4 Frequent Writing Mistakes Authors Make: What Top Editors Want You to Know
By Astra Crompton
If you want to improve your writing, an editor can provide valuable advice. Is your manuscript ready to be put to the test?
FriesenPress’s team of professional editors has more than 100 years’ of combined experience helping authors publish the best books possible. There’s no better group of people to ask to identify the mistakes authors (across all genres and experience levels) make most often. So, we asked them – and they provided a resounding consensus.
Below we outline what these common mistakes look like and explain how you can avoid making them yourself.
Telling Instead of Showing
You’ve probably heard the writing adage “Show Don’t Tell,” but what does it mean?
The truth is most books will use a combination of both techniques, “showing” events live on the page such as through action or dialogue, and “telling” the reader what has happened through exposition or recap.
“Telling” is factual, but doesn’t invite the reader in. By “showing” a scene like a film director might, the reader is pulled directly into the action. We watch events unfold in real time (even if it’s written in past tense) and so the sequence has more weight.
There are times when you should give a brief account: daily routines, minutiae of research, a long passage of time. But look for places where you want the action to hook your reader. Moments of emotion, drama, or delivery of important information will resonate better if you show us, don’t tell us.
Overuse of Font Styling
When we “use” too many types of font styling, the text becomes hard to follow. Where is the emphasis supposed to go? What is the most important piece for the reader to remember? When it comes to styling your text, less really is more.
Many authors want their cadence (how they might read that text aloud) to come through on the page, so they emphasize all the words they would stress verbally. But print is a different medium, and you don’t need to litter your passages with all these bells and whistles. Otherwise, you’ll fatigue your reader and they won’t take you seriously … or they’ll give up on your message entirely.
When you need to style something for hierarchy, emphasis, or other appropriate means, please use the proper Styles in your word processor. This will prevent strange combinations that your designer may not be able to isolate and correct.
If you have a project-specific styling goal, discuss it with your publishing services provider, and they can advise how best to prepare the manuscript so that your designer can translate your instructions into something dynamic but still legible for your readers.
Misuse of Dialogue Punctuation
There’s a lot of confusion around dialogue punctuation — perhaps understandably, since there are various ways to format dialogue. However, this issue usually comes up when the writer hasn’t implemented a consistent style. This can make it difficult to follow who is speaking. So here are a few professional rules for standard North American dialogue format.
- Each new speaker starts on a new paragraph.
- Spoken works are surrounded in “double quotation marks” with a final comma where there is a speech tag.
- If there’s an action tag, this acts as a new sentence, and so the dialogue ends in a period.
- All finishing commas, exclamation points, question marks, and periods go inside the quotation marks. Your word processor may try to change the next word to a capital letter but, if it’s a speech tag, it should remain lower case.
- Speech tags can be omitted to prevent it sounding too repetitive, especially in cases where there is back-and-forth, and we know which characters are involved.
- A quote within a quote is put in ‘single quotation marks’ inside the larger double quotation marks.
Now you’re ready to handle your dialogue scenes effectively and consistently.
The author (usually) knows what they mean when they’re writing, so it’s easy to forget that readers may not be privy to all the same information. If your intended audience are industry experts like you (or die-hard fans of the genre), you may not need to stop and explain certain terminology or sources. But if you are writing for a general audience, younger readers, or newcomers to your field, it helps to stop and think about where you might have left gaps in your writing.
Keep an eye out for:
- Jargon. These are terms that are only known by insiders (like ROI or taxiing). It’s always best to define these on their first utterance, just to make sure you and your readers are on the same page. This is especially important for acronyms that may have multiple meanings.
- Names. You might know who Jim Smith is, but does your reader? Make sure to use their full name on the first mention (there are many folks named Smith!), but also indicate why you’re mentioning this person. Are they a relation, an inspiration, the source of a quote? What is their importance to the current discussion?
- References. Be sure you have all of the information needed for your sources. For quick reference, this is the Chicago Manual of Style formatting:
The ACS Style Guide: Effective Communication of Scientific Information. 3rd ed. Edited by Anne M. Coghill and Lorrin R. Garson. Washington, DC: American Chemical Society, 2006. https://doi.org/10.1021/bk-2006-STYG.
- Logical segues. Brains jump around topics, going from what you had for breakfast this morning, to the fact that you’re running low on eggs, to the sale the store is running, to what time they close, to how quickly you can drive there after work. But if you just write about the nutritional value of eggs, and then jump to regional supermarkets, the path you took to get to the new topic is invisible to your readers. So be sure that as you move from one idea to the next, you are providing connecting segues that show their relation to each other.
- Incomplete sections. It’s easy to put a placeholder in so you don’t interrupt your writing flow. ([[[check dates]]] is one I use often.) The challenge arises when these never get filled in, so look for unfinished sentences or paragraphs, references that are missing (in whole or in part), or sections of your outline that might have been overlooked. This will ensure that when you submit to a reader or editor, they have the full picture to assess.
Have you made any of these writerly faux pas? You might be able to save yourself some time and money by cleaning up your manuscript before submitting it for editing. Take a look through your work for places you can convert from telling to showing, prune any excess text styling, properly format dialogue, and fill in any remaining gaps. You’ll ensure your manuscript is polished and consistent — and ready to be read!
Astra Crompton is a writer and illustrator with twenty years’ experience in self-publishing. Astra’s short stories have been published in magazines, fundraising anthologies, and used in school curriculums. She has taught courses and written articles on creative writing for five years. As Editing & Illustrations Coordinator, Astra also manages, coordinates, and vets FriesenPress’s industry-leading editing and illustrations teams.