15 Common Novel Writing Mistakes (Beginner Writers Beware!) – Jericho Writers
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15 Common Novel Writing Mistakes (Beginner Writers Beware!)

15 Common Novel Writing Mistakes (Beginner Writers Beware!)

If you’re a beginner writer, then you have to read this. We tell you what the most common literary mistakes are – how bad they are – and how to fix ’em!

We see a lot of novels here, many hundreds each year. And our writers are an admirable, successful bunch.

We’ve had years of experiences, lots of time spent understanding what agents want and what they really, really don’t.

It all adds up to a pretty good idea of the most common novel writing mistakes made by newer writers as they set out to write their first novel.

Oh, and we’re going to talk a lot about mistakes in this post – but please don’t think we have anything other than total respect for new writers. I’m Harry Bingham, and I am now a successful author with a ton of novels and other books behind me. I’ve been commercially successful and the mistakes that we’re going to talk about here? Well, luckily for me, I don’t make them any more.

But I did.

My first novel?

Not too bad, actually, by first novel standards. But I still deleted the first 60,000 words of the first draft, because those words just weren’t good enough.

My second novel?

A total, utter, ocean-going, gold-plated, forty-eight carat disaster of a book.

That one made most of the mistakes we’re going to talk about here . . . and was so bad, I deleted it. So my second published novel is really the third novel that I actually sat down and wrote.

No exaggeration. It was that bad.

Anyhow. That’s my confession out of the way. And, like I say, we take our hats off and say, ‘Nice writing. Good on you.’ to anyone at all who has the guts to write and complete a novel.

But you want to know which mistakes our editorial team sees most frequently? They’re the ones we’re going to talk about right now.

What follows is a checklist of which mistakes are most often made (and that the new writer should beware of) and, more importantly, what to do about them.

To make it more interesting, we’ve taken a stab at guesstimating how many manuscripts commit these errors, giving them a howler rating according to how hard they are to fix.

So draw a deep breath, and take courage.
As Neil Gaiman said, ‘if you’re making mistakes,
it means you’re out there doing something’.

We like that.

Now, let’s look at how not to write a novel.

1. A Terrible Concept

Some concepts just don’t work.

An ‘educational’ novel for Young Adults with reams of explanation about climate science stuffed into a creaky plot. A book for adults that features the life history of the author’s parrot. A sad story about a woman’s not-very-terrible mid-life crisis that ends with her deciding to work part-time and take up baking. None of these books stand a chance of interesting an agent. (Well, okay, if they were handled by an out-and-out genius, perhaps, but almost no one is.)

The Stats Of Doom

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 1-3%

Howler rating (5 stars is worst): *****

You can’t fix this error. You must start again. Get help on your elevator pitch, or just firkle out some new and better ideas.

2. A Book That Doesn’t Ramp It Up Enough

Surprisingly, this is something we see a lot. Thrillers that don’t quite thrill. Comedies that don’t really make you laugh. Romances that aren’t all that poignant or stimulating. Literary fiction which doesn’t really dazzle. And you can’t be so-so about these things. If agents and editors are faced with a choice, and yours isn’t the more thrilling thriller, which do you think they’ll pick?

Short message: Ramp it up.

The Stats Of Doom

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 5-20%

Howler rating (5 stars is worst): ****

You can fix it in theory, and with a lot of work, but sometimes it’s better just to pick a better idea – say if your story isn’t exciting you enough to make it exciting for others.

3. A Manuscript That’s Written For A Different Era

Agatha Christie, Mark Billingham, Stuart MacBride, Peter Robinson … these are big selling authors, so if you write like them, you’ll get sales like them, right?

Well, no. Those authors wrote for the market as it was when they got started. They dominate that market – both subject-wise and era-wise.

Unless you know your era very well, as well as do something distinctively new, there is no reason why agents, editors or readers should favour your book. It’s the same with books trying to reprise the 1980s comedies of Tom Sharpe. Or YA authors rewriting Stephenie Meyer, not noticing there’s been quite a lot of vampire-lit since Twilight.

Just don’t do it. Unless you’re writing historical fiction, it’s as well to write for the world as it is now.

The Stats Of Doom

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 3-5%

Howler rating (5 stars is worst): ****

This error is all but unfixable in truth, unless you’ve written exceptionally well. Sorry!

4. A Manuscript With No Discernible USP

Your USP. Your ‘Unique Selling Point’.

Sometimes, a manuscript only ticks the boxes. It’s a love story with genuine warmth. It feels contemporary. The writing is fine, and perhaps it’ll be top of an agent’s slushpile – but you need to be in the top nought-point-something-percent of that pile to get taken on, and what will tip the balance in your favour is usually an angle, a concept, a pitch that’s immediately captivating.

A tale, for instance, about a time-traveller’s wife? I want to read more. I’d pick up The Time-Traveller’s Wife.

Or a fostered child in Nazi Germany, stealing censored books and visited by deathThe Book Thief is an original take in children’s fiction, on a troubling, much-visited subject.

If your book doesn’t an original concept, it’ll hamper the search for an agent – but we’ve clues on building a strong elevator pitch you can read for that.

The Stats Of Doom

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 20-30%

Howler rating (5 stars is worst): ****

It’s a lot of work, but you can fix this. Usually, you need to take some already-extant aspect of the novel, and simply push it further than you’ve so far dared to go. Or you can take some totally new element and ram it in. (So Stephenie Meyer took ordinary teenage angsty-romance lit and rammed into it with a vampire story. Wow! Brilliant collision. The results were . . . well, you know damn well what they were. A global multimedia phenomenon.)

In short: you have to think big and bold to solve this issue. It will be a lot of work though. Tinkering-type solutions will not be the fix. Get better ideas.

5. Lousy Presentation

Manuscripts written in purple ink? With awful spelling or weird fonts? And punctuation that forgot to turn up for work?

This is less common than folklore would have you believe, partly because computers and spellcheckers eliminate egregious faults. Nevertheless, tell-tale clues can often be enough.

Let’s suppose I were an agent, and I received a manuscript, and that manuscript had loads of run-on sentences, which is where you have independent sentences separated by commas rather than full stops, and if I was quite busy, maybe I would think I had better things to do than read any further.

If you were the author, you might be quite upset that I never got past the first page – so give yourself the best chance of ensuring this doesn’t happen.

The Stats Of Doom

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 5-10%

Howler rating (5 stars is worst): ***

On the one hand, punctuation is simple to fix. A problem is that poor punctuation is often allied to sloppy prose, which takes a lot more work. Both things matter. If you are sure that your prose and story are fine, but know you need input on presentational matters, you could think about copy-editing, but be careful. Most manuscripts don’t need copy-editing, just better writing. Manuscript presentation help here.

most common mistakes in writing a novel

6. Lack Of Clarity In Prose

The first job of your prose is easy. It needs to convey meaning, clearly and succinctly. Your meaning must always be clear. When you use pronouns (‘it’, ‘she’, ‘he’, etc), it must be clear who or what is being referred to. Don’t use ‘dangling modifiers’. Your reader needs to know where they are and when, and what’s happening (unless, of course, you are being deliberately mysterious). This is simple and so basic, but not all manuscripts achieve success.

Simple message here: you are seeking to make a living as a professional writer, so the basic quality of your writing has to be good enough. There are no shortcuts here.

The Stats Of Doom

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 5-10%

Howler rating (5 stars is worst): ** to ****

Sometimes, a rigorous line edit is all that’s needed, but sometimes sloppy prose equals sloppy thinking, harder to address. In truth, I think it’s very rare that a novel with genuinely poor writing will ever be lifted to a place where it can be effectively published. (And that’s true even if you’re aiming at self-publishing. The standards of both routes are much the same these days, as in the end the readers call the shots.) Learn how to write better prose.

7. Writing Is Not Economical

Most writers don’t think enough about making every sentence as economical as it can reasonably be. Very few books can bear too much verbiage, so prune, then prune again. Be ruthless. If you haven’t cut at least 10,000 words from your manuscript by the time it comes to editing, you haven’t really tried.

We’ve had many beginner novelists offer us manuscripts that needed to lose 30,000 words or more. What we always try to communicate is that they can probably lose that level of word count without actually losing any content.

Like if you have a 12 word sentence that could be written just as well as in only 9 words, you’re not losing content, you’re just removing surplus. Likewise, we’ve seen descriptions of (say) a North African street market which were kinda great, but involved 6 descriptive sentences. Those 6 would probably work more powerfully, if you just picked the 3 best images/sentences and went with those. The reader would actually end up with more sense of the place, not less. And so on.

The short message: be more brutal with your work than you currently think possible. Your work will love you back and give you a great big kiss once you’re done. Learn how to edit a book.

The Stats Of Doom

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 30-50%

Howler rating (5 stars is worst): * to ****

Again, sometimes a good edit is all that’s needed, as long as sloppy prose doesn’t equal sloppy thinking.

8. Writing Is Over-The-Top

Before I started editing manuscripts, I just didn’t know this was an issue, but it really is. We get so many manuscripts that are just loaded with extremities – scream, agony, torture, yelling, misery, overwhelm, fury, all on the first page – sometimes even all in the first paragraph.

Of course, strong language is vital, as is emotional resonance, but you need to be careful to moderate its use. A surprising number of first-time novels just cram too much all in on page one, then carry on cramming. Nuance is key.

Short message: gently does it. Lead with the character and the story situation. Oblique is better than direct.

The Stats Of Doom

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 1-3%

Howler rating (5 stars is worst): ***

It’s easy to fix in theory, so long as these issues aren’t deeper than just poor word choice. Again, the root cause is quite often that a first-time writer isn’t properly in contact with his characters and that can be a harder issue to fix.

(Oh, and did you pick up on my non-gender neutral ‘he’ just then? Yep, well, most of our editorial clients are women, but the people who most often make this mistake are men. And by “most often” I mean “90% or more”. Sorry, lads, but it’s true!) Strangely, a good way to write a book with good emotional texture is to really work at your dialogue – the two things often go together. You just can’t write strong dialogue, unless you have a tight handle on what your characters are feeling moment to moment. Our dialogue tips here.

9. Clichés Abound

Full-on clichés are (thank goodness) relatively rare in manuscripts we read. We don’t read many ‘wet blankets’, or ‘sick as a dog’ instances, but cliché is so often more insidious than just those howlers. You can have a passionate, flame-haired girl. Or scenes of domestic bliss that involve log fires. Or villains who are steely-eyed. A cliché is anything which makes us feel we’ve read this before … and, sorry to say, in that broader sense, we see a lot of these in manuscripts.

Short message: any kind of cliché starts to kill the reader’s absorption in your story. Very soon you will lose that reader completely.

The Stats Of Doom

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 20-50%

Howler rating (5 stars is worst):** to ****

Once you’ve identified a phrase, character or plot device, it’s simple (if time-consuming) to fix. It’s finding the things that’s pesky.

10. Points Of View Are Mishandled

We read a lot of work where one character is thinking and feeling something … then, suddenly, we’re in the head of some completely different character, sharing their thoughts and emotions. And obviously, it is okay to move about between characters, but this transition must be properly handled (normally by moving properly out of one head, before moving into the next). Our colleague, Emma Darwin, has some good advice to follow, but when those transitions aren’t correctly handled, you cause giddiness, confusion in the reader, and are at risk of causing rejection letters to come a-fluttering to your doormat.

Short message: keep control over your points of view. One simple rule to follow is: one point of view per chapter. More sophisticated writers can mess about with that rule but if you’re unsure – just follow it! If you want the real ins-and-outs of point of view, you can get a very detailed guide here.

The Stats Of Doom

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 3-10%

Howler rating (5 stars is worst): ***

Very fixable, but normally a slew of changes will flow from any initial set of corrections.

11. Descriptions Absent Or Bland

We’ve read novels where all action seems to take place in a white and featureless void, where any description is bland or muted. Readers want to be transported to a different world. So transport them. Descriptive writing is actually essential to this goal.

We’ve got some great advice on how write descriptively right here. The techniques involved are surprisingly easy . . . and they can deliver an amazing lift to the novel. More than you think.

Sometimes, however, if a novel lacks emotional punch, it’s not to do with the descriptions – but an absence of drama on the page. In such cases, the issue is nearly always to do with the author telling the reader about the action, rather than just showing us the action as it happens. Too much telling will kill a novel stone dead, and you can’t let that happen to yours. Here’s all you need on show vs tell, in case you need a refresher.

The Stats Of Doom

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 3-10%

Howler rating (5 stars is worst): **

Easily fixed, just make sure weak descriptions aren’t masking a broader problem with prose style.

common writing mistakes

Intermission: Do You Need Help?

New writers make these mistakes because writing novels is HARD. But we can help – and save you huge amounts of wasted time.

Writing a novel is hard.

Writing a novel for the first time is harder.

Writing a novel for the first time and making sure that your novel is strong enough to be published – well, that’s one heck of a goal to set yourself.

It’s OK to find this tough.
It’s OK – actually sensible – to get help.

As a member of Jericho Writers you get full, free, unrestricted access to courses that cover some of the very issues we’ve already discussed.

As well as films and masterclasses, events, our Townhouse community, AgentMatch, and so much more.

And membership of Jericho Writers:

  • Is low cost
  • Is cancel-any-time.
    You can literally sign up, and cancel in the same day, and still enjoy the single month’s membership you paid for. We hope you don’t do that, but if you just want to spend one intensive month using our materials, that’s fine with us. Whatever works for you.
  • Is absolutely stuffed with benefits, and we’re adding more all the time
  • Was developed for writers exactly like you.
    We’ve had over ten years serving writers like you and we’ve got hundreds of them published. We’d love to help you too. We’re sure we can do it.

That’s a crazy-good deal, right? I certainly hope so, at least, because when we developed the whole membership concept, the basic brief to ourselves was, “Let’s just build the writing club of our dreams. Let’s make that thing happen, then charge as little as we possibly can.”

So that’s what we did.

I’d love it if you chose to learn more about membership, or just say what the heck, I wanna sign up.

But if that’s not right for you now, sit tight, and we’ll review the last common mistakes that writers make when they write their #1 novel.

12. Unliterary Literary Writing

We get plenty of ‘literary’ novels. Literary fiction still relies on a wonderful plot or a stunning premise to hook its audience, and if you want your novel to sell as a ‘literary’ one, it has to be flawlessly written. Basic competence is not enough: you must demonstrate something more.

If you don’t read a lot of literary fiction (Pulitzer / Booker Prize type work), then you are probably not writing it either.

The Stats Of Doom

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 10-30% (of literary novels)

Howler rating (5 stars is worst): ***

You need to pay careful attention to prose style, but this exercise is usually manageable. You just need to care, a lot, and make sure that you take care with every sentence you write.

13. What Happened To The Plot?

Strange, but true. Some writers complete an entire novel without really knowing what their story is. And stories don’t create themselves. Check out our blogs on plotting and making use of the snowflake method to plan things out. This is an issue you just have to get right, irrespective of what genre you choose to write in.

The Stats Of Doom

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 3-10%

Howler rating (5 stars is worst): ****

A strong story matters in all genres, and for debut novelists especially. Jane Austen, Shakespeare et al. aren’t above plots, so you’re not either.

14. Unbelievable Or Bland Characters

Sometimes, everything seems to be moving along all right in technical terms. Story, check; descriptions, check; prose style, check. Still, somehow, a manuscript is failing to connect with its readers.

It’s often because the central character(s) aren’t really showing up for work, and that in turn is usually because you, the author, don’t yet know them sufficiently – almost as though you don’t trust your imagination to feel out the limits of the people you’re writing about.

We’ve got some simple free advice right here.

The Stats Of Doom

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 3-10%

Howler rating (5 stars is worst): ***

Poor characterisation is easy enough to fix, albeit there’s some work involved. Often the issue is just that a writer was so busy constructing the novel’s plot / settings / research underpinnings etc that they couldn’t handle the additional act of characterisation too. If that’s the issue, then the advice is just, “Time for Draft #2”

15. You Haven’t Really Finished Your Novel

Yes, we know – you’ve reached the final full stop – but when you reach that milestone, you are perhaps, if you’re lucky, halfway done.

Many novels – even ones accepted by an agent – need to be reworked, re-edited and reworked again. That’s how they get better and why all professional authors work closely with a professional editor, supplied via their publisher. You mightn’t yet have that vital support and advice from publishers, but you can get editorial feedback from consultancies like ours. We’ll check your manuscript for any structural weaknesses.

The Stats Of Doom

How many manuscripts make this mistake? Hard to say!

Agents reject 999 in 1,000 manuscripts, so arguably 999 people are sending work out too soon. Explore what editorial feedback may offer.

In the meantime – everyone – happy writing, and good luck!