by Dave Chesson
Editing your own work can be a nightmare. Trust me, I know. I’ve been trying to figure out ways to improve my craft, and I figured what better way to learn than to do some research and write about it? So let’s learn about this together–after all, as authors we have to stick together.
One thing I’ve realized while researching this, is that you shouldn’t let these small errors get you down. Everyone makes mistakes. It’s completely normal. Every great author you’ve ever read has used an editor.
In this article, we’ll look at seven common mistakes writers make and how we can fix them.
1. Incorrect Dialogue Formatting
Writing dialogue can be difficult. Without the right formatting, it can be even harder to read.
Here are a few rules for writing and formatting dialogue in your next book:
Each speaker change starts a new paragraph
Whenever someone different talks, you need to show this by starting a new paragraph. This is a rule if the character is going on an epic monologue or just giving a one-word response.
Indent every paragraph
he only time you don’t indent a new paragraph during dialogue is when it’s a new scene or chapter.
Punctuation for the quote is inside the quotation marks
Any time the punctuation is a part of the person speaking, they go inside the quotes so the reader knows how the dialogue is said. This includes periods, exclamation points, commas and question marks.
Use a single quotation mark when a person is quoting someone else
For example, if you have a character that says, “Roger told me, ‘I’ll never give up.’” Use the singular quotation mark to let the reader know it’s what somebody else has said.
If you’d like to know more about dialogue formatting, Rosie A. Point has written a great guide to look at.
2. Repeated ‘Crutch’ Words
Just like the crutches you use when you hurt your leg, crutch words are words and phrases writers lean on. Here are examples of popular crutch words you’ve probably used once or twice.
- Like: I was, like, going to ask if you’d like to go to dinner.
- Well: Well, that was easier than I expected.
- You know: It’s, you know, not up to me.
- Literally: Today was literally the coldest day I can remember. (On a side note, don’t get me started on the overuse of the word ‘literally’ these days.)
- Obviously: I’m obviously happy with the decision.
These crutch words are handy in conversations when you’ve got to think on your feet. However, they’re not used in formal writing. Crutch words are acceptable when used in dialogue and even then I wouldn’t go overboard with it.
If you’d like to learn more, here is a list of totally awesome crutch words that’ll honestly help your writing out, you know…
3. Avoid Using the Word ‘Suddenly’
The word ‘suddenly’ could be considered a crutch word in itself, but I think it needs its own section here. It’s lazy writing and crutch words combined their powers.
The word ‘suddenly’ doesn’t initially sound like a writing faux pas. But you can almost always go without it. Even more, the use of the word ‘suddenly’ undermines the word’s meaning. Use this passage as an example:
The classroom had filled with silence. A few tense minutes passed–or was it an eternity? The teacher glared at the students, seeking the one who would break first.
Suddenly, the teacher turned and shouted, “Who was it?”
I jolted in my seat.
The use of the word ‘suddenly’ doesn’t look bad in this passage at first glance. But what impact does the word have?
‘Suddenly’ is used to signify something happening without warning. So, by adding the word at the start of the paragraph, you’re warning the reader that something unexpected is about to happen. Instead, remove the word and let the reader live in the action of what’s happening.
4. Using Short Choppy Sentences in Succession
I’m a fan of cheesy action movies. A few years ago Jason Statham starred in a movie called Hardcore Henry. What made this movie different from other action movies is that the entire thing was filmed in the first-person point of view like a video game. I thought it was an interesting idea.
Basically, it’s ninety minutes of being nauseous watching a camera jump around.
The filmmakers tried to up the pace of the movie, but the thing is, you can’t be going at 100 mph the entire time–you need slow scenes to help the fast ones seem fast.
The same goes for your books. When writing, your sentence length dictates the pace of the action at hand. As readers, we’re conditioned to take a breath every time we get to the end of a sentence. So, when we’re reading a succession of short and sharp sentences, fast breathing almost has an anxiety-inducing effect. We’re constantly and quickly breathing in and out.
This is a great trick to have tucked away for when you’re describing dramatic events or an action-packed scene.
However, using too many short sentences continuously is jarring for your reader. You’ll find that if you want to be descriptive, longer and detailed sentences will set the scene better.
Ideally, you should use a range of sentence lengths to bring an even flow to your writing. Then, you can actively make sentence length choices at key parts of your book.
5. Relying on Vague Modifiers Like ‘Very,’ ‘Really,’ Etc.
A vague modifier can almost fit into the category of crutch words, but they deserve a special mention here.
Modifiers are supposed to magnify and emphasize the words around them. Or, funnily enough, modify them. On the other hand, a vague modifier will not only make your work harder to read, but you’ll also get into lazy writing habits. Here is a list of vague modifiers you should try to avoid in your writing:
- A lot
- Kind of
Instead, be comfortable using fewer, more powerful words in your work.
6. The Word ‘Well’ in Dialogue
Okay, this is a bit of a pet peeve of mine, and one that you should be looking out for when proofreading.
Many writers will use the word ‘well’ in their dialogue. For example:
“Well, I never said I wanted to go.”
While that’s a perfectly normal sentence to type, and there are probably a few people who talk like that in real life, it doesn’t lead to the tense, evocative dialogue you likely want to write in your books.
The word also adds nothing to the sentence. You could omit the word and everything would still make sense.
“I never said I wanted to go.”
7. The Words ‘To Know,’ ‘To See, ‘To Hear’
Your sixth-grade teacher probably told you to ‘show and not tell’ in your writing. Funnily enough, they were onto something. When you tell instead of show, you report information to your reader, rather than letting them experience the scene alongside the character.
Telling instead of showing has its merits in language. If you want to get a message across quickly, you tell. However, when writing a novel, you want to paint a picture that your reader can visualize when they read your work.
Rather than simply saying your character is cold, describe them adjusting their coat or wrapping their scarf around their neck. You can describe the crisp air and the way breaths mist in front of a character’s face. This way you’ll put your reader into the story rather than passing on a few key messages.
Another way we relay information to the reader is by using words like ‘saw,’ ‘heard’ and ‘knew.’ You can easily cut these words from your manuscript and still get your message across.
Let’s use this as an example:
He saw the spider crawling toward him.
Instead, you can tweak the sentence a little bit by cutting the ‘saw.’ Try this instead:
The spider crawled toward him.
The sentence works just as well without the ‘saw.’
There are plenty of little mistakes that you’ll make in your writing, but that’s okay–you’re not alone. I found this research super helpful and I’ve already cleaned up my writing as a result. But I’m curious, is there anything that’s not on this list that you do when editing your manuscript? Please share!
Dave Chesson is the founder of Kindlepreneur.com and creator of Publisher Rocket, a software that helps authors market their books more effectively.
Photo by Jenny Pace on Unsplash