by Iola Goulton

Do you find similarities in the kinds of writing mistakes your editing clients make?

I do, especially when I’m working with less experienced fiction writers. I usually encourage new writers to start with a manuscript assessment, an appraisal and critique of the overall novel. Most authors do a great job with the PUGS (Kathy Ide’s term for punctuation, word usage, grammar, and spelling). But many don’t know or understand some of the principles of modern fiction writing such as the use of point of view, or the importance of showing, not telling.

Here are the top mistakes I find:

Structure: overall plot and/or scene structure.

Conflict: the basis of great fiction, but it needs to be clear and realistic.

Character Motivation: What does your character want, and why? Motivation gives context to the conflict.

Dialogue: ensuring characters speak like people, not dictionaries.

Dialogue Tags: an easy fix, meaning authors can save on editing costs when they know and apply the rules.

Point of View: first person, third person, and omniscient point of view … and which currently is a no-no for fiction authors.

Character Thoughts: using interior monologue rather than direct thought.

Telling, not Showing: what “show, don’t tell” means, and why it’s important.

Overused Words: cutting the fat—adverbs and weasel words.

Grammar and Punctuation: writing clear, readable sentences.

Most manuscripts from new authors show several of these issues, so it makes sense to have some standard text describing the problem, explaining why it is a problem, and showing how to fix it. This is a tip I picked up on one of the fiction editing courses run by the PEN Institute.

I now have a master template that is over 25,000 words long. When I’m editing and find an issue that’s already covered in my template, I cut and paste that portion into the individual client’s editorial letter. When I find a new issue, I cut and paste that explanation from the client letter into my master template (and often revise and repurpose it as a blog post as well). I may also recommend blog posts or books that deal with specific issues.

I have recently reworked my advice on these ten major issues into a free email course, Learn to Revise Your Novel in Two Weeks. This means fiction authors can address and fix some of the most common writing issues before submitting their manuscript for an assessment, which means I can give more personalized feedback.

What common issues do you find in the manuscripts you edit, and do you have a method for addressing them?

Iola Goulton is a New Zealand-based freelance editor specializing in Christian fiction for adults and young adults. Iola holds a degree in marketing and has a background in human resource consulting. She has been editing since 2012, and is a member of the Christian PEN, American Christian Fiction Writers, Omega Writers, and Romance Writers of New Zealand.

When she’s not working, Iola is usually reading, writing her next book review, or avoiding working on her first novel. Iola lives in the beautiful Bay of Plenty in New Zealand with her husband, two teenagers, and one cat.