Most Common Manuscript Mistakes

Author K. S. Brooks
Author K. S. Brooks

I’ve been honored a number of times to participate in a Novel Writing Contest as a Top Tier Judge. During those contests, I’ve seen a lot of manuscripts. Some showed good promise and strong writing skills. Others made me want to stab myself repeatedly rather than read further. In most cases, these authors all made the same mistakes, the most common of which I’ve listed below.

A good editor would pick up on these bad habits. If you don’t have the luxury of hiring an editor, then you should pay special care to avoiding the list below. (Even if you do hire an editor, avoiding these pitfalls will make their job easier.) And now, in no particular order, I present to you the “Most Common Manuscript Mistakes.”

1. Repetitive word usage: the same word and close derivations used multiple times in the same sentence and/or paragraph.

2. Introducing a lot of characters at the same time but not describing any of them.

3. Repetitive sentence structure.

4. Including a prologue when one is not really necessary, serving only to confuse, bore or alienate the reader.

5. Misuse of punctuation: especially using semi-colons incorrectly.

6. Excessive use of italics.

7. Word use consistency/inconsistency: spelling/capitalizing/hyphenating, etc. a word differently in numerous places.

8. Sentences that run together.

9. Using the same phrase to describe the same action every time. (i.e. using “their lips locked” every time someone kisses)

10. Misspellings. With spellcheck, there is definitely no excuse for this!

BONUS: A synopsis that doesn’t aptly represent their manuscript.

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K.S. Brooks is an award-winning author and photographer, and Co-Administrator of Indies Unlimited. For more information, please see the IU Bio page and her web site: http://www.ksbrooks.com/

This post originally appeared on Write, Write, Write on March 30, 2010.[subscribe2]

Author: K.S. Brooks

K.S. Brooks is an award-winning novelist, photographer, and photo-journalist, author of over 30 titles, and administrator of Indies Unlimited. Brooks is currently a photo-journalist and chief copy editor for two NE Washington newspapers.  She teaches self-publishing and writing topics for the Community Colleges of Spokane, and served on the Indie Author Day advisory board. For more about K.S. Brooks, visit her website and her Amazon author page.

49 thoughts on “Most Common Manuscript Mistakes”

  1. Great post, thanks K. S. I strongly agree with all ten of those items you list; it is vital that self-publishing writers comb their work to eliminate as much as possible these errors because, as you point out, this kind of thing can turn a reader right off before they're sufficiently in the story.

    What you talk about is the nuts and bolts of the craft of writing fiction, to which too many self-publishing writers pay insufficient attention before going public. It's no good fretting over plot, character and dialogue if you don't nail these absolute fiction-writing basics in your work.

  2. Good stuff, K.S., and as hard as it is to self-edit given that our brains know what we *meant* to type, looking closely for specific errors that tend to crop up repeatedly always helps.

    *Then* it's ready to be beta'd/edited by somebody else. 😉

  3. Right on, Kat. My writers group is good at catching me up when I make these faux pas. I did use a prologue in my second book but only after much deliberation. But it is VERY short and serves only to remind the reader where the first book ended. I still wonder whether it might have been better to leave it out.

  4. I try to make sure none of those mistakes are there. But, even with professional editing, some of them are left.

    I think some of the mistakes are from writers who have not taken any courses or learned about writing a MS. I struggled through for a long time, and in many ways I'm still struggling. I learn something new about writing, almost everyday, and apply it.

  5. I like going though my own manuscripts, taking out all the 'almosts' and 'nearlys' I always salt my writing with. Without them, everything is more accurate… in all senses.

    1. Yeah, I find that I also use some words repeatedly. When I'm done with my edits, I usually do a Search in my document for the ones I know I can't let go of, then I either replace them with synonyms or delete them if they're unnecessary. 🙂

    2. Rosanne, mine are "seems", "really" and "very". There are others, but these 'seem' to be the worst. 🙂 I find if I read the ms aloud I catch a lot. Sometimes I will go to Edit, Find and type in the offender and eliminate one at a time with a better choice.

  6. Awesome list and definitely something for all of us to keep in mind. In the spirit of #10 on your list, shouldn't "capitlaizing" from #7 be spelled "capitalizing?" For the record, I got called out recently for mistaking 'million' for 'billion' on my blog.

    Cheers

      1. In that same vein, Kat, "you should pay special care to avoiding the list below" ought to be "you should take special care to avoid the list below"! You knew you wouldn't get away with any errors with all these editing fiends on here, lol. Now, was I trying to write "friends" or "fiends" just there? You decide!

  7. Hurray!!! Although I battle the repetitive word usage thing all the time…!

    I have a list of things I know I need to remove, culled from lists created by editors and agents on-line, and my old publisher. Readers want action, show don't tell. Remove – that, had, feel/felt, just/only, of, etc. They're/there/their.

    I even created a primer for myself, for the standard mistakes, a document I keep open when I'm editing/polishing.

    1. The show don't tell is key, Val. It was hammered into me during grade school, and just last year when I choreographed a fight scene with a martial arts expert, he reinforced that by saying "never write "she used her elbow" – instead write "she elbowed"." Now I hear him saying that in my head every time I write a fight scene.

  8. Agree! And how about

    11. Avoid clichés by digging a little deeper? I'm reading The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: nary a cliché in the whole damn book, and that's impressive.

  9. Excellent points, K.S.

    It's so easy to miss getting rid of echoes; (words used multiple times in the same sentence and/or paragraph.)

    Are italicized words used incorrectly for the purpose of emphasis?

    Semi-colons and their improper use: can you expound on that? My grammar-check often suggests replacing a comma with a semi-colon.

    1. An italicized word here and there for emphasis – that has become more common because of eBook formatting – which doesn't allow for all capitals or underlines. So that's absolutely acceptable. I'm more talking about people who use italics for thoughts – then write entire paragraphs of them.

      For the semi-colons – those should only be used to join two complete sentences together, or to separate items in a list (off the top of my head). I've often seen them thrown in randomly. LOL

      Thanks for stopping by, and thanks for your excellent questions, Marcia! 🙂

    1. Hi Doug, italics are fine as long as you don't have paragraphs of them. Readers get tired of that kind of thing. To accentuate a word here and there; for a one or two sentence thought; or to highlight a foreign language word: italics are fine for all of these. Just like pretty much anything, moderation is key.

  10. Great tips! I see these problems often in my students' work as well. I'd like to add…don't start a novel with someone waking up, getting dressed, drinking coffee, etc. Start from where things get interesting. 🙂

  11. Great advice. I look for these things already, as do my betas and editors, but it's amazing what can still slip through the cracks!

    I'm curious about one thing: what constitutes "excessive use of italics"? I don't tend to use them very much, but I can't help but wonder what you mean by this one. 🙂

    1. Hey LB – An italicized word here and there for emphasis – that has become more common because of eBook formatting – which doesn’t allow for all capitals or underlines. So that’s absolutely acceptable. I’m more talking about people who use italics for thoughts – then write entire paragraphs of them. Thanks for stopping by!

      1. What about flashbacks? I know a lot of authors will set off a section or even a chapter with italics if it's a flashback scene, in order to keep from confusing the reader.

  12. What about "manuscript too short"? That was one response I got from an otherwise interested agent (re a 200-page novel, mind you). More seriously–or more on topic, anyhow–agreed re these ten common mistakes. Another very common one is repetition of thoughts/points. This comes up more in nonfiction than in fiction; as an editor, I find it in nearly every manuscript. Another issue, in novels specifically, really is the "weak middle"; I'm guilty of it too sometimes, and it definitely can put off an acquisitions editor. As for italics for thoughts–that's great but not for long stretches, no.

    A good list, Kat, and an interesting article!

    1. Thanks Paula! As far as your "too short" comment – I only saw the first 25-50 pages of the manuscript, so I never really knew how long they were. The mistakes mentioned here were pretty rampant in those pages. I agree with your point about repetition of ideas – I, in fact, used to be guilty of that until a fantastic editor brought it to my attention. My response to her was "Yes, I see it, and I think women tend to do that because men never listen to us the first time we say anything."
      😉

  13. Great article. As I read your list, I immediately started doing a mental checklist of my current WIP, thinking if I was making any of those. I'm going to copy your list and file it for future reference. Thanks!

  14. Good compilation! I wish that some of the writers who submit manuscripts to Washington Writers' Publishing House (not self-publications) would keep track of their repetitions, cliches, etc. One of my mentees, a high school senior writing a novella already at 58 pages, used the word JUST so often I told her to use the FIND

    1. Thanks! Sometimes I notice that I overuse a word and have to go back and use the FIND, but I never let it go out the door that way. I took care of the "m" for you. 🙂 Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  15. What a great list, Kat. I don't know how I missed this post the day you did it, but in going through the archives I found it. I look for most of these things in my writing, but as someone else already said, it's still easy to miss some of them. I re-read my ms over and over (out loud) until I'm almost sick of the story, and hoarse in the bargain, but it does pay off in the end.

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