I had the honor of beta reading for a fellow writer I met on Twitter recently. I think it is important to help writers getting started in the field, especially in regard to craft which can be carried forward into other works. (Almost like writing a blog with writing advice for other writers… 🙂 )
All in all, I recognized in her work the same mistakes I often made when I was beginning, and have subsequently spent a vast amount of time trying to remedy.
So, what are common writing mistakes and how do you identify (and fix) them?
- You start with a paragraph (or 4) about nature/setting. Why this is bad: this isn’t new or intriguing unless there is something really unusual *about the setting* that piques interest. Perhaps the trees are purple. Or there are flying giraffes. If you are describing the setting just to describe it, take it out, or put it later. If you’re still not convinced, see point 3 and make it do work for your story.
- Similarly, you don’t start with making the reader care. Why this is bad: Simply speaking, they’ll put the book down. Bring the tension or conflict as close to the beginning as possible– and make us care about it. If the protagonist is in trouble, that’s great, but making us *care* about them and thus be worried about them is even better. This comes through specific characterization, conflict, flaws balanced with likable characteristics, etc.
- A lot of sentences are unnecessary or repetitive. What to do: Trust that the reader is smart. Say something once and trust that they got it. Similarly, make your sentences do double-work. Don’t just talk about the scenery to tell about the scenery– have the way the character tell about it in turn tell us about the character. (ie the cliche raining while a character is sad is an overused, but good visual, of this). Try to go through your sentences and if any don’t add to the plot or character, take it out or change it.
- Grammar, tense changes, and run-ons galore. How to find and fix these: Try changing the font (color, size, type, etc) and print it out. Read it out loud. If you can break up a sentence, break it up.
- The dialogue or description is too on-the-nose. This goes back to trusting the reader. Rather than telling me that the person cried, tell me the pillow is wet and trust that I will make the jump to know what that means. In terms of dialogue, talk in literature isn’t a carbon copy of in-person speech. Take out introductions like “hi”. Don’t info-dump (don’t use the dialogue to have the characters talk about something they both would already know). Make sure we don’t lose the characters to “talking heads”– replace some dialogue tags to actions they do, letting us see their response, the room, and their emotions. Finally, stay in-scene. If you can show a conversation rather than recapping it, do that, keeping the reader in-the-scene and in-the-present.
- Your themes are Themes and treated as such. What I mean by that is the use of overused, cliche themes (dictators, end-of-the-world, the chosen one) without any nuance or originality. Give me the chosen one who doesn’t accept leadership. The dictator who isn’t just purely evil but actually well-intentioned, or doesn’t want to be in power anyway. Give me the end of someone’s world, not the entire world. Make the stakes big enough to add tension but not so big I lose interest.
For all writers, especially newer ones, you don’t have to write every day. You don’t have to write the same way as anyone else. Do what helps you write and keeps you excited and motivated. Seek out feedback however you can — critique groups online or in person, friends/family, offering to swap work with another author, etc. Invest time in learning about craft (grammar, creative writing techniques) in traditional school or online through videos, blogs, etc. Know that if you don’t prioritize writing, it won’t happen, but also that in some stages of life writing isn’t the priority.
In terms of social media, it can be great, but mostly as a way to connect with individuals (and this takes interaction!). When in doubt, do to others what you’d want them to do to you (comment, share, like, reach out, etc). Your target audience for your work is not other authors, but readers interested in your themes. Overall, while social media is a great tool, it won’t (and shouldn’t be) your main marketing tool.
Are you a writer?
If so, reach out to me. If you blog (or would like to), I’d love to post a piece of yours here. If you want feedback on a piece, I can take a look at a few pages. If you have an ARC or other book, let me know about it so I can read it and review it here.