Although this blog is titled 7 common mistakes to avoid in your manuscript, let me caveat that by saying that these ‘mistakes’ are outlined as a guide only. As a line and developmental editor, the authors I work with ask for feedback on these areas the most, and their novels benefit immensely from ‘fixing’ these elements.
1. Underdeveloped character relationships
Do you ever start watching a Netflix film you lose interest in after half an hour and start scrolling on your phone? More often than not, it’s due to not being interested/invested enough in the characters and their relationships. Viewers – and readers – need to CARE about characters. If they are underdeveloped or two dimensional, it’s really difficult to relate to them, so we disconnect. You do not want your readers to disconnect!
How to fix it:
Creating character profiles before starting to write your novel can really help to bring your characters to life in your mind. Not all writers need, or want, to do this but if you feel that your characters lack depth or emotion or motivation, going back to basics with character profiles could help you deep dive into their psyche. The Novel Factory is brilliant for all aspects of novel planning, and it’s currently offering a free ‘ultimate character questionnaire’ if you subscribe.
Another option is to ask trusted friends or beta readers for feedback on your characters before sending your manuscript to your editor. There are Facebook groups or Twitter hashtags (#betareaderswanted or #betareadersrequired) for this purpose, full of people who would be willing to read your book for free (or sometimes in exchange for a small fee or the offer of reciprocal reading). Family members may offer to read your manuscript too, which is generous, but be aware that they may not be as objective or constructive as an unbiased reader.
2. Unnecessary dialogue/lack of dialogue tags
Trying to keep track of who says what in a written conversation (especially a back and forth conversation) can be so frustrating for readers if the dialogue itself, or the dialogue tags, are confusing.
“I’m not going with you,” she said.
“Get in the car.”
“No, I told you I wouldn’t.”
“Wouldn’t what? We need to go!”
“Tough. You go.”
“I’m not going without you.”
“I told you – you need to.”
“Where are we going?”
This is obviously an extremely simple dialogue example, but illustrates the point about needing clarity. Without dialogue tags we don’t know how many people are in the conversation, how they’re speaking, or who is saying what.
How to fix it:
Listen to your character conversations out loud. There are a few ways you can do this: read them aloud yourself, ask someone to read them with you (like the script of a play), or use the ‘read aloud’ function on your PC or laptop if it has one. If your conversation is sounding like a volley (back and forth) but with no substance to it, or without moving the story along, consider condensing or rewriting it.
Anywhere there may be ambiguity, using ‘said’ and the character name as a basic dialogue tag can clarify.
Another reason for confusion may be because the dialogue isn’t set out on the page properly. By always beginning a new line whenever a different character is speaking, it makes the conversation clearer for the reader. Although the example above only contains one dialogue tag, the layout implies the characters are taking it in turns to speak.
3. Psychic characters – knowing things they couldn’t know
This is quite an easy ‘mistake’ to miss, especially if you are writing in third person viewpoint. The temptation is to give your character too much knowledge, because it’s your knowledge as the writer. Except characters can’t know everything!
“The Victorian house stood proudly on the corner plot despite showing signs of damage. Getting out of the car, she looked sadly at the peeling paint, the broken chimney stack, and the boarded up windows from her vantage point across the road. Inside, the wallpaper flopped down like wilted leaves.”
The problem with this is that although the character looking at the house might normally be able to spy wilted wallpaper from across the road, she definitely can’t see it through boarded up windows!
How to fix it:
Put yourself in the head of your character, or imagine them acting out the scene on screen in a film or TV programme. What would they be able to see, hear, smell, taste or touch? This applies even if you are writing in third person (as opposed to first person) viewpoint because a human character can’t see through walls or know for sure what another person is really thinking. However, if your characters aren’t human, there’s much more scope for psychic abilities!
4. Wildly fluctuating chapter lengths
Although there are no hard and fast rules about uniform chapter lengths in fiction, some genres do tend to stick to certain conventions. For example, chapters in psychological thrillers tend to be quite short to keep the pace quite fast and the tension quite taut. Readers also like chapters of similar lengths to be able to gauge how long ‘just one more chapter’ will take to read!
How to fix it:
If you consider that one A4 page in Word is usually equivalent to about 500 words (for single line spaced font size 12 text), you can easily see where some chapters may be considerable longer or shorter than others. Alternatively, if you highlight full chapters, its word count will show at the bottom of the screen. Extra long chapters, especially amongst plenty of shorter chapters, may feel laboured to a reader and you don’t want that.
5. Extra long sentence lengths
Too long and/or complex sentences can negatively affect the pace and readability of your story. For optimum readability, a novel for an adult needs to have a Flesch reading score of around 70, which usually converts to sentence lengths of around 12-15 words. (As a comparison, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books contain an average sentence length of 12 words.)
How to fix it:
Count Wordsworth is a fantastic tool for measuring the metrics in your writing. If you copy and paste your chapters into the website, it will give you useful statistics, such as: average words per sentence, your most used words and phrases, the percentage of first, second and third person viewpoints, and many more.
Reading sentences aloud also gives you an instant assessment of whether they may be too long. If you can’t recite them easily, or you’re running out of breath, they’re perhaps too long!
6. Lack of clear timeline
A reader likes context. A clear timeline gives them that context and helps to guide them through the story. If there’s no way of knowing whether hours, weeks, months or years are passing, a reader may question or be confused by events that happen in the story, or lose track of what is happening and when.
Common time markers that are used in fiction include: pregnancies, births, ages, deaths, birthdays, physical descriptions pertaining to maturity, the sun and moon, seasons, world events, religious celebrations, distances travelled, decomposition of bodies, use of newspapers/TV programmes, flashbacks, and so on. Not to mention stating times and dates within the story overtly too.
How to fix it:
Plotting beforehand helps you consider what timeframe is best for your story. A family saga, for example, may span decades and will likely include references to many world events such as war or certain eras. A psychological thriller, however, might tell its tale over the course of only a week, or even one day. Knowing the overall timeline will inform which time markers would help your reader the most. I swear by the Save the Cat beat sheet planning framework for outlining my novels.
7. Too many coincidences/conveniences to be believable
“I love it when an author ties up all the plot threads extremely conveniently right at the end,” said no reader ever! There’s nothing worse than reading a great whodunnit, only to discover the villain didn’t even feature until the last chapter, and who then reels off a string of convoluted but extremely convenient reasons for wanting revenge. Readers like to be surprised but not completely blindsided by the reveal. The whole story, including the ending, still needs to be satisfying.
How to fix it:
As with number one, beta readers are a reliable source of honest feedback! Nipping any unbelievable elements in the bud before publication helps keep the book safe from savage reviewers who may not be as forgiving as helpful betas.
If you are an author and suspect that your novel contains any (or all) of these issues, don’t worry – there’s nothing that can’t be fixed! Working through these issues yourself, ahead of sending your manuscript to your editor, could potentially shorten the editing process and possibly save you money due to needing a line edit as opposed to a developmental edit, for example.
There you have it – 7 common mistakes to avoid in your manuscript (and how to fix them if you do make them!).
A-Z of Storytelling Techniques for Authors is available to buy or borrow now! Get it here.
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