The Editor’s Dozen: Common Mistakes Writers Make

I’m sure you’ve heard how important it is to have a professional editor go through your manuscript before you submit to agents and editor and/or before you self-publish, but do you know what kind of errors we find? I’ve talked about the big picture and structural flaws before. But what about the small stuff?

As a freelance editor, I can tell you every author is different and every manuscript has its strengths and weaknesses, but there are common mistakes found in most novels. Many of these can be avoided if you know what types of errors will get a you a poor review or rejection.

Here’s a list of twelve of the common mistakes writers make:

-Too many exclamation points: In this market, a writer should rarely use exclamation points. Most of the time, the reader should be able to tell if the character is upset, angry or scared, so you don’t need to TELL us how he’s saying something by using an exclamation point. We should know because of the way the scene was written.

-Repeaters: While you may not notice you’ve used the word “down” five times on the same page, that word screams at me when I see it over and over again. Every writer has his own pet words. Go through your manuscript or have someone else do it and highlight all the repeaters. It’s really an eye-opener when you see all the yellow highlights on a page.

-Poor comma usage: This can mean you overuse or underuse commas or that you place them where they don’t belong.

-Flip-flopping verb tenses: Most manuscripts are written in the past tense. The only time the present tense should appear in most manuscripts is in direct thought/inner dialogue, which is in italics. For example, I’ll find you, Lucy.

-Misuse of “that”: Writers tend to think they need to use the word “that” more than necessary. If you’re not sure, read the sentence out loud with and without “that”. If it still makes sense without “that”, cut it.

-Point of view oopsies: This is when a writer either switches point of views too often or she does it without realizing it and hasn’t properly grounded the reader. So, we start off reading in Jane’s POV and, all of a sudden, we’ve hopped into Joe’s POV. This can be really jarring to the reader.

-Action/reaction blunders: A character must see, hear, feel, taste, or smell something BEFORE she can react to it. Writers have the tendency to write about the reaction and then what caused it.

-The “it” factor: Many times the word “it” can be replaced with something more accurate, especially at the beginning of a sentence.

-Non-specifics: Always try to use the strongest nouns and verbs and be as specific as possible. Instead of saying Molly walked to greet her mother, show us how she walked. Did she run, jog, or skip over to her? Or did she drag her feet? This makes a big difference and SHOWS us how Molly feels about her mom without TELLING us.

-Began/started: For the most part, your characters never have to begin or start something. They can just do it. Rather than saying Emily began to shake, say Emily shook. This makes the writing tighter and more active.

-Telling verbs: Here are some telling verbs to avoid: watched, saw, heard, noticed, thought, smelled, etc. Remove these verbs and show us what Ken saw. For example, instead of saying, Ken saw Luke digging through Pam’s purse, you could say, Luke dug through Pam’s purse. We know Ken saw this because we’re in his POV, so this tightens the writing and makes the scene more active.

-Buried dialogue: Don’t bury your dialogue in the narration. It slows the pace and can confuse the reader.

While this little cheat sheet won’t replace a professional editor’s scrutiny, it should help you strengthen your writing.

Lynnette Labelle

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