Monday, October 15, 2012

Common Manuscript Mistakes and the Writers Who Make Them

One of the advantages of critiquing a lot is that I get to see mistakes in other people's work that I know I'm guilty of. While self-editing is never as effective as being critiqued / edited by someone else, it's useful to have something specific to look for in my own work.

Earlier this year I was interviewed by Sharon M. Johnston of YAtopia and Downunder-Wonderings. She asked what the most common mistakes were that I saw in manuscripts I critiqued. Well, here's the unabridged version of the answer to that question. I hope it's helpful for you in your self-editing journey.

1. Wordiness

An inability to identify the most efficient way to phrase a sentence.

There are two aspects to this; the first is simply using too many words out of ignorance, or lack of revision. But the second is something that's easier to watch out for: Using complicated words, or flowery phrasing in the belief that it adds weight to your writing. 

Friends in my critique group call this "purple prose" and it can be as simple as 

"He was the single most perfect specimen of adolescent glory I'd ever had the good fortune to lay eyes on", 

or as complicated as  

"His kiss sent me into the stratosphere in paroxyms of ecstasy that erupted from the top of my head like the molten plasma of a volcanic eruption..."
Learning to phrase an idea efficiently, using an economy of words that are straightforward is a skill that has to be learned by most writers (certainly, by me -- it's something I'm still working on). As far as avoiding this, I think you need to be edited / critiqued by someone whose writing isn’t wordy – allow them to show you how to make your sentences more streamlined, your scenes more focused.

Unfortunately, I think a lot of writers confuse writing instruction with judgement of their creative talent. I say "unfortunately " because I really believe that learning the craft (in part through being critiqued by writers who are more skilled, or whose skill-set doesn't match my own) actually unleashes creativity. It equips me to better deliver the vision in my head.

2. Telling

Most novice writers "tell " because they don't know they're doing it.

Avoiding this is much harder until you can develop the analytical skill to identify it. But as a rule, you want to look for parity of words. In the short-term, showing often takes longer than telling (but because it paints a deeper world, in the long-term your novel will be shorter because things don't need to be explained). To figure out if you're telling on a surface level, take a look at a page of your own writing. Do your sentences conveying action use the five senses (i.e. smell, touch, sound), or are they statements of fact?

It's the difference between:

"Carl punched Adam in the nose." (Telling)


"The smack of flesh on flesh sickened my stomach as Carl hurled himself at Adam." (Showing)

Another form of telling I often encounter are moments when the author uses the protagonist or POV character to tell the reader what they want them to know about another character. The POV character will proceed to "tell" what's going on in another character's head, or interpret another character's body language.

Words that often crop up in these moments  are "as if ", "seem" in all its variations (seemed to, seemingly, seems), or the name of an emotion (I.e. “Something told me Carl was angry.”).

Writers need to learn to trust the reader to gather what's implied in dialogue and body-language. 

One note on this kind of telling: if you remove this from your manuscript and the reader can't follow what people are feeling / thinking, the problem is in your showing. So offer more body-language, physical sensation, etc, rather than adding narrative.

3. Implausibility

Of all the things I see in manuscripts, this is the one that bothers me the most (especially when I’m guilty of it, I might add). It ranges from unlikely dialogue right through to plot points that defy sense. The reality is you can do anything in a book. But there has to be a plausible foundation in the world-building, character motivations, and plot.

The most common implausibilities I encounter are:

1.      Vital information or item falls into protagonist’s lap via means they didn’t anticipate or fight for.

Literally: Previously unknown character shows up and says “You know how you need three acres of land before Saturday so you can throw those para-Olympics before little Johnny dies? Well, I have four acres, and you can use it.” 

Another version I see a lot in paranormal is a character suddenly "sensing" something the reader needs to know.

You have to get clever with these situations. More importantly, your protagonist has to get clever. They have to earn the answers, or discover the vital item(s) through intentional pursuit.

2.      Character One explains things to Character Two that Character Two already knows – but the reader doesn’t.

These conversations often start with something like “I know you know this…” or “I’ve already told you…”. The worst offenders have both characters explaining things they both know to each other, or finishing each other’s thoughts.

The only fix is to sprinkle pieces of information into the internal narration (or dialogue) as the book goes along. Don’t try to give the reader everything at once. And definitely don’t try to fill in backstory within the first 25-30 pages. Let the reader get hooked by the current action first.

3.      Character makes a decision not to ask a question, or not to follow a lead, or not to explore something which very obviously could provide answers to the story question.

I.e. Maddie has just learned she can heal wounds supernaturally. Johnnie mentions that his Grandmother told him stories about people who could do that when she was a child. Instead of asking to talk to the Grandmother, Maddie googles “healers”… Yet at the end of the book, it’s the Grandmother who has all the answers.

The trick is to put sensible obstacles in front of the protagonist that either force them to cut a conversation off before too much is revealed (if it’s vital to have some info given at that stage of the book), or stops them following up a lead they’ve been given. (In the above scenario, for example, they could visit the Grandmother who appears to be mental and a dead-end in terms of information. But they keep going back. And the author can foreshadow that Granny is tricking them, trying to keep herself safe from the people who’ll kill them all if they find out Maddie can heal and Grandma knows why…)

Alternatively, you can present competing priorities. If you can create two or more seemingly equally important tasks, then the protag is initially forced to follow one and not the other. The protag can choose to follow the lead that will only provide half the answers.

In all these cases, if you aren’t sure whether your book / writing / plot falls into implausibility, consider this: If someone reads it and you have to explain the motivation, it probably isn’t sensible. If there is an easier, or more likely solution available that is being ignored, it probably isn’t plausible. If you (the author) have to decide “The Character is just that way” to make a decision make sense… it doesn’t make sense.

Your Turn: Any questions? Are there any mistakes in your writing that you're aware of, but uncertain how to fix?


  1. This is great advice. I know I am often guilty of making things too easy for my protagonist. My crit group was just telling me that my characters don't "earn it" enough. I'm working on that one :)

    1. Sounds like you've got a really effective writing group! Awesome! :)

  2. Love this. And I'm guilty of pulling these lazy techniques more than once, so thanks for the reminder NOT TO DO THEM. Retweet.

  3. Great examples and thank you so much for stating NOT to dump all the back story in the first 25-30 pages of a novel. I used to do this a lot, so now it bothers me more than anything. I immediately lose interest if I sense an info dump coming in fellow writers' works and usually end up skimming the info dump until the good stuff starts again.

    But aaah, the telling, I still need to work on that... I think I'm better than I was, but could still use a lot of improvement.

    1. Backstory: the bane of my writerly existence *facepalm*

  4. Great feedback - and the plus side to critiquing for others! I struggle with all of the above, she says frustratedly... But much easier to fix once you're aware of them. Great post!

  5. I am always pointing at those kind of things in the movies I see on TV, in books and movies. I wonder why are those stories there at all. My mother says I am overly critique and kill the "magic".

  6. great examples! thanks for sharing. =)