By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund
When I'm judging contests, I can usually tell from the first page whether the writer is new (as in working on the first book or two), or whether the writer is more seasoned.
In fact, most of the time I can tell a writer's level of experience from the first paragraph or two.
There are a number of issues that distinguish newbies from more seasoned writers. Here are 25 mistakes I commonly see from a newer writer:
1. Starts the opening paragraph with flowery, verbose, or elaborate descriptions. (A seasoned writer will try to start with a hook, usually a life-altering situation or action.)
2. Stops the story/plot/action to describe a room or person or scene. (A seasoned writer will try to weave those descriptions in small pieces as the story unfolds.)
3. Describes any and/or everything. (A seasoned writer will pick strategic "props" to bring on "stage" that help convey a deeper meaning, theme, mood, or contribute to the plot.)
4. Neglects using sensory details or is too general. (A seasoned writer will try to include all the senses into scenes when possible and be as specific as possible.)
5. Forgets to refer back to the setting during the scene. (A seasoned writer won't just set the stage at the beginning of a new scene, but will continue to keep the reader grounded with interspersed details.)
6. Randomly hops around different characters' heads. (A seasoned writer will stay in one character's head or point-of-view until making a clear break into a different POV, usually at a new chapter or scene.)
7. Neglects to introduce a main POV character until too far into the book. (A seasoned writer will attempt to introduce all of the main characters, even if just by name, within the first portion of the book.)
8. Neglects to regularly give all POV characters enough time. (A seasoned writer may not perfectly alternate between POV characters, but they won't forget about one for too long.)
9. Doesn't stay true to character when in a specific POV. (A seasoned writer will get deep into a character's head and try to see everything from that character's perspective.)
10. Doesn't use contractions. (A seasoned writer knows that contractions help keep the story from being stilted and unrealistic.)
11. Over-addresses characters in the dialogue: "Mother, you’re such a dear. I just couldn’t live without you, Mother.” (A seasoned writer will be careful to eliminate all names that aren't absolutely needed.)
12. Uses large paragraphs of dialogue. (A seasoned writer breaks dialogue into succinct, short paragraphs, not giving one person the "soap box" for too long.)
13. Allows two characters to become "talking heads" where they converse without much else happening between them. (A seasoned writer will intersperse internal narration, action beats, setting details, or action within the dialogue.)
14. Conveys story information in dialogue that is solely for the benefit of the reader. (A seasoned writer looks for organic ways to weave in backstory and other information.)
15. Uses a wide variety of dialogue attributions other than the very basic words like said, asked, whisper, etc. (Seasoned writers try to make the attributions invisible to the reader's eye and almost always use said.)
16. Puts the attribution said before the character's name like: said Mother. (Seasoned writers will put the attribution after the character's name like: Mother said.)
17. Uses attributions with every bit of dialogue. (A seasoned writer will only use dialogue attributions when the dialogue needs the clarification often using action beats or other ways to clarify who is speaking.)
18. Includes chit-chat within dialogue. (A seasoned writer cuts out the ordinary, boring fluff and gets right to the meat of what's important in the conversation.)
19. Overuses adverbs to explain dialogue like: he said whimsically. (A seasoned writer will attempt to make the dialogue express itself.)
20. Uses verbs to stand in as dialogue attributions like: "This is going well," he laughed. (A seasoned writer will know that a character can't laugh, chortle, chirp, etc. a sentence.)
21. Uses clichés for description, characters, or even plot points. (A seasoned writer tries to disregard the first thing that pops into the mind and dig deeper for unique, fresh ideas.)
22. Explains or tells too much information. (A seasoned writer will resist the urge to explain and will attempt to show or lay subtle clues for readers.)
23. Overuse of -ing verb constructions at the beginning of sentences like: Running to the store, he talked on the phone. (A seasoned writer will be careful to express action clearly and succinctly.)
24. Doesn't make enough use of pronouns. (A seasoned writer uses pronouns because they're less clunky and mostly invisible to the reader.)
25. Drops in pronouns without clarifying the antecedent. (A seasoned writer makes sure the pronoun refers back to the last person's name that is mentioned.)
Those are just a few of my observations! Obviously, they're not "absolutes" because writing is a creative process and we can't box anyone in. I think it's unwise to say, "Never use adverbs" or "Never explain anything." When we take such advice literally, we risk having sterile stories.
Rather, I suggest using writing advice as a guideline. Use it to improve and stretch your writing muscles, but don't get hung up on it.
What about you? What particular piece of writing advice have you found the most helpful in taking your stories to the next level?
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