I was excited to look back through my notes from Harper Collins editor Laura Arnold’s presentation to the Iowa SCBWI group, because she listed some common mistakes I need to look out for during revisions. She and Iowa author Carol Gorman began the presentation by asserting, “You are not alone. Editors wouldn’t have jobs if published writers didn’t make the same mistakes all the time.”

  1. Overwriting – going overboard trying to write evocative prose (the examples for this one were quite amusing)
  2. Misused words – for example, “shuttered” instead of “shuddered,” “as” when an action happens after another (“as” means two things happen simultaneously)
  3. Too many adjectives and adverbs (not a moratorium though)
  4. Characters who all sound alike – write like your characters speak. It’s OK to use sentence fragments and other habits of speech.
  5. Watch for repetition, especially with words like “just” and “look.” Laura said word repetition was the most common mistake she sees.
  6. Overused phrases, especially when describing gestures – for example: eyes rolling, shrugged shoulders, waving hands, frowning, grinning (I’m personally guilty of excessive eye rolling). You can’t “say” with a nod or a grin or a laugh.
    1. “Sure thing boss,” Geraldine nodded.
    2. Should be: “Sure thing boss.” Geraldine nodded.
  7. Clichéd words or phrases. Laura is seeing lots of hair cascading down backs, faces going ashen, “It’s quiet. Too quiet.” Don’t try to force slang or try to be hip. (You know you hated when your parents did it. Don’t make the same mistake in your manuscript.)
  8. Mechanical errors – comma misuse is very common. Incorrect: “Jack would you…” Correct: “Jack, would you…”
    1. Also watch out for misplaced modifiers: “one another” if many people, “each other” if two people
    2. “further” versus “farther” (for more of these common mistakes, check out this handy poster from The Oatmeal.)
  9. Beginning before the story actually starts. I’ve heard this one over and over, but Laura gave a new reason for making your first chapters the best they can be: with e-readers, many books offer free downloads of the first few chapters, so you need to capture that person’s attention immediately so they buy the rest of your book.
  10. Info dumping – weave in backstory, don’t hit the reader with it all at once.

After the top ten list, Laura and Carol took questions from the audience, and some more excellent points were made:

  • Another cliché is lots of red-haired and/or green-eyed protagonists. (um, guilty)
  • When writing middle grade, consider giving chapters funky titles. Kids and librarians look at the table of contents before reading the book. (This one surprised me. I can’t remember ever really noticing a fiction book’s table of contents, but I do like chapter titles when they’re done well.)
  • There was some good discussion about chapter books. They are generally 6,000 to 9,000 words and publishers prefer series to stand-alone titles.

Which of the above issues do you have trouble with? Any tips for avoiding them?