10 Common Writing Mistakes


I've had several new authors ask me for advice on editing.   So, after chatting with some author/editor friends, it seems there are some common (sometimes irritating) habits that new authors tend to show in their writing.

Let's begin...

1.) Show, Don't Tell

Everyone has heard this one, right?  What does it really mean when you're writing?  Well, for one, all show and no tell makes for a very heavy, unpleasant read.  There needs to be balance, like everything else in life.

Here is a 'tell sentence': He was cold.

We know he's cold, but we don't get much out of this sentence.  It's weak and lacking. By 'showing', you don't even need to tell the reader he's cold. 

He pulled the blanket securely around his shoulders to keep his teeth from chattering. See?  I never told you he was cold, but you probably guessed it. You'll also add plenty of word count to your MS by getting rid of the 'telling' parts.  Readers want an experience, a visual painted for them.

2.) Punctuating Dialogue

This is basic, but a mistake made over and over again by new authors.  A piece of dialogue must have a start and finish, just like a regular sentence. A true dialogue tag is part of the dialogue, so the period would come after the tag.  If it's an action tag, it's its own sentence.

"I love you." He said.   NO!  'He said' is part of the dialogue. These are not two separate thoughts.  It should be "I love you," he said. 

You'd only add a period within the quotations if the character didn't use said, whispered, barked, or any other variation of speaking. 

"I love you." This could stand on its own. You don't have to have a tag, in fact, they should be minimal if it's obvious who's talking. Or it could have an action tag attached.   "I love you." He laughed. 
That's right, you can't 'laugh' dialogue, so it's an action tag separate from the dialogue.

This one is hard to explain, but I hope you get the gist.

3.) Using sentences that start with ING.

It's a common mistake by new authors to flip a sentence around when it's perfectly fine the way it is.  Joe stood in the doorway with a bag of groceries.  That's fine.  Whatever.  Don't go and flip it around. Standing in the doorway, Joe held a bag of groceries.  Once in awhile is fine, it adds some variety, but when most of your writing consists of this style it's torture to read.

4.) It's, You're, Their, Than

OMG.  Why does this keep happening? I'm horrible at explaining things, but here it goes...

It's is used to replace it is.    "I like it's spots." This sentence just doesn't make sense.  "Its my turn." This also doesn't make sense when you break it down because it should be it is.

Same thing with you're.  It's used to replace you are.  Is that you're coat?  That's just wrong.  The same way this one is wrong when you break it down: "Your my favorite sister."

Their is possessive, it has ownership qualities. "I love their store display."  The store display belongs to someone—it's theirs. 

There usually relates to location.  "There's a store display over there." 

Than is used in comparisons.  Then is used for sequences/time

"You think you're better than me?"  There's a comparison in there. 
"You go straight, and then turn left."  Sequence.

5.) Sentence Variation

Don't start each sentence with he/she or the character's name.  Please don't. 

Use variety.  Use different sentence lengths and structures so the reading goes along smoothly. If you notice the previous paragraph started with she, use her real name or play with the sentence so it doesn't need to start with the character's name.  That doesn't mean switching it around and using ING to start it! Yes, I used an exclamation point (see #9).

6.) Mix of dialogue, backstory, and action

Who wants to read pages of backstory or inner reflection, especially at the beginning of a book?  The same goes for pages of dialogue with nothing in between.  Find a nice mix of the three to keep your reader entertained.  Break down any backstory into smaller chunks so it's not in your face.

7.) Head Hopping

Oh boy.  A character should never have an inner dialogue moment like this: "She brushed her beautiful, chestnut hair."  A person shouldn't be thinking this way in their own POV unless they're vain.  The hero can think this, but it's not his POV right now.

And don't stick them in front of a mirror to give the reader their description.  Wait until you switch POV's or find a way to describe them without making it obvious. Be creative.

When you're writing from one character's POV, you are them—you only write what they feel, see, hear.  They shouldn't know what buddy is doing in the next house over or know how their lover feels. 

This is what makes writing great.  You can see the story from different POVs, and sometimes they clash making the reader crazy because they know things the characters do not:  He thinks she hates him, she's just shy. 

8.) SEX

Don't write sex scenes like you're reading off an instruction sheet.  They shouldn't feel mechanical.  Use a mix of action, emotion, even dialogue.  Otherwise your sex scene will lack passion, and it will feel like an old Sex Ed class.

9.) Exclamation Points

You very rarely need to use these.  If you do, it should be life or death.  Rather, you should use your writing to show the importance of the words.

Lucy was mad!  Okay, we get she's really mad, but we don't feel it.  This is another 'telling' sentence.

Lucy bit the inside of her cheek to keep from screaming.  She kicked over her favorite potted plant, and didn't give a shit about the mess.  You can go even further to describe her anger without using a pesky exclamation point.

10.) Tense

Choose a tense and stick with it for the book.  Most romance books are written in past tense.  She loved him—he was her whole world. From the minute she woke up, he was on her mind.  

It would be mixing tenses to say. She loved him—he is her whole world. From the minute she wakes up, he was on her mind.   Okay it's a mess, but you get the idea.  It's mixing past and present tense making it just wrong.

Hope this helped :)


I am ING crazy. Didn't really realize it until I read this. Sigh. LOL.

Great post!
D. F. Krieger said…
Thanks for posting this. Your explanation of then/than really helped (I have a lot of trouble with that one).
Basic stuff that is always worth a review. Thanks! :)
I agree with a lot that you said, especially when it comes to spelling. But not necessarily the tense. I think that you can have different tenses in one novel, if you know how to do it, and if the book calls for it. For example, with flashbacks, it helps to keep straight which is past and which is present. And I disagree that most romance novels are written in past tense. Many are now written in present. Either can be done well, depending upon the author.
Julia Barrett said…
Oh Stacey, you have so nailed the ten big ones! My hat is off to you!
Stacey said…
Julie, yes it can be done, especially with flashbacks. I'm talking about when an author doesn't understand tense and just willy nilly changes as they write.

I've read some great present tense romance, but it was consistent throughout.

I think a good author is capable of just about anything. :)
Victoria Roder said…
Great information, Stacey. Thanks for the reminders.
Anonymous said…
Excellent advice! I see all of these things in manuscripts I receive. All of them can and do (when repeated enough) lead to rejections.
Angelina Rain said…
Great advice, I so agree with you on all of it. My biggest problems are the ING starts and the then/than, I always get them mixed up.
Savanna Kougar said…
Stacey, excellent advice. I do the ING thing. Although, usually not as you've described it. But, I do have to watch it. Part of it, is because as I'm writing I get bored with the same sentence structure.
Fiona McGier said…
I'm an English teacher who subs in high schools. I teach the kids an easy trick for some homonyms.

There: has the word h-e-r-e in it, so it's the place word.

Their: has the word h-e-i-r in it, which is the person who inherits your stuff, so it's the possessive word.

They're: contraction of they are.

Here: place word
Hear: has e-a-r in it, so involves sound.

Its: the ONLY possessive with no apostrophe.
It's: contraction of it is.

To: where you go
Too: extra "o", so it means also.
Two: the number word.

Your writing tips are great! If only more writers used them.