As an editor, I read a lot of manuscripts. And more often than not, I find myself making the same notes on those manuscripts over and over again. Some content and craft mistakes are so common that I’ve marked them on almost every manuscript. So, as I read through the submission pile this week, I decided to make note of the most common issues I saw and share them here. I’ve blogged about some of these issues before, and some I plan to discuss in more depth in the future. But here is a general overview of the most common mistakes I’ve seen:
- Pacing issues
Almost every manuscript I’ve edited had a problem with pacing at some point. In some cases, it’s only an issue for a few scenes; in others, it’s the entire manuscript. As a writer, I know how difficult pacing can be; it’s an issue I routinely address in my own work. But as an editor, there’s nothing more frustrating than seeing a great manuscript with a ton of potential, only find that the pacing requires too much of an overhaul to take on. Before you submit, take a careful look at your pacing and make sure that it isn’t moving too slow or too fast. Ask your critique partners or beta readers if there were any sections that dragged or rushed. Try to follow fast scenes with quieter ones so the reader has time to catch their breath, but don’t let quiet scenes stall.
- Not knowing what you’ve written
I often come across writers who don’t know what category, genre, or subgenre their manuscript fits into. This is important, because one of the first things editors have to do to acquire your book is think about where it fits on bookstore shelves, what other similar titles have been published, how well similar titles sold, how the book might be marketed, etc. Many editors have to research this information extensively before they even take your manuscript to an acquisition board for approval. If I don’t know where your book fits on the shelf, I can’t get it approved. When you pitch your book to agents and editors, make it clear where your book fits in the market so that we have a better understanding of whether or not we can sell/acquire it. Plus, as a writer, I find that knowing the conventions of your genre before you write is always helpful for subverting tropes or adding plot twists.
- No goals
Your protagonist absolutely must have a goal that they’re working toward. It’s the pursuit of the protagonist’s goals that drives the story forward. Without it, the plot will feel stalled or pointless. If you’ve received notes from critique partners or beta reads expressing confusion about where the story is going, you might need a stronger goal. Keep in mind that the goal doesn’t have to be a physical thing—it can be either an internal goal or an external one. But it must be present from the very beginning.
- No stakes
Once your protagonist has a goal, you have to make your readers care about that goal. What happens if they fail? What do they have to lose? Having something at stake is what gives the story its suspense and keeps the reader turning pages to find out what happens next. If nothing is at stake, then there’s no reason for the protagonist or the reader to care about the goal.
- No “fun and games” beat
If you’re familiar with Blake Snyder’s “Save the Cat” beat sheets, you’ve heard the term “fun and games” before. It refers to the scene(s) where all of the fun stuff of the premise happens, while the protagonist is trying to solve the problem but before things get serious. Exactly what this entails can vary from genre to genre and story to story, but it’s usually pretty easy to identify. In romance, for example, this is the scene when the hero and heroine get to know each other in a fun way (and in romance films, this is the upbeat montage).
Too often, the manuscripts that I see forget to include this beat, or don’t make it significant enough. While it’s vital to have conflict, remember to give your protagonist (and your readers) space to breathe before the stakes ratchet up at the midpoint. This will not only help your pacing, but also help with things like characterization and romance, as you can use this beat to show your characters connecting with one another.
- Telling instead of showing
I’m sure we’ve all heard this one before, but it’s still something I see in manuscripts all the time. Sometimes it’s a large issue, like the narrator summarizing what happened in a scene instead of showing it, and other times it’s more subtle, like a character stating their emotions outright instead of showing us how they feel through their actions and dialogue. Before you submit your work, read through it again and check for moments when you could be showing more instead of telling. Better yet, have a critique partner or beta reader look for it.
Many of the manuscripts I see have issues with repetition in one form or another. Sometimes it will be small issues, like a single phrase that’s used over and over. Other times, it will be a larger issue—whole passages or even scenes that read just like a previous one. This can also be another telling instead of showing issue, as telling is less subtle than showing and can make things feel even more repetitive because they’re more obvious. Again, this is something to have your critique partners or beta readers take a look at.
What do you think? Do you struggle with any of these issues? What are other common problems, either in your work or in published books? Let me know in the comments!
Interested in professional editorial services for your manuscript? Check out my Services page for more information about what I offer.