Five Common Mistakes Beginning Writers Make

October 31, 2006
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  Five Common Mistakes
Beginning Writers Make
by William Kowalski
November, 2006

As a writing mentor and editor, I see manuscripts in all stages of preparedness cross my desk every week.  Despite the wide variety of stories out there, authors tend to make the same few mistakes over and over, regardless of their background.  Below are five of the most common errors I encounter.  Taking care to avoid them will help you improve your odds of getting published exponentially.

1. Show It, Don’t Tell It.  This is the single most important rule of writing fiction, and yet one of the most poorly understood.  It’s simple, really: Never announce to your readers what is happening when you can show them instead.  This is most often accomplished through dialogue or action, and it has the effect of allowing readers to figure out for themselves what’s going on, thereby also allowing them to connect with your characters on an immediate, human level.  Instead of writing “John was angry”, show us how John felt by writing something like, “John smashed his fist into the wall until his knuckles were swollen and red.”  
2. Outline Your Plot.  Not an outline like you were taught in high school, with Roman numerals and capital letters—a few informal notes will do.  Many writers prefer to start writing from their gut rather than follow a plan, and that’s fine.  But before beginning your second draft, you should take the time to make an outline, in order to avoid action that is meandering or pointless.
3. Avoid Cliches, Adverbs, and Other Weak Descriptors.  We are all infected with the mindless language of ad agencies and corporations.  To fight this modern scourge, cultivate an awareness of your word choice.  Did you consciously pick that phrase because it’s what you really meant, or did it creep in because you heard it in a cat food commercial?  Adverbs (words that end in –ly) are not as strong as most writers think.  Telling us “Amy cried sadly” is not nearly as effective as “Amy put her face in her hands and sobbed.”  Because avoiding adverbs forces the writer to show more and tell less, the overall effect is more vivid, and therefore more satisfying to readers.  Also to be avoided are meaningless fillers, such as rather, very, a lot of, a little, a few, quite, really, and about ten thousand others that add nothing to your work, and therefore detract from it.
4. Omit Needless Words.  Strunk and White’s famous dictum from The Elements of Style ought to be tattooed in reverse on every writer’s forehead, so it’s the first thing he or she sees in the mirror every morning.  See how many extraneous words you can find in the following sentence:  “Andrea took her cell phone out of her purse and opened it, and then she pressed the buttons to dial Tony, who she was pretty much sure was going to be at work by now because it was already eleven o’clock.”
5. Remember That You’re Writing For Your Readers  (or, Write To Entertain, Not To Impress).  Also known as “Dancin’ On The Page Syndrome”, this is the condition that strikes many writers once they’ve achieved a certain level of skill and style, but have yet to realize that their real obligation is to their readers, not to their M.F.A. advisors.  Breathless earnestness á la Sylvia Plath and trembling sincerity á la Ernest Hemingway become tiring after three or four chapters.  A lame story is impossible to cover with lavish style.  By the same token, I’ve read many a gripping tale by writers who never went beyond high school, and whose style is plain and unadorned.  All even the most erudite readers want is a good story; that’s what will keep them coming back for more, every time.


William Kowalski is a novelist and writing mentor who specializes in working with emerging novelists of all types.  He can be contacted through his website,


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This post was written by William Kowalski