5 Common Writing Mistakes That Make You Look Like an Amateur

So they say knowing is half the battle, right? Well, someone said it somewhere once and I’m gonna go with it.

There are a couple of common writing mistakes that will instantly peg you as a novice to any agent or editor, but are really easy to fix if you know what they are. I’ve listed five really common ones here (with a bonus! sixth).

Take some time to unlearn these bad habits and you’ll instantly move into the 90th percentile of all writers without doing much work.

  1. Your characters grouse, whisper, bellow, and ejaculate their dialogue. Said. That’s all you need and most of the time, you shouldn’t even need that. Dialogue attributions are just markers to help orient the reader—we tend to glance over them anyway so cut them where you can. But stick to said, or ask, as proper (the character is asking a question).
  2. You use italics for emphasis. I battle so many writers on this one. Without italics, how will my reader know this is a thought? How will they know that the character stressed that word? Because you write it so they know. With practice you’ll learn to put important words in important places, so you don’t need fancy typography to shore up the copy. For now, cut the italics and trust your reader. They’ll get it.
  3. You switch POV. It’s fine to get inside a character’s head, but bouncing around from person to person within a scene is awfully confusing for the reader. Stay with one character instead, and if you must change—save it for a scene break or other clear delineation.
  4. You’ve never seen a modifier you don’t love. Adjectives and adverbs are the death of good writing. Pick strong, active verbs instead and cut the modifier. Try this: do a search for “ly” in your manuscript and you’ll get a sense of how many times an adverb has crept into your writing. Do another search for “very.” This is an easy fix, though. Catch ’em. Kill ’em.
  5. You’re showing off. Complex writing does not equal complex thought. Using big, fancy words (like say, overwrought instead of strained) and overwrought construction screams, “look at me, LOOK AT ME, BITCH!” Instead of getting out of the reader’s way and letting the story envelop them, this kind of showy style puts a wall up and paints the author’s face across it. It also kills clarity, which is just another wall in and of itself. Aim for clear, simple writing. Choose the plain word over the fancy one. Don’t use two words when one will do.

And, here’s a bonus just for my fantasy and science fiction writing friends.

  1. Your character and place names are pretentious. A lot goes into a name, and getting them right in genre fiction can be hard. But just because you’re writing high fantasy, for example, doesn’t mean everyone needs to run around with names like Hurtzzhulnaznag or Nákhgolroggu. If we can’t pronounce what you’ve written, we start to not want to read it either. Obviously, big problem there. Here’s a red flag: you start using letters in your names that you have to look up the keystrokes for. Simplify, simplify, simplify.

Guys, trust me. There are so many bad writers out there. Writing is mostly craft, and from the craft comes the art. But most of your unpublished competition doesn’t want to learn the craft. Hell, they don’t even want to make the art. In other words, they don’t like writing—they like having written and all that comes with it. They’ll never take the time to learn the craft, so every bit you learn puts you that much further ahead of the crowd.