An Editor’s Guide to the Worst Writing Mistakes


Editor and Creative Writing teacher Dr. Stephen Carver wrote a blog post recently outlining the top writing mistakes he encounters. First off, he quotes Newman and Mittelmark from their book How Not to Write a Novel: “We are merely telling you the things that editors are too busy rejecting your novel to tell you themselves, pointing out the mistakes they recognize instantly because they see them again and again in novels they do not buy.”

“However good the idea behind a novel,” Carver says “when the author is still learning the craft of writing – like any other apprenticeship – the same mistakes do come up again and again. If we were discussing, say, learning to drive, I don’t think anyone would have a problem with this type of analysis. Personally, I wouldn’t attempt to service a gas boiler or walk into an operating theatre, scalpel in hand, without years of training, but plumbers and surgeons and all manner of specialists in other fields routinely presume they can do the job of a professional author without any prior knowledge whatsoever.”

He then goes on to give ten examples of the most common writing mistakes. These are a sample:

Starting Too Slowly

“You need to hook your reader from the first line. Following this startling and intriguing opener, make the first scene a good one. Consider starting your story in medias res – in the middle of things – and introduce a compelling character at a moment of crisis … establish your primary character, set the scene, state the dramatic premise, and start the story.”

Bad Dialogue and Too Much Of It

“Bad dialogue … is usually the result of a poorly planned character. In this case, you’ll probably find that all your characters sound the same, probably like you, with little difference in tone from the narrative voice of the text itself. Another common issue is superfluity. If dialogue does not tell us something important about the speaker or move the plot forward, then cut it. Don’t chat.

The biggest mistake I see in dialogue, however, is the quantity. Even though novelists have all the tricks and tools of narrative prose available to them, many still insist on writing screenplays by mistake … Break it up and cut it back.”

Minimal Scene Setting or Purple Prose

“In many ways this relates to my point on the overuse of dialogue, in which very little scenic detail is provided, let alone stylishly conveyed … Practice describing the essence of people or places, and be aware of your genre while you’re doing it: horror stories and thrillers, for example, rely more on atmosphere and suspense, while historical fiction seeks to recreate a vanished era, and science fiction to build worlds and civilisations … Be vivid but do not overdo it. You are not in advertising, so avoid ‘Purple Prose’ – anything that is overly ornate, sentimental, or rhetorically extravagant draws attention to itself and interrupts the flow of the narrative.”

Failure to Understand Dramatic Pacing

“Maintaining a strong, page-turning momentum requires an understanding of narrative pace. Basically, you have two gears: ‘Mimetic’ narration is a ‘slow telling,’ which dramatically stages events for the reader, creating the illusion that these events are unfolding in real time. ‘Diegetic’ narration is rapid, panoramic, and summary, communicating essential or linking information efficiently, without the illusion of reality. The diegetic narrator says what happens, without trying to show things as they happen. Prose narratives necessarily use both modes of telling: a fully mimetic story would last forever while a totally diegetic one would just be a plot summary. Aim for balance, ebb and flow; don’t get stuck in one gear. I have read many novels in which far too many trivial and tangential scenes are portrayed mimetically, like the live stream of a reality TV show, in which both primary and secondary characters randomly display and repeat their typical behaviour. Equally, I’ve read many primarily diegetic novels, with much of the plot told and not shown, as they say, in which the prose feels more like an essay than a story.”

Too Long or Too Short

“[Some] novels … are as rambling and digressive as a family anecdote related by your grandmother at Christmas; the real story does not start for several hundred pages, if at all, while similarly ending only when the protagonist dies of old age. If you have that much good material, consider a trilogy, because most publishers will not touch a novel by an unknown author over an absolute maximum of 100,000 words.

Similarly and conversely, some ‘novels’ are more accurately ‘novellas’ or ‘novelettes,’ and only 40 – 50,000 words in length. This is fine if the average age of your intended audience is twelve, but a bit thin otherwise.”

Lack of Editorial Revision

“Most manuscripts that land on my desk aren’t ready … The first draft of anything is just that, the beginning of the creative journey, never the finished product. The first draft is all about getting the ideas down, and this is why I always stress the importance of writing every day and just adding new words to a big project. A common misconception at this point is that the job is now done. Not true. You have only built the house; now you have to decorate. This should be fun, but the process is no less important or involved than the original composition. If you want your book to be any good, then expect the redrafts to go into double figures.”

You can read the entire blog post here

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