n00bie mistakes in writing

I’ve been researching and giving advice to other writers – especially new writers – for a while, whether the advice is tips I have heard or read, methods that helped me with my writing, or common sense that just needs to be reiterated.

Now that I’m actually a professional (*snort*) editor, here is the most common advice I find myself saying:

  1. For the love of God, re-read what you write. (Yes, I write it just like that.) There are three reasons for this: You are more likely to find typos/grammatical mistakes; You are more likely to catch where you sound awkward or repetitive; You can verify your sentences follow a natural voice/cadence, and that they match the tone of the text. It is especially important to re-read dialogue aloud, to verify that it feels like natural speech.
  2. To go along with the tip above: Make sure your dialogue sounds and feels natural, not only for everyday people, but also for your characters. Most often, I am advising my writers to use contractions. Yes, many people do not use contractions (for example, Ziva from NCIS), but most people do. Unless it is a part of a character’s manner of speaking, use contractions, slang, idiomatic expressions from their region. Allow them to speak imperfectly (but beware becoming farcical or offensive). Use all of these as a part of your characterization. One of my characters is from north-western Colorado. I have the good fortune of speaking to several people from that region in my work, so I can hear the cadence they speak with and the expressions they use (slightly reminiscent of Canadians).
  3. Include characters who are unlike you, and do not make them offensive, stereotypical, or bad guys. I recently had one novel with no women. None. The author confessed being concerned about “getting it wrong” in writing female characters. That’s cool – that’s what you have beta readers for! I’ve also had a book that featured female characters, but they ranged painfully stereotypical to outright offensive. It hurt to read it. I wanted to yell at the writer. I’ve read recent reports of many movies in which the only POC are cast as villains. Provide some kind of balance, even if you have to investigate the demographics of your setting in order to see how to do so.
  4. Even if you “don’t have time” to read other novels, study their features to see how professionally-published novels use punctuation, frame dialogue, balance quotations and action. My go-to novel is Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park for several reasons: It is traditionally-published, well-renown, written by a well-established author,  and it is not anywhere near the first edition of the novel. I went there to see if I put spaces around an em-dash (you don’t, which is on the very first page). Despite being very angry at it, I used Karin Slaughter’s Triptych to study how to balance and fame dialogue and action. This may vary from genre to genre, generation to generation, as Jurassic Park has it slightly different, and J. G. Ballard’s High-Rise is very different.
  5. Related to #5, but also should stand on its own: Study punctuation, especially when to use commas. This is the most difficult mark to use, followed closely by the hyphen, colon, and semi-colon. I recommend studying strict usage of these marks, and break that usage only when it conflicts with natural cadence. Also study the intricacies of using quotation marks (and quotations within quotations) and italics.
  6. Show, don’t tell. I’ve written on this two or three times previously. Rather than describing your character as afraid, describe the physical symptoms or behaviors associated with fear: Tense muscles. Sweaty palms. Jumping at every sound. Repetitive swallowing. Rather than simply telling the reader, you are painting a picture for them. They’re smart, they will make the connection. An invaluable resource for this is Angela Ackerman’s Emotional Thesaurus. Likewise, use sensory descriptions in your writing, and try to hit all five senses. Romance would not be the same if you don’t describe how a character smells. Horror is only half-alive if you don’t include the disgusting noises associated with crushing someone’s skull. Give your reader a well-rounded, realistic experience.

As I read more and write more, I will, of course, share more. What are the most common mistakes you come across in your own writing, or beta reading for others?

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