Rachael’s Top Ten Manuscript Mishaps

April 7, 2009 at 4:53 PM | Posted in Editing, Writing Advice | 1 Comment
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In my beta reading exploits of partials and fulls, I’ve picked up a lot of information. Not only have I improved others’ writing, but I have improved my own and compiled this list of the most common mistakes I see in manuscripts. Some of these would seem like obvious common knowledge, but I have seen them more often than I can believe. I hope that, with this list, you can improve your own writing. Here are the top ten mistakes (that I can think of).

Too much back-story. Some back-story is good, but a ton is not. As easy as back-story is to write, it’s better to work it into a story. Let the reader learn things as they go along. We prefer it that way. Tell me, which would you rather read: five pages of back-story with no action, or five pages of real story with plenty of action and the back-story worked in? Exactly. And for the love of writing, do NOT start a story with 10 pages of back-story.

Info dumps. So many writers have heard these two words but aren’t sure what they mean. Then there are the writers who use them all the time and don’t realize it. So, info dumps are just that: dumps of information in a story. They may or may not be relevant to the story (many info dumps have nothing to do with the story and do nothing to advance the plot) but they can always be worked into the story. Prologues (see Back-story) are often info dumps. Let’s use another example. You’re writing a sci-fi novel taking place on a space station and spend two paragraphs describing how the space suits work. It might be interesting, it might even be relevant (say if the space suits fail and have to be fixed), but it can ALL be worked into the story somewhere. Through dialogue, through actions, or when the space suits fail enough that the reader understands what’s happening. Okay, maybe that wasn’t the best example. But still you get my point, I hope!

Unrealistic dialogue. Dialogue is a wonderful thing. After all, it’s how we communicate, unless you’re some kind of telepathic mutant alien coming to take over earth. It’s how the reader learns a lot of information in a novel. However, like all parts of writing, it does take practice. Some people write dialogue naturally. It’s so real, you can literally hear it in your head. Others are better at descriptions and have to work at dialogue. If your one of the latter group, then here’s a little tip. While you’re editing (or even writing), if you can envision someone actually saying that, then you’ve got it. If you couldn’t in a million years see anything talking like that (or if it just seems unlikely), then chances are, it’s not natural dialogue.

Show and tell. This is one thing that commonly confuses writers. I’m not talking about that show-and-tell in kindergarten where you brought your teddy bear in to show your class… though it is close. Now that we have the teddy bear analogy in our heads, let me give you can example using it.

Tell: This would be the day you forgot your teddy bear, so you decide to describe him to the class. In writing this would be a sentence like “I was furious” or “She looked confused” or “He didn’t know what to do.” That would be telling the reader. Telling is typically considered bad. The reader wants to be shown, not told. Telling, however, can be used in certain situations – in moderation. For example, when you’re giving a quick summary of events, and you want to skip ahead in time a couple weeks instead of going through them day by day.

Show: This is when you bring your teddy bear to school and show everyone. Let’s use the “I was furious” example from earlier. Instead of just saying that, you could say “I clenched my fists, itching with the desire to hit something.” See how much more that says? It says everything the first sentence says, but in showing form rather than telling.

Tense and POV changes. These are simple problems that are easily fixed. I know I do the POV changes all the time. If you’re used to writing in first and then write something in third, you might find yourself accidentally lapsing back into first. A tense change is usually when the writer switches from past to present accidentally or vice versa.

Using the same word to start every sentence. So it ends up being like: “I went for a walk. I noticed that it was very sunny outside. I would need to hurry if I wanted to make it to the meeting on time. My boss would be angry if I was late again. I started walking faster until I broke into a run.” See how boring and repetitive that paragraph is? All the sentences start with a subject, mostly “I.” A little variety sounds a million times better.

Using the same word or phrase a lot. For example, in my first draft of Andra, every time someone cried I would say “tears streamed down their face.” It was boring and repetitive. There are many more ways to say the person is crying. Once again, variety is the spice of writing. If you find yourself using a word a lot, find a thesaurus. Of course, don’t look up the longest word and use it even though you can’t define it to save your life.

Overuse of adverbs. Adverbs commonly go under the category of tell instead of show. When used sparingly, they are a wonderful tool. There are many things you can say with just one word. But most of the time, it’s better steer clear of adverbs. Which of these sounds better: “He walked heavily along the side of the road” or “He hauled his feet through the gravel as he walked on the side of the road”?

Saying things the character shouldn’t know yet. This happens sometimes. The writer forgets that this particular character wouldn’t know such-and-such yet. For example, in Andra, Claudia meets an old ship captain for the first time. The problem is that the sailor already knew her name even though she hadn’t told him. Unless the sailor was some kind of freaky telepathic human (which he isn’t), then he shouldn’t have known that. It’s small things like that which you might not notice, but the reader might.

Using the wrong word. This happens a lot too – like using quite instead of quiet, or there instead of their, or its instead of it’s. These are sometimes difficult to catch in a quick read-through edit because your brain just reads right over them. Quick grammar lesson: If you don’t know if you should use it’s instead of its, then split the contraction into its two words. If “it is” fits then use “it’s.” If “it is” doesn’t fit then use “its.”

~Rachael (aka Horserider)

1 Comment »

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  1. Awesome article, HR! I know there are a bunch of areas in my WIP where I used “I” to start basically every sentence. I really need to work on it. I need to stop doing it now. ;)

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