Mistakes Aspiring Writers Commonly Make

Sleeping Kitty On MonitorI’ve reviewed enough manuscripts now to realise that writers make the same mistake over and over. They write a book with fantastically drawn  characters at the expense of the plot, or have wooden characters flitting around in an overly ambitious plot line.

Here is my personal list of common mistakes I have found during my years as a reviewer.  

Boring Manuscripts. There is nothing happening, no plot, mediocre characters who – to suddenly make them interesting – swear a bit.

Manuscripts with POV (point of view) all over the place: John stifled a yawn as Mr Rogers droned on and on about targets and financial reports. He was tempted to rest his head on the boardroom table and drift into oblivion. Dave Rogers hated the sound of his own voice. Looking around the room, he could see several people had zoned out already. He cleared his throat, and attempted to lighten the tone.

See what I’ve done? I’ve moved from inside Johns head, to Dave Rogers. It’s jerky and it reminds readers they are reading a book. This is the last thing you want.

Writing like real life. “Ey-up darlin’, ows aboot we gor onna wanda, like. Nor wotta I mean?”

No, I haven’t a clue, frankly. The odd slang, or darlin’ is fine. But don’t over egg the pudding. You want your books to appear real life, without actually becoming it. If you order a fillet steak in a restaurant you wouldn’t want it raw, would you? You’d want it cooked. Prepared. The same applies to your writing.

Characters not showing emotion. They go through life (or the book) without feeling shy, frightened, jealous, regretful. This doesn’t apply to anger somehow. There are a lot of angry characters out there.

Minor characters. I know all about the minor characters; from their eye colour to the type of pants they wear and then they are gone. Vanished back inside the author’s head, leaving the reader wondering what was their significance. Remember, if the character’s role is brief the reader doesn’t even have to know his name.

Show don’t tell. I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but what does it mean? Basically, telling is moving the story along quickly, which can make it feel flat if it’s done too often or at the wrong time. Telling: She thought the flowers had a lovely scent.
And showing: She buried her face in the blooms, and inhaled deeply with a satisfied sigh.

In the second, I didn’t once mention that the flowers had a lovely scent, but you guessed, didn’t you?
But is telling so bad? After all, some well-known authors do it to tie up the ends as the novel draws to a close. So yes, a little telling is OK as long as it’s not all the time and especially not during a crucial moment in the plot.

Time line. Can your heroine fall in love, get married, have a baby all in three days?

Editing. Speaks for itself really. I’ve made mistakes with Eden and didn’t get it professionally edited after I redrafted it. Don’t make my mistake. It’s hard to be subjective with your own work. Go professional.

Irrelevant detail. As with minor characters above, irrelevant detail will bore the reader and cause them to skip pages. You don’t have to describe your character’s eating habits and every minute detail of their life like a running commentary.

Pompous words. Don’t show off with your knowledge of long, or strange words. You’ll end up looking like a plonker: Marcel assembled himself in the chair and beheld John from across the boardroom. Dave Rogers was trying to vaccinate a diminutive wittiness into the conference, but everyone had fallen into slumber. John’s crown was even somnolent! Marcel cleared his oesophagus and elevated a hand. ‘May I advocate a caffeine cessation?’

Basically if you can say with one or two symbols, do so.

Speech Tags. She directed, she shouted, she argued, she retaliated… she said is fine! It is an invisible word “argued”, “returned”, “protested” are not.

Clichés. Within speech, fine. Outside, no. Avoid them. They will weaken your otherwise fine story.

PenBackground. I’ve read novels with the main characters wandering through a shopping mall on a Saturday afternoon, but strangely they seem to be the only people there! Bring in background noise, crowds, smells, unruly children, the heat or cold. In other words, flesh it out.  


Research. Do your research. With Google Earth you can visit places from your living room. Also, people love to talk about their profession and if you tell them you’re writing a book they will be very pleased to share their experience. Just don’t guess – readers are reviewers and will be sure to tell you of your mistakes.

Common Words. Everyone has a favourite word. Find yours and be wary of repeating it. This does NOT apply to “said”!

Below are just a few of my favourite “how to” books. The links in red will take you to Amazon UK. Link on the actual book for Amazon.com. Alternatively, look over to the right and find “my picks”. These are all “how to” books especially picked for the aspiring writer.

9 thoughts on “Mistakes Aspiring Writers Commonly Make

  1. I have spent a happy 20 minutes reading your posts, with a bar of Cadbury's chocolate and a cup of tea by my side. I find your honesty refreshing, although sniggering with melted chocolate in my mouth is not an attractive sight.(or so my husband told me)

    Having chuckled through your post that writing groups are crap (although I'm on the committee of Nottm Writers' Club) I then proceeded to hiccup chocolatey tea onto the table when I read, 'May I advocate a caffeine cessation.' Either I'm a disgusting eater, or I found your writing hilarious! I'd like to think it was the latter!

    @angebarton (twitter)


  2. Allow me to elaborate upon your epistolary denouncement of ineffective scribes…
    I agree with “said” unless the other tag is really justified. Research: I read a book about Portland Maine where we have the “Portland Observatory.” She referred to it as an astronomic observatory, but it is an observatory where someone looked for the ships coming into the harbor to notify the sea merchant whose ship had come in! Had she bothered to open any book on Portland she would have seen that.

    Another book I read said “the snow and ice were no match for the Jaguars handling.” I was glad I wasn't drinking anything when I read that; anyone who has even entertained owning a Jag knows how laughable that is.


  3. Excellent list of common mistakes for aspiring writers! Well said! I'll share them with my author clients.

    I also have a blog dedicated to advice to fiction writers. It's great to see some of my tips and no-nos backed up by other editors and writers.

    Thanks for this!


  4. Sessha, I bet the author used the “said” tag where instead it could have been deleted? What book was it? I'd love to know.

    Thanks Catherine. You wouldn't believe how common the Pompous Words bit is!


  5. I'd agree with all of them . . . except said. I know, I know it's SUPPOSED to be invisible . . . but I read a book the other day where said was the only speech tag used – it was FAR from invisible. Most of the time maybe – all of the time and it became just as offensive as any other overused word.


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