We all make mistakes—in life, in cooking, and in our writing. However, in writing we have the ever-present editing phase which means we get the chance to correct those mistakes. That first draft is, we are told, to be written with the heart, and the heart has flourishes that we sometimes just can’t control. The highest highs and lowest lows are written from the heart, but they don’t always come across as we imagined and get left on the cutting room floor. Here are a few articles on the mistakes we as writers tend to make, especially in the first draft, and how we can go about fixing them. Nobody’s perfect, so they keep telling us, and that’s ok. The second and third draft though, now those can be as close to perfect as humanly possible—for the sake of our readers and our sanity’s sake😊As usual, here is a short video on writing mistakes and how to fix them, hope you enjoy and share your new-found knowledge.
5 Story Mistakes Even Good Writers Make
By: Steven James
In fiction, story matters more than anything else.
Yet too often authors forget this and, in their zeal to impress readers or wow editors, pepper their writing with distracting devices that only end up undermining the story itself.
Never let anything get between your story and your readers. Here are five of the most common ways even the best writers veer off-course—and simple strategies for avoiding them.
1. Overdoing Symbolism/Themes
A few years ago I picked up a literary novel that everyone was talking about. In the first chapter there was a storm; in the second, someone was washing his hands; then a character was crying; then there was a baptism. I remember thinking, OK, I get it. Your image is water and your theme is cleansing—now get on with the story.
Problem was, from that point on, guess what I was doing?
Yup … looking for the next way the writer was going to weave a water image into her story. And she delivered, scene after predictable scene.
As a reader I was no longer emotionally present in the story. I’d become a critic, an observer. And that’s definitely not what a storyteller wants her readers to do.
The more your readers are on the lookout for your images, your themes, your symbolism, and so on, the less they’ll be impacted by the real essence of your story.
Does that mean that themes and images don’t have a place in your work? Not at all. But it does mean that rather than building your story around that theme (love, forgiveness, freedom, etc.), or advice (“Follow your dreams,” “Be true to your heart,” etc.), or a cliché (“Every cloud has a silver lining,” “Time heals all wounds,” etc.), it’s better to drive your narrative forward through tension and moral dilemmas.
So, instead of using the theme “justice,” let the events of the story pose a more engaging question: “What’s more important, telling the truth or protecting the innocent?”
Rather than giving the advice, “You should forgive others,” let your story explore a dilemma: “How do you forgive someone who has done the unthinkable to someone you love?”
Let your story do more than reiterate the cliché, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” Instead, challenge that axiom by presenting your characters with situations that raise the question, “When do the needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many?”
Respect your readers. Assume that they’re as smart as you are. If you can easily identify your own imagery, symbolism, themes and so on, expect that they will, too. And as soon as they do, they’ll be distracted from the story itself.
2. Trying Too Hard
There’s nothing less impressive than someone trying to be impressive. There’s nothing less funny than someone trying to be funny. Eloquence doesn’t impress anyone except for the person trying so hard to be eloquent.
So look for places in your story where you were trying to be funny, clever or impressive, and change those sections or remove them.
Some writers shoot for humor by writing things like, “she joked,” “he quipped,” “he mentioned in his usual fun-loving way,” and so on. Don’t fall into this trap. If your dialogue is really funny, you don’t need to point that out to your readers. (And if it’s not as funny as you’d intended, you don’t need to draw attention to the fact.)
Some authors resort to using a profusion of speaker attributions. Their characters chortle, grunt, exclaim, reiterate, gasp, howl, hiss and bark. Whenever I read a book like this I find myself skimming through the dialogue just to see what the next synonym for said will be. Readers get it. They know you own a thesaurus. Just tell the story.
In the same way, drop antiquated or obscure words unless they’re necessary for character development or maintaining voice. This isn’t to say that you can’t write intelligent, incisive, challenging prose, but any time the meaning of an unfamiliar word isn’t immediately obvious within the context of the story, choose another word that won’t trip readers up. This is especially true as you build toward the climax, since the pace of the story needs to steadily increase.
Similarly, avoid the temptation to impress your readers with your research, your plot structure or your knowledge of the flora and fauna of western North Carolina. When readers pick up your book, they’re not preparing for a spelling bee or a doctoral dissertation or a medical exam; they’re hoping for an entertaining, believable story that will transport them to another world and move them on a deep, emotional level.
Textbook literary devices fall under this same umbrella—they’re too contrived. Writing something like, “She cautiously closed the closet door and crept across the carpet,” might have impressed your English professors, but it does nothing to serve readers in today’s marketable fiction. As soon as readers notice the alliteration, they’ll be distracted—and whether they’re counting up the number of times you used the letter C, or rolling their eyes at your attempt to be clever, they’ve momentarily disengaged from your story. And that’s the last thing you want them to do.
Believe it or not, you don’t want readers to admire your writing: You want them to be so engaged in the story itself that they don’t notice the way you use words to shape it. Anything that jars readers loose from the grip of the story needs to go, even if it seems “literary.” Weed out figures of speech that don’t serve the mood of the scene. For example, if you’re curled up with a book and are deep in the midst of a chapter depicting an airplane hijacking, you wouldn’t want to read, “The clouds outside the window were castles in the sky.” Not only does the superfluous description undermine the suspense, but castles carry a positive connotation that further disrupts the tension. If you can’t resist the urge to use a figure of speech when writing a scene like this, choose one that accentuates the mood: “The jet plummeted through the dungeon of clouds.”
Over the years I’ve heard of authors who’ve written books without punctuation, or without the word said, or without quotation marks, or by using an exact predetermined number of words. To each his own. But when these artificial constraints become more important to the author than the reader’s experience with the story is, they handcuff it.
Whenever you break the rules or keep them, it must be for the benefit of your readers. If your writing style or techniques get in the way of the story by causing readers to question what’s happening, analyze the writing, or page back to earlier sections in order to understand the context, you’ve failed.
You want your writing to be an invisible curtain between your readers and your story. Anytime you draw attention to the narrative tools at your disposal, you insert yourself into the story and cause readers to notice the curtain. Although it may seem counterintuitive, most authors looking to improve their craft need to cut back on the devices they use (whether that’s assonance, onomatopoeia, hyperbole, similes or whatever), rather than add more.
3. Failing to Anticipate the Readers’ Response
A plot flaw is, simply put, a glitch in believability or causality. When a character acts in a way that doesn’t make sense, or when one scene doesn’t naturally follow from the one that precedes it, readers will stumble.
Imagine your protagonist hears that a killer is in the neighborhood and then, in the next scene, decides to spend a cozy evening in the kitchen making homemade pasta. Readers will think, What? Why doesn’t she lock all the doors and windows, or call the police, or run to her car and get out of the area? Thus, at the very moment where you want them to be drawn deeper into the narrative, your readers pull away and start to question your character’s actions—and, to some degree, your storytelling ability.
As soon as an event isn’t believable, it becomes a distraction. So ask yourself at every plot point: “Is there enough stimulus to motivate this action?” And then make sure there is. Always anticipate your readers’ response.
Try to step back and read your work-in-progress as objectively as you can, through the eyes of a reader who has never seen it before. If you come to a place where you think, Why doesn’t she just … ? or, Wait, that doesn’t make sense … that’s where you have some revising to do. And the solution doesn’t have to be complicated. Often you can solve a plot flaw in your story simply by having your characters point it out. If your protagonist says something like, “I couldn’t believe she would do such a thing—it just didn’t compute,” readers will think, Yes, exactly—I thought the same thing! There’s more going on here than meets the eye. The more you admit that the scene has a believability problem, the less readers will hold you responsible for it.
With this in mind, you should also make sure every special skill or gadget needed in the climax is foreshadowed earlier in the story. Coincidences drive a wedge in believability. Foreshadowing removes them. So if the diver suddenly needs a harpoon to fight off the killer barracuda and he reaches down and—how convenient!—just happens to find one, readers won’t buy it. Show us the harpoon earlier so it makes sense when it reappears at the climactic battle.
4. Using a Hook as a Gimmick
Many well-meaning writing instructors will tell you that you need to start your story with a good “hook” to snag your readers’ attention. And they’re right—to a certain degree.
While I was teaching at one writing conference a woman gave me her story for a critique. It started with an exciting car chase. I said, “Great, so this is an action story.”
“No,” she told me. “It’s a romance. The woman goes to the hospital and falls in love with the doctor.”
“But it starts with a car chase and explosion. Readers will expect it to escalate from there.”
“I had a different opening,” she admitted, “but my critique group told me I needed a good hook.”
It may have been true that her story needed a better hook, but she landed on the wrong one. Hooks become gimmicks if they don’t provide the platform for escalation.
Too many times a writer will grab readers’ attention early on with a scene that’s clearly been contrived just for that purpose, without introducing the characters or the setting of the story. Consequently the writer is forced to insert excessive backstory into the next scene—thus undermining the forward momentum of the plot. Take your time, trust your readers and craft a hook that orients them to the world you’ve created. Then drive the story forward without having to explain why you started it the way you did.
5. Leaving Readers Hanging
Never annoy your readers.
Sometimes I read books in which the author withholds key information from readers, presumably in an effort to create suspense. But failing to give readers what they want doesn’t create suspense, it causes dissatisfaction.
For example, don’t leave a point-of-view character in the middle of an action sequence. If, in the final sentence of a chase scene, you write that your protagonist “careened around the bend and crashed into the cement pylon jutting up from the side of the road,” readers will turn to the next chapter wanting to find out if she is
conscious, dead, etc.
But if that next chapter instead begins with another point-of-view character, one in a less stressful situation, readers will be impatient. They don’t want to wait to come back to the woman in the car (or maybe she’s in the hospital by then) a chapter later.
If readers are tempted to skip over part of your story to get to a part they want to read, you need to fix that section. As you write, constantly ask yourself what the readers want at this moment of the story.
Then, give it to them—or surprise them with something even better.
6 Mistakes Every Beginning Fiction Writer Makes (and How to Fix Them)
by Naomi L.
So you’ve just started writing fiction, but you’re not sure you’ve got what it takes. You’re afraid you’ll fail, that you’ll make a ton of writing mistakes and you’ll never be that amazing artist you hope to be someday. Or worse, maybe you think you’ll kill it as soon as you start, and your writing will be so awesome right out of the gate that you’ll never have to practice and improve (only to wonder years down the road why no one ever reads your incredible stories). Whether you suffer from imposter syndrome or unfounded arrogance, your expectations of writing are unreal.
Because guess what? Every writer makes mistakes! That’s how we learn and get better at our craft. But if you want to avoid learning some lessons the hard way (and I don’t blame you), it never hurts to turn to writing resources for help. So for all you blossoming writers out there, here are six common writing mistakes you’re bound to make at least once. Keep an eye out for these the next time you sit down to write!
Writing Mistake #1: Stopping at the first draft (i.e. not editing)
The first draft of anything is sh*t. – Ernest Hemingway
Let’s get this one out of the way first. A common mistake many new fiction writers make (including me when I started) is to write a full story, then set it aside and never touch it again. An important rule of fiction writing: Every piece must go through editing before it’s finished. To be fair, this isn’t as big a deal with private writing, but it’s still good practice for when you’re ready to start sharing your work.
The truth is nothing you write is going to be perfect the first time around. Never assume you’ve created a masterpiece on your first try; even the greatest authors in the world need editors to help them shape their writing into publishable work. Heck, the blog post you’re reading now went through several rounds of revisions before I published it, and it still isn’t perfect!
So don’t stress about making something awesome right away. If anything, let this fact take away the pressure of having to write well all the time. Just write first, worry about making it publishable later. That’s what editing is for.
How to fix this writing mistake
Edit! Edit like your life depends on it, because your story’s life does. Readers don’t appreciate stories because they come out brilliant on the first try, but because the writer took the time to shape that first idea into a polished piece of art. Always make sure your work is worthy of publication before you share it. Need help? You don’t have to do it all alone; that’s what editors are paid for!
Writing Mistake #2: Using flowery language (i.e. purple prose)
Eschew surplusage. – Mark Twain, “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” (1895)
There’s this myth among beginning writers that the best way to be taken seriously is to sound as smart as possible. Maybe you’re insecure about your limited knowledge and vocabulary, so you stuff your stories with fancy words and fluffy sentences, then pat yourself on the back for creating distinguished and eloquent prose. Surely now you’ve proven yourself a great writer, right?
Wrong. While you may think all that fancy writing will give you credibility, you’ve actually just exposed yourself as an amateur. This common writing mistake is known as purple prose, and it can kill your story before it even starts. Counterintuitive as it sounds, using “smart” words and flowery language actually has the opposite effect of driving readers away, because the only people who waste their time reading stories they can’t understand are high school students trying to pass English. Everyone else wants a good story, not a vocabulary lesson.
Purple prose comes in a variety of flavors:
- big, difficult, pretentious words;
- flowery detail;
- too many adjectives and adverbs;
- said bookisms (only using words other than “said” as dialogue tags); and
- exaggerated sentiment (trying to “force” readers to feel certain emotions).
If you’re guilty of making any of these mistakes, stop and rewind. When you edit, make every effort to weed out the purple and strip your story down to the bare bones. You may have trouble getting used to this style, but in time you’ll find that concise and direct writing is the most effective form of storytelling.
How to fix this writing mistake
Replace big words and phrases with simpler ones, remove unnecessary adjectives, and cut out details that do nothing for your story. The idea is to sound as natural and direct as possible so you’ll connect with your readers. When in doubt, read your work out loud; if a word or phrase sounds strange, like something you’d never say in real life, delete it or replace it with a more common alternative.
Writing Mistake #3: Getting crazy with the punctuation!!!
Jake: Ok, I’m excited. I just don’t happen to like exclamation points.
Elaine: Well, you know, Jake, you should learn to use ’em! Like the way I’m talking right now, I would put exclamation points at the ends of all of these sentences! On this one! And on that one!
Of all the ridiculous situations in Seinfeld‘s nine-season run, few top the time Elaine screwed up her relationship over punctuation. The irony: her boyfriend was a writer whose book she was editing, and he was probably right not to use those exclamation points.
When writing fiction, punctuation is something you don’t want to mess up, because this mistake translates as lazy or incompetent writing. Trust me on this: As much as a scene calls for over-the-top excitement, you don’t need three exclamation points to get your point across. When you overuse punctuation, you’re conveying one of two messages to your reader:
- you don’t trust your writing enough to express emotion through words alone, or
- you don’t trust the reader to grasp the emotion in your words without help.
Either way, it doesn’t make you look good. Writers should always take care not to patronize their audience, and one of the easiest ways to do that is by using exclamation points and other punctuation marks where you don’t need them. That’s not to say you should avoid them altogether; you just shouldn’t use them as a crutch. Instead, trust your words to convey the right messages and emotion on their own. Remember that punctuation is simply an organizational tool; the focus should always be on your words.
How to fix this writing mistake
Stick to normal punctuation. Use exclamation points sparingly, avoid multiple punctuation, and know how to use commas, apostrophes, colons, semicolons, and hyphens correctly. When in doubt, turn your work over to a proofreader.
Writing Mistake #4: Writing dialogue that falls flat
I confess: even after writing fiction for nearly my whole life, I still have trouble with dialogue. Maybe it’s because I’m shy and have little experience talking to people, but this seems to be my Achilles heel when it comes to writing stories. If you feel this is your weak point too, don’t worry, you’re not alone. In fact, dialogue is so hard to get right that this writing mistake could take up its own blog post, but for the sake of brevity, let’s focus on the main point.
In a nutshell, dialogue is difficult to write well because it’s not quite speech and not quite narrative, but instead constitutes a class of its own. We think differently when we speak than when we write, so it takes a lot of practice to master the balance between both. Writing good dialogue involves removing the boring parts of everyday speech—pauses, ums, stutters, etc.—and refining it to a form that reads naturally while still conveying information relevant to the story. And while this may sound simple on the surface, it can take years of practice to learn how to:
- cut out the unnecessary parts of speech,
- make characters sound natural,
- give each character a distinct voice, and
- use a conversation to move the story forward.
So don’t feel bad if you’ve been writing for a long time and still struggle with this technique. Just keep practicing, and you’ll be writing good dialogue before you know it.
How to fix this writing mistake
Read your dialogue out loud and see how believable it sounds. If a phrase or sentence sounds odd, try to rephrase it in a way that a real person with your character’s background would say it. If you find this difficult, start paying attention to how people talk and incorporate more of their speaking styles into your writing (but not too much!). Condense dialogue as much as possible and make sure it always moves the story forward.
Writing Mistake #5: Telling more than showing
Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass. – Anton Chekhov
From creative writing courses to author blogs, we see this writing advice everywhere: show, don’t tell. This means that instead of outright stating a fact, you should give clues that help your readers figure the fact out for themselves. This technique is designed to create an immersive and engaging experience for your readers, and will often make the difference between a good narrative and a great story.
Granted, there will be times when telling is necessary because showing is impossible—such as telling exactly what a character is thinking or how an event has changed them internally—but conveying a simple idea or action in vivid imagery will add emotion and depth to your story. Instead of focusing on the idea itself, understand what makes that idea apparent and use those details to color the narrative. If a character is sad, describe the tears on her face or the way she hangs her head when someone talks to her. If it’s raining, describe your character hopping over puddles as he runs to the bus stop under a wet umbrella. Wherever possible, set the scene and let your audience fill in the blanks.
Good storytelling is not just telling people a story but bringing them on an emotional journey with you. So the next time you feel compelled to tell readers what’s going on, take a step back and assess how much you should tell and how much you can show instead. Master this balance and you’ll be one step closer to writing truly amazing stories!
How to fix this writing mistake
Read your story back and determine where the narrative falls flat. Highlight the passages that tell you something (e.g. “she was happy”, “it was a clear day”), then rewrite them in a way that will show you the same thing (e.g. “her laughter rose above the din”, “sunlight gleamed off the surface of the water”). Read through the story again and maintain the changes that make the narrative stronger.
Writing Mistake #6: Not writing!
Yes, believe it or not, this is a common problem for beginning and advanced writers alike: not writing. Sounds counterintuitive, right? I mean, how can you be a writer if you don’t write?
That’s just it: you can’t. But too many writers get so caught up in brainstorming, researching, self-editing, and worrying their work isn’t good enough that they don’t set aside enough time to actually write. It should go without saying that writing is the most important part of… well, writing, but most of the time, it’s just not that easy. When you sit for too long without doing any work, you succumb to deep-seated fears of failure and rejection, and before you know it, you stop writing before you even start.
So if you find yourself stuck in writing limbo, do yourself a favor and close your mind off to all your fears. Don’t stress about any of the other aspects of writing; just sit down and write. I know this is much easier said than done (speaking from experience), but once you get those words flowing, everything else will start to fall into place. Remember, unless you actually write, all those other steps are just a waste of time. Don’t be an “aspiring writer”; get out there and write!
How to fix this writing mistake
Write! Don’t worry about researching or editing or publishing or dealing with criticism yet. Just write. The rest will follow.
What about you? Are you guilty of making these writing mistakes? What other mistakes would you add to this list?