We’ve put together this list of the top seven mistakes writers make because, well, if you can avoid these common mistakes, you’ll be a better writer.
We’re assembling the list for you Letterman-style, starting with seven and ending with the number one item on the list of mistakes writers make.
How many of these mistakes writers make do you recognize in your writing?
7. The fear of starting
You’ve probably experienced it yourself: you’re finding a million excuses not to start writing. It’s scary to lay out your thoughts for everyone to read. What if it isn’t any good?
Even some of the most famous authors—people like the great Doulas Adams of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame—have been through it. They get a brilliant idea, but simply can’t get the words out onto the screen (or maybe the paper).
So how do you get past that fear of starting? Keeping your “why”—the reason you want to write the book—front and centre in your mind will help motivate you.
Then, start. Somewhere. Anywhere. Copy some source material from the internet (but clearly mark it as copied so you don’t inadvertently later include plagiarized material, of course) and paste it onto a blank page. Make a list of ideas to cover or research to do. Anything that is not a blank page.
6. Copying and pasting without keeping track
Sixth on the list of the top mistakes writers make is copying and pasting without keeping track.
If you’re doing research for your book, you may find it easier to copy and paste bits and pieces from various websites into your document. This way, you don’t have to go back to each website every time: you have all the research you need right there and as you go along, you can just delete the paragraphs you don’t need anymore.
There’s nothing wrong with taking this approach—as long as you don’t plagiarize, of course. And this is where a potential problem arises: you may forget what you wrote yourself and what you copied from somewhere else. This can lead to inadvertent plagiarism.
A good way to avoid problems is to make sure the bits that you copy and paste look different: use another colour or a different font, for example.
Also keep track of your sources. When your book relies on research, you’ll need to add footnotes or endnotes and a bibliography referencing reputable sources. You also need to keep track of your sources for when you need to apply for copyright permissions.
5. Not valuing yourself
Who would have thought that low self-worth would make it onto our list of mistakes writers make? Oh ya, baby. It’s there.
It’s related to self-doubt: are my experiences relevant enough? Shouldn’t I have a PhD in this subject if I’m going to write about it? Who wants to hear my story, anyway?
Especially new writers think they don’t have the credibility to say what they want to say. So, they use quotes from other authors.
But would you like your readers to see you as an expert on the topic you’re writing about? Would you like them to take you seriously? They won’t if you keep using other people’s words instead of your own. You’ve already had the confidence to start writing a book: use that confidence to put your own words out there for other people to quote.
4. Sentence starters
Every author dreams of writing that unforgettable opening line: that “Call me Ishmael.” Crafting that sentence, however, is a different story. You may waste hours trying to get the first sentence just right and not writing the sentences that need to follow.
In reality, for most authors that perfect sentence appears later on in the work: sometimes as far as three quarters of the way through. So, instead of agonizing about how to start, type in “Insert amazing sentence here,” and carry on. Once you’ve written the rest, you can go through everything, see if you can spot that sentence that will make all the difference and move it to the top.
3. Superfluous words
Supercalifragilistic-superfluous words! (And seriously, this one is a contender for top spot on our list of mistakes writers make, but someone has to sit at number three.) Many writers use words that aren’t necessary. These come in three categories:
- Excessive: These are words that you use too often, like starting every second sentence with “therefore.”
- Redundant: These are words, usually adjectives and adverbs, that you don’t need because you’re already using another word that conveys the idea. Examples include “actual fact”, “added bonus”, “drop down”, “continue on”, “minute little”, “chai tea”, “completely destroyed”, “armed gunman” and “global pandemic”.
- Weak words: These are words that don’t add much to the idea you want to convey. Examples are “really”, “very”, “just” and “thing”.
Getting rid of superfluous words will make your writing more concise and easier to understand. So, for every word you use, ask yourself whether you need it. It’s useful to make a list of the ones you should avoid: this way, you can do a search and either delete or replace them.
There is one exception: in dialogue. We tend to use these words when we speak and if we don’t, we sound rigid. So, when you write dialogue, superfluous words will help make the dialogue sound authentic.
2. “But” versus “and”
Because we use theses two little words all the time, we don’t always pay attention to how we use them. The word “but” represents exclusion: it negates whatever has come before. The word “and” represents inclusion. Getting these wrong or mixing them up sit at number two of our list of mistakes writers make.
The way you use these words in your writing can convey hidden messages. For example, when you say, “Sarah went to lunch and Anna went for a walk,” the reader will understand that two women spent their time in different ways and there’s nothing strange about it. When you say, “Sarah went to lunch but Anna went for a walk,” the reader will think, “Wait a minute: something’s wrong here. Were they both supposed to go to lunch and then Anna changed her mind? Did they have a fight? Am I supposed to judge one of them for her choice?”
1. The fear of finishing
It’s hard enough to get started but once you get going, you may make what is the most common of all the mistakes writers make: you don’t know when to stop.
The reason may be that you want to satisfy your reader with a great ending. It can be that you don’t want to move from the emotional state you were in while writing, to a new emotional state. Most likely, it’s about being afraid to show the finished product to someone else.
As a writer, you need to be disciplined about letting go. Find an editor that you trust to take over. Once you’ve handed over the manuscript, it also helps to focus your attention on a different aspect of the publishing process, such as marketing. This way, you can keep the emotional connection without stalling the publication.
More on the mistakes writers make
If you want to absorb this information in a different way, listen to the Empowered Authors Podcast episode where we talk about these top seven mistakes writers make with writer and editor, Marie Beswick Arthur.