The most common writing mistakes are often the easiest to overlook.
If you’ve never formally studied English composition or literature, or if it flew over your head (as much of it did for me), you could be unaware of many writing rules and conventions.
The occasional typo can be easily fixed by your editor or even caught by the fresh pair of eyes of a friend.
But there’s a difference between minor errors that slip through the cracks and a misunderstanding of fundamentals.
A strong grasp of the language you’re writing in is necessary to properly and effectively convey your message.
Otherwise, your book can become a frustrating, unreadable mess for anyone you’ve asked to read through it.
Beyond that, larger mistakes, such as an unorganized fiction plot or a nonfiction book filled with cliches can thwart your chances of getting published.
Trust me, agents and editors will stop reading if they notice these within your first few pages.
If you happen to be one for whom English is a second language, this can pose a particularly difficult challenge.
While every confusing nuance of the English language would fill several textbooks, here’s some advice for you, whether you’re a new or seasoned writer who needs help avoiding common mistakes.
Mistake 1: Spelling, punctuation, and grammar
If you misspell words, write run-on sentences, over- or under-use commas, and don’t understand proper punctuation, potential agents and publishers’ acquisitions editors immediately notice.
Editors will hone in on that quickly.
Thankfully, resources out there abound that can help.
For punctuation and grammar: GrammarBook.com.
For spelling: Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary.
You may be more comfortable using a physical copy, but either can help you steer clear of misspellings or even misuse of words.
Words like “accept” and “except”, “affect” and “effect”, and “their” and “there” sound the same and may be spelled correctly, while they have different meanings.
If you are new to writing, speak English as a second language, or struggle with visual impairment or dyslexia, such homophones can be especially challenging.
Running your work by an editor or a friend with a good grasp on grammatical conventions, or using an app such as Grammarly can also help identify misused words.
Always double check advice you get from Grammarly or similar AI apps, as they too make mistakes.
This problem occurs when a a comma separates two independent clauses that should be separated by a period, a colon, semicolon, or a conjunction.
John runs to the store, he buys a can of soda.
That should be rendered in one of the following ways”
John runs to the store and buys a can of soda.
John runs to the store. He buys a can of soda.
John runs to the store; he buys a can of soda.
Such sentences string together two or more independent clauses without needed punctuation.
- The moon hung low in the sky it cast a silvery glow on the water.
Rather, render it this way: The moon hung low in the sky. It cast a silvery glow on the water.
Incorrect Verb Usage
If you’re not a native English speaker, this can be challenging.
But verb tense and subject-verb agreement are often misused even by native English speakers.
Learning to use verbs correctly can be difficult because the rules often seem inconsistent.
Though there are some standard patterns, irregular verbs don’t follow them.
No wonder non-native English-speaking authors often engage professional translators.
Of course, that isn’t affordable for everyone, so if you fall into that category, you’ll want to read in English as much as possible. You’ll eventually become familiar with the rules until they hopefully become second nature to you.
The more you read, the better you’ll write. I’ve taught many students who become very proficient writing in English, despite that it’s not their native language.
One key to identifying mistakes is learning to become an aggressive self-editor. Check out my post on self-editing.
Mistake 2: Lack of clarity and conciseness
This is a literary term for a chapter that finally really begins after a page or two of scene setting in a novel or too much set up and background in a nonfiction book.
Get on with the story or your message. In a novel, get your main character introduced, establish and then upset their status quo, plunge him into terrible trouble, and get rolling. In nonfiction, establish your reader’s felt need and then start delivering the solutions.
Intersperse important details throughout your book rather than dumping all the info at the beginning.
Too many characters introduced too quickly
In a novel, resist the urge to introduce everyone at the beginning, because your reader will feel the need to have a program to tell them all apart.
Give readers the space and time to meet each one.
Keep things simple as the story takes shape.
Point of View violations
Maintain a single Point of View (POV) for every scene in fiction, preferably for every chapter, and ideally for every book.
Choose a perspective character who becomes your camera and recorder, and avoid head-hopping—jumping from one character’s mind to another’s.
Passive construction makes your writing—in both fiction and nonfiction—wordy and uncompelling.
The easiest way to spot passive voice is to look for and eliminate as many state-of-being verbs as possible.
Passive: The ball was caught by Gary.
Active: Gary caught the ball.
The hallmark rule in the American English writing guide, The Elements of Style, is “Omit Needless Words,” which follows its own advice. This rule applies to all writing, regardless of genre.
- “The administrative assistant ushered me through the open door into the CEO’s office, and I sat down in a chair across from thebig, wood desk.”
Obviously, there would be a door. And even more obviously, it would be open. If I sat, I would sit “down,” and naturally it would be in a chair. Because I’m seeing the CEO, a description of his desk would be notable only if it weren’t big or wood.
- “The administrative assistant ushered me into the CEO’s office, and I sat across from his desk.”
Mistake 3: Inconsistent Tone and Voice
Whether you’re writing a novel, a blog post, an article, or even a poem, it’s important to know the difference between tone and voice.
Your writing voice reflects you and your unique personality, which should flavor everything you write.
Tone is the attitude with which you write it.
So, voice is what you say, and tone is how you say it.
These two devices establish a consistent identity for you as you write your book.
Mistake 4: Disorganization and poor structure
For your book to succeed, it needs to flow.
Without a basic sense of structure, your work will crumble before you’ve even begun to build toward anything meaningful.
A novel needs:
- A strong opener
- An inciting incident that changes everything
- A series of crises that build tension
- A climax
- An ending
This simple structure contributes to a cohesive plot.
A nonfiction book needs:
- An Introduction
- A Table of Contents
- Graphics or Illustrations (if applicable)
- A Conclusion
- Appendices or Additional Resources (optional)
- An Index (optional)
- Acknowledgments and Author’s Note (optional)
Mistake 5: Clichés, tropes, and overdone plots.
The tricky thing about these kinds of mistakes? We may not even realize we’re using them.
Overused phrases and idioms may be commonplace in speech, but they leave readers rolling their eyes.
Unlike clichés, tropes are conventions writers use to convey certain ideas.
Think of the classic “knight in shining armor” or “damsel in distress.”
While these are not inherently bad, overuse can make them boring.
Experiment with tropes to turn an assumed convention on its head.
In fiction, most plots fall within a few categories.
However, if your writing has exciting, intriguing characters and original, complex crises, even the most fundamental plots can come alive.
For nonfiction, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Just make your point and share your message from your own, personal perspective.
Strengthen Your Writing by Avoiding Common Writing Mistakes
If you’re beginning your writing education or translating your skills into English for the first time, you may be daunted by all you have to learn.
However, the common mistakes are usually easy to remedy.
Cultivating a fundamental understanding of these rules and standards can save you time.
Read as much as you can to help fuel your creative engine and strengthen your writing skills.
For more on perfecting your writing and self-editing, check out my Self-Editing Checklist.