Five common mistakes beginning writers make

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Veteran writers like Max know the importance of a mid-morning catnap.

Veteran writers like Max know the importance of a mid-morning catnap.

Lately, I’ve been getting asked a lot by people, usually bloggers, about improving their writing. And, in my capacity as the editor of thesnipenews.com, I see a lot of submissions – usually concert reviews – by beginning writers. Usually, these submissions share a lot of common mistakes.

So here are a few tips on improving your writing.

1. Scrap the first three paragraphs. This is a writerly type rule-of-thumb, one that I heard long ago but can’t recall the source.

As an experiment, write something, or look at a previous piece of writing. Now, take out the first three paragraphs. Look at what you have left – is this a better way to start the story? Is it more compelling for the reader to not know all of the information that you perhaps started with?

I’ve seen lots of concert reviews that are overstuffed with information at the start, everything from what time the writer arrived at the venue to a summation of the band’s career up to that point. Ask yourself if something’s relevant, and also if the info might not be better left to be used further on in the story.

2. Be clear on who said what. Too often I see writers make unsubstantiated or unverifiable statements. For instance, I recently received a concert review where the writer called a local club “Vancouver’s premiere venue.” A reader’s reaction might be, “Says who?”

If this is the writer’s opinion, he or she should say so, i.e. “To my mind, it’s Vancouver’s premiere venue.” If it’s a quote or based on something more verifiable, such as a newspaper report, the source needs to be mentioned: “Vancouver’s premiere venue, according to a recent story in the Georgia Straight.”

I also come across writing where it’s unclear who said what. In that same review, the writer states something about a new album reflecting the singer’s current headspace, or whatever, but it’s unclear if this is the writer’s conjecture – what the writer thinks the album is about – or if it’s a quote (direct or paraphrased) drawn from an interview.

3. Show, don’t tell. This means avoiding meaningless adjectives like “amazing” and “great,” which don’t tell the reader WHY something’s amazing or great, just that it is. Use more descriptive adjectives or examples that support your opinion.

In that same concert review, the writer talks about the singer’s stage banter without ever including a quote or example of the banter. As a result, the description is flat: “Interludes with personal words from the singer gave the set a genuine and intimate feeling that worked very well with the venue’s close-up layout.”

A quote here would help, even if you’re paraphrasing, i.e. “at one point she talked about how much she already misses her cat.”

4. Avoid repetition – of words and ideas. Another common mistake (and one that I’ve been guilty of multiple, multiple times) is repeating words. In the space of one paragraph, the concert reviewer mentions the word “crowd” three times. This is fine for a first draft, but for the second you should be looking for synonyms for “crowd” – or finding ways to trim your copy.

Writers will also sometimes repeat ideas. This is another first-draft sign, and sometimes I think it’s because someone wants to fill some imaginary word-quota in their heads. In general, it’s better to be succinct than to write just for the sake of filling up space.

In the concert review I’m looking at, the writer mentions the audience reaction to the show three times. Once would have been enough, and more effective.

5. Fact-check. No matter how diligent one is, you’ll get something wrong, sooner or later. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t fact-check everything in your story, including dates, titles, and names – especially names.

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