Rookie Mistakes that Ruin your Writing

As a high school English teacher and literary magazine co-sponsor; former yearbook advisor; graduate of a Master’s writing program; occasional participant in writing workshops and critique groups; occasional freelance proofreader; and occasional writing tutor, I have read writing at all its stages, from rough draft to final draft, and writers at all their stages, from novice to better-than-I’ll-ever-be. Today, as I read through some work for a writing group and reflect on student work I read during the school year, I realized there are five common mistakes writers make, whether they are newbies, or seasoned writers working on an early draft. Here they are, so you can look out for them in your own early drafts.

Inconsistent Tense

I am not sure why writers make this mistake. Perhaps we are simply thinking too quickly and writing too slowly, resulting in a lapse of attention to detail. Perhaps we have simply stepped away from a piece for a while, and upon returning, forget what tense we were originally employing. Whatever causes it, even expert writers often commit this literary sin in their early drafts. Sometimes in the same paragraph, a writer will randomly switch from, for example, past tense to present tense. He will stick with present tense for a sentence, maybe a few, and then, for no apparent reason, revert back to the original past tense.

The good news is, this is a fairly easy mistake to correct. My advice would be not to worry too terribly much about tense in your initial draft, but be sure to pay attention to it as you revise. Make sure that you pick a tense, and stick with it. Granted, if you employ, for example, a flashback, that part of your tale will need to be written in some form of the past tense, but the main story-line should employ one, consistent tense.

Unnatural Dialog

Often, my students approach me with their own, personal writing projects and request that I read them and offer feedback. I am always very honored when a student trusts me with her writing, because I know how scary asking for feedback can be–doing so leaves a writer pretty vulnerable. When I do read students’ work, one of the most common mistakes I see is unnatural dialog, in two forms: 1) all the characters speak in the same manner, regardless of their age, gender, race, background, education, etc. and 2) the characters say things that, simply put, almost no one would ever really say–they are too formal or too stilted or otherwise unrealistic.

While correcting this issue is not as simple as fixing inconsistent tense, it can, of course, be done. A few pieces of advice:

  1. Listen to real people. Listen to how they speak–the cadences different groups use; the vocabulary they employ; the rhythms and colloquialisms and pronunciations. Then, use these observations to inform the way your characters speak.

  2. Read your dialog aloud, and listen carefully to how it sounds. Better yet, assign characters to real people and read the dialog together. Is it natural? Can you tell the characters apart simply by what each one says and how he or she says it? Ask yourself: Would someone really say that? If the answer is no, change it. If the answer is yes, then ask yourself: Would this character really say that? If the answer is no, change it. If the answer is yes, way to go.

  3. Make sure every character speaks a language unique to his or her personality, background, education level, gender, age, etc. While a white, male professor and his twenty-something, white, male student might both speak English, they are going to use very different sentence structures, different jargon and slang, etc. Consider these differences, and respect them.

Clichéd Characters

Unless you’re writing an allegory, your characters should be dynamic (unless you have a literary purpose for keeping them static), complex, and developed. They should have motives, fears, dreams, secrets, pasts. For a hero to be completely good and a villain to be completely evil is not only too simple, but unrealistic. Make sure your characters are just that: characters. They should have quirks, pet peeves, unique personalities, motives, and flaws. Consider what makes every character tick. Avoid using characters as mere plot tools. I have heard various methods for making sure your characters are well-developed, believable, realistic, and relate-able. Here are just a few:

  1. Hold an imaginary conversation with each character. Simply begin with something like, “Hey, Marissa, how ya feelin’ today?” or “Marsha, what’s on your mind today?” Then, let them speak to you. And listen.

  2. Write a letter to your character, and then write a response from him or her in his or her voice.

  3. Write a backstory for each character, including information such as family history, education, geography and location, job history, likes and dislikes, talents, fears, dreams, pets, etc.

  4. Describe a character’s favorite outfit and explain why that’s her favorite outfit.

  5. Describe a character’s dream car and explain why that’s his dream car.

  6. Describe each character–even minor characters–from another character’s perspective, or from multiple other characters’ perspectives.

  7. Tell a chapter of the story (or, if it’s a short story, the whole story) from each character’s perspective. What you learn about your characters might surprise you.

Weak Words

I tell my students to avoid what I call “weak words.” These words include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • great
  • amazing
  • nice
  • good
  • bad
  • stuff
  • things
  • have/has and other “to-be” verbs

The above list is pretty obvious, but these words appear in countless pieces of writing, and usually unnecessarily so. One place they might belong is in dialog, but they generally do a poor job if employed in description or narration. If I tell you my dinner tasted amazing, you know I enjoyed it, but little else. You could easily wonder what made it “amazing.” Was it the service? The flavor? The atmosphere? The company? And once we have determined the answer to those questions, what was so “amazing” about the element? If we’re discussing the service, was the waiter charming? Attentive? Prompt? If we’re describing the flavor, was the food savory? Sweet? Spicy? Buttery? Be as specific as possible. Allow the reader to taste, smell, feel, hear, and see by employing concrete, descriptive words. As a reader, I cannot conceptualize what “amazing” means. I know it’s positive, but that’s where my understanding ends. However, I can very easily imagine what “spicy” and “buttery” taste like.

Inconsistent Perspectives

First, you need to decide if you will tell your story in first, second, or third person. Then, you need to make sure you remain true to that choice. For example, if you elect to utilize a first-person narrator, you must remember that the narrator knows only his own thoughts, motives, and emotions. He might be able to guess at the thoughts or emotions of other characters, or assume or interpret things about them–but he cannot know, and he cannot narrate like he knows. For example, Mark Twain elected to tell The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the first-person perspective of the character of Huck Finn. Huck Finn cannot tell us what Jim is thinking or feeling–unless Jim tells him. Huck Finn cannot tell us how his Pap feels about him–unless Pap tells him. He can tell us what he might believe the other characters think or feel, but he cannot get inside their heads or hearts. For another example, I was recently reading a writer’s rough draft of a short essay. The writer was looking at a photograph a friend had posted on social media, and started describing to readers what the friend had been thinking about and remembering when he had posted the photograph. Unless the photograph was captioned with that information, how could the writer possibly have known what the friend had been thinking or feeling? The writer had written sentences to the effect of: “Michael started thinking about the past–the missed baseball games and late arrivals to school plays. He promised himself to be a better father, a better man.” Suddenly, the writer was somehow in Michael’s head, which is, of course, impossible, and inconsistent with the first-person perspective of the story. In a case like this, the writer has two choices, as I see it: 1) Cut it. The narrator cannot tell us what he or she does not know. 2) Fix it. Let us know these are the narrator’s thoughts. The example above could be remedied like this: “I think about Michael and what made him post that picture. I imagine him thinking about all the missed baseball games and late arrivals to school plays. Maybe he promised himself to be a better father, a better man. Maybe it was motivation–a reminder of what not to do, who not to be.” Now, we are in the narrator’s head, not Michael’s.

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