Common Mistakes

Every writer makes mistakes.  We are human beings, and thus, we make human errors.  One of the best things that any writer can do is learn to become a better self-editor.  Editing and revision are an enormous part of the writing process.  In fact, many writers describe the writing process as an on-going revision process. Understanding that, and understanding that no one gets it right the first time, is an important step in becoming a better writer.

There are certain things that each writer should be alert for, such as basic spelling and grammar issues, but there are also things that writers may be doing that they are not even aware of. One example is the overuse of adverbs, those pesky “ly” words that try to force information on the reader unnecessarily.  Here is an example (and no, I didn’t make this up):

“She stared longlingly into the window, seeking hopefully to find a familiar face. There was her grandmother, patiently sitting by the door.  She sighed wistfully.”

It’s just a bit too much, isn’t it?  As though the emotions won’t be filled in by the reader in the exact way that the writer wants them to be interpreted.  This writer doesn’t trust the reader to understand the scene, so the writer creates the emotions in an inauthentic way by attaching them to any available verb.  It feels stilted and sounds awkward to the reader.  One or two adverbs used on occasion are not bad, but four within a few sentences is overkill.

Here is a similar issue.  Tag lines that try too hard (again, I’m not making these up):

“He stretched his arms.  “Time for bed,” he yawned as he stood from the big chair.”

The problem with this one is that it is really difficult, if not impossible, to talk and yawn at the same time.  This is also true of sighing, crying, laughing, coughing, and sniffing.  The writer in this case is trying to make sure the reader understands how the character feels.  Tag lines were not designed for that purpose.  In Dwight Swain’s book “Creating Characters” he defines tags as being like place markers, meant to help keep the reader straight on who is talking to whom.  The most commonly accepted tags are said, asked, answered, or replied.  Readers skim over them and continue on seamlessly with the story. The emotion and the information should be conveyed by action and the dialog itself, not by the tag that follows or precedes the dialog.  Again, the writer doesn’t trust the reader to get it and is trying to force emotion or information onto the reader where it really doesn’t need to be.

Verb tenses are another place where writers run into problems.  Tense shifts are not only confusing, but they can undermine the believability of a story.  For example:

“And now, here I am, driving home to take my five year old to a play date.  I would probably have to talk to Jake’s mother throughout all of it, when all I really wanted to do was rummage though the host of emotions that were playing in my gut.”

See what happened?  The writer starts with the present tense “I am” meaning that this is the current state of action.  The very next sentence, which appears to be a future projection, should be in the future perfect tense, or “I will probably have to” – the use of the word “would” makes it a past perfect use, meaning this could have happened in the past but it didn’t.  Then finally the writer says “. . . all I really wanted to do . . .” which is a regular past tense verb. 

All this bouncing around in time is confusion to the reader.  What happened when? Did the character have to talk to Jake’s mom or not, or is that still coming?  Readers don’t necessarily want to work this hard to follow a simple step in a story.

Some mistakes are the result of writers just being too caught up in their own words to realize what they’ve said.  They are so busy thinking of themselves as clever that they miss the obvious gaffe in their words:

“She lay back on the bed as he approached her.  She wanted him, wanted to show him her desire.  She rubbed her breasts with relish.”

I kid you not, this is taken from a published book. Author name and title provided on request.  I’m not sure about anyone else, but if I’m creating a moment like this, I certainly don’t want the reader’s attention suddenly shifting to hot dogs, mustard, and little chopped up pickles.

Sometimes a writer gets blinded.  They can no longer see what they’ve written, but they know what they meant to put there.  One of the ways this shows up is the use of the same or similar words used too closely together:

“I couldn’t think of anything else but seeing him again, so last night I called his cell phone and said the tooth was still really bothering me.  He told me to come in this morning.  He isn’t usually in on Saturdays.  So again, we were alone.  I don’t think I gave much thought to what would happen once we were alone.  Probably on purpose, that.  But the thrill of having someone look at me that way again . . . it eclipsed anything else I could think of.”

Too many uses too close together become a distraction to the reader, causing him or her to focus on the words being used instead of their purpose in the story. The writer knew what the purpose was, but found a verbal rut.  It’s like reading with a tick.

Another mistake that bogs readers down is a lot of telling instead of showing.  “Show don’t tell” is one of the cliche’s of the writing world, but it is true nonetheless.  Readers want action and dialog, not lengthy passages of exposition where they talk about talking, or tell about doing.  Readers want to hear it and see it.  Talking about talking is a sign that the writer either got bored at this point, or just didn’t want to take the extra effort needed to script the dialog:

“He told me that he would be graduating and going on a mission.  I pretended to know what a mission was, but I didn’t have a clue. . . . . When he told me it was a mission to convert people in other places to Mormonism, I felt a well of shame and inadequacy fill me.”

Here the writer has a great opportunity for dialog, and a great opportunity to allow the characters to reveal things about themselves to the reader.  But the opportunity is lost because we are told, rather than shown, what happened.

None of these examples are given to say that the story is bad or that the authors are bad.  They are examples of the fact that, as writers, we need to be more diligent about our work.  We all make mistakes, and we all have blind spots in our craft.  The only way to improve is by acknowledging that these issues belong to us and rededicating ourselves to improving.  When we recognize in our own work the need for additional revision, we do our readers a giant favor.  And if we are not working for our readers, then why are we bothering at all?

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6 thoughts on “Common Mistakes

  1. I am in awe of individuals who can understand the craft the way you do. Maybe because I am uneducated in the area of wordcraft, or because my writing is simply instinctual. In any event, this article was very refreshing to read. D

  2. A Carmichael says:

    I think you sound mean spirited. None of your criticism is very constructive and frankly it seems more than just a little pedantic. From the voice of this writer it sounds like someone you know. Grudge maybe?

  3. kwjwrites says:

    To David – Thanks for your comments. I appreciate them.

    To A Carmichael – whether I know the writers or not (and I’ve cited three different ones here) isn’t the point, although actually I know each one of them to some degree. It isn’t mean-spirited to point out legitimate errors. That’s called editing or critiquing, depending on where you are in the writing process. My purpose isn’t to be constructive, but to demonstrate the items that are incorrect. I defy you to show me a book on writing that says it’s okay to have verb tense shifts in your work. That’s not mean-spirited, it’s informational. As to holding a grudge, not at all. I view this simply as a means of making a point. If I held a grudge or wanted to be cruel, I’d give the names of the authors and the titles of the work in my article. I’m certain that at some point, someone will pick up one of my books and find my mistakes as well. That’s one of the risks of being published.

  4. Deborah says:

    I am appalled. As a writer I am sure you know the copyright laws that you just violated. Fairuse, violated. You may not like a writer, but you running them down and using their works to illustrate your point is a low cheap shot, unworthy of a professional writer.

    If you’re lucky the author unknown in question won’t sue you.

  5. kwjwrites says:

    I’m well aware of copyright law, and of the fact that fair use allows you to quote up to a certain number of words (100, actually). Fair use also considers if I am gaining payment for the use, which obviously I am not. My legal obligation to cite the source when using greater than 100 words was weighed against my desire to “out” the writers and their work. I opted to keep them anonymous because I really don’t want to cause embarrasment. Besides. I doubt if they read my blog anyway. My using these specific examples has nothing to do with whether or not I like the authors – and as I said before, I cited three of them, not just one. It has to do with mistakes that were made and were published despite general knowledge and the combined wisdom of numerous authors who’ve written books about this.

    By the way, your use of the word “writer” followed by the used of the pronoun “them” would be an additional error I would point out. I have been busted on that one myself, and have left it visible in my comments to illustrate my point. Human beings make mistakes, but the more we know about the errors, the less likely we are to make them.

  6. lisamm says:

    KWJ, GREAT article! I am blown away by your vast knowledge on this subject. Your students are so fortunate. I bet you do wonderful critiques of their work, and I’m certain they are all better writers for it.

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