When you're starting out as a creative writer, it's easy to make mistakes – and it's even easier to avoid them. Here, author Kirsty Logan talks us through five common mistakes made by writers...
1. Point-of-view shift.
“Will you?” he asked, feeling nervous as he held out the ring box he’d secretly been carrying for weeks.
“I love you,” she lied, thinking about her plot to marry him and steal his money.
Point of view means who is telling the story. Often, fictional stories use third person limited, which means that “he” or “she” is used (as opposed to “I”), but the reader only knows the thoughts and feelings of the main character. This is when problems occur. Remember, if the story is told from the perspective of only one character, there can’t be things in the narrative that the character wouldn’t know. If you can’t tell the story properly from only one point of view, then use an omniscient narrator or switch between characters in clearly-defined chapters or sections – never within the same paragraph, as this is confusing.
2. Change in tense.
“He knocked at the door and walks into the house.”
If you’re telling the story as if it’s already happened (past tense), don’t slip into telling it as if it’s happening now (present tense). There’s no quick fix for this – you just have to edit carefully. Things can get complicated when a past-tense story mentions events that happened before the current ones, such as: “she had had to tell him.” Avoid this altogether if you can.
3. Inconsistent tone.
“Fortuitously, the summer was desultory and ephemeral, therefore Mark couldn’t bloody wait to get pissed and shag Jenna.”
This is a common technique in humour writing, and it can work well if done in an original way. It’s easy to accidentally switch tones – though it’s not usually in such an obvious way as the example above! It often happens when you leave a half-finished story and come back to it later. An accidental switch in tone makes a story feel uneven, so always try to keep the voice consistent by re-reading a story before working on it further.
4. US vs. UK spelling
“He realized that that there could be no pretense: England would always be the center of his world, with its familiar colors and flavors.”
This is particularly tricky as word-processing programmes often autocorrect to US spelling, and the spellchecker doesn’t pick up the difference between, say, “realise” and “realize”. However, some US-based literary markets require US spelling, so it’s useful to know the difference so you can make changes where necessary.
5. No contractions in casual dialogue.
“Hi, Dave! It is Mark. What is the plan for tonight?”
If the character is very posh or speaking self-consciously, then it’s believable that they would always say “you are” and “it is” instead of “you’re” and “it’s”. But if the characters are just friends talking together, then it’s not realistic for them to speak in textbook English. It’s difficult to make dialogue sound natural, but a lack of contractions almost always reads oddly.
Common Errors in English Usage
Understanding Point of View
British and American Spelling
Image: overcoming writer’s block by photosteve101, under a CC BY 2.0 license.