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Common Writing Mistakes to Avoid

First, I want to announce that the winner of the BlogHer ’13 swag and copy of Guy Kawasaki’s ebook APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur, is …


Congratulations, Anne! Please email me your mailing address so I can send you your swag!

Writing woman

Now I want to talk a little about craft and how to avoid some of the common pitfalls I see in so many of the books I edit. I have been guilty of every one of these common writer mistakes, so don’t feel bad if you are guilty too! Writing is about learning and improving your craft, not about how smart or talented you innately are.

1. Repetition of Words

I did this in the first draft of my memoir because I thought it added emphasis and sounded poetic. Now I realize it’s a common beginner writer faux pas. I see it a lot in books I edit:

“I ran, ran for my life.”
“He was a man, a man like no other.”
“Her face was red, redder than hot coals.”

These aren’t real examples, but you get the idea. Repetitive words should be filed in a folder with “very,” “she proclaimed,” “my own personal,” and tossed into the recycling bin.

2. “Tears streamed down my cheeks.”

Is there no other way to describe someone crying? Almost EVERY memoir I edit includes this sentence. Again, I’m not picking on anyone. I’ve done it too. But why? Where did this line even come from? (“From where did this line come?” for you grammar sticklers.) Why do tears always need to “stream”? Why not “drip” or “wiggle” or “run”? And why down cheeks at all? Why not think of an original way to describe crying? I once read that a cliche is any phrase you’ve heard before. This is one of the most trite cliches I can think of. All the great literary writers find fresh, original ways to describe the things we do and say and hear every day. Make it your goal to do that too.

3. Big Words Used More Than Once

If you’re going to use a GRE word like “sartorial” or “crucible” or “laconic,” don’t do it more than once in your book, twice at the most. It seems every writer has a favorite big word that she overuses, and it’s really noticeable to someone reading your work for the first time. There was a time, by the way, when I thought you had to have a huge vocabulary to be a good writer. That is not the case at all, and Hemingway is the perfect example. Regarding a literary feud with Faulkner, he said, “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.” So don’t be intimidated if you didn’t score a 1600 on the GRE. Sometimes simpler is better.

What about you? As writers and editors, what common mistakes do you see in your own writing and in the writing of your peers? What are your pet peeves?

35 comments to Common Writing Mistakes to Avoid

  • mainecharacter

    I think "tears streamed down my cheeks" is used a lot 'cause it sounds good, with all that rhyming. And I forget where, but I recently read someone describe crying by simply saying, "Everything blurred."

    And amen to the power of short words. Or rather, your elucidation of the beneficial economy of prose brought about a scriptural affirmation from my cognitive awareness. : p

    • meghancward

      Hahaha! After a friend and I took the GRE a few years ago, we emailed back in forth in GRE words for a while, just to be obnoxious. 🙂

  • Anthony Lee Collins

    I go for simple words whenever possible, but occasionally I throw in a fancy one (but never more than once in a book, as you say). A blog buddy recently commented that people weren't using "stentorian" enough, and I filed that away because I have a character with a stentorian voice (she's thirteen). I just used the word recently. I was so pleased. 🙂

    • meghancward

      Big words are fine used sparingly. I was surprised at how many Henry James uses when I went back and reread The American a couple of years ago. I'll give his books to my kids when they are studying for the SAT!

    • meghancward

      And yes, stentorian is a fine word 🙂

  • Ruth Harris

    Meghan: Excellent! Short—and to the point. The late, great (is that a cliché?) Elmore Leonard and Robert Parker understood perfectly. Bottom line: KISS. Keep It Simple, Stupid.

    My own downfall: "began." I cannot tell you how many times I use the phrase "S/he began to" followed by verb. I have to go through my ms with the delete button engaged.

    • meghancward

      Ruth, oh, that's a common one! The phrase I'm guilty of overusing is "forced a smile." I suppose it's fitting for a fashion model memoir, but I've gone back and chopped most of them.

  • annerallen

    Yay! This is turning out to be a very good day. (After several not so good ones) so I'm so jazzed to win Guy Kawasaki's book! I'll email you my address. Thanks a bunch, Meghan!

    I have a bad habit like Ruth's. My characters always "start" to do things. I'm doing an edit on an old ms. and it's amazing how many "starts" there are. I've already cut about 6000 words, just by eliminating stuff like that. Now I'd better do a search for "streaming down her cheeks."

    Great list!

    • meghancward

      Anne, I see people using "begin to" and "start to" in my writers' group too. I think it's a common writerly tic. Congrats on winning the swag! I'll try to get that in the mail to you tomorrow.

  • lindseycrittenden

    My personal pet-peeve. Oops, I mean my pet-peeve: Danglers. Such as: Before starting kindergarten, my mom gave me a piece of advice I've never forgotten.

    Um, who started kindergarten here??

    See them all the time! Hear them on NPR! Argh!!

    • meghancward

      Lindsey, that is a common error I see while editing books! I used to tutor the SAT, and a few of those were always in the practice tests, so I learned them well.

  • My biggest writing mistake is repeating words, not for emphasis, but using the same words over and over and over and over. I've heard this is typical of those of us with Aspergers though.

    It is an annoying habit I must break!

  • A great post. I am guilty of the above too. I also read recently that 'Suddenly' is another overused way to start a sentence. Guilty and going back to look for them.

  • […] up on what you already know. Meghan Ward starts us off with the basics in her short list of Common Writing Mistakes to Avoid, and Jeff Goins says you–yes YOU–can find your writing voice in just 10 easy steps. Now […]

  • literarywildfire

    There is a purity in simplicity that always gets drowned out with multiple syllables. In short, I like easy words I can understand.

  • Larynn Ford

    My editor pointed out several words I had repeated and didn't even realize. I'm more aware now…I hope:)

    • meghancward

      Do you remember what they were, Larynn? It's funny how we don't notice our own writing ticks.

      • Larynn Ford

        Back: I turned back toward the house. I stepped back behind the car. I walked back to the barn.
        I think I probably over use the word when I carry on a conversation so it stands to reason I'd naturally write it.

        Well, back to writing. Oops!

  • Alta Peterson

    Wait a second .. the next post after I write something for you is on Common Writing Mistakes??? Wait is that too many questions marks? haha : >

  • Alta

    Ok good lol … I said "Everything .. absolutely everything" so I'm glad I wasn't the inspiration. You should write a post like this but specific to blogs/the internet.

  • Karen B. Kaplan

    My current pet peeve is the overuse of the word "amazing."

    • meghancward

      Have you seen it much lately, Karen?

      • Karen B. Kaplan

        Dear Meghan,I'm not sure if you are teasing me a bit. But now that I have pointed it out, I bet you will start noticing it everywhere: blogs, Twitter, radio, TV, conversations with colleagues and friends, etc. My English as a Second Language student writers use it plenty, too. -Karen B. Kaplan, of, where I avoid “that word” as conscientiously as say, “clings like mold.”

  • Awesome post…! I do agree with you. These are the mistakes people like me overlook always. I have learned helpful tips from all your posts you have published here especially regarding writing skills. Thanks a lot for being so generous in telling us the right way to wright…!!!

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  • He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.

  • Olivia

    These aren’t real examples, but you get the idea. Repetitive words should be filed in a folder with “very,” “she proclaimed,” “my own personal,” and tossed into the recycling bin. improve handwriting practice

  • Nice Article. Will help me alot with my Blog post. Writing is really an art, writing is explaining you though about any object or idea. But it hard to explain in easy way, that poeple can understand.

  • Chris

    This is great example to explain of common mistakes. I have been following these tip to avoid mistakes. it helped me. Thanks for sharing knowledge skills abilities