15 common mistakes novelists make

What they are. How to fix them. And how bad it really is.

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 wants and what they really, really don’t.

It all adds up to a pretty good idea of the commonest mistakes made by would-be novelists.

Here’s a checklist of which mistakes are most often made 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.

(Take courage – as Neil Gaiman said, ‘if you’re making mistakes, it means you’re out there doing something’.)

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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.)

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 1-3%

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

Comment: You can’t fix this error. You must start again.

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? Ramp it up.

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 5-20%

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

Comment: 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 guys 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.

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 3-5%

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

Comment: 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 that’ll 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 death? The 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.

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 20-30%

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

Comment: 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. Thinking big and bold is part of the answer.

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.

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 5-10%

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

Comment: 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.

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.

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 5-10%

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

Comment: Sometimes, a rigorous line edit is all that’s needed, but sometimes sloppy prose equals sloppy thinking, harder to address.

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 first-time novelists offer us manuscripts that needed to lose 30,000 words or more.

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 10-50%

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

Comment: 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 emotion resonance, but you need to be careful, to moderate its use. A surprising number of manuscripts just cram too much all in on page one, then carry on cramming. Nuance is key.

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 1-3%

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

Comment: It’s easy to fix in theory, so long as these issues aren’t deeper than just poor word choice.

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 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.

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 20-50%

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

Comment: 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). This is 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.

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 3-10%

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

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

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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. Transport them.

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 3-10%

Howler rating (5 stars is worst): **

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

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.

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

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

Comment: You need to pay careful attention to prose style, but this exercise is usually manageable.

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. (If you do have a plot, but the book still seems saggy, then revisit the above on economy in writing. Cutting is the answer to many a writing ill.)

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 3-10%

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

Comment: A strong story matters in all genres, and for debut novelist especially. Jane Austen, Shakespeare et al. aren’t above plots, so you’re not either. We’ve good advice for earnest plotters, though.

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.

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 3-10%

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

Comment: It’s easy enough to fix, albeit there’s some work involved – we’ve advice to share for this, too.

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.

We also run a great self-editing course so that you can develop your own editorial skills.

How many manuscripts make this mistake? Hard to say!

Comment:Agents reject 999 in 1,000 manuscripts, so arguably 999 people are sending work out too soon. Explore what editorial feedback may offer or peek at more of our free advice to polish your book.

Best of luck and if you think we can help, do get in touch – we’re here for writers and rooting for you.

The idea generator

Get better ideas faster, with this simple guide.