During a recent meeting, a critique of one member’s work segued into common writing mistakes we spot or make. Problems with grammar, punctuation, and spelling have the power to distract readers from the best of storylines.
Here are ten common writing mistakes. Are you guilty of any of them?
Spacing After End Punctuation
Is it one or two spaces after a period? We often find that the old habit of adding two spaces after an end punctuation still comes through in our submissions to the group. While one space is standard for digital writing, the APA Manual of Style recommends two for printed drafts to aid readability.
Writers generally use one tense throughout the story. There are exceptions for using a different tense, like when including flashbacks or some other temporary scenario. The OWL at Purdue warns that unnecessary or inconsistent tense shifts can confuse readers. The best way to avoid this is to ask yourself: Did the time frame for this scene change? If the time frame is the same, then keep the tense the same, too.
Pronouns as Sentence Starters
Pronouns are a natural part of storytelling. Use too many pronouns and you risk ruining the story for your reader. One popular writing mistake is starting too many sentences with pronouns. Check out why this is a problem in the examples below.
In the first-person point of view, the risk is boredom. I went to the store. I returned home. I checked my email. I watched Netflix. I took a nap. A better option would be: I went to the store. After returning home and checking my email, a Netflix movie lulled me into an afternoon nap. Your reader should be tempted to yawn from the imagery of the afternoon nap, not your overuse of pronouns.
In the third-person point of view, the risk is confusion. Sally and Jane are friends. They went to the store. She returned home. She checked her email. She took a nap. Wait, who did what? Pronouns confuse which character is doing what. A better option is: After the two friends returned home from the store, Sally checked her email and Jane took a nap. With a quick edit, it’s now clear which character performed what action.
Head-hopping occurs when the writer switches from one character’s PoV to another. By limiting the point of view, you give your readers a richer emotional experience because you allow them to get close to the main character. If you must head-hop, cue the reader with clear transitions to it’s not jarring. (Better yet, just don’t do it!)
On a final note, Randy Ingermanson of The Snowflake Method cautions, “This is not the same as the omniscient point-of-view, which would allow your narrator to know things that none of the characters know.”
Passive Voice and Zombies
There are two types of voice – passive and active. Passive voice sentences often use the state of being verbs – is being, has been, were being, etc. Not all sentences that have is, was, or were are passive, however.
An example of an active voice is: I wrote the book. As you can see, “I” is the subject. “Book” is the object being acted upon.
But if you flip this around, then it promotes the object before the verb, which makes it passive: The book was written by me.
Some writers assume you can get by with dropping the “by me” and using The book was written. This doesn’t work because of the zombies. If you can inject “by zombies” into a sentence after the verb and it makes sense, then the sentence is probably passive.
Grammar Girl reminds, “A passive voice sentence must have an object. Here’s an active sentence with no object: We ran. There’s no way to make that passive without adding something.”
Another easy way to check is to paste your writing into the Hemingway App. It’s a free, web-based editor that checks for adverbs, passive voice, complex phrases, and more.
Show Versus Tell
Every writer has heard someone say: Show, don’t tell. But what does that mean? Check out this explanation from Hugo and Nebula winning author Robert J. Sawyer:
Well, “telling” is the reliance on simple exposition: Mary was an old woman. “Showing,” on the other hand, is the use of evocative description: Mary moved slowly across the room, her hunched form supported by a polished wooden cane gripped in a gnarled, swollen-jointed hand that was covered by translucent, liver-spotted skin.
Another way to look at it is this: showing is active while telling is passive. (Except there are no zombies to help you this time.) Showing gives your readers a mental image which helps immerse them into your story. It forces the reader to figure out details (i.e. Mary is old) for themselves from the description. Telling robs your readers of this opportunity to participate in your story.
So how do you find places in your writing where you’re guilty of showing versus telling? Join a writing critique group. If you aren’t sure where to start, then check out NaNoWriMo – aka National Novel Writing Month – where you can find other writers in your region. If you’d rather participate in an online setting, then check out social media groups like Sprints and Spirits on Facebook.
Purple prose is another term for elaborate writing that takes away from the story. It’s important to describe things in ways that show versus tell things to your reader. If you over-describe to the point of ad nauseam, then you may have patches of purple prose in your writing.
The Roman poet Horace (65-68 BC) coined the term (via the Latin phrase purpureus pannus) when he compared flowery writing to sewing patches of purple fabric on clothing. At that time, purple dye was so expensive only the most opulent of the pretentious upper crust could afford it.
While you will often find purple prose in romance novels, every genre is susceptible to this writing style. Successful uses of purple prose include Terry Pratchett’s early Discworld novels, Robert Anton Wilson’s Nature’s God: The Historical Illuminatus Chronicles, Vol. III, and almost anything H.P. Lovecraft wrote. (Cthulu, anyone?)
The novel Paul Clifford by author Edward Bulwer-Lytton, however, contains what is perhaps the most popular example of purple prose known to writers and readers alike:
“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”
The term beige prose means the opposite of purple prose. Where purple prose is flowery and opulent, using beige prose produces writing that is just kind of there. The writing uses brief descriptions with plain words and simple sentence structure with few figures of speech.
When used correctly, it creates a sharp wit. Otherwise, you will find that beige prose is boring. Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, Issac Asimov, Cormac McCarthy, and even children’s author R.L. Stine all used beige prose with great results. Here’s an example from Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea:
“In the night sharks hit the carcass as someone might pick up crumbs from the table. The old man paid no attention to them and did not pay any attention to anything except steering. He only noticed how lightly and bow well the skiff sailed now there was no great weight beside her.”
Sometimes repeating words creates a certain effect. More often than not, it makes for awkward writing that bogs down your story and slows down your readers. Here are some tricks for dealing with word repetition in your writing:
If you find yourself repeating proper names, replace some of them with pronouns.
Example: Mr. and Mrs. Jones lived in Paris. Mrs. Jones called it the city of love. Mr. Jones called it the city of love to spend money on shoes.
How to Fix It: Mr. and Mrs. Jones lived in Paris. She called it the city of love, but her husband called it the city of love to spend money on shoes.
If you find yourself searching for synonyms to replace repeated uses of objects, try removing a couple of the objects.
Example: Susan finished reading the book. She put the book back on the bookshelf. Then she selected another book. She went outside and sat on the porch to read the other book.
How to Fix It: Sudan finished reading the book and returned it to the shelf. She selected another and went outside to the porch to read it.
Brian Klems from Writer’s Digest offers this bit of advice:
“The key is using repetition deliberately, consciously, and strategically. If you don’t think it can be effective, imagine if Shakespeare had had Macbeth say: ‘Tomorrow, and the next day, and the one after that, creeps in this petty pace from one twenty-four-hour period to another.'”
Continuity errors happen when an author makes between-scenes changes that are inconsistent with the storyline. The changes aren’t intentional. They’re oversights that compromise your credibility as an author.
Novels have so many elements – characters, settings, objects – it’s easy to forget the small details. Your readers, however, find it all too easy to spot them.
…but your blue-eyed hero’s eyes were green in book one.
…how did they go from the diner to their apartment in a single paragraph?
…the main character’s pet was a dog in chapter one but now it’s a cat?
Fortunately, there are easy ways to combat this all-too-common mistake. Here are five frequently used methods:
– Create a data file of detailed notes on each character and place.
– Write an autobiography page with a headshot for each character. You can find headshots on Google Images or Pixabay.
– Use index cards to create a cheat sheet for each character that includes important details about their physical description.
– Print out a blank calendar and fill in the timeline of your story.
– When you’re finished writing the first draft, read your manuscript aloud.
Reading aloud is an easy way to catch mistakes. If you can’t find any humans who will listen to you read, then read to a pet. They’re just as attentive, but often less judgemental.