Common Writing Mistakes


Most books aren't rejected because the stories are"bad." They're rejected because they're not "ready toread." In short, minor stuff like typos, grammar,spelling, etc.

I don't mean places where we, as authors,deliberately break the rules. Those are fine. That'spart of our job. Language always changes with use,and we can help it on its way. No, I'm referring toplaces where someone just plain didn't learn the ruleor got confused or overlooked it during theself-edits.

I started editing novels in 2001. Looking back at myexperiences, I feel like sharing the most commonmistakes I've seen. If you'll go through yourmanuscript and fix these before you submit it to apublisher, your odds of publication will increasedramatically.

Once you've found a publisher who publishes what youwrite, you want to present yourself in the best waypossible. Submitting an unedited manuscript is a bitlike going to a job interview wearing a purpleMohawk, no shoes, torn jeans, and a dirty T-shirt.Your resume may be perfect, and your qualificationsimpeccable, but something tells me you won't get thejob.

The publisher is investing a lot in every book itaccepts. E-publishers tend to invest loads of time,and print publishers tend to invest an advertisingbudget and the cost of carrying an inventory. Why askthem to invest hours and days of editing time as well?If the publisher gets two or three or ten nearlyidentical books, you want yours to be the onerequiring the least editing.

The first thing you need to do, and I hope you'vealready done it, is use the spelling and grammarcheckers in your word processor. This will catch manyof the "common mistakes" on my list. But I've beenasked to edit many books where the author obviouslydidn't do this, and I confess that I may well havebeen lazy and let a couple of mine get to my editorsunchecked. Bad Michael!

Here's a list of the mistakes I see most often.

* Dialogue where everyone speaks in perfect Englishand never violates any of the bullet points below.Okay, I made that up. That's not really a commonproblem at all. But I have seen it, and it's aterrible thing.

* It's is a contraction for "it is" and its ispossessive.

* Who's is a contraction for "who is" and whose ispossessive.

* You're is a contraction for "you are" and your ispossessive.

* They're is a contraction for "they are," there is aplace, their is possessive.

* There's is a contraction for "there is" and theirsis possessive.

* If you've been paying attention to the aboveexamples, you've noticed that possessive pronounsnever use apostrophes. Its, whose, your, yours,their, theirs...

* Let's is a contraction for "let us."

* When making a word plural by adding an s, don't usean apostrophe. (The cats are asleep.)

* When making a word possessive by adding an s, usean apostrophe. (The cat's bowl is empty.)

* A bath is a noun, what you take. Bathe is a verb,the action you do when taking or giving a bath.

* A breath is a noun, what you take. Breathe is averb, the action you do when taking a breath.

* You wear clothes. When you put them on, you clotheyourself. They are made of cloth.

* Whenever you read a sentence with the word "that,"ask yourself if you can delete that word and stillachieve clarity. If so, kill it. The same can be saidof all sentences. If you can delete a word withoutchanging the meaning or sacrificing clarity, do it."And then" is a phrase worth using your wordprocessor's search feature to look for.

* Keep an eye on verb tenses. "He pulled the pin andthrows the grenade" is not a good sentence.

* Keep an eye on making everything agree regardingsingular and plural. "My cat and my wife issleeping," "My cat sleep on the sofa," and "My wifeis a beautiful women" are not good sentences. (Iexaggerate in these examples, but you know what Imean.)

* I and me, he and him, etc. I hope no editor isrejecting any novels for this one, because I suspectthat most people get confused at times. In dialogue,do whatever the heck you want because it sounds more"natural." But for the sake of your narrative, I'lltry to explain the rule and the cheat. The ruleinvolves knowing whether your pronoun is the subjector object. When Jim Morrison of The Doors sings, "tilthe stars fall from the sky for you and I," he'smaking a good rhyme but he's using bad grammar.According to the rule, "you and I" is the object ofthe preposition "for," thus it should be "for you andme." The cheat involves pretending "you and" isn'tthere, and just instinctively knowing "for I" justdoesn't sound right. (I think only native Englishspeakers can use my cheat. For the record, I havegreat admiration for authors writing in languagesthat aren't their native tongues.)

* Should of, would of, could of. This one can make methrow things. It's wrong! What you mean is shouldhave, would have, could have. Or maybe you mean thecontractions. Should've, would've, could've. Andmaybe 've sounds a bit like of. But it's not! Of isnot a verb. Not now, not ever.

* More, shorter sentences are better. Always. Don'task a single sentence to do too much work or advancethe action too much, because then you've got lots ofwords scattered about like "that" and "however" and"because" and "or" and "as" and "and" and "while,"much like this rather pathetic excuse for a sentenceright here.

* On a similar (exaggerated) note: "He laughed awicked laugh as he kicked Ralphie in the face whilehe aimed the gun at Lerod and pulled the trigger andthen laughed maniacally as Lerod twisted in agonybecause of the bullet that burned through his faceand splattered his brains against the wall and madethe wall look like an overcooked lasagne or anabstract painting." Now tell me this sentence isn'ttrying to do too much.

* Too means also, two is a number, to is apreposition.

* He said/she said. Use those only when necessary toestablish who's speaking. They distract the reader,pulling him out of the story and saying, "Hey look,you're reading a book." Ideally, within the contextof the dialogue, we know who's talking just by thestyle or the ideas. When a new speaker arrives on thescene, identify him or her immediately. Beyond that,keep it to a minimum. Oh yeah, and give every speakerhis/her own paragraph.

* Billy-Bob smiled his most winning smile and said,"What's a nice girl like you doing in a place likethis?" I don't like this. Use two shorter sentencesin the same paragraph. Billy-Bob smiled his mostwinning smile. "What's a nice girl like you doing ina place like this?" Same effect, fewer words, nodialogue tag (he said).

* In the previous example, I don't like "smiled hismost winning smile," because it's redundant and alsocliched. Please, if you find yourself writingsomething like that, try to find a better way toexpress it before you just give up and leave it likeit is. During the self-edit, I mean, not during theinitial writing.

* "The glow-in-the-dark poster of Jesus glowed in thedark." This editor won't let that one go. Much tooredundant, and it appeared in a published novel.

* Lie is what you do when you lie down on the bed,lay is what you do to another object that you lay onthe table. Just to confuse matters, the past tense oflie is lay. Whenever I hit a lay/lie word in reading,I stop and think. Do that when you self-edit. (Note:Don't fix this one in dialogue unless your characteris quite well-educated, because most people say itwrong. I do.)

* Beware of the dangling modifier. "Rushing into theroom, the exploding bombs dropped seven of thesoldiers." Wait a minute! The bombs didn't rush intothe room. The soldiers did. To get all technicalabout it, the first part is the "dependent clause,"and it must have the same subject as the "independentclause" which follows. Otherwise it's amateur,distracting, and a real pain for your poor overworkededitor.

* If you are able (many readers are not), keep an eyeout for missing periods, weird commas, closingquotes, opening quotes, etc. When I read a book, beit an ebook or a printed book, I can't help but spotevery single one that's missing. They slap me upsidethe head, which makes me a great editor but a lousyreader. If you're like me, use that to youradvantage. If not, that's what editors are for!

Copyright 2005, Michael LaRocca

Michael LaRocca's website at http://www.chinarice.org waschosen by WRITER'S DIGEST as one of The 101 Best WebsitesFor Writers in 2001 and 2002. His response was to throw itout and start over again because he's insane. He teachesEnglish at a university in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province,China, and publishes the free weekly newsletter WHO MOVEDMY RICE?


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