The 4 Most Common Mistakes Fiction Editors See

Wouldn’t it be great if nobody ever needed an editor? If all of our stories and novels appeared in readers’ minds just as beautifully and vividly and succinctly they do in our own?

Wouldn’t it be great if the story we think we’ve told were, in fact, the story we’ve told?

There are more aspiring writers producing more manuscripts now than ever before history, and the writing-advice industry is keeping stride with totally conflicting instructions.

The result: everybody’s doing it, but nobody knows what the heck is going on.

I’d like to simplify that a little for you. Before you rush your beloved manuscript off to an editor, here are the four most common mistakes fiction editors see:

1. Unfocused structure

This is the biggest reason manuscripts get rejected. You’re telling a wonderful, powerful, gripping, complex story… but you’re the only person who actually knows that. Everyone else sees a long, rambling, uneven tale of various events happening to various characters. Why? What makes these things happen? And, most important to your reader, why are you telling us this?

Every novel needs a focus. What’s your point? What is it that you want the reader to know? That focus is your Climax, the one part your story simply could not do without. “I died of romanticism.” “I almost got et by a whale.” “I pretty nearly wrecked my life being a selfish grinch.”

At the same time, every novel needs a really good reason for the reader to care. That’s your Hook. The reader may have picked your book up for its snazzy cover, but you desperately need them not to put it down.

And every novel needs a series of intriguing, hair-raising, addictive events carrying the reader from the Hook to the Climax. You could just tell us the Climax. “The butler did it.” But long fiction is all about the wonderful, rollicking adventure building upon why that matters.

The hardest thing for aspiring writers to believe is that all this is holographic: what’s essential for the novel is also essential for the chapter, episode, even scene. Every single one of them needs a Climax, Hook, and some type of events leading from one to the other.

Read that again. Every single one.

2. Misplaced backstory

We live in a chronological world, so it makes sense to assume whatever happens first to your characters should appear first in your novel.

Unfortunately, we don’t read in a chronological world. We read for excitement. We read for the thrill of our blood pressure being inflated, soothed, then inflated again. We read for the rollercoaster ride.

All fiction starts with a Hook—the gripping thing that first sends these particular characters careening toward that particular doom. Yes, the backstory that influences and directs the rollercoaster matters, but the reader’s willing to wait until Chapter Two or even Three to learn about it.

They’re hopping aboard not because they understand exactly what’s going on, but because they simply care too much about Chapter One to put it down.

3. Underdeveloped character

This point can be difficult for the aspiring writer to grasp, because it just involves so darn much time. You know these characters! They’ve been coming to you in your dreams for years! Everything they do and say on the page makes perfect sense. How could it not be obvious?

I’m sorry. It’s not.

The craft of fiction is the craft of telepathy, of projecting the characters who are so much a part of your life and heart into the lives and hearts of total strangers. In order to do that, you need to spend an extraordinary amount of time getting to know them—not just their statistical data (although that’s a good start), but deep, complicated, intangible, detailed knowledge of them as living, breathing, suffering, contrasting individuals. You need to know their mannerisms, gestures, and expressions. You need to know their foibles, misconceptions, paradoxical needs. And, most of all, you need to know what they’re hiding from themselves.

Because how that comes to light is your story.

4. Unpolished prose

You simply have to learn how to write clearly. I know—no one can line edit their own work. This is true, and it sucks. But everyone can learn to write more clearly than they do.
Simple syntax: subject-verb. Simple rhythms: subtle variations on a few short sentences and a long, or a few longs and a short. Building and falling tension. Proper grammar and punctuation. Details that matter, both big to encompass atmosphere and tiny to create three-dimensional images.

Classic language is simple language. The reader’s pleasure lies not in the effort you put into a trumpeting voice, but in how invisible you make the words, just how close you can get to telepathy.

It lies in how your story rises up through all that clarity—a treasure surfacing from deep water.

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About Victoria Mixon

Victoria Mixon has been a professional writer and editor for over thirty years. She co-authored the nonfiction Children and the Internet, published by Prentice Hall in 1996, for which she is listed in the Who’s Who of America. Victoria’s blog, A. Victoria Mixon, Editor, was voted one of the Top Ten Blogs for Writers in 2011. Her first book on writing, The Art and Craft of Fiction, is one of the elite handful recommended by Preditors & Editors, and her second book on writing, The Art and Craft of Story: 2nd Practitioner’s Manual, was released on September 30, 2011.


  1. Thank you for the wonderful advice.

    I really need to look at some of these things. In particular, the structure of the story.


  2. I like the way this post was structured: easy to read and succinct. Thank you. I’ll pass it on!

  3. Thanks so much for stopping by today, Victoria, and sharing your wisdom and experience.

  4. This is chock full of great advice. It puts me in an editing mood and that happens rarely. Thank you for lending your wisdom.

  5. Outstanding post. Clear, helpful, and practical. Thanks!

  6. Yes! This is it exactly: The reader’s pleasure lies not in the effort you put into a trumpeting voice, but in how invisible you make the words, just how close you can get to telepathy.

    Readers should be so engrossed in reading that they forget they’re reading. Great post!

  7. Awesome post! Thanks alot! 🙂
    Definitely need to work on the first one, since I’m writing a complex epic sci-fi. =.=;

  8. Great tips! The four pretty much encompass good story telling. 🙂

  9. I needed to hear this. Thank you for sharing!

  10. Misha, I know! Structure is simple in theory, but it can take a really long time for exactly the right framework to surface from the story living out in three-dimensional full color inside your head. All that rich, pesky complexity!

    Try a plan out and let it cook while you’re getting to know your characters and their world better. Go back after awhile and ride your rollercoast. Not quite there yet? No problem—just keep tweaking it and trying out new arrangements, playing with different aspects and new ideas for scenes, mulling it all over in depth over time, until it’s finally that just-right fabulous ride you really knew all along it was meant to be.

    This is the joy of creating a story.

  11. salarsen—You’ve got sharp eyes! You saw how I modeled structure while I was telling you about it:

    Hook: Wouldn’t it be great?
    Conflict #1: Beware unfocused structure
    Conflict #2: Beware misplaced backstory
    Conflict #3: Beware underdeveloped characer
    Faux Resolution: What comes to light in your story
    Climax: You simply have to learn to write clearly
    Resolution: Your treasure surfaces

    Sharp eyes make an excellent writer.

  12. You’re very welcome, Katie. Thanks for inviting me. And thank you for your post for my blog—everyone’s loved it.

  13. Hannah, oh, excellent. That’s exactly what it’s intended to do. Tackle your manuscript, wrestle it to the floor, take a breath and admire it, and then tackle it again. A peculiar hobby, and yet we love it so!

  14. Heidi, I’m so glad it’s helpful to you. Truly—everything you can do for your manuscript on your own strengthens your writing muscles and makes room for the development of really deep, complex, subtle insight when you finally do take it to an editor.

  15. Jami, you got it in a nutshell. You want your reader to forget they’re reading. You want them to think they’re actually living this adventure!

    This is why the Laura Ingalls Wilder books continue to be so popular, generation after generation. Study them carefully. They are simply that beautifully written. (And, as we now know, that happened through the cooperative efforts of two people: the writer, Laura, and the editor, her journalist daughter Rose.)

  16. Andomeda, yes, epic sci-fi takes a whole humongous lot of structuring. Focus on your world-building for a long time first. It will make it immensely easier when it comes time to sort out, from all possible options, the unique cause-&-effect that leads your characters from their Hook through the Developments all the way to their Climax.

    Think about all those books and books of notes Tolkien wrote before he produced the story of just one microcosm of his entire imaginary world.

    That’s the effect you need for both fantasy and sci-fi on the epic scale.

  17. Katie, you’re absolutely right—storytelling is always about human beings in trouble: characters in a plot. And written storytelling includes both an understanding of modern expectations (in our age, no backstory first) and a lovely facility with the written word.

    Those are the foundation stones of all great fiction.

  18. Jessica, you’re very welcome! We all need to hear it periodically throughout our lives in this wonderful work. It is a vast and complicated craft. Every now and then we have to be reminded to look at the forest in spite of the trees.

  19. I love learning good solid information pieces about writing. This was one of those. Thank you so much! I hope to glean from this and avoid, as much as possible, these mistakes.

  20. I can not thank you enough for this. It helped me realize what exactly has been bugging me about my novel, I’ve known there was something wrong but could not put my finger on it until now.
    Thank You!
    Thank You!
    Thank you!

  21. Millardthemk, you’re quite welcome. Don’t bother trying to avoid the mistakes—they’re endemic to all early drafts. Have fun!

    Just keep piling up the pages, which will become your notes on your fictional world, so you’ll have them for reference when you eventually feel ready to sit down and pick out only those events and scenes that comprise your plotline, shaping them to reveal the hidden meanings behind what these particular vivid, living characters have to fight their way through at this particular time.

  22. Travis, you are so very welcome. I love hearing from writers like this. Epiphany is the stuff of fiction, on both the reader’s and the writer’s sides of the story. That’s why we do it!

  23. Thank you for giving advice more helpful than “use manuscript format”. 🙂 It’s hard finding advice that’s good for thsoe of us who know how to use ms format but can’t get beyond those front line rejections. Again, thank you.

  24. I especially like where she said what’s important is “How invisible you make the prose”. So true. One thing that bothers me when I’m reading is purple prose that tries too hard. It takes me out of the story.

  25. dmbonanno, yes, there’s a lot of the same old advice circulating out there. It’s great if it finds its way eventually to everyone. But then what?

    Going beyond the same old advice is my personal mission. There are reasons writers get rejected over and over again. Some of them have to do with you and some of them don’t. But you need the tools to do something about the ones that do.

  26. Heather, John Gardner coined the term fictional dream to describe the reader’s state. He’s the one who pointed out so eloquently to everyone that anything that wakes or even begins to wake the reader from the fictional dream has simply got to go.

    That’s what line editors are for. 🙂

  27. Oh, I like that! To my mind, “fictional dream” presents a much more accurate representation than “suspension of disbelief.” “Suspension” indicates something that the reader is actively supporting every moment he reads, when really the fictional experience should be effortless for the reader. He shouldn’t even have to *think* about suspending his disbelief, unless the author is doing something wrong.

  28. Victoria,

    Excellent advice here! I am not writing a novel, but am just right now writing a memoir that seems to want to become a novel. (Main character doing and saying things that never happened to me.) : )

    When I was working with a writing coach, the two most difficult things for me, which you mention in your post, were, “Why are you telling me (the reader) this?” and “Why should I care?” Such important questions.

    I’m going to print this excellent piece of advice and keep it handy!

  29. I like to write a short 1-3 page autobiography of each of my characters; it really gets me into my character’s state of mind … and also helps a lot when I run into writer’s block!

  30. Katie, are you familiar with Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist? It’s one of the classics of modern writing advice—in my opinion, behind only Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners.

    I can’t tell you how much of my time I spend talking to clients about keeping the reader dreaming deep, deep in the fictional dream.

  31. Judy, you’d be amazed how much memoir shares with fiction. Structure, depth of character, prose. Everything I said here applies to memoir, narrative nonfiction, even (with some tweaks of character -> topic) essay and copywriting. The only type of writing that significantly differs is journalism because you can’t afford to wait for the end to trot out your Climax.

    I’m writing about exactly this for business writers on your blog, yes? I’ll show you!

  32. Jessica—yes, and interview them, too. Sit down at the kitchen table and chat. Ask them everything you haven’t yet figured out about them, their lives, their relationships with each other, their hopes & fears & histories & especially the things they least want to look at in themselves.

    Especially that.

  33. Judy—oh, yeah. There is also tech writing. That’s for geeks, who are not really from this planet, so forget everything I said when you think of them. 🙂

  34. Haven’t read it, but I’ll keep my eyes open for it.

  35. Thank you so much for your timely advice. I am in Florence (my setting) trying to “polish” my eleventh and most difficult novel. Instead of polishing, I am going so deeply into my characters that a different theme has emerged. It’s about four women. It is difficult to have a cohesive structure when there are four separate plots. It was a huge relief when the common theme emerged (in my sleep!) Do you have any advice for me? My two best books took 40 and 25 years because of this type of thing (going deeper and deeper).

  36. Victoria is so brilliant. In my blog today, I’ve quoted her views on the bad effects of TV on our writing–from her great post “6 Ways to Shoot Yourself in the Foot.”

    This one is just as insightful. I love this: “you need to know what they’re hiding from themselves–because how that comes to light is your story.

  37. Very well said. The difference between the story, the words, and the characters in our head and what comes across to readers from our words on the page can be miles apart. Closing that gap is always the goal.

  38. When I know what I want to convey, but I feel frustrated in my ability to do it, I often think of an author who accomplishes gracefully something similar and pull out one of his/her books to dissect. Invariably, an hour later I realize I’m none the wiser, because I’ve been sucked into the story for the umpteenth time. I hope someday to make my words invisible, too.

    Thanks for the useful advice. I recently started reading your blog, Victoria, and I’m finding it gives me new angles on and deeper understanding of writing elements. I’m also thrilled about the post exchanges leading me to other blogs like Wordplay, which I look forward to exploring.

  39. GREAT post! I think # 2 is the hardest to grapple with b/c it’s that neverending question of how much to share, how much to assume the reader can know/not know and still enjoy the tale. I think age, practice and experience have a lot to do with striking the right balance — and instinct! Still working on that one, but this is a great way to bring that into focus…

  40. very good points. in choosing a manuscript for publication, besides sheer love of the story and gut contentment with it, these essentials do come into play, and strongly.

    thank you for sharing!

  41. G.G., now, see–that’s what I should be teaching writers. Not how to write, but what very cool locations would make the best settings!

    Deep is always the correct direction to go with character. There is always more to learn.

    As far as managing four plotlines: layer them. I wrote about this for Writer Unboxed a couple of weeks ago:

    Good luck!

  42. G.G.—Woops, I meant to make that a link. Let me try again: 3 Layers of Layering in Fiction

  43. Anne, you’re so kind! Thank you. Yes, all stories are stories of total catastrophe, of your characters’ worst secrets coming to light. Readers are not satisfied with anything less than ultimate instructions on life.

  44. Robb, yes. We are magicians, working not in sleight-of-hand but in words. It’s real magic.

  45. Jessica, it’s true. Our best teachers are the great practitioners. My job is to mentor you along the path they have already cleared.

  46. Rusty, I know, it’s such a tightrope! When it doubt, leave it out. What the reader is hungry to learn makes them hungry to turn pages.

  47. Chila, that’s the twist, isn’t it? You have to do everything just right and simultaneously you have to completely capture your reader’s imagination. There are lots and lots of competent writers out there. They are the aspiring writer’s competition.

    And that’s what makes this such a brilliant, absorbing craft.

  48. Some good tidbits to keep in mind about structure and flaws to look for. I always wondered what editors looked for, not i have a good idea.
    take care,

  49. Brilliant advice, as always, Victoria!

    I would also add that a good novel needs a really great theme or argument. A great writer needs to ask himself: what is the point? I guess that falls underneath your structure idea, but I’ve read many unfinished works that just don’t know where they are going. And they NEED to know. Or else the reader will feel the same.

  50. Anthony, you got it straight from the horse’s mouth.

  51. Ollin, oh, absolutely. You have to know what it’s all about and why the reader should care.

    Otherwise they won’t.

  52. This comment has been removed by the author.

  53. Backstory… that’s probably where my skills need to develop! I’m affraid that I tend to write too much of it (thought I don’t think it’s misplaced)! I guess practice and beta readers/critique partners will help me learn to become better at it!

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Victoria!

  54. All great advice. Short and to the point. Thanks for sharing.

  55. Great advice. I have problems with all of these things sometimes, and it can get quite frustrating.

    – Nick

  56. Anonymous says

    when do i receive the ebook about characters? thank you

  57. If you’re referring to Crafting Unforgettable Characters, you might first want to check your spam folder to see if the confirmation email somehow slipped in there. If it’s not there, zap me an email and I’ll forward you the link.

  58. This has some great tips! I’m an aspiring writer just finishing up my first novel and starting my sequel (i’m 16). The point you made about each scene being like a miniature book (intro, climax, transition) really helped me! Thanks 🙂

  59. Thank you for the great advice, definitely true that others might not grasp your concept, I’ve had such feedback :/

  60. Great article – I probably feel strongest about the last point. I’m always amazed at how many people say they’re trying to make it as writers when they haven’t taken the time to learn basic spelling, grammar and puctuation.

  61. RobinTVale (darkocean) says

    Alright, I’ll keep striving for that and ignore the weird ‘critics’ (other new writers) on Watpad. (They want me to put the whole backstory in the first chapter or give a laundry list of my character’s features. /facepalm. After I finish this first book I’m writing the next book on WordPress. (I don’t advise asking for help on that site for more than the basics.)

    Thank you, this article has strengthened my resolve to keep going with what I’m doing and try to improve. I know somewhere past the middle the story got messed up, so I’m thinking the structure went awry or off into subplot land never to return. xP

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