To ever become successful as a writer, you have to develop a voice that is uniquely your own. Doing so, however, takes time and practice where you train yourself to avoid the pitfalls that many amateur writers fall into. Whether it’s due to a lack of experience, training, or simply an unwillingness to grow as a writer through self editing, some writers make these mistakes endlessly. These 10 common mistakes are all very avoidable, and doing so can help you make the most out of your next project.
So let’s get to the list…
1. Use the Word “Said”
Dialogue is easily the easiest way that people can lose immersion in your stories. If it doesn’t sound natural, people will notice. While exposition and description often don’t need to sound written like they’re being spoken, dialogue absolutely has to sound the way people actually speak. That means making sure your characters don’t “grouse” their words or “bellow” them.
Stick with said, if you even need to have that. Or perhaps “asked” if that’s appropriate to the scene. Using all those other words are just excess attributions people make note of, smirk at, and move on from anyway. Often, readers simply skip right over it so adding superfluously fancy words just makes you seem like you’re trying too hard, and it looks bad.
2. Cut Pop Culture
Modern pop culture references are a great way to date your work as being a product of a specific time. They break suspension of disbelief for your readers, which is something that you should be looking to avoid. Five or six years from now, is anyone going to understand your “left shark” or Harambe reference? Do you even remember them now? Even if the answer is yes, it makes you look out of touch.
Blatant references to even the most iconic of pop culture icons can totally break the immersion of your story. It’s fine to drop the “I have a bad feeling about this” line into your epic fantasy story as a wink and a nod to Star Wars, but if you start making overt references, people will make the connection and it will put them out of your story and make them want to go watch Star Wars.
The best way to avoid this is to…not do it at all. If you’re writing about the future, make up your own icons that are popular in your futuristic world. Or, if you feel like you HAVE to drop something to give a point of reference, make sure you’re picking something with staying power… think Elvis Presley or The Beatles, not a random Oasis reference no one will remember in 20 years.
3. Italics Aren’t Emphasis
Fancy typography in your manuscript isn’t going to get you noticed or make you look more professional. It’ll do the opposite. It shows a weakness that you feel you need to make up for. People use italics because they think that, without them, readers won’t realize that something is an introspective thought or that a character is stressing a particular word.
If you believe that, then I would recommend heavy editing until the sentence reads that way without the italics. Trust your readers to understand what you’re trying to say. They’ll get there as long as you do. It’s all about form and practice. It takes time to develop, but learning to write emphasis without typography is the same as any other skill: acquired through practice.
The one addendum I’d say to this is the following: You can get away with italics if your character is listening to a second voice inside their own head. Using a second font style to differentiate internal voice I personally think is fine. I did this in Demon Days because after experimentation, it seemed to me the best way to convey Sariel’s method of communication with Sam. Your mileage may vary.
4. Overdependence on Tropes
Tropes are good. Tropes exist for a reason. We all use them. People even come to expect them because they bring a sense of comfort and familiarity to even the strangest, most original stories. But the thing is, when you use them as a crutch, you are writing cliches. You are writing the same stories that have been written a hundred, maybe a thousand times, by a thousand other writers.
So when you use tropes, you have to make sure you aren’t just doing what’s been done. So go ahead and use them, but make sure when you do, you’re putting your own spin on things so it’s not just a rehash of the same trope we’ve seen a hundred times. Be original in your use of tropes and you’ll see something magic happen. And who knows? Maybe you spawn an entirely need trope in the process.
5. Too Many Modifiers In the Kitchen
Or is that cooks. Whichever. No, seriously. Take a good, long look at your writing and address your use of adjectives and adverbs. Have you done that? Good. Now get rid of them. How many? As many as you can. Use active verbs with good weight behind them instead and simply cut the modifier out. Search your entire manuscript for “ly” and get a feel for how many times an adverb has slipped through the cracks. Now go back through and FIX IT. Now do it again for the word “very.” Seek and destroy. Leave none alive! BE MERCILESS.
In the case of adjectives, limit these to ones of significance. Too many becomes word salad. No one likes word salad.
6. Inconsistent Voice
Switching POV within a scene can get incredibly confusing to readers. It’s a good thing to get inside a character’s head, but you need to make sure to limit it to a single character within a scene. There’s just no way around this one. When you try bouncing around from character to character, it will not take long for a reader to get lost trying to figure out who’s eyes they’re seeing the story through.
There are amazing stories out there told through the eyes of many different characters. The trick is in doing it effectively so that the reader never feels lost or like they don’t know who they’re currently inhabiting. Save transitions for scene breaks, chapter breaks, or other clear lines of delineation.
7. Understand Your Words
Do you know what the word decimate means? It means to reduce by 1/10th. It’s commonly misused in English on a near constant basis to imply devastation, but people never really pay any attention to it. Except writers and people who read extensively, of course. The moral of the story is to make sure you know the actual definition of the words you’re using. If you aren’t certain you understand the meaning, look it up. You might be wrong which can lead to embarassment.
Unless you’re a comedy writer, in which case it can be comedic gold.
Yeah, I know that isn’t a word. But a lot of people use ridiculously complex words because it makes them seem more intelligent than they actually are. Or, maybe they really are intelligent and those are words they might actually use. Either way, the average reader doesn’t. When you use complex words, it comes off as showing off. Remember one huge fact about writing: Complex writing does not equal complex thought. Using a hundred dollar word where a ten dollar word will do screams of showing off and self aggrandizement. And no, that isn’t a fancy word, that’s just a term.
Instead of making readers break out a dictionary to keep next to them while they read your story, which again breaks immersion, use language that gets your point across without plastering your face across it in a big font that says “I’m Smart!” Don’t use two words when one will do. Aim for clarity and concision. Nothing will frustrate a reader more than continually needing to look up words in your story because they don’t know what it is you’re saying. Assuming they’ll even do THAT because many won’t even bother. They simply won’t read it.
9. Pretension Retention
Names have power, and a lot of thought goes into getting them right for most writers. Getting it right can be very difficult. There are lots of resources out there to find a variety of cool names for you to use in your stories, but if people cannot even pronounce the names you give your characters… you’ve gone too far. And if every character you name is like that, people are going to lose interest fast.
High Fantasy settings and Science Fiction settings are rife with opportunities for this to happen. Don’t let it. Keep it simple. Make it so people will remember the names you pick and the characters stand out. The most memorable characters in fiction nearly always have names that are fairly simple. Don’t go looking to complicate things for the sake of being original.
One of the biggest mistakes you can make is something they refer to in Hollywood as “on-the-nose” writing. Generally, that’s a phrase viewed as positive. If you’re “on-the-nose” that means you got it just right. This is not the case in writing. In this context it means “prose that mirrors real life without advancing your story.” What does that mean? It means minutiae.
It has nothing at all to do with grammar or sentence structure or any other such mundane topics on the mechanics of writing. This is pure content.
“On-the-nose” writing breaks down prose into step-by-step action that most readers don’t need to read and don’t care to know. It’s filler. And if there is one thing you want to avoid as much as possible in your stories, it’s filler. Forget over-explaining every single little thing about every action your character takes and every conversation they have. If it’s not relevant to the story and not character important, highlight reel that shit. Boil it down to what is important and make it more dramatic by giving the audience what they want: The Story Beats.
The important stuff is what you want to focus on, not mirroring and recording real life. If that’s what you’re looking for, become a documentary writer or write biographies. Dig deep, and figure out what matters. Ignore the stuff that doesn’t. Your audience doesn’t care how your protagonist knew who was on the phone or how she answered it. They care about why the call is being mentioned at all.
Make it worth mentioning or don’t include it.
So that’s all I’ve got for now, at least for this article… I hope you’ve found it helpful. There are many terrible writers out there and if you’re here, reading this, you clearly don’t want to be one of them. That’s a good thing! It shows you care about your craft! You need to hone that shit. Hone it until it’s sharp as a legendary sword of +5 sharpness. You want to be at the very height of your game when you write.
Anything worth doing is worth doing well. That goes for writing the same as it does for any art form. The more you put into your work, the more you’ll get out of it.
Some people don’t like writing, they just like what it feels like to have written. Even if you are one of these people, you’ll get more out of that feeling if you do your best when you do the writing. That means learning the craft as much as you can. And I’m here to help.
See you next time.