During the years that I've been teaching writing and participating in writers' critique sessions, I've seen
some real talent. There are writers who produce such sparkling prose that you know publication is only a matter
There are others who have wonderful ideas, terrific plots and lively characters - but who may never see
their work in print. The reason? They are making one or more writing mistakes that will cause an editor to toss
their writing aside. Often, when these mistakes are brought to the writer's attention, she makes comments like
'I can't believe I didn't pick that up!' or 'Oh no, I feel so stupid'.
It's so easy to see those mistakes when they're pointed out to us--but it's also far too easy to go on for
years doing the same thing if we're not alerted to the problem.
Here are some of the most common writing mistakes. Read through them to see if there's a clue here about
what might be stopping you from getting a 'yes'!
Technical Mistakes--Grammar, Spelling and Punctuation
1. Changes in tense.
The writer starts in the present tense then slips into past tense or vice versa. Sometimes this happens only
once during the scene or story; sometimes the tenses switch back and forth all the way through. Tip: Quite
often this happens after the writer has moved into the present tense to show the character's thoughts. For
Laura ran down the steps. She shaded her eyes and stared down the road. There was a plume of dust at the
bend. Is that Robin? Will he remember me?
She races off to meet the car, her heart leaping.
2. Changes in person.
The writer starts off in third person then slips into first person:
Laura was incredibly happy. She had never expected to see Robin again. Now he was here, looking taller
and more handsome than ever.
I flew into his arms. "Robin! You're here!"
"Laura,' he acknowledged stiffly. He didn't return my hug.
Often this occurs at dramatic or emotional moments, when the writer tends to identify more strongly with the
viewpoint character. Sometimes, as with changes in tense, it follows the use of the character's thoughts.
3. Misuse of the apostrophe
This is an incredibly common mistake. If your manuscript is peppered with apostrophes in the wrong place (or
you leave them out altogether) you won't create a good impression. Some people seem to think that every word
ending in 's' should have an apostrophe in it--so you get odd constructions like this:
Laura recognized the suitcase. It was her's all right, with it's broken clasp. She'd used it to store
all of Robin's letter's to her.
In particular, learn to differentiate between the possessive pronoun its and the contraction it's. The
possessive pronoun never has an apostrophe. (She recognized its broken clasp.) The contraction it's (which is
short for it is or it has) always has an apostrophe. It's quite easy to work out which is which -- if you can
substitute the longer form 'it is' or 'it has', then use it's. If you cannot substitute these expressions, then
you are using the possessive pronoun which does not require an apostrophe.
Your first resource is the spell check on your computer. However, this won't pick up everything--if you've
made a typo that is also a real word (such as typing 'met' instead of 'meet') the spell check won't pick it up.
Nor will it pick up the use of 'beach' instead of 'beech', since both are real words. If you know that spelling
is a weakness, try to get a friend who is a strong speller to check your work.
Mistakes in Style
The writer decides it would be nice if the reader could be privy to what was going on in everyone's mind, so
hops blithely from one head to another. (I've seen stories with half a dozen viewpoints in one page.) Sometimes
it works to let the reader know what is going on in the minds of two characters in a scene, but use this very
carefully or you can lose your reader. You'll get much more emotional punch into your work if you let the
reader 'become' your viewpoint character, seeing everything (and feeling everything) from one person's point of
2. Overuse of 'As...', '...as...' and '...ing'
Check your work to make sure it is not sprinkled with sentences that begin with 'As...' or '...ing' words,
or that have 'as' joining two actions. Usually this has the effect of slowing the pace and setting the reader
at a distance. The participle construction ('...ing' words) has a particularly amateurish flavour when placed
at the beginning of a sentence. When you can, use alternatives.
3. Overuse of qualifiers
Some writers like to use liberal doses of words like 'very', 'extremely', 'fairly', 'somewhat' and so on.
This weakens your writing. Use strong verbs instead. Rather than 'he was extremely happy', say 'he was
delighted'; instead of 'somewhat annoyed' say 'irritated' or 'irked' or 'furious', depending on the degree of
4. Dull or stilted narrative.
There are lots of reasons for this one--some of them fit into pacing problems (see following section) as
well. However, if your writing seems flat, look at these things:
Mistakes in Plotting and Pacing
- Repetitive sentence beginnings. When you revise your work, watch for too many sentences starting with
'He', 'She', or 'I'.
- Repetitive sentence structure. This can apply anywhere in your text. In dialogue, it could be that
you're using the same pattern all the time--e.g. speech + tag + action: "I don't think I can do that right
now," she said, walking to the door, and "Leave me alone," she yelled, hitting him on the arm.
- Overly formal and correct sentence structure. People don't think in formal sentences and they often
speak in sentence fragments. Let your text reflect this.
1. Starting too early or having too much description in the early pages.
Don't feel you have to explain everything to the reader in the first two pages--or even the first chapter.
Yes, you should make it easy for the reader to identify with the main character, and that means giving some
pertinent details--but don't feel that you have to give a detailed description of what the character looks like
and long-winded descriptions of everything that led up to the present situation. Weave details in at pertinent
spots--and never dump in too much information at once.
2. Pace too slow
Pace should be controlled through scenes. Create scenes with plenty of action and conflict, then slow things
down to let the character (and the reader) catch his breath by using a 'sequel' - the aftermath of a scene,
where the character decides what to do next. If you need to speed things up, keep the sequel short. If you want
to slow things down, expand the length of the sequel.
If your story still seems to drag, look at these other things:
3. Lack of believable motivation.
- The length of your sentences (too many long sentences slow the pace)
- The amount of description (too flowery? Too wordy? Not allowing the reader to bring their own
experiences and knowledge to the scene?)
- The way you handle dialogue (do your characters use overly formal sentences? Do you use too many speech
tags or do you have too much narrative between exchanges of dialogue?)
- Your use of flashbacks. Flashbacks always slow the pace. They stop the forward motion of the story
while the character remembers something that happens in the past.
- The amount of thinking done by the viewpoint character. She mulls over this and agonises over that
until the reader is ready to scream. Think: action!
It's painfully obvious when the writer is forcing the characters to take action simply because that's what
the plot dictates. Treat your characters like real people. Allow them to behave and react in a way that suits
their personalities. (For example: don't let your heroine fail to take action just so you can place her in
jeopardy, when any sensible human being would yell for help or run like hell.) Don't ever risk having your
reader say in disgust 'As if she would really do that!'
4. Writing from an adult's point of view in a children's story
Many adults think they'd like to write for children. However, they forget that kids identify with other
kids. Your young readers don't want to be looking on from an adult's point of view when the main character is
involved in the action. (Ask: whose story is this? The adult's or the child's?) Learn to look through the eyes
of a child. Plot your entire story from a child's viewpoint.
5. Plots that go nowhere.
Beware 'slice of life' stories that are essentially scenes rather than stories. Your story should have a
beginning, a middle and an end. There should be conflict and character growth. Make sure there's a story
question (your reader keeps turning pages to find out whether the heroine does get her man (or how she gets
him) or if young Jack succeeds in finding out what was causing the mysterious noises in the night....)
Mistakes in Editing and Polishing
1. Not leaving enough time to edit.
This is the number one problem with the work not only of beginners but writers at all levels. The temptation
to go quickly through that draft 'one last time' so you can get it in the mail is almost overwhelming.
DON'T. Leave your short stories for a week. Leave your novels for at least a month--the longer the better.
You need to see your work with fresh eyes. If you've just finished your story, you're far too close to it to be
objective. You'd be doing yourself a favour to send it out to a few carefully selected readers when you finish,
before you even look at it again.
2. Glossing over plotting problems.
It's easier to fix errors in style than to fix plotting problems. If you strike problems with the plot, it
can mean rewriting large chunks of the book. This is painful, so writers avoid it whenever possible. They
become 'blind' to their own mistakes more because they don't want to face the pain of a structural edit than
because they don't recognize the problems.
The best remedy for this is to ask yourself: 'Would I rather get a rejection from an editor because of the
problems I can see myself, or fix them now and have a better chance of getting an acceptance?' Even more
pertinent: 'Do I want reviewers to point out the problems with the plot after the book is published, or fix
them myself now?'
These are just a few of the common mistakes that writers make. If you belong to a critique group, or you
exchange work with another writer, try identifying these and other mistakes in each other's work.
(c) Copyright Marg McAlister