All amateur writers (myself included) are going to have blind spots. Here’s the five most common (and easily correctable) mistakes I see new writers make. I made all of these when I was starting out. I still make them now.
The good news is they are easy to spot and easy to fix. Correcting these mistakes will hack your writing to the next level, overnight.
Mistake 1: Dialogue Tags
I’ve written about this before. The rule is use “said” and sometimes “reply”. That’s all. That’s it. Nothing else.
Typical “First time writer” sample:
“I’m angry” he sneered.
“You have such a temper,” she cowered at him.
“Get the hell out of here,” He spat.
If you can’t drive the emotion of your the story along without resorting to obvious “tells” like this, then you have a real problem. If you have to use tags like this, at least make an effort to understand the pitfalls and understand why people tell you not to do it.
I understand many new writers don’t agree with this. That’s fine. Here’s links to a dozen other people who have said the same thing.
I stopped after the first page of google searches on “how to use dialogue” tags. I invite you to read any of the 146,393 articles on this topic that all say the same thing.
It’s such an easy fix. Don’t use excessive dialogue tags and your writing will be stronger.
Mistake 2: POV shifts
This beginner mistakes has two types.
Type 1 (about 10%): The writer is aware of what a POV shift is, but doesn’t care and does it anyways.
I’m on the fence about this. I personally don’t care for POV shifts in chapter, but some authors manage to pull it off. Mostly, I find new writers are terrible at managing this. It’s like starting drums and deciding to learn Smells Like Teen Spirit on the first day. Why would you try such an advanced technique right out of the gate?
Type 2 (about 90%): This group doesn’t understand what Point of View is, doesn’t understand how they’ve shifted narrative Point of Views and doesn’t care about consistency. You’ll often see paragraphs like this:
Meg came down the stairs, worrying about how tired she was from a poor night’s sleep. The test was later that day and if she wasn’t on her best, she’d fail. Sally saw her and couldn’t understand how Meg could look so sleepy. Last night was quiet and there had been ample time to study. She needed to get ready if she was going to make it to school on time.
Who does the final “she” in the above paragraph refer to? Meg or Sally? Best of like trying to figure it out, because the novice writer isn’t going to help you. They’ll lurch between points of view like a drunk guy at a bar trying to argue politics.
It’s all over the map. There’s no consistency.
Mistake #3: Too much stage direction
I know I was guilty of this when I started, and I’m sure I still do it. I’m not positive what this stems from, but I suspect it’s a lack of confidence in letting your writing stand on its own.
“Stage direction” is when you give your character a little bit of business to attend to with their hands, or if you excessively describe every single gesture. An example looks like this:
Meg got up from her chair, crossed the room and reached towards the faucet. She turned it on and filled up her glass. “Christ, so thirsty,” she used her left hand to bring the glass to her lips, bending her elbow slightly. She drank deeply and the muscles in her throat contracted with the effort.
Sally entered the room from the other side and moved a chair out of the way. “Got a glass for me?” she asked as she ran her hand through her hair. She turned to the left.
“Get bent.” Meg replied, turning from the sink and crossing to the other side of the kitchen.
It’s too much. You need to give the reader some freedom to paint the picture themselves. If you lay everything out for them, you’re taking away their ability to lose themselves in thew story.
Mistake #4: Tense problems
No, I don’t mean new writers have trouble establishing tension in their scenes. I mean they screw up the timing, the “tense” of their writing.
To incredibly simplify the whole thing, you can write in present tense (I walk to the store and look at the magazines. I wonder why The Real Housewives are so famous) or past tense (I walked to the store and looked at the magazines. I wondered why my recipes never turned out like the ones in Home Cooking).
I have screwed this up a couple hundred times. Everyone does. It’s really hard. If you’re not careful, you’re left with scenes like these:
(to help the point, red is present tense and green is past tense)
Meg is leaving the kitchen and can’t stop herself from thinking about how much she hates Sally. “Why does she always hound me for water,” she wondered to herself. As she was walking upstairs, she still found her attention drawn to the kitchen. Her eyes narrow and she said aloud “I hope you choke on h2o you dumb old bitch.”
In a lot of instances, the words can be written in both present and past tense (like the above) so it comes down to little mistakes like using “was” and “is”.
Mistake #5: Get to the point
Like athletes, or musicians, writers need to “warm up”. It takes a moment to get your head into a writing space. Similar to a pianist playing scales to get their fingers ready, writers will sometimes put stuff on the page that is “warming up”.
There’s nothing wrong with this, as long as you delete the warming up. You can spot this a mile away. You see in it chapters that really don’t start until the half way mark. Or in books where the first ten chapters are all inconsequential the action. Or a book where the inciting event that spurs on the whole story doesn’t start until well after page 100.
Get to the point, new writers.
I’m sure some of you are wondering what makes me qualified to give advice on this topic? It’s because I’ve made all of these mistakes. I did them, I researched them, I worked through them. I got better.
Remember the tagline, gang. Writing is hard
Get to work.