Common mistakes writers make
Writing Advice

Common Mistakes New Authors Make

Want to know the most common mistakes new authors make? I made them all, but you don’t have to. It’s taken me twenty-eight books to learn these lessons, and I still learn new ones with every project, but let me save you time and streamline the process for you.

There are a few common mistakes to look out for when you first start writing novels:

1. Crutch Words

Every author has their crutch words – words they use repeatedly. Usually, these words are used not only too frequently but are also meaningless in the context of the sentence. My major crutch word was “realize“. When I first started writing The Legacy in 2013, every action Rebecca took, every thought she had, came in the wake of a ‘realization.’ I used sentences like:

  • I realize I am holding my breath.
  • Reed is furious, I realize.
  • I whip around and realize that Archer is missing.

Let’s take a careful look at those sentences. In every one, you can delete the “I realize/d” and still have a complete, sensical sentence.

  • I am holding my breath.
  • Reed is furious.
  • I whip around. Archer is missing.

Without my crutch words, the sentences are tightened and more impactful. They read better, and the writing is slicker… say it with me: win|win.

Some writers might argue that you can replace your crutch words with synonyms – for example, I could have used ‘notice’ or ‘find’ in place of ‘realize’ in certain instances – but my advice is to eliminate them. Every word should count. If they aren’t necessary, cut them. Overused crutch words will only slow your pacing and make your manuscript clunky.

How do you find your crutch words?

It’s easy enough to find crutch words in your manuscript. You can either get a beta reader to proofread it, and trust me, they will quickly pick up words that are being used too often, or, you can use an online word frequency counter. Top Tip: If you are writing in Scrivener, it has a built-in word frequency function!

As a starting point, some common crutch words are: so, just, know/knew, well, literally, basically, seem, really, almost, and very. And realize, of course 🙂

2. Inconsistent Tenses

A very common mistake new writers make is shifting tenses between past and present. It can happen from paragraph to paragraph. While it isn’t too hard to fix, it is time-consuming, so I always recommend authors decide on tense before starting their manuscript and then make sure that they firmly ground themselves in that tense. Whether past or present, it doesn’t matter, just stick with it. Don’t jump around, or your reader will be jolted out of the story, and once that starts to happen, you’ve lost them. Readers are not as forgiving as new writers would like to believe. The good news is that this is a problem that doesn’t linger. It happens mostly in the first few chapters and, though it needs to be addressed, it usually resolves itself once the author hits their stride.

An example of inconsistent tenses:

As an example, I’ll use an excerpt from my latest WIP, which is written in the past tense. You will notice that I’ve changed the middle sentence to present tense in the first instance, and how awkwardly it reads.

Aspen focused on the power within her, drawing on her fear for fire. When she opens her hand, with a snap of her wrist, a ball of flame bursts into being. It hovered above her fingers, eager to do her bidding.

The correct verb tense is as follows:

Aspen focused on the power within her, drawing on her fear for fire. When she opened her hand, with a snap of her wrist, a ball of flame burst into being. It hovered above her fingers, eager to do her bidding.

A good editor will pick this up and make the necessary corrections, but if you want to improve as a writer, it is well worth taking the time to check your tenses and make sure you being consistent.

3. Shifting POV

A similar issue to inconsistent tenses, but not as frequent in my opinion, and one that also tends to resolve itself with experience. Whether you are writing in the first person, third person, omniscient, or from alternating points of view, a writer should decide upon their point of view before starting their novel, and then stick with it.

4. Purple Prose

Beware of being overly descriptive! A great adjective or clever metaphor can add value and make a sentence pop, but be careful not to become too extravagant with their usage. Also known as overly-ornate writing, purple prose is proof that, in writing at least, less in more. Tighten your text and aim for clean, clear prose. Your readers will thank you for it.

5. Overuse of the word ‘I’

Nothing is more frustrating than a page peppered with I. Let’s take this horrible example:

I walked down the street. I felt like an ice cream so I crossed the road and went into the ice cream shop. I couldn’t decide on a flavor, so I chose three. It cost me two dollars per scoop.

I know, I know... we’re not exactly winning any prizes for literature here, but since this exercise is purely to drive my point home, the plot doesn’t matter. Notice that there are five instances of the word ‘I’ in this short excerpt (and one ‘me’, which is the same thing). The sentences seem juvenile and sing-song-ish, like a nursery rhyme. Not exactly the standard we are aiming for, as novelists. Let’s look at that same example, and how to fix it:

The street was teeming with people. There was an ice cream shop across the road, and as the craving hit, I went in. They had a dozen flavors but, exercising great restraint, I selected only three. At a dollar a scoop, it seemed self-indulgent enough.

Do you see how not only have we avoided too many uses of the word ‘I’, but we have also managed to convey more information about the character. This character likes ice cream, for example, and may be indecisive. The first line, “The street was teeming with people” also shows that you don’t need to mention the character to infer his or her presence. It goes without saying that the character is present in this opening sentence, by virtue of the fact this is his observation.

6. Showing VS Telling

My very talented writer friend, Ian, always gives the following example to demonstrate showing vs telling:

  • Telling: He was impatient.
  • Showing: He drummed his fingers on the table.

There is so much literature and resources available on the difference between showing and telling but the gist of showing is that the writer uses action to immerse the reader in the story. Reading a novel is one thing, but experiencing it is quite another, and it’s the gold standard.

7. Overuse of Adverbs

The road to bad reviews is paved with adverbs. So often, those words ending in ‘-ly’ are redundant and the text could be improved by using stronger verbs instead. In my opinion, the overuse of adverbs results in cluttered, clumsy writing… use them sparingly!

8. Weak Transitions

In the first draft of The Legacy, I ended many a chapter on a cliffhanger, and then boldly moved through time. I intended to astound and impress the reader with amazing shock tactics. Instead, I created confusion. I am forever grateful that I worked with an experienced editor who immediately called me out on my weak transitions and had me correct them. A confused reader is an annoyed reader. I learned that lesson early, and never made that mistake again. When moving through time, it is imperative that you cue the reader in. You can do this in a few ways:

  • Through time tags: inserting the date/time at the opening of a chapter. I used these in The Clock Keeper because there was a lot of moving from present to past, and I needed the reader to be very clear on the setting to avoid frustration.
  • Opening sentence: you could open your chapter with ‘Three years had passed since…’ for e.g.
  • Character dialogue: you could use speech, though this is less common because it takes longer to clarify.

9. Continuity

This is a common mistake I see so many new writers making, and there is no excuse for it because essentially, it boils down to laziness, or cutting corners. Not keeping a strict record of characters, plot, and settings, etc, or not spending enough time conducting proper research. Some of the most common problems I see with continuity include:

  1. Character Inconsistencies: blue eyes become brown, fourteen becomes fifteen (without a birthday being mentioned), tall becomes short, etc. This is an unacceptable mistake. Use a notebook, a spreadsheet, a whiteboard… complete character sheets if you have to! It is worth the extra time spent… after all, the devil’s in the details.
  2. Poor Time Keeping: This often catches writers up, especially if a character travels by air. Taking flight time into account is one thing, but you can’t forget the difference as you move through time zones. I once messed this up in Rainfall, and accidentally got my time zones reversed as Paige traveled from California to NYC. A reader noticed… and worse, noted it in their review. The issue has since been rectified but I can never take that review down… you can never be too thorough!
  3. Proper Research: Using terms like ‘car’ or ‘driveway’ is generic and boring. Specify the make and model, and describe the surface of the drive… these details make your story plausible. Unfortunately, you may have to do some research to get them right. For example, if you are going to claim that during a high-speed chase, one model of SUV has a smaller turning circle than another, be sure that you are correct. Double-check your facts, and then triple-check them. I spent at least fifty percent of the six months it took me to write The Legacy researching. It was an even split – research vs writing. And I STILL got things wrong. The turning circle example mentioned above was super specific because I made that exact mistake and a reviewer called me out. He was clearly ex-military, and very knowledgeable. He was also right. I had done my homework but hadn’t double-checked. Fortunately, this reviewer was gracious about my unintentional faux pas, and gave me a wonderful review, despite it, but it was another mistake I only made once!

I hope this helps you to avoid these common mistakes and pitfalls that newbie writers can fall into. I know some of these points might sound complicated, but I promise it does get easier and makes more sense with time. The more you write, the more it becomes second nature to avoid these mistakes. Reading is also an incredibly powerful tool for learning these rules without you even realizing it. Let me say that louder for those in the back who haven’t realized yet that for a writer, reading is your best weapon 😉

And for those who really, really can’t navigate this writing lark on their own, or with this writing guide, I do offer personalized writing coaching through Fiverr.

Until next time, write hard!

MD x