The first self-published book I edited was written by a longtime newspaper reporter. Seasoned and self-confident, he decided to set sources aside and pen a novel, his first work of fiction. He told me he didn’t think he needed an editor, but a novelist friend had advised him to get another pair of eyes on the manuscript before self-publishing. Enter me.
The reporter’s book demonstrated real promise: It had intrigue. It had romance and humor. It also had the main character’s name spelled three different ways in the first 13 pages, some confounding narrative inconsistencies, and 642 adverbs (I counted).
I told the author the edit was going to take longer than expected. He was flabbergasted.
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Alas, without an agent or a publisher, he had no idea how to self-edit his passion project. He succumbed to the same problems that ensnare other first-time authors, especially those in self-publishing, who often face fewer editorial hurdles in getting their work to print.
Here are nine of the most common mistakes editors see in first-timers’ manuscripts. Turning a critical eye to your book can decrease these easy-to-avoid errors – and increase your credibility with your readers.
Mistake No. 1: Overwriting
Writers toil under the illusion “more is more” when it comes to words. You can address this easily through pruning. Repeat after me: One adjective is enough. Also, editors can identify a green writer based on the number of synonyms they use for “says,” so please refrain from writing “she chortled,” “she exclaimed,” or “she exclaimed as she chortled,” and stick to “she said.”
“Effusive writing, heavily laden with adjectives and adverbs, is the hallmark of unseasoned writers and, if not corrected in the editing, will result in an amateurish book,” says Betty Kelly Sargent, a veteran editor and CEO/founder of BookWorks.
Mistake No. 2: Inconsistency
Is your main character’s name Sara or Sarah? That may seem like a small edit. You can use search-and-replace to change all the errant “Sarahs” and be good to go, right? Not necessarily.
For inexperienced authors, inconsistency applies not just to spelling or grammar. It also extends to story. Many first-timers do not put the time they should into characterization and plotting. This leads to developments that strain credulity, such as plot points arising out of nowhere or a character doing a 180 without explanation. (See Toby Ziegler’s inexplicable behavior on the final season of The West Wing for examples of both.)
“New authors often assume revision is all about commas and grammar, when getting a solid story onto the page should be the very first priority,” says Lisa Poisso, a book editor and writing coach.
Mistake No. 3: Depending too much on your editor
You may be surprised to hear me say this – I’m an editor, after all. But the editor is not the author. You need to lay out a creative vision for your work that makes sense. An editor can polish prose and weed out grammatical errors, but they cannot write the book for you or get your character from point A to point B.
“If you assume you’ll simply hire an editor to patch over your problems, that’s exactly what you’ll get: A future of paying for someone else to fix the basic issues a professional writer should already have mastered. As long as you keep your editors scrambling in clean-up mode, you’ll never reach the deeper levels of critique and feedback that make your writing richer and lead to real development,” Poisso says.
Mistake No. 4: Writing just one draft
Would you try out for the Olympic team a day after your first swim lesson? Open a restaurant after baking one successful soufflé?
Well, no. You need quite a bit of practice before you hit the big leagues. Your manuscript is like that, too. “You should never submit a first draft,” says Arlene Prunkl, a longtime editor who runs PenUltimate Editorial Services. “You need to work more on it, you need a second or a third draft. A third may be submittable.”