10 Simple Errors Every Rookie Writer Makes
So you think you can write, ey?
You may have some natural ability, but unrefined talent will only get you so far.
Like most skills, writing well requires practice, and it only takes a few slips in tense, a single sentence fragment, or a meandering introduction to make a reader file your content in the “meh” tray forever.
Avoid looking like a n00b or giving your editor/teacher/professor/clients a frustration-induced brain aneurysm by following this simple list of tips for rookie writers.
1. Don’t be too lazy or over-confident to proofread
Once you’ve finished writing your piece, read your work out loud. Twice.
The first time you will constantly be stopping and starting as you fix up some of the problems listed below.
The second time, with technical errors out of the way, you’ll be able to get a much better idea of how well structured your article is and whether or not it flows. Editors can always tell if you’ve read your work, and if you haven’t, why should they?!
2. Don’t use sentence fragments
Every sentence must have three things:
- A subject (the thing that is acting)
- An action (the action being performed) and;
- An object (the thing receiving the action)
Take this sentence for example:
“No matter how long it took to get to the festival, the whistle of the wind in the gum trees, the feel of fresh mud underfoot, and the sound of psytrance in the air.”
This is not a sentence; it’s a sentence fragment.
Why? Well, if we break it down, we can see that there is only one of the three elements a complete sentence requires.
We have three objects: the “whistle” of the wind, the “feel” of the mud, and the “sound” of psytrance.
However, these objects aren’t doing anything, so there is no action.
If we were to add the words “always excited them” to the end of this sentence, we would have a full sentence.
“Excited” would be the action, and “them” would be the subject.
3. Do the “party test”
When you are reading your story out loud ask yourself, “If this story was being told to me by someone at a party, would I be interested in what they were saying, or would I be politely waiting for them to finish so that we can start talking about something I care about?”
A typical amateur error is to write about topics that you think other people will be interested in reading, instead of exploring themes you’re actually interested in covering.
If the subject matter of your work doesn’t interest you, why would it appeal to anybody else?
Always ask yourself “what is the point?” and “who cares?”.
This test is especially important if you are writing an opinion piece with little or no research.
4. Get your tenses right
While there are some ways to incorporate multiple tenses into a piece, beginner writers should make sure they use the same tense throughout a story.
There are three tenses which are used to show us when a story takes place: Past tense (we ate brownies), present tense (we are eating brownies), and future tense (we are going to eat brownies).
Tense is tricky to grasp because often we start a story in one tense and accidentally slip into another tense by the end of it. If you’re not great with sticking to one tense, proofreading is vital.
5. Drop “that”
Don’t use the word “that”. “That” is a useless filler word in 90% of cases. It doesn’t mean anything and almost always detracts from the punch of a sentence.
For example, which sounds better?
“Have I told you that I love you?” or:
“Have I told you I love you?”
Same sentence, same meaning, but the second has one less word.
When you apply this to an entire article, you will soon realise “that” can seriously detract from your style.
Obviously, you need to use “that” in some sentences for the sentence to make sense (for example, the next subheading), but this is rarer than you’d think.
6. Stop using description that isn’t particularly descriptive
Avoid descriptive words that don’t actually tell you anything.
Instead of describing something as good, nice, awesome, fun, amazing, sick, mad, cool etc. go to Thesaurus.com and search for a word that really tells us what you mean.
Which sounds better?
“The sick party was filled with good people who were always nice.” or:
“The lively gathering was filled with uplifting, approachable people.”
These two sentences have the same sentiment, but one conveys a much clearer picture.
7. Be specific
Specific writing is always more interesting than vague prose. Don’t just tell the reader you were enjoying a bottle of wine at the beach. Tell us you were slowly sipping a disproportionately large bottle of Moet atop the imposing cliffs lining Botany Bay.
8. Don’t dick around in a vain attempt to create an original style
Get to the point as early in the article as you can. Nine times out of ten if people can’t tell what they are reading about from the title of an article and the first paragraph they are going to give up.
Trying to be mysterious before you have established yourself as a writer rarely pays off.
9. Know your numbers
This tip applies more to technical documents and articles than informal blogs, but it’s still a handy rule to understand.
The numbers ten and under are always spelt out, numbers above ten are always written as digits.
For example, “Suzie had five tallies, 12 nangs, three trips, 29 bottles of water and one joint.”
10. Get an angle worth having
Every piece must have an angle. An angle is more than an overarching theme; it’s a specific hypothesis that your article explores.
Coming up with angles is a difficult skill to master, especially when it comes to writing reviews. It is not merely enough to say that a gig happened, or even to describe how it happened. The ideas you have about a story need to be specific enough to capture the imagination.
Angles can always be refined later on in the writing process, but if you don’t have one to begin with you can waste a lot of time writing content you don’t end up using.
Even the most experienced writers brainstorm with editors to find a solid approach to a story.
Here is an example of the brainstorming process used to come up with a solid angle:
W: I want to write a story about Boom festival.
E: What about Boom?
W: I don’t know, how fun it was?
E: How fun it was in comparison to other festivals you’ve been to?
W: Yeah, I guess.
E: What makes Boom different from other festivals?
W: Well, it’s one of the oldest parties, and it’s held in Spain.
E: Ah, Spanish festivals! Now that’s interesting. Focus on the differences between the Spanish party style and the Aussie way.
When you have a strong angle, it’s easier to write an attractive piece with a title that grabs you from the start. Which sounds more interesting? “Boom 2014: My Festival Experience” or “Boom 2014: Definitive Proof Spaniards Party Harder Than The Rest of Us”