The Number 1 Writing Mistake

It’s the 1 September tomorrow. I love this time of year – there’s something seductive about new beginnings, a new school or university year coming up, ditching summer clothes for cosy jumpers and writing inside a warm flat. If you’ve been wanting to start a writing project, now is a good time. It’s pouring, it’s a new month, and the publishing industry is starting to wake up after summer. Do it! Start this week!

I’ve been reading a lot of other people’s work at the moment, and as I give feedback I’ve noticed I often say the same thing. People routinely make the same mistake, over and over, when they’re starting out. It’s not the misuse of commas (though as a punctuation tyrant I can tell you that one is also RIFE) or random tense shifts (also far too common – check your work before you send it out!). No, it’s this: giving away too much.

This can be difficult to get your head around as a new author. You have to tell the readers something, right? They’d like to know who they’re reading about, and where and when they are, and what colour hair the character has, and what sort of childhood they had, and what music they’ve got on their Spotify playlist, and their feelings about Marmite? Right?

Well, no. I think the reader wants to know two things when they start a book.

  1. Roughly who/what/where/when is this all about then?
  2. What’s this story going to be eh? Why should I read this damn thing? ENTERTAIN ME.

I’m assuming all readers are as impatient as me here. Bottom line is- you’ve got to hook them in. And you have very little time to do this. Think of the reader as a sniffy judge on a reality TV show, with their finger hovering over the ‘no’ button. And so you need to use that brief stage-time really wisely. Give them tension, suspense, action, dialogue, a story that kicks off. Cut out everything that doesn’t need to be there or can come later – backstory, character information, their childhood trauma, what they look like, world-building, how they got to the place where the scene is taking place.

There’s another reason for keeping things back. If it’s juicy – a big dramatic fact, a secret, or something that could be a surprise reveal – then you’re doing yourself out of essential suspense. Keep the reader turning the pages because they want to find out things. It’s that simple. If you tell them things straight up, they won’t need to read on. Master this simple fact and your writing will instantly be better. Good luck!

Next weekend I’m at the York Festival of Writing, where I’ll be talking about similar things and also giving one-to-one advice. If you see me there, do say hi.

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