Writers make hundreds of mistakes, but most writers end up making the same mistakes over and over again – often without even noticing. These repeated stumbles leave your writing dull and lifeless, and they eventually cause your readers to think your work always sounds the same.
So here are 6 ways you can avoid common writing mistakes – and what to do to really make your work shine:
What’s Your “Tell”?
Just as every poker player has a “tell,” writers have sets of words or phrases they tend to overuse, often without knowing it. These are the crutches we fall back on when inspiration or concentration levels are low, and they dull the shine of your writing.
Here are some suspects you can look for in your own work: smell/sound/taste, watch/notice/observe, very/nice/great… Those are just suggestions, and you probably have your own personal “tell” set of words, so try to figure out what they are.
Do a “find” search in your document for words you know you use frequently, and highlight these words as you uncover them in the text. How colourful did your page become? Can you make your sentences stronger by rewriting these words for new, more interesting ones?
Replace your “tell” with something new no one yet suspects, and you’ll soon move your writing up to the big money tables.
Cut the Boring Teacher Tone
You’ve probably had one of those clichéd high-school teachers who talked in a boring monotone. You may not remember that teacher, of course, because you were asleep through most of class.
Watch out – it’s easy to become the writing equivalent.
If you’ve ever looked at a piece of your writing and thought, “This is SO dull,” chances are that it’s because of a monotonous sentence structure. Sentences of a similar length may be subconsciously perceived by readers as a dull tone.
Try to vary sentence length through your piece. Make some short and sharp; others long and engaging.
Short sentences read quickly – they’re punchy. To the point. They move your story along.
Long sentences (by their very nature) tend to drag the story out. They can be the equivalent of pauses in a narrative, stopping the action to convey information that the reader might need to know at that moment.
Both structures have their uses, but always using one in particular can be boring to your readers.
A good trick is to plot your sentence lengths on a graph and identify sets of sentences with similar lengths. Determine which sentence structure works best in each situation and try to rework them for variance.
Your readers will thank you – and stay awake.
Rejoice in Your Verbs
Verbs drive our writing. They excite and engage the reader. And they should be strong and active.
But many writers end up accidentally hiding their verbs. It’s a process called nominalisation, and it turns verbs into nouns. That weakens words and takes away their impact. It also confuses meaning, in some cases.
For example, look at this sentence:
“I need a change.”
Change is actually a verb, but in this case, it’s been turned into a noun. It has become a “thing”. Consider how that sentence sounds when the noun “change” is turned back into a verb:
“I need to change.”
If you want to find hidden verbs in your writing, look for all the nouns you can find. Then ask yourself, “Can I pick this up and carry it? Can I touch it, feel it or see it? Can I buy it off the store shelf?”
If the answer is no, then you’ve found a nominalization.
You should be proud of your verbs – they’re your tools. And with the right tool for the task, your writing will improve.
Ditch the Clichés
Clichés are boring! They’ve been around the block and run their course (whoops!). They’re what you write when you don’t have the energy or inspiration to think of something original.
It’s all right to use clichés in your first draft, as thinking of a better metaphor may take time and interrupt your flow, but always try to cut clichés out when editing your work.
Your readers don’t want to see clichés. They want to see fresh, new metaphors that get them thinking in different and exciting ways.
So when you find a cliché in your writing, try to brainstorm. For example, if you’re trying to replace, “She was happy as a lark,” think of what else is happy, or think of situations in which you are happy and magnify them.
Maybe you have a penchant for chocolate, which might lead to a metaphor involving Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: “She was as happy as if she’d found Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket.”
One word of warning: Make sure that your metaphors are easily understandable by your audience. Using obscure references can alienate readers.
The Road to Hell is Paved with Adverbs
Adverbs are evil. Often, they’re redundant. (“Creeping stealthily,” or, “whispering quietly”, for example.) At other times, they just serve as a prop-up for weak verbs, like “go”, “have” or “to be”.
In his book ‘On Writing’, Stephen King wrote that adverbs are, “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.”
Instead of using an adverb, strengthen the verb itself. For example, instead of, “I really have to..” try, “I need to.”
A lot of adverbs end in –ly, so you can do a “find” search for “ly” with a space after it to spot adverbs in your text. Some are harder to spot, and you’ll need to work to unearth them.
Just like those dandelions.
Editing is as Important as Writing
All the issues above can be resolved in the editing phase. Editing is as important as writing, and perhaps even the most important part of writing of all.
It’s when mediocre writing turns into great writing.
Less experienced writers tend to neglect the editing process, and their writing suffers as a consequence. An experienced writer can spend as much time editing as he did writing – and sometimes longer.
Let your work settle overnight or even for a few days before you edit it. That way, you can come to the work with fresh eyes and a different mindset.
Then you can spruce it up nicely!
What mistakes do you find yourself making over and over and over again?