Everybody has to start somewhere, right?
Look at Stephen King. The man has written over fifty novels, and is probably the most popular author in the world. But even he had to start somewhere. And guess what: it probably wasn’t pretty.
So if you’re a beginning writer and your writing isn’t perfect, you’re in good company.
You’ll make mistakes. That’s okay. We can’t improve without them–they are critical to our learning and moving forward.
But that doesn’t mean you have to go through every beginner mistake there is. Learn from other people’s experience, and you’ll have a handy shortcut to better writing.
Here are twelve mistakes you can and should easily avoid.
Mistake #1: Having Unrealistic Expectations
Ever heard of NaNoWriMo?
The National Novel Writing Month (November) drives millions of writers and aspiring writers to a hard sprint of producing a 50,000-word novel in one month.
If so many people sign up to do it, it must be doable, right?
Unfortunately, only about 15% of those writers may actually complete this challenge. That leaves 85% of writers who either start and fall short of the target word count, or worse, who are so overwhelmed they don’t start at all.
Why is that?
Well, for most people, writing a novel is like running a marathon, not a sprint. You can’t count on your initial excitement to carry you through the entire project. Push yourself too hard, and you’ll be out of breath, motivation, and inspiration before you’re done.
Solution: pace yourself. Set numeric goals that you can actually achieve without killing yourself, and stick to these goals. Remember, even if you write only 500 words a day, you’ll have a full novel (50,000 words) within four months. These little numbers add up and are nothing to scoff at.
Mistake #2: Quitting Too Soon
(Or perhaps I should say, quitting at all.)
Becoming a good writer is a very slow process. Sometimes you can’t even see or measure your progress. And that sucks, because it gives you the illusion that you’re not making progress. And that’s when you’re likely to quit.
Every word you put on paper, every book or blog about writing that you consume, every workshop you attend, every writing exercise you do brings you one step closer to being a good writer. Like Richard Bach said, "A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit."
Solution: anticipate the long road and the inevitable setbacks. Always remind yourself why you’re writing. Always tell yourself you are a writer, on your way to becoming a good one.
Mistake #3: Telling Instead of Showing
Suppose Amanda's father has just lost her to cancer.
It’s easy to write that he’s sad and angry. Unfortunately, easy writing makes for terrible reading. You’re leaving all the hard work–imagining how the father is being sad and angry–up to the reader. But readers want you to create the experience for them.
Solution: show instead of tell.
Think what "sad" means to you. How does someone sad look like? Sound like? Act like? Dig into your own emotions, or borrow from stories you've read and movies you've watched.
Show Amanda's father sitting alone in her old room, show the outbursts of anger he has toward friends who are trying to cheer him up, show the strain it puts in his conversations with his wife.
Extra tip: telling is all about what he is. Showing is all about what he does.
Mistake #4: Not Improving Your Craft
Your writing won’t be perfect the first time around, have I mentioned that?
And that’s okay. In fact, it’s only natural.
But it’s important that you acknowledge and embrace this fact, because otherwise, you’ll never move yourself toward better writing.
I know some people think that the more they write, their writing will become better. That’s true only in part. The missing part is the conscious pursuit of getting better.
Solution: your writing will become better the more you learn about the theory of writing (by reading resources like this), and the more you are critiqued and edited. Masochistic as it is, brutal feedback is your best friend.
Mistake #5: Info-Dumping
You have a wonderful story in your head. You’ve developed characters and you know every detail of their lives. You have a complicated web of events, motivations, and conflict.
And then you spill every last background detail on the reader, preferably in the first chapter. How else is she supposed to understand the full complexities of your story?
Unfortunately, readers don’t like info dumped on them. They grow bored by background, especially in the first chapter, because they simply don’t care about the characters or the world yet.
Solution: pace your info-dumping. Release a tidbit here and a tidbit there, in places where they sound natural. Tantalize the reader. Instead of focusing on giving answers, always raise more questions.
Mistake #6: Explaining Everything
This one is mistake #5’s best mate.
Henry cried because he was sad.
“You don’t say,” I said sarcastically.
He stepped forward, wanting to close the distance between them.
I could cut each of these sentences in two, leave out the second half, and still achieve the same impact on the reader.
You know you’re explaining when you shouldn’t if you can add, “Well, duh!” after your sentence.
Solution: RUE (Resist the Urge to Explain). Your reader has a brain. Trust him or her to make good use of it, and don’t spell everything out for them.
Mistake #7: Using Too Many Adverbs
Verbs are wonderful things. They add action and suspense and taste to your writing, and for that we all love them.
Adverbs, on the other hand, kill your pace.
Look at this sentence: “He quickly picked up the phone.”
Does it feel quick to you? Do you feel the radiating urgency in it?
Nope. The adverb, instead of making it urgent, makes it slooooooow.
Solution: replace the adverb/verb couple by a stronger verb that conveys the entire idea. For this example, you might use, “He snatched up the phone.”
Mistake #8: Shopping-List Descriptions
“She was a delicate woman, with a heart-shaped face and long hair that fell to her shoulders in soft black curls. Her elegant blue dress…” Zzz. Zzz. Zzz.
“He entered the large, wood-paneled room, with its massive bookcases and the desk under the window. Statues and vases dotted the scene…” Zzz. Zzz. Zzz.
Seriously. No one reads through a long description list of a place or a person or an object.
Solution: choose the fewest details that still convey the atmosphere of your object. Strew them in among action and emotion. For example, “I felt dwarfed by the large, wood-paneled room. As I took my place in front of the massive desk, a shiver ran down my spine.”
Mistake #9: Overusing “Was”
He was taller than most people around him. He was standing at the corner of the street, waiting for a friend. He was impatient and nervous.
How did that passage work for you?
The answer is, it didn’t. It made you do all the work of imagining the man in question.
Using “was” to describe a situation is lazy writing, and a near-cousin of telling and not showing. “Was” doesn’t paint a picture in the reader’s mind. Action and powerful verbs do that. (“Was” and “be” are the weakest verbs around.) Check this out:
He towered over most people around him. He waited at the corner of the street, tapping his foot and constantly casting glances around.
Solution: use action and powerful verbs to portray a picture in your reader’s mind.
Mistake #10: “Said” Substitutes
If you think that growled, vocalized, elucidated, and exclaimed are better than simply “said,” think again. "Said" is invisible to the reader. It doesn't call attention to itself (unless you put it after every sentence), which makes it the perfect verb for dialog. Let the dialog itself carry the emotional impact, not the words that surround it.
Solution: “said” is your best friend when it comes to dialog, but action beats are even better.
Mistake #11: Floating Heads
“Oh, no! I’ve misplaced my body.”
“What? How on Earth did you do that?”
“I’ve been talking for so long that I can’t remember where I left it.”
The floating heads syndrome happens when you write dialog and nothing else, without giving your reader any physical context, like the characters’ surroundings and how they interact with it. Sooner or later, your reader loses their mental image of your characters, and conceives them as two floating heads doing a lot of talking.
Solution: always keep your reader grounded in the “where” of the scene. Use action tags in your dialog to connect your characters with their surroundings.
Mistake #12: Editing “Hot” Writing
Careful! When you handle hot objects, you might get burned.
The same goes for writing. Well, you won’t actually get burned, but trying to edit your piece while it’s still hot is not half as effective as doing it later, once it’s had a chance to cool. When you edit hot, you’re too close to the text. You have a clear, perfect image in your mind of what you intended to write, and you see that image instead of reading what’s actually on the page. Lots of mistakes will fly under your radar that way.
Solution: wait before you edit. Put the piece aside for a week or two, and work on something else. Come back to it with clearer eyes, and your editing will be that much more efficient.