Writing can be a daunting task, and when you’re writing creatively, it can seem even more overwhelming. That is your baby on the line, and you have hopes and dreams for it. But you’re also not exactly privy to what everyone else is writing or doing with their work outside of your critique group. So how do you know whether you’re turning out fresh and engaging prose … or stumbling into familiar potholes on your journey to publication?
As an editor, I see many of the same problems again and again. From plot issues and character development problems to more mundane (yet important) elements of writing, there are some mistakes that appear all the time. If you can avoid these issues—or at least be aware of them—you will be better off as you work toward your publishing goals.
Grammar and Punctuation Errors
This is perhaps one of the most common issues that agents and editors have to deal with. You would think it wouldn’t be an issue at the submission level, but you would be wrong! Poor grammar and incorrect punctuation can take away from the flow of your piece and confuse your reader. To avoid this issue, always double-check your work for any errors before submitting it for editing or publication. Additionally, read your work aloud as if you were speaking it—this will help you identify any awkward phrasing or poor sentence structure that needs to be addressed. (This is especially true for picture books and other work for intended for young readers.) The good news is that a lot of AI-assisted tools like Grammarly exist to point basic errors out to you. That being said, a writing aid won’t catch everything. A word could be spelled correctly but used incorrectly so you need to apply a careful eye and some common sense, even when you don’t see any squiggly lines. (The robots aren’t coming for writers’ jobs just yet!)
Passive or Flat Characters
Characters are so important to story, and writers often feel like they know their protagonists and other fictional people well. But you want to make sure that the character is doing something in the story, not just being witty or a thinly veiled analogue for you, the writer. The first step to creating compelling characters is to define what they want and why they want it. What are their goals? Why do they feel driven to achieve them? It’s important to make sure that these goals are relevant to your story, or else readers won’t care about the character or whether they succeed. For example, if a character wants to save his family from an alien invasion but he doesn't show any real attachment or connection to his family throughout the story, then readers won't be able to invest in his goal.
You may have heard of passive characters, and this means characters who don’t really drive the action forward. The way to avoid this pitfall is to give your protagonist (and the other characters, to a degree) agency and power over their own decisions and actions. This will help create a sense that the characters have some kind of control over their destiny—even if things don't go as planned—instead of leaving them helplessly adrift in a sea of fate and circumstance.
Giving your characters purpose, autonomy, and a proactive outlook will also help develop tension and suspense within your narrative. Readers will become invested in each decision your characters make and how it will affect their outcome.
Another common issue that agents and editors encounter is weak plot structure. For every scene in your story, ask, “How does my plot move forward? What purpose does this element serve?” You need to keep the story moving, also. For many readers, getting lost in the story is one of their favorite aspects of reading. However, if you give them too much information at once or don't provide enough context for them to understand what's going on, they will quickly lose interest. Same for stories that are all information and no action. Make sure all plot points are clearly laid out and easy for readers to follow. This brings us back to character, and to needing those distinct motivations for each action. This is the glue that binds character and plot together.
No great story has ever been told without conflict or challenges for its protagonist or protagonists to overcome. Without meaningful obstacles standing between them and their goals, there is no tension or drama. Make sure that there are plenty of opportunities for your protagonists (and antagonists) to face problems head-on throughout your story so that readers remain engaged. A good rule of thumb when writing a novel or screenplay is “no problem, no progress.” In other words, if there’s not a problem standing in someone's way, then nothing happens. Go back to your character’s objective and motivation. Can they do anything to proactively pursue their goal at the moment? If not, it’s either the wrong goal or the wrong moment to include. Go back to the drawing board.
All of these building blocks of story are carried on a river of language. But it’s not necessarily the beautiful, descriptive language that writers tend to imagine when they sit down to be Wordsmiths With a Capital W. Actually, dialogue does a lot of the action for you when it comes down to scene and story. (Dialogue also helps a lot with pacing, or the reader’s perception of how quickly the story is moving.)
Dialogue should sound natural—not stilted or contrived—and should always move the action forward while revealing character traits and motivations along the way. Each character should always enter a scene and bout of dialogue with a goal that is either met or stymied. Then the character must adjust their approach or goal once the scene ends. With this new understanding, they must enter the next scene, with either the same character or some new ones. And just like this, block by block, you construct your plot in a way that deeply matters to your character and their goal.
No matter how experienced you are as a writer, there is always room for improvement when it comes to creative writing pieces! By taking steps such as double-checking for grammar errors and ensuring that each element of your story—such as plot structure and character development—is fully fleshed out, you will avoid some of these common pitfalls of manuscript writing. If you take the time to work on your craft, you will stand out in the slush (or entice indie readers) for all the right reasons.
About Mary Kole
Former literary agent Mary Kole founded Mary Kole Editorial in 2013 and provides consulting and developmental editing services to writers of all categories and genres. She founded Good Story Company in 2019 with the aim of creating valuable content—like the Good Story Podcast, YouTube channel, and Good Story Learning classes and resources—for writers of all categories and ability levels. Her Story Mastermind small group workshop intensives help writers level up their craft, and she offers done-for-you writing and ghostwriting at Manuscript Studio and marketing services with Good Story Marketing. She also develops unique and commercial intellectual property for middle grade, young adult, and adult readers with Upswell Media and Bittersweet Books (website forthcoming).
Mary has appeared at regional, national, and international SCBWI conferences, as well as independent conferences including Writer's Digest, Penn Writers, Writer's League of Texas, San Francisco Writers Conference, WIFYR, Writing Day, and dozens of others. She has guest lectured at Harvard, the Ringling College of Art and Design, the Highlights Foundation, and the Loft, and her classes can be found online at Writing Mastery Academy, Writing Blueprints, Udemy, and LinkedIn Learning.
She holds an MFA in Creative Writing and has worked at Chronicle Books, the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, and Movable Type Management. She started blogging at Kidlit.com in 2009. Her book, Writing Irresistible Kidlit, a writing reference guide for middle grade and young adult writers, is available from Writer's Digest Books/Penguin Random House.
Every aspect should move a story forward!
Thanks so much for the tips, Mary. I'm revising my manuscript and will keep them in mind so I hopefully don't make these mistakes.
The first one is so easy to fix, too. I'll pull up a submission and red squiggles appear everywhere. Did that person not even run a Spellcheck on their work?
These are wonderful reminders. Thank you!
Simple but important reminders! It's easy to get caught up in the creation process and forget that those little lessons we learned (hopefully!) years ago are the foundations of great writing. Thank you!
It's the attention to those details that really make a difference in this business. Thanks for pointing these out again. We can never have them emphasized enough.
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