The Biggest Mistakes Editors See (and How to Avoid Them)

BY ANDREA MORAN • April 13, 2023

The Biggest Mistakes Editors See (and How to Avoid Them)

An editor’s role can vary, depending on the level of care your manuscript needs. But there are a few issues that editors of every type tend to see over and over again. So next time you sit down to write, consider taking a look at your story with a critical eye to see if these common hurdles might be tripping you up.

1. Losing focus

You may have the plot and characters all perfectly laid out in your head—but the challenge of writing is putting those thoughts on paper in a way that not only makes sense for readers but also makes them want to keep reading.

It’s easy to get sidetracked when you’re in the middle of it all, but that makes it even more important to periodically draw back and make sure that you’re conveying why the events of your novel are happening and, even more importantly, why they are worth telling. Without a hook and a climax, your story instantly becomes fuzzy and unfocused . . . and readers will become lost before they even begin.

2. Not maintaining a consistent tone

Writing tends to shift, sometimes almost imperceptibly, with the author’s current mood. Some days you may be tempted to approach your characters a bit more playfully, while other days you’re just really, really excited to describe the lush countryside in which they reside.

But when readers pick up your book, those subtle shifts in tone can add up to an uneven experience that leaves them unsettled. One of the best ways to remedy this is to take a few minutes before writing to reread the last few pages of your manuscript. That can help you remember where you were and pick up in the same rhythm where you left off.

3. Using stilted (and too much) dialogue

The hallmark of stilted dialogue is when it pulls readers out of the story by making them think, This is dialogue. On the other hand, the best kind of dialogue flows so naturally in the story and for the characters that readers don’t really think about it at all. Be sure all your characters sound different (from each other and from the narrator, whether that’s a character in the novel or omniscient).

Likewise, don’t treat your novel like a screenplay in which talking is the primary method of communication. Be sure the dialogue is essential and moving the story along—otherwise, use your skills as a writer to describe what’s going on and cut the chitchat.

4. Excessive dialogue tagging

Almost nothing can kill the flow of a story faster than line after line of “he said” or “she said.” Even worse? When those tags have random adverbs tacked onto them, like “he said angrily” or “she said happily.” It shouldn’t be necessary to tag every bit of dialogue, since the way you tell the story should (at least most of the time) make it obvious who is speaking. And if you do find yourself with page after page of dialogue tagging? Well, see mistake number three above.

5. Telling instead of showing

You’ve likely heard this one since your high school English days, but it bears repeating because so many writers tend to forget it when they’re transferring their story from their head to the paper: show your readers; don’t tell them.

Is your protagonist cheerful all the time? Don’t just tell us that she’s cheerful; show that through her interactions with others. Does your antagonist have a dark past? Don’t just tell us that he’s a tortured soul; show that through flashbacks or allusions in conversation. Part of the magic of reading is immersing yourself in the lives of others, not simply hearing what happens to someone else.

6. Getting bogged down in details

Listen, I love me some Game of Thrones novels as much as the next person, but even I found myself sighing while in the midst of an eight-page description of Westeros’s landscape. As an author, you need to have a clear vision of your characters and the specific world in which they live. However, all that detail doesn’t necessarily need to make it into your final draft. Paint a mental picture of that world, but be sure you’re not describing every blade of grass in the field.

7. Mixing tenses

This one may seem obvious, but you would be surprised at how many times I’ve come across manuscripts that flip between past tense and present tense like they’re interchangeable. Some novels employ it as a narrative device to separate the current timeline from a past timeline, which can work. But if you reread your chapters and find a popcorn mix of “is” and “was” and “runs” and “ran,” it’s time to go back to the editing drawing board.

8. Inconsistency in the details

It can be particularly tricky as an author to catch small inconsistencies that crop up throughout your novel (which is why a developmental editor is so handy to have!). But it’s that attention to detail that really separates the stellar novels from the run-of-the-mill ones. If the main character’s garden is in the side yard in one scene but in the back in another scene, you can bet there will be eagle-eyed readers who will immediately be drawn out of the story—and that’s the last thing you want.

9. Using passive voice instead of active voice

Another throwback to high school English class, this one is so important in order to really engage your readers. Use active voice over passive voice whenever you possibly can. “She wrote the letter” may not seem infinitely more compelling than “The letter was written by her,” but keep adding up those passive descriptions and your reader is sure to fall asleep by the end. That’s because the passive voice tends to remove readers from the action, making them feel as though they are simply watching events play out instead of participating in them—a hallmark of a truly good novel.

Andrea Moran lives outside of Nashville with her husband and two kids. She’s a professional copywriter and editor who loves all things books. Find her on LinkedIn.


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