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Five Common Mistakes To Avoid In Creative Writing

Updated on February 1, 2014

"Dear Jane,

life at the bottom of the slush pile is hell. I'm cold. I'm hungry. It's dark. The dangling modifiers, adverbs, and misplaced commas have been taunting me without mercy. You said I was the best novel ever, but I know now that this isn't true. I'll never make it out of here. There are hundreds of unsolicited manuscripts ahead of me, and I just can't take it any more. So I'm ending it all. The matches and lighter fluid are next to me. Maybe your next novel will fare better, but it's all up to you...oh, if only you'd fixed my mistakes! Farewell, sweet, careless Jane. It was wonderful while it lasted.

Love,
Ash


Tragic, isn't it? Ash had so much potential. But don't despair - you can save your novel from a similar fate. Just use the simple guidelines in the article below to spot common writing mistakes, make the necessary corrections, and turn your story into a commercially viable masterpiece!


1. Info Dumps

An info dump is the dreadful, pace-killing, editor-infuriating part of a story where the action comes to a screeching halt so one of the main characters (or worse still, one of the secondary characters) can catch the reader up on something important that happened before the story ever began. At best, it looks lazy. At worst, it makes your characters sound like condescending androids.

Here's what an info dump looks like:

"Jeepers, Gerald, isn't that the artifact we excavated back in 1992 near the Great Pyramid? Remember, that's when the evil archaeologist with the distinct British accent tried to off us both because the Egyptian government didn't want us to tell the scientific community about our discovery that the Sphinx actually predates the pyramids by at least five thousand years?"

"You're right, Jefferson! That's the same guy who was supposed to make sure we never talked, but who wasn't successful because we hired a private plane and got the heck out of Dodge before he could catch us. I'm glad Jane from the Smithsonian Museum was there to warn us. Without her connections, we might not have been alive to retrieve the artifact for our client, Professor Daniel Jackson."

Heavens above! If your manuscript contains anything like this, print the page, take it outside, burn it, and bury the charred remains where no one will ever find them. I'm not kidding - info-dumping is that serious of an offense to literary agents and editors.

Why? Because it slows down the pace you worked so hard to establish, because it looks amateurish, and because no one in the world actually talks like that. Ever.

Resist the urge to fit your character's history onto one single page. Instead, feed your reader backstory in bits and pieces, preferably over the course of several chapters. It'll add an element of intrigue to your writing, and you'll get all the important facts across without creating an awkward, unnatural pause in the flow of your narrative.


2. Common"ly" Overused Adverbs

There are three kinds of adverbs - good ones that enhance your writing, silly ones that create redundancies, and downright terrible ones that destroy your story's pace and may even threaten your career as a writer.

Consider this awful paragraph:

Seacracker's mane fell flowingly over his meticulously groomed, sleekly muscled back. He looked over at me haltingly while I slowly walked to his side and carefully fed him a sweetly flavored apple. Poor Seacracker, I thought. I would surely be a much better horse owner if the bank hadn't so greedily taken away the ranch. Then again, I suppose I could easily afford another ranch if I just wrote one of those nice, timelessly popular horse novels.

While this is a deliberate mess, it gives you an idea of what happens when you horse-beat your prose with a multitude of adverbs (pun intended). The good news is, you don't need adverbs to write more vivid descriptions, and you can kill 90% of them with just a bit of creative thinking. Let's rewrite the first two lines of the story:

Bad: Seacracker's mane fell flowingly over his meticulously groomed, sleekly muscled back.

Better: Seacracker's mane draped over his groomed, sleekly muscled back.

I removed "flowingly" because it's redundant. Manes flow by nature, unless we're talking about a sick horse, a dead horse, or a punk horse who decided to rock a mohawk. I removed "meticulously" because "groomed" is enough to show that someone went to great lengths to make Seacracker look beautiful. I left "sleekly" because it modifies the adjective "muscled". There's a difference between sleek muscles, bulging muscles, small muscles, large muscles, and rippling muscles, so this modifier is all right (if not 100% necessary.)

Bad: He looked over at me haltingly while I slowly walked to his side and carefully fed him a sweetly flavored apple.

Better: His shy gaze met mine as I inched to his side and carefully fed him an apple.

I removed "haltingly" because "shy gaze" sidesteps the unwanted adverb with ease. I removed "slowly" for the same reason - "inched" suggests that the narrator moved in slow motion without the need for an adverb. I killed "sweetly flavored" because apples are sweet even when they're sort of sour. I left "carefully" alone, since it modifies (and clarifies) the way in which the narrator fed the horse an apple. He could have done it carelessly and lost an arm, after all.

Whenever possible, try to rewrite your sentences to include fewer adverbs. The result will be leaner writing, more powerful prose, and far fewer rejection slips.


3. Telling - Or Show vs. Tell

Every editor from here to Baghdad will tell you that "telling" instead of "showing" is the literary kiss of death - and a surefire way to bore your readers into a coma. But what exactly does "show versus tell" mean? How do you show something when all you have at your disposal are words? Easy! You just use your words as a paintbrush.

Telling:

John hated Mrs. Garret's dog. It tore up everyone's garden. Maybe if he planted something different, it would leave his flowers alone.

Here, we're "telling" the reader that John hates dogs, that there's a plant-eating mutt in the neighborhood, and that John may or may not plant something different to keep the dog away. Where's the excitement? There isn't any. Without action, details, and a show of character from John, the story loses all forward momentum, and the reader loses all interest in what happens next.

Showing:

John glared at Mrs. Garret's chihuahua. No doubt the stupid, slobbering beast would tear up his entire garden before summer was out. Again. Unless...John smiled. Unless, of course, he decided to plant jalapenos this year.

Much better. In just fourteen extra words, we found out what kind of dog John is dealing with, how John feels about the dog, that the chihuahua has torn up John's garden before, and that John is going to get his revenge by planting jalapenos. We can also imagine the dog's surprise when its favorite snack turns out to have a bite of its own, and John's complete delight as Fluffy darts down the street howling in outrage.

Infuse your writing with details and character. Involve the five senses - even a sixth one if you want! And above all, remember that most literary agents and editors read literally hundreds of first chapters a month. If you want yours to stick out, you must make the move from story-teller to story-shower.


4. Frankensentences

Frankensentences exist in countless strange, puzzling, and even downright hilarious varieties. Check out the most common offenders below - and then do your best to avoid them in your own writing.


  • The Embarrassing Modifier:

"Bob picked the smallest kitten, which looked like it was wearing his special collar."

Oh, my. Bob wears a collar? And the cat stole it? Is Bob a pencil-necked alien, or is the kitten struggling with weight issues? It doesn't matter. Let's transform their lives:

"Bob picked the smallest kitten, which wore a special collar."


  • The Comma-Less Wonder:

"Let's paint dad. Life is always more beautiful with some color in it!"

Mercy! I hope dad doesn't mind wearing a bit more color than he's used to. Shall we use a comma to save the kids from getting grounded for life? Oh, all right:

"Let's paint, dad. Life is always more beautiful with some color in it!"


  • The Lambchop Song Sentence:

"This is the sentence that doesn't end because it's just like the song from that show Lambchop that was on TV until the host passed away and children had to make do with that purple dinosaur whose songs weren't nearly as good because he wasn't cute like that little sheep with the squinty eyes that used to sing the song."

I don't think I need to point out what's wrong with that one - but I will anyway. It's a mile long. It's clumsy. It's hard to follow. It's the start of a migraine and the end of an editor's patience. Divide and conquer!

"This is the sentence that does end. It's not like the song from Lambchop because it doesn't go on forever." Et cetera.


  • The Run-On Sentence:

"Several people saw the cheetah chew through the harness no one ran away."

Give me a coordinating conjunction or give me death! Okay, maybe I'm not that desperate for clarity, but you should separate independent clauses so you don't confuse your reader:

"Several people saw the cheetah chew through the harness, yet no one ran away."


  • The Sentence Fragment:

"Darth Vader tried to save Luke's life by challenging Emperor Palpatine. Even though he was the most terrible Sith Lord around."

Inserting a comma wouldn't fix this sentence because we'd still have a dangling modifier. What should we do instead? Rewrite that puppy until it makes sense:

"Darth Vader tried to save Luke's life by challenging the most terrible Sith Lord of all, Emperor Palpatine."


  • Subject-Verb Disagreement:

"The sharks is biting. A chicken are crossing the road. The fries be frying. The pigeons was shot."

Noooooooo! A singular subject requires a singular verb. A plural subject requires a plural verb. Every. Single. Time. Make sure you always pair them correctly:

"The sharks are biting. A chicken is crossing the road. The fries are frying. The pigeons were shot."


  • Artificially Inflating The Word Count:

"Where did the zombie go to? Did he crawl out of the window?"

Don't use extra words when the meaning of a sentence is just as clear without them. This could save you thousands of words over the course of an entire manuscript:

"Where did the zombie go? Did he crawl out the door?"


5. Excessive Literary Devices

Mom was right - there's doing it, and then there's overdoing it. This is true in life, and it's especially true in fiction. Here are some of the things you should look out for:


  • Excessive Punctuation

About a month ago, I finished reading a romance novel in which the heroine talked like this:

"I...am not sure."

"You...are Lord of your keep."

"We...should not go...I am frightened by those wolves."

"No, Reginald! Not in front of the servants. They...might talk."

By the thirty-fifth time ellipses appeared in the heroine's speech, I wasn't sure whether I wanted to hang myself, hang the heroine, or hang the author for wasting more than her fair share of punctuation marks on her main character's Richard Nixon impression.

Ellipses, exclamation marks, and all other forms of punctuation meant to add emphasis to dialogue should be used in moderation. Overdo it, and you end up with the same types of characters you avoid in real life:

Shouters - "Oh my God! I can't believe it! A new pair of slippers! Goodie! Now I can walk into the kitchen at night and not even freeze! Thanks, Aunt Lola!"

Verbers - "I speed-boated across to Tuscany and vine-yarded through the countryside. Then some villager slashed my tires because he said I verbed everything. The outrage!"

Invertebrates - "I dunno...maybe...maybe not...maybe...I'm not sure...let me think. Maybe...Dad....could I borrow some money for a new spine? This one's all wobbly."


  • Excessive Accents

"Well, paint me red an' slap me silly, Govna!" the man said. "I didn't know ye were so keen on courtin' me sister! If'n ye want, I can get this 'ere callin' card to 'er this very evenin'!"

Don't feel bad if it took you several tries to read through that entire mess - it took me several tries to write, and I had a road map. That's bad. And that's why accents are usually better mentioned than abused:

"Well, paint me red and slap me silly, Govna," he said with the thick accent of a man born well outside polite society. "I didn't know ye were so keen on courting my sister. If ye want, I can get this here calling card to her this very evening."


  • Excessive Stuttering

"T-t-t-t-that's not f-f-fair," Devon said. "M-m-m-m-mother said to s-s-split the pie."

Stuttering has its place in fiction, but not on every page. Make your character stutter once or twice to highlight the speech impediment, then use descriptions for the rest:

"T-t-that's not fair," Devon said, struggling to work the words past his lips. "Mother said to split the pie."


  • Excessive Dialogue Tags

"I'm not eating this," Ruth said.

"Why not?" Hank asked.

"Because I hate Brussels Sprouts," Ruth said.

"You just don't like them because I like them," Hank said.

"That's not true," Ruth said.

"Is so," Hank said.

"Is not," Ruth said.

"Whatever," Hank said. "You contrary hag."

Excessive dialogue tags get very annoying, very fast. In the conversation above, there are only two speakers, so we don't need all that extra attribution. Let's edit:

"I'm not eating this," Ruth said.

Hank sighed. "Why not?"

"Because I hate Brussels Sprouts."

"You just don't like them because I like them."

"That's not true."

"Is so."

"Is not."

"Whatever." Hank threw down his newspaper. "Contrary hag."

Just as bad as excessive dialogue tags are dialogue tags with too many fancy synonyms and adverbs meant to modify speech. I see these all the time in genre fiction, and it drives me up the wall:

"Wait," Kate inquired hesitantly. "If my star map isn't accurate, won't our space ship slam into a star long before it reaches the Andromeda galaxy?"

"No," Lachlan declared authoritatively. "The Interstellar Medium is far too vast for that. Besides, moving at light speed enables Hubert 9 to travel in hyperspace, outside the observable universe where obstructions might occur."

Using adverbs and synonyms to dress up the word "said" is a bad idea. You can do it once in a while, but always keep in mind that such excess weakens your writing and may cause a picky editor to reject your manuscript outright. Once again, let's edit, this time for style:

"Wait," Kate said, gathering the courage to voice her deepest fear. "If my star map isn't accurate, won't our space ship slam into a star long before it reaches the Andromeda galaxy?"

Lachlan shook his head. "Not a chance. The Interstellar Medium is far too vast for that. Besides, moving at light speed enables Hubert 9 to travel in hyperspace, outside the observable universe where obstructions might occur."


Happy Writing!

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