The Most Common Mistakes of Novice Writers

The Most Common Mistakes of Novice Writers

From teaching scores of writing students, I notice the same mistakes coming up time and again.  These are the most common errors I see among people just starting to write a manuscript.

  1. Confused narrative. The sequence of events lacks strict logic or makes insufficient sense. You have to ask yourself at all times not, ‘Do I understand this?’ but ‘Will the reader know what I am talking about?’
  1. Lack of specificity. It is always important, when describing, to talk about specific rather than general items/people. Thus ‘ a dog walked into the room’ is less convincing than ‘ a bull terrier sloped into the room, limping slightly, its red eyes radiating an idiotic menace, a thin film of saliva coating its teeth.’ But don’t overdo it.
  1. Dialogue not moving dynamically. An awful lot of dialogue is just waffle. Keep asking yourself ‘what job is this dialogue doing?’ Is it developing character? Is it moving the plot forward? Is it just very entertaining? But too much dialogue just fills space on the page. Also the most readable dialogue will contain an element of conflict – two people trying to convince on another that they have the correct interpretation of events.   Too much dialogue is used purely for exposition.
  1. Handling of Time.  Don’t wander around in time too much with flashbacks and flash-forwards if you can possibly avoid it. Unless you are a skilled practitioner, it is simply confusing.
  1. What happens after first 30,000 words. The problem here is ‘Front Ending’ – piling all the story into the first few chapters so there is a car crash of events in the first 50 pages or so and nothing thereafter…events have to spread out evenly, like pearls on a necklace.
  2. Characters. Insufficiently developed, lacking contradictions, nuance, facets.  Too many characters are flat and can be easily substituted for how they sound with any other character in the book.
  3. Story unfocussed. In the absence of any clear theme, a story loses itself. It has to be concentrated, like rays of light through a lens.
  4. Handling the big moment.Moment of high drama are all too often expressed by people running about shouting ‘oh my god’ or screaming. In reality, people rarely react as you expect them to.
  1. Clichés. You can make your prose resemble something professional simply by going through it and removing phrases like ‘he felt he’d been kicked in the stomach’ or depicting people ‘beaming with joy’ or days passing ‘in a haze’ etc etc.
  2. Waffling.
  3. Constantly going back to fix what you’ve already done rather than moving forward onto the next page. Get on with it!
  4. Point-of -view issues. Sliding from one perspective to the next, or the narrator not being able to know what it is they know.
  5. Dreams. ‘Tell a dream, lose a reader’.

On Reading George Saunders’ ‘The Brain Dead Megaphone’

Whether you want to learn about writing, or Dubai or nostalgia, this book is a masterpiece in essay writing. And it contains some of the best advice for any writer that I can think of: “Fuck concepts. Don’t be afraid to be confused. Try to remain permanently confused. Anything is possible.  Stay open forever, so open it hurts, and then open up some more, until the day you die, world without end, amen.”