5 Common Mistakes New Writers Make

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Hi there! I hope you’re doing well. Lots of changes have been happening in my life. All for the good, but transition is never easy. Self-care is so important during times like this. I hope you’re finding some time for yourself. ❤

I recently did a beta read for a fellow author. I came across a lot of mistakes I saw in my own writing at first, and I thought I’d bring some of the most common ones to light.

Writing is a journey, and no writing is ever perfect.

There will always be more to learn, and there will always be more to edit.

The key to my own editing has been to make sure that with every new draft, I’m making the story better, not just different.

If you keep going in circles on your draft and you feel like you just keep making small changes, it might be time to move on!

Send that baby off to a beta reader and dive into your next project.

But one thing I’ve found most helpful for my writing is research, research, research.

I’m on Pinterest, following fellow authors on social media, Googling, reading, you name it!

I love to learn more about how I can improve my writing, and there is a lot of info out there to help us authors do just that.

So I’ve compiled a list of some of 5 mistakes I’ve made, and seen in my reading, so that you can avoid making those same errors.

1: Telling, Not Showing

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Any writer who’s even done one Google search on writing has heard of this.

Show, don’t tell!

But what does that even mean?!

Well, it’s referring to the way you portray scenes in your writing.

When writing a scene, the reader should feel what’s going on as if they’re in the same room with the character.

So how do you do this?

There are many ways to immerse your reader, but the best way is to show the reader what is happening instead of just telling them.

Show using all 5 senses, instead of just stating what’s happening like you’re an announcer at a football game.

I know, sounds easier than it actually is.

But just remember all the senses: sight, touch, taste, smell, and hearing.

Write them down and sticky note them to your computer if you need to!

Every few paragraphs, I like to do a check in.

Has my character smelled anything in these paragraphs, tasted anything?

Senses light sight and hearing are easier. But it’s important to remember that everywhere we go, out senses are seeking out new information.

You walk by someone on the street and smell their perfume.

You’re talking to your boss and taste acid rising in your mouth.

You’re sitting in a coffee shop and the seat is digging into your thighs and cutting off circulation.

Make sure you’ve touched on all 5 senses on every page! If you haven’t, there better be a darn good reason!

Let’s see some examples:

Telling: She was nervous.
Showing: Her palms started to sweat so she wiped them on her pants, her gut roiling like the sea caught in a storm.

See how the reader gets the same message (the character is nervous), but in one it’s flat and boring, in the other the reader feels what it’s like to experience those emotions?

Let’s do another one:

Telling: He was angry.
Showing: He ground his teeth together and curled his hands into fists at his sides.

Again, same message for the reader, but one is so much more vivid!

Let’s do one more, but a little different. This one isn’t a feeling, but a situation. You can sometimes tell the reader about a situation, but if all you do is tell, it’s going to be a pretty boring read.

Telling: She walked into the bar and sat down at the nearest stool.
Showing: The acrid scent of whiskey filled her nostrils as she pushed open the door. She spotted the nearest stool and made a beeline, stepping around the foamy puddle of what she prayed was beer on the floor next to an unconscious patron.

Here, we’re using the senses, but we’re also highlighting things she’s noticing on her way in.

Do you see how it paints a picture of the space, gives an overall feel, as opposed to the first sentence?

If you’re having trouble, try to picture yourself as the character. What do you smell? What’s on the floor? Who’s staring at you as you walk past? How does it make you feel when all eyes turn to you when you open the door?

Show me what’s happening, both in the character’s head, and in their world.

Re-read your paragraphs and see what your ratio of showing-to-telling is. If you’re telling a lot more than you’re showing, you might need to go back and spice it up!

2: Clunky Dialogue

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I think this one bugs me most of all.

There’s nothing worse than reading a good story, but getting annoyed every time the characters talk to each other.

Here’s the thing about dialogue: it shouldn’t sound exactly like real life.

There are times to draw out your dialogue, but it’s not as common as you’d think.

Unless it furthers the plot, you need to pair down your dialogue as much as possible.

Take out anything unnecessary. Take out filler words like um and so. Don’t make the characters talk if it would jam up a scene.

Let’s see an example:

Bad:
“Oh hey, Rebecca! I’m glad I ran into you,” John sang.
“Hey John! You said you wanted to tell me something?” Rebecca asked.
“Yeah, so I’m not sure if you knew, but I got a new job the other day,” John explained.
“Congratulations! That’s so great,” Rebecca chirped.
Better:
“I got a new job,” John sang.
“Congratulations!” Rebecca chirped.

Now, this is a bit of a strange example, but if you look at it, you can see that the same message is portrayed (John got a new job), but with so much less fluff.

And honestly, as a reader, if the entire book consisted of long, drawn out dialogue, you would at the very least have a hard time believing it.

At worst, you might put down the book.

We did a few things in the example above.

We got rid of unnecessary fluff like introductions and niceties. There is a time and place for this, but it’s rare to need it in every encounter in your book.

We also cut out the back and forth and got right too it. No questions. No fluff. Just stating exactly what they need to say.

Let’s do another example:

Bad:
John cocked his head and murmured, “I had fun the other night on our date.”
“Yeah, it was fun,” Rebecca laughed, looking down at her shoes.
“I was wondering if you’d like to go out again sometime,” John asked.
Rebecca looked at him then turned away, a blush staining her cheeks as she whispered, “Yeah I think that would be nice.”
Better:
John cocked his head and murmured, “I had fun on our date.”
Rebecca gave a breathy laugh, smiling down at her shoes.
“Maybe we can do it again?” John asked.
A blush stained her cheeks as she whispered, “I’d like that.”

See how much simpler the second example was?

Less fluff. Less unnecessary information.

We don’t need to know the date was the other night. We don’t need to hear things like “I was wondering” or “I think”. Obviously they’re thinking it… They’re saying it.

Also, see how I cut Rebecca’s first response out entirely?

Sometimes actions speak louder than words. Not all dialogue needs to be verbal.

We got the same message from Rebecca when she spoke and when we gave an action. But this time? We were showing, not telling.

3: Too Many Dialogue Tags

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If you were noticing that the dialogue in the “good” examples above was still a bit clunky, you’re totally right!

Why?

Because we kept saying “Rebecca murmured” “John whispered…”

It’s too much.

Here’s the thing about creative dialogue tags: They’re distracting!

And totally unnecessary.

Writers have found that when using “said” as your main dialogue tag, your reader just brushes right over it.

When you add in a bunch of creative alternatives (exclaimed, mumbled, boasted, etc.) they can actually pull your reader out of the story. Make them remember they’re reading a book. This isn’t real.

And you never want to burst that bubble!

Another mistake with dialogue tags? Using them when they’re not even necessary!

Let’s re-work the previous examles:

Better:
“I got a new job,” John sang.
“Congratulations!” Rebecca chirped.
Best:
“I got a new job,” John said.
“Congratulations!”

We’ve exchanged some overly-enthusiastic dialogue tags for simplicity, and I think you can see how much easier this dialogue is on the eyes.

And do you see how we just omitted the last dialogue tag completely?

If it’s clear who’s talking, you don’t need to tell us over and over again John said… Rebecca said…

If you introduced who was talking well enough before the dialogue started, you might not even need to say “John said.”

You could say:

John waved at Rebecca as he approached.
He smiled when he reached her side. “I got a new job.”
“Congratulations!”

It’s clear who is saying what, and you didn’t need to use any dialogue tags to do it!

Let’s do the other one:

Better:
John cocked his head and murmured, “I had fun on our date.”
Rebecca gave a breathy laugh, smiling down at her shoes.
“Maybe we can do it again?” John asked.
A blush stained her cheeks as she whispered, “I’d like that.”
Best:
John cocked his head at Rebecca. “I had fun on our date.”
Rebecca gave a breathy laugh, smiling down at her shoes.
John took her hand in his. “Maybe we can do it again?”
A blush stained her cheeks, her voice barely more than a whisper. “I’d like that.”

See how I didn’t even use dialogue tags in this example?

I used what are called Action Beats. This is when you show us what the character is doing while they’re talking.

When you use action beats correctly, you really don’t need the tags.

Dialogue tags should only be used when it would be unclear who is talking without them.

4: Overusing Adverbs

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People… the adverbs… they gotta go.

For those who were not paying attention in 2nd grade grammar lessons (me haha), Adverbs are words that modify other words.

Basically.

Idk. I told you I wasn’t paying attention.

A lot of times, adverbs end in -ly.

Quickly.

Slowly.

Angrily.

These are all adverbs, and they add NOTHING to your writing.

I learned a rule once that if you can use one word to replace your adverb and verb, the adverb is unnecessary.

Examples:
Ran Quickly -> Sprinted
Walked Slowly -> Trudged
Grumbled Angrily -> Grumbled

See how with that last one, “angrily” wasn’t even necessary?

People don’t typically grumble happily. Your reader is smart, they’re going to assume, within the context, that your character is angry if they’re grumbling.

But that does bring me to a good point:

You can use an adverb if the sentence wouldn’t have the same meaning without it!

Examples:

Smiled Sadly
Laughed Manically
Ran Slowly

You get it.

These descriptions would not have made sense without those adverbs.

Could you have found a better way to convey that someone is smiling sadly? Yes. Yes you could have.

But we’re not talking about lazy writing right now.

5: Losing Sight of the Plot

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This is a big one for new writers. Especially Pantsers.

The beauty of an outline is that it gives you a direction to follow.

Even Pantsers can use an outline. At least a basic one.

I enjoy making a detailed outline, but I have found that I have a harder time writing with one. So I’m somewhere in the middle. Not quite a Pantser. Not quite an Outliner.

I’d call myself a Pantliner, but that would be weird.

The main thing you need to know here is that, however you write your story, you need to follow the path that suits your genre.

You need to know where you’re going, and have some ideas about what happens along the way.

Unfortunately, writing isn’t just putting words on the page.

Slapping a cool idea and some characters together, shaking it up, and pouring it into a Google Doc.

Stories are expected to follow a set path, which can differ between cultures and genres, so make sure you are looking up the story structure that fits your story, and where you plan to sell it.

There needs to be an inciting incident, a midpoint, and a climax.

There needs to be a conclusion.

But most importantly, you need to keep on track with where your story is headed.

Don’t wander off the trail when it’s not necessary. You’ll bore your reader!

Don’t add in scenes that do nothing to further the plot.

Every chapter, every scene, every paragraph, every sentence needs to further the plot.

If it doesn’t, then why is it in there?

I recently beta-read a story that was clearly going somewhere, but after I got about 1/4 of the way in, it was clear the author had not done their research on plotting or pacing.

I’m not trying to be mean here, I have the upmost respect for my fellow authors. This person completed a book, and that is a whole lot more than most people can say.

But I will tell you this:

If you do not follow the typical structure of a plot IN YOUR GENRE, your readers will put your book down.

I’m sorry, it’s just true.

Your book will likely not be the first one they have read. There will be expectations. Your reader will need certain things from you.

No matter how well-developed your characters are. No matter how cool the subject matter. No matter how interesting the world… If it doesn’t follow a plot, your readers will get bored.

Why?

Because a plot (story structure) tells you when to raise the stakes!

You need an Inciting Incident, because that is the point of no return for your character!

You need a midpoint, because we have to see growth!

You need a climax because that’s healthy for your… oh. Wrong kind of climax.

You get my point.

And for those of you feeling personally attacked, I will say this:

It can’t hurt to do the research, even if you think it doesn’t matter. But doing the research can certainly help your book get better!

And don’t you want to find out now that your plot needs work, instead of submitting to agents and getting weird, vague feedback?

Or worse… actually publishing your book, then wondering why it’s not selling?

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I hope this list was helpful to some authors out there!

Don’t hesitate to reach out if you have further questions.

And comment below with any mistakes you’ve seen out there that drive you crazy!

Sending love,

MK

This boi is thrilled to learn that he needs to rework the plot of his debut novel:
How To Lick Your Butt And Get Treats, A Memoir