New Writer Mistakes (That No Writer Can Afford To Make)

Sunday, November 02, 2014
I recently coordinated a writer’s workshop and many of the folks who attended were new writers. Oh, how I love new writers! They’re so excited and eager and hopeful!

But I worry about new writers, too.

Our workshops always include first page critiques, and writers love them. But I’m always reminded of one of my first critiques, a story I entered for a contest. The judge chewed me out for all kinds of mistakes—technical mistakes—and honestly, I was pretty ticked off. Until I did my homework and realized how many errors I’d made. I was mortified, and a bit crushed. There was so much to learn!

At the end of critiques, at least one new writer will come up to me, embarrassment and hopelessness written all over his or her face. But no one springs forth a brilliant writer. We start out pretty dreadful and learn from our mistakes. Like these three common new writer mistakes (that no writer can afford to make):

Technical Mistakes in a Manuscript

It’s easy to gloss over mistakes when reading aloud a manuscript for those who are critiquing. But an editor or agent with eyes on your manuscript will see every glaring error: the run-on sentence, improper indentation, incorrect capitalization, the wrong formatting for dialogue.

Your story might be amazing, but if your errors are egregious, an editor will stop reading. Getting into a critique group and reading manuscripts, as well as allowing others to read your work, will help you put an end to manuscript mistakes. And if you can’t find a critique group, go online for help.

Sloppy Titles

Almost as common as the misplaced comma is the essay or story or book with a slapped-on, boring title. And that’s a shame because the title is the first text a person reads.

A good title is golden. It can be ironic or subtle or intriguing, but it should never be wasted. And before you think I’m being too harsh, I want you to think about the last time you were in a library, browsing the stacks. Or the other day when you were thumbing through an anthology, trying to choose a story. Or even the last time you zipped over here to The Muffin to check out a post.

Yep, it was a title that caught your eye. Put a little effort and imagination into your title and you’ll catch an editor’s eye.

S-l-o-w Beginnings

Gone are the days when writers could start a story with a Faulknerian opening meandering eloquently for several pages. Unless, of course, you are Faulkner’s ghost. Then you might be able to get away with it.

For the rest of us mere mortals—and new writers, especially—get the story moving from the beginning.

Take, for example, the picture book manuscript. In today’s market, 500 words is the norm. But if you take 250 words just to describe Uncle Henry’s farm, you’re going to run out of words before you ever get to the purple unicorn in the barn. Fortunately, a slow beginning is easy to fix. Write your story, your essay, or your blog post. And then go back and cut, cut, cut. You’ll tighten your manuscript and hook your reader from the get-go.

We all—old and new writers, alike—make plenty of mistakes. But the writers who succeed fix the mistakes.

~Cathy C. Hall (who fixed and then sold that contest entry!)


Sioux Roslawski said...

Cathy--What a great (and spot-on) post. This old dog could certainly learn new tricks, along with being reminded of old ones that I've forgotten.

(And you don't even have to swat me with a rolled-up newspaper to get me to behave right as a least the swat is unnecessary MOST of the time.)

Cathy C. Hall said...

Ha, Sioux! As old dogs go, I think you've learned more than a few new tricks. But as old dogs (and I'm including myself here), there's nothing like a refresher course every once in a while! :-)

Anonymous said...

Hi great post. It was a great help as I am now trying to get the technical side right. It's not my strongest suit. Ah, the trials and tribulations of a writer.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the tips!

Donna Volkenannt said...

Thanks for the tips, Cathy. They're helpful for writers of any age--or writers at any stage in their writing journey.

Lisa Ricard Claro said...

Yes, yes, and yes. I'm finally past the point of making too many technical errors, but I have a TERRIBLE time with titles, and I always worry that my beginnings are too slow. Those things don't sound like they would be tough to do well, but they are, and I still have a long way to go.

Linda O'Connell said...

Agree! I taught a workshop once about titles, and an elderly gentleman told me I was sensationalizing. Well, um, yeah, if your story is sensational, you need a sensational title.

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