The most common mistakes writers make

by | Jun 10, 2019 | Writing Advice | 2 comments

I’ve worked with hundreds and hundreds of authors over the years and have read more unpublished manuscripts than most. And yet with all the infinite variation of book projects out in the world, there are some surprisingly common writing mistakes that recur again and again.

Don’t make these mistakes! Here are the most common ones I see:

A mishmash of a POV

By far the most common mistake I see is a mishmash of a perspective in a novel.

Rather than choosing a perspective and sticking with it, beginning writers often end up head jumping around confusingly from character to character, mixing third person limited and third person omniscient. This exhausts the reader, who constantly has to adjust their mental map of a scene and keep track of who is narrating.

Third person limited and third person omniscient are very different beasts! If you’re writing limited, stick to one character’s thoughts. If you’re writing omniscient, stick to one strong, unifying voice that is almost its own character, rather than head jumping around from character to character.

And if you’re writing first person, make sure everything is filtered through your protagonist’s unique point of view.

The solution:

Exposition for exposition’s sake

You don’t need a chapter to “introduce” major characters or settings. If all you’re doing in a chapter is showing a relationship and that’s all that is happening… it’s going to be boring.

Introduce characters as the plot is actually unfolding.

Now, that’s not to say that your major plot needs to kick off on page one. And it’s good to show a character in their natural habitat before the big plot knocks them akimbo and sends them on a quest.

But rather than just showing your protagonist and some characters sitting around and chatting, make sure something is happening in the opening chapters that pulls your reader through.

The big plot might not kick off until page thirty. Storytelling starts on page one.

The solution:

  • Weave exposition naturally into the story

Over-reliance on dialogue

One of my favorite jokes on the American version of the TV show The Office is when Dwight Schrute boasts, “I know everything about film. I’ve seen over two hundred forty of them.”

It’s funny because it sounds reasonable at first, but then you realize that’s a hilariously low number. You’ve probably seen more than a thousand in your lifetime, not to mention thousands of hours of scripted TV shows. (That’s also when you realize just how much time you actually have on your hands).

As a result, when we tell stories it’s almost impossible to get movies and TV shows out of our heads. Many writers have very thoroughly internalized their narrative structure.

When you sit down to write a scene, it’s exceedingly natural to think of it like a scene in the movies. But it’s also extremely problematic. Books are wholly different beasts than movies. An over-reliance on dialogue and under-reliance on physical description and characters’ inner lives can completely sink a novel.

Dialogue is the narrative icing on the cake. It adds flavor and personality. But it shouldn’t carry all of the storytelling weight.

The solution:

Chapters that end in a similar muddled place

Too often over the course of a novel, writers end their chapters in a similar muddled place. Rather than coming to a conclusive climax, the chapters just sort of peter out.

It’s better when chapters end on definitely up and down notes, and for those highs and lows to increase in intensity over the course of the novel. The novel’s climax is usually the highest high in the novel, and it’s often preceded by a nadir where all hope seems lost before the protagonist turns the corner.

Similarly, rather than showing two characters who basically feel the same about each other over the course of the novel, give these relationships ups and downs.

The solution:

Improper formatting

This is by far the easiest thing to get right. And yet writers still send around manuscripts with totally bizarre formatting.

If you’re seeking traditional publishing, you need to send your manuscript around in a professional fashion.

Save yourself the hassle of fixing it later. Format your manuscript correctly from the start.

The solution:

Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and coaching!

For my best advice, check out my guide to writing a novel (now available in audio) and my guide to publishing a book.

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Art: The explosion of the Spanish flagship during the Battle of Gibraltar, 25 April 1607 by Cornelis Claesz van Wieringen

2 Comments

  1. JOHN T. SHEA

    Thanks for your always useful advice and links to more, Nathan! And for the pic. One must admire those Spanish sailors who’ve been blown hundreds of feet into the air but STILL keep hold of their swords! No wonder the Spanish won the NEXT Battle of Gibraltar in 1621.

    Reply
  2. Lucianne Poole

    Thanks for the advice, especially regarding POV. Best and most succinct I’ve read on the subject, which I struggle with.

    Reply

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ABOUT NATHAN

Hi, I’m Nathan. I’m the author of How to Write a Novel and the Jacob Wonderbar series, which was published by Penguin. I used to be a literary agent at Curtis Brown Ltd. and I’m dedicated to helping authors chase their dreams. Let me help you with your book!

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