Today, I’ve compiled a list of the 5 common mistakes new writers make. If you avoid these pitfalls in your work, you’ll quickly see a stark improvement in your writing, and you’ll gain that wordsmith confidence in no time!
#1: Telling Instead of Showing
I have seen many new writers who don’t take the time to pause and think about how to show the scene. Instead, they rely on “quick-fix” telling phrases like “his eyes were angry”, or the “house looked sinister”. While these phrases might save you the time-consuming hassle of coming up with original description, they come at a price: they disconnect your reader and dull your work. The “house looked sinister” gives a reader’s imagination barely anything to work with; they won’t be able to be a part of it, nor truly feel it.
Moreover, since you’re not challenging yourself to come up with interesting ways to show emotion or scenes, you’re not going to be actively engaged with your creative side, so you’re not improving your story-writing craft.
At first, it will be difficult to know how to show a scene, or show emotions. However, the more you read and research, the more you’ll hone your creativity, and the easier it will become to come up with creative ways to show.
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” ― Anton Chekhov
#2: Passive Voice
Yes, I know. It’s the groan-inducing topic of active vs passive voice. You may think passive voice is no big deal. After all, it’s just a style of writing, right? However, the problem with passive voice is that it can break the flow and ruin the sense of immersion. For example, a sentence written in passive voice won’t be concise. It will contain a lot more words, and often a reader will have to read it several times to fully understand it.
If you’re writing a short story, you need to hold your reader’s attention – you need to use blunt force, hit after hit after hit. Passive voice takes away from the hard-hitting pace writing needs.
There are, of course, moments when passive voice can work extremely well – particularly if you’re trying to build up a mystery, or if the subject is unknown. However, to utilise passive voice effectively, you first need to know the rules – be aware when you’re consciously switching it.
If you’re struggling with passive/active voice, I recommend checking out this useful guide by The Writing Center.
What’s wrong with adverbs? They simply make a description more clear, right? Well, actually, a lot. Take a look at the sentence below:
The man quickly hid behind the box and suddenly peered out, before he hastily jumped…..
The sentence is clearly describing a fast-paced scene, but because the adverbs have dragged out the sentence, it feels anything but fast-paced!
Another thing to consider is how do you know it’s a fast-paced scene? We don’t know it through the description, we are told it solely through the adverbs: quickly, hastily and suddenly. Adverbs are telling words, they don’t show, and as we mentioned earlier, showing beats telling by tenfold when it comes to reader experience. Cutting out adverbs and replacing them with a more sensory-tickling description will make the scene above a lot more vivid.
“Empty your knapsack of all adjectives, adverbs and clauses that slow your stride and weaken your pace. Travel light. Remember the most memorable sentences in the English language are also the shortest”. ― Bill Moyers
#4: Not Varying Sentence Structure
Sentence structure is a powerful yet overlooked writing tool. If you’re not consciously considering your sentence structure when writing, you’re going to run into two problems:
1) You’re not going to be able to effectively convey story pace and mood
It’s not just words that can paint a picture in our head, how these words are organised can also paint a picture! Sentence structure controls the reading pace and has a crucial role in setting the mood. For example, if you’re writing a tense scene where the narrator is out of breath, using short or fragmented sentences can help effectively convey this.
Characters’ emotions can also be conveyed through sentence structure, particularly in first person narration. If your character is feeling nervous, use long and dwindling sentences. If your character is annoyed, use short and blunt sentences.
2) Your sentence structure will be repetitive
A repetitive sentence structure is bland and boring to read. If you have too many similar sentence styles packed together, it will come across as monotonous and won’t keep your readers attention. Variation will give your story life!
#5: Over-Describing Settings and Appearances
There’s a certain guilty pleasure in imagining your constructed world and characters vividly. However, if you’re then writing it all down and describing every little detail about the setting and characters, you’re taking away that same guilty pleasure from your readers.
The more you describe, the less you leave for readers to bite and chew on. The most fun aspect of reading is having the freedom to imagine scenes and how characters look for ourselves. You do not need to describe the colour of the living room’s curtains or the shape of the table lamp. You do not need to describe your protagonist’s face shape or how many crinkles they have in their shirt.
Ground your reader, but leave enough room for them to add their own personal touches. Make your story their home as well.
That’s a wrap! I hope by pointing out these common mistakes new writers make, you’ll now be able to avoid them in your work, and craft some hard-hitting prose.
Before you go, though, I’ll leave you with some hard-hitting words by William Zinsser:
“The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what—these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence.”