I’ve worked with many independent authors. Some are experienced, some are developing, and some are absolute beginners. If you're in the early stages of your self-publishing journey, you'll probably welcome any help you can get.
In this article I'll summarize the problems I most often come across in beginner writing, especially in novels, so that you can raise your game and lift your writing to the next level more quickly.
Also, paying attention to these issues at draft stage will reduce your third-party editing costs further down the line.
Don't forget to claim your free copy of my Guidelines for New Authors booklet, which includes this article and a wealth of additional information for beginner writers. You can find the link at the bottom of this post!
1. Rushing to publish rather than hushing to polish
Some new authors are so desperate to publish that they omit the drafting stage. Hush time means putting the book aside for a while and revisiting and self-editing with fresh eyes. If you don’t go through the drafting stage, you’re less likely to spot problems with plot, pace, readability and repetition. And that means your book will not be ready for the later stages of editing like copy-editing and proofreading.
Editor and writing coach Lisa Poisso has some excellent advice on managing the drafting process strategically: How to revise the early drafts of your novel.
Too much detail
Some beginner writers don’t trust their readers to fill in the gaps. This results in writing that gives too much detail. The narrative becomes laboured, boring even. There are some excellent examples in Christina Delay’s 5 Steps to Avoid Overwriting (Jami Gold blog); it’s what Gold calls ‘giving too much stage direction’:
Imagine if an author described a character traveling from a store to their home by listing every single action:
‘She inserted the key into the ignition. Turned the key. Waited for the engine to engage. Slipped the engine into reverse. Expertly maneuvered the car out of its parking spot …’
Gold recommends getting straight to the point – unless, of course, something important happens in the detail that’s key to moving the story forward. If it’s just detail that mimics the mundanity of real life, strip it out.
Watch out for repetition, especially ‘wow’ words. If Jo thunders down the hallway, her face like thunder, you have a problem. If the reader is told that Mike is ‘in agony’ and ‘agonized’ several times in one paragraph, trim the fat (and think of some synonyms!).
High-intensity scenes of fear, danger, desire or confusion are those most prone to repetition and over-explanation in beginner writing, usually because the author is worried that the reader might not understand what the character’s experiencing. Gold calls these ‘emotionally overwrought passages of purple prose’.
When drafting, consider creating a list that features key moments of disclosure and emotion/response. By mapping these moments, you can see whether the descriptions lie in close proximity to each other, and whether you’ve already provided enough detail earlier in the book. Then you can cut accordingly. Less is more.
Telling twice is another consequence of not trusting the reader to fill in the gaps.
3. Logic flop
Logic flop happens when writers try to avoid conjunctions (probably because they’ve been told that conjunctions are boring and shouldn’t be overused). This can lead to grammatical hiccups that disfigure the writing and trip up the reader.
The second, edited version introduces a conjunction that brings logic and clarity to the sentence. Conjunctions are a perfectly natural way to join connecting action clauses that happen one after the other, and don’t need to be avoided simply on principle. Don't be afraid to embrace them!
4. Reluctance to use contractions
The use of contractions isn’t always appropriate, particularly when the writer wants to introduce formality (e.g. in a historical setting or in academic non-fiction) or emphasis. However, in contemporary novel writing, the narrative can feel laboured if contractions are excluded, especially in dialogue.
In real life, people don’t say things like ‘we are going’ and ‘I would have liked to’ so it’s often better to offer the contracted form. If in doubt, say the words out loud. If the likes of ‘we’re going’ and ‘I would’ve liked to’ sound more natural in the context of your book, then use contractions. Readers won’t notice if you do, but they might stumble if you don’t.
5. Overuse of exclamation marks
Take care not to overuse exclamation marks. Too many can be distracting and overwhelm the text. Exclamation marks can detract from the gravity of a statement, making it sound upbeat when a different mood was intended – tension, fear, anger, danger. If you’ve used the right words to convey the mood, the exclamation mark will often be superfluous.
If you do decide that an exclamation mark is necessary, don’t use more than one. Compare the following:
6. Speech tagging problems – sighing, smiling, laughing
Arlene Prunkl’s ‘Dialogue in fiction’ series is my recommendation for independent authors who want free, detailed guidance on managing fiction dialogue effectively. Part III addresses speech tags (among other things), though the whole series is well worth reading.
Beginner authors can be reluctant to overuse he said/she said constructions, even though they’re the most discreet way of tagging.
Prunkl says, ‘Your job, as a newer writer, is to show emotion through the dialogue words themselves, not through the tags.’ She therefore recommends avoiding tags such as ‘hissed’, ‘sighed, ‘laughed’, etc. – not because they’re not good words but because they’re not words that describe the action of speaking. To hiss is to make a sharp sibilant sound; to sigh is to emit a deep, audible breath that expresses relief or sadness; to laugh is to express amusement through spontaneous sounds and movements of the face; to say is to utter words – and that’s why ‘said’ is an effective speech tag.
Take a look at these examples; the bold versions are clean, effective examples of dialogue tags that won’t trip up the reader.
7. Formatting too early
Focus on making your book look beautiful after the bulk of the editing has been done. Fancy fonts and heavily designed text are difficult to work with at editing stage.
Furthermore, the layout might have to be reworked if there are major additions or deletions to the text during structural editing and copy-editing.
Word’s styles palette is sufficient prior to the design stage. You (or your copy-editor) can introduce consistency to the different elements of the book (chapter titles, headings, quoted matter, main text, captions etc.) in a way that’s clear and simple.
8. Unrealistic expectations of what’s possible in one pass
Some beginner writers think that one pass – a ‘final proofread’ carried out by a third-party professional – is enough to guarantee absolute perfection. It’s not. The mainstream publishing industry doesn’t believe it’s possible, and nor should the independent author.
If you hire a professional to proofread or copy-edit your Word file, and that file has not been through previous rounds of extensive and meticulous editorial revision, there will likely be thousands of amendments – spelling, grammar, syntax and punctuation errors and inconsistencies; layout problems with regard to spacing and paragraph indentation; inconsistency with regard to character names and traits, and across word forms.
Don’t expect your editor or proofreader to say, ‘I’ve made 8,000 revisions to your document, compiled 67 queries, spotted four problems with character-history consistency, noticed two character-surname changes, offered 200 suggestions for alternative wording, and I guarantee that, in spite of this, I have not missed one single literal or contextual error.’
Get as many fresh eyes on your work as you can afford. If budget’s an issue, that’s fine, but make sure your expectations reflect this.
Good luck with the self-editing process!
And as promised, here's your freebie! It includes lots of useful guidance and links for newbie writers. I hope you find it useful. Click on the picture to get your copy.
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Featured in The Book Designer's Carnival of the Indies: Joel Friedlander's collection of 'outstanding articles recently posted to blogs'.
Winner of the Judith Butcher Award 2017 in respect of 'highly visible contributions to the SfEP and its membership'.