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Common mistakes first time writers make; my top 3

red penAs a book coach, author and glorified editor (mostly proof reading) I often see mistakes which are common with first time authors. I also enjoy reading fiction, and have been trying out new authors (including debut novels) and interestingly I’m seeing the same errors appear in those, so I thought I would share these with you and offer alternative solutions to seemingly common problems.

Now I’m not suggesting my writing is superior to any aspiring author. I enjoy the art, and relish the challenge of helping people with their books. This does not make me an expert ‘author’—but like a food critic who is probably not a highly skilled chef—I can spot good and bad writing, and as someone who looks at the result from an ‘unemotional’ point of view, I am never shy of the red pen treatment, deleting words, sentences or suggesting a re-write in certain places. So let’s look at the most common mistakes I see…

Here are my top 3;

  1. The use of too many adjectives
  2. Repeating the same word, too many times in a section
  3. Over-using phrases and metaphors

1. Too many adjectives

Adjectives, as we know, are words that add an extra dimension to nouns. Some examples include; a withered hand, a shabby coat or a plastic spoon. But sometimes, first time authors feel that all nouns need an adjective in front of it and instead of adding to the writing, it does the reverse. Let me show you what I mean;

A gust of warm wind blew a few scraps of waste paper along the gleaming tracks. She gazed back along the long passage way, seeing nothing but darkness. She shivered involuntary, pulling her woolen coat over her shoulders.

Compared to…

A gust of wind blew scraps of paper along the tracks. She glanced back along the passage way, seeing nothing but darkness. She shivered involuntary, pulling her coat over her shoulders.

Now the first example reads much more descriptively, but when every sentence in an entire novel is adorned with adjectives, it makes the writing feel clunky and amateurish. In this context, we don’t need to know that the wind was warm (in fact, it contradicts the last action of the character) and knowing her coat is woolen doesn’t—in my opinion—add to the suspense. In fact if anything, it takes away from the starkness of her predicament. So take a look at your writing, is every noun preceded with an adjective? Is it really needed? Take a step back; it’s a clever author who can build atmosphere without using unnecessary adjectives.

2. Repeating the same word

This is the most common error I see with my clients, but after proof reading, the majority of them are extinguished. However I’ve read a book recently (mentioned at the beginning of this post) which suffered badly from this affliction (it’s in the bestseller list on Amazon!) and it’s simply irritating. Not to mention lazy editing. In fact on one page, I spotted ten uses of the word ‘door’. Why the proof reader didn’t pick up on these, I have no idea. In fact it seems a common thread running through the whole book. The author somehow finds a word and then uses it over and over again. Let me give you an example;

*He looked at Sophie. ‘We think Charlotte took Sarah into the woodland and locked her in the shed to keep her safe. She must have been in the shed for some time for we found empty bottles with her prints on them. She attempted to cut her way out of the shed, as we know, from a knife we found, as well as a hole cut in the metal wall of the shed. The shed itself….

As you can see, the word ‘shed’ repeats itself far too many times. Instead, it could have been written;

*He looked at Sophie. ‘We think Charlotte took Sarah into the woodland and locked her in the shed to keep her safe. She must have been in there for some time, for we found empty bottles with her prints on them. She attempted to cut her way out, as we know, from a knife we found, as well as a hole cut in the metal wall at the back. The shed itself….

I didn’t replace the offending word, with ‘wooden structure’ or some other synonym, I just got rid of it altogether. Sometimes you need to trust the reader and be aware. Look for repeating words, but be careful when using substitutions, usually they’re not needed at all, so just omit them altogether.

3. Overused phrases, metaphors and clichés etc.

The most offending overused phrase, or rather, the one that irritates me more than any other is ‘deafening silence’. Does any book need that tired description? The worst is when someone tries to re-write it. For example ‘The silence that followed was ear-pummelling’! You may have your own opinions on that particular description, but to me it’s just cringeworthy. It’s like the writer has used the computer’s thesaurus, and put ‘ear pummeling’ it at the end of the sentence, rather than before, to change things up a bit. Urghh…don’t do it! Try and be original, and think of something different.

The same goes for the cliché. We all use them, I do in my blog (without even realising it) and I’m sure everyone have favourites, but good, fresh, distinctive writing is free of them.

Conclusion

Writing is most definitely a life skill, (I was going to add, and it takes a lifetime to master, but I realised I had fallen into the cliché trap) and it takes years to hone and some find it easier than others. But if you’re writing to make money, then it’s important to get the basics right. There are lots of writing resources available on the internet, and it certainly pays to get a good editor or proof reader involved in your project. Don’t get sentimental about your writing. The most successful listen to their critics and take an emotional step back from their work. Use your intuition but don’t edit yourself on your first draft. Getting it fine tuned comes later, just be open to alternatives and keep going. Being on the bestseller list is of course an accolade to reach for, but you don’t want your work to be known for its bad writing either!

 

 

  • Neil Womersley

    Pity about the word ‘involuntary’ !!!!

  • Alexa_Whitten

    Hi Neil, thanks for your comment, although I didn’t mention anything about getting rid of adjectives altogether 😉

  • Alexa_Whitten

    Simon, thank you for your comments. I appreciate all feedback and you’re absolutely right!