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.
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.
Haha, so many things came to mind when I read this article!
I’ve noticed that many older novels would start with 2 (unnecessary descriptions and details) and as a result, have 1 (dull beginnings). This is most likely because these descriptions that seem unnecessary nowadays was actually necessary back then. The writers needed to describe, say, an African savanna, in detail while readers nowadays have probably all seen pictures of that. Actually, in some of the stories, you would see one character enthusiastically telling another how delighted she was when she read this long descriptions of a place she would love to go to someday. These days it’s more like, well, let me just show you a Youtube video.
I am certainly guilty of 3 (verbiage). You mentioned that poets often resort to verbiage to meet meter requirements. Well, I’ve done it for lyrics. At least I was writing lyrics for a number in a comedic scene, so I was able to turned it into a joke. There were multiple places in the song where I blatantly inserted useless words (such as “really, truly, surely” in a row). Since I was doing something ugly, I might as well call attention to it so we could all have a laugh.
For 8 (lackluster ending), I’ve seen it in books before (sometimes taking the form of “oooooh, it was just a dream”) and I’ve definitely seen it in TV shows that span multiple seasons. Sometimes, the original creators already left. Many writers over many years have created a bunch of continuity problems. And what’s worse is when the writers don’t know whether the TV show will be renewed for the next season or not, so the ended up putting in a finale that’s sort of a finale, but not quite. And then the fans that have been following a show for many years would be rewarded with a ending that’s totally less than satisfying. At least books in general don’t have this problem.
Kelvin, we think alike! I started reading an older novel a couple of years ago, and I was shocked at the pages and pages of unnecessary description. It was so dull, I couldn’t finish it, which bothered me. I drew the same conclusion as you: back then, authors had to provide a lot of description because readers didn’t know what, say, a tropical island looked like. I’m having the same problem now with Les Mis, a great story — but the unabridged version I’m reading is verbose. I think a lot of songwriters use verbiage to fill meter. Sometimes they even repeat the same word over and over (yeah, yeah, yeah).
I often scan creative writing textbooks into my computer for instant access. Many authors of such books, who often are college professors, write in a way that suggests they are getting paid by the word. I edit every chapter, and it’s not unusual for a chapter with six thousand words, after my edit, to have four thousand or forty-five hundred. I was a newspaper writer for many years so my edits are severe, maybe too severe. But after my edits, the copy is sharper and gets to the point quicker.
Wow, that’s hardcore. I’ve never heard of anyone scanning books and editing them. That’s a great hobby!
That is hard core. However, when reading ebooks on my iPad, I just can’t help myself from doing some editing! Perhaps it’s because I was a teacher, and correcting has become second nature.
Although I didn’t do it before becoming a writer, though.
It’s always tempting to edit while reading just about anything!
Some useful guidelines here. I recently cut a 900 word short story down to 400 for a competition and initially thought the task impossible but when I had finished it was a much improved piece of writing. Excellent advice for those of us who tend to overindulge with words. A great post I intend to share with my class and teacher.
Thanks, Marc! There’s a saying about finding your favorite sentence in a piece of writing and cutting it. I can’t remember who said it, but we writers must learn how to trim away the excess and let go of passages (sometimes entire chapters) that aren’t necessary.
Dull Beginnings absolutely kill me. Why do it? As you say capture the reader and don’t bore them away. I hate dull beginnings because I am prone to write them lol – something that took a while to overcome.
7. Filler words and phrases – awesome specific tip there thx. Remove “I know” makes the sentence considerably stronger. I am such an offender in this area.
Thanks and great post.
My guess is that a lot of writers don’t realize the beginning is dull. But who knows why it happens? Another common type of filler word is the starter (that’s what I call it):
He started to walk to the door.
She started to speak.
As opposed to just jumping in to the action:
He walked to the door.
Don’t forget crutch words. One of the most common is having speakers “smile” or “grin” as they talk instead of actually blocking the scene with action between dialogue. When characters smile, grin, chuckle, and chortle and I know I’m reading a novice, or someone who ignored their editor.
Many writers look for alternatives to the tried-and-true he said/she said dialogue tags, and often the alternatives they come up with don’t work well. So if we’re talking about using smile, grin, or chuckle to replace a dialogue tag, then I agree with you that in some cases it will fall flat. But I wouldn’t make a sweeping statement implying that only novices have their characters grin, smile, or chuckle.
“I have it right here.” She smiled and reached into her bag.
There’s nothing wrong with the construct above. However, the following is not ideal:
“I have it right here,” she smiled.
I am so guilty of using filler words and phrases. And yes my endings are dull too, at times. Thanks.
I have yet to encounter a writer who doesn’t have a bad habit, whether it’s using the same word over and over or using filler words. The good news is that once you realize you’ve got a bad habit, you can work on it!
I agree with you on these issues! It’s amazing how many cuts I can find when I know I have to. And the result is almost always an improvement. I especially have to catch redundancy. It’s a good tool for drafting, since you can try out six different ways of capturing a setting or an emotion. But then come back and pick the best one of the six!
Couple of points: additional “filer” (or “filter”) words are “**She heard** the wind whistling through the trees” vs. “The wind whistled through the trees,” and “**She saw,**” which works similarly. These are so hard to catch.
RE spell-check: Instead of turning off spell-check, turn off “autocorrect” functions. You will be notified of typos, but the computer will not try to guess what you really intended. I’ve seen some pretty crazy computer-supplied corrections!
Also, grammar-checkers are notoriously poor substitutes for your own knowledge. The one on my Word program misidentifies fragments and rails against all kinds of style choices that work beautifully to establish voice.
Finally, do give “older” books a chance, even if you know that these days, you don’t dare write in an older style. The Victorians, for example, lived in a slower age, but they wrote some of the most gripping fiction you’ll ever read.
I’m currently taking an online course on creative writing which is a hobby of mine. I stumbled unto your Blog on a Google search and it had all the answers I needed. Thanks so much for this! All the way from Asaba, Delta State, Nigeria.
Thank you for your kind words, Dorathy. I’m glad you found Writing Forward helpful. Keep writing!
One of things that it is very annoying to me when I read an article that is suppose to be written by an expert writer is when author writes “almost always” or “almost never”. Particular when the article is about eliminting unnecessary words. Either it is “always” or “never”, it can’t be “almost”. It has to be one or the other.
Rosemary, considering the number of typos in your comment, it’s audacious of you to be criticizing other writers.
1. You have unnecessarily used the word very with annoying. Exactly what is the difference between “annoying” and “very annoying?”
2. You have left the “d” off the word suppose.
3. Perhaps you’re using British English, which would explain why your commas and periods are outside of your quotation marks.
4. You have left “ly” off the word Particular.
5. What exactly is eliminting?
6. The sentence that starts with the word Particular is incomplete and therefore grammatically incorrect.
7. You are apparently ignorant about colloquialisms, or common expressions.
My advice to you is to think twice before you attempt to publicly insult others, particularly people whom you yourself have deemed to be experts. Also, consider posting a note by your computer that says this: “Everyone makes mistakes sometimes.”
And Rosemary, if you’re going to go around publicly correcting other people’s writing, make sure to proofread your own first.
I am guilty of so many of these in my first draft! Now I am more aware.
That’s why it’s first and not last!