Everyone makes mistakes, especially writers. There are some that are perpetuated across the board of writers and occur over and over by the same ones. Whether the writer is new or seasoned, these nine writing mistakes can easily be committed.
Overuse of “Said”
The most used dialogue tag is “said”. I am astounded at how many of us writers use it over and over to the point of it ruining the story. After nearly every piece of dialogue, a writer puts in ‘he said’ or ‘she said’. This gets very old after awhile and even gives the piece a juvenile appearance.
There are many other ways to say the same thing, and those other ways can be so much more descriptive and give the story depth. There are simple replacements: replied, answered, stated, remarked. These say the same thing but stop the redundancy. It doesn’t feel as much like a Dick and Jane book.
Some authors suggest avoiding dialogue tags altogether which would eliminate the too much ‘said’ problem. I think not having them with every piece of dialogue could be a good thing, but tossing them completely out I think is a really bad thing. These tags can be very beneficial when you find other words to use instead of ‘said’.
“The train will be here before he gets the job done,” Jack said.
Depending on the rest of the writing before and after this sentence, we probably know who said it. Dialogue tags work better if there would be confusion as to who said what. Let’s assume in this example we need it, but we’ve used ‘said’ enough as it is. We don’t want our readers to think we have a limited vocabulary.
What is Jack’s emotional state? If he is excited, you could say ‘Jack exclaimed’. Other words for this emotion would be shouted, pointed out, insisted. Is he angry? Then use barked, spat, snarled.
Notice how the replacement words become something like adverbs in describing the action instead of stating the action. We know Jack said the words. The quotation marks told us that, but how did he say them. Give us an idea of his emotion so we can hear the words. ‘Said’ is bland. ‘Snarled’ gives the words a whole new meaning.
When you are editing your own work, focus on how many times you use ‘said’. Go through and replace every other one with a different word that better fits the emotion and mood of the dialogue and speaker. That one ‘small’ change can give depth to your story.
Assuming Your Readers Get What You Said
When I’m editing works for authors, I find that many times they assume the readers understand what they want to say. They words and descriptions aren’t clear, but they feel that the reader can get it. I suggest they explain an action or a statement, and they invariably reply, “Oh, the reader will understand.” As the editor, I’m also in the reader mindset, and I don’t understand it. You can’t assume!
If a reader gets to a section and asks, “Why is he doing that?” You can’t reply, “Well, he wanted to do this or that.” If the reader can’t see it, you need to explain it more. You won’t be there when they are reading their book to explain it. Your writing should explain it enough for the reader.
I was editing one author’s work when I got to a section that was extremely confusing. When I asked, the author got very defensive and said I should be able to figure it out. I had a friend read it ,and they were as confused as I was. That meant the writer assumed everyone would think like them and understand. It doesn’t work that way.
Assuming only gets you into trouble. Be explicit with what you want the readers to get without dummifying it. Some things they need to figure out for themselves, but let’s keep that to mysteries and such.
Your writing has to be clear. The reader cannot be left wondering what is going on. Now this can easily happen when you are in the midst of your story. But during your editing time, put yourself as the reader. Forget you know the story inside and out. If you can’t do that, have someone else read a section and see if you have explained it clearly.
Too Little Show: Too Much Tell
Most writers have this problem. They tend to tell more than show what is going on in a story. The showing is what makes a book. The telling makes it a Dick and Jane story. We’re adults. We don’t need that.
Think about this. If Poe just told you someone was scared instead of showing you, would we still be reading his books today? No. As a reader, you have to see it and experience it to enjoy it. Saying something is scary is rather anti-climatic. You want me to show you scary where you get chills and find yourself looking over your shoulder.
Remember that many people are visual in nature. They need to see something to process it. Even if the ‘seeing’ is in the mind only, they need to see it. They need to feel like they are there and experiencing it. That makes the experience more real, and the effect lasts longer.
So how do you correct having too much tell and too little show? Start with having someone else read a scene and point out areas they feel could be more visual to them. Then look at the scene yourself. Ask yourself if you are telling an emotion or fact instead of showing it. You say that Aunt Joan is paranoid. Are you showing the reader that? You say that John can’t be trusted. Show the reader that through his actions and flashbacks. Let me, as the reader, conclude what you want me to see and believe.
A great resource for you is the Emotion Thesaurus. Instead of telling me Dan is angry, show me. This book will help you with body language to show the reader that Dan is angry. When he frowns and drums his fingers, it could be anger. You don’t have to tell the reader that he is when they can see him being angry.
Too many times writers have to put unnecessary scenes in their stories. They are…unnecessary. They do nothing for the story aside from adding more to the word count. Then why have them?
I’ve noticed two reasons some authors have these unnecessary scenes in their books and fight to keep them. One is to make the book longer, and the other is that they are in love with the scene.
Too many authors today are hung on the number of words their final manuscript is. It’s not the size that matters. It’s the quality.
Getting too attached to your words is another mistake many writers make. They love the scene which might be written extremely well, but does it benefit the story.
When editing your own work, ask yourself these questions:
- What does this scene do for the plot as a whole?
- How does it impact the story if the scene was removed?
- Can it be put into another scene and combined to make it smoother?
Truth be told, a good writer is always looking at a scene to see if it needs to be chopped or massaged into something different. Nothing comes out perfect the first, second, or sometimes even the third time. It needs to be worked on.
Too Focused on Word Count
Granted I enjoyed the Harry Potter books, but please don’t use them as a map to writing your book. Just because Rowlings was successful with over 100,000 words doesn’t mean your book has to be that length. Best sellers are not required to be a certain length. Quality is more important.
I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had authors tell me that they had to have the final version of their book to be around 100,000 words. They firmly believe that size is the ultimate goal. It’s not. Quality should be the focus.
Write your first draft. Ignore how long it is as you write. It won’t be that long when you are through. Editing can drastically change the size of your novel. Scenes can be added and expanded or even deleted. Let the story direct the size it needs to be.
Refusing to Change Course
Too many authors have it in their heads that the story has to go a certain way and will not deviate even if that particular direction is not the best decision. In being a writer, you have to understand that you are not in control. Your imagination is. Your muse is in charge.
Have you had a plan for your story in your head and suddenly you find yourself writing something different? I know several authors who have found themselves at such a crossroads.They had an idea of how the story or just a scene was going to go. Now the plot and/or characters want to change it somehow. Many authors have coronaries at this point. They want it to stay the way it started. The truth is that staying the course could ruin the story.
Not letting your story direct you is a big writing mistake. Stubbornness can be a bad thing at times. Remember that your muse is very powerful. Take a chance.
Getting Attached to Your Words
I am shocked at how many authors never want to change what they have written. I had an author friend who I was editing a piece for get very upset when I suggested she cut out over half a page of one scene. She wanted it just the way it was. Even when I pointed out how repetitive the section was and had me as a reader wanting to just skip it, she was adamant the words had to stay as they were. She published it just the way it was. Reviewers noted how many scenes had repetitive words, and it didn’t appear to be edited. You can guess that the reviews were not very kind.
Writers need to learn that listening to the suggestions of beta readers and editors is important.
Using the Same Word Over and Over
In editing manuscripts, I’ve found that many people use the same words over and over again. I have been guilty of it myself. During an editing process, it was pointed out how I use ‘shot’ an awful lot.
The wolf shot across the open field.
His words shot across the room to her.
Talk about boring! It was like my vocabulary was extremely limited. During my editing, I quickly varied my word usage. Lesson learned.
Another word that I see almost every author use too much is ‘that’. We use it so much in everyday speech. It is easy to just write it so much. Most times ‘that’ is used, it can be completely removed..
Everyone has their ‘handicap’ words. Find yours and work on using different words in place of them.
Ignoring Your Muse
Too many people want to be in total control of their writing. They find themselves struggling with getting the story complete as it isn’t coming out the way they wanted. The problem is that they are fighting with their muse and refusing to listen to new direction. This can cause a lot of problems.
I was writing one story that had me and my muse going a few rounds. As I was typing away at a scene, the words appeared before me that a character I loved was dead. No! That was not supposed to happen. I erased the words and began typing away again. Before my eyes once again, the character died. My muse and I began to fight.
Needless to say, my muse won. My character died. I went into mourning.
I could have forced the issue and saved my character. I tried, but the story didn’t flow right. Nothing sounded right. That meant my intentions were not the best for the story. I needed to listen to my muse.