common writing mistakes

Are you making any of these common writing mistakes?

We all make mistakes in our writing. The most common mistake is the typo — a missing word, an extra punctuation mark, a misspelling, or some other minor error that is an oversight rather than a reflection of the writer’s skills (or lack thereof).

A more serious kind of mistake is a deep flaw in the writing. It’s not a missing word; it’s a missing scene. It’s not an extra punctuation mark; it’s an overabundance of punctuation marks. And these mistakes aren’t limited to the mechanics of writing: plot holes, poor logic, and a prevalence of bad word choices are all markers of common writing mistakes that are found in various forms and genres of creative writing.

I see most mistakes as an opportunity to either learn something new or make an improvement to a piece of writing. While mistakes can certainly be frustrating, and rewriting to weed out mistakes can be laborious, each fixed mistake is a step toward a more polished piece of writing, and every time you resolve a problem in your writing, you become a better writer.

Common Writing Mistakes

Here are some of the most common writing mistakes opportunities I have seen in creative writing, including fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction:

1. Dull Beginnings

Every once in a while I come across a piece of writing that starts off slow, then picks up momentum. Maybe you’ve seen this too: the first chapter of a book is boring or the first paragraph of a blog post is obtuse. Then it gets better — a lot better. Kudos to you for giving it a chance! I suspect that many writing projects start out with dull beginnings. As we write, we fall into the rhythm and pacing. We get to know our characters. The plot comes into focus. The great thing about writing is that we can always go back and rewrite. Don’t risk losing readers who scan the first few paragraphs and decide not to read the rest. Don’t count on reviews that say “Starts slow but gets better.” Take the opportunity to rewrite your opening and hook readers from the first sentence.

2. Unnecessary descriptions and details

I’m reading a book right now that is jam packed with a bunch of descriptions and details that I don’t really need. The story is great, so I’m trudging through it, but it’s not the best reading experience I’ve ever had. Readers don’t need to know every detail about a room’s decor or a character’s appearance. They don’t need a play-by-play account of every action that takes a character from point A to point B. Writing a lot of description and detail during early drafts can be a good thing; it helps us get to know our story world. But again, revision is an opportunity to scale it back. Leave room for readers to use their imaginations and ask yourself how essential each detail is to the main purpose of the piece.

3. Verbiage

Despite popular belief, verbiage is not a synonym for words or text. It specifically means an “overabundance or superfluity of words, as in writing or speech; wordiness” (source). Verbiage is not a good thing. It means you’re using too many words and the work could be more concise. Verbiage occurs for a number of reasons. Poets often resort to verbiage to meet meter requirements. Students use it to meet page-count requirements for their essays. Verbiage also happens when writers try to use a lot of fancy words and language to make themselves sound smart. And almost all writers create verbiage in early drafts, especially if discovery writing is involved. Don’t spend an entire paragraph saying something that could be said in a single sentence. You’ll put your readers to sleep!

4. Redundancy and stating the obvious

Redundancy is when we say the same thing twice, although usually we say it in a different way the second time. For example, I am taking my car to the shop tomorrow, so I won’t be able to go anywhere because my car will be in the shop. The readers are told twice that the car will be the shop tomorrow. That’s redundant.

The problem with stating the obvious in a piece of writing is, ironically, less obvious than redundancy. Here’s an example: I went to the store yesterday. In the store, there was a huge book display. The phrase “in the store” states the obvious. The text implies that the book display is in the store, so it doesn’t need to be stated outright.

5. Unnecessary or ineffective repetition

Sometimes repetition is a good thing. When we’re trying to teach through writing, repetition can help the reader retain information. It can also emphasize a theme or symbol. The trick is to know the difference between effective and ineffective repetition, and this can happen with the content of a piece of writing or the language. The most frequent place you’ll see this is in first-person point of view where there are an abundance of sentences that start with “I” (it’s actually difficult not to use “I” frequently in first-person pieces). But other examples include using the same adjectives over and over (all the girls are pretty; all the guys are handsome; all the cars are fast) or repeating the same details and descriptions over and over (you only need to say she’s pretty once).

6. Failure to use spelling and grammar check and over-dependency on spelling and grammar check

I used to keep spell-check turned off because it annoyed the hell out of me. It was always trying to correct me, even when I was right or purposely breaking a rule. But I found too many typos in my final drafts, so I turned it back on. I especially appreciate the markup that spell-check provides, which makes it easy to catch and fix typos as they occur.

That doesn’t mean we can rely on spell-check to be our editor, especially not our professional editor. The fact is, most technology-based editors are highly flawed. Their dictionaries are incomplete (I often type words that my word processor doesn’t recognize but which are in most dictionaries). They cannot handle complex grammar. They are useless for correcting misuse of words and language. So yes, use spell-check, but don’t rely on it.

7. Filler words and phrases

Filler words and phrases usually occur when an action or idea is unnecessarily framed inside another action or idea. For example: I went the book store yesterday. I know I should have left my wallet at home. The idea that the narrator should have left her wallet at home is framed inside of her knowing that she should have left her wallet at home. But the sentences are written in first person, so the reader already knows that everything the narrator (or speaker) says comes from her thoughts or knowledge. “I know” can be removed to make the sentence stronger and more concise. Let’s revise: I went to the bookstore yesterday. I should have left my wallet at home.

Common filler words and phrases include I know, I thought, and I wondered. Can you think of any others?

8. Lackluster ending

This is the worst. You know how you feel when you’re reading a great story or article and you’re really into it, but then the ending just sucks? I hate that. I still think these stories are worth reading because it’s all about the journey, not the destination. Having said that, lackluster endings are unsatisfying. When I come across them, I almost always get the feeling that the author was tired of the project, just wanted to finish it and move on, and resigned to a second-rate closing. Some people complain about endings where there are still unsolved mysteries or unanswered questions. That’s fine if there’s going to be a sequel! Don’t disappoint readers by giving them a lazy ending.

Which Common Writing Mistakes Have You Noticed?

Have you noticed any of these mistakes in your own writing or reading material? Are there any other common writing mistakes you’d like to add to this list? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment, and keep writing.

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