The Top Ten Mistakes I See in Fiction Manuscripts

Originally this article appeared on Gina Conroy's blog, but a few people were deterred because for some reason the page takes a while to load. So here's the article in full.

I run a critique service called the Story Sensei, and I’ve also judged a fair number of writing contests through RWA, in addition to coordinating the ACFW Genesis contest. I’ve noticed a few commonalities in the manuscripts I’ve critiqued and judged, and Gina asked me to share. So here is:

The top ten mistakes I see in manuscripts:

10) Inadequate use of point of view.

I’m not talking about head-hopping. I’m talking about a very distant use of point of view that doesn’t get the reader into the character’s head or feeling the character’s emotions.

For a first chapter, especially, this is crucial. If the reader isn’t immediately sucked into the character’s mind and body, if the reader doesn’t care about the character, they’re going to put the book down. This leads to the next mistake:

9) Inadequate character emotions.

A distant point of view will contribute to distancing the reader from the character’s emotions. And if a reader doesn’t feel the character’s emotions, why should they care about the character at all?

What I especially like about Nancy Kress’s book Characters, Emotion and Viewpoint is that she shows how emotion is very deeply intertwined with point of view. The deeper and more skillfully crafted the point of view, the stronger and more vivid the character emotions.

My suggestion is for writers to read up on viewpoint and emotion. There are lots of good books and workshops out there. One of the best is Margie Lawson’s workshop Empowering Characters’ Emotions.

8) A weak opening line.

When I see a strong, intriguing first line or first paragraph, I’m immediately hooked. Even if the story tanks from that point on, I will still stick with the manuscript for more pages than I would if the opening line were weak.

The opening line or paragraph needs to grab the reader. Something curious, ominous, intriguing, humorous, surprising, or alarming. Here are a few examples:

This was not the smartest way to die.

--A Soldier’s Family by Cheryl Wyatt

If there was one thing Josie Miller knew, it was the smell of a rich man. And whoever had just walked into the diner smelled like Fort Knox.

--Her Unlikely Family by Missy Tippens

At 1:33 a.m., nine hours and twenty-seven minutes before my wedding ceremony, my fiancé dumped me. By text message.

--Daring Chloe by Laura Jensen Walker

Make your opening line have POW!

7) No external goals.

I see this much too often. The main character will have no external goal to carry him or her throughout the story.

Without an external goal, the character is aimless, purposeless. It’s harder to follow a character who doesn’t know what they want, who doesn’t have a goal in mind.

Sometimes they have an external goal, but it’s resolved by the middle of the book. That’s not good either—it needs to be a goal that carries them through the climax.

If you’re not familiar with external goals, I can suggest Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell, Getting Into Character by Brandilyn Collins, and GMC: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict by Debra Dixon.

6) Episodic writing.

Every single scene should have something that moves the plot forward. It is not good enough if a scene shows a character’s charming personality or their relationship with their dog or their tendency to spill drinks.

Each scene needs to move the plot forward. Something has to happen, another step toward the climax of the story.

When it’s just people talking in a coffeeshop, then talking over a breakfast table, then walking the park, it’s called episodic writing. The story is not moving forward—the scenes are meandering, without purpose or direction.

If you don’t have something significant in the scene that moves the plot forward, cut the scene. Be ruthless. If you need to show the heroine’s relationship with her dog, then combine that in another scene that is moving the plot forward. That way, you kill two birds with one stone.

5) Too much narrative.

Especially the first scene of a novel needs to have movement. The characters don’t need to be shooting at people or having a car chase or running from an exploding building, but there needs to be some sort of movement, action, dialogue.

This is not the place for a character’s thoughts to go off on backstory or on their opinion of the new mayor’s policy on front lawn watering.

Action. Movement. Dialogue.

Give the viewpoint character a scene goal and have them pursue it. This will give purpose and movement to the scene, because the character isn’t going to stop and smell the roses—he’s going to fight the crowds at the rally and convince the mayor to sign off on his petition. Or she’s going to find her batty grandma somewhere in the craft fair crowd and take the old woman home.

If you’re not familiar with scene goals, brush up on Scene and Sequel, which is mentioned in Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain, Scene and Structure by Jack Bickham, and Randy Ingermanson in his article, “Writing the Perfect Scene.”

4) Not enough conflict and tension.

You don’t need characters to be fighting or shooting people, but there needs to be some sort of conflict or tension on every single page. And before you think that’s going overboard, analyze your favorite novel.

I will take one of my favorite novels, Pride and Prejudice, which many people would think has very little conflict or tension.

That classic first line, besides being very funny, bodes ill for any single man with a good fortune. That’s tension right there.

The next pages detail Mrs. Bennet telling Mr. Bennet about Mr. Bingley. Mrs. Bennet is over the moon at the prospects for the girls, while Mr. Bennet is being purposefully obtuse about it (conflict). Mrs. Bennet also wants Mr. Bennet to visit Mr. Bingley, and Mr. Bennet flatly refuses (conflict), besides which calling his daughters silly and ignorant (tension). The conversation goes downhill from there, as Mrs. Bennet gets more upset (tension) and Mr. Bennet has more fun teasing his wife (conflict).

Go through your manuscript and make sure you have conflict or tension in every single page, in every paragraph if you can do it. I highly recommend Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass.

3) Amateur writing.

I’m lumping passive verbs, excessive use of –ly adverbs, exclamation points galore, and too many dialogue tags under amateur writing.

There are lots of articles online about these small mistakes that nevertheless make the writer’s amateur status stand out to an editor. If you haven’t yet read them yet, pick up The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman and Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King.

2) Cliches abounding.

I’m not only talking about clichéd phrases like “her heart pounded in her chest” or “he panted as if he’d run a marathon.” I’m also talking about clichéd characters.

Think of Scarlett O’Hara. Hercule Poirot. Indiana Jones.

They are incredibly unique, vivid characters that stand out from the rest. They are originals. They are definitely not clichéd or boring.

Your characters need to be that unique. Your characters need to be completely original. Your characters need to stand out from the other types of characters in the books on the Barnes and Noble shelves.

One of the only ways to make sure your characters are truly original is to read extensively. Know what types of characters are already out there on the shelves so that you can make sure your character isn’t like the heroine in the latest Susan May Warren romance, or the latest Colleen Coble suspense.

Your characters have to be UNIQUE. ORIGINAL. DIFFERENT.

1) Impatience.

I see too many manuscripts where the writers were too impatient to submit to editors or agents, and the writing is just not up to snuff.

You only get one chance to make a first impression. Make it a good impression.

Read up on the writing craft. Take workshops. Order MP3 recordings of workshops from writing conferences. Go to a few conferences.

There are many writing craft books to choose from, and it can be overwhelming. But if you go to your favorite authors’ websites, they usually have a list of their favorite writing craft books. Many times, certain titles keep coming up because they’re loved by different authors.

If you haven’t read those certain titles yet, you’re not ready to submit to an editor or agent. If you haven’t yet done as much as you can to learn the basics of the writing craft, you’re not ready to submit yet.

Enter contests to get feedback so that your writing can be as polished as it can be. THEN start submitting to editors and agents. Make a fabulous first impression with your sparkling writing and professional craftsmanship.


  1. Great Top Ten, Camy! Very helpful. The ones about tension throughout and episodic writing are the ones I have to really watch out for. Great advice!

    Oh, and congrats again on the sale!!

    Missy :)

  2. Been there, done that. I can identify with every one of these mistakes. Episodic writing is a real bane for me. Cutting or rewriting a well-written scene that does little to move the story forward is tantamount to giving up a family night filled with dark chocolate M&M's and Indiana Jone's movies.

  3. I used to make all of these mistakes when I started writing. Thank God for writing contests and patient judges who helped to put out these areas.

    My biggest struggles are episodic writing and making sure every page contains conflict.

    Thanks for sharing a wonderful list. Your blog is treasure!

  4. Really useful summary. Thanks.

  5. Thanks a lot for that! You have shown me, what I knew all along, that my writing is, indeed, perfect.


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