grammar tips

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.




Writing ‘rules’ and why we have them #amwriting


When editing manuscripts for clients, I honestly don’t sit there with a big list of rules next to me, making sure that the author has stuck religiously to a set of pre-ordained laws that are non-negotiable and that are designed to crush spontaneity or creativity.

Why am I making this assertion?

Well, because some writers seem to think that this is what I do. They rail against these so–called rules that are preventing their genius from shining through. Why do I have to stick to conventions, they ask? Why can’t I do what I want?

Well, because the ‘rules’ aren’t there to suffocate creativity. They aren’t there to restrict or restrain.They bring clarity to a writer’s work. They aren’t a list of things a group of people out there somewhere have come up with out of thin air.

They fall into two groups.

One group aren’t up for discussion. Sorry, but grammar rules and the rules of punctuation are non-negotiable. You want your reader to be able to understand your book, don’t you? You are writing for a reader, aren’t you? In that case, you need to adhere to grammatical rules. These are not stylistic choices. And yes, there are certainly amazing writers out there who have written wonderful books that don’t follow these grammatical rules, writers like Hubert Selby Jr. But that is a whole different set of circumstances.

The other ‘rules’ don’t have to be obeyed. But they are there to help make your writing shine. For example, one thing I’m always saying to writers is that they need to avoid using complicated dialogue tags. You can pepper your manuscript with ‘interjected’ and ‘explained’ and ‘sighed’ if you really want. You can use every single alternative to ‘said’ and ‘asked’ if you want. But you’ll look like an amateur who doesn’t know what they’re doing, or people will think you’ve swallowed a thesaurus. That or you’re Joey from Friends.


I’m really not being mean here, honestly. When I studied text after text after text after text for my degree and my masters, we analysed what worked and what didn’t. These ‘rules’ work. They’ve worked for successful writers over the years and if that’s what you want to be then you need to use them. They are conventions because they work.

So back to my original point. Despite all this, I don’t have a great big list of rules (OK, I do have Elmore Leonard’s ten rules in my desk drawer as guidance if I need it, but that’s usually for my own writing). But if the writing is flowing, if it is working, if it is concise and the meaning is clear, the characters have depth, the dialogue is realistic, then these rules are being followed, whether consciously or otherwise. If something brings me up short, or something jars, or is boring, or long-winded or dull or the dialogue is unauthentic, or if something happens that reminds me I’m reading a book, then one of the ‘rules’ has usually been broken.

So here are Elmore Leonard’s ten rules of writing. He made them rules because they work.

Never open a book with weather.
Avoid prologues.
Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.
Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.



Writing and Editing Tips Part 5: Grammar Rules – Using the Right Word

grammar pic
Writing is a tricky business. There are so many elements to consider – developing wonderful characters that grow as your plot moves forward, writing realistic yet entertaining dialogue that moves your plot along, developing a plot that keeps your reader enthralled and desperate to learn more, penning breathtaking scenes, inventing beautiful metaphors. Oh, and grammar. That last one isn’t that exciting is it? And it’s one of those things that can be a bug-bear for many writers – no matter how wonderful their writing is, many just can’t get a grip on the grammar. After all, grammar has nothing to do with creativity, does it?

Well I think it does. Grammar is an intrinsic part of writing; without its rules and regulations, that wonderful scene you’ve written detailing someone’s heartfelt passions, their devastating grief, or their soaring joy may very well be for nothing. One incorrectly placed apostrophe, one wrong word, one incomplete comparison or dangling modifier and your reader will be put off, unimpressed, doubtful of your ability or so irritated that they take to Amazon to give you a heart-breaking one star review. And, possibly worse than that, your beautiful, carefully crafted words may very well make no sense.

So grammar is something you need to get your head round. As a writer I have made plenty of grammatical errors in my work – everyone does, and, as an editor, I see them all the time. But the more you read about common errors and the more you work on avoiding them in your work, the easier it becomes to write and to write well.

One of the most common errors people make is to use the wrong word. And I’m not just talking ‘their’, ‘they’re’ and ‘there’ here. There are plenty of others. Here are a few  examples I see all the time when I’m editing.

Who and Whom
This is one that I’ve always found particularly annoying and difficult to get my head round. ‘Who’ is a subjective pronoun – it’s used when the pronoun is the subject of a clause. Other examples of subjective pronouns are ‘he’ and ‘they’. ‘Whom’, on the other hand, is an objective pronoun, used when the pronoun acts as the object of a clause. Other examples of objective pronouns are ‘him’ and ‘us’. ‘Whom’ should also be used after a preposition. Confused? Take a look at these examples:
1) Who made the cakes? (Who is the subject of the clause)
2) She asked whom the film was about. (Whom is the object of the object of the clause)
Try substituting different pronouns to see if you need ‘who’ or ‘whom’.
1) Did he make the cakes?
2) She asked if the film was about him.
1) Did they make the cakes?
2) She asked if the film was about us.
As for the usage of ‘whom’ after a preposition, here’s an example;
‘To whom do you wish to speak?’

Fewer and Less
This is the one that got Tesco into trouble. They received a bad grammar award for a statement that appeared on their toilet roll packaging proclaiming:
‘Same luxury, less lorries.’
Perhaps they were going for the alliterative qualities of the phrase, but someone in marketing should surely have realised that grammar perfectionists and know-alls, rather than feeling quietly smug (you know you did!), would complain. So what’s the problem?
Less should be reserved for when you are describing hypothetical quantities – something that can’t be counted.
‘This book was less successful than my last one.’
‘He’s less interested in football than I am.’
Fewer is used for things that are quantifiable; things that can be counted.
‘I sold fewer copies of the book than you did.’
‘He has been to fewer than ten games this season.’
So, technically Tesco’s lorries could have been counted, so there were fewer lorries, not less lorries.

Disinterested and uninterested
When I was studying for my Masters in Creative writing, I once spent hours on what I thought was a wonderful piece about love and romance all set in a beautifully exotic location. I had everything right – my descriptions were evocative, my words beautifully crafted, the dialogue and imagery heavy with meaning. I was actually looking forward to receiving my tutor’s critique, something that usually terrified me. My tutor was a successful, lauded poet and publisher and he was harsh (but fair). He completely tore me to shreds for writing that my hero was ‘disinterested’ rather than ‘uninterested.’ I was mortified. In all my years of reading and writing, I’d never known the difference before. But when it was (stringently) pointed out to me, I realised it was completely obvious. ‘Disinterested’ means impartial – like a judge is supposed to be. ‘Uninterested’ means not interested in something. Simple really, isn’t it?

Lead and led
You might not think this is very common, but believe me, it is. The trouble seems to be that the two words can sound the same. But they are very different. When you pronounce ‘lead’ the same way as you pronounce ‘led’, what you are actually referring to is a soft, heavy, ductile bluish-grey metal, the chemical element of atomic number 82, used in roofing, plumbing, ammunition, storage batteries, radiation shields, etc. (according to the dictionary). So:
‘He lead her to the bed’ is wrong.
‘He led her to the bed’ is right.
Remember ‘lead’ (rhymes with ‘bead’) refers to being in charge or in front, or to what you put around a dog’s neck (in England). ‘Lead’ (rhymes with ‘bed) is the metal.

Its and it’s
This is one that causes confusion because it goes against normal rules. It’s is the shortened form of ‘it is’ or ‘it has’. Its is the possessive form of it. It’s confusing (see what I did there) because normally we use an apostrophe to show possession:
‘The dog’s birthday was last Tuesday.’
‘The man’s wife was leaving him.’
‘I gave the dog its birthday present.’
Only ever use ‘it’s’ if you can substitute ‘it has’ or ‘it is’, so:
‘It’s been raining all week.’
‘It’s ten weeks until Christmas.’

These are just a few of the common errors I see every day. In my blog post next week, I’ll be looking at a few more.
What elements of grammar do you find most tricky to master? What common errors drive you mad? I’d love to know.

I am a UK-based writer, editor and independent novelist. I love reading and I love to write. These are the two great passions of my life. Find out more about my editing services here. I am currently offering discounts to new clients – do get in touch to discuss how I can help you to make your book the best it can be.
Find out about my historical novels ‘Blackwater’ and ‘The Black Hours’ here.