Five Writing Mistakes You Can Fix Right Now
As a crime fiction editor, I work with writers possessing various levels of ability. Some I consider the best in the genre today; others are finding their voice and honing their craft. Here are five mistakes I often see no matter how experienced the writer is.
1) Mixing up character names and descriptions
If I see that a character is named Stephen, the first thing I do is a ctrl+f search for Steven. Another common error is when an author changes a character’s name midway through a manuscript. This usually happens with a minor character who might appear on page 5 but not appear again until page 105.
Same thing goes for descriptions. If an author describes a character as a gym rat who runs five miles a day, that character shouldn’t be winded after fleeing the scene of a crime. I keep notes on characters to make sure they’re represented consistently throughout.
2) Repeating character actions
This is most common when characters are reacting to something. Characters raising their eyebrows or recoiling in disgust once or twice is fine. But eight or nine times and readers will take notice. And it’s not just novices: I recently read a novel by one of the best in the business who refers to a character’s “knowing smile” several times.
I often delete these actions without losing anything. A writer with a strong command of dialog avoids the need for these actions. For example, a character can show surprise through what they say rather than by dropping their jaw.
3) Baggy phrases and filler words
I cut these phrases almost every time: to be able to, in order to, shrugged her shoulders, nodded her head, whether or not, and then, but then. I also look for these filler words: just, only, actually, simply, particularly, suddenly, finally, that.
Every writer has their weakness. I found out mine when Rob Pierce edited one of my novellas. He must have cut out a hundred instances of that. It was eye-opening.
4) Frequent POV switches
Some writers can get away with switching perspective multiple times in a chapter. But most of the time a chapter break or a scene break before a perspective switch keeps things clear for the reader. Too many POV switches may confuse the reader and prevent them from getting to know any of the characters.
5) Expository dialog
“You’re talking about the old mill?” the grizzled old mill worker said. “Let me tell you the old mill’s extensive and tedious history. Now it just so happens that all the many, many details I will be sharing with you are relevant to the plot and crucial for the reader to understand what comes next…”
I see this most often when writers have done considerable research. They want to use every bit they learned and so they incorporate all of it into the manuscript. But this slows the pace down and most readers will skim these infodumps.