Improving Your Fiction Manuscript: Common Errors To Avoid

G. K. Chesterton polishing his writing. (Wikimedia Commons)

By Ellen Gable Hrkach

A good novel begins with a great story, a compelling plot, interesting characters. But it doesn’t end there. A good novel also needs to be well written.

I’ve been editing other authors’ novels for two years and writing novels for ten years. What follows are the most common mistakes I see in fiction manuscripts and self-published novels. By finding and fixing these common errors, you can improve your manuscript before it gets to the editor.

1. Overuse of Adverbs
If you’re working on a manuscript right now, do a “find” or “search” for every word that ends with ly. Now remove half of them. Your manuscript is already better. Even without doing a search or find, read each sentence. Are there two adverbs in some sentences? Recent manuscripts I’ve read contain sentences with two or three adverbs.

2. Repetitive Wording
Just, so, very, some. It’s difficult for an author to see his/her own mistakes. Have someone else read through your manuscript to assist you with this. For me, I often can’t see that I often use the same word often in the same sentence (see what I mean?) Or…read your manuscript backwards. This helps to show you areas of repetitive wording and other common errors.

3. Show Don’t Tell
This is a big newbie mistake.

He was sad.
She was amazed.
The look on her face was happy.

Now go through your manuscript and pick out all the times an emotion is simply stated and not described. Instead of writing “He was sad,” try something like “his shoulders slumped” or “his eyes were etched in grief.” Instead of writing “She was amazed,” experiment with different descriptions. One of the most helpful resources I’ve found is The Emotion Thesaurus.

A seasoned reader can spot a badly written, amateur book a mile away and usually within the first two pages. And…it will be more interesting for your reader if you allow them to visualize what’s going on.

4. Too Much Interior Thought
When I presented the initial draft of my first novel to my editor, one of her biggest complaints was “too much interior thinking.” When a character’s italicized thoughts are on every page, twice a page, that’s too much. It’s almost as if the author is lazy and just wants to tell the reader exactly what the character is thinking. Interior thought is fine when used sparingly, but not several times a page. Describe how they’re feeling instead.

5. Comma Errors, Grammar Errors
A great book for helping fix comma errors is:Eats, Shoots and Leaves. As well, search on Amazon for good grammar books. There are many.

6. Exclamation Points!
First-time novelists tend to use too many exclamation points. Do a search and omit most of them (replacing them with descriptions of the tone or face).

7. Too Much Dialogue
My first novel, Emily’s Hope, is 60 percent dialogue and 40 percent narrative. As a beginner, I didn’t know any better. Quality novels tend to use dialogue to serve the narrative, not the other way around. Dialogue can also be a lazy way to show character development. Dialogue is important, but if it’s the mainstay of your book, write a screenplay instead.

8. Underestimating the Intelligence of the Reader (e.g. hitting the reader over the head)
Here’s an example: He was sad. He was depressed. It was hard for him because he seemed so sad. Okay, we get it. He’s sad. Once is enough…and even at that, it’s better to describe what he looks like and feels like.

9. Avoid Descriptive Clichés or Sayings
“She felt like a million bucks”
“Smoother than a baby’s bottom”
Well, you can think of many. Create your own descriptive metaphors and similes instead of using well-known cliches.

10. Point of View
Many first-time novelists tend to use omniscient point of view (POV), that is, in any given scene, the author shows what’s going on in everyone’s mind, even within the same paragraph. This is difficult to do well, even for the experienced, bestselling novelist. And…it can be confusing for the reader. If you want your readers to bond with the characters, try using third person (intimate) POV. For more information, check out my guest post for Savvy Authors.

Eliminating these common errors will improve your manuscript before it even gets to the editor.

Are you working on a fiction manuscript? Do you have any favorite writing books you’d like to share? Please feel free to comment below.

Image of Ellen GableEllen Gable is a novelist living in Pakenham, Ontario, Canada. She is the author of five books: “Stealing Jenny,” a contemporary thriller about a pregnant woman who is kidnapped; “In Name Only” (Gold Medal, Religious Fiction,2010 IPPY Awards), “Come My Beloved” (non-fiction) and “Emily’s Hope.” The Kindle editions of her novels have been in the top 20 of the Religious Drama category since February, 2012. Ellen is President of the Catholic Writers Guild. She does freelance writing for a variety of websites, and she blogs at “Plot Line and Sinker” http://ellengable.wordpress.com. She and her husband are the creators of the Family Life cartoon which illustrates Catholic family life, a topic she knows much about as the mother of five sons ages 15 to 27. Her new book, “A Subtle Grace,” the sequel to “In Name Only,” has recently been published.This post originally appeared on the Catholic Writers Guild Blog.

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2 thoughts on “Improving Your Fiction Manuscript: Common Errors To Avoid”

  1. Besides the items already listed, I like to check my scenes for senses. I color code sight, sound/dialogue, taste, smell, and touch and see if my rainbow has too much of one color or not enough of another. I spot my manuscript this way and also use it for scenes that just aren’t what I want them to be.

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  2. Great tip, Victoria! This reminds me of using colors in Scrivener. I tried to use as many senses as I could too in writing the memoir portion of Trusting God with St. Therese. I found that as I did so, the memories became much more vivid and I thought of aspects that I had long forgotten. The five senses are so powerful!

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