Saturday, September 7, 2013

Commonly-Made Mistakes When Writing a Novel

Part of being an author means that you read a lot of books. TONS of books, in fact. This is the only way you can truly develop your own voice and grow in your craft. By reading many different styles and deciding what you like and don’t like, you will establish your own voice that will eventually become your unique signature.

While there is a wide range of writing styles that vary greatly from person to person, there are general rules and guidelines that need to be adhered to in order to make the story flow correctly and keep the reader’s attention.

Each time I am asked to critique another writer’s manuscript before it goes to print, I always manage to catch a number of common writing no-no’s. Unfortunately, the same frequent errors being made are also the ones that detract the most from the story. Writers opting for the self-publishing route tend to make these mistakes more for the simple reason that they usually don't have an editor and/or publisher picking out these errors.

I have compiled my short list of mistakes that I commonly find in the works of newbie writers:

POV Slip (aka 'head-hopping')

This is probably the number one problem I see among new writers. (OK, I’ll admit that this was a problem of mine until something in my brain finally clicked and I actually got what I was doing wrong.) When you start writing a story, you'll first need to decide from which character's viewpoint the reader will be seeing the story, or if it will be told by a narrator.

There are three main kinds of storytelling; first person, second person, and third person. To explain them in here detail would take too much time. For a complete explanation of these varying points of view (POV), read this brief article entitled Understanding Point of View in Literature.

The biggest problem occurs when the writer skips back and forth between different characters’ points of view without so much as a scene or chapter break. This is extremely frustrating as it confuses the reader, drawing him or her out of the story. As a general rule, if you begin a scene or chapter, make sure it is written from the perspective of only one of the characters, especially if there is internal dialogue going on. Otherwise, your audience will have a tough time feeling empathy toward each individual character since they can't tell who is thinking/speaking!
If you expect the reader to invest time and emotion in your characters, you need to make sure those characters are accessible. What I mean by this is that you need to put some effort into it by devoting that scene or chapter to just the one character. Many newbie writers tend to skip over things for the sake of ease, only to be told later that the reader was unable to empathize with the character. Make the reader care about what is happening to him/her/it. If the thoughts and viewpoints are constantly flipping back and forth between characters, the reader will put down the book out of sheer frustration and most likely not pick it back up again.

Use of Words Ending in ‘ly’

This is something that literary agents absolutely abhor. Words like finally, suddenly, quickly, slowly, etc., need to be used sparingly. Find other ways to express the action in a scene without resorting to use of these words. This will make your manuscript stronger and not drive the reader bonkers!

Spelling, Grammar and Punctuation

These are some of the most obvious and common mistakes, and yet they still need to be pointed out. Anyone with a computer and a connection  to the internet has ready access to more than a dozen spell checker programs. If you plan to release your story to the reading public, please, please, PLEASE run a spell checker more than once. You won’t always catch all the errors in one round of editing, and most novels require at least four or more.
In the current climate of authors choosing the self-publishing route, spelling and punctuation errors are occurring on a more frequent basis. If there are just a few spelling errors in the book, most readers will be forgiving, especially if the story is engaging. But if a novel is riddled with punctuation mistakes and grammatical errors, there are very few readers who will stick it out until the end.

NOTE: If you are going to name-drop, make sure you spell the name correctly! (i.e. Dolce & Gabbana instead of Dulce and Gabana.) Misspelling common brands or names will make you look unprofessional and will leave the reader with the impression that you don’t know your own subject matter. In short, don’t let bad punctuation and spelling errors ruin a good story!!

Overuse of Dialogue Tags

These are the ‘he said,’ ‘she said’s of the story. Use them as little as possible, when the reader would not otherwise be able to determine who is speaking. If your characters have established their own voices during the story, many of these dialogue tags will not even be necessary. Can't tell if you need them or not? Have someone else read the story and see if they can tell who the speaker is.

Telling When You Should Be Showing

The mantra of many authors I know is ‘Show, don’t tell.’ I disagree only slightly with this, because there does need to be a small amount of ‘telling’ which often occurs in your prose. I prefer to say 'show MORE than you tell.' But a major mistake that nearly all writers make in the beginning is to tell the reader what happens instead of showing how it happens.
With a passive voice, the story basically flows like this: He went there and did this, and came back and did this. After that, he felt like this and then he did that. Of course, that is exaggerated, but you get the picture. In reality, the story should show the reader what the character is doing, thinking, feeling, or saying through the character's own actions and not simply narrating from a stand-offish point of view. Showing the reader how the story unfolds can usually be accomplished by using an active voice instead of implementing a passive voice.

Example of a passive voice (‘telling’):
Anna Richards was going to the store to pick up some groceries before it closed. She didn’t make it on time, and when she got there, Old Man Peabody was locking the door. She got mad when he saw her but he just turned around and went back into his store.
Example of an active voice (‘showing’):
Anna Richards hopped in the car and raced to the Shoppette to grab her favorite yogurt before the store closed for the long, holiday weekend. Slamming the car door, she dropped her keys into a muddy pothole. With a frustrated groan, she picked them up and wiped the dirt off with her hoodie. 
She jogged up to the glass doors, reaching them just as Old Man Peabody turned the key in the lock. She glanced down at her watch. There was still five minutes left until closing time! Old Man Peabody gave her a smug grin and shuffled back up the candy aisle.
Banging angrily on the glass, she cursed at him, shouting loudly so that everyone in the neighborhood could hear what a jerk Old Man Peabody really was.

Not Having Your Book Proofread and/or Professionally Edited

This is a shortcut that many writers take, and one that always makes me scratch my head. Yes, to have a professional editor pick apart your story can be very costly. But if you have the extra money, it is well worth every penny. If you can’t afford a professional editor, then at least enlist the help of a beta reader. These are people who, out of the goodness of their own hearts, will give you an invaluable second set of eyes and help catch errors and plot holes you may have missed along the way.
If you don’t know anyone willing to read your story and correct mistakes, join a local critique club or get involved in an online writers' forum. Most beta readers enjoy reading new stories and thrive on making a good story even better. Whether or not your book has been scoured by others can make the difference between landing an agent or publisher and getting a steady stream of rejection letters. Don't be one of the many authors who impatiently rushes his or her manuscript to print before it's ready. If a story is worth being written, it’s worth being edited!!
I have listed only a couple of the many frequently-made mistakes. Of course there are many more. What is your most common writing mistake? Share in the comments below.


  1. Great post! It really got me thinking over my WIP. Did I make any of those mistakes? Most likely.

    I would have to say my most common mistake is forgetting to describe the setting and my characters. Or putting too much into the descriptions. Finding that nice balance between a blank space with a talking head and throwing a road block in the pace of the story is something I have to work on.

    1. Hi Autumn!

      Thanks for stopping by. The point you raised about the right balance of descriptives in the narrative is so true! Too little description makes the story seem vague while too much will drive the reader crazy! This is where a beta reader can offer advice in striking the right balance. Great comment!!

  2. Good information! There were two points in here that were definitely news to me; I'm in the middle of a manuscript now and I'm itching to go through and it apply the new knowledge. Thanks for this feedback!

    One of the things that always got me was the "he said, she said". I tend to throw those descriptors in because I'd been told they were preferable to others like "he exclaimed", "she whined", "he pointed out", etc. I can see the difference in using those types of descriptors and will go back through and weed out where I might have used the saids unnecessarily. And the -ly's. Definitely, irrelevantly, eloquently the -ly's. :)

    1. Hi Jayme,

      The dialogue tags have always been a sticky issue for me too. In a scene with only two characters, I find that in most cases, I only need to mention who is speaking once at the beginning. After that, I try to make the conversation flow naturally so that the reader can easily follow along. Just remember to indent with each new speaker and you shouldn't need to close every sentence off with a dialogue tag.

      One way to keep the reader engaged in the scene without the tags is to briefly state what the character is doing instead. Something akin to this:

      "Where should we go for dinner?" asked Tracey.
      Sam thought about it for a moment. "I feel like going Italian tonight. Why don't we try that new place down on main street?"
      "You mean Sully's? I heard it was expensive."
      He shrugged. "We can try it once. If we don't like it, we won't go back."
      "Okay, I'm game if you are," she said, smiling.

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