10 Common Newbie Writer Mistakes


As I critique others, particularly newer writers, I see many things that could be improved. Here’s my top ten list:

  1. Very weak verbs. Was. Am. Had. Were. Would. Feel. Go through your manuscript TODAY and kill those terrible verbs. Kill them, I say. Send them packing. Instead of “He was tired,” change it to “Lifting his arms from his side took great effort.”
  2. Prose that is too flabby. We writers are in love with words, so much so that we tend to flaunt our use of them early in our careers. (I was guilty of this.) Strong nouns and strong verbs make a great impact. Adding extraneous adverbs and adjectives ad infinitum weakens the structure. Don’t try to fluff up your writing to impress people. Tell it like it is. Don’t believe me? Read The Kite Runner. Hosseini’s sentences are stark, full of
    detail, and have amazing emotive impact.
  3. Same sentence structure over and over again. He had. He did. He saw. N-V. N-V. N-V. Spice it up a bit. Add a gerund or two. Start with a prepositional phrase. And vary sentence length. You don’t want staccato prose, nor do you want insanely long sentences that lose the reader.
  4. In fiction, starting the story too late. When I wrote my first novel, it took me 90 pages to get to the inciting moment. I believed I needed to tell all the backstory first. Not true. When I rewrote the beginning, I cut the first 90 pages, rewrote the beginning to have the inciting moment first. Then, I shared both beginnings with a critique group and asked which one had more emotional impact. Everyone said the second one. Start your story when it starts.
  5. Lack of passion. If you’re not wild about your subject, it shows. Write from your passion and your words will have punch.
  6. Using the same word over and over again. Do a check (Go to the Edit menu in Word, hit Find and then type in words like: just, still, had, was, were, am, be, might.) This will quickly show what your pet words are. Mine were just and still. Terrible! What an embarrassment to see all those pesky justs and stills all over my writing. They were usually filler words. Also, if you are using a cool word, like phantasmagoric, you can really only use it once in your book. I about pulled my hair out when I read a popular author’s overuse of “conspiratorial.” Ack! And if you use a marginal word like
    “esoteric,” don’t use it again in the next paragraph or page.
  7. Overuse of had. When recounting something in the past, use “had” once, then keep the rest in straight past tense. Otherwise, you’ll clutter up your prose, make it gunky.
  8. Far too many modifiers. Use a better noun instead of a weak one that needs an adjective. Use a stronger verb instead of one that leans on an adverb for help.
  9. Improper format. Here’s a rule of thumb. Memorize this: ONLY ONE space after a period. Tab for indents (not five spaces). Typically use Times New Roman font, size 12. Double space. One inch margins all around. Be sure to have a header. (Go to VIEW in MS Word, click “Header and Footer,” create one by writing your last name, first name, then title of the piece: DeMuth, Mary, Wishing on Dandelions). Italicize titles. Italicize thoughts. Mess any of this up and an editor will know you don’t know your stuff.
  10. The frequent use of passive voice. Instead of “The ball was hit by George,” turn it around, making the subject DO something. “George hit the ball.” Microsoft word will flag your passive voice for you, if you enable it to.

If you can improve in these ten areas, you’ll be that much closer to publication nirvana.

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