Put Your Best Work Out There: Avoid These 25 Newbie Writer Mistakes

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 clich├ęs 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?


  1. This is a fantastic list. When I first heard about some of these writing "rules", I was so overwhelmed. But over time I learned to incorporate them as "guidelines", as you say, until it became a more natural process. Now I like to shake it up a little and break a rule every now and again, but we also need to learn which ones are worthy of breaking. LOL Some are non-negotiable like not remaining in character POV in a scene or using verbs as a dialogue attribution. I'm still a work in progress, experience is a teacher. And you are an excellent one, too!

    1. Good point, Carla! Seeing a list like this can be intimidating and overwhelming. I suggest that newer writers take a few principles at a time to work on and just keep adding more and more in until it becomes natural (versus jumping in and trying to do everything all at once!) I'm still a work in progress too! Always have much to learn and practice! :-)

    2. Hi Carla, I couldn't agree more. I too have learned that some are non-negotiable but sometimes break a rule every now and then. ;)
      More often than not though, I try to flex those writing muscles. And yes, experience is a fantastic teacher. Thank you Jody for the list! :)

  2. Replies
    1. Hi Jodie! No worries! I haven't gotten to the critiques! They're coming soon though! :-)

  3. This is super helpful. I'm hardly a seasoned writer, but I'm also not a newbie.

    1. This is probably a good reminder to all of us at any stage! Sometimes even seasoned writers can get sloppy.

  4. This is great advice for those of use still unpublished. I could take this list and use it for my revisions. Thanks!

    1. Hi Lori, This would make a good revision self check-list! Sometimes it's almost better to pay attention to these kinds of details in the revision process anyway. :-)

    2. I am not a newbie, but also, I am not seasoned. I have well over 40 manuscripts sitting on my flash drive, but I cannot get up the nerve to send one to a publisher.

  5. Oops--"us" My fingers moved too fast.

  6. Nice list of reminders for all writers! Thanks, Jody.

    1. Hi Julie! I agree. We all need a reminding now and again! :-)

  7. Replies
    1. LOL! Yes, I hear you. It's easy to get caught up in our character's head and forget that our reader isn't quite as enmeshed and needs reminding of who we're referring to! :-)

  8. It starts with a prologue. Not because prologues are bad (they can be amazing), but because I've recently been asked to read two books where the prologue was completely different from the rest of the book.

    One prologue had a very supernatural feel, while the first two chapters were contemporary drama. Someone looking for a contemporary drama wouldn't have read past the prologue, and a sale would have been lost. Someone looking for a supernatural novel would have been disappointed when they realised the supernatural stuff was only a dream.

    The other had a prologue in traditional third person past tense, but the rest of the novel is third person present tense, and features a completely different protagonist. It wasn't until I was about 25% of the way through that I worked out how the prologue related to the novel ... and I'm still not convinced it had to be a prologue.

  9. Thanks for sharing! Loved the list. It's something to think on. :-)

  10. This is one of those posts that is worth printing out and sticking to the wall of my office...which is exactly what I have just done. A fantastic piece!

  11. Great list, makes me think about my current WIP. I do like how you note that this sort of writing advice should be taken as a guidline not be all end all. Will need to refer back to this upon the editing phase. Thank you!

  12. The 'ing' rule gets broken all the time... I've read some books where almost every paragraph begins with an ing word. Soon becomes irritating, especially when the sentence conjures impossible actions. Like, 'Sitting, she tied her laces and walked out." ??

    As far as the list goes, I cringed at lots I know I have been guilty of, in earlier days, and still have to remind myself about others. I'm copying Dean! :)

    Thanks Jody.

  13. helpful list. and I was so happy that I had a handle on them until I got to 16. Dammit, I do that all the time.

  14. Great list - and I like that add that they are not 'absolutes'. I think understanding why one should follow these 'guidelines' is almost as important as knowing them. If you understand the rules you know when you can break them rather than following them slavishly like a paint by number painting.

  15. These are great - and so true!! Although some of my favorite authors do break these (especially 19 and 20), so I agree that they're not absolute. They're pretty close, though ;)

  16. Thank's for your information ^___^
    this a nice post

  17. This is kind of a fun list to look at and say, "ah, I remember when I used to write like that!" Knowing that you don't start with too much description or end in a dream sequence means you are learning, growing, and improving as an author. Thanks so much for the tips!

  18. Thank you. Just Thanks.

  19. Looking at this list gives writers the confidence. Thanks for this great ideas that will surely help.

  20. Would you say there are any times that it is appropriate to break rule #1?


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