At my day job, I routinely read through the submissions pile of manuscripts to consider them for publication. I often enjoy reading through them, as I’ve found some amazing gems that way. But, more often than not, I stop reading a manuscript before I get to the end, because I already know it isn’t ready for publication (or isn’t right for publication with us). I thought it might be helpful for writers to know what happens on the other side of the submission pile—why do editors stop reading manuscripts?
(Note that I exclusively read fiction in my submissions, so these tips are going to be aimed at fiction writers. But I hope some of this advice is applicable to nonfiction as well.)
Here are five of the most common reasons I stop reading a manuscript:
- Lack of character agency
This is one of the biggest and most common issues that I see regularly: characters who don’t have agency. By “agency,” I mean the ability to make decisions that actually affect the plot. In other words, it’s a character who is active rather than reactive, who affects the plot more than the plot affects them. If you aren’t sure if your character has agency, start with some basic questions: What decisions is my character making? Are their decisions reactive or active? Do their decisions have any impact on the plot? If this protagonist were swapped out with any other character, would the story stay the same? Would any other person make the same decisions in their place?
- Poor writing craft
“Poor writing” is hard to define, since writing is so subjective. Prose that one person doesn’t like might seem beautiful to someone else. But writing craft issues are more objective. Issues with the actual craft of writing include things like telling instead of showing, unnatural or stilted dialogue, grammar issues, an inability to express images or thoughts clearly, etc. I read a lot of manuscripts where the writing just isn’t where it needs to be for publication—in fact, I’d say the majority of manuscripts I reject fall into this category.
The good news is that writing craft can always be improved. Every writer starts out not being very good at their craft, but practice and study can help. And every writer, no matter how experienced, can always improve. Start by reading books in your genre and paying close attention to the writing. There are also a number of great books on the craft of writing that you can study—some of the most popular are On Writing by Stephen King and Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.
- Lack of characterization
Writers know their characters well, but often that knowledge doesn’t translate onto the page. It’s important to showcase what makes your protagonist compelling from the very first chapter, or readers won’t have any reason to continue. The same is true for editors who evaluate your work. We’re looking for compelling characters whose stories we just have to finish. If I can’t describe your character in anything other than broad stereotypes, I’m going to pass. I’ll also stop reading if your protagonist could easily be swapped out with the protagonists of other popular books. Show readers what makes your character unique and give them a reason to care about their story.
- No plot
This often goes hand-in-hand with poor writing craft. Many beginning writers don’t quite know how to structure a story. I see a lot of what I call “episodic” stories, where the characters deal with one problem, then resolve it and move on to the next problem, with no overlapping conflict or goals. Another issue is a lack of stakes—if nothing’s at stake for your characters, why should readers care if they’re successful in reaching their goals? Many, if not most, of the manuscripts I read are lacking either clear character goals, conflict, stakes, or some combination of the three.
Again, studying writing craft will help with structural issues like this. If you’re not sure if this is an issue in your manuscript, ask yourself these questions: What is it that my characters need? What are they trying to accomplish to get what they need? What’s standing in their way? What do they have to lose if they don’t get what they need?
- Pacing issues
Pacing is an issue that plagues almost every manuscript I see in the submission pile—including the ones that actually get acquired. Editors are often willing to work with authors to adjust small pacing issues if the rest of the manuscript is solid, since this is such a common problem and can be fixed in revision. But major pacing issues, on the other hand, often require too much revision to take on. If the beginning of a story in the submission pile is either too rushed or too slow, I will most likely stop reading.
When thinking about pacing, I often describe it this way: The number of pages it takes for something to happen should be proportional to its importance. In other words, the most significant events should get the most page time. The climactic scene of your book, for example, should be longer than, say, a scene of a character eating breakfast. If your manuscript feels too slow or too rushed, take a look at how much space each event or action is given.
What do you think? Do you struggle with any of these issues? What causes you to stop reading a book or manuscript? Have any questions? Let me know in the comments!
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