Want to be a better book and essay writer? Start by avoiding these common writing mistakes.
I confess. I’m a bit of a writing snob. As an editor over the past 25 years, I’ve read thousands of stories, cutting unnecessary words, dragging entire paragraphs to the trash, and writing comments in the margins like “Awkward” and ” Eh ? “
I haven’t always been like this. When I first started writing, I was the target of many “clumsy” and “eh” of my own stories. An editor would just write “lame” if they read something they didn’t like.
Criticism stung me back then, but it also helped me grow. I started to internalize the corrections, slowly improving my writing skills and avoiding common mistakes. Am I still making mistakes? Totally. Any writer who claims he beats 1000 every time is either delusional or pays their editor money. Writing is hard as hell – so hard that I now have to rewrite this sentence because it is a cliché.
Recently I recorded an episode on my podcast, Write about now, detailing 21 rookie writing mistakes made by writers. Here are a few to avoid to help you earn even the most posh editor appreciation.
Related: It’s What 300 Writers Say That Made Them Successful
Do not bury the lede
You’ve probably heard the phrase “don’t bury the lede” before. This is journalism jargon for dropping the story hook to the middle or bottom of the story. This mistake has left many otherwise interesting stories forgotten and ignored. As a writer, you only have seconds to grab a reader’s attention and make them want to invest time in your work. A robust and brief lede – a compelling question, a juicy anecdote, a controversial statement – separates your story from so many other rehearsal festivals that just state the facts. I would say a good lede is a difference between a human’s handwriting and a bot’s. Don’t be a bot.
Watch don’t say
“Show don’t tell” is a classic writing mantra, but what does it mean? I’ll let Anton Chekov, considered one of the greatest writers of all time, explain: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the reflection of light on broken glass. In other words, writing is much better when describing something through pictures, actions, or details. Don’t tell the reader that the real crime story you are about to tell is scary; show them why it’s scary. Don’t tell the reader what product you want them to buy well; show them why it’s great. The strong writing is in the details.
Stephen King once wrote: “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” And he’s a guy who knows a few things about the wrong. For those who missed this grammar class or one of my favorites School rock episodes, an adverb is a word that modifies or describes a verb or adjective. A handy way to spot these evil words is that they often end in -ly. Most adverbs are a sign of weak writing. These are unnecessary and often redundant ways of describing an action. Some examples:
- The cat ran quick away from its owner.
- She whispered calmly to her friend.
- He shouted loudly at his boss.
If you removed the adverb from these sentences, would that mean the same thing? Then take them out. Take them all out.
Related: Ken Follett’s Secret Formula For Writing Success
Don’t be creative with your dialogue tags
A dialogue tag is a word or phrase used before, after, or between a quote to signify who is speaking. For example, “‘The economy is on the verge of collapse,’ said the senator.”
Many novice writers make the mistake of being overly creative with their dialogue tags, using words like “postulated” or “considered” instead of “said” or “said.” I think this is because they have been taught not to repeat the same words too often, which is good advice unless that word is “said” or “said” or other common words like “requested” or “written”. It’s perfectly okay to repeat the same dialogue tags over and over again. The words are so common that they will blend in with the background. But the elaborate dialogue tags are distracting, notes this writer.
Stop changing the weather in the middle of a story
This error is as common as it is preventable. Inexperienced writers often alternate between the present and the past in the middle of a story, which confused many readers (see what I did there?). The good news is that there is a very simple solution to this problem: read your story aloud after you have finished writing it. It might sound silly, but you’d be amazed at how many great writers do this for all of their stories. New York Times Seasoned journalist Dan Barry once told me that he read all his stories to his poor ailing wife. The reason? You will hear your mistakes much easier than you can spot them with your eyes.
These are just a few common writing mistakes that are easy to nick in the bud once you get the hang of them. To listen to my full podcast on the subject, tune in to the rest of the episode below. To follow Write about now to hear more tips and tactics for becoming a better writer.