It usually takes me about a page or so, maybe even less. But I can tell an amateur writer by their prose. Here are the nine most obvious mistakes I see amateur writers make.
Amateurs put in all the fascinating research. Unless the book is Les Miserables, and the writer is going on and on about Parisian sewer systems, research is usually way more fun for the writer than it is for the reader. Experienced writers know the reader isn’t there for the fascinating detail, they’re there for the story. Cut back your research information and share just enough to get the point across.
Amateur writers tell what every character is thinking. Good writers build their scenes around knowing what every character thinks and how they are going to respond. But head-hopping can make a reader crazy. Limiting the point-of-view is most often a better way to tell the story. If you really need to “head-hop” the best way is to change point-of-view with each alternate chapters. Your reader will appreciate distinctions.
“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”
― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
Amateur beginnings sound like everyone else’s beginnings. More experienced writers analyze opening sentences and write theirs in a way that is distinctive yet appropriate for their genre. They tinker with their openings, using different sentence types, structures, emphases, sensory details, and possibly even points of view. The first sentences are far too important to be overlooked.
Amateur writers have superfluous scenes. Often, as beginners, writers throw everything into the draft that they can think of, then keep it there for the wrong reasons. More experienced scene writers keep only the scenes that offer new information, add layers of conflict, and force characters to make choices. Amateur writers may need to ask, “If I take this scene out, will it make a difference to the rest of the story?” This could be what they mean when they say, “kill your darlings,” but if these unnecessary scenes go, your story will be all the better.
Amateur writing may show up at the sentence level. Sentences are the building blocks of a great story, so sentences should be well-sculpted. Experienced writers seek out filter words, weak verbs, and other components that can weaken the sentence’s impact. The way a story is told is important. Thoughtful sentence writing can turn a good story into a great one.
Amateur writers settle for dull dialogue. Well-crafted dialogue rarely shoots the breeze; instead it reaffirms character’s goals, reminds the readers of character distinctions, restates what’s been lost or gained, requests more information, reviews agendas and biases, reveals preferences, reflects personality. Tedious banter, chit-chat, and unimportant details only weigh down the pacing and dull your readers’ experience.
“Every artist was first an amateur.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson
Amateur writing often ignores story structure. For all of the creative freedom a “pantser” might have, a basic blueprint of what points to hit in a story will strengthen it and allow for more creativity, not less. Fix this by studying story structure and practicing the arrangement of scenes. This may mean actually plotting before writing. Most stories are stronger for it.
Amateur writers may have too many characters. Less is more. Your protagonist needs a variety of personalities around them so that they can compare and contrast their values and stated goals. But too many of the same voices will just muddy the waters. More experienced writers combine characters to make story telling tighter. One way to do this: Omit a character completely from a draft. Print out a few chapters and black out any dialogue or reference to this character. Read what is left. If the story is unaffected by this omission, write them out. But, if the basic plot severely suffers by them not being there, then don’t change anything.
It IS fun to embark on that first novel: manuscripts are full of knowledge and creativity. Yet, just because material is written, doesn’t mean it’s good. Experienced novelists understand that less is more and have learned to discipline their ideas, sculpting their books with restraint.