At Penguin Random House The Writers’ Academy, we excel at helping aspiring writers to hone their craft and sharpen up their writing technique. Whether you've been writing fiction for a long time or are completely new to the process, there are a number of common writing mistakes that all authors should be wary of.
So if you're struggling from a case of writer's block, or wondering what's blocking you on the path to publication, read on to ensure that you're not making any of these fatal writing errors...
1. Poor handling of dialogue
There's a variety of very common mistakes that authors can make when writing dialogue. It's essential for your dialogue to sound realistic and not overtly literary. Avoid overly long conversations that break up the action without contributing anything of value.
Above all else, dialogue should convey crucial plot information and develop your characters' personalities.
2. Unrealistic characters
At The Writers' Academy, we know that the most impactful novels will bring a reader to tears or make them laugh out loud by conjuring an emotional bond between the reader and its characters.
It is vital that readers can understand the actions of your characters if you want them to believe in them and care about what happens to them. Be sure to create credible motives and backstories for your main players.
3. Unlikable Characters
Expanding on this, there's no use in your protagonist being perfectly realistic if your reader finds them so repellent as to not care about their fate. Your leads must be, if not totally likable, then at least relatable.
If you can evoke a feeling of common humanity or empathy, then your readers are sure to be emotionally invested in your character's arc, whether hero or villain.
Whatever genre you're writing in, be aware of the most common tropes and current trends of that type of fiction. It can be tempting to fall back on what is common or currently popular, but by doing so you risk making your novel completely predictable.
Subvert your reader's expectations. If you're familiar with genre tropes, you can use this to your advantage and manipulate your readers. They know the genre inside out, so it's important to surprise them.
5. Use of Clichés
Similarly, relying on the same old stale clichés and overused phrases as a million other novels can lead to your writing feeling overly familiar. Use fresh and original styles of wording and phrasing.
When a reader is making their way through your latest novel, you want that experience to feel new to them.
6. Lack of pacing
Over the course of an entire novel, variety of pacing is absolutely key. There should be peaks and troughs, periods of high intensity/action punctuated by lulls in which the reader can absorb and digest them.
Most importantly of all, there should be a continual escalation towards the climax of your novel - failing to do so will leave your novel feeling flat and numb the impact of your story's payoff.
Why Are These Mistakes So Bad?
We're just over halfway through our list of writing mistakes to avoid – but why should you be avoiding them at all costs?
When writing a novel, you want to get the big ideas you can see in your head onto the page and into the heads of your readers.
Anything that distracts a reader - whether that's an unlikable character or a corny cliché - could stop them from being immersed in your story.
A lot of thought goes into producing writing that works. You want your passion for your story to shine through, not to be dulled by clunky prose.
Once you've avoided the pitfalls on this list during your writing process, using an editing tool like ProWritingAid will help you to refine your writing, giving you feedback at sentence level as well as an overview of your work as a whole.
You might have a character's whole backstory planned out - right down to that splinter they got in their finger when they were three. But do you need to include every detail in your finished novel? ProWritingAid's pacing report will help you keep people interested and invested.
The report will highlight areas of your manuscript that are introspective or action light. A book that is entirely made up of fight scenes without taking the time to make you care about the characters who are fighting just won’t be effective at bringing readers into the story.
Checking your pacing helps you to create differently paced sections that complement each other, allowing the reader to move with you through the narrative.
Now, back to the list!
7. No Sense of Setting
With all the attention you're paying to moving your plot forward and getting to your story's next big set-piece, it's often easy to overlook the task of establishing setting.
A strong sense of place is essential for grounding your story and characters in the real world.
Give your readers a sense of life and activity going on in the world around your main characters. Show them the locales in which the action is taking place.
8. Lack of conflict
At the center of every story is conflict - some kind of disruption to your characters' status quo, an incident that needs reaction or resolution. Without this, your novel will likely lack a sense of purpose and drive, and quite quickly become boring.
What is the reason for your story's existence? What are you building the plot towards, and how are you going to do so? Conflict between characters is an author's main means of advancing a plot. No matter what you do, keep conflict at the heart of your writing.
9. Editing As You Go
When creating a first draft, nothing is more important than simply getting words on the page. If you're constantly self-editing and second-guessing every element of your writing as you go, you'll inevitably grind to a creative halt.
Separate the writing and editing into two distinct processes. Doing so will allow you to write more freely, and help to overcome any instances of self-doubt that might otherwise occur.
10. Jumping on the genre bandwagon
A very easy trap to fall into as a debut writer is to try and cash in on whatever genre might currently be the hottest thing in bookstores.
Don't be tempted - if you don't read crime, or horror, or paranormal fiction, this will undoubtedly show if you attempt to write in those genres.
As a general rule, stick to a type of fiction in which you feel comfortable, or at least one that you enjoy reading yourself.
It's important to remember that, as with any rule, there will be exceptions to each of the writing mistakes listed here. There will be times when you employ these otherwise inadvisable tactics on purpose, to achieve a specific desired effect.
Generally speaking though, you should use this list as a guide to avoiding the common errors that can hamper your writing. So be diligent, take the time to properly edit and proofread your work and as always, happy writing!