Improving Your Fiction Manuscript: Common Errors To Avoid


A good novel begins with a great story, a compelling plot, interesting characters. But it doesn’t end there. A good novel also needs to be well written.

I’ve been editing other authors’ novels for two years and writing novels for ten years. What follows are the most common mistakes I see in fiction manuscripts and self-published novels. By finding and fixing these common errors, you can improve your manuscript before it gets to the editor.

1. Overuse of Adverbs
If you’re working on a manuscript right now, do a “find” or “search” for every word that ends with ly. Now remove half of them. Your manuscript is already better. Even without doing a search or find, read each sentence. Are there two adverbs in some sentences? Recent manuscripts I’ve read contain sentences with two or three adverbs.

2. Repetitive Wording
Just, so, very, some. It’s difficult for an author to see his/her own mistakes. Have someone else read through your manuscript to assist you with this. For me, I often can’t see that I often use the same word often in the same sentence (see what I mean?) Or…read your manuscript backwards. This helps to show you areas of repetitive wording and other common errors.

3. Show Don’t Tell
This is a big newbie mistake.

He was sad.
She was amazed.
The look on her face was happy.

Now go through your manuscript and pick out all the times an emotion is simply stated and not described. Instead of writing “He was sad,” try something like “his shoulders slumped” or “his eyes were etched in grief.” Instead of writing “She was amazed,” experiment with different descriptions. One of the most helpful resources I’ve found is The Emotion Thesaurus.

A seasoned reader can spot a badly written, amateur book a mile away and usually within the first two pages. And…it will be more interesting for your reader if you allow them to visualize what’s going on.

4. Too Much Interior Thought
When I presented the initial draft of my first novel to my editor, one of her biggest complaints was “too much interior thinking.” When a character’s italicized thoughts are on every page, twice a page, that’s too much. It’s almost as if the author is lazy and just wants to tell the reader exactly what the character is thinking. Interior thought is fine when used sparingly, but not several times a page. Describe how they’re feeling instead.

5. Comma Errors, Grammar Errors
A great book for helping fix comma errors is:Eats, Shoots and Leaves. As well, search on Amazon for good grammar books. There are many.

6. Exclamation Points!
First-time novelists tend to use too many exclamation points. Do a search and omit most of them (replacing them with descriptions of the tone or face).

7. Too Much Dialogue
My first novel, Emily’s Hope, is 60 percent dialogue and 40 percent narrative. As a beginner, I didn’t know any better. Quality novels tend to use dialogue to serve the narrative, not the other way around. Dialogue can also be a lazy way to show character development. Dialogue is important, but if it’s the mainstay of your book, write a screenplay instead.

8. Underestimating the Intelligence of the Reader (e.g. hitting the reader over the head)
Here’s an example: He was sad. He was depressed. It was hard for him because he seemed so sad. Okay, we get it. He’s sad. Once is enough…and even at that, it’s better to describe what he looks like and feels like.

9. Avoid Descriptive Clichés or Sayings
“She felt like a million bucks”
“Smoother than a baby’s bottom”
Well, you can think of many. Create your own descriptive metaphors and similes instead of using well-known cliches.

10. Point of View
Many first-time novelists tend to use omniscient point of view (POV), that is, in any given scene, the author shows what’s going on in everyone’s mind, even within the same paragraph. This is difficult to do well, even for the experienced, bestselling novelist. And…it can be confusing for the reader. If you want your readers to bond with the characters, try using third person (intimate) POV. For more information, check out my guest post for Savvy Authors.

Eliminating these common errors will improve your manuscript before it even gets to the editor.

Are you working on a fiction manuscript? Do you have any favorite writing books you’d like to share? Please feel free to comment below.

Image purchased from iStock.

Text copyright 2013 Ellen Gable Hrkach

About Ellen Gable Hrkach

Ellen Gable Hrkach is the president of the Catholic Writers Guild. She recently published her fifth book, A Subtle Grace (O'Donovan Family), which reached #1 in Religious Drama on Amazon Kindle within two weeks of publication and remained there for five weeks. Her third novel, Stealing Jenny, was an Amazon Kindle #1 Bestseller in Religious Drama (June/July 2012) and has been in the top ten of that category since November, 2011. She is also the award-winning author of In Name Only, a Catholic historical romance and the first of the O'Donovan Family books as well as the 2010 IPPY Gold medal winner in Religious Fiction. Her books have been downloaded over 550,000 times on Kindle. Her website is www.ellengable.com. She and her husband are the parents of five sons and they live in Pakenham, ON Canada.
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13 Responses to Improving Your Fiction Manuscript: Common Errors To Avoid

  1. Don Mulcare says:

    Dear Ellen,

    Thanks again for sharing your insights and experiences.

    Some authorities on fiction seem to push dialogue, explaining that narration was used extensively in the past, so too much is now “old fashioned.” They seem to want the characters to come alive as persons in the mind of the reader as they, the subject matter, tell the story.

    My two most recent fiction reads did vary in the extent of narration. The longer, narrative richer tale brought greater complexity, more detailed scenery and deeper suspense. The dialogue dense story was more lively, emotion-rich and streamline. I liked each in its own way.

    Since there is quite a bit of variation in the ratio of dialogue vs. narration in currently successful fiction, I wonder if the secret to success is the percentages of the two forms of delivery or is a specific ratio just what today’s readers expect in the fiction they choose? To each her own or his own ratio? What ratio will find favor tomorrow? Is the intrinsic quality of a timeless work ever pinned to an absolute ratio?

    Thank you again Ellen.

    God Bless,

    Don

  2. It’s hard to say, Don. I personally like a lot of dialogue (and Ernest Hemingway was an author whose dialogue I particularly liked), but editors I’ve worked with over the years have complained that my manuscripts have “too much dialogue.” I personally think when a book is mostly dialogue, it’s a lazy way of developing characters (just my opinion, though). And if it’s mostly dialogue, I wonder why the author didn’t write a play instead! Thanks for your comment!

  3. Anne Faye says:

    Hi Ellen,

    I admit I struggle with the dialogue versus narration question as well, because it seems like if you are using narration, you are “telling” as opposed to “showing.” Whereas, if you are using dialogue, the characters are revealing themselves.

    What do you think?

  4. Anne, thanks so much for your comment! Good descriptive narration doesn’t tell; it shows. Dialogue is one way to show character development, but I think some newbie authors tend to use it when they don’t know what else to do. Balance is important here. Dialogue to serve the narrative (even if there’s an abundance of it) is probably okay. And each manuscript is different. The only reason I mention it here is because some of the manuscripts I’ve looked at have so much dialogue, I wonder why the author didn’t write a play instead…

  5. Christian LeBlanc says:

    My favorite contemporary novelist is Elmore Leonard, who is heavy on dialogue. I can’t think of ever having read a book which I thought had “too much dialogue,” but I’ve sure read some that had too much narrative. But then again, maybe it’s just that the narrative wasn’t very compelling, so it seemed like too much. Now that reminds me The Shipping News: IIRC it was not real dialogue-y, but the narrative had a very, what? flinty, scratchy texture that I liked.

  6. Thanks, Christian. Ernest Hemingway is also heavy on dialogue so I agree that there are exceptions. Three different editors I’ve used all said the same thing: “Dialogue should serve the narrative not the other way around.”

  7. Ellen:

    Great post!
    I read your article on third person limited POV, which was also helpful.

    What POV would you recommend to newbie writers? Third person limited or first person, or is there some other that would suit us better?

  8. Number 9 says:

    I’m a new blogger guilty of #6!!!!!!!

  9. Great post Ellen! I’ve never heard of the Emotion Thesaurus! I think I’m the perfect candidate for ownership!

  10. Thanks, Kassie! I highly recommend it for newbie writers, especially!

  11. Pingback: Balance in Fiction Writing | The Catholic Writers Guild