Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Writer's Wednesday: Common Pitfalls

This Wednesday, columnist Donna Alward is back with a different side of the writing coin: her work as a freelance editor, and what common pitfalls she's been seeing lately in submissions.

I've been thinking about this blog for a long time. On one hand, I thought maybe I shouldn't write it. I don't want to be preachy and I don't want to be negative and overly critical. And yet, highlighting some of the more common trouble spots I see, especially in new writers, may help someone as they revise or polish their manuscript. These are mostly things I never really even thought of until I started editing!

So here are my Top Five Common Pitfalls:

5) Lack of emotion. Emotion is the key to the reader connecting with the characters. Know what else can fall into this particular topic? Showing and not telling. They really do go hand in hand. You can tell me that Sally was sad. Or you can show me Sally sitting along in her chair, struggling not to cry, blinking her eyes to keep the tears from falling. Maybe she struggles to take a sip of her now-cold coffee or huddles under a soft blanket to comfort herself. Body language and internal thoughts go a long way to showing the emotional state of your characters.  Don't skim over it.

4) Awkward dialogue. Dialogue that's stilted, that uses words most people wouldn't use in basic conversation, that is choppy and formal... it slows down the story and disrupts the flow. Example: imagine a woman in 2015 being angry at a man and saying, "You are despicable, an utter cad, and I do not want anything more to do with you." A more natural version might be, "You know what, buddy? You're a cheating jerk, and if I never see you again, it'll be too soon." Several times I've seen a lack of use of contractions. Most of us wouldn't say, "I will go to the store when I am done." We'd say, "I'll go to the store when I'm done."

3) Hand in hand with dialogue is dialogue punctuation. I see a lot of periods and then "he said", or commas and then an action that is not a dialogue tag. Example:

Improper: "Let's take this to the bedroom." He suggested.
                 She shook her head, "I don't think so. I'm still mad at you."

Proper:     "Let's take this to the bedroom," he suggested.
                 She shook her head. "I don't think so. I'm still mad at you."

Quick and dirty rule of thumb: if you can replace the "tag" verb with said, it's a comma inside the quotation marks, or after the tag and before the dialogue. In the above example, you could replace suggested with said, so there's a comma after bedroom. If you can't, it's an action and not a tag so you use a period and uppercase as appropriate.

2) Point of View slips. I see this in one of two ways, generally speaking. The first is the head hop, where in the middle of a scene the author switches to the opposite character's point of view for only a paragraph or two, and then slides back again. The second way I see this is when the POV character experiences something, usually visually, that is impossible. For example, say my main character is Doris. "Doris's face went as pale as the milk in the pitcher." Unless she's looking in the mirror, Doris can't see her own face. Or the color of her own eyes, or lips, or how her hair appears. Blushing is a big one! "Doris's cheeks turned pink." How does she know that? However, Doris might indeed feel the heat rise to her face in embarrassment.

1) Comma splices. By far, this is my number one punctuation issue. In essence, two independent clauses can be punctuated in one of three ways:

By using a semi-colon: "I fell asleep; the book I was reading was boring."
By using a conjunction: "I fell asleep, because the book I was reading was boring."
By creating two sentences: "I fell asleep. The book I was reading was boring."

You do NOT write it as: "I fell asleep, the book I was reading was boring."

If it's in dialogue, semi-colons are rarely used. We don't tend to speak in semi-colons. Whatever form you use, you need to determine which flows better and which is more natural and helps vary your sentence structure. If you have a lot of short sentences, you may want to use a conjunction to mix things up a bit. If your narrative has several complex sentences, making it into two shorter sentences might keep it clear and keep the pace moving.

Do you have any other pitfalls you notice as you're writing? Share away!

Donna's latest novel is THE COWBOY'S CHRISTMAS FAMILY, out from Harlequin American this month. You can also check out her editing profile at

1 comment:

  1. Such a great post, Donna.
    (But I'm terrified to say more than that in case I get my comma in the wrong place!) :-)