Most Common Writing Mistakes: 10 Stylistic Mistakes Sabotaging Your Story

In writing, the little mistakes are often the big mistakes. Make sure you’re not letting any of these potentially tragic gaffes sabotage your readers’ trust in your competency:

Articles

Articles (such “the,” “an,” and “a”) should not be capitalized in a title, except at the beginning.

This: Summer of the Gorgola Monster, One Heck of a Scary Beast

Not This: Summer of The Gorgola Monster, One Heck of A Scary Beast

Double Spaces

No need to put two spaces between sentences. This “rule” is a holdover from the days of the typewriter. Modern word processors automatically adjust the spacing between sentences, so it’s no longer correct to include the extra space.

This: The Gorgola Monster rose from the deep. He shook himself dry and roared.

Not This: The Gorgola Monster rose from the deep.  He shook himself dry and roared.

Ellipsis

An ellipsis is always three periods.      

This: “I don’t know…” she trailed off.      

Not this: “I don’t know…….” she trailed off.

Fewer

Use “fewer” to indicate things that can be counted and “less” to indicate things that cannot be counted.      

This: I realized we had fewer flowers and less flour than before the Gorgola’s attack.      

Not this: I realized we had less flowers and fewer flour than before the Gorgola’s attack.

Independent Clauses

Use a comma to separate independent clauses.      

This: The Gorgola roared and charged, and I screamed like a baby and ran like a duck.      

Not this: The Gorgola roared and charged and I screamed like a baby and ran like a duck.

-Ly Adverbs

It is incorrect to connect a pair of modifiers with a hyphen when the first modifier is an adverb ending in “ly.” (It is, however, acceptable to hyphenate when the first modifier is an adjective.)       

This: The perfectly toned game warden refused to shoot the Gorgola, even when it bit my arm.      

Not this: The perfectly-toned game warden refused to shoot the Gorgola, even when it bit my arm.

Punctuation

Commas and periods always go inside quotation marks; colons and semi-colons go outside.      

This: The warden said the Gorgola was “endangered”; I said I was obviously the only one in “danger.”      

Not this: The warden said the Gorgola was “endangered;” I said I was obviously the only one in “danger”.

Semi-Colon

Use a semi-colon to divide items in a list when one or more of those items contains a comma.      

This: I made an inventory: one bite mark; two yellow, size small sneakers; three crushed flowers.      

Not this: I made an inventory: one bite mark, two yellow, size small sneakers, three crushed flowers.

Speaker Tag

Unless the action beat interrupts a dialogue sentence or unless you’re following the dialogue with a speaker tag (he said/she said), don’t end dialogue with a comma.      

This: “You’re useless.” I stomped away from the warden.      

Not this: “You’re useless,” I stomped away from the warden.

Titles

Titles (such as “mom” or “dad”) should only be capitalized when used as a direct replacement for a name.      

This: I called my dad and asked to talk to Mom about the best way to deter a Gorgola from a campsite.      

Not this: I called my Dad and asked to talk to mom about the best way to deter a Gorgola from a campsite.

Tell me your opinion: Do you ever find yourself making any of these mistakes?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Again, I have to thank you for this post. My head is still wheeling about the double space thing. LOL I even googled it–the doubting Thomas that I am! There it was in the stark, black-and-white, single spaced text of Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sentence_spacing

    I should be single spacing. Learn something new every day!

  2. You’re welcome! It *is* a pain for those who have spent all their lives with double tapping that space bar their thumbs. Blame the software designers!

  3. I was raised and educated in the U.S. and was taught to use the punctuation with quotation marks just as @cricketb commented. Interesting.

  4. That is interesting. I’ve never run into that in American usage before.

  5. How about the difference between THAT and WHICH? A copy editor in NYC explained this to me two decades ago, and I’ve depended on it ever since. (The entire island of Great Britain is absolutely clueless about this distinction)

    There is a party on a block with 10 houses. How likely are you to send your friend to the wrong house?

    Go to the first house that is green. (could be any of the houses, but is the first green house, not the second or third)
    Go to the the first house, which is green. (is ONLY the first house)

  6. Great explanation. I like little visual and mnemonic tricks. They’ve saved me many a day!

  7. Hi K.M., I just had to reply with my own experience. I went to Chicagoland schools and I was also taught the same as cricketb. Something else I noticed is all the journalists and bloggers that use “a” and “an” differently than what I was taught. I was taught to use “an” before words that begin with a vowel or vowel sound, otherwise use “a”.

  8. Yes, and to make things even trickier, we pronounce certain words with or without vowel sounds (“herb,” for example), which means some of stick an “an” in front of them and some of us stick an “a” in there.

  9. Author Allyn Lesley says:

    Love this. It took me awhile to learn about ellipses and dialogue/action tags, but learning both have been really instrumental in polishing my writing.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      All those little tricks of prose seem inconsequential on the surface, but they really are crucial to developing a strong writing style.

  10. Janey Egerton says:

    Hi Katie, I struggle with something related to the last one, namely with the capitalisation of terms of endearment like dear, darling, sweetie, etc. Do you write: “Do you love me, Darling?” or: “Do you love me, darling?”
    Thanks,
    Janey

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      If the term is replacing the name in a formal way (e.g., “Do you love me, Mother?”), then it should be capitalized. If it’s just a generic term, such as “darling,” it should be lowercase.

  11. I often find myself placing semi-colons and and hyphens in my everyday writing, such as forum posts. It’s a habit that I need to try to knock when it comes to fiction, because I have a tendency to write very complex sentences as I try to jam as much information as I can into everything I say. On an internet forum, it doesn’t matter, but I actually find myself trying to rearrange my paragraphs when writing fiction because my natural flow of thought and speech differ from the manner in which I write. As a result, sometimes in first drafts, I go ahead with my habitual method of writing and then rearrange the paragraphs at a later time. It’s tough, though, because the way I write has a certain flow to it. Rearranging these paragraphs disrupts it when I re-read it post-edit.

    I managed to avoid doing it here, thankfully. :/

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Actually, social media can be a great training ground for writing good sentences. Twitter, especially, is great for learning how to trim fat.

  12. I agree with Rebecca, I plan on continuing to put in the extra space because I find it much easier to read. I wish they hadn’t changed the double spaces rule. Yes, I do realize it’s “old school” (however, I did think it was optional).

    It is my opinion that this started because of web pages. Since HTML removes the extra space (unless it is hard coded using  ), it seems to me that people got used to reading that way thus making the change happen. As much as I enjoy the internet I wish this had not changed.

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge. I always enjoy reading your articles.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Certainly nothing wrong with adding that extra space for your own comfort while writing and editing. But I would still advise running a universal search through your document before submitting to an agent, since you’ll want your manuscript to be up to professional standards the first time it’s viewed as a potential for publication.

      Glad you’re enjoying the site!

  13. It is incorrect to connect a pair of modifiers with a hyphen when the first modifier ends in “ly.”

    >>Some adjectives end in -ly though. The headline says “-Ly Verbs,” so I assume you know this (even though they’re technically adverbs). What I’m saying is that this is true when the -ly word is an adverb, but it’s not true when the -ly word is an adjective.

  14. Hi K.M.,

    Yes I have made plenty of those mistakes but I have learned so much from others online such as yourself. So should I use commas inside quotes “because” I’m showing the reader what they are doing while the character is speaking?

    Example: Jennifer leans back in her chair “Yeah Cindy, that’s what John told me,” Tapping the pencil on her face.

    Is that the correct way and reason?

    • The actions you’re referencing here are called “action beats” (more on them here). They stand as sentences of their own. The only time you would want to separate them from the dialogue with commas is if the action literally applies to how the dialogue is said (e.g., “she screamed”).

      The correct way to write your excerpt would be: Jennifer leaned back in her chair. “Yeah, Cindy, that’s what John told me.” She tapped the pencil on her face.

  15. K.M. – Thank you so much that helps. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate getting useful advise from an established author. Bless you!

    I look forward to learning lots more

    Eric

  16. The quotations are where I have the most trouble.

    For example – I understand that quotation marks are used like this:
    George said, “That blighter owes me money.”

    However, I thought when we were talking about things that were not a direct quote, they were not “part of that rule”.

    Where am I going wrong?

    🙂
    Dave

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Unless you’re British (where the usage is different), all periods go inside the quote marks, regardless of how the quotes are used. Same goes for commas.

  17. Thank you for the concise lesson. I find it hard to tell an independent clause from a dependent clause. I seem to put in too many commas.

  18. Excellent reminder! Thank you, Katie 🙂

  19. Very interesting… Strucked me kinda funny, that these rules aren’t universal – I mean, that they are right in English, but not in other languages. In Polish, for example, period always goes outside the quotation mark – actually there is a golden rule, that every indicative sentence has to end with period. We have also different rule for listing the items – semicollons are acceptable only in the case of the list of paragraphs. In other circumstances we use commas.
    Just some curiosities, anyway your job is superb and I’m reading your website and ebooks with great pleasure….:-)

  20. Great list. Just wanted to check on the usage of mom as that’s used in my book a lot. Are these right?

    My mom said,
    said my mom
    I told my mom
    I called my mom over

    Hey Mom!
    The doctor told Mom
    Why does Mom always say…

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