Unless you’ve taken a creative writing course or an English degree, you will probably make a few mistakes with your writing, and you won’t necessarily realise these until someone points them out to you.
How do I know this? Because I’ve been there and done it (hides in shame over my early writing days).
Nowadays I read a lot of books. I read a mixture of popular and lesser known books, and of course I sometimes pick up those considered classics. However, even if a book is popular, that doesn’t mean the writing is by any means perfect, but this largely comes down to the reader’s opinion. An editor and other writers are likely to be more picky, your readers less so.
Over the years I’ve noticed common mistakes that crop up time and time again. I don’t mean the odd typo, these happen in every book, even in the popular ones. I mean the sort of mistakes that can slow down the pace of a story, confuse the reader, or even lose the reader’s interest entirely. I don’t want to go into grammar or spellings just yet, though there are plenty of blogs out there for you to check out if you’re not sure about those two aspects of your writing. For now, I’m going to focus on two mistakes that I used to make when I first started writing.
Mistake 1) Show don’t tell.
One of the first mistakes I made when I started writing was telling the story and not showing the story. I didn’t realise what I had done or how important this was until my editor/agent pointed it out to me, and sometimes I slip back into this habit of telling, but now I can spot the mistake and rectify it. I’m going to give you an example of writing below so you can see for yourself what I am talking about.
Example 1: Lucy got out of the car and headed up to her front door, she was home, finally. The weekend had been long and everyone knew how mean her mother could be. She stepped inside, at least her cat Snowy seemed pleased to see her.
Straight to the point, but there is very little emotion or description going on and there’s very little to engage the reader’s imagination. I’m going to try and rewrite the above three sentences about Lucy, and change it into something that will hopefully be more engaging…
Example 2: Lucy’s yellow Beetle grumbled to a stop. She slumped forwards and cradled the steering wheel, letting out a heavy sigh. It had been one thing after another this weekend, her mother never seemed to be pleased with her efforts. Lucy slipped out of the car reluctantly, lifting her heavy bags and trudging up the paved pathway. She heard a faint ‘meoooow’, and like a balloon disappearing up into the sky, her sour mood lifted. She eagerly routed in her handbag for her keys; the white front door was now her only remaining obstacle to her blessed sanctuary. The meowing grew louder and more frantic as she pulled out her jingling keys. ‘Mummy’s here Snowy, it’s alright,’ Lucy crooned. Snowy continued to cry out and scratched at the doorway. She finally selected the right key and had barely opened the door, when what looked like a white haze dashed out. Snowy zipped around her feet, rubbing her head affectionately against Lucy’s calves. ‘Snowy darling, you’re in the way,’ Lucy said. She smiled and reached down to the stroke the cat between the ears, ‘well, at least somebody is pleased to see me.’
Ok so this is by no means perfect, there’s a lot you could add and change here, and I’ve left it a bit vague with Lucy’s mother but you get the point. Example 2 is much nicer and more pleasurable to read than Example 1, there’s added description, dialogue and emotion. Look at your work and compare your writing to these examples, which example does your writing resemble? Please note, sometimes it is necessary to tell rather than show and there are lots of blogs out there which cover this topic, I would recommend that you check these out too.
Mistake 2) Too much description.
Another mistake I used to make quite frequently was being too descriptive. I would write paragraphs of pure description, and this is just tedious for readers. Too much description can be bad, but so can too little. When it comes to description you need to ask yourself whether or not it is important or adds to the story, if it doesn’t tick any of these boxes then you’re probably better off without it.
Example 3: Jessica was a tall slim girl, with pale skin and light brown hair which often shone gold when the sunlight hit it. George was her vampire brother, though not her real brother, he was pale and had blonde hair carefully spiked up and a body like a model. He wore a white shirt loosely done up with dark jeans as they sat and watched a film he had seen hundreds of times.
Remember my early writing day’s shame? This is it, and I’m cringing reading through my old work. There is way too much description and it’s clustered together in such a way that you’re bombarded with it. It’s also boring, so I’m going to rewrite this in Example 4.
Example 4: Jessica stretched out her long limbs and glanced upwards through curved lashes at her stepbrother George. The unnatural glow from the flat screen made his skin appear almost translucent and he seemed engrossed by the old film. A film, Jessica thought, he must have viewed a hundred times over the centuries as a vampire. George’s gaze dropped to meet hers and a chuckle escaped her lips. George folded his arms, pulling his white shirt taunt over his biceps and raised one, slender, questioning brow. On the wall behind George’s head, a row of little shadow mountains had formed from the gelled spikes in his blonde hair. Jessica let out a snort then clamped her hands over her mouth as her cheeks flamed.
‘What is so funny?’ George said. The left side of George’s mouth curved upwards and he tilted his head. The shadows shifted with him and Jessica lost it, her laughter burst from her lungs and she could do nothing to stop it.
These examples aren’t perfect, but you can see where I’ve fed in some of the details and descriptions within the rest of the story. We’ve lost Jessica’s pale skin and brown hair, but at this point it is not important or crucial to the story, they can be fed in as details at an earlier or later point. We’ve also lost the fact that George is model-like and we don’t know he is wearing dark jeans, but again, these are not important or crucial to the story at this moment. What we do get is a more natural scene between stepsister and stepbrother, and by using the words ‘long limbs’ we have created a tall Jessica, and ‘curved lashes’ helps to create a pretty, feminine Jessica. George we know has pale skin by using ‘almost translucent’, we also know he is a vampire with blonde hair, and that he is physically fit from the use of ‘taunt over his biceps’. Notice these little descriptions are not clumped together, they are woven into the writing to create a more authentic piece, it is much more enjoyable to read and the characters become more relatable and life-like too.
I hope that these four examples have helped you to improve your writing. If you find yourself making the same mistakes as I did, don’t worry, it happens to us all and it’s all part of the learning process. As I’ve mentioned previously, there are a lot of blogs which cover this topic, and this blog is just my personal opinion. I would recommend that if you are looking for more advice, hints and tips, then read the rest of this blog series the ‘Diary of a Young Writer‘, and if you’re still hungry for more information, I will leave a couple of helpful links below.
In my next blog, I will cover active and passive tense, cliches, and character stereotypes. I hope you all had a good and relaxing Easter, and are now ready to take on the rest of the working week! Good luck with your writing and thank you for reading my blog.
“You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.” – Jodi Picoult
Links you may find useful: