Potential Pitfalls

Basics Clichés Hurdles Tips Top Errors

Why bother with quality?

There are millions of books on the market. You want yours to stand out amongst the crowd. With self-publishing comes the facility for anyone (and his dog) to publish, but some works might not be as good as they could be. We are collecting a list of the usual suspects that will make your book less than perfect. For the sake of this piece I am assuming you are using a word processor of some kind - these examples are with Microsoft Word. If you are still using pen or typewriter, then keep your formatting consistent throughout, use double spacing, Tipp-Ex and a neck and wrist brace!

Basics          Don't use direct formatting          Use Styles instead

    Firstly, never use the 'B***** It Up' buttons. Always use 'styles' to set up your document. The BIU buttons are only there for backward compatibility with what word processors were like last century and should not be used by any serious author. Remember that even if you are only starting out, professionalism is the key to success.

    The way your words appear on the page is very important if you want your reader to continue reading and consider you a serious writer. Too many authors are too keen to get their story written, and end up with a mess of different fonts, styles and formats. This is all very well, because the ideas are the most important, but once written, you need to go over the work again and again looking for these basic errors. It could be the difference between a publisher taking time to read it, or dismissing you as a waste of time.
    There are standard templates available from Createspace to enable you to type directly on to the page and know that your work is going to look professional at the end. We have attached a modified template to this page to help you get started. This way, if your book looks good in paperback, you can simply upload the document file directly for Kindle and it will still look great. Back to top of page

    Things to watch out for and easy solutions include...

    • NEW - Italics. The latest trend is for publishers to reject if you have too many italics in your manuscript. You cannot get away with using them for emphasis on a single word, but if it is reproducing a written letter or someone's thoughts for example, use single quotes or increased indent rather than a block of italics.
    • Changes of Font in the text: Select All (ctrl-A) and click the 'Normal' font at the top of the Home screen. This will format all your text to however the Normal font is set. If you subsequently need to change the font in your document, then a single modification to the Normal font will do the trick.
    • Formatting. If you see your correctly spelled text underlined in red, right-click on it. You will see a prompt "Replace direct formatting with style XXXX". Do so if it makes sense. This even applies to italic, centred and bold text. You should never use direct formatting by clicking the bold, italic or underline boxes at the top left of the screen.
    • Chapter Headings: For each heading, select the Heading 1 style from the Home screen. Again, if you decide to change the font for headings, it will be a single change here. With our template, you will get your chapters numbered automatically.
    • Table of Contents: Go to the View tab and check the Navigation Pane box. This is how the TOC will look. To add it to the document, go to where you want to insert it, select the References tab and Table of Contents to insert. Because you have your headings formatted correctly, the TOC will reflect this. To update it once you have made changes to the document, right-click anywhere on the TOC and select one of the update options, page numbers or entire table.
    • Spelling: Make sure you have the spellchecker enabled and set to the correct language (English UK and US are different, and you may need to change the default setting). You can then scan through your work, page by page, and correct the highlighted errors. Add those proper names and custom words to your custom dictionary as you go, to prevent them from masking real errors.
    • Grammar: Make sure that the grammar setting is enabled to start with. Most packages will check your grammar and offer alternative suggestions. It is a good idea to look at these, but not necessarily follow everything blindly. If your character has an unusual way of speaking for example, you don't want to spoil this by changing to suit what Microsoft think is right when they are pretending to be posh at dinner parties.
    • Spaces: Use one space only after a comma, full stop, exclamation mark etc. Double spaces went out last century when typesetting and printing became electronic. If you find yourself hitting the space bar more than once at a time, you have my permission to pop your fingers into the blender to prevent it happening again.
    • Bookmarks: There are only a few required for Kindle. TOC and BEGINNING are the main ones. Highlight the top of your Table of Contents, select the Insert tab and choose Bookmark. Replace the selection with TOC and click Add. You can repeat this with any other bookmarks, but for Kindle, having the chapter headings set will also allow links to those chapters from the TOC. These are already set in the Inca template.
    • Footnotes: These can be made to appear at the end of the relevant page in a hardcopy, but in Kindle, you may find them piling up at the end. This will work if you insert them as References. do not use the Header and Footer options, because these appear in all pages.
    • Header and Footer: Use these only to put author and book title on alternate pages. You can add a page number in the footer, but bear in mind these will be ignored in Kindle because the number of words per page varies across different devices. Go to the Insert tab and select Header/Footer as required.
    • Show hidden formatting symbols: If you get lost in the formatting, and everything goes to pot, switch on the formatting symbols to help see what has happened.
      Hide formatting symbols

    The whole operation will take you very little time and will result in a much more readable and professional work, and will make your editor's job much easier (and therefore cheaper if you are paying for it.)

    Clichés and TrapsBack to top of page

    The cliché as defined in Wikipedia is: an expression, idea, or element of an artistic work which has become overused to the point of losing its original meaning or effect, even to the point of being trite or irritating, especially when at some earlier time it was considered meaningful or novel. The term is frequently used in modern culture for an action or idea that is expected or predictable, based on a prior event. Clichés often are employed for comic effect, typically in fiction. Most phrases now considered clichéd originally were regarded as striking, but have lost their force through overuse. The French poet Gérard de Nerval once said "The first man who compared woman to a rose was a poet, the second, an imbecile. Used sparingly, they may succeed, but the use of a cliché in writing, speech, or argument is generally considered a mark of inexperience or a lack of originality.

    Here are a few common pitfalls: please let us know if you have any other favourites...

    • The Exclamation Mark Useful in text messages and on social media, but very rarely in a novel. Before you use one, reflect on Mark Twain's view of this punctuation, "One should never use exclamation points in writing. It is like laughing at your own joke." For emphasis, use the style 'Emphasis', which will italicise your text.
    • The word 'Indeed' in speech. A particular obsession of some technical writers, Victorian fiction and television melodramas, which will drive you mad once you start seeing it repeated. Perhaps our ancestors used the word a lot (but I suspect they were just trying to sound posh), but in modern writing it is best to avoid. It means nothing in most instances and therefore can be omitted.
    • The Dream Sequence. Dreams are valid in some circumstances, but the situation is overused. It is better to consider flashbacks, as long as you can make sure the reader does not get lost in a mire of time shifts (see below).
    • The Prologue. is for providing supplemental information. Dictionary.com describes it as "a preliminary discourse; a preface or introductory part of a discourse, poem, or novel" or "an introductory speech, often in verse, calling attention to the theme of a play." You have already written your prologue in the form of the introduction on Amazon (or other). You don't need to waste a whole chapter. Instead, call it Chapter One, and you have started your book.
      For added incentive, bear in mind that people tend to skim through the prologue, if they read it at all, and will miss vital information if you have included it.
      The Prologue has its place in technical books, detailing the credentials of the author or explaining the sources, or why the book was written in the first place, or with Frankie Howerd sitting in a dress, trying to tell us what is going to happen. Don't use it in your novel unless you have a watertight reason, and it contains nothing pertaining to the actual plot.
    • Repeated use of the same unusual word or phrase: this will drive your reader over the edge and they'll probably burn your book on the next chilly night.
    • The general cliché. As Gérard says above, if that phrase is in everyday use, then it is overused. If you are writing comedy, change it, for example, "her lips were like a red red beetroot", and if prose, find some original way of describing your view, e.g. "a sunset of fire", "The town nestled in dreary granite oblivion."
    • Purple Prose: Like my second example above, perhaps over-heavy on the adjectives, it can be used for vivid illustrations, but again becomes wearing if overused. Perhaps better to say "The granite monstrosity that was Townsville..."
    • The Beginning. Following on from above, too many writers try to begin their work with clumsy descriptions. It's all very well setting the scene, but for example, your readers know what a moon looks like; you don't need to overdo the narrative. If you don't catch the readers' attention on the first page, most won't bother to read further.
    • Time-shifts: You story may be in a series of cameos, but make sure that you keep your reader aware of where they are. Having the date at the top of each shifted time, preferably a chapter per shift, is a excellent way of not losing your victim. Back to top of page
    • Scene shifts: Make sure that your reader is aware where you are at each moment. Use some sort of divider, such as a line of asterisks between locations, or better still separate chapters. With each one, reinforce who the character is and where they are. Remember to answer the standard five questions, Who, What, Where, Why, When.
    • Characters: Don't try to introduce too many new characters at the same time, especially if the names are similar. The reader will soon be lost. If you really need that many players, I would suggest using handles such as 'Peter the Editor', or 'Landberger Gessler' or Boris the PM to ensure the reader knows exactly who you are talking about.
    • Spare words: As your read through, ask yourself if every word is really necessary. A recent work I completed seemed to be full of the phrase 'Of course'. I removed nearly all instances without changing the meaning of the text. You can do the same with 'Indeed', 'in fact' and a host of other fillers we use in everyday speech - in writing they make the story drag.
    • Long words: "I would do away with those great long compounded words; or require the speaker to deliver them in sections, with intermissions for refreshments."
      Mark Twain was talking about the German language, but equally in English prose, too many long words can leave the reader baffled and wondering if they are reading Dickens (indeed).
    • Very: The word, 'Very' is [very] rarely needed. Very hot = boiling, very scared = terrified, very stupid = imbecilic, and (of course!) very rarely = almost never. Remember Mark Twain. "Replace every instance of 'very' with 'damn' and let the editor remove them all for you."
      John Keating sums it up: "Avoid using the word ‘very’ because it’s lazy... Language was invented for one reason, boys - to woo women - and in that endeavor, laziness will not do. It also won’t do in your essays."
    • Other repeated words. They might be innocuous, but use them too much and you will start to annoy your audience. I find myself guilty of overusing the word 'Well' to begin a speech. I have to go through afterwards, search for all instances and either remove or change them to be more punchy.
    • Oxymora: Unless you are writing comedy, watch out for these - they are mutually exclusive words or phrases. My favourite as a support techie was 'User Friendly', occasionally attached to 'Mainframe Interface', but then you have to remember IT as it used to be to understand what I'm on about. See Oxymoronlist for more examples (and a giggle).


The Final Hurdles

You've finished the book. You've had it proofread, and now what? You'd be surprised how many writers give up at this stage. Why are you waiting to push your book through to print? There are a few issues that might be holding you back:

  • Too many opinions from test readers - tastes vary, and you have to balance those people who will say it's good and think it's rubbish, or those who say it's rubbish and demoralise you by telling you bluntly, or those who will say it's good, and actually mean it. Once you have completed your work, you will know in your heart if it is good; you will like it yourself when you do the final read-through.
  • Courage. If you have some positive feedback you can trust, force yourself to go to print. We have a step by step guide to help you through Createspace. It looks daunting, but follow the process and you will end up with a book you can be proud of.
  • Excuses: "I'm waiting for a publisher," "I won't know what to do with the royalties," "The time isn't right," "It's not good enough," "My dog has no nose," etc etc. If you stop to think about all the reasons why you shouldn't publish, you never will - it's like planning to have children; if you work out all the advantages and disadvantages, and you would never have them. This book is your baby!
  • The Last Read-through. Once you've put all the typos right, put the book down, publish (and be damned). If you do a last read-through, you will end up rewriting whole sections and starting the process of looking for errors again. Leave it to your copy editor. They will indicate (or make) the changes to complete the work. We do it for you for free at the Incas as a final pass, but think if you were paying the standard rate of £6 per thousand words to have the copy editor clean up your text. If you make major changes, you will have to go through that process again. If you need extensive help, then contact Wallace Publishing. Mention the Incas and you will get a substantial discount.


So to conclude, don't fall at the final fence. After all the edits and honest feedback, you must bite the keyboard and go for it. You can always rewrite and republish later if there are minor errors or plot holes - that's the beauty of print on demand. If you still find you need a kick in the pants, drop the Incas a note for an injection of motivation!

Robert Wingfield - January 2017