing like that?
Clara walked into the room and sat down. Coco the cat jumped up on her lap and curled into a ball.

4.) Comma-ing Action Beats - This error is very easy to fix, but a tough habit to break. I know I did this one a lot when I was younger. An action beat is an action placed next to dialog to define the speaker and to show emotion. When you connect the dialog and the action beat with a comma that's incorrect. You can't "throw the ball" your words. Let me show you.

Incorrect: Jace threw the ball, "Catch it!"
Correct: Jace threw the ball. "Catch it!"

5.) Action & Reaction -  This is a writing technique error. Action and reaction means when you sense something then you react to it. You can't react to something then see it/hear it/sense it and neither can your characters. It's out of order. These are a little harder to root out, but you'll get the hang of it. :)

Incorrect: I gasped and ducked. The wolf leaped toward me.
Correct: The wolf leaped toward me. I gasped and ducked.

6.) Massive Paragraphs -  I used to do this so bad. I'd have massive paragraphs ten lines long. I know we've seen it done in old books or we just do it because ... well we don't really know why it just kind of happened ...

But for modern day writing it's a lot better on the eyes if you trim these big babies down especially when there's a lot of them in one place. I like keeping mine to an average of four or five lines. I've seen some people go a little bit longer. But if you make one that's half of the page use your enter key a lot.

7.) Caps -  Using caps in blog posts and chatting and texting is fine, but using them in writing looks amateur. I've seen them used on rare occasions, but using them too much makes you look less professional and sometimes it just gets annoying. :P Italics can easily be used to replace caps if you want to emphasize a word (but don't go crazy with them like I'll discuss in the next tip), but using them for yelling is unnecessary.

Incorrect: "I am NOT going to do that!" Steven yelled. "YOU CAN'T MAKE ME!"
Correct: "I am not going to do that!" Steven yelled. "You can't make me!"

8.) Overuse of Italics - 
Italics are used for letters or writing like that in books and also for emphasizing a word, but if you emphasize every other word italics lose their power.

Incorrect: "You are going to go take out the trash right now or I'm taking away your video games for a month." Mom said slowly. "Stop giving me back talk."
Correct: "You are going to go take out the trash right now or I'm taking away your video games." Mom said slowly. "Stop giving me back talk."

9.) Which & That - These words have their use as with any word, but a lot of times they're not needed and just bog down sentences. They often lead to long sentences that'd be better off chopped in half or thirds even. Do a word search for these as with some of the previous words I'm mentioned to see how often you use them. You can be amazed how many will show up.

Incorrect: Jamie walked to the Tom's with Sam and Ty, which was her favorite ice cream parlor. She purchased Pistachio, that was her favorite.
Correct: Jamie walked with Sam and Ty to her favorite ice cream parlor, Tom's. She purchased Pistachio, her favorite flavor.

10.) As & -Ing - This little word and this little suffix are used to say two things are happening at the same time. The thing is I've seen them used and the things listed can't happen at the same time. It just isn't possible--even for Superman.

Incorrect: Putting on his suit, Superman flew to Metropolis and scooped up Lois Lane out of the jaws of the alien monster as he ate a taco and watched the Yankee game.
Correct: Superman put on his suit. He flew to Metropolis and scooped up Lois Lane out of the jaws of the alien monster. After he returned to Smallville, he and Lois ate tacos and watched the Yankee game.
(Note: This is a lot of telling, but I couldn't help the Superman thing lol.)

11.) Was, Were, and Went - These are weak and vague verbs. If you can avoid using them do so. Omitting them as much as possible also allows for stronger verbs. These words are sometimes the only words that can do the job, but if another one can do it better, type in that one. Sometimes you'll have to consult a thesaurus, but it'll make your writing much more powerful.

Incorrect: There was a box resting on my doorstep. I went over to it.
Correct: A box rested on my doorstep. I walked up the driveway to it.

12.) Passive Writing -  This is another place where "Was" likes to crash the paragraph party. Passive writing slows down the pacing. of your story and gets tedious.

Incorrect: Lucy was killed by John.
Correct: John killed Lucy.

Do you catch yourself doing any of these? Do you have any questions about them? What are some other common writing errors you've noticed?

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  1. Great posts - lots of good reminders. I'm so guilty of #10!

  2. *raises hand hesitantly* Uh, Victoria, you has a typo. Look in #12 in the last word of the first part of your example. (Hey, I had to get revenge!)

    Seriously though, great post. I'm sharing this on my Facebook page.