I saw a meme on Pinterest the other day that said “A professional writer is an amateur writer who didn’t quit.” But sometimes in the quest to make your mark on the writing world you feel like all you get is negative feedback. It’s hard not feel like quitting when sometimes it seems the feedback isn’t so much directed at the story and about elements of your writing. I’ve complied a few common newbie writer mistakes I’ve run across and super easy ways to fix them so that your writing shines. And you get less negative feedback.
Let me give you an example – Jed woke up. He got in the shower. He shaved his face. He put on his clothes. He tied his shoes. He ate his breakfast. He got into the car. He drove to work. He said hello to his co-worker. And on and on and on.
Now you may laugh but it’s amazing how many writers just starting out do this. They are trying to give their reader a sense of what their character’s day is like. What they miss is that readers do care what the character’s day is like but only the details that stand out from something the normal routine.
So say for example our main character is a young working woman in the big city. We’ll call her Janice. Now do we really need to know every single thing Janice does to get ready for work in the morning? No, because we all do about the same thing ourselves. Now let’s say Janice is excited to go to work because there is a hunky new co-worker. What things would she do differently?
- she’d be extra careful with her make up and hair
- she’d take a little longer deciding what to wear to work
Now let’s say that this hunky new co-worker, Jed, loves violets. We’ll find out later on that violets remind him of his mother. But for now, as Janice gets ready for work, we can do one of two things.
First, we could say that Janice knows Jed likes violets and she purposely wears a skirt with violets on it.
~ or ~
Second, she could wear the skirt not knowing Jed likes violets but it’s what attracts Jed to Janice when they meet.
Now instead of a laundry list we have two situations where the potential for story exists. She is deciding what she is going to wear to work, but what makes this notable is that she’s doing it with a purpose for the story.
Fix: Stick to the relevant facts! Your reader only needs to know things in a person’s day to day life that either stands out to the reader or is something we need to know further along in the story.
Assuming your Reader Knows
There are several ways this can go – Jargon, Story Jumping, or Head Canon. Sometimes the new writer has a hard time getting out of their head. They assume that because they know that the character’s family loves Precious Moments dolls and that’s why she holds a deep seated hatred of them, that it should be obvious to their reader. So when the character takes a baseball bat to a store full of them, the reader is left scratching their head.
This one you see a lot in police procedurals or science heavy stories. Jargon is defined as special words or expressions that are unique to a particular group or profession. Star Trek is guilty of this one. You know what I’m talking about.
“Sir, the inverted momentum quadrant is overloading the facility peripheral engines.”
New writers, particularly ones who have done a lot of research to tell their story can get lost in the technicality of it all and lose their readers right along with it. Chances are if you’ve had to take a lot of notes to keep your science, settings, or gear straight, then chances are even greater your reader isn’t going to be able to keep up with it either.
The only time you’re excused is fan-fiction. When someone writes fan-fiction, they count on the fact that the person reading it will already be familiar with the jargon associated with the original author’s world sandbox you’re playing in.
Fix: Make sure that when you present situations or information that either doesn’t exist in the real world or requires a degree in criminology to understand that you explain these aspects of your story very well.
Let’s put Janice and Jed back in our fake science fiction world. Explaining unfamiliar terminology can be as easy as the training speech:
“Captain Jed, the inverted momentum quadrant, which allows us to make loop-de-loops in the ship, is over charging the facility peripheral engines. We need those to keep the ship going faster than the speed of light.”
Easy and still keeps the flow of the story going.
This can happen easily when you are not working your story chronologically. You forget to point out that Point A started at Point C and you’re trying to get to Point B through Point D. Without a clear indications of where and when you are in your story, your reader will only go along for that ride for so long.
Another way a new writer will confuse their reader in a similar fashion is the time jump.
“Janice loved Jed so long ago, she saw the day where they ran through the flowers. “I’ll take the turkey on rye,” Janice said waiting in line at the deli.”
Wait, what? One minute they’re running through flowers and the next she’s ordering a sandwich.
Fix: Make sure you keep track of where you are in the story. It’s easy to get lost when you have a lot of story lines you’re juggling or doing a seriously deep edit of your story. Writing down a timeline like the one I mention in my blog post, When You’re Stuck, should help you keep track of each scene so that you have a better handle on where went when.
Another way to fix the confusion is to give subtle clues that you’re switching gears.
“Janice loved Jed so long ago. In her mind, she saw them running through the flowers. But then she blinked. She was still in line at the deli waiting for lunch.”
Like in the initial example of this section, you may know your character’s backstory in and out, but that doesn’t mean your reader does. A twist on this is when you’re writing about an culture or time period that might be unfamiliar to your intended audience. You are responsible to educate your reader, and give them context in order to give those unfamiliar aspects of your story more impact.
Fix: Throw in some subtle hints. Maybe at the beginning of the story someone was looking at pictures of angels on the internet and a Precious Moments angel comes on the screen in view of your character. It’d be as easy as saying, “I had a bunch of those growing up. I hated them.” You don’t have to harp on it for the rest of the story, unless your story is about her coming to terms with her hatred of pastel colored ceramics. So when she approaches the collector store, her rampage isn’t out of left field.
If you’re introducing to your reader to a new culture, then subtle education is essential for keeping your reader engaged.
“Jed, we give you this wreath of leaves, made from the sacred laurel tree, as symbol of your victories and leadership. We honor you!”
So if your readers had no idea why Roman emperors wore leaf crowns before, they do now. And it wasn’t heavy handed or an info dump.
Show not Tell
Guaranteed that if you take a creative writing course at any point in your life, this will be a phrase you will hear. A lot. So what does this even mean? It’s sort of like the difference between being told to do something and actually doing it.
1 – Jed was upset with Janice and let her know about it.
2 – “The torpedoes are offline!” Captain Jed said to a crying Janice. “We’re going to die because you failed to do your job.”
Which sentence is more interesting to read? The second, of course. We know Jed is upset by inference. We would probably be upset too if your doom was assured because someone failed to do their job. Not only that but we don’t have to guess why he’s upset – he tells us quite clearly why he has a problem with Janice.
Fix: Instead of telling us someone did something, explain in detail how they did it. If they jumped off a cliff, don’t just say, “He jumped off the cliff.” Try:
“His breath came in raspy gasps as his footfalls brought him to the chasm ahead of him. He hurled himself off the ledge and plunged downward.”
Common Grammar Mistakes
This one is more of a pet peeve that a true egregious error. And don’t worry – I won’t be getting into a heavy grammar lesson (though I could do that if I felt like it, but I don’t). But it’s something that at some point as a writer you’re going to have to deal with. You should want to make your editor’s life a little easier by learning and applying these very simple grammar principles.
Homophones – words that sound the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings:
| they’re |
(contraction of ‘they are’)
(another way to say ‘as well’)
(contraction for ‘you are’)
| your |
| it’s |
(contraction for ‘it is’)
| its |
Confused Word Choice – words that sound like each other but have totally different meanings:
- She excepted the money even though she didn’t do anything. (Wrong) Excepted – to exclude or leave out
- She accepted the money even though she didn’t do anything. (Correct) Accepted – to receive
- The wedding effected the woman so much she cried. (Wrong) Effected – to produce something, or the product of something
- The wedding affected the woman so much she cried. (Correct) Affected – to be acted upon
Sentence Sprawls – In the olden days, we used to call these run-on sentences. They ran on and on and on and on.
Tina loved to read comics books but she was never sure which ones to buy so she would go to her local comic book shop and ask the owner Chuck if there were any new ones that had to do with flying crusaders or women with magic powers because she loved those ones the best. (Wrong)
Tina loved to read comic books. She was never sure which ones to buy. She went to her local comic book shop and asked the owner, Chuck. She wanted to know if there were any new ones that had to do with flying crusaders or women with magic powers. She loved those ones the best. (Correct)
Fix: Besides taking additional online courses in grammar and writing mechanics, technology is ready to lend a hand! Modern word processing programs have limited grammar capabilities, but the best bang for your buck are programs like Grammarly. Grammarly has a free basic version that corrects for things like mis-spellings and homophones. They also have a paid version that will highlight problem areas like confused word choices or sentence sprawls. Nothing compensates completely for not having a firm hand on the English language but everyone needs a little help now and again.
One final hint about sentence sprawls – a good rule of thumb is to read your sentence aloud with only one breath. If you can’t make through the sentence in that one breath comfortably, you probably need to break it up a bit.
What are some problem areas have you run into? If you’re a more experienced writer, what were some of the problems you wish you knew when you first started? Let’s discuss it in the comments below!