Even the most seasoned writers make mistakes. Whether you’re a technical writer, working on dialogue for your YA novel, or conducting research to supplement sources for your non-fiction book about World War II, keep in mind that everyone makes errors. Below is a list of mistakes that some authors might find surprising. The examples included are real-life instances that authors have submitted for editing.
1. Lazy Words
Lazy words are words that weaken writing. They are usually generalizations inserted that can be deleted without altering the sentence’s purpose or emphasis. Do your best to avoid lazy words as there is always a better way to convey an idea. The following are considered lazy words:
Certainly, probably, basically
Use descriptive adjectives or alternate words to best provide details to readers. For instance:
Ryan outlines a very hopeful future for humanity.
Ryan outlines a hopeful future for humanity.
2. There Was/There Were…
Avoid using sentences that begin with “there was” or “there were” because it pins you (the author) into a corner. Once you implement that subject/verb phrase, you can’t be creative with the direction of the sentence. For example:
There was a tiny square of light to my upper left and there was a tremendous thundering sound…
Instead, make the square of light the subject and write:
A tiny square of light to my upper left flickered, and a tremendous thundering sound ensued.
You give importance to the subjects by writing in this way!
3. The Past-Continuous Tense
Many emerging writers overutilize the past-continuous tense. That is, someone was doing something. Past-continuous is defined as [was + a verb]. He was sitting; they were dancing; I was thinking…
You can use this tense sparingly. In most cases, however, you create a more immediate sensation by using past simple.
The carved wooden door was standing open and inviting.
The carved wooden door stood open, inviting.
By changing the verb tense, you create more immediacy.
Another mistake writers often make has to do with misdirects. Allow me to provide an example:
As I stood up to check it out, it appeared to be a small opening or window.
The first half of this sentence is a dependent clause. It can’t stand by itself because you’ve used the word “as.” It needs the second part of the sentence. In the dependent clause, you have established that I is the subject. Therefore, the rest of the sentence must be about I.
Instead, the second part of the sentence (the independent clause: it appeared to be a small opening or window) uses the subject it. So, you’ve led your reader to believe that the sentence is about “I” in the beginning and then changed it in the second half. Rewrite the sentence to read:
As I stood to check it out, I realized there was a small opening nearby.
Noticed that “I” is the subject in both clauses.
5. Overuse of Coordinating Conjunctions and Prepositional Phrases
Coordinating conjunctions “and” and “but” are important in the English language. However, when abused, they can become a great source of distress for readers. Often, writers write like they speak, tacking on independent clauses one after another by simply using “and.”
Be careful when doing this because it can not only frustrate readers (because they can’t perceive an end to the sentence), but it can detract from the power of the statements you are making. For example:
The final day was for design only and in less than 12 hours we had to do what we had previously done in less than four days: create a design and a complete set of working drawings, a site plan, a floor plan, elevations, cross-sections and details (detailed drawings of any architectural details and/or structural connections), but no model, thank goodness.
While this is a grammatically-correct sentence, it’s hard for readers because they don’t have an expectation of when the sentence will end. Instead, let’s change it to read:
The final day—which was 12 hours long!—tested our ability to design. In that time, we had to create a design and complete a set of working drawings, a site plan, a floor plan, elevations, and cross-sectional details. Thank goodness there was no model!
Overuse of prepositional phrases and dependent clauses can also frustrate readers. For example:
He was very tan, weathered with long dark hair cascading down his back, wearing what appeared to be a Union officer jacket (dark blue wool with gold buttons and trim) with the sleeves torn out, and unbuttoned, almost like a vest, showing a muscular chest and arms.
Aside from the misplaced modifiers, this sentence is exhausting to read. But if we edit it to focus on single elements one at a time, this character becomes a mosaic of a man!
He was tan and weathered with long, dark hair that cascaded down his back. He wore what appeared to be a Union officer jacket which boasted dark-blue wool with gold buttons and trim. The sleeves were torn out and unbuttoned, giving the garb the appearance of a vest that revealed a muscular chest and arms.
6. Using the Same Word Twice
On your quest to become a stronger writer, practice avoiding using the same word twice within a sentence or neighboring sentences.
While she was used to the stares, she didn’t know the effect they would have on her. Using the chair to keep her balance, she gazed into the distance. She didn’t know what to do.
While she was accustomed to the stares, she didn’t realize the effect they would have on her. Using her chair to keep her balance, she gazed into the distance. What could she do?
Young or fledgling authors have a proclivity for reusing words because they just want to get the information down on the page. They are not yet aware of their surroundings (the surrounding sentences).
Many authors write like they speak and hope that punctuation will clarify everything. But you can’t do that. Writers must find a balance between how they speak and the written language. Often, this is the copyeditor’s job!
Writers can become distracted by their own inner thoughts and subsequently divert their readers’ attention from the focus of a sentence. For instance:
Having a business that employed everyone from teenagers to septuagenarians: teenagers who were first time jobholders, those who needed a break or a change, or mostly moms who could work either between 9 & 3 (while kids are in school) or grandmothers who were retired and wanted to stay active, this mix of people leant itself to some chaotic schedules to say the least.
That’s a meandering sentence that will frustrate readers. Rewrite it to read:
I employed everyone, from teenagers holding their first jobs to those who needed a break or a change, to mothers working during school hours and grandmothers wanting to stay active. Of course, such a mix of people led to chaotic schedules, to say the least.
See? A little cleaner, a little more straightforward.
Writers are proud people who are intimately tied to their creative works. Manuscripts—no matter if they’re fiction or non-fiction—act as representations of an author’s identity and soul. They symbolize hard work, dedication, and perseverance. Aside from the day-to-day common typos and generalized writing mistakes others might tout, the above list delves into the nitty gritty of developmental editing.
Don’t be discouraged if you make the above-mentioned mistakes! Now, you know what to look out for. Make your corrections and go forth!
Kara Wilson is the owner of Emerging Ink Solutions, a comprehensive editing service dedicated to preparing manuscripts for self-publication or for submission to traditional publishing houses. Emerging Ink Solutions offers everything from developmental editing to proofreading and book cover design. To learn more, visit www.emergingink.com or like us on Facebook (www.facebook.com/EmergingInkSolutions/).