After teaching writing and critiquing many chapters for the past several years, I’ve come up with a list of the common mistakes I see in manuscripts. Let me assure you, I’ve made many of them myself, but maybe we can help each other go on a hunt for these trouble spots.
1. POV slips
Nothing bothers me quite so much as hopping from one person’s head to another in the same scene. Just when I think I’m in Jane’s head, seeing the world through her eyes—bam. The writer jumps to Billy’s head, and that changes everything. Billy thinks differently from Jane about the weather, the people, the emotions—everything really. It’s okay to have multiple points of view when writing in third person, but stick to one person per scene. In my opinion, head-hopping keeps the reader from getting emotionally involved in the scene.
2. Being verbs
When writers pile on the being verbs, they rob their prose of it’s most vibrant element. Let me clarify—just in case someone’s wondering—the verbs I’m talking about. (Am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been.) These static verbs don’t do anything. They just sit there. If you rework your sentences, most of the time you can replace these weak verbs with vivid action words. Simple example: There was an oak tree in the yard. (Weak.) An oak tree shaded the lawn. (Stronger.)
3. Too many adverbs
I remember one story I read that had an –ly adverb in almost every sentence. Everything went sweetly, quickly, softly, and nauseatingly along. Instead of walked swiftly, try rushed, hurried, or scrambled. Go on an –ly hunt and consider every one guilty until you rid your prose of these bland thieves. After you’ve learned to write without them, you may find a time to work one or two necessary ones back into your writing.
4. Labeling with adjectives instead of word painting
Sometimes we label the things we want to describe instead of taking the time to use an artist’s eye to paint them. We write about a “beautiful sunset” or “ugly frog”. Instead of using the labels of “beautiful” and “ugly”, take the time to observe unique details—even if it’s in your imagination. Maybe the sunset isn’t so beautiful. On a day when everything’s gone wrong for your hero, maybe the sun bleeds it’s orange rays across the sky. Look for the flaw in something beautiful or a redeeming quality in something ugly. You just might come up with a sentence we all wish we’d written!
5. Filtering through the consciousness of a character
This concept might sound hard to understand, but a few examples will clear it up. Avoid phrases such as: he thought, noticed, wondered, realized, noted, considered, realized, etc. Here’s an example: “He noticed a mockingbird entertaining the neighborhood from its perch in a tree.” Remove the filter and move deeper into his point of view. “A mockingbird entertained the neighborhood from its perch in a tree.” If you’ve stayed true to No. 1 above, we’ll know that he noticed it, and we’ll feel more like we’re in his skin.
6. Lack of inner journey character arc
Some stories I’ve read have a great outer journey for the character with a tangible goal and a compelling motivation, but the inner journey of the character is lacking. Jeff Gerke, quthor of How To Find Your Story, goes so far as to say the story is really 75% about the inner journey. Also, know your character’s inner goal and motivation. If you think about it, even all the animated movies have an inner journey. Think about Shrek. We see what’s going on inside him, and that’s why we care about whether or not he succeeds.
7. Episodic writing
In episodic writing, lots of things happen to the hero, but he just goes through his day reacting to everything. Usually in these stories the character’s goal is weak so he doesn’t have anything that he must achieve, or maybe the stakes aren’t high enough. So what if he doesn’t get it? If the character has a strong goal and the stakes are high, he’ll take steps to reach the goal and won’t wait around for something to happen.
8. Lack of motivation for characters
Most of the time your heroes and heroines can do just about anything—as long as they have a strong motivation. If they don’t have a proper motivation for what they do, they will appear too stupid to live. Why does your hero want that? Why will he go to the extreme to get it?
9. Characters who are too perfect
Yuck. I don’t care to spend hours and hours reading about perfect people. As my friend Shelly Dippel says, “They’re too good for earth. Send ‘em on to heaven!” What flaws do your characters have? What lies do they believe? What mistakes do they make? What hot buttons do they have? Do they sometimes mouth-off when they should keep silent? And while we’re at it, give your villains depth by bestowing upon them a couple of good qualities.
10. Going overboard
Sometimes when I teach a new concept, I find that my students get so enthused about it that they go overboard. I teach about metaphors, and the next chapter has so many metaphors that the good ones are hidden among the mediocre ones. Or I teach about using vivid verbs, and the student writes a twisted sentence just to avoid a being verb. Use common sense, and don’t take any of these tips to the extreme!
Go over a scene that you’ve written and see if you can find any of these things that weaken your story. Rewrite!