Previously Dana asked: What are the worst mistakes in writing and how can I avoid them?

The answer varies from editor to editor. Some editors, for instance, will reject a manuscript that isn’t perfectly prepared. If it’s single-spaced or if the margins aren’t one-inch or if the font isn’t Times New Roman, they may simply set the manuscript aside and mentally label it “unprofessional” and therefore “unpublishable.”

I like professional looking manuscripts too, so do NOT take this as an invitation to send me sloppy submissions. But good writing trumps even a poorly prepared manuscript. It’s a lot easier to teach someone how to prepare their manuscript to look nice than it is to teach them how to write well. That said, here are a few of the mistakes that bother me. I’m sure, given time, I could come up with more. But these will do for now. And keep in mind that other editors’ lists will look a bit different.

1. For fiction AND for non-fiction, I MUST see a compelling first page. In fiction, do not give me a weather report or a geography lesson on page one. You’d be amazed at how many authors start their story by telling me what the weather is like or what the landscape is like. No, give me a person. Even more, give me a person of interest. Someone I will immediately bond with and want to follow for the next 250 pages. In non-fiction, pull me in right away, don’t start out trying to teach me something.

2. I hate what I’ve come to call vertical writing. I’ve promised to blog on this concept and I will soon, I promise. Briefly, what I call vertical writing is writing that is just one boring sentence following another boring sentence. I contrast that with what I call diagonal writing. This is writing where each sentence leans against the next, moving the story effortlessly forward, without strain and without boredom. After that compelling first page mentioned above, the flow must go on without stopping even once. This is true of non-fiction as well as fiction. Most writing I see is vertical.

3. As might be expected “show, don’t tell” must be on this list. Fiction that tells a story is deadly. Learn to write in scenes, showing the actions and emotions of your story.

4. Know the CBA market. Don’t submit manuscripts with elements that are not reader-friendly to CBA readers. Learn the publishers and what they’re publishing. When I meet a new writer at a conference, I’m immediately turned off when he or she asks, “So what kind of books does Harvest House publish?” Familiarity with the publishing industry is important. Learn the strengths and weaknesses of the various publishers and submit to those that publish the kind of books you write.

5. Writing that is so out of the box, it’s of interest to way too few readers. Even if the writing is good, some historical eras and some plot situations are of too little interest to most readers. A novel set in 1167 AD is going to appeal to far fewer people than one set in 1867. That’s just the way it is. The Civil War is more appealing than the War of 1812. The Amish are more interesting than Presbyterians. There are plenty of topics that are “in” right now. Your job is to find the place where your writing interests intersect with what people are reading and will be reading in the next few years.

A final element that really isn’t related to the writing, but is important to me is the temperament of the writer. What I mean is that I’m a better editor for authors with whom I get along. Most of my authors I consider friends, not merely “my job.” Don’t be a high-maintenance author. Pray that your editor will be someone whose judgment you can trust, not challenge.

I hope this helps, Dana. I like your idea of having me offer an opening line and have commenters add the next few lines. I’ll do that in the future—as soon as I come up with some good opening lines myself. 🙂

9 replies
  1. Sue Harrison says:

    Thank you, Nick, for these great writing tips. I particularly like the “writing diagonally” concept!

    I’d like to mention one thing as a writer to an editor. Times New Roman is a very difficult font for writers with macular degeneration. The letters are simply too close together on the computer screen and the serifs too pronounced to read easily through a long day of writing or editing. So please, when you receive a ms in Courier New (which is much more friendly to those of us whose central vision is foggy), please be kind!

  2. Nick says:

    Sue, that wouldn’t deter me. And if that’s your only deviation from the norm, I doubt it would make a lot of difference to most editors.

  3. Carrie Schmeck says:

    Thanks for the tips. But here’s a question for you and one we have discussed in our Redding area writers group: In your last point, you mention writing to eras and topics that interest a wider audience. That makes sense. But when will the Amish fad end (for instance)? If someone starts a book this month, should they assume Amish will still be more interesting than the Presbyterians?
    I think many are afraid that by the time their story is ready to present, today’s interest will have been replaced with another era entirely. What would you say to these writers?

  4. Nick says:

    Carrie, I sympathize. None of us can really account for the emergence of the Amish fiction genre, nor can we safely predict how long it will last. My guess is that the simplicity factor will be with us a long time–as will romance. I think a writer is safe if they can write a warm, tender, authentic historical romance in an era that is “evergreen.” The Civil War is sort of an “evergreen” topic. And it appears Amish will continue to be for a while. It might be interesting to discuss evergreen topics at some point….and let you all suggest what you think are evergreen topics.

  5. Lydia Harris says:

    Thanks, Nick. I appreciate these comments: “Don’t be a high-maintenance author. Pray that your editor will be someone whose judgment you can trust, not challenge.”

  6. Dana E says:

    Thanks SO much! This was very helpful. (I’m a little late commenting, and I think I will take care of this now by subscribing to your blog. :>) I really had trouble understanding exactly what the show don’t tell point was all about until I read somewhere that showing is helping the reader see what you are writing – sort of like scenes in a play.
    And… that blasted first page! I feel the need to give detail and set the stage, but I just need to learn to hook the reader. Thanks!

  7. Dana says:

    Thanks, Nick! That did answer my question. I appreciated your comments about the first page. I have a bad habit of spending too much time on setting the stage and giving too much detail – instead of trying to “hook” the reader. There is some really great learning in this post.

  8. Jennifer says:

    Hi Nick,
    I enjoyed your blog—very helpful! I wonder if you would expand on your concept of “writing that leans”? I find this intriguing because I continually try to sharpen/tighten what I’m working on. Can you offer an actual example of vertical writing versus writing that leans?

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