6 Lessons I Learned by Going Through My Old Stories
Do all new writers make these mistakes?
Do all new writers make these mistakes?
I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said I have been writing all my life. The first poem I wrote was when I was five years old.
But those were tiny snippets of my creativity. To me, writing was more of a hobby — something I did because I did not know what else to do with my time.
As I grew older, writing became an outlet, my way of letting out all the bottled feelings inside me I could share with no one else. It was only six years ago that I started sharing my writing online.
I wrote short stories, poems, essays, and since then, I have built quite a massive collection of write-ups on the internet published under my name.
A few days back, I decided to go through some of my oldest posts.
I don’t know what I was expecting, but it was certainly not to be horrified. Not only had I written beliefs I now am strongly against, but many of the pieces were also riddled with grammatical errors that made the editor in me cringe.
I suppose every writer has, at some point, gone through their old writing and wished they could disappear off the face of the earth.
In this article, I am listing six of the most frequent mistakes I did when I didn’t have much of an experience. Of course, I am still learning, and I am sure there is a long way to go, but these are the mistakes I have now outgrown. I hope they will be helpful to any writer who is starting out.
1. The use of an ellipsis
I loved the ellipsis (a set of three dots) and used it liberally in my earlier stories. I thought its purpose was to indicate continuity, that it was an alternative to the semi-colon.
I couldn’t have been more mistaken. According to GrammarBook, the ellipsis has two uses:
- To quote material and omit words following the end of a sentence.
- In dialogue, to express hesitation, changes of mood, suspense, or thoughts trailing off.
Another good use of ellipses would be when the author wants to show one side of a phone conversation — to indicate pauses showing the character on the other end is speaking.
I suppose this means that it is best to avoid the use of an ellipsis unless in conversation, dream sequences, or train-of-thought passages where the narrator is interrupted mid-sentence. It is definitely NOT an alternative to the semi-colon.
2. The liberal use of exclamation marks
Apparently, I believed that the only way to indicate excitement in my text was to include exclamation marks. The more the excitement, the more the number of exclamation marks. My earlier write-ups are so riddled with exclamation marks, I would be embarrassed if they were dug up and shared now.
Now that I’m introspecting, I don’t think I ever noticed many exclamation marks in any book. I suppose too much their usage screams “I am a new writer” like nothing else.
I have come to understand that it is always best to use the power of your narrative to show how tense the situation is. Excitement can be brought about by words, by the clever use of pauses to draw the tension out, by dialogue or intense thoughts going on in the head of the protagonist.
Exclamation marks have started to feel like a cheap trick that an author uses when they are too lazy to depict the same excitement through their words.
Of course, they can still be used to express a strong or forceful emotion, such as anger, surprise, or joy. However, using them too often makes them less effective. After a while, readers will start to get annoyed if they see one at the end of every other sentence.
A piece of writing advice by F. Scott Fitzgerald one can always keep in mind is:
“Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.”
3. Presenting dialogue as in real life
Now here’s a tricky one: in real life, people tend to keep talking about the same thing over and over again. But, when reading a novel, no reader likes to read paragraph after paragraph of dialogue that keeps coming back to the same place without taking the story forward.
In one of the old stories that made me particularly cringe, I had written a scene where a man asks his crush out for coffee. She tells him she is busy, he tries to get her to agree on a different day. She tells him she isn’t really sure, he persists. This goes on and on until after a full page of back-and-forth dialogue, she finally agrees.
While this could have been interesting if I had written it in a more flirtatious manner, or included some clever banter, but all I wrote was a different form of the same sentence over and over again.
Looking back, that definitely does not come across as good writing.
4. Beating about the bush
As an extension of the above, readers tend to lose interest if the story just rambles on, if there isn’t something valuable in each sentence, each word. Fillers don’t really make for powerful sentences. Sadly, many of my previous stories failed in this regard.
If you think this is tricky, remember this thumb rule of writing I have now learned to stick to: do not include a single line in your story that doesn’t serve either of the two purposes:
- Takes the story forward.
- Helps in defining the depth of the characters.
These days, I ask myself these questions for every line of text in my story. If my answer to both of them is “no”, I delete that line without a second thought.
5. Using language I didn’t understand
An experienced reader can tell whether the author is familiar with the words they used or they simply looked them up in a Thesaurus. I am embarrassed to admit I found several such instances in my earlier stories.
Over time, I have come to understand that replacing a word with its synonym almost never works.
Flood and deluge are different.
Mellifluous and dulcet are different.
Beautiful and alluring are different.
I have developed a thumb rule that I religiously stick to these days: if you are not 100% confident about a word, don’t use it. Stick to the basics.
Adding to this, tough or “scholarly”-sounding words don’t do a good job of masking the lack of content. A story should focus more on plot than the quality of prose (unless you are writing literary fiction).
6. Not writing for the reader
Most of my earlier articles sounded like diary entries. While it is true that they were written straight from the heart, there was very little in them to keep the reader hooked.
With time, I have understood that, no matter how counter-intuitive it might sound, as a writer, you cannot write for yourself. You have to write for the reader.
Even if it is a story that recounts a personal experience rather than centring the focus on you, make the narrative about the experience so that anyone who is going through something similar can relate to it.
Your story has to either educate the reader about how they can get rid of what is presently troubling them, inspire them to move on, or entertain them enough that they don’t get bored half-way through.
Another important point to keep in mind is to always include an actionable takeaway for the reader: something they can apply in their lives to become better versions of themselves.
More by Anangsha Alammyan in The Writing Cooperative:
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