Last week we looked at some common mistakes such as viewpoint/POV, exposition (show, don’t tell) and superfluous description, so this week we’ll take a look at the other common mistakes authors make when writing:
- Incorrect punctuation
- Description – or lack of it
- Dialogue Tags
- Going to/starting to/began to
Getting tenses in a tangle a very common error among writers, whether they’re new or established. That’s because sometimes, during the throes of writing, it’s easy to slip from one tense to another without even noticing.
Past tense – he did/she said/they were etc, is the most common tense to work with and an easy one to use. Problems occur, however, when writers choose the present tense, (I do/she is/they are etc), which is a little more difficult to get to grips with, certainly in terms of the choice of POV. Many will inadvertently slip from the present into past tense without realising. Here’s a simple example:
I get out of the car and make my way to the foyer, knowing she was waiting for me.
The first half of the sentence is present tense, but the second part has slipped into past tense. ‘Knowing, was and waiting’ are past tense. The sentence should be:
I get out of the car and make my way to the foyer; I know she waits for me.
Because of the similarity of certain tenses, writers make errors and often it takes a professional editor to spot them. But writers can help themselves by paying attention to tenses and being vigilant in order to keep tenses in check. Practice using present tense – it’s by far the best way to learn how present tense works, and read stories that have been written in present tense to gain an understanding how it works.
Present tense isn’t suitable for those who are inexperienced, which is why it’s so important to practice, practice, practice.
Incorrect punctuation comes in all forms, but most errors occur when writers place commas and full stops (periods) incorrectly, or not at all. Other writers get confused about using a comma or a semi-colon.
A comma acts as a pause in the narrative to stop the reader from tripping over words, but also to define sentences properly, for example:
After Jane had finished her drink, and with time pressing on, she got up and made her way to the door.
The commas give a brief pause and make the sentence clear. Errors occur when the writer omits the comma, or places it in the wrong section of the sentence, for example:
After, Jane had finished her drink and with time pressing on she got up and made her way, to the door.
The placement of the comma after the word ‘after’ is incorrect and the comma placement after ‘way’ is also incorrect. It renders the sentence incomplete and unclear.
Writers also use the comma to join two main clauses – known as a comma splice, for example:
Jane finished her drink, time pressed on.
This is a typical comma splice and the best way to improve the sentence is to either introduce a full stop or introduce a conjunction, such as ‘and’, for example:
Jane finished her drink. Time pressed on.
Jane finished her drink and time pressed on.
So what happens when a writers misuse the full stop? Well, it creates all manner of confusion. Writing should always be clear, regardless of the story. Here’s an example of incorrect full stop placement:
She knew she had to. Do it right.
This causes what is known as fragmentation, where an incorrect full stop creates two separate sentences that don’t make sense. The reader will stumble over the sentence. It should be as follows:
She knew she had to do it right.
As for other punctuation, never use more than one exclamation mark. One is sufficient! Two or three exclamation marks make you look like a seven year old!!!
Semi-colons are also often used incorrectly, mostly because writers don’t understand what they are or what their function is. They are useful to join two separate parts of a sentence, or two independent clauses, for instance:
He turned full circle; knew the light was his only escape.
She poured the drink; the breath lodged in her throat.
These examples show how two independent clauses can be joined by the semi-colon to add to the sentence rather than detract from it. This is especially useful for retaining tension and atmosphere in action scenes, because it keeps the momentum without needing to slow the pace with independent clauses.
Description – Or Lack of It
Two things can happen with your description – it will either be too sparse, which will leave the reader dissatisfied and short-changed, because they have nothing to help them imagine the story or characters, or the description is too over the top or too flowery.
Where description is concerned, many authors make the mistake of assuming the reader will know what’s going on and will fill in the gaps themselves in the absence of descriptive narrative. Some writers blatantly disregard description and simply tell the reader. This just doesn’t make a good writer, or a good novel.
Description is vital. Without it, your reader simply won’t engage with the story or the characters. The idea is to find a balance, so that important scenes get more description – which helps to visualise the story to the reader – and less important scenes only get a line or two of narrative.
Are you guilty of using dialogue tags like, ‘she squealed’, ‘he whispered’ or ‘she smiled’? If so, you’re committing a very common transgression.
Writers, especially beginners, can go overboard with dialogue tags, in the belief that they should use alternatives to ‘said.’ While too much instances of ‘said’ can become annoying, good writers can construct sentences that minimise its use and therefore make ‘said’ almost invisible to the reader. Done properly, ‘said’ and ‘asked’ (the most frequently used tags) simply fade into the reader’s background. And most of the time, these two tags are all that’s needed.
There will be occasions, however, when writers splash their dialogue with some other tags. But they do it sparingly, which keeps the dialogue interesting and dynamic without it being overdone and tacky.
Incidentally, characters can’t smile, squeal or chuckle a conversation, because they are actions, not dialogue, so tags like these don’t belong, for example:
‘I’ll bear that in mind,’ she smiled.
This is incorrect because ‘smiled’ is an action. Instead, such actions should be shown before the line of dialogue, for instance:
She smiled with hidden charm. ‘I’ll bear that in mind.’
Dialogue should always be clear and uncomplicated and shouldn’t be clogged by unnecessary dialogue tags that more often than not are actions rather than speech. It makes dialogue messy, so choose dialogue tags carefully.
I would like to thank you for your support in 2016, and wish you all Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays and a Happy New Year. AllWrite will return 7th January 2017.