Being an editor, I read a lot, and most of my clients who are new to the craft of writing tend to make many of the same mistakes. I can’t perform miracles, so it’s better for everyone that a manuscript is the best the writer can make it before it lands on my desk. So here is a list of the most common fiction writing mistakes I see, and how to avoid them so that your editor can focus on the things that will take your story to the next level.
1. Terrible dialogue
Sometimes writers can forget that they’re writing a conversation and thus not write a conversation. The dialogue can be boring, stilted and unnatural, and I’d rather listen to the territorial call of an Australian Raven than read one more word of it.
There are many things that contribute to terrible dialogue, but here are the three that really get on my nerves:
- Not using contractions–I’ve seen work that is modern and still doesn’t use contractions. Consider this:
“You are going to be late.” Unless the speaker is trying to sound like an irritated mother and is leaving an emphatic silence or clapping emoji between each word to sound threatening, use contractions. We generally don’t speak like this in real life, so neither should your characters. It sounds like nails on a blackboard.
- Using complete sentences–Not only is it natural for your characters to chop their sentences, this can also contribute to their voice. Does your character say “I don’t know.” or “Dunno.” Would he/she say “I missed the train and had to find a lift home.” or “Missed the train. Had to find a ride.” We don’t always use full sentences when we speak. Using fragments in dialogue can bring the conversation to life.
- Using characters as a conduit for research and plot information–Sometimes writers like to show off their research (looking at you Jurassic Park), backstory, world building and plot by having their characters talk way too much. If your character says “Once this valley was home to an ancient race of elves, who looked after the land and treated it with respect. One day, the secret magic spring dried up and then the goblins came. Without their magic spring, the elves couldn’t fight back, and they were killed by the goblins. The goblins didn’t respect the land and now it’s uninhabitable.” he should probably shut up. It sounds less like a person talking than it does an audio tour. The information he’s shared could be given in a much more interesting way.
How to avoid it:
- Listen to how real people talk to each other. Do they speak in full sentences with full words? Do they speak with grammatical correctness? Do they speak differently in different situations? How do hand gestures, body language and facial expressions help them communicate?
- Read your dialogue aloud. Does it sound natural? Does it flow?
- Test every piece of information your characters give out. Does it all need to be said? Would your character say all of it at once? Do they need to say it all in so many words?
2. Passages of uninterrupted speech or thought
Sometimes you might want to avoid telling the reader about something and have a character tell another character instead. Sometimes you might want to avoid telling the reader how a character feels about something by having them think about it excessively instead. If this goes on for longer than a couple of paragraphs (or less), you risk allowing your reader to drift out of the scene.
The only thing anchoring your reader in the scene is your characters and what they’re doing. If the characters are talking or thinking for a long time without interacting with anyone or anything else, they might as well be floating in space, which can make the reader feel like they’re floating in space. That’s not to say that they’ve forgotten where the scene is taking place or who else is involved, just that it can feel that way if this is how the character acts.
How to avoid it:
- If your characters have a lot to say, try to include the other characters as well. Have them ask questions or make comments so it feels like a scene and not a soliloquy.
- If your character is around others when he/she is deep in thought, try to include other characters in some way. If the POV character is thinking about something that the other characters can see, why not give voice to one of the other characters in between thought paragraphs?
- If the character is alone when he/she is deep in thought, is there a way they can interact with their environment? Unless they’re standing in front of a wall, they should be able to see, smell, feel or hear something.
- If your character is absolutely, completely lost in thought, is there a way you can bring some sort of image or action into it? For example, on page 216 of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Katniss is thinking about how to treat a burn she receives. Almost the entire page is a paragraph describing a memory; however, there is still action in this memory and, therefore, there is something for the reader to imagine.
3. Unnecessary or ineffective dialogue tags
Some people will tell you to use descriptive dialogue tags and others will tell you there’s nothing wrong with said. Both are true, but when do you follow the former and when do you follow the latter? And when do you use no speech tags at all?
Using anything but said and using nothing but said both get exhausting and boring very fast.
How to avoid it:
Below is a rough guide to what kind of speech tag to use. Please bear in mind that it is only a guide and will not and should not apply to every situation.
Said is unobtrusive–a way of letting the reader know who’s talking without making a song and dance about it.
Specific verbs (e.g. whispered, shouted, mumbled) give the reader information about how the words are being said.
Adverbial tags can also give extra information about how something is being said, but more often than not they can be replaced with a stronger verb (e.g. she said loudly can be replaced with she shouted). Writers can also fall into the trap of telling where it’s better to show when using adverbial tags, which can make the writing bland. Sometimes telling is better, but with speech tags, it’s usually better to absorb the reader in the conversation. If you’ve used an adverbial tag, go back and have a look at it. Is there a better way you could get the message across?
What you need to pay attention to when determining what speech tags to use is the context of the speech. If the reader is already aware of the manner in which a character is talking, it won’t be necessary to remind them every time the character speaks. If there are only two characters in the conversation, it won’t be necessary to finish each quote with he said/she said. You can also do away with speech tags entirely and use action to demonstrate how a character is feeling, while also grounding the reader in the scene.
The key to avoiding repetition and blandness is to find a balance between using the unobtrusive said, using something more specific, and mixing it up with a bit of action, which means you might not even need a tag at all.
4. Too much description/overwriting
Sometimes it’s better to tell and not show. Some details just aren’t important enough to warrant a lengthy description. If you want your reader to know that it’s raining, you can write something better than “It was raining”, but there’s no need to go overboard and write a poem about how the puddles on the asphalt looked like a great abyss.
Think of description like camera focus. The more you describe something, the more focus you put on it. If you put enough focus on something, you eliminate everything else. What’s this? A close-up. What does a close-up in a movie tell you? That object of the close-up is significant.
Be wary: when you write thirty words describing the way the moonlight is reflecting off the inky black lake, you might not be just setting the scene. You might also be giving the lake undue emphasis, and it’s probably going to irritate your reader when they realise there’s nothing significant about the lake at all, you were just showing off your imagery skills.
How to avoid it:
Keep it real. What would the character notice, what would they think about it and is it worth the attention? And try not to focus on sight. Your characters have more than one way to perceive their environment, and incorporating their other senses can help build a 3D setting for your reader rather than just painting them a picture. Give the reader enough to imagine the scene, and no more.
5. Not knowing when to/not to use adverbs
There’s a lot of writing advice out there that will tell you to cut all adverbs. The result is that many writers now think adverbs exist only to eat their children and wouldn’t dare to ever use one.
There is truth to the advice, but to say “The road to hell is paved with adverbs” is going overboard.
Adverbs aren’t evil, but there is such a thing as using them ineffectively. Which of the below are more descriptive?
She ran quickly or She sprinted
“It’s a long way down,” he said nervously or “It’s a long way down,” he said
He was shamefully prone to anxiety or He was prone to anxiety
She sprinted not only gets to the point faster, it also creates a more powerful image for the reader.
“It’s a long way down,” he said gives no indication of how the speaker is speaking or feeling; however, “It’s a long way down,” he said nervously is telling, not showing. Rather than using an adverb here, the writer could describe the speaker’s body language.
He was shamefully prone to anxiety tells you how the character feels about being prone to anxiety and there is no stronger word to replace “shamefully prone”.
How to avoid it:
- How would the meaning of the sentence change if the adverb was removed?
- Can the adverb and verb be replaced by a single verb?
- Does the action really need clarification?
- Does the adverb add something to the sentence that can’t be described in another way?
6. No conflict in the beginning
The first few chapters of a lot of stories I’ve read involve the main character plodding along in their daily life. This is a good thing as the reader needs to get a feel for your character before the big plot things happen, but that doesn’t mean the first few chapters should be trouble free. I don’t want to read about a character waking up, looking at themselves in the mirror, getting dressed, getting coffee, going to work, getting home, going on a date etc. for three chapters. It’s boring and I don’t care about any of it.
The confusion might be caused by common story structure theories that say the main conflict enters the story at the first plot point, or 25% into the story. But this doesn’t mean there should be zero conflict at the beginning! At the beginning of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone Harry was told ‘no funny business’ or he’d be grounded. Not long after that, there was some vanishing glass and an escaped boa constrictor. After this happened there was a mysterious letter addressed to Harry, and he spent an entire chapter trying to get hold of it as the weirdness escalated. There’s conflict and a goal right off the bat, and the story hasn’t even really started yet. In The Hunger Games Katniss faces the Reaping. In The Hobbit Bilbo finds himself hosting a dinner party for dwarfs and being asked to go and fight a dragon. Your story should start in chapter one.
How to avoid it:
- Take a look at all the books you’ve read. The good ones no doubt start with some sort of problem or goal. Study up on this to help you realise what makes a good beginning.
- Don’t fill your first few chapters with characterisation and nothing else. Build your character in the context of a problem or goal.
- Keep in mind that you find your characters more interesting than your readers do. What you like about your character might not be enough to keep the readers’ interest.
- What’s going on in your character’s life? How is this going to influence what happens when the conflict or story goal takes the stage?
- What would happen if you cut your beginning out of the story? Would the plot still make sense? Maybe it’s better to start the story at a later point.
7. Lack of story structure
When you write a first draft, whether you’ve planned it or not, there are going to be structural flaws. Maybe halfway through you thought of a way to solidify a character’s motivation. Maybe at the climax you thought of a way to strengthen your conflict. Maybe somewhere in the middle you had no idea where you were going with this and slugged your way through some of the most boring scenes ever written. It’s all good; this is how stories come together.
What should happen next is that you revise your draft with story structure in mind. There’ll be a lot of “I should add a scene here about this” and “what was I thinking when I wrote that?” and after a few goes, you’ll have a story.
Writers don’t always do this though (which, by the way, makes my job as an editor take longer and cost you more). Some writers go through and fix all of the obvious problems, but what remains is a manuscript that still lacks a solid structure. It’s messy to read, it’s confusing, it’s clearly not thought out, and it feels like the writer is giving me the finger. I’ll regret paying for the book, stop reading it and leave a negative review on Goodreads. Is that worth not giving your book a good edit?
How to avoid it:
- Read a lot. Make sure you have a decent grasp on different story structures. Make sure you understand the way stories progress, the way they’re paced and what keeps the reader engaged.
- Re-outline. Or if you pantsed your way through the first draft, make an outline. Write a checklist for what each scene should accomplish and what each chapter should accomplish. Make a timeline of how the events progress and how the tension increases. Don’t base this on what you’ve written, base it on what you’ve figured out about your plot.
- Edit ruthlessly. If a scene doesn’t measure up to your new plan, cut it. If it’s in the wrong place, move it.
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