“Like everything else in life, we learn from the mistakes we make. And writing is no different.”
I remember the day I said, “I’m going to write a book”. I had just finished up a five-day virtual workshop with Burning Soul Press called From Blank Pages to a Writing Machine. I left the workshop energized, ready to start filling my blank pages with a story.
So, I busted out my laptop and opened a Word document – and gave it a go. And in a few hours’ time, I’d hammered out a prologue, setting the stage – setting the tone – telling the start of my story.
And I thought I’d done a killer job.
But now, looking back on those first few hours of work, I cringe – because with certainty, I committed every mistake characteristic of a novice, ignorant, first-time writer.
Now I don’t claim to be an expert, but after the last couple of years, I think I’ve learned a thing or two about what not to do – because speaking from experience, I’ve done them all. And based on those mistakes, I’m proud to say I’ve learned – and bettered my writing skillset.
On August 23, 2022 my debut romance novel, I Loved You Yesterday will launch with Inkspell Publishing. I Loved You Yesterday – now an award-winning novel – was a labor of love. And it’s truly where I made the majority of my mistakes, learning and growing from the process. On November 8, 2022, I Love You Today launches – and in April of 2023, I’ll Love You Tomorrow will meet the world as well.
Like I said, I’m not an expert, but I can take anyone interested through my journey with the hope that the early mistakes I made in my writing career help out a fellow author – and perhaps save some time in the editing room.
Without further ado, these are the top five writing mistakes I made as a new author:
Passive Voice. The word “was” is simply dismal – and it has absolutely no place in (good) storytelling. I teach coursework in journalism at Illinois State University and this piece of writing advice is one of the first things I say to every new student in my classroom. When you use the word “was”, you’re telling a reader what’s happening, not showing them (hang tight – more on this below!). Passive words take the reader out of the story. So, for example, if I wrote, “She was standing by the bed,” my advice would be to challenge the tense. Rewrite the sentence to read, “She stood by the bed.” It’s active – it’s less words – and it allows the reader to be in the moment instead of reliving it. Active writing is better writing.
Dialogue Tags. You do not need a dialogue tag every time you write a piece of dialogue. Generally, a reader can infer who is speaking based on the flow of conversation. Only include a dialogue tag if it’s unclear who the speaker is. Similarly, keep the creativity out of the tagging. Nine times out of ten, “she said”, is your best option. I cringe when I see authors try and vary their tags – oftentimes using tags that do not make sense. I read one last week similar to “XYZ,” she breathed. Breathing and speaking are not the same thing. Only use dialogue tags when they’re warranted – and cut the creativity.
Show, Don’t Tell. If you use the words “felt”, “realized”, or “was” in your manuscript – you’re telling the reader – not showing. Challenge your skillet to describe the feelings or emotions that come with these words. Instead of saying, “Michael felt scared”, describe what scared feels like. Describe the hairs on the back of his neck – or the chills that race up and down his spine. Don’t tell the reader – show them instead! Draw on your five senses to really dig deep. This comes with a tremendous amount of patience and practice, but you can’t give up. It’s the secret to good storytelling.
Limit Adverbs. As a general rule, I allow myself three adverbs per book. Each book that I’ve written in The Trading Heartbeats Trilogy is roughly 75,000 words. So, in 225,000 words, I used just nine adverbs. Adverbs weaken writing. Take it from Stephen King. In his memoir, On Writing, he dedicates a full chapter to this piece of advice, famously quoting, “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day… fifty the day after that… and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s – GASP!! – too late.” Limit your adverbs and you strengthen your writing.
Ditch the Play-by-Play. The first time an agent requested a full manuscript after a query, I received at least twenty pages of notes. This agent laid into me. But through the tears reading through her comments, I saw a really poignant piece of advice. Ditch the play-by-play. If a character is thirsty and needs a glass of water, just say it. The reader doesn’t need to know that he tiptoed across the creaky floor and gently grasped the handle of the refrigerator, pulling from the top shelf a cold bottle of water. Rather – describe what thirst feels like – the parched, scratchy throat, aching for a cold trickle of water to coat the tongue. Ditch the play-by-play and focus on feelings – and emotions. You’ll build stronger characters, relationships, and connections with your readers.
Like everything else in life, we learn from the mistakes we make. And writing is no different. Had I spent a little time researching, I’m certain I could have avoided at least some of these pitfalls. But in the end, my writing skillset – and my stories – are better for it.
Happy writing, friends! And good luck!