Top 5 Mistakes of Beginner Writers

May 31, 2014

I love mentoring new writers and encouraging people to embark on their creative journey. This post is for people who are just starting out writing stories, which applies equally to fiction and non-fiction. Throughout the years I’ve noticed several commonalities that divide first-time writers with more established writers. Apart from trying to type with a cat on your lap, here are my top 5 mistakes of beginner writers. And don’t worry that you’re the only one doing them, because I’ve been guilty of all of them at one point in my career!

1. Show Not Tell aka SNOT

I have dubbed Show Not Tell “SNOT” as it fills your story with mucous, much like runny nose with a bad case of the flu. Show Not Tell is one of the common catch cries of all writing teachers across the world. It’s one of the hardest lessons to learn, because the first instinct when you’re writing is to tell what is happening.

Bob felt bad. His mother was hounding him for money again and he didn’t have any money. He worked in a dead-end job for a paper distribution company. His boss was a jerk.

Rewritten for Show Not Tell

“I need some cash Bob,” said his mother, on the other end of the mouthpiece. “The electricity bill has just come in.”

“I paid that last week. What do you really want?” Bob held his hand over the phone so his colleagues wouldn’t hear.

“I just need some money, why won’t you give me something? Don’t you love me?” Bob was silent on the other end and put down the phone. He closed the spreadsheet with the latest paper sales forecasts, highlighted with red, and logged into his internet banking. The balance hovered close to zero.

“Bob, can I have a word with you?” said Grey Gregson, Area Sales Manager. “Are you taking personal calls on the job again?”

While this isn’t the best writing, it certainly beats the first example. You get a sense for the nagging mother, the terrible job and the jerk boss without having said anything directly about them. There are of course, exceptions to this rule. If you are going to “Tell” something, at least make it good, funny or poignant.

Bob’s mother was a 72-year-old metal worker from Florida who wore fake tan the shade of terracotta and listened to death metal.

2. Over-thought Dialogue Tags

Bryan whispered into her ear, “I love you.”

“But I don’t love you,” Stacey cajoled mournfully.

“I’ll wait for you babe,” sighed Bryan regretfully.

“But I’m about to get married to Bruce, the richest and most eligible bachelor in New Zealand,” cried Stacey.

One of the biggest repeat offenders in beginner manuscripts are over-thought dialogue tags. When you use over dramatic dialogue tags, it breaks the reader’s flow. “He said/She said” are your keys to smooth reading. Some of these words include:

  • cajoled (who cajoles anybody these days?)
  • spake (even if ye are in medieval England, doest not givest thou permission to use this)
  • sighed (do you want it to sound like a teen romance novel?)
  • argued (it should be obvious from the dialogue that they’re arguing)
  • breathed (ugh, breathy talk is gross and reserved for midday soap operas)
  • replied (of course they’re replying, they’re talking to someone, I hope)
  • asked (if there’s a question mark at the end of the sentence then you’re just repeating yourself)

Adding adverbs to the end of these words creates yet another barrier for your reader and often repeats the meaning of the verb. For example:

  • asked quizzically
  • cajoled mournfully
  • sighed breathlessly
  • whispered quietly

There are a few exceptions to this:

  • Whispered is sometimes okay if they’re actually whispering (but please don’t use it in a bedroom scene to whisper sweet nothings into ears). Same applies for shouted (if they’re actually shouting). e.g.

“I challenge you to a duel!” shouted Claudius Maximus.

  • Same for things such as announced (for announcers, particularly at a sporting match) e.g.

“The Aussies are out in the third quarter,” announced the commentator.

You also don’t need to assign a speaker after every line of dialogue, especially if it’s between two people. Look at some great examples of dialogue including James M Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice or Cormac McCarthy’s All The Pretty Horses, where dialogue is rarely assigned. McCarthy doesn’t even use quotation marks or provide a translation of Spanish dialogue, and yet the book is extremely evocative.

3. Welcome to the office introductions

“Hi Bob, welcome to Epic Fantasy Cliche World #17. I’m Mark, Thane of Crawdad, the guy responsible for killing your family, and this is Jeff, he’ll be your executioner today.” Mark was wearing his best royal outfit with blue shoes and a brocade briefcase. Jeff wore a black hood over his executioner’s mask.

“Hi Mark,” said Bob, shaking his hand. He turned to Jeff and also shook his hand. “Thanks for executing me today, Jeff.”

“Likewise, great to meet you, although not for very long,” said Jeff. “Come on, why don’t we grab a coffee?”

I’ve seen this a number of times, when beginning authors feel they need to introduce all the characters as if they’re on the first day at the office. This is fine if your book is about going to work or school for the first time, but it completely lacks tension. Where’s the mystery? Don’t explain everything in the first two minutes of the story otherwise there will be no reason left to read it! Try to think up creative ways to bring characters together. Conflict and action is great to bring people together. Who doesn’t like the hero to meet their travelling companions in the middle of a battle or scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef or tripping over each other on a subway station? How can they not band together when they’re surrounded by marauding wolves?

I’ve rewritten the above paragraph for a much better introduction:

The silver axe head glinted in the last rays of the winter sun. Atop his horse, the Thane of Crawdad motioned for the executioner to begin. His four guards surrounded the snowy circle of stones as the executioner marched towards Bob.

As Bob lowered his head onto the chopping block, he recognised the long scar running across the Thane’s eye; the same scarred face which had ordered the burning of the cathedral. Filled with sorrow for his crispy family, Bob looked at the executioner, the blue eyes not that of a man but a woman. She gave the sign of the clan, three fingers pulled into the palm. Without hesitation he leaped from the block and drew the spare sword from her sheath. They stood back to back as the guard’s horses shuffled restlessly, ready to charge.

“Who are you? I thought the last of my kin were dead!” said Bob.

“I am Jill, of the Water Cooler.”

“The Water Cooler clan? But they have been dead for centuries!” Before she could respond, the black horses galloped towards them.

Think of how the great characters introduce themselves – James Bond, Inigo Montoya… And once you’ve introduced your character, you don’t need to do it again!

4. Similar sentence structure

This is one I’m probably most guilty of, yet it’s one that’s easy to recognise on your second read through a story.

I walked towards the door in the hope of catching her. I went out into the street and followed her to a black car. I went to open the door for her but she looked at me strangely. I walked back home.

All of these sentences begin with the same verb structure, I went, I walked. Shake it up a little and break up the prose – especially in first person. No one wants to hear I, I, I all the time.

I walked towards the door in the hope of catching her. A black car was parked outside the watchmaker’s shop. She crossed the road, looking about furtively to either side of the street. The local bike courier, Maurice whizzed by on his velo and waved, but she jumped back as if in fright. His distraction allowed me to run across the road and open the door for her. She just looked at me strangely as if we had not met. I closed the door on her, saying nothing. Back home I went, looking over my shoulder at the girl in a floral dress.

5. Using description to avoid dialogue

Sometimes, there are conversations you just have to have. And sometimes, us authors avoid writing difficult dialogue. If I know a scene is going to be tricky to write, or I’m feeling lazy, I’ll often write in my manuscript Insert Dialogue Here. It’s the equivalent of saying “I’ll clean up my room later.” Even worse is when you go back and still feel lazy, so you use description to avoid dialogue.

The gang of thieves spoke until dawn about how they would rob the library.

This is the cheaters way. This is not the author’s way. You’ll never get your story published unless you tidy your literary room. Dialogue is exciting and essential to a great story. Even Castaway has dialogue, even if it is talking to a volleyball. Even if you are writing a book about the last person on earth they will eventually start talking to themselves. This doesn’t mean to rid yourself of description, but if you find you are describing a conversation, then you should probably be writing that conversation out.

“We’ve got to get that copy of Charles Dickens’ unpublished novel “Desolate slums filled with impoverished children who discover rich relatives” before the other book thieves do,” said Bob.

“But what about the security guards? They change only once during the night and the changeover is carefully monitored by electronic surveillance,” said Sandy, as she stared across the table at Bruce.

“Stop making eyes at him and concentrate on the plan,” said Bryan. “I’ve located the transistor beacons which redistribute the electrical signal…”

This post isn’t meant to make you feel bad about your work. Quite the opposite, I hope it allows you to recognize repeated behaviour and habits that you might not be aware of. We all have to start somewhere – I’m guilty of these mistakes as much as anyone. Please note, these observations are based on years of reading and workshopping writing, not any particular manuscript or story I’m reading now.

What do you think are the most common mistakes by first-time writers? Will you admit to making any of these? How does recognising patterns in your writing help make it better?

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