11 Common Writing Mistakes

In this blog post, we take a look at some common creative writing mistakes.

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Manuscript Mentoring

October 15, 2022 · 5 Min Read

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There’s no such thing as a perfect novel; creative writing is subjective, after all. That being said, there are style and presentation errors that are more prevalent than others. Some of these mistakes are easy to fix—others take time and determination to set right. Luckily, knowledge is the start of all betterment!

Mistake #1: Using a Prologue When It Isn't Necessary

Prologues can help to contextualize the backstory of a novel, but it shouldn’t be an automatic inclusion. Creative writers often feel the need to sufficiently orient readers before the actual story starts, but sticking a prologue before the first chapter usually isn’t a good idea. Unnecessary prologues often contain excessive exposition, and too much exposition decreases reader engagement (more on exposition below).

 

Mistake #2: Opening a Novel With a Character Waking Up

There’s nothing inherently wrong with opening a novel with a character waking up, of course. However, it is used so frequently that it very rarely comes across as original. Remember, readers have to be hooked from the word go; a derivative opening tends to have the opposite effect.

 

Mistake #3: Excessive Exposition (Backstory)

A common misconception is that readers have to be inundated with information to keep them engaged. This is not true, of course; the vast majority of readers can identify subtle foreshadowing and contextual information. Excessive exposition should always be avoided, but writers should be particularly wary of delving into too much backstory in the first chapter of their story. For an in-depth analysis of exposition in writing, have a look at Manuscript Mentoring’s Exposition in Writing article. You may also find our article on first chapters helpful.

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Mistake #4: Incorrect Paragraph Formatting

Formatting becomes a consideration closer to a novel’s completion. If you intend to use beta readers or submit to literary agents and publishers, then your manuscript’s presentation is of the utmost importance. Like all things in life, first impressions count. There are various aspects to look at when formatting a manuscript (title page, margins, headers, spacing, font, etc.), but incorrect paragraph formatting is usually one of the more glaring mistakes writers make. Instead of using blank lines to separate paragraphs, indent the first lines of paragraphs by half an inch (use your word processor’s ruler function for this, not the Tab key). If you’re using Microsoft Word, remember to check the “Remove Space Before Paragraph” and “Remove Space After Paragraph” functions.

 

Mistake #5: Incorrect Dialogue Formatting

Incorrectly formatted dialogue is a common mistake in manuscripts. Remember, double quotation marks should be used when quoting speech (single quotation marks are fine too if you’re writing in UK English—however, consistency is key); commas preceding speaker attributions should be placed within the quoted text; periods should also placed within the quoted text. For a full rundown of dialogue formatting, have a look at Manuscript Mentoring’s How to Write Dialogue in a Novel article.

Mistake #6: Descriptions That Aren't Descriptive Enough

Writers often fail to give clear, concise descriptions. Wordiness and overly descriptive writing should be avoided, of course, but scenes that aren’t described properly tend to put readers off just as much. Remember, descriptions don’t just help the reader to visualize things or surroundings, they also affect mood. If a protagonist is trekking through a scary forest, but no mention is made of its scariness (how the trees move in the wind, the absence of light, etc.), then the forest won’t be scary to the reader. Even though writing and revising descriptions can be a chore, keeping the reader properly oriented is crucial.

 
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Mistake #7: A Lack of Research

It’s not only expository nonfiction that requires research—it is just as important for the fiction writer to understand the concepts and systems being incorporated into their story. If you’re writing a story that takes place in London during the Georgian era, then you should know the many differences between the Georgian and Victorian eras. If you’re writing a story about a fireman, then you should know how a firetruck works. If you’re writing about the Empire State Building, then you should know how its entrance, elevators, and top floor looks. When writers tackle subjects they aren’t familiar with, it stands out like a sore thumb.

 

Mistake #8: Using Too Many Different Speaker Attributions

Dialogue should be attributed with “said” as much as possible; the only exception should be when “said” needs to be changed to avoid repetition. Remember, a good speaker attribution does not draw attention to itself—its most important priority is conveying who is speaking. It can be very off-putting when writers alternate between many different speaker attributions (“yelled”, “shouted”, “moaned”, “whispered”, “asked”, “suggested”, “mentioned”, etc.).

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Mistake #9: Excessive Musing

Character thought interspersions can help to contextualize a scene or impart backstory to the reader. However, reams of thought quickly diminish reader engagement. This is especially the case in novels written in the third person. Remember, action and dialogue between characters are both more tangible than introspective musing. If you’re struggling to convey a certain bit of information, try to restructure the scene.

 
 

Mistake #10: Starting a New Book Before the Old One is Finished

It is estimated that less than 5% of novels are actually ever finished. Often, writers conceptualize a story and—excited about the hook they’ve come up with—dive right in and start writing. After a few chapters, however, the story moves into its nebulous middle, and the writer’s excitement quickly dwindles. At this stage, it can be tempting to start a brand-new story, but constantly starting over isn’t good for a writer’s development. It’s also a sure way for good ideas to never see the light of day. Remember, a story can’t be judged on its premise alone. During the writing process, much will and should change. A protagonist’s characterization may go a different route than initially planned; entire scenes may be added or removed; plot may be altered. These changes, imparted little by little over months of writing, will essentially determine what the story is. If the writer quits a few chapters in, then the story’s full potential will never be realized.

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Mistake #11: Inadequate Word Count

It doesn’t matter if you’re writing as an independent writer or if you are aiming to go the traditional publishing route—the word count of your novel should fall into an acceptable range for its genre. It depends what you’re writing, but a regular-size book should consist of between 70,000 and 90,000 words. There are exceptions, but anything less than 70,000 is probably too short, and anything over 90,000 words probably needs revision. Research the genre you are writing in and look at its optimum word count.

Manuscript Mentoring

If you’re struggling to iron out common mistakes from your writing, then have a look at our services. Manuscript Mentoring specializes in novel editing and editorial feedback.