Want to Be a Better Writer of Books and Essays? Start by Avoiding These Common Writing Mistakes.

I confess. I’m a bit of a writing snob. As an editor for the past 25 years, I’ve read thousands of stories, slashing unnecessary words, dragging entire paragraphs into the trash and writing comments in the margins like “Awkward” and “Huh?.”

I wasn’t always this way. When I started writing, I was on the receiving end of the many “awkward”s and “huh”s on my own stories. One editor just wrote “lame” if he read something he didn’t like.

The criticism stung at the time, but it also helped me grow. I began to internalize the corrections, slowly improving my writing game and avoiding common errors. Do I still make mistakes? Totally. Any writer who claims they bat 1000 every time is either delusional or pays their editor hush money. Writing is hard as hell — so hard that I must now rewrite that phrase because it’s a cliché.

Recently, I recorded an episode on my podcast, Write About Now, detailing 21 rookie writing mistakes that writers make. Here are a few to avoid to help earn you even the snobbiest editor’s appreciation.  

Don’t bury the lede

You’ve probably heard the phrase, “Don’t bury the lede.” This is journalism lingo for dropping the story’s hook way down to the middle or bottom of the story. This mistake has left many an otherwise interesting story forgotten and ignored. As a writer, you only have seconds to grab a reader’s attention and make them want to invest time in your work. A robust and brief lede — a compelling question, a juicy anecdote, a controversial statement — separates your story from so many other snooze fests out there that just state the facts. I would argue a good lede is one difference between a human’s writing and a bot’s. Don’t be a bot.

Show don’t tell

“Show don’t tell” is a classic writing mantra, but what does it mean? I’ll let Anton Chekov, considered one of the greatest writers ever to live, explain: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” In other words, writing is much better when you describe something through imagery, actions, or details. Don’t tell the reader the true crime story you’re about to tell is scary; show them why it’s scary. Don’t tell the reader the product you want them to buy great; show them why it’s great. Strong writing is in the details. 

Avoid adverbs

Stephen King once wrote, “the road to hell is paved with adverbs.” And this is a guy who knows a few things about evil. For those who missed that grammar class or one of my favorite Schoolhouse Rock episodes, an adverb is a word that modifies or describes a verb or an adjective. One handy way to spot these devilish words is that they often end in -ly. Most adverbs are a sign of weak writing. They’re unnecessary and often redundant ways of describing an action. Some examples:

  • The cat ran quickly away from her owner.
  • She whispered quietly to her friend. 
  • He shouted loudly at his boss. 

If you took the adverb out of these sentences, would they mean the same thing? Then take them out. Take them all out. 

Don’t get creative with your dialogue tags

A dialogue tag is a word or phrase used before, after or between a quote to signify who’s speaking. For example, “‘The economy is about to crash,’ said the Senator.” 

Many novice writers make the mistake of getting too creative with their dialogue tags, using words like “postulated” or “surmised” instead of the standard “said” or “says.” I think this is because they’ve been taught not to repeat the same words too often, which is solid advice unless that word is “said” or “says” or other common words like “asked” or “writes.” It’s perfectly acceptable to repeat the same dialogue tags over and over again. The words are so common that they’ll blend into the background. But elaborate dialogue tags are distracting, remarks this writer. 

Stop switching tenses in the middle of a story

This mistake is as common as it is avoidable. Inexperienced writers often switch between present and past tense in the middle of a story, which confused many readers (see what I did there?). The good news is that there is a super easy fix for this: Read your story out loud after you finish writing it. It may sound silly, but you would be amazed how many big-time writers do this for all their stories. New York Times veteran reporter Dan Barry told me once that he reads all his stories to his poor suffering wife. The reason? You will hear your mistakes much easier than you will spot them with your eyes. 

These are just a few common writing mistakes that are easy to nip in the bud once you’re aware of them. To hear my entire podcast on the topic, listen to the rest of the episode below. Follow Write About Now to hear more tips and tactics for being a better writer. 

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