Blog | craft | writing for children and teens | writing for magazines | Writing nonfiction for children
December 22, 2016
There are some mistakes editors see so often that they've become sore spots, things they simply think writers ought to take the time to overcome. Every single one of them is something I've done at one time or another, so I'm not saying these mistakes are deal breakers or will keep you from ever being published, but they are so common that they're worth making their correction part of every single revision. So here are five small things that can make a big impression of the wrong kind if you do them regularly.
1. What’s your name?
Make note of your characters' names and how to spell them. It seems an unlikely mistake but I honestly cannot count the number of times I've seen writers forget how they were spelling a character's name (and I've done it myself). A character named Rachel will suddenly become Rachael. A character called Bill through half the story will suddenly be called Will or Billy. A similar mistake to forgetting the character's name is when we change the character's name but miss a few instances of the old name. So a character will be named Xavier, except when he's being called Phillip. This often happens when the character was originally named Philip and then the writer decided on the more exotic "Xavier"; a quick search and replace changed all the Philip references to Xavier but unfortunately left behind all the times the writer accidentally spelled Phillip with an extra l.
2. When are you?
Choose whether you're going to be writing in present tense or past and stick with it. A verb-tense-shift mistake is extremely common, especially if you've done a lot of writing in one tense and decide to try a new story in a less familiar verb tense. Your writing brain has already been "trained" to do everything in past tense (or maybe in present tense) so when you take on this new project, your writing brain keeps trying to switch you back to what feels right. This is one reason why I try to check every verb during my revision steps.
3. No vacation for punctuation!
Watch your apostrophes. We read so much stuff online with wrong apostrophe use that many of us have partially trained our brains to do it wrong, even when we know better. That's why an apostrophe check should be part of every revision. Remember, no apostrophes in plurals. So we go over to visit the Smiths (not the Smith's). It also means that we talk about the 1900s (not the 1900's, which is actually incorrect). You use an apostrophe when you're trying to show ownership: "That is the Smiths' dog, Rolf." And "Pass me Jerry's paper."
Some publishers want plural possessives to have the extra s and some do not. So some would want you to say: "That is the Smiths' dog" and some would want you to say: "That is the Smiths's dog." But don't let that worry you. Choose the one that feels right to you and be consistent. If editors want it differently, they'll handle it.
Another time you use an apostrophe is when some letters are missing. In other words, we use apostrophes in contractions. When cannot becomes can't, you need an apostrophe. When you are becomes you're, you need an apostrophe. Watch that one, especially as many people write your (meaning belonging to you) when what they really need is you're (meaning you are).
4. Don’t ax the murderer!
Don't let your accent pull your writing into error. I see this frequently, and it comes from writing the way your spoken speech sounds instead of the way it actually makes sense. For example, your accent may turn the word asks into ax, and that's fine in speaking but makes the narration much harder to read if you decide to write "He ax her about the murder" instead of "He asks her about the murder." So think about each word you type and don't let what you hear in your head pull you into error on the page.
5. Mixing it up and moderation
Beware of leaning too heavily on one thing in your piece.
Is it all dialogue? (Even a play has stage notes. No one wants a story that is nothing but talking heads.)
Is it all action? (Action is great and attention-getting, but if the story has no depth of emotion or characterization, it's like popcorn. It might be tasty in the moment but it is forgettable moments later.)
Is it all internal stewing, pondering, or worrying? Too many people confuse "character driven" with being okay to have a story that is nothing but musing in the head of the main character. (A story needs to feel like it belongs in a specific place and time so too much time spent just letting your main character ponder will slow the story to a crawl and make a lot of readers bail on you.)
Make sure you're writing a mixed piece using all the tools available: strong dialogue, purposeful action, and real character change brought about the events of the story. It's all about balance.
So check your character name use, your verb tenses, your apostrophes, your sound-driven errors, and your balance, and you'll strengthen your writing and make your editor's day much easier. And that's good for everyone.
Jan Fields is a full-time, freelance author and an Institute of Children's Literature Instructor. Would you like to have your own instructor teaching you on a one-on-one basis? Show us a sample of your work here.