The Most Common Manuscript Malfunctions (and How to Avoid Them)

The Most Common Manuscript Malfunctions (and How to Avoid Them)Editors see hundreds of manuscripts every year, from new and veteran writers alike. Almost all of them fall down on the same points. To help you avoid the common pitfalls of fiction writing, here are the manuscript malfunctions editors see most often, with tips on how you can avoid them!

Manuscript Malfunction #1: Clichés

Clichés are at top of the list because they’re the easiest manuscript malfunction to commit. You use clichés every day without realizing it, whether you’re describing “falling head over heels” in love with someone or asking your kids if they think you’re “made of money.” Unfortunately, clichés can turn even the most exciting scene into dull prose.

How to Avoid This Manuscript Malfunction

Clichés are most often found in your descriptions. When copy editing your work, take a close look at your similes, metaphors and adverbs. If you think you might’ve read them somewhere before, change it up. Turn “eyes as blue as the sky” into “eyes the color of crushed cornflowers.” Not only does this make your writing more interesting, it also creates a vivid picture for your reader.

Manuscript Malfunction #2: Overwriting

Why say something in fifty words when you could say it in ten? Brevity increases clarity, as well as quickening pace and make startling images “pop.”

How to Avoid This Manuscript Malfunction

Read this out loud:

She looked left and right down the path, but as she saw no one coming, she hurried quickly into the forest. The darkness cast by the trees immediately swallowed her, and seemed to wrap itself around her neck, force its way into her lungs. As she ran, she choked on it.

Right. Now try this much shorter version.

She hurried into the forest. The darkness wrapped itself around her neck, forcing its way into her lungs. As she ran, she choked.

Better, right? Try reading your work out loud, then taking out a red pen and deleting all the unnecessary words.

Manuscript Malfunction #3: Double Adjectives

With great adjectives come great responsibility. Don’t dilute your existing adjectives by adding still more. For example:

He sat on the hard frozen ground and felt sharp spikes of grass poke through his black leather gloves.

Way too many adjectives in this sentence. Even removing just one from each pair makes it easier to read:

He sat on the frozen ground and felt spikes of grass poke through his leather gloves.

Or, even better still, turn your adjective into a verb for an extra punch:

He sat on the frozen ground; the grass spiked through his gloves.

How to Avoid This Manuscript Malfunction

Some writers work best on paper. Printing your manuscript is a great way to gain a new perspective and makes spotting this kind of malfunction easier.

Manuscript Malfunction #4: Soggy Speech

Dialogue is difficult to get right. Make it too real, and your scene will get bogged down with “um’s” and “er’s” that don’t add anything to the scene. Go the other way however, and your characters become wooden.

How to Avoid This Manuscript Malfunction

Use a mixture of speech and indirect action to get your point across. And—just like in the points above—if it doesn’t need to be there, cut it out. You can find an in-depth look at the pitfalls of dialogue and how to fix them, here.

Manuscript Malfunction #5: No Unique Selling Point

This is a big one, as it refers to the book as a whole, rather than things easily remedied by a copy edit. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most common reasons for a book being rejected by a publisher. Your book might be well-written, warm, and even exciting, but if it doesn’t offer anything unusual a publisher can use to “hook” readers, then it’s going to struggle to find a place.

How to Avoid This Manuscript Malfunction

In the first instance, write a book that’s unusual. This might be an unusual narrator (like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time), a unique concept (like in The Time Traveler’s Wife), or even a contentious subject (The Slap). If you’ve already written your book, but aren’t sure what your “hook” is—give it to a friend to read and then ask her to tell you what it’s about. What’s the first thing she says? If it isn’t clear,  you might want to rethink your concept.

Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time Traveler's Wife Salp

Fortunately, everything in this list is easily fixed (yes, even #5!). By making these edits yourself, you can save a lot of time and money later down the line when you come to hiring an editor or agent. Good luck!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Have you ever had to deal with any of these common manuscript malfunctions in your story? Which one? Tell me in the comments!

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About Sarah Juckes | @sarahannjuckes

Sarah Juckes works with The Writer’s Workshop, one of the largest editorial consultancies in the UK, and Agent Hunter, a comprehensive online database of literary agents. For more information on how honest feedback can improve your writing, see The Writer’s Workshop advice pages.

Comments

  1. Ms. Albina says:

    I liked the article. how do make dialogue and descriptions more interesting
    ? I am hoping to publish my novella this year.

  2. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

    Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Sarah!

  3. I’m pretty sure I do all of those. *sheepish grin* My main problem, though, is that I can never figure out what is original about my books. For instance, one of the my novels is about a young girl searching for her father. That’s super cliché! But I’ve had several people tell me that it’s fairly original! But why? I’ve yet to discover, therefore I can’t really pitch it. 😛

  4. Thanks for the tips, K.M!

  5. The BIGGEST mistake you can make with your manuscript is not adhering (or even reading) the manuscript guidelines that each publisher freely displays on their website. Every publisher has different preferences, and you’re going to want to treat those preferences as if they were LAW.

  6. Great post. I’d add that formatting problems and ignoring submission guidelines should be added to the list. If an editor says “no attachments” and you send an attachment, you can guess the result. Straight to trash, do not pass “go.”

  7. #5 is the hardest in my opinion…especially after you’ve written the story. XD (cries).

    Oh, and I’d venture that cornflowers are cliche now as well. I see them everywhere. Cornflower eyes, cornflower dress, cornflower sky…and to make matters worse, I only recently realized cornflower is blue. I used to think it was yellow. (But that’s just me being horrible with colors.)

    So yeah. Maybe don’t use cornflower?

    • Luckily an editor or agent can help with #5!

      I definitely struggle most with #1. You know things are bad when your example of a non-cliche is a cliche 😉

      Thanks for reading!

  8. I forgot that you wrote this, Sarah. Good tips, though.

  9. Kate Johnston says:

    Great tips, Sarah, thank you! Anytime I’m unsure if something is working in my stories, I read aloud to myself. Just hearing it outside of my own head helps me get a different perspective on it, and I can usually catch what is going wrong–or right! 🙂

  10. Supremely insightful and instantly applicable (too many adjectives?)
    It’s always nice to get a hard and fast list like this to check over when working on various parts of a story. Thanks!

  11. Sarah, I appreciate you for taking the time to advise us ! Your post reminded me so much about things we have to keep in mind when we are writing. I read a good tip today about writing from a prolific writer, (Sorry, I don’t remember the name) he stated “if it sounds like writing, rewrite”. Your advice accentuates this point exactly! Thank you.

  12. Hi Sarah, Thanks for your concise article. It was helpful. I’m a writer and I find that reading my work aloud is tremendously useful. Doing so reveals the rhythm of the piece and highlights clumsiness. This is frequently caused by the length of the sentences. They should vary. Chopping and changing between long and short can keep the reader’s interest.
    Thanks again.

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