Remember the first time you ever rode a bike without training wheels? Your balance wasn’t very good yet and you and the bike were not very steady. Perhaps you fell off the bike. What happened next?
Chances are, you picked up yourself and the bike and you got right back and tried again. Eventually, you became steadier and you fell less and less.
Writing is a craft. As with any craft, it takes time, patience and lots of practice to hone that craft. All rookie writers make mistakes. It’s just a fact of writing life.
No writer ever produces a perfect first draft. You may have a story or other piece that you think is the best, most perfect thing you’ve ever done. When you send that piece of writing to an editor, and they return it to you marked up, you probably feel like you did when you fell off the bike the first time you rode it. Deflated and defeated.
As you did when you were a little kid, you have to pick yourself up and keep trying.
Here are the five of the most common newbie mistakes and how to fix them.
1. All talk, no action. Whether you are writing fiction or you’re writing ad copy, your words must pop out at the reader. Passive voice kills the action. In fiction, action verbs and good description make your scenes come to life. In ad copy, you’re trying to persuade someone to buy a product or obtain a service. The words you choose must convince a potential customer that they can’t live without this product or service or compel them to act. Showing has more of an impact than telling.
How to fix this: Look over your writing. Notice what verbs you use. Do you have a lot of “be’s”, “is’s”, “am’s”, or “are’s” in your sentences? Do your descriptions and action words evoke emotions? Do they compel you to take action? Is the person or the object who is precipitating the action actually receiving the action? This is passive voice. Read over your copy and whenever you see a form of the verb “to be”, try replacing it with an action verb. If you can do this, and your sentence makes sense, you have action.
2. Adverbs all over the place. Adverbs are a part of speech used to modify a verb. The adverb describes the action. One of the most common new writer mistakes is overusing adverbs. Overuse of adverbs is a sign that your main verb is weak or you are using too many passive verbs in your writing. Strong verbs and action verbs can stand on their own and don’t need a modifier.
How to fix this: Adverbs should be used sparingly and with care. Look over your sentences for weak verb/adverb combinations and try replacing them with a stronger verb on it’s own. For example, if you have a sentence that reads “Nothing,” he said softly, try changing it to this: ”Nothing,” he mumbled. Mumbled has more impact than the phrase said softly.
3. An explosion of commas. Another common new writer mistake is overusing commas. A lot of new writers seem to think that that the longer the sentence, the more skilled the writer. In fact, it’s the opposite. The comma splice is a common rookie mistake.
How to Fix This: Good writing is clear and concise. A good rule of thumb to remember is that the more commas you use in a sentence, the more likely you should break up your long sentence into several shorter sentences. Try breaking your long sentences up into smaller sentences.
4. Excessive verbiage. The most effective way to get your point across is to be direct. Wordiness is confusing; extra words muddle your message. It leaves your readers confused about what you’re trying to say. Keeping it simple is the best way to make sure your message is clear.
How to Fix This: Read your longer sentences out loud. Do they sound confusing to you? If so, then cut out the extra words.
5. Repeating the same words over and over and over again. Overusing the same words is another common rookie mistake. One complaint that some people have about the novel Fifty Shades of Grey is how the author overused words like murmured or inner goddess. Readers get bored and annoyed when a writer uses the same words over and over again. Variety is the spice of good writing.
How to Fix This: To understand exactly how often you use a word, try using the search feature in your word processing program and get a count. Then try changing the overused word to a synonym. You don’t have to change every single occurrence of that word. You just have to cut down the number of times that word is used. Take the word murmur. The definition of the word murmur is to make a low, continuous sound.
In the case of “he said” or “she said”, you have the option of eliminating those two words altogether. Another tip: replace the she said with a short sentence describing what body language the speaker is exhibiting. Instead of using he said anxiously, you could change that phrase to His eyes darted around the room. Another good sentence would be No one could miss the anxious edge in his voice. Those sentences describe the speaker’s behavior and demeanor and it conveys the mood of the speaker. It is showing us that the speaker is anxious and not telling us the speaker is anxious.
Remember, it’s okay to make mistakes. It’s more important that you recognize these mistakes and learn from them. An editor is someone that can help you recognize those mistakes. Editors are not out to get you or make you feel bad. An editor’s job is to help you take that first draft and polish it into the best possible final draft ready for publication.
No writer in the history of writing has ever written a perfect draft right out of the gate. If you are not sure about your writing, it is always helpful to have a second set of eyes look over your work.