10 Lesser Mistakes Writers Make

In today’s Journal

* Quotes of the Day
* Topic: 10 Lesser Mistakes Writers Make
* Up Next
* Of Interest

Quotes of the Day

“[W]here there is fun, there’s no panic to do something a certain ‘correct’ way, or fear that certain mistakes will ruin the book. It’s just about having fun telling stories, and not worrying about the rest.” Chynna Pace

“The writer who is a real writer is a rebel who never stops.” William Saroyan

“Know what you believe, and be bold with it in your fiction.” James Scott Bell

Topic: 10 Lesser Mistakes Writers Make

Back in the day when I was presenting “Common Mistakes Writers Make” in sessions at writers’ conferences, at least once in every session, a writer would dismiss as unimportant the value of learning not to make those mistakes. The typical response was, “Why bother? Readers will know what I mean.”

Every time, the comment left me all but speechless.

The readers’ job is not to figure out what you mean. The readers’ job is to be entertained, period.

How could anyone not know? You should learn the craft because you’ve chosen fiction writing as your profession. The hallmark of a professional is that s/he constantly studies and learns the various aspects of the craft.

If you missed it yesterday, here are The Top 7 Mistakes Writers Make.

Below are 10 lesser mistakes. I don’t call them “lesser” because they have less impact on the story or the reader—they don’t—but because you can repair or delete them quickly with Microsoft Word’s Find & Replace tool.

For an excellent tutorial on the invaluable Find & Replace feature,  click https://harveystanbrough.com/2013/10/30/microsoft-word-for-writers-find-replace/. Finally, here they are:

He Said (or Thought) to Himself

No, he didn’t. He mumbled or muttered or whispered or said quietly or thought, but he didn’t say or think “to himself.”

Don’t write “to himself,” “to herself,” or “to themselves” in a tag line. Ever. It’s inane, redundant, and just plain silly. Use “to himself,” “to herself,” or “to themselves” only if the narrator is talking about a character having a room “all to herself” or a character is “keeping to himself” etc.

Using “Took and,” “Reached and,” etc.

Don’t write that a character “took and” something or “reached out and” or “reached over and” unless it feels necessary in the moment. (Let the character decide.) This one is on this list because in every case, you can delete the phrase and allow the reader to move to the meat of the action.

A few examples—

If a character’s lying in bed reading and “He turned out the bedside lamp” the reader will see him reach. You don’t have to write, “He reached over (or reached out or reached across) and turned out the bedside lamp.”

She took her daughter’s hand and squeezed it. (Couldn’t she have squeezed it while it was still attached to her daughter? What you want here is She squeezed her daughter’s hand.)

She took a can of air freshener and sprayed the kitchen. (She sprayed the kitchen with air freshener.)

He reached out and picked up the TV remote. (He picked up the TV remote.)

She reached over and smacked him upside the head. (She smacked him upside the head, or She did what came naturally. [grin])

To easily and quickly find and correct these, key “took” or “reached” into the Find What block of your Find and Replace dialogue box.

Beginning a Sentence with “Suddenly” or “Instantly” or “Instantaneously”

Beginning a sentence with “instantly” or “suddenly” or anything similar is almost never a good idea. If something happens instantly, get to it without delay so the reader can experience it. If you force the reader to read the word “instantly” or “suddenly,” it slows the reading and waters down the immediacy of the action.

Likewise, I advise against using such words even later in the sentence. Please don’t try to get around this one by changing “Suddenly a shot rang out” to “A shot suddenly rang out” or “Instantly her eyes welled with tears” to “Her eyes instantly welled with tears.”

Other Misuses and Abuses That Are Easy to Fix

Using Likely as an Adverb—Despite its widespread misuse because it sounds cool, “likely” is synonymous with “probable.” It is an adjective, albeit one that ends in “ly,” as do many adverbs. Hence (I believe) the initial confusion and the resulting decision of many dictionaries to list it as both an adjective and an adverb.

Despite the rubber stamp approval of those dictionaries and the fact that it’s easier to change a definition than it is to correct wrong usage, I strongly advise against using “likely” as an adverb because the usage will alienate some readers, me among them.

If you disagree with me, that’s fine. But I defy anyone to explain why using “likely” is preferable to using “probably.”

Try And

Um, no. Despite its widespread and common misuse, it’s never “try and,” it’s always “try to.” (I wonder how much argument I’ll get on this one?)

Hint: If you want to correc this one with Find & Replace, be sure to put ” try and ” (with spaces on both sides) in the Find What block and ” try to ” in the Replace With block. Otherwise, chances are you’ll replace things you don’t want to replace.


Try not to let your narrator use the phrase “she (or he) knew.” Instead, just omit it and see whether the sentence works just as well. Most of the time it will.

Now or Today

You very seldom (if ever) need to write the words “now” or “today” in fiction. Past tense is the natural voice of narrative, and both of those refer to the present.

Phrases to Avoid

Try to avoid phrases like “he admitted” or “she had to admit that” or “he couldn’t deny that.” Such phrases answer a question that hasn’t been asked.

For example, writing “he couldn’t deny that he was jealous” implies that someone asked him whether he was jealous. Likewise, writing “she had to admit that blah blah blah” implies that someone was interrogating her and she finally gave in. This is another example of narrator/author overreach.

Overstating the Obvious

Don’t write that a character “nodded her head yes” or “shook his head no.” When a character nods, it always means yes. When he shakes his head, it always means no.

And while we’re at it, don’t write that a character “nodded her head.” What else is she gonna nod, her elbow? That’s right up there with “shrugged his shoulders.”

It’s About Time

Although it’s often misused, “while” ALWAYS indicates a simultaneous passage of time. The writer who writes “while” most often means “although” or “even though.”

Again, these are all easy fixes with Microsoft Word’s Find & Replace feature. For a free tutorial, click https://harveystanbrough.com/2013/10/30/microsoft-word-for-writers-find-replace/.

Talk with you again soon.

Of Interest

See “The Art and Purpose of Subtext” at https://www.janefriedman.com/the-art-and-purpose-of-subtext/. Yes. And your characters will deliver all of this if you trust them.

See “What Writers Can Learn From Marx” at https://killzoneblog.com/2022/09/what-writers-can-learn-from-marx.html.

See “The books world is much tougher now” at https://www.thepassivevoice.com/the-books-world-is-much-tougher-now/. Whatever. The interviewee, at 70, has written 20 novels. At just over 70, Dean Wesley Smith has written well over 200.

The Numbers

The Journal…………………………………… 1200 words

Writing of Carmen Morales (novel, tentative title)

Day 1…… 3007 words. Total words to date…… 3007
Day 2…… 2842 words. Total words to date…… 5849
Day 3…… 3283 words. Total words to date…… 9132
Day 4…… 3106 words. Total words to date…… 12238
Day 5…… 3644 words. Total words to date…… 15882
Day 6…… 3548 words. Total words to date…… 19430
Day 7…… 3076 words. Total words to date…… 22506
Day 8…… 2667 words. Total words to date…… 25173
Day 9…… 3291 words. Total words to date…… 28464

Total fiction words for September……… 31741
Total fiction words for the year………… 98172
Total nonfiction words for September… 21370
Total nonfiction words for the year…… 149600
Total words for the year (fiction and this blog)…… 247772

Calendar Year 2022 Novels to Date…………………… 1
Calendar Year 2021 Novellas to Date……………… 0
Calendar Year 2021 Short Stories to Date… 0
Novels (since Oct 19, 2014)…………………………………… 67
Novellas (since Nov 1, 2015)………………………………… 8
Short stories (since Apr 15, 2014)………………… 217
Short story collections……………………………………………… 31

Disclaimer: In this Journal, I discuss various aspects of the writing craft. I advocate trusting the characters to tell the story that they, not the writer, are living. This is by far the easiest, most liberating, and most fun way to tell a story.

2 thoughts on “10 Lesser Mistakes Writers Make”

  1. “But I defy anyone to explain why using “likely” is preferable to using “probably.””

    Um, because the character does. LOL Seriously, though, if we’re to honor our characters and let THEM tell the story, we use THEIR vocabulary, not ours, even if it’s technically, grammatically wrong. Reality is that some characters (like some people) use “likely” incorrectly, and we should honor who they are by writing it that way, even if it rubs against our personal grain. I’ve certainly been there with a variety of words and phrases, not to mention spellings for dialect, but I just suck it up.

    I’m totally there on that “nodded his head” and “shrugged his shoulders” deal. I always find myself wondering “nodded his head” versus… what ELSE would he nod? Same with the shoulders. What other body part would the character shrug besides his shoulders, unless it’s emphatically a SINGLE shoulder shrug (which should be noted as such).

    • Dawn, absolutely. And I would never suggest that any character, especially in dialogue, should speak in any way that s/he normally wouldn’t. (I thought about adding that to the post, but I didn’t.)

      Notice too that when I first wrote that post (2013) I used the word “narrator” quite a lot. (One or two of those made it through to this updated post.) If I wrote the post today, I wouldn’t even use that word. I would use “writer” instead. And every word the writer puts on the page should be filtered through the POV character’s physical and emotional senses and opinions. No “narrator” should ever enter in. Usually when a “narrator” speaks it’s actually the very thinly veiled author inserting his or her personal opinion, cause, etc.

      Always good to hear from you. Thanks for the comment.

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