It’s hard to write a novel. Many writers know this well, devoting countless hours–sometimes years–and sleepless nights to a kernel of a story idea, cultivating that idea into something which will, hopefully, blossom into a full-length novel.
But even after you hammer out the general details–plot threads, character arcs, scene outlines–sometimes a book is just plain difficult to write. And sometimes characters are stubborn. And sometimes that plot you thought you had is nonexistent.
(This is sounding eerily familiar, heheheh.)
Personal writing experience aside, the book market is (thankfully) booming–growing, even. And as more writers write, more people decide to take the next step with their manuscripts: publishing, a feat even more difficult to achieve than finishing a book. But in order to get your book to querying-quality level, you need extra sets of eyes to look at your baby. That’s where critique partners and beta readers come in.
I’m still learning myself the ins and outs of searching for critique partners and what makes for being a better beta reader. But, while I continue to “revise” (quotation marks because most of the time it seems like I’m only thinking about doing it instead of actually doing it) my current manuscript, I decided to start beta reading so I could learn not only how to improve my own writing, but how to help others with theirs. Publishing is a competitive industry, but we’re all in the same boat, so, in that regard, an individual’s victory is a communal victory.
That being said, I’ve beta read a LOT of manuscripts since the beginning of the year. (I’m working my way toward 20 pieces, including both short stories and novels in that tally.) And I’ve noticed some trends in many of the stories I’ve read that I wanted to share with you, because I think being more aware of some of these issues in your own manuscript will make editing your novel easier. Think of this as a checklist, of sorts, for you to add to your revisions process.
Here are some of the common mistakes I’ve seen writers make with their work. I’ve listed them in order from more minor issues to fundamental issues that need to be addressed.
1. Telling Too Much/Not Showing Enough
Everyone knows the maxim “show, don’t tell,” but it’s harder to follow that maxim than one might think. (Note: that maxim isn’t always the best advice; take a look at this Pinterest post for more on that.) Often, I’ve seen people try to explain important things (like the relationship between two characters (ex. “We’re dating. I’m so in love with him. The way we feel about each other is unparalleled in any mortal dimension.” [I’m kind of being sarcastic; none of the writers I worked with ever said anything that drastic. 😉 ]) or emotions (ex. “She was depressed.”) away instead of writing these relationships/emotions as something the readers can experience.
Tip: These things are things we need to be able to experience, not just observe, because experiencing characters’ emotions/relationships will allow us to connect/empathize with those emotions/relationships. And if we can’t empathize, we can’t connect.
Take an extra read-through, and make sure you’re being tasteful and subtle when it comes to these emotions. You want things like character emotions to be things your readers drink in; don’t slap them in the face with information (including info-dumping), or they’ll feel you’re patronizing them, and that’s the last thing your readers want. Assume your readers are intelligent. (But at the same time, don’t leave them completely in the dark. It’s a hard balance to strike, I know.)
2. Abuse of Adverbs
In his memoir On Writing (which every writer should read), Stephen King remarks, “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs.” King argues that adverbs are unnecessary and that they’re just awkwardly-placed info-dumps in disguise. After giving it a lot of thought, I’d say I have to agree. Often, adverbs only rehash what’s already explained/implied in your dialogue, which should be good enough to be interpreted correctly on its own–without any unnecessary modifiers. Use adverbs sparingly, and only when a sentence/action/etc. cannot possibly be interpreted without you telling your readers exactly how they should interpret it.
3. Unnecessary/Unnatural Dialogue Tags
Addressing dialogue tags also addresses unnecessary telling. You don’t need to include “he/she said” after every single line of dialogue if there are only two people speaking in a conversation; if it’s a new line of dialogue, and you establish within the first two lines of dialogue which characters are speaking, readers will remember who is who as you go back and forth. This will save you words and tighten your writing.
However, if there are more than two people speaking in a conversation, always tag your dialogue so your readers are not confused.
4. Punctuation Errors (especially Comma Splices and em-dashes)
The comma splice was probably the most common mistake I saw. Comma splices occur when two independent clauses (“complete thoughts”) are joined by a comma when they should be joined instead by a semi-colon or separated by a period.
Here’s an example if you’re visual like me.
“I wish you won’t go, I always hate being by myself.”
There are several ways to fix this:
“I wish you won’t go; I always hate being by myself.”
“I wish you won’t go. I always hate being by myself.”
I’m hesitant to recommend em-dashes; I don’t know if they’re grammatically correct. I’ll have to check that.
Speaking of em-dashes, I’ve noticed constant problems with the em-dash. The em-dash is often used instead of a comma (or even, in some cases, a semi-colon) to provide a more abrupt transition from one thought to the next.
But the issue isn’t with how people are using it. The issue is with how people are writing the em-dash.
On Microsoft Word, writing two en-dashes next to each other (- + -) will automatically correct to ( — ). An em-dash ( a slightly-longer hyphen) is NOT the same as an en-dash; en-dashes are typically used to describe numerical ranges. Likewise, an em-dash is not the same as a hyphen. If, for some reason, two (- + -) doesn’t correct to ( — ) on your word processor, just write two of them back-to-back and leave them be. Don’t use one hyphen, though, please. Also, no spaces around the em-dash and its surrounding words unless you’re writing in AP Style, which is used for journalism articles.
5. “Alright” versus “All Right”
This was also a surprisingly common mistake. Though it is commonly used, “alright” is incorrect and is unacceptable in edited writing. There are some differences of opinion on this, but “all right” is always accepted; it’s usually alright that’s problematic. So always use “all right,” I’d advise–better to be safe than sorry.
6. No Build-Up to a Romance
Chapter 2: protagonist meets love interest. Chapters 3-18: the plot happens, including very limited interactions between love interest and protagonist. Chapter 19: protagonist + love interest = serious couple.
Not very believable, is it? If you want your readers to root for a certain couple, we need to experience the growth and development of their relationship while they’re experiencing it. I want to fall in love along with your characters. So show me their growing intimacy through their interactions. Show me their vulnerability around each other. Show me the hidden, prolonged glances, the smiles. I want to see this development, or believing in their love isn’t realistic, because I haven’t even seen much of that love.
7. Writing Too Much Filler
You need a plot in order to have a compelling story. Seems obvious, right? But it’s so easy to write filler scenes, where nothing in those scenes contributes to the plot. (I’m saying this from personal experience; I’ve written 17,000 words of filler, so I know how easy it is to do, hahaha.)
Just write for your first draft; don’t worry so much about what you’re writing, as long as you finish. But when you’re revising, delete anything that doesn’t contribute to plot/character/conflict development. You might be surprised how much is superfluous. Then, when you have the bare bones of your plot, fill in the holes and embellish as necessary. This will prevent your pacing from lagging and keep your readers intrigued.
8. Unclear Explanations of a Critical Plot Twist/Point
This isn’t always a big-picture issue in a book, but make sure you explain your plot twists very clearly after they occur, or your readers will be confused, and the twist will lose its impact.
9. Side Characters aren’t developed/Vivid Enough
You can have an amazing plot, stratospherically-high stakes, and skillfully-developed main characters, complete with clever writing, but if you don’t have well-developed side characters, your readers won’t enjoy your book as much. Side characters help your protagonists support your story, and they add extra pizzazz (for lack of a better word) to your novel through their interactions with your main character. They also flesh your main character out; just like you might learn about a peer by observing that peer’s interactions with others, readers learn more about your main characters through their interactions with your side characters. Side characters can also help develop your main character more deeply, and add extra layers of depth to your story because these interactions allow readers to see the chance your protagonist is undergoing.
10. The Actual Story is Different from the Blurb Pitched by the Writer
This is the most common problem I’ve seen while beta reading, and, if you’re querying for agents, it’s one of the most detrimental. If your story is more character-driven or romance-driven than plot-driven, your blurb should reflect that. If your story is about a magical fantasy world hidden within our own, don’t wait until over halfway through the book to show us that world. Everything mentioned in your blurb should be the main focus of your story–remember that your blurb is the bare bones of your story. We’re signing up for story, not for filler.
These are the most common problems I’ve seen. Have you struggled with any of these issues while revising? How did you resolve them? How have you resolved other issues you’ve had that aren’t listed here.