Common Mistakes in Fiction Writing

The more thorough you are with your self-editing (this includes feedback from critique partners, beta readers, etc.), the less you will spend on a professional editor.

For this blog, I focus on common mistakes at the word and sentence level, not mistakes in characterization, plot, setting, conflict, etc.—though some of these issues do then affect the big picture.

These are things your line editor and/or copyeditor would be looking for. But as mentioned, you can save money by having fewer of these mistakes in the draft you send your editor.


Punctuation and Grammar

I debated whether I should start with this, end with this, or put it in the middle.

I’m guessing that for many authors punctuation and grammar is the least exciting to read about and discuss.

I could be making a mistake by putting this first, but stick with me.

Or just skip this part and read it later when you’re ready for the “boring” stuff.

Punctuating dialogue is such a big topic I could write a whole blog on it.

So for this blog, I just address when to use a period and when to use a comma.

Check out the example below.

 

“I’m going to be late,” she said.

“I’m going to be late.” She said.

 

Yep. The one with the comma. But what about this?

 

“I’m going to be late,” she frowned.

“I’m going to be late.” She frowned.

 

In this case, you use the period. She frowned isn’t a dialogue tag, as “frowned” isn’t a verb of saying. It is an action she did.

So dialogue tags = comma

Action beat = period

  • Laughed
  • Smiled
  • Nodded
  • Sighed
  • Shrugged
  • Gestured
  • Grimaced
  • Grinned
  • Smirked

These words are all action beats, not verbs of saying, so they shouldn’t be punctuated as dialogue tags.

 

“Fine, but I’m next,” he called. àdialogue tag

He stomped off, took a breath, then turned around. “Fine, but I’m next.” à action beat

A modifier is a word or phrase that describes (modifies) another word or phrase.

A dangling modifier is when the thing being modified doesn’t appear in the sentence or it appears but not after the modifier.

 

Laughing loudly, the movie was over.

The modifier is laughing loudly, but we never learn who it is describing. Who was laughing loudly?

While walking to work, a police car whizzed by.

The modifier is “walking to work,” but we have no idea who was doing that walking.

After writing, the dogs needed to get outside for a walk.

This sounds like the dogs were writing. Pretty smart dogs.

❌ Flashing lightning and thunder, the little bunny struggled through the storm.

Wow. That’s one cool bunny! It can flash light and boom thunder.  

In this last one, the word being modified (storm) does appear in the sentence, but it needs to come after the modifier.

Corrections:
✔Laughing loudly, he was sad the movie was over.

✔While walking to work, she saw a police car whiz by.

✔After writing, she took the dogs for a walk, as they needed to get outside.

✔Flashing lightning and thunder, the storm raged on as the bunny struggled.

A comma splice is when a comma is used in between two independent clauses (two complete sentences).

 

❌ I liked it, it was yummy.

✔️I liked it. It was yummy.

 

“I like it,” and “it was yummy” are both independent clauses, so you can’t just have a comma between them.

Fiction has some leeway with this. You can have comma splices, but usually for shorter sentences and when the parts of the sentence are closely related.

To quote Brown and King from Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: Some comma splices “convey remarkably well the way speech actually falls on the ear.”

Here are some acceptable comma splices per Brown and King and me:

 

“I tried to tell him, I couldn’t get his attention.”

“Hurry up, let’s get going.”

“Don’t worry about it, she’s only sixteen.”

 

But just because there is leeway in fiction, it doesn’t mean you can have comma splices everywhere. It would distract your readers.

So use them intentionally, not accidentally.

Use an ellipsis (…) when a speaker trails off or has an unintentional pause.

Whether you write the ellipsis closed up or with spaces ( … versus . . . ) is a matter of style.

I like the second one; some like the first.

 

“I don’t … Okay. I don’t know.”

Here the speaker had a pause after “I don’t.” But it wasn’t a pause that comes naturally when we speak. It was an unintentional pause, a pause where they were gathering themselves together.

“Do you think you could …?”

Here the speaker trails off and doesn’t finish their thought.

 

Em dash (—) is used when a speaker is cut off.

It is longer than both a hyphen and an em dash. You can create it by typing two hyphens with no spaces around it or by pressing alt 0151.

 

“I don’t get—”

“And you never will.”

Here the speaker was cut off by another speaker.

“I don’t get— Hey, wait, you were there?”

“I don’t get—” He stared at me, deep into my soul. “Wait, you were there?”

In both of these examples the speaker cut themselves off.


Word Choice Issues

You can always find ways to improve the word choice of nearly every sentence in your manuscript. Doing that would be overwhelming.

So focus on those quick wins—those easy fixes—that will make your word choice much better.

Filter words (words that unnecessarily filter the reader’s experience through the POV character) tell instead of show and often can just be removed entirely or removed with a rewrite:

  • Wondered
  • Realized
  • Hoped
  • Decided
  • Knew
  • To (when used to show a character’s motivation)
  • Because (when used to show a character’s motivation)
  • Heard
  • Saw
  • Felt
  • Smelled

This, of course, is not an exhaustive list. You may consider making a list of filter words you use often and searching for them in your manuscript so you can get rid of them and show instead.

 

Some examples of how to do this:

Phillipe realized he had forgotten his tool belt.➡️ Phillipe reached for his tool belt. Crap! How could he forget that? (using free indirect speech here)

Carly stood in front of her to prevent her from leaving. ➡️ Carly stood between Lily and the door, shaking her head. (using an action to show her motivation for standing there)

Sergio could hear the trumpet, signaling it was time. ➡️ The blast from the trumpet woke him up. It was time. (indicate the sound without stating character heard it)

You can make two word choice errors with body parts: making the body part do the verb and unnecessarily naming the body part.

Example of making the body part do the verb: Her hand reached for the keys in her pocket.

Really? Her hand had a mind of its own and did that?

Nah. I think SHE did.

As my copyediting fiction teacher said, “By writing sentences that are ever-so-slightly inaccurate, you’re ever-so-slightly distancing the reader from the moment.”

Unnecessarily naming a body part: He took his sunglasses off of his eyes.

You don’t need to name the body party. We all know where sunglasses go.

The most famous one is: He shrugged his shoulders.

What else does one shrug?

Be careful of constructing sentences that sound like two things are happening at the same time that couldn’t.

 

❌ Opening the door, she rushed down the steps.

She can’t run down the stairs at the same time she is opening the door, but that is how this sentence reads.

Watching intently for a mouse, the cat settled in to wait.

✔ A cat can be waiting and watching at the same time.

 

These often happen when you start a sentence with an –ing word. So look at sentences that start with a verb plus –ing and see if you created a false simultaneity.


Narrative Issues

As mentioned, we are looking at mistakes on the word and sentence level, but many of the narrative issues mentioned here affect the big picture as well.

But even at the word and sentence level, narrative issues are such big topics that I cover these all in separate blogs.

Info dumping is a chunk of information just dropped into a reader’s lap. There isn’t any action or scene; it’s just a narrative summary of information.

I have a whole blog on info dumping, so I will just direct you there. How to Fix Info Dumping

Head-hopping occurs when you bounce around from one character’s perspective to another, revealing the inner thoughts and feelings of multiple characters, without a proper scene break or clear signal.

I have a whole blog on head-hopping, so I will just direct you there. How to Spot and Correct Head-Hopping

This is a big one. I suggest reading Janice Hardy’s book, Understanding Show, Don’t Tell, and Really Getting It!

I also have a three-part blog series on this topic. The first one is found here:  Showing and Telling Part 1: Finding Your Told Prose.


Dialogue issues

Dialogue is an important part of any story.

Here I don’t talk too much about the actual dialogue; that’s another blog for another time. I am just pointing out the most common dialogue issues from a conventional standpoint rather than an artistical angle—though the last one touches a bit on the artistry. 

I discuss this in another blog, so I’ll just put the link here: 3 Common Dialogue Tag Pitfalls.

So I am big on variety. I don’t like to eat the same thing too much in a row. I like to work on multiple editing projects at a time, etc.

But when it comes to dialogue tags, I just say no to variety.

The purpose of a tag is to identify who is speaking. So just use “said” and “asked.”

If you must have some variety, then sprinkle in some “whispered, murmured, answered, added, continued.”

But really you don’t need, “snarled,” “challenged,” “ordered,” “exclaimed,” “retorted.”

Those words stand out and not in a good way.

The standard words just fade into the background.

In an effort to avoid info dumping, authors often put the information in dialogue, but this is still info dumping.

Yes, it is coming from the characters rather than the narrator, but it isn’t any better than narrative info dumping.

If the only point of the dialogue is to tell the reader information, then it isn’t natural dialogue.

In the editorial world, we refer to dialogue where characters tell each other information they would already know as “As you know, Bob” explanations.

 

Wife to husband: “I know I shouldn’t have bought it because your deal went south so now we are struggling financially. But Lucy really needed it. Now stop arguing with me. The dance is tonight and we are chaperoning.”


Pretty sure the husband already knows his deal went south, that they are struggling financially, and that they are chaperoning.


Conclusion

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, that is understandable.

You have two choices here: pay for your editor to correct all the things (may be a better option for you as time is money) or take your self-editing as seriously as you can and spend significant time making it better.

Look for these common mistakes and fix them. Then send your manuscript to beta readers who are also authors or editors so they understand this terminology and ask them to look for these things too.

Then go through your manuscript again, fixing as many of them as you can.

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About Me

With a passion for words, collecting quotes, and reading books, I love all things writing related. I will admit to having a love-hate relationship with writing as I am constantly critical, but I feel a grand sense of accomplishment spending hours editing my own writing.

Lest you think I don’t have much of a life, I should add I also enjoy dancing, singing, acting, eating out, and spending quality time with my husband and adorable kids.

I’m pretty cool. And you may want to be my friend. But in order for that to happen, you will need to know more about me than this tiny box allows.

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