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Ten writing mistakes that cause a reader to stumble

When reading a traditionally published novel that's gone through multiple rounds of editing, I rarely stumble. But ... when I read independently published books, I find myself stumbling a lot more frequently.

Granted, I'm a copyeditor, so my tolerance for these things is probably lower than the average reader's ... but still, if there's too many tripping hazards in your work, the reader could stumble right out—leaving you with a DNF.

Q: So what should you do if you—like many independent authors—can't afford multiple rounds of high quality editing?

A: Eliminate as many of these tripping hazards on your own before handing your manuscript off to an editor.

Since many of these tripping hazards are easy to overlook, a fresh pair of eyes and ears will be helpful. Put your work away for at least a few weeks and then read your manuscript out loud, listening for the natural rhythms and making sure your punctuation and style choices are consistent with those rhythms.

Do you have any of these tripping hazards in your manuscript?

1. Interruptive commas

This tripping hazard usually occurs because a writer or editor has ignored their instincts in favor of following a "rule"—often at the suggestion of grammar checking software. But not only do errant commas disrupt the natural rhythm of language, they sometimes completely change the meaning of the sentence.

Of course they do

As a matter of fact, there's one of these commas in the very first paragraph of The Hunger Games. (I'm not pointing this out to shame the editors or the author—not a book exists that doesn't have an oops or two, and editors are human too—but rather to show that this can occur in traditionally published books as well. So if you're working with a traditional publisher and an editor adds in one of these commas, I hope this gives you the confidence to speak up.)

She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.

Read the quotation out loud, with and without a pause after "of course," and you'll see what I mean. (For a more detailed explanation of when to put a comma after "of course," see this blog post.)

Clearly this comma didn't stop people from reading The Hunger Games 😉, and a few tripping hazards in an otherwise excellent book will likely be overlooked. But do your readers a favor and eliminate as many as possible.

So it goes ...

For an example of how an errant comma can change meaning, let's consider the phrase "so it goes." The grammar checker in Microsoft Word flags every instance of "so" at the beginning of a sentence and suggests a comma. But what happens if you take this suggestion in every case?

"So, it goes."

With the pause created by the comma, this sentence expresses surprise that the object in question—say, a car—actually runs ...

"So, it goes," Fred said, eyeing the black smoke coming out of the tailpipe. He couldn't believe Rosa actually got the thing started. "You certainly proved me wrong."

But "so it goes" is usually a resigned philosophical expression about the nature of life, similar to "it is what it is." (It’s also a recurring refrain in Kurt Vonnegut's novel Slaughterhouse Five.)

The old junker's engine coughed, then died. Fred groaned into the silence, then muttered, "So it goes."

Other potentially interruptive commas include:

1. Commas after "and" or "but" when they begin a sentence.
2. Commas after introductory adverbs and adverbial phrases when the syntax and meaning don't call for them ("of course" is included here).

3. Commas before "too" and "yet" and "either" at the end of a sentence.

4. Commas before an adverb that modifies a dialogue tag. ("Hi," she said, cheerfully." X )

Sometimes commas are appropriate with these words, but other times they're interruptive. Reading aloud will guide you. If a pause feels needed, then the comma is most likely the best choice. But if there's no pause, then leave that comma out.

Please don't feel enslaved to comma "rules" in creative writing—many are strict rules only for formal writing and some are just "zombie" rules. Do what works best for your writing and for the reader.

(There's lots more on comma rules—and when they can be broken in fiction—in this post.)

2. Missing commas

The primary purpose of commas is clarity: preventing misreading through separation of words, phrases and ideas. The secondary purpose—especially in creative writing—is to control the forward rhythm of the text.

While an unneeded comma halts forward motion, leaving you suspended, a missing commas can feel like going down the stairs in the dark and expecting another step, but there isn't one, causing you to be momentarily disoriented when your foot makes contact with the floor sooner than anticipated.

Commas are needed with ...

➣ Mild interjections

"Geez, what did you think was going to happen?"
"I, um, didn't think about it."

➣ Direct address

"Are you going to run, Bob?"
"No, Amy, I'm not."

➣ Introductory participles and participle phrases

Running as fast as I could, I fled the scene of the crime.
Still tired, I lifted the boxes anyway.

➣ Transitional words and phrases

However, it didn't work out as planned.
Actually, the definition of the word is wrong.

But don't be fooled by a regular adverb that just happens to be at the beginning of the sentence. Listening to the rhythm will help you with these.

However they did it, I'm glad it got done.

3. Not paragraphing dialogue and action beats correctly

Paragraphing guidelines for dialogue and action beats exist to prevent confusion about who's doing what. Exceptions to these guidelines exist, but should be rare.

➣ If a new speaker begins to talk, their dialogue should be in a new paragraph.

"You really think so?" she asked. (first speaker)
"I do." (second speaker)

Some people misunderstand this guideline and separate a leading action beat from the dialogue even though the same character is doing both. Like so:

Sofia smirked.
"You really think so?"
"I do." X

But which line of dialogue is being spoken by Sofia? If a character's action beat starts on one line and their dialogue starts on the next, it can mislead the reader into thinking a different character is saying the dialogue. If it's absolutely necessary for the action beat to be on a separate line, then a dialogue tag will be needed in the next line of dialogue for clarity.

➣ In general, keep the speaker's actions in the same paragraph as their dialogue.

Sofia smirked. "You really think so?"
"I do."

➣ Actions or thoughts that are in the same paragraph as the dialogue should be performed by the speaker of the dialogue.

Sophia smirked. "You really think so?" I hated when she did that. X

Sophia smirked. "You really think so?"
I hated when she did that.

As with dialogue, if the narrative focus changes to a different character, start a new paragraph.

4. Calling a character by a title rather than a name

This is usually an attempt to avoid either repeating a name or using an unclear pronoun. (When there are multiple people in a scene, you sometimes can't tell who "him," "her," or "they" refers to.) But in a limited third-person point of view, the POV character wouldn't refer to someone whose name they know as "the girl" or "the accountant," and they certainly wouldn't refer to themselves that way.

In the following example, Joseph is the POV character.

Joseph pulled the pillowcase over Ralph’s head and tightened it around the man’s neck. But Ralph lurched backward and trapped his attacker against the wall. Joseph was squished!

It's clear that "the man" in the first sentence is Ralph, and this works just fine in a more distant POV. In a close POV, "his" would work a little better. But there's little risk of the reader thinking the pronoun refers to Joseph in this case.

The second use of a title is more problematic. "The attacker" is Joseph, the POV character. But since Joseph would never think of himself this way, it appears—even if only momentarily—that a third person has entered the scene.

Better to repeat a name than trip up the reader. But if the repetition is really bothersome, rewrite the tricky scene until it works without unclear pronouns or excessive repetition of names.

5. Calling an object by a vague synonym

Avoiding repetition by using synonyms can work well for verbs and modifiers, but rarely works with nouns. Because often the only synonyms available for concrete nouns are less specific nouns. For example, “structure” instead of ”building.”

Vague nouns don't usually contribute to great writing, but how do they cause a reader to stumble? By confusing the reader about what the word is referring to. Here‘s an example from my bog post, “Repetition in Writing: Friend or Enemy?”

Suppose you're reading an action scene, and the hero "gets into his SUV and races away, the bad guys in hot pursuit in their red Camaro." During the ensuing chase, the hero's SUV gets mentioned a few times. And then you read, "The truck was sideswiped by a speeding van." What truck? How many different vehicles are on this road anyway?

Sometimes SUVs are referred to by the word "truck," it's true, and this hypothetical writer was probably just trying to avoid repeating SUV too many times in the scene. But better to repeat yourself than force your reader to come to a screeching stop during a car chase.

The fix? If the repetition isn't bothersome, restore the concrete word, and if it is, restructure the surrounding sentences to avoid having to repeat the problematic word. One thing to try is combining sentences, which may allow the formerly repeated noun to function as the subject for both verbs, or to be replaced by a pronoun.

6. Inaccurate/unusual spellings for interjections and noises

Standard spellings exist for many interjections and sound effects (such as "tsk," "ugh," and "psst"), so make sure to look them up in the dictionary.

Making up your own spellings can distract a reader from the story, especially if they don't closely reflect the sound in question. You don't want the reader to stop and try to figure out how to pronounce the word or to analyze your choice—this makes the reader aware of the act of writing, which is the enemy of immersion.

For example, an interjection for agreement can be "uh-huh" or "mm-hmm" depending on whether the speaker's mouth is open or closed. I sometimes come across "um-hum" (which has unfortunately made it into the dictionary) even though I have never heard anyone pronounce the interjection like this in real life.

I've also seen attempts to come up with a more accurate spelling for "tsk." Admittedly, "tsk" doesn't really capture the juicy sound of this disapproving click, but at least it's familiar to the reader. I don't believe any combination of letters in our alphabet can replicate this sound.

If a sound doesn't have a standard spelling, it's usually better to describe it in the narrative rather than attempt to spell it, which can come across as comical or melodramatic. But if you decide that spelling the sound is needed, take care to represent it as accurately as possible.

7. Using a question mark when the inflection should drop

Even though a line of dialogue may be structured like a question, it doesn't necessarily require a question mark. For example:

"What the hell?" vs. "What the hell."

"What the hell?" communicates shock and disbelief. "What the hell" (with a period instead of a question mark) communicates that the speaker has resigned themselves to proceeding against their better judgement. Two very different meanings.

And even if something is a question, it's okay to not use a question mark if the speaker would use an inflection that doesn't rise at the end. (Commands that are phrased as questions out of politeness are an example of this.)

"Will everyone please take your seat."

And vice versa: a question mark can be added to a declarative sentence, making the inflection rise at the end, either to show uncertainty or to make the statement into a question.

If you choose the wrong punctuation for the intended inflection, your reader might misconstrue the meaning on the first read and have to double back, which will take them out of the story.

8. Wrong words

When copyediting, I often have to correct words that aren't quite right. Most often these are synonyms that aren't interchangeable because of inappropriate connotations or subtle differences in meaning.

Close, but no cigar

I recently read a published book where the MC, an artist, referred to art “expositions” at a local gallery. If you look up “exposition” and “exhibition” in the dictionary, they can appear to mean the same thing. But the usage is different. Some readers might not stumble over this, but those fa