The Five Most Common Errors to Avoid in Your Writing #editingtips #amwriting #selfpublishing #writingcommunity


I’ve been editing for a few years now, and the same issues come up again and again. Here are the five most common:

Unnecessary dialogue tags

It is best, on the whole,  to stick to ‘said’ and ‘asked’. There are a few reasons for this. Readers are so used to seeing ‘said’ and ‘asked’ that they skim over them, noting quickly who is ‘saying’ or ‘asking’ and getting on with the important things. The flow of the writing isn’t interrupted, the reader reads on smoothly and happily. If a dialogue tag suddenly crops up, like ‘chuckled’ or ‘screamed’, or, possibly worst of all, ‘interjected’, the reader is forced to pause, to think about the tag. The flow is interrupted, and for no purpose. A dialogue tag is only there to identify who has spoken. It shouldn’t need to tell the reader anything else. The character’s words, their actions and their situation should be sufficient.

Physical description


It’s really only necessary to include physical description if it is relevant to the story. If you do want to have some physical description, then rather than have the details all together when you introduce a character, intersperse them gradually through the narrative, using actions/dialogue etc. For example:

She shook her head, her dark eyes flashing.

‘What do you want?’ he asked, pushing a strand of his unruly curly hair behind one ear.

This way, you continue moving the story along without holding the narrative up.

Bear in mind too that you don’t need every detail of every movement. Your readers can fill in the gaps. Your reader doesn’t need to be told every move a character makes. Give enough information to build a scene, show what’s important, and let your reader fill in the details.

Exposition issues


Be very careful of using exposition. Exposition is important in a manuscript – it gives us vital background information about a character’s past, their likes and dislikes, their beliefs and motivations as well as context and prior events. But the crucial thing about exposition is that it needs to be handled very carefully – it’s the way that you do it that matters.

You need to ‘show’ your reader information, not simply ‘tell’ them. This way you ‘expose’ the back story without being boring. And some of the best ways to do this are through dialogue, conflict, revealing a character’s thoughts and using physical props such as newspapers, letters and emails.

For example, have your characters talk to each other  about events that have happened, what those events meant to them, how they felt and reacted to those events.  But you need your dialogue to be realistic. Don’t use it as a way of dumping information. And make sure your characters never tell each other things they already know – it’s obvious that this is for the benefit of the reader rather than a natural part of their conversation.

Too many adverbs

Adverbs modify verbs. If you’re using an adverb to modify a verb, then ask yourself why you need to. Is the verb not doing its job? If the verb alone can’t tell your reader how someone or something is doing something without an adverb, then is it the right one to use?

For example:

John walked quickly down the street.

You want your reader to know how John walked, so if he’s walking quickly, then say so – right? Well, no.

John hurried down the street.

One word instead of two – tells us exactly how John is moving.

How about:

She totally, completely accepted that her work needed editing.

Neither of those two adverbs is needed. Just say:

She accepted that her work needed editing.

(Actually get rid of ‘that’ too!)

There are also adverbs that are totally redundant.

The fire alarm rang loudly.

How else would it ring? It wouldn’t be much use as a fire alarm if it rang quietly.

And if it is ‘clanging’ then ‘loudly’ is also redundant – the word ‘clanging’ implies loudness.

Similes and metaphors


A clever, well-thought out simile or metaphor can add a deeper meaning to your narrative. It can give your reader a new way of looking at things. But similes and metaphors need to be handled very carefully indeed. Only use them if they add something new or interesting to a description. Otherwise, they jar and only serve to remind the reader that they are reading a book. You are crafting a world that your reader needs to believe in in order to be invested in your story. As with dialogue tags, an awkward or clichéd simile brings them out of that world that you have carefully constructed. A clunky metaphor will do the same.





  1. Can I add, ‘and please don’t describe curly hair as ‘unruly’?’ It’s a cliche I see over and over : curly hair, particularly if among the reddish colour spectrum, used as personality trait. Feisty women with flame-coloured, unruly curls. Actually, most people with curly hair try to keep it as tame as possible (I know, I am one). Even if they’re pretty ‘feisty’ themselves.

    Excellent article. Your explanations are the best I’ve read – so clear and concise. Well-edited, I guess 😉

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Good idea. It sets my teeth on edge when people stick a modifier in front of unique. Maybe also on the words many (most) of us overuse – that, just (as in I’m just popping out for a minute), all. Those are the ones I have to watch out for in my own writing but I’m sure others have their own.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. All valid, but with limitations. Sticking too rigidly to such directives can lead to banal, ‘fast-food’ writing that encourages the increasing laziness of the modern reader. I cannot agree with an unending string of ‘saids’, for example. There are so many other descriptive ways of putting that verb, all of which add to the richness of the narrative when used appropriately. Also, avoiding descriptions because they won’t be important in later development can be an error. Again within limits, the more description provided the more vivid each scene becomes.


    1. I have to disagree that avoiding these things leads to ‘fast-food’ writing – rather, it encourages clear, concise, well-crafted writing. I also don’t like to see a whole string of ‘saids’ and I would encourage writers to use other devices such as action to signify who has spoken (as I explain in more detail in a longer post about dialogue tags). What I cannot bear is a whole slew of tags like ‘interjected’, ‘ruminated’, ‘sighed’ and ‘smiled’. I have to disagree that these add to the richness of a narrative, and dialogue tags shouldn’t be used for that. I would be very, very careful about using any descriptive dialogue tag – it really needs to be absolutely necessary. And my point about description is regarding all those writers who introduce characters and proceed to give a full description of their height, hair colour, eye colour etc., etc. none of which are needed.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. We agree to disagree on part of this. One can cut out what is not absolutely necessary until all one has left is a precis.
        Agreed, one doesn’t want a whole slew of such tags, but each of those is far more effective than ‘said’ where completely appropriate.


      2. I have to disagree – none of those tags are more effective than ‘said’ or using another device such as action. I defer to Elmore Leonard on these matters, who, as a hugely successful and talented writer said of dialogue tags:
        ‘Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But “said” is far less intrusive than “grumbled”, “gasped”, “cautioned”, “lied”. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated” and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.’
        ‘Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” . . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange.’
        And regarding description:
        ‘Avoid detailed descriptions of characters, which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”, what do the “American and the girl with him” look like? “She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story.’
        ‘Don’t go into great detail describing places and things, unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language. You don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.’
        I always bear in mind what writers like Leonard, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner etc. have to teach us about writing. Too many new and inexperienced writers fall back on adjectives, adverbs, complicated tags, flowery and unnecessary description because they think it makes their writing more accomplished. I hope the advice in this post condenses to an extent what these writers have to teach us.

        Liked by 2 people

      3. Elmore Leonard puts himself forward as an idiot with a lack of vocabulary. It is never about making writing look more accomplished, it is about conveying exact and varied nuances of meaning. These modern styles remind me of a similar trend in music, where all you get is the beat without the rich intricacies of harmony. ‘Said’ alone can never convey how it is said unless in context, and even there one can say something that seems to convey anger, for example, but do so in a humorous, sarcastic, playful, furious, or any number of other ways. Why leave that speech out entirely simply because ‘said’ won’t do a proper job?
        Many excellent writers make full use of adverbs, including with ‘said’, and I have never found such use distracts or interrupts rhythm. If it does, the fault is with the reader.


      4. Elmore Leonard was one of the most successful writers of recent times (his first novel was published in 1953). At the time of his death his books had sold tens of millions of copies. He won awards, had many novels adapted into films, was known for his powerful dialogue and was called ‘The Dickens of Detroit’. He was about as far from an idiot as you can get, so, respectfully, I’m going to leave this discussion here.

        Liked by 1 person

      5. O.K. As one parting shot, though, his genre says it all, sales and acclaim do not necessarily equate with good writing, and although I was quite prepared to be convinced this first extract I found is enough to put me off for life:

        “You can say that with a straight face, huh?”
        Dara said, “Shut up, please, and watch.” She said, “Eight ships are still in the hands of the hijackers. They’re negotiating. What we want to find out is who all’s involved.


  3. Great post!!! You might need to add not to use too many exclamation points too. 😉
    Seriously, I’m teaching figurative language so my awareness of it as I read is heightened, but I agree 💯 that similes and metaphors are the best way to paint the picture for your reader.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Brilliant post! I always tell my students “dialogue should convey all” – no need for extra explanations with the dialogue tags or adverbs. Will be sticking to that advice. Okay if I copy and paste this for the class, Alison, please?

    Liked by 1 person

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