What better way to end the year than with a timely reminder of how to avoid those common writing mistakes that plague all writers? We’re all guilty; we all fall prey to them from time to time – no one is perfect.
Writing is never static – we are constantly learning as we go, and even the most experienced writers have to double check themselves to catch even the most obvious errors.
We’ll be looking in more detail at these very common mistakes:
- Show, don’t tell
- Prologues/Info dumps/indirect exposition
- Superfluous description
- Hanging participles/dangling modifiers
- Incorrect punctuation
- Description – or lack of it
- Dialogue Tags
- Going to/starting to/began to
Show, Don’t Tell
This is probably the most common mistake that writers make. Telling a story is one thing, but ‘showing’ a story is another. So instead of writing flat, dull, unimaginative description that does nothing for the story, show the reader, let them visualise what you describe. Show them with atmosphere, emotion, thoughts, the five senses, actions and dialogue etc. Enhance the story and make it real for the reader, so that they become emotionally invested enough to want to experience the story on a deeper level.
Telling just doesn’t cut it. You need to show the reader. Let the characters show the reader their thoughts and feelings. Let their actions show the reader. Let the descriptions show the reader. Don’t just tell them.
Knowing which POV will work for your novel/short story is important, because each one is different in many ways and can offer readers different perspectives.
Certain genres benefit from first person, because it creates immediacy and reader connection. This is because it can only be told from the protagonist’s viewpoint. Everything is felt through the main character. It’s used effectively in literary fiction and young adult fiction, although it has to be said that this POV lacks the emotional punch of third person. The same is true with short stories, which are more personal if told from a first person POV.
Third person POV, on the other hand, provides a broad spectrum of experiences and emotions which can be explored through all the main characters in order to tell the story. It may not have the same immediacy as first person, but it more than makes up for it in pure detail.
Writers often choose the wrong POV for the type of story they want to tell. Choose wisely and if necessary, experiment which point of view works best for the story.
The other grave mistake is flipping from one character viewpoint to another in the same scene, commonly known as ‘head-hopping’. You can only write one character viewpoint at a time in any given scene.
One last mistake is that authors fall into is the habit of revealing information to the reader that the main character does not or cannot possibly know. This is surprisingly common because of the omniscient voice; however your main character won’t know everything that is going on. It’s impossible.
The main character won’t know what another person is thinking or feeling, yet writers make the mistake of telling their readers. Or they write about another character’s movements that are not privy to the main character, while still in the protagonist’s viewpoint. These are common errors, so be careful about the information you impart while in a particular POV.
Prologues/ Info Dumps/Indirect Exposition
This is a very common writing error, which almost all writers have made at one time or another.
Prologues, info dumps and indirect exposition all slow the story down or cause the narrative to stutter, and this is simply because it lacks pace or it’s just not dynamic enough. Narrative needs to have pace – action scenes require a quicker pace, while reflective scenes should slow the pace, and normal narrative/descriptive scenes should be mid-paced.
A prologue will defeat any attention-grabbing opener because all it does is explain stuff that normally isn’t included in the main story. Prologues are not dynamic by nature – they plod. If the intention is to grab the reader and grip them from the outset, a prologue can be considered the complete opposite and may well send the reader to sleep.
Info dumps also bore the reader. They don’t want to be confronted by huge chucks of information that could be better spread throughout the story at the right moments and in a subtle way. Important information is needed to help the story, but reveal it when it’s necessary, not in large doses, and especially not in the first chapter.
Indirect exposition is pages full of boring narrative – usually background information - that that reader doesn’t need or want to know. As with any information that’s pertinent to the plot, sprinkle it throughout the story, don’t write large amounts of tedious text, and especially not in chapter one.
This happens when the writer describes more than is necessary to create a scene and is very common among new writers when writing non-important narrative (in other words, the ordinary narrative, transitional descriptions pertinent info descriptions etc). The aim of any writing is to be clear and concise, and over-description can disrupt narrative flow, and bore the reader, for example:
John opened the front door and headed to the car. He opened the car door, climbed in and started the engine. He checked the mirror and pulled away from the kerb and made his way to the warehouse.
This unimportant transitional description over describes what is, in effect, a single action. And since the action is a non-pertinent scene (it’s merely being used as an intermediary scene), it can be tightened, for example:
John left the house and drove to the warehouse.
All the superfluous words are gone and all that is left is the most useful information for the reader. But what about those important scenes, the ones that need description?
Key scenes – those that move the story forward, reveal information, show action etc, rely on well written, visual depiction, but at the same time they also don’t need superfluous descriptions, so it’s up to writers to make sure their narrative is always clear and concise.
Hanging Participles/Dangling modifiers
Dangling modifiers can cause all manner of confusion. A modifying phrase that hangs or dangles at the front of a sentence, or by inserting a comma incorrectly, can render the sentence ungrammatical and illogical. Not only that, but it may confuse the reader, for example:
Having painted the door, the cat will stay indoors until it’s dry.
This example shows how the modifier ‘having painted the door’ is not correctly modifying ‘the cat will stay indoors’, so therefore it creates ambiguity by suggesting the cat painted the door, then dried off indoors! A better sentence structure would get rid of both the dangling modifier and the ambiguity:
Once I’ve painted the door, I will let my cat stay indoors until it’s dry.
Sometimes the dangling modifier acts as a misplaced modifier, which happens when the word that is being modified is not placed next to its modifier, for example:
As a product of poverty, piano lessons ensured John’s success.
In this example, the dangling modifier has been placed after the comma in the sentence, after the word ‘poverty’. But it causes confusion and ambiguity because it reads as though the piano is the product of poverty, not John. And as we all know, a piano is cannot be poor. The sentence, therefore, doesn’t make sense.
The other huge mistake in writing is the use of hanging participles to begin sentences, which modify the subject of the sentence. This can cause uncertainty and ungrammatical sentence structures, for example:
Running for the door, he glanced over his shoulder and tripped over the wire. (A character can’t run, glance over the shoulder and trip at the same time). The correct sentence is:
He ran for the door, glanced over his shoulder and tripped over the wire.
Rounding the corner, the sun shone down the street. (The sun cannot round the corner of the street, since it’s an object in the sky). The correct sentence is:
The sun shone down the street as I rounded the corner.
Looking through the curtains, the moon looked bright. (The moon cannot look through curtains). The correct sentence is:
The moon looked bright as I looked through the curtains.
Answering the telephone, she knew it would be bad news. (She can’t answer the telephone and know it’s bad news unless she hears that it’s bad news first). The correct sentence is:
She answered the telephone and heard it was bad news.
These kinds of constructions can have a negative impact on the narrative and should be avoided. Ambiguity and confusion has no place in fiction. The aim is to always be clear and concise and to avoid writing illogical sentences. Hanging participles and dangling modifiers don’t create clear sentences, yet writers still make the mistake of using them.
In Part 2, we’ll look at some more common mistakes made by writers, and how you can avoid them and make your writing that much better.
Next week: Common Writing Mistakes to Avoid – Part 2