Mistakes that make me put a book down.

There’s a plague going around, one that’s hurting indie authors chances of getting enough good reviews to sell their books well. I’m not talking about reaching best-seller status, just decent sales. I don’t want to keep you in suspense. The plague is writing mistakes, including, but not limited to, grammar and punctuation. Many indie books also having missing words and misused words. You can find the difference between might vs. may, for example, at Grammar Girl. There’s a whole host of other mistakes a good editor would point out if given the chance. It’s too bad so many indie authors think they can’t afford an editor. I don’t think most authors can afford not to hire one.
By far the most common mistake I see is punctuation. Extra commas abound. Add a comma wherever you want a pause, right? Wrong. Commas do NOT go between an independent clause (a sentence containing both a noun and a verb) joined by a conjunction (and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet) to a dependent clause (can’t stand alone as a sentence). I’m guilty of this too, but I try to edit out my extra commas. Check your comma sense at Purdue’s Online Writing Lab (OWL). Use an m-dash if you want a pause for effect where a comma would be improper. In novels, the m-dash is also preferred over a semi-colon and colon to join two related independent clauses.

Pronoun confusion is rampant in dialog between characters of the same sex. Every writer needs to know that “he” or “she” refers to the character who was most recently named. That name is an antecedent (the noun to which the pronoun refers or which it replaces). Putting quotes around another character’s dialog in the next paragraph doesn’t change that rule. Here’s a short article where you can see an example of what I mean using three characters, although it only takes two to cause confusion: Pronoun Confusion-Who’s Who Here?

There’s also head-hopping, good old-fashioned omniscient point of view. Perhaps it went out of fashion for a reason. Pick the person you know better than anyone else (besides yourself) and tell me how often you read his or her mind. Would it make relationships easier if you knew what everyone else thought? Let me answer that. Yes. So why would any writer want to make it easier to guess the outcome of a relationship? Yeah, let’s ruin the suspense, tension, and mystery by telling what every character thinks. Head-hopping also makes the reader bounce around between characters instead of identifying with one. Need I point out that losing interest in the main character and lack of tension both lead to a reader falling asleep?

Too often, mistakes like these overpower the story to the point where I stop reading what could have been a very good book. If I had finished that book, I would have left the author a nice review. There are some books I do finish because the story itself is interesting, but I wouldn’t give that kind of book more than three stars. I have an inkling most indie authors wouldn’t be happy with an “I liked it” rating when they could have achieved a four or five star rating by careful editing. Wouldn’t you rather your book keep me up late reading instead of annoying me or worse, putting me to sleep? 

So how does your writing stack up? You might (notice I didn’t say may because I’m not certain) get an idea by checking the book reviews on editor Jane Smith’s blog: The Self-Publishing Review.  If you’ve already published your book, send it to her to review if you dare. 
If you haven’t yet published your book, I would recommend you save up enough money to hire an editor. I have a few in my twitter lists. Otherwise, don’t complain when your sales are poor. For anyone so cash-strapped that not even a year’s worth of savings would be enough to hire an editor, come back next time for some tips on writing to meet professional standards by other means.

Now a shameless plug for my own writing. I put up a contest for $10 each to the best guesses on a post theme and the ending of a book pitch I wrote for Rachael Harrie’s Platform Building Campaign. So far, only two people have tried to guess the pitch ending, and neither came anywhere close. Even if you already guessed, you can guess again. I’ve added over half of the original 17 missing words, so you should have a good chance. The contest is open through the end of March, so please humor me and guess what happens at the end of my book pitch. It doesn’t have to be exact to win, but I’d like the winning guess to be somewhere in the ball park. Click here to read the post and enter your guess. Even if your guess is wrong, Rafflecopter might choose your entry for a $5 “I tried” prize. Thanks!

Whether you’re a writer or a reader, I’d love to hear your most hated writing mistakes. 

Share A Heart

Indie author-friendly freelance editor, children's book blogger for picture books through YA, kid lit, SF/fantasy lover with special fondness for middle grade, pun-loving SCBWI member, meter-maid for poetry and rhyming picture books.


  1. Good post, Sher. I agree. Editing is a must.

    Some of my pet peeves are: head-hopping, comma spices and comma misuse, sentence fragments that are stumblers (done right, they can be wonderful), tags and beats that are punctuated incorrectly (“Better run fast,” she laughed.), and excessive dialogue tags (ex: ‘Hunger Games’) or the flip side to that–writing so bad it’s unclear who is speaking or what is happening. Stilted dialogue and obvious plausibility problems will put me off a book, too, although I’m not one to go digging for the latter. If the rest of the book is stellar, I’ll overlook the small stuff.

    Like I said, good post. Nothing wrong with self-pub. Just don’t drag down it’s rep when you do. ; )

  2. Oh – and another one I’ve been running across lately: dangling participles. Some are really good for a laugh. = D

  3. Fantastic post. I have to agree with it. It’s definitely one of the main reasons I have a problem with a lot (not all) indie published works.

    Sadly, it’s more common than not. I think this is a shame as it attaches a stigma to self/indie published works that not all of them deserve.

    My other pet peeve?

    Pov slips. Where it’s a first person book but they’re apparently a mind reader. Makes me want to throw the book (e-reader) through the window ever time.

    Also – my grammar isn’t 100%, but one of my CPs is a copy editor, so I’m lucky there.

  4. Melissa, I think I’m going to love having you critique my pages.

    K.T., I agree there are some great indie books. Open Minds YA SF by Susan Kaye Quinn was my favorite last year. Very well written and edited. Rick Daley’s The Man in the Cinder Clouds, a great take on Santa’s origins for middle-grade up, was stellar. And Noah Zarc by D. Robert Pease, about a handicap teen in the future who helps repopulate Earth with animals was far cleaner than average.

    Don’t throw your e-reader away yet!

  5. I’ve noticed in a couple of self published books that the wrong there will be used or than and then get mixed up. Each of us has the mistake we make over and over, so we don’t see it in our drafts. That’s why a professional editor is a must!

  6. I am such a perfectionist myself, I find it hard to believe anyone would publish a book with that many mistakes, yet I see them even in books put out by publishing hires from time to time. I don’t know how much a self-pubbed book is.likely to earn. Would you get the cost of professional editing back in sales? It’s pretty pricey.

    I think spelling and grammar check in Word will catch most things, and a couple of good beta readers, the rest. Don’t you think so?

  7. Stupid smartphone…publishing “houses”, not hires. This thing drives me nuts!

  8. Theresa, you’re so right. I changed the spelling of my fantasy world from Erth One to Earth One so agents & editors wouldn’t think I couldn’t spell, and then I forgot to do a search for “Erth” in my query letter. It’s a good thing I had a friend take a look before I sent it.

    Christine, spelling and grammar checks might catch 90 percent of errors, but they don’t catch missing words, orphaned clauses, etc. One book I read had 50 missing words before I gave up counting 5 chapters into it. The problem with most beta readers and critique partners is they don’t know passive verbs from passive voice, and they wouldn’t recognize a subjunctive if it slapped them in the face. I just attended a workshop by Kathy Carmichael and Vickie Hinze where they said you can get good editors and cover art both for around $300 to $350. I guess I need to do some checking.

  9. Wow, you hit on everything that a writer should look for in their work while editing. I too have seen Indie authors publish work that just isn’t up to standards. Wish they would take more time to edit.

  10. Great advice.

    I think an editor is a must for self-publishing at least for me. I know I’ll never catch all my mistakes no matter how many times I comb my MS.

    Errors like these can be very confusing, and as a reader, I’m not going to finish a book if I can’t follow it.

  11. Thanks Jennifer and MaryAnn,
    One thing for sure is that no writer can see their own mistakes as well as somebody else can. I’ve used around 20 adults while going through rewrites on one book that’s now two series. The first group of 6 people didn’t even tell me I was trying to put too many ideas into a book for young teens, so finding the right critique group is as important as finding the right editor.

  12. This is a great post! I’ve been interning with a literary agent for the past couple of months and this is the advice we give to most rejected manuscripts. Get a professional edit!

    Beta readers are good for helping improve the overall quality of a manuscript, but they’re not going to catch everything most of the time (unless you’re lucky to have an editor as a crit partner/beta reader).

    Professional editing is worth every penny.

    I’m starting a freelance editing business. So if you know anyone who wants an edit (on the cheap or free) let me know! I’ll take a look to see if I can help them.

  13. I am actually reading a book right now that does not have enough commas (but very well-edited other than that). Head hopping is the thing that will really make me put down a book, and also major inconsistencies in the story.
    I’m in the US (for your big contest).

  14. I never understood people not wanting to read self published books, but then I got this one book on my Kindle, and there were so many typos and misuse of certain words. I can’t remember right now, but I just remember this too, which I don’t know if it was just an error in getting in from the computer to a kindle or what but everytime there were double letters, there would be a space. i.e. “I ll ca ll her tomo rrow” Drove me insane!

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