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. @Liberty: I have to admit the double-space thing irks me too – especially since it’s difficult to convince some writers that two spaces really aren’t necessary!

    @Erica: Thanks for reading!

  2. Mary R. P. Schutter says

    Wonderful stuff! Since I frequently edit my own writing or that of family members, articles such as yours come as a welcome help and refresher. Thanks!

  3. The best of writers are those who know how to edit themselves. It puts them way ahead of the pack!

  4. Hi K.M.

    In Canada and the UK, the period goes inside the quotation mark if the character said it, outside if the narrator said it. This is the same as the American rule for question marks. It also applies when quoting a poem title.

    Should I read “The Road Less Traveled”?
    I will read “The Road Less Traveled”.

    Type “Hello World.”
    Type “Hello World”.
    In the first, you type the period. You don’t in the second.

    He said, “What?” — He said it questioningly, perhaps not expecting an answer.

    He said, “What”? — The narrator isn’t sure. Maybe he said something that sounded like “what”.

    The Grammar Girl podcast is great for this sort of thing. For each topic, she tells us what several different style guides say.

  5. Good point. I’m dealing with primarily American writers in my consultation service, but things do get dicey when we’re looking at the international scene. I love the diversity found in the grammar/spelling/punctuation of different countries, but sometimes it would be nice if we could all just get together on the subject!

  6. Now I’m second-guessing the comma in the last example. Sigh.

  7. I hate commas. Nough said.

  8. I will never, EVER, stop using two spaces at the end of a sentence. Just the way I roll.

  9. @Jolea: You’re in good company. From all appearances, so did Hemingway.

    @Drew: As long as you have agents or editors willing to take the extra one out for you, you’ll be fine, but most will appreciate an author going to the minor effort of correcting the problem themselves.

    • There is no need for agents or editors to take an extra space out, since most programs do it automatically. Instead, I often have to go through and put the space back where IT BELONGS, just because too many people choose to blindly follow rules made up by people who don’t even understand what they are doing.

  10. actually, I’m good on all of them but the spacing between sentences. Even now, I’m double spacing. Hope I won’t have to change the entire MS? sigh.

  11. Find/Replace in Word makes it easy to change the document universally if you just can’t seem to beat the habit.

  12. As a homeschooling mother I was thrilled to read your post! It is amazing how many of these simple rules we need to be reminded of. Thank you for your
    attention to details, and for helping so many of us!
    Linda

  13. You’re welcome! The earlier we can get these rules knocked into our brains, the more likely they are to stick with us for the rest of our lives.

  14. Oh my, I’m flashing back to my days as a copy editor! This is a great list. I remember the days of the double space after sentences, and had to deprogram myself of that. And the fewer/less one drives me nuts; I’ve noticed that as newspapers lay off copy editors this one is occurring regularly now, even in headlines. Ugh.

    Patrick

  15. Newspapers have long been a poor place to look for proper grammar models!

  16. Oh, thank you for the refresher course! Also, no one ever told me about the spacing between sentences and I used to work for writers.

    I’m replacing via “find/change” as suggested.

  17. Do I ever make these mistakes? NEVER. Just ask my mom. She knows everything. 😉

  18. @Anonymous: Thank heavens for modern tools, huh?

    @Chitrader: If you never make any of these mistakes, you’re a wunderkind! 😉

  19. I was recently exposed to the ironclad rule that periods are always inside the quotation marks and, as you said, “thanks heavens” for find/replace – 318 corrections in less than a second!

    I am 58-years-old and I was left wondering – where did I get the idea that the period went outside the quotes to begin with? Was that the norm in high school English back in the 1960’s?

    Now on to the use of commas. Somewhere I was taught to use commas only to separate complete ideas from each other – never use a comma where an “and”, “but” or “or” would otherwise make a comfortable transition. Why is that “rule” wrong and would I have picked it up in the same archaic high school English class that taught me to put the period outside the quotes?

    Thanks,
    Chuck

  20. As cricketb noted above, rules vary between US and UK standards. Brits will put the period outside the quotes in non-dialogue situations. You may have picked up the habit there somehow. But in US usage, I can’t think of an instance in which the period would go outside the quote marks.

    Over the last fifty years or so, journalistic style guides have omitted the Oxford comma (the comma before the conjunction in a list of three or more) to allow space to be saved in journalistic columns. In that instance, you *can* get away with omitting the comma before the conjunction, although punctuation purists will scream bloody murder at you for doing it.

    It is also occasionally acceptable to omit the comma before the conjunction joining two independent clauses if the clauses are short and the reader will be in no danger of confusion: e.g., “I ate the ice cream and he hate the pickles.” But you’re almost always safer including the comma when joining even simple independent clauses.

  21. I keep telling my mom double spaces is incorrect. Yes! Backup

  22. Well, you know what they say: by the mouth of two or three witness… 😉

  23. I just stumbled on to your site and discovered this series. Thank you for taking the time to offer these useful tips. I must admit, however, that I am having a difficult time getting my head around the double space issue. This is the FIRST time I’ve ever heard such a thing! When I view my sentences in my word processor, I don’t see that it is adjusting the space between the sentences. There is still only one space, which looks downright wrong to me. Aesthetically, I like the look of a larger break between the sentences. Does this have anything to do with how I’ve set my justification? Are you assuming that we are all using the blocked justification? I always use left justified, so maybe this is why the idea of taking out that extra space bothers me. Not sure I’ll be super successful braking this habit. 🙁

    What is the rule for spaces following a colon? I’ve always used two, but maybe this has changed too?

    Thank you!

  24. The rule on colons is the same: single space. 🙂

    Take a look at a book published within the last ten years, and you’ll see that it only spaces once between sentences. Because books are justified, the kerning (space) between words is automatically adjusted by the design program. Authors who single space their manuscripts save their typesetter a lot of find/replacing when the time comes for publication.

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