As an author and editor, I have great experience of what the most common writing mistakes, or rather confusions, are. Some are understandable, as English can be a complicated language, but others make me rub my temples for hours! Here are the top ten mistakes that writers make.
10 Who’s vs Whose – This is the same rule as “it’s” (see number 9), only when you are wanting to use “who is”, you would write “who’s”, otherwise it should be “whose”, like “Whose Cat is That?” (the name of one of the new books we are publishing very soon!).
9 Its vs It’s – Surprisingly, or not, this isn’t as common a mistake as you would think. For this, the apostrophe (the “top comma”) is only added if the word is short for “it is” – “it’s not her fault”, and “it’s very warm this summer”. Without the apostrophe, you have “its name is Bob” or “it’s a cat”. Think of “his” and “hers” – they are “possession” words, just like "its". “The ball is his” and “the cake is hers” = no apostrophe, see? Whereas “she” and “he” do have apostrophes, “she is” or “he is” – “she’s” and “he’s”.
8 A vs An – Most people know that “a” is used before words beginning with a consonant, and “an” is used for those with a vowel, right? Well, of course, English isn’t always that simple! For example, if the word that follows the “a” or “an” begins with a sound that doesn’t sound like the vowel or consonant, like “honest”, for example, then the preceding word could change, in this case it would be “an honour”. These words may differ for American English, as some “h” words have the dropped “h”, like “herb”; British English would be “a herb”, whereas American English would be “an herb”.
“A unique experience”, “A university education” are other classic examples of this “exception to the rule”.
7 Commas – Although more complicated than I’ll explain here, add a comma when you would normally take a breath. Read the sentence or paragraph out loud (in fact, this works well with most written queries and is my top writing tip).
Read these sentences to yourself, and then out loud and see if you think they need a comma, and where. “In no time we were home preparing dinner for the everyone who would be getting together at their family dinner table for Thanksgiving”. “Never mind the fact that the car was driving at 50 miles an hour it was still a safe journey that Grandpa enjoyed in his old battered multicoloured Mini along the M1”. “There was no reason for Alex to think that his life was in danger as Andrea stood opposite him with a large carving knife in her hand in the living room on Saturday night”.
6 And – "And then he went to the shops and bought some sweets and carried them home and ate them". There are two issues with this: firstly, replace the word "and" with something else, like "then", "while" or "because", for example. Secondly, split the sentence up with commas: ‘And then he went to the shops, bought some sweets, carried them home and ate them’.
5 Past/present – Whether you choose to write in past tense or present tense, stick to it all the way through. Present tense uses words like are, is, go and come, whereas past tense would be was, were, came and went. When writing in present tense, you may refer to past tense when talking about things that happened before the present tense, and vice versa, most commonly in speech.
4 Spellcheck – Have you ever written a story in a Word document, for example, and seen the red squiggly lines under a specific word, or double blue lines? Sure, they are there to guide you to ensure that your work reads better, but the AI doesn’t always know the context of the sentence you are writing. I can explain in more details what they are there for another time, but for now, I urge you to ignore them, or at least use them only as a rough guide. If you want to use them as a guide, make sure that the spell/grammar check is set to your chosen language. There are a lot of different spellings between British English and American English, for example.
3 Capital letters – What words need capital letters? As a general rule of thumb, capital letters are needed for names, titles (Mr, Mrs, etc.), place names (London, Regent Street, England, Great Britain, Earth), organisations and brand names (Coca Cola, Primark, Playstation, but not vodka, latte), military ranks and royalty titles. NOT job titles, not even teacher, astronaut, soldier, airline pilot. NOT animals, not even elephant, hippo, dinosaur. Mum, Dad, Grandpa etc. only have a capital letter if you are using it as their name, for example, “Mum, please explain why I was grounded”, versus “did your mum explained why you were grounded?”. Don’t forget to use capital letters at the front of each sentence!
2 ‘Said’ – There are so many words out there that could replace the word “said” in a novel, so don’t be afraid to try out something new. “explained”, “exclaimed”, “cried”, “muttered”, “whispered” … the list is endless. Give your potential readers a bit of variety. You don’t even have to use “said” or an alternative. As long as the reader knows who is saying what, leave it at that.
1 Speech marks – this is the top mistake that writers make or struggle with. It can be quite difficult to explain without going into great detail, but the main rules include always starting new dialogue with a capital letter and to ALWAYS add some kind of punctuation mark before the end of the speech, before the final speech marks. See what I mean about confusing? Here’s some examples: “Are you going to eat all of that chocolate?” Mum asked me. “I have every intention of eating the whole block if necessary,” I replied. “You’ll get fat.” “No, not if I go for an extra-long walk later,” I responded. “But what if you break your leg in the meantime,” Mum continued, “how will you walk then?”
I will be explaining this, and many more in more detail during my next writers’ bootcamp in September, if you need more help?
In summary, read it out loud if you are unsure!
Don’t feel like you are ‘stupid’ if you struggle with any of these. I have seen all manner of errors that you could imagine when editing books. That’s what I’m here for!