Have you ever bought a New York Times bestseller and found a typo or a glaring error? It’s happened to most of us. Errors can detract from the overall impression of quality readers expect of a published book. This can lead to negative reviews and low ratings, which can have an undesirable impact on sales.
The occasional error is practically inevitable in a finished manuscript, but striving for perfection is still a worthy aim. Understanding the most common mistakes can help authors approach their work and editing process with more clarity — and keep them from stumbling on common pitfalls.
At Reedsy, we work with experienced developmental editors, copy editors, and proofreaders. I asked them a simple question: “What’s the most common writing mistake you see even bestselling authors making?” You’ll find their answers below, from big-picture mistakes down to the nitty-gritty of grammar and punctuation.
1. Show, don’t tell
This might be the most commonly cited mistake among editors. Authors are naturally prone to telling rather than showing. This means that rather than letting the reader experience a story through action, dialogue, thoughts, and senses, the author summarizes or describes what has happened. They often do this by info-dumping prose or by stating a character’s emotions rather than showing how those emotions are conveyed.
Though this admonition may seem like Writing 101, I still find myself scribbling in the margins of even professional authors’ manuscripts, “Show, don’t tell!” It’s amazing how easy it is for authors to fall into the trap of intruding on the story through narrative, instead of letting the characters demonstrate by their own words and actions the point they’re trying to get across. Let the characters tell the story, and don’t underestimate the reader’s ability to draw what they need from compelling dialogue. – Marsha Zinberg
2. Weak opening narrative
Ever dropped a book after reading the first few pages? That’s usually what happens when the author starts the story in the wrong place. It’s an easy mistake to make. While the author knows something exciting will happen soon enough, it’s not obvious to the reader. If they’re not immediately hooked, chances are they won’t stick around long enough to find out what “something exciting” is.
A significant issue I see with many authors is inserting too much backstory [at the beginning]. A reader’s interest has to be developed from the start, which suggests having vivid characterization and action (not meaning explosions, but tension, movement, ideas in opposition) from the get-go. Long, explanatory passages, even if beautifully written, can stop a narrative before it even begins to stretch its legs. – Tom Bentley
3. Over-describing the action
Over-describing is when the author provides unneeded details about the characters’ actions. This slows the pace, lessens tension, and interrupts the flow of the scene.
I find that many writers have a hard time letting readers intuit action — especially physical action — in a scene. It’s very common to find characters who, for instance, “walk across a room, open a door, walk through the door, and then close the door.” Such detail can become laborious for readers and slow down pacing. All that’s really needed is for the character to “walk through the door.” Readers will naturally intuit the rest. – Laura Chasen
4. Unbelievable conflicts
In many fiction genres, conflicts shape the story. Whether they’re external or internal conflicts, it’s important to give those conflicts substance and believability.
Basing conflicts on a misunderstanding, something that could be solved if only the characters were to have a simple conversation, is unsatisfying for the reader and something we see time and again from newer authors.
All stories will have conflicts set out by the plot for the characters to overcome, the peaks and troughs of the journey the characters go on. These external conflicts may be necessary to move a story along, but it’s not what keeps a reader itching to turn the pages. The most satisfying stories also have the main characters dealing with their own internal emotional conflicts — something that is specific to them, that keeps them from the love interest, that makes the case they’re working on personal, that stops the quest they’re on from being easy. This internal conflict is what emotionally involves the reader in the story, in rooting for the character, and seeing the character conquer this in the end is what makes for the most exciting and enticing stories.
The best way to create internal conflict is to really dig deep into the character. Think about what’s driving them, what their motivations are, what their background is, what has happened in the past to make them who they are. From this, think about the emotions they would experience when placed in situations that tap into their conflict and bring these out on the page. – Laurie Johnson
Determining the correct point of view for the narrative is a huge part of a story’s success. We know, for example, that most YA is written in the first-person point of view because younger readers identify with the immediacy of the first-person emotional experience. Romance is usually told through deep third-person omniscient, since an author needs the ability to move seamlessly from the hero to heroine’s perspective. POV determines who tells a story and how — which is why getting it right is critical to a book’s success. For more in-depth information, here is an excellent post on how to choose the right narrative viewpoint and narrator.
Because both omniscient viewpoint and deep character viewpoint can both be written in the third person, inexperienced writers frequently confuse them and allow artifacts of omniscient viewpoint to clutter stories that are otherwise written in deep point of view. Such errors could include describing a ship at sea and then noting that “the captain had no way of knowing a storm was forming over the horizon.” If the captain is the viewpoint character, then the author cannot reveal what the captain does not know. Revealing multiple characters’ thoughts in a single scene is a feature in omniscient viewpoint, but in deep POV, it’s an error. Even the tag “she thought” following a line of internal monologue is out of place in a deep POV story, since if we are in the character’s viewpoint we can’t possibly be reading anyone’s thoughts but hers. – Kristen Stieffel
6. Assumption of knowledge
Authors often write many drafts of their novels. After several revisions, it can be easy to forget that the readers only know what information they’re provided on the page.
This is, to me, the greatest pitfall in authoring any novel. We have a wealth of knowledge about our book, from personal experience and observations to careful research. We have saturated our minds with endless details, as well as visions of our story, characters, and environments. We then write from that empowered position; often, assumption of knowledge skewers our story.
If you wish to expose the spots in your story where you have galloped past pertinent info, do a “character report.” Follow each character in the book and jot down the information you gather from that character — not what you already know, but what you’ve “given” to the reader. Do the same with any world, language, etc. The holes created by assumed knowledge will be laid bare, and you can cleverly fill them up! – Maria D’Marco
7. Misuse of punctuation
How to make a correct use of punctuation could certainly be the subject of a whole other blog post, so here we’ll just focus on the three punctuation misuses our editors note most often.
Using a comma to set off a dependent clause
Authors often place commas where they don’t belong, including before a dependent clause.
By far, the most common writing mistake I’ve encountered when editing books by professional authors is the use of a comma to set off a dependent clause in the middle of a sentence. For example: “He stepped through the doorway, and took her in his arms.” In this case “and took her in his arms” is not an independent clause. It depends on the first half of the sentence in order to make sense. Therefore, a comma should not set it off. – Nikki Busch
Using the semicolon as a comma — and vice versa
Authors tend to fall into one of two categories: Those who overuse the semicolon, and those who eschew it entirely.
Semicolons are a powerful mark of punctuation; they denote the continuation of a thought from one sentence to the next and suggest the clauses are so interconnected that the second can’t be understood outside the context of the first. (See what I did there? If you hadn’t read the first sentence in this paragraph, the second sentence — after the semicolon — would lack context.) Semicolons are also used to separate complex items in series, meaning a list of items that itself contains commas. The example I give most often involves the sandwich types you might bring on a picnic: Peanut butter, honey, and banana; turkey, brie, and red pepper jelly; and tuna salad. The three sandwich types are “complex items” because each contains commas. If we don’t use semicolons, we risk confusion — and a very disgusting lunch. – Rebecca Heyman
Confusing hyphens and en-dashes
Hyphens (-), en dashes (–), and em dashes (—) technically only differ by the length of the dash. In a sentence, however, they couldn’t be more different.
Authors often tend to confuse en dashes and em dashes with hyphens. To understand the difference, think that hyphens allow you to create language — whereas en dashes allow you to create meaning. Here’s an example:
- Hyphen: “I have a blue-green sweater.” The hyphen here is used to amalgamate or mesh the two colours into one.
- En dash: “Would you say this sweater is blue – or green?” The en dash is used for pause or emphasis.
- Em dash: “The sweater could be called blue — the blue of the sea or the sky, or green — the green of the forest.” The em dash is also used for pause or emphasis, mainly by US writers, and for me it has literary overtones. Something about the length makes it look elegant and thoughtful in a sentence.
As for the semicolon above, these are not strict rules; I’d rather call them narrative opportunities! – Philippa Donovan
8. Misplaced and “dangling” modifiers
Most people know to watch out for participles, but any modifying phrase “dangled” at the front of a sentence by a comma can become ungrammatical if not worded properly.
Without a doubt, the most common grammar error I see is the misplaced dangling modifier. Here’s an example that was published in my community newspaper:
“As a disillusioned high school drop out, the structure of martial arts helped turn Frank’s life around.”
The dangler attaches itself to the first noun following the comma, which in this sentence is “the structure of martial arts.” But “the structure of martial arts” is not a high school drop-out. One potential revision would be “When Frank was a disillusioned high school drop-out, the structure of martial arts helped turn his life around.” – Kristen Stieffel
9. Disruptive or incorrect dialogue tags
A lot of authors get too creative with their dialogue tags. Though “said” and “asked” lack originality, they have the advantage of being “invisible” to the reader. It’s better to stick to basic dialogue tags to prevent drawing the reader’s attention away from the actual dialogue.
Ideally, dialogue should be strong enough not to need to be supported by eye-catching tags like harrumphed, guffawed, or squealed. Equally, it’s technically incorrect to use anything but synonyms for said, so “he smiled,” “she raised an eyebrow,” or any other facial expressions are off the agenda unless the punctuation clearly separates dialogue from description. For example: “I’m so glad I discovered BookBub!” The author clapped her hands in glee. “What would I do without it?” – Bryony Sutherland
10. Inconsistencies in names and spelling
While it’s typically the copy editor’s job to pick these up, authors should watch out for inconsistencies when revising.
Authors hold about thirty versions of a story in their minds. One of the mistakes that can creep in is a name or background tweak that isn’t picked up consistently throughout the story. Readers can get baffled by a new name popping in that hadn’t been there before! True, find and replace can help with this, but it’s not always accurate, as we all know. Looking at all names — and spellings — before final publication is useful. Use the Edit > Find/Replace feature to search for old names and spellings and make sure none have slipped through the cracks. – Mary-Theresa Hussey
11. Misuse of tense
Even for the most experienced authors, it can be difficult to maintain tense consistency throughout a manuscript. Whether past or present is a novel’s main narrative tense, stick to it even in flashbacks.
Inconsistencies in verb tense tend to appear more often in novels written in the present tense, with authors often accidentally slipping into the past tense. – Angela Brown
The most common mistake I see from authors of all experience levels are issues related to tense. For example, many manuscripts I read may start in the past tense and, in a moment of flashback or action, flip abruptly to present tense. – Lauren Hughes
12. Homonym errors and commonly confused words
We all have a few words that we never seem to be able to write correctly. It’s good to be aware of them, since a simple find and replace will often do the trick. Oxford Dictionaries has compiled a list of likely candidates here.
I come across homonym errors in nearly every novel I edit. The most common homonym mix-ups include: it’s/its, too/to, your/you’re, their/they’re/there, then/than, passed/past, waived/waved, whipping/wiping, scarred/scared, and here/hear.
Conjugating the verb “lie” also proves problematic for nearly every author. Does Jim lay down? Does Jim lie down? Was Jim lying or laying on the ground? In this post, Grammar Girl gives some terrific tips for when to use “lie” versus “lay”. – Angela Brown
These dozen common errors are the ones our editors encounter most frequently. When it comes to authoring a flawless manuscript, collaborating with a professional editor is the best way to guard against common (and not-so-common) errors.
What mistakes really trip you up — or grind your gears? Let us know in the comments below.
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