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 is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. I had no idea word processors adjusted the space between sentences. This is going to be tough! Old habits die hard.
    Great post.

    • If they do, they do a very poor job of it. I will continue to double space until the rule is changed back (or computer programmers learn a little more about aesthetics and reading.)

  2. All the time. ALL THE TIME! Thanks!!!

  3. Hi K.M.,

    The first item on your list highlighted an error that I made with a post title yesterday. These are all good tips and reminders. When using an ellipsis with a comma, should there be a space? “Well Jane,…” or “Well Jane, …”.

    Thanks,
    Ray

  4. Hi–May I suggest you update your post regarding the ellipses. The more common error with this element is not realizing further punctuation is still regarded if the trail off is at the end of a sentence…often requiring that fourth period (or comma). –RMW

  5. Great refresher course, thanks 🙂 Not on your list, but one of my stumbling blocks is when to use “farther,” and when to use “further.” I’m always messing that up!

  6. I didn’t know the semi-colon one. Thanks!

  7. Great refresher. Thanks for posting this.

  8. @Evie: Well, the good news is you don’t have to go through your doc and change every one by hand. Thanks heavens for Find/Replace!

    @MJones: Knowing you’re making them is half the battle!

    @Ray: No need to use a comma, or any other punctuation, with an ellipsis.

    @Mac: The fourth period is only required if the ellipsis is used to indicate that words spanning more than one sentence have been deleted from a quote. It is rarely, if ever, necessary in fiction.

    @Kenda: That one’s a toughie. Just remember that “farther” applies to distance (something far away), and “further” applies to everything else.

    @Katie: Glad the tip was helpful!

  9. @Lorna: You’re welcome! Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment.

  10. I think I’ve done that hyphen-following-a-ly-word thing. Ooops, I’ll watch for that. Thanks for the helpful post!

  11. It’s one if those funny rules that don’t really make sense, but getting it right will give you extra brownie points with the punctuation patrol.

  12. That double space one is hard to break, especially when one is from the age of the typewriter 🙂 But find and replace is a lifesaver.

    Great list!

    • Or if you had it driven into your head from 6th grade (there were no typewriters, so no excuse) Apple 2’s, but for some reason they kept to the double space rule and I still have to do find and replace to fix it. Ugh.

  13. Great Blog!!! Love it!!!

    Lola x
    http://lola-x.blogspot.com

  14. @Raelyn: Once your fingers get in the habit of typing something one way, it’s a dickens to break.

    @Lola: Thanks for stopping by!

  15. Absolutely LOVED this. Great post and it helped me a lot in my writing! Thank you!!

  16. You’re welcome! Always makes my day to hear a post I’d useful.

  17. Hi, K.M. while I was reading over your post the thought occured to me that it had been an awful long time since I had been in school. Lol! Thankfully, although I’m terrible at defining these rules, I believe I subconsciously know them and get most of them correct. We’ll have to ask my editor. *grins*
    Thanks for posting,
    -Jimmy

  18. It’s amazing what we subconsciously picked up during school – in spite of ourselves! I have to admit, though, that a lot of these rules didn’t really “stick” for me until I started teaching them to others.

  19. This is a really helpful series. Will RT!

    I’m so glad you included the double space after a period problem. I can’t get older writers to change. They insist I’m the one who’s wrong. Or they say nobody notices. My fingers still want to make the extra space, too, but a quick search-and-replace will fix it.

  20. Thanks, Anne! The double-space problem is prevalent even among some younger writers, but fixing it is just a matter of retraining our fingers.

  21. I’ve used a word processor almost since I could first write, so I’ve never had the double space problem.
    But some of these other mistakes have thrown me off. Grammar was never my strong point.

  22. Those of us who’ve grown up with the computer have an unfair advantage when it comes to the double-space rule.

  23. Not too many of these am I guilty of, though the inside/outside quotation marks with punctuation sometimes trips me up. The one for titles tripped me up for a while before I figured out how to handle it. That one needed more logic than anything.

    I did, however, recently critique a story for someone and it was double-spaced between sentences. Drove me nuts, since this is something I broke myself of doing almost a decade ago.

    Great post.

  24. Good stuff. Lots of great info. Thanks for sharing. I love this series!! ;o)

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