Let’s be honest here, writing a novel isn’t easy. As writers we sit at the keyboard for hours, churn out something we’re really proud of, then look back at it a couple of months later and think ‘crap’. Because it’s filled with dozens of really simple and really common mistakes. Ideally this might be something better fixed during the editing stage but if you know what your mistakes are, you can correct them before you even make them. These are mistakes that I’ve noticed often in my own writing and have seen repeated in others since. They’re mistakes most writers make, so don’t feel worried that you’re making them!
When writing some people change tense without noticing. You need to be consistent. Past or present tense but not both.
How to fix it: Read through your work and pay attention to any tense change.
Switching POV mid scene
In some instance a writer might switch between characters during the same scene. This can break the rhythm, particularly if it is an action scene (you’re writing a novel, not a film).
How to fix it: Generally I would advise for multiple POV’s to change at the end of a chapter but if you have to change within use a page break. Don’t have POV’s changes that are only a few paragraphs in length.
There’s overlong sentences, that drag a sentence on and make the reader lose track or really short sentence that make it difficult to lose yourself in the story. The length of your sentence can change the tone of your story, short creates a quick pace while long makes things slower and usually provides more details.
How to fix it: Vary your sentence length. Think of what effect you’re trying to make and ensure your sentence length fits that.
Commas (omitted or superfluous)
Commas break up a sentence and change the flow of your writing. Too many can be disjointing whereas too little can lead to a sentence running on and on and on and on and on (and I think I need to take a breath now).
How to fix it: Read through your writing, maybe out loud and take into account how many breaks there are. If you need more, add them; if you need less, remove them.
Using too many words
It’s very easy to get carried away when writing. This is especially true when you opt for a more lengthy and descriptive writing style. While this can be very effective in creating excellent imagery, there are time when ‘less is more’. Using too many words to say something can make it confusing for readers.Sometimes 5 words can say more concisely what 12 words can’t.
How to fix it: Read each of your sentences back and ask yourself, can this be said in less words? If the answer is yes, then you need to rewrite your sentence more concisely.
Losing the point
It’s very easy to get distracted while writing and end up going off on a tangent. Particularly when you’re dropping in a character’s memory, however in these circumstances it’s very easy to lose the point that you were originally making.
How to fix it: Look back at the point you made at the start of the paragraph and then read through it to find out if you’ve lost topic. If you have, cut out some of the bit in between. Just because the information doesn’t fit there doesn’t mean you can’t use it in another part of your novel.
Giving irrelevant description
There is such a thing as describing too much description. It’s nice to know where your character is, but you don’t not need to describe the entire set-up of the room.
How to fix it: Only write the necessary details. Describe the setting around you characters and anything that might be relevant in the scene, but we don’t need a full description of all the ornaments on the shelf, just the ones that are relevant.
While using extravagant and flowery words can be beautiful, and everyone loves to show off their vocabulary, this style of writing draws too much attention to itself and can break the flow of reading. Sometimes the author can even ending up using beautiful words in the wrong context just to showcase their vocabulary.
How to fix it: Try not to use too many adverbs and adjectives and be cautious of how many metaphors you use. While incredibly effective when used correctly, too many can be overpowering and distracting.
The thing with info dumping is if you’re writing science fiction or fantasy sometimes it is necessary. You need to set your world up and explain it to the reader, but the trick is feeding them the information in a way they don’t realise they’ve been fed it.
How to fix it: Gradually feed in any information you intend to tell, revealing it over a period of time rather than all in one paragraph.
Not enough description
I’ll be honest with you, this is my weakness. Sometimes I just want to get straight on to the story and action that I forget to describe the scene to my reader, telling them about the setting or even my characters appearance. You need to include enough of a description that your reader can easily visualise the scene and characters.
How to fix it: Read through your writing and see if your description is clear enough. If you haven’t given enough information to help your characters imagine the scene, go in and edit that.
Stick to your descriptions
If you have described a character appearance by saying they have blonde hair and then later say it is bright red, this can be very jarring to the reader and throw them out of a scene. Sometimes it’s hard to stay consistent but it’s important that you do this.
How to fix it: Search through your writing for inconsistencies like this. However, one way to prevent it is to make character sheets for each character, describing their appearance or if you are artistically inclined; to draw them. This gives you a reference sheet to come back to.
Show don’t tell
I know. You’ve heard this one hundred times but trust me; it’s important. Constantly being told a character’s feeling and emotions can take the reader out of a novel. The idea is that if someone is reading a book, they shouldn’t feel like they’re reading a book.
How to fix it: Think about what emotion you want to show. Then look up the signs associated with that emotion. A book called ‘the Emotion Thesaurus’ has a catalogue of emotions and the physical and mental symptoms associated with them. Instead of talking about the emotion talk about the signs.
Lack of using senses
Human being have 5 sense (okay, we have a LOT more than that but before I get into proprioception we’ll stick to the basic 5.) Sound, sight, smell, taste and touch. Sight and sound are very often used as they’re the first senses that come to mind, but smell, taste (unless eating) and touch are often neglected.
How to fix it: Think about what sense you’re using. When describing a scene think of the other senses, think about the smell in the air, the feeling of running your hand along the wall.
There are common ‘phrases’ in literature that are used too often. Some phrases might be more common in certain genres than other, but they are still seen too often that frequent readers don’t appreciate them. In some cases, like the phrases ‘I let out a breath, I didn’t know I was holding’ (which seems to be in every YA novel) it makes no sense. How can you not know you were holding your breath? Other cliche phrases include: ‘Before he/she knew it’ etc.
How to fix it: Identify these phrases in your own writing and remove them. Read a lot and you might identify the cliches before you write them in.
Yes this doesn’t sound like such a mistake, surely I can use the word ‘but’ in my writing? And of course you can, but I challenge you this. Open up a chapter and count how many times you use the word ‘but’ in it. Shocked by the result? (If it’s under 10 well lucky you, we can’t all be perfect like you.) I’ll be honest with you, this is my biggest mistake. Unless it’s in speech you shouldn’t really have more than one instance of ‘but’ in the same paragraph.
How to fix it: Realise how often you use the word ‘but’, pay attention to it and avoid it. Ask yourself if you need that word or if it will make no/ little difference after I remove it.
You’ve probably been told in the past not to use the word said too much, I’m telling you the opposite of what your English teacher told you. You don’t need a fancy word for how your character speaks every time. ‘Said’ is often more than enough.
How to fix it: Don’t be afraid to use the word said and don’t spend all your time looking for alternatives.
Starting too many sentences with pronouns
Don’t get me wrong, you should start sentences with pronouns, but pay attention to how many times your write ‘he did this, she did that’.
How to fix it: Take a look at the sentence you’ve written and think ‘how can I rearrange that sentence?’ For example ‘He walked down the street, his mind fixated on the curls of her auburn hair.’ Could instead become: ‘Walking down the street, his mind was fixated on the curls of her auburn hair.’
There are a lot of words used in writing that are unnecessary. Writers may add them because that’s how they think or they’re trying to make the sentence lengthier, but if you remove them it can actually improve your writing. Some of these ‘caution words’ are: kind of, then, suddenly, very, really, started, that, like, somewhat, when, stuff, things, got, was/is and any variants of those.
How to fix it: Look at your writing. Do you use any of these caution words? Try to remove them and see if your sentence flows better. For example: ‘After meeting Simon, she started to feel very flustered and kind of worried about what that could mean for their relationship.’ Would become: ‘After meeting Simon, she was flustered and worried about what that could mean for their relationship.’ Can you see how it flows better?
Writing ‘did not’ instead of ‘didn’t’
A lot of writers prefer to write ‘did not’ as it’s the full word. They want to avoid contractions. However, that isn’t how people think or how they speak.
How to fix it: Don’t be afraid to use conjunctions.
Some writers might have a ‘favourite’ word. Whether it’s a unique descriptive word like ‘efficacious’ or ‘irksome’ or something simple like ‘lurking’. You might have words that you use too often in your own writing.
How to fix it: Identify what words you have a tendency to reuse. Once you find your ‘favourite’ word then you might need to considering replacing it. If it is an ‘unusual’ word like ‘efficacious’ it will stand out to the reader every time you use it. Unless your desired effect is to have the reader remember the word and associate it with your novel (such as ‘ineffable’ with Good Omens) then you need to correct that.
Too much time in a character’s head
If you’re writing in 1st person, naturally you will spend more time in a character’s head, but whether it’s 1st or 3rd person there is such a thing as too much. Especially if your character has prejudices as it means the readers are constantly exposed to that character’s prejudices.
How to fix it: Be cautious of how long you spend in a character’s head, particularly if you’re showcasing negative traits of theirs. Such as; prejudice or characteristics that could be described as ‘whiny’.
Overly fancy dialogue
Consider how real people speak. Real people don’t say, ‘I did not like that insidious individual’. They just sound like a pompous idiot. Even if you’re writing fantasy in a medieval setting or a historical novel your dialogue needs to remain believable.
How to fix it: Read a character’s dialogue out loud and see if it flows, if not then change it so that it does.
Only text bubbles
By this I mean when you have a section of dialogue like this:
“How are you today, Lillian? asked Simon.
“Oh, I’m fine. How about you?”
“I went to the park we met at today-”
“I saw something there.”
Not the best dialogue (I’m thinking it up on the spot here, I don’t even know what going on) but it’s just to illustrate a plot. You can’t really see how they’re feeling or even speaking; it reads like a script, there’s no action. Except for the odd sentence, dialogue should come accompanied with actions, people don’t sit rigidly when they speak. Pay attention to your movements during a conversation, maybe you’re fidgeting or waving your arms about but I bet you’re not sat rigidly.
How to fix it: If you have a tendency to do this, it’s fine on your first draft, but when you come around to editing or redrafting go in and add some actions. Think about what emotions your characters are feeling and how you can portray this in their movements.
All the characters sound the same
Every character is a different person. Maybe they grew up in a different place or culture, and how they speak should reflect that. Every character needs their own distinctive voice. This is particularly true when writing multiple 1st person POVs. You shouldn’t need to write the character’s name at the start of the chapter (though it helps), your reader should be able to tell who is speaking by the way they speak.
How to fix it: Compare how each of your characters speak, can you see the difference? Think about where they grew up, their friends and their family.
Writing dialogue phonetically
Having a unique way of speaking and slang to your novel can really help to build the world, unfortunately sometimes it can be disjointing and can be hard for reader’s to get through, particularly if they are fast readers. It’s often used as a cliche to show that a character is poorly educated.
How to fix it: You don’t have to write every word phonetically to get a character’s speaking style across. The odd word of slang and sparing phonetic speaking can convey better than an entire sentence of apostrophes.
This isn’t an article to say never do any of the things I just mentioned. The trick is doing things sparingly. Looking for these simple mistakes can help you improve your writing. You don’t have to worry about identifying them as you’re writing or during your first draft, it’s only when your redrafting or editing that you need to correct these mistakes and if you get used to recognising them, you can identify them before you even include them in your writing.