Common Mistakes Made by Writers
As a freelance book editor as well as a novelist, I’ve seen several beginning authors—and one or two published authors—make the same obvious mistakes. To many beginners, writing seems an easy accomplishment—hell, you got a passing grade in high school English class, right? I’ve made a living writing for most of my life, as a newspaper reporter, an investigative journalist, a freelance writer, and newspaper editor, and I can tell you writing still isn’t easy. I can’t teach people to be good writers; I don’t believe that is teachable. But as a book editor, I can provide advice on the most common mechanical mistakes I see writers make.
Standard Manuscript Format: Whether submitting a short story or a full-length manuscript, publishers expect you to submit your work in the standard manuscript format. The standard manuscript format is based on an 8.5x11-inch sheet of paper. Most manuscripts today are submitted electronically, but your electronic page should be set up as an 8.5x11-inch sheet of paper. Set your margins at 1, 1.25 or 1.5 inches, and your paragraph indentation at one half inch. Set your indentation in the paragraph format window of your word processor; never use tabs to indent your paragraphs.
Your type font should be 12- or 10-point Courier or New Times Romans (or similar serif font). Normally, the manuscript should be double spaced but with electronic submissions some publishers want single-spaced manuscripts, including the spacing between paragraphs. Use only one space between sentences.
The upper left portion of your first page should include your name, address, email, and phone number, and a word count. Your title and author name should be centered halfway down the first page. On succeeding pages, an abbreviated title, your last name, and page number should be in the upper righthand corner. (Place this in the header on an electronic manuscript.) For examples of the standard manuscript format see https://www.shunn.net/format/story/1/.
Punctuation: Too many beginning writers don’t understand the conventions of simple punctuation. They misuse and overuse punctuation marks like ellipses (…) and exclamation marks (!). Both should be used judiciously. They are like seasoning for dialogue. When cooking, a little seasoning adds flavor to the food; too much seasoning and the food becomes unpalatable. Too many exclamation marks or ellipses not only distracts the reader, they lose their impact as well. An exclamation mark indicates just that—an exclamation. The Merriam Webster Dictionary describes an exclamation as “a sharp or sudden utterance” and a “vehement expression of protest or complaint.” Listen to how people actually speak. They don’t shout, scream, yell, with every sentence. If they do, move slowly away from them.
According to the Chicago Manual of Style, ellipses indicate a pause in dialogue, or dialogue that drifts off to silence. Use an em dash (—) to show dialogue that has been interrupted somehow. An ellipsis used in the middle of a sentence to indicate a pause should have a space before and after it. Em dashes used mid-sentence to separate a clause have no spaces between words. For more information, see https://www.thepunctuationguide.com/exclamation-point.html and https://www.thepunctuationguide.com/exclamation-point.html.
Passive voice/verbs. Many beginning writers write in the passive voice. That means they use passive verbs in which the subject undergoes the action rather than doing it. With active verbs, the subject does the action. For instance, in this sentence the verb is inactive: “He had been planning to go to college but…” The active voice is: “He planned to go to college but…” Active voice brings immediacy to the writing. It also tightens the writing by reducing the number of words used. Though passive verbs can’t always be avoided, you should strive to reduce their numbers. You can learn more about passive/active voice at these two websites: https://www.lexico.com/grammar/active-and-passive-verbs and https://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/active-voice-versus-passive-voice.
Capitalization. Many writers have a habit of capitalizing improper, or common, nouns. Proper nouns—names of people or places (John F. Kennedy, Mt. McKinley)—are capitalized. All other nouns are lowercase. Titles and military ranks are also lowercase unless used with a proper noun such as a person’s name. (“General Patton gave an order…” vs “The general gave an order…”)
Excessive hyphenation. English is a living language and it changes all the time. Many words that once were hyphenated are no longer hyphenated. I suggest keeping the Merriam Webster Online Dictionary open on your computer when writing and use it to double check spellings and hyphenations. I do that with my own writing. In U.S. publishing, the first entry for a word in MW is the preferred spelling.
Overuse of “that”: In most sentences, the word “that” is superfluous. Removing unneeded words tightens writing.
Use adverbs (-ly) sparingly: Adverbs describe verbs (“She sang loudly…”) Like exclamation points, adverbs should be used sparingly. Like passive verbs, however, sometimes they can’t be avoided. Just be aware when you use them.
Avoid “empty” words: Beginning writers often use empty words like “very,” “some,” “really,” “many,” and “a lot.” Try using more descriptive words. (“A lot of soldiers came over the hill…” vs “A battalion of soldiers poured over the hill…”) You can find a chart showing ways to avoid using the word “very” here: https://writerofscreen.tumblr.com/image/155568015493.
This is by no means an all-inclusive list of common mistakes writers make, but if you can overcome these problems, you’ll be well on your way to becoming a professional writer.