As a developmental editor and literary consulant, I work with a lot of aspiring writers. And aspiring writers are often a mess, let me tell you. I know that some of the no-no’s they commit simply stem from not knowing any better, but some things they do make me want to throw their stories into the burning pits of Hell. These mistakes generally have little to do with grammar or plot. I do have peeves related to those too, but I can work with you if those are your only issues.
If you are an aspiring writer, try to avoid these mistakes:
This is the worst writing sin that you can ever commit. If you are a writer, then you are also a reader. I can tell if you don’t read. It’s very obvious.
Recently a piece came across my desk, and I just knew its writer didn’t read. I felt sure that he had never read anything other than the signs on the road. His whole novel was written in all caps, bold, and italics. Not to mention that almost every single word was misspelled – but that’s a grammar issue, and I’ll deal.
I asked this writer why on earth he thought that this formatting was okay. He didn’t have an answer. So I pushed further.
“Who are your writing inspirations?” I asked.
“I don’t have any,” he replied. “I don’t really read. I just had this idea in my head.”
Let me say it again: if you write, you must read. If you aren’t a reader, then you can’t be a writer. This is the #1 rule of writing: Read first, then write.
Not taking criticism
I try to be polite and not directly tell people their work sucks. I really do. I’m kind of a give-it-to-you-like-it-is girl, but I understand that being a first-time writer is hard, so I am nice. I don’t come right out and say it sucks, even though it probably does. But that’s why you’ve sought me out, right? You want to get better.
It’s hard for me to be nice, trust me. So when I tell you that your story needs some work, please be nice back to me and don’t flip out.
Flipping out usually comes in one of two ways:
You’ve never had anyone other than your mother look at your work before, but you feel you have written the next Twilight because she said your work was great.
Narcissism. Writers don’t have time for it. This industry is cutthroat. You hear of a story now and then about someone like Stephenie Meyer who just sends one copy of her book to one big-name agency and voila, it’s a bestseller. Oh, wait, that’s the only story I know like that. It doesn’t happen. Your mother is not a good critic, which is why you have come to me. I don’t love you or care about your feelings.
Willful Ignorance of writing basics
Not knowing the difference between an outline/background/summary and an actual story
Okay, this one is a little bit of a grammar issue, but it’s tied so closely with the other bad habits that I must mention it. This is the problem that I often see with narcissistic writers, suicidal writers, writers who don’t read, and writers who don’t write. In fact, I see it in almost all of them. (Non-readers being the worst, though.)
I get lots of manuscripts across my desk that the writers claim are finished, but all I see in front of me is a summary/outline/background for a story. It takes me hours to just force myself to sit down and read what is going on. They read like this: “MC did this, and then she thought this, and then she did this, and then this happened.”
There are several problems that go into this. First off, 97% of the time, books are written in past tense. Unless you are a literary genius, don’t use present. It makes the book sound like a summary. Problem two: not using dialogue. How can you have an entire novel without one line of dialogue? These books have no scenes, no dramatic presence, very little drama, and I don’t care a flip about anyone and anything happening in the book. There is nothing other than description going on. Books aren’t descriptions of what is going on; books are lively, make you cry and laugh, throw the book across the room because you hate a character so much, pieces of art.
Willful Ignorance of publishing
Will you write/edit/polish my query for an agent even though I haven’t written more than the first ten pages of the story? (Because that’s all agents require, right?)
So far your query letter looks good, which means that you have Googled how to write a query letter. And I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that those pages you Googled gave you a certain piece of advice. The #1 rule for new authors about querying agents: have your manuscript finished. So I assume you must think that you are the exception. But, honey, you aren’t. Stephen King wasn’t the exception either. For fiction, you must, must, must (can I say it again?), must have your manuscript finished and polished to the best of your ability before sending it to an agent. I’m not going to help you query an agent if you haven’t finished your book. It really is a waste of my time.
Now, if you are an Important Person, someone with a following, platform, etc., and you want to write a non-fiction book, that’s a different deal.
Being a writer without writing
I’m a writer…but I’ve never finished a writing project before.
This one usually goes along with asking me to write a query for an unfinished book. Having an agent doesn’t make you a writer. Writing a book makes you a writer. Or a short story. Or an article. Go finish something. Once that is finished, go finish something longer.
And the unfortunate part of this: I get job applications for ghostwriters who haven’t completed a full-length book. My ghostwriting company (www.theghostwriting agency.com) only works on full length works. It says that upfront on the website. I don’t do blogs or content. My ghostwriters are expected, if necessary, to complete a full length rough draft in 1-2 weeks. If you haven’t been able to complete a full-length work in your 10-year writing career, what makes you believe you can do one in 10 weeks?
I live in Athens, Georgia with my son, my husband, and an ever revolving list of exchange students, who are a never ending source of entertainment and writing material.