Common Writing Mistakes and How to Fix Them

Creating something meaningful that works on both an emotional and structural level is not an easy task. This makes finishing any screenplay an accomplishment in itself, and while the process does get easier over time (or at least more familiar) even the pros need to watch themselves when it comes to common mistakes and pitfalls. No screenplay or draft of a novel is perfect, of course, but there are mistakes that writers make across the board – and these errors are easily avoided.

Here are common slip-ups to steer clear of when crafting your masterpiece.

Neglecting Spelling and Grammar

Many screenplays or drafts of a novel have their first impressions ruined by poor grammar and spelling. Don’t rely on squiggly green-and-red lines on your computer – take the time to read through every single page of your document and check for those simplistic or sneaky errors. It’s all but guaranteed you’ll find something to correct, whether this is your fifth script or your fiftieth. And if it’s any consolation, a detailed read-through is just as likely to illuminate other, more vital areas that aren’t working as well as they should.

If you miss the proper spelling of a word here and there, no problem. Even the pros make those mistakes in their drafts. But there’s nothing worse for a reader than reading a script that seemingly proves that the writer didn’t care enough about the material to do a few quality assurance readthroughs.

Multiple spelling errors are annoying. And that’s the last impression you want to leave with the reader — annoyance.

Pay particular attention to homophone and homonym errors. Your and You’re. New and Knew. To and Too. There, Their, and They’re. Its and It’s. Then and Than. Effect and Affect. Cache and Cachet. Break and Brake. Principle and Principal. Breath and Breathe. Rain, reign, and rein. By, buy, and bye. Always be sure to know the differences.

Incorrect Formatting

Screenplays and novels have prescribed formats to which you, as a professional writer, must adhere. Font and spacing may seem arbitrary, but clarity on the page is essential for an easy read. Write your script in courier. Capitalize character names when you introduce them. Indent your dialogue and parentheticals. Formatting can be a tedious beast to meet head-on.

There’s a reason general screenwriting and novel format exists — film production and publishing are industries, a business. Tens of thousands of screenplays and novels are out there in and out of the market each year; from the development phase, reading, discovery, and development, to the pre-production phase or publishing. Format consistency is essential.

Formatting your screenplay/novel without using software is covered extensively in The Write Journey

Drawing From Tropes

Formulas and stereotypes are instantly recognizable. If your characters fall squarely into an archetype – flawless heroes, damsels in distress, soulless villains, fools – their stories will become dull because we’ve seen them before.

This is particularly true of female or marginalized characters, who behave less like real people and more like insulting caricatures and stereotypes. Ensure that your characters are behaving organically, driven by a tangible objective in an authentic environment. Understand their depths and quirks before you start writing – then keep them honest and complex throughout your story.

Writing Your Version of Popular Stories

This is perhaps the most common mistake mostly made by more novice writers.

Yes, you do want to write stories that you want to see/read because that’s really where you will find the passion that drives you to complete a draft. However, you need to choose wisely and make sure that while you write what you want to see/read, you are at the same time bringing something different to the table as you do so.

What are you offering that’s new? What are you doing to make that reader stop and take notice of what is on those pages of yours? It’s not enough to emulate a concept and just add some new characters and scenarios to the mix. You have to showcase a concept that pops off of those pages — that engages a reader to the point where the idea is so intriguing that they need to read on.

The easiest way to write what you love and what you want to see without falling into the trap of just writing your version of a popular movie or bestseller is to flip those concepts onto their heads and meld them with something else.

Chasing Trends

Trends are tricky. While everyone will tell you that you have to write what Hollywood is making or publishers are publishing, the Catch 22 scenario of that comes in two parts:

  • The film and television and publishing industries will already be flooded with such scripts — mostly written by established writers that have the connections and pull you don’t have.
  • By the time you’ve written your draft set within that trend, and by the time you’ve marketed it and gotten it into somebody’s hands through contests or networking, it’s likely that the trend has come and gone.

You do have options to avoid this trap while still staying relevant in the current trends:

  • Revive a trend that has been dead for over a decade, but with a new twist on it. Two previous trends that are currently dead — serial killer and vampire movies — could come together as one. While that is clearly not the best example, the point is to get you thinking about what the possibilities are.
  • Create your own trend. Sure, it’s not a trend until it gains some steam. However, you can specifically set out to come up with concepts that make people in the film and television and publishing industries stop and take notice — “What a great concept. I never thought of that.”

Not Doing Your Research

Let’s say you do have an excellent concept. Perhaps you read something in the headlines, your imagination was sparked, and you came up with a topical and relevant concept. And then you go take a few months to write it only to learn later that three other studios have similar projects already in active development.

Has that ever happened to you? You’ve worked hard to write this brilliant concept only to discover that it’s either already been done or is about to be produced by more prominent names than you. This happens all of the time to most writers. We, humans, share a collective existence fueled by headlines and information. It’s only natural that similar-themed concepts float to the surface.

So be sure to do your research. There’s nothing worse for a writer than working hard to finish a story only to discover that major studios, producers, and publishers have already tackled the concept or subject.

Do your research and make sure your concept hasn’t been made already and isn’t in the works by someone else. But also remember that it’s okay to choose a concept that is similar, just as long as you make yours stand out in a much different (and better) way.

Forgetting the Plot (or, Skipping the Outline)

Why did you start writing your story? The answer may vary in its details, but the gist should be the same: to tell a story. So many stories fall flat because their scenes are pastoral, or their characters aren’t driven towards a goal. In other words, they’re boring. They don’t show change or action.

Each scene of your story should develop upon the same narrative. To ensure that this happens, outline your story before writing dialogue and action. Map out your arcs and progressions.

The Write Journey focuses extensively on story and scene outlines.

Crafting Awkward, Listless, or Endless Dialogue

Writing dialogue is extremely difficult. The mistake that most writers make is thinking that dialogue is conversation. It’s not. Dialogue is a function of character.

It can’t mirror actual speech – too cyclical and directionless – but it can’t sound unrealistic. This is a paradox, but it’s one that must be overcome. Overly long dialogue sequences that don’t drive the story, conversations that spell out intent without subtlety, and characters who simply don’t talk like people can ruin a script.

Not Punishing Your Characters

Maybe your protagonist is your fictional doppelgänger. Or the mother figure reminds you of your own parent. That doesn’t mean you can coddle them and give them everything they want. A story must have conflict – characters need to fight for what they want – and if the conflict is light or short-lived, the story loses steam.

Knock your characters into the dirt… then help them lift themselves up again. On the opposite side of this, don’t torture your characters uselessly. We want them to fight, and maybe succeed. Be a tough, but fair, creator.

Leaving Your Story Unfinished (or Too Neat)

Nothing is more frustrating than spending 90 to 120 minutes in a fictional world, invested in a story, and then realizing it’s over without proper resolution. Your story doesn’t have to answer the quandaries of the universe, but it does need to make good on its promises.

When crafting your outline, make sure your story completes its arc, at least enough to roll credits without betraying your viewers’ trust. On the flip side, offering cheap conclusions without proper struggle doesn’t work either. Punish, then reward.

Submitting Without Rereading

It doesn’t matter how brilliant you are. No human being can make it through a 120-page screenplay or 200-page draft of a novel without making a mistake. These errors listed above are easily committed, but just as easily fixed, as long as you double back to actually check for them.

Scan for spelling issues. Read your dialogue out loud, and make sure it sounds plausible. Most of all, ensure that your story is consistent. Revisions can be head-splittingly tedious, but they are absolutely essential.

Shape your creation to its fullest potential before sending it out to fend for itself – you won’t be there to make excuses for its overlooked mistakes.

Following 40-years as a Film and Theatre Journalist, 23 years of screenwriting and creative writing workshops throughout South Africa and internationally, The Write Journey evolved into the Signature course of The Writing Studio, and Independent Training Initiative founded by Daniel Dercksen in 1998. The Write Journey is an interactive, intimate and introspective journey into the world of the story, empowering you to take ownership of the creative journey, and creative expression.

The Writing Studio can help you with Story Editing & Polishing