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What Are The Biggest Mistakes Writers Make?

by Tom Ashford

As with anything that can be considered a craft, people make a lot of mistakes when it comes to writing books. There are far too many for anyone to comprehensively include in a single article, let alone provide individual guidance on. But at least it’s something that every writer does, not just those first starting out.

Everyone makes mistakes. And before you start flagellating yourself for your literary crimes, remember that even bestsellers like Dan Brown don’t get everything right.

“A voice spoke, chillingly close. “Do not move.” On his hands and knees, the curator froze, turning his head slowly. Only fifteen feet away, outside the sealed gate, the mountainous silhouette of his attacker stared through the iron bars. He was broad and tall, with ghost-pale skin and thinning white hair. His irises were pink with dark red pupils.”

…what?!? Is he close or fifteen feet away? Is he a silhouette or fully visible?

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, the following five examples won’t seem so bad if you discover that some of them apply to your own manuscript. And if so, don’t fret – they’re easy to fix. That’s what editors are for.

1. Info Dumping

This refers to the fairly common practice of almost literally dumping all of your exposition and information into the story as soon as you put pen to paper. Often it’s because, as an author, you believe that your reader absolutely needs to know every piece of world-building and character-developing information right off the bat.

They don’t.

Your reader expects to go into your story relatively blind – that’s why they’re reading your story. Don’t make them feel like a baby being born inside an EDM rave, unable to comprehend everything being thrown at them. Drip feed the essential (and especially non-essential) information through actual character interaction (be that dialogue or your protagonist’s view of the world around them) and through scenes that physically add to your story.

2. Head Hopping

I don’t care who you are or what story you’re trying to write – head-hopping is an absolute no-no (unless you’re deliberately trying to write something avant-garde, in which case ignore me… but good luck selling many copies).

That doesn’t mean that you can’t have multiple points of view in the same book, or even the same chapter… providing that there’s a break so that the readers knows a change of POV has taken place. George R.R. Martin’s books in his A Song of Ice and Fire series do this – showing each chapter from a different character’s perspective.

That said, having too many POVs can be difficult to juggle unless it really suits the story or you’re a truly great writer. But jumping from head to head within a single scene is absolutely forbidden.

You can listen to an in-depth analysis of why head-hopping doesn’t work in the most recent BookLab episode of The Self Publishing Show here.

3. Too Much Description

Your reader doesn’t need every detail about what things look like or what your characters are doing. As great as his books are, this is something that George R.R. Martin does which winds me up – he’ll spend pages describing somebody’s cloak and brooch. I don’t need to know these things. I’ve already conjured an image of the character in my mind and the extra detail is only spoiling it!

Aside from potentially taking your reader out of a scene, going into too much detail about the physical descriptions of your characters and settings runs the risk of slowing the pace of your book down to a crawl. You can get away with this… but only if your prose is particularly beautiful.

At least this issue isn’t too sinful (and I’m definitely guilty of it). The trick is to focus on what’s actually important in each scene, not a meticulously accurate play-by-play of everything that happens or which exact shade your queen’s crown’s most central gemstone is.

4. Cardboard Cut-Out Characters

We’ve all come across them in one book or another – flawless heroes who are great at everything and to whom nothing bad ever happens, and villains who are universally evil with absolutely zero redeeming qualities.

It’s not very realistic. It’s also not very interesting.

As hard as it may be for you to write, bad things need to happen to your good guys. And they need to have flaws (even if they overcome them by the story’s end). The same goes for your villains – the best bad guys are usually the ones with whom we can identify and (almost) agree with.

I could go into loads more detail but I’d rather leave you in the hands of somebody far more knowledgable and capable. Check out Sacha Black’s interview on the Self Publishing Show here to learn lots more about writing a great and memorable villain.

5. Dialogue Tags

Here’s another easy one to fix: an over-abundance of dialogue tags involving a variation on the word ‘said’.

Are you about to use something other than ‘said’? Stop and really think about it. Can you not make it clear that they’re shouting through the words they’re using, or perhaps some description about their body language? Will ‘exclaimed’, ‘shouted’ or ‘yelled’ actually improve the scene?

(Yes you can, and no, it won’t.)

Sure, occasionally using a variation can help spice a scene up. They’re like adverbs – best using sparingly. But ninety-nine times out of a hundred, ‘said’ is exactly right. It might seem more boring, but it’ll never take your reader out of the story. And if you absolutely need to use something more, then you’re not ‘showing’ enough about your characters. You’re only ‘telling’.

And another thing. You don’t need to point out who is speaking every single time somebody opens their mouth. Your readers are smarter than that – they’ll work it out themselves. Case in point:

“Nothing on this seems to work like it used to.” James prodded at the screen of his phone. “It’s as if they design them to break after a couple of years.”

I didn’t use ‘said’ at all, let alone ‘moaned’ or ‘complained’. Didn’t need to.

BONUS: General Grammar

Oh, grammar. The bane of every writer, even the good ones. With all its stupid rules and exceptions (none of which the language even follows), English is hard enough to learn in the first place, let alone to master every inch of. We all have slip-ups here and there.

If you worry about knowing your ‘your’ from your ‘you’re’, or your ‘there’ from your ‘their’ and ‘they’re’, or simply want to put a leash on some of your wayward apostrophes, then you’ve come to the right place. Or rather, we can send you there.

Check out this article all about the most common grammatical errors and how to avoid them.

9 Grammatical Errors (and How to Avoid Them)

Tom Ashford

Tom Ashford

Tom Ashford is a professional copywriter, author of numerous dark fantasy and sci-fi novels, and the Head of Content at the Self Publishing Formula Blog. His books include the Blackwater trilogy and the Checking Out series.

He lives in London with his wife, in an apartment that doesn’t allow pets. Find out more about Tom here.