Common writing mistakes authors make (and how to avoid them)

By Will Allen, Editor at Major Street Publishing

Not all published authors are writers by trade – in fact, we publish a wide variety of books from authors who wouldn’t classify themselves as professional writers. There are two reasons for this. The first is that whether or not they are a professional writer, every Major Street author has something important to say and the expertise to support their message. The second is that they have a great editor in their corner to help them present their message to the world in the best possible way!

When you submit your manuscript for publication, your editor will not be expecting it to be 100 per cent perfect from the get-go. Even a very polished manuscript can benefit from a second opinion, especially from someone with a lot of relevant training and experience.

With that said, if you want to make the edit phase of your book smoother and more enjoyable, here are four mistakes we see time and again, and how to avoid them.

1. Using overcomplicated language

Many writers fall into the trap of employing a wordier writing style than necessary. The thinking here is often that, to convey their authority in the field in which they are writing, they need to ‘sound smart’. Break out the thesaurus!

In fact, the opposite is generally true. The best way to come across like you know what you’re talking about is to communicate your message clearly. In other words, keep it brief, and use the simplest language you can. If you can say something using fewer words, you probably should.

That’s doesn’t mean you need to write as if your reader is five years old, though. It’s perfectly acceptable to choose more obscure words over simpler alternatives because they provide a greater nuance of meaning, as long as doing so makes your message clearer.

2. Using passive rather than active sentences

One common way that authors overcomplicate their writing is by using passive rather than active sentences. Passive sentences essentially swap their grammatical subject and object, as shown below:

  • Passive: ‘The complicated sentence was written by the author.’
  • Active: ‘The author wrote the complicated sentence.’

We prefer active sentences, as they are simpler and, therefore, easier to understand. They also come across as friendlier, which is useful for connecting with your reader.

3. Assuming too high a level of reader knowledge

It’s important to write for your target audience. When you’re an expert in your field, it’s easy to forget that not everyone has your level of understanding of the topic your book discusses. However, it can feel like a fine line to walk between confusing your reader and talking down to them.

When writing for a general audience, don’t be afraid to assume a certain level of intelligence. However, it’s best to avoid using jargon your reader is unlikely to understand (or define the terms if you cannot avoid using them). Also, if you’re unsure whether the reader will have the necessary background knowledge to understand a section, it’s better to provide that context than risk alienating them.

4. Inconsistency in spelling or word choice

Something you probably learned in school is that there is a right and a wrong way to spell words, but sometimes it’s not that straightforward. For example, is it ‘x-ray’ or ‘X-ray’? What about ‘no one’ or ‘no-one’? Do you choose ‘World War Two’, ‘World War 2’ or ‘World War II’?

At Major Street, we have our own house style guide, which dictates which option we choose when more than one is acceptable. This will be provided to you when you agree to publish your book with us. However, it’s less important to choose the ‘right’ option than it is to be consistent. Very few readers will care whether you go with ‘percent’, ‘per cent’ or ‘%’, but if you flit between them, they’ll notice – not consciously, necessarily, but they’ll come away with the vague impression that something wasn’t quite right, which will affect their confidence in your book.

Will Allen is Major Street's in-house editor, who joined Major Street after working at Lonely Planet on their travel guides. Will is now ensconced in business books and is enjoying learning from our expert authors about careers, business, mindset, leadership and the share and property markets.