Reportedly, any of the items on the following checklist will send a manuscript directly to the editorial 'no' pile. As always, approach any list like this with caution, but if you choose to ignore an item on here, be sure you have a really solid reason. We all like to think we can break the "rules" -- but that only applies once we know what the rules are, why they are "the rules," and--most importantly--how breaking them or following them will impact the reader.
- Copyright symbols or statements. You don't need them, and no agent or editor is going to steal your work. Really.
- Improper formatting. Manuscripts should be double-spaced in 12-point Courier (still preferable) with one-inch margins all around. Print a clean, new copy for each submission on standard weight paper using a laser printer.
- Excessive use of exclamations points or question marks. These are fine when used sparingly in dialogue, but usually hint at a deeper problem with the writing when used in narrative.
- Overuse of italics, capitals, underscores, or bold type. Let the writing speak for itself.
- Passive or negative voice. Avoid is/was ...ed sentence construction and stick to primarily to subject-verb-object patterns to convey action. Do a search for "ed " to can catch these problems. Also search for "it was", "it is", "there is", "there were", and "there are" phrases throughout your manuscript. Finally, search for use of the word "not" to help you rephrase negative construction into positive statements.
- Throw-aways and bloat. Remove meaningless, redundant, or overused words and phrases from your manuscript or replace them with something more specific or interesting. Common words to watch for include: that, the, just, really, matter of fact, otherwise, actually, I think, I feel, you know, well, and generally. Each of us has our favorites, and it's astonishing how many times we use them in our writing.
- Too many adjectives and/or adverbs. If you can find the right verb or noun, you don't need the modifier. And if you have to have a modifier, make it truly illuminate what you're describing.
- Poor word choice. To paraphrase Stephen King, any word you found in the thesaurus is probably not the right word. If in doubt, use a dictionary to get the subtle differences between synonyms.
- Bad grammar and awkward syntax. Don't deviate from the norm. Keep words that belong together next to each other in a sentence, and sentences that belong next to each other together in the paragraph. If a sentence or word doesn't relate to what came before and will come after, remove it or reorder.
- Cliche and derivative work. Cut anything from your manuscript that is commonplace or has already been said or done by another author in a similar way. Your writing and story, and every element in it, should be uniquely yours.
- Overstylized or over-written. Don't try to make a statement with your language, syntax, or punctuation. Use language to tell the story as clearly as it can be told, and use syntax and punctuation to make the language flow without hindering the reader's progress. Let emotion come from letting the reader experience events with the characters.
- Commonplace, boring, undecipherable or overly-clever dialogue. Show readers only the crux of what your characters say to each other as they move forward in the story and learn about each other. Let your characters say only what they would actually say at that particular time and place in the story and in their relationship with each other, and don't try to force them to convey information to the reader. Never include commonplace greetings and fillers, but at the same time, don't try to make the dialogue so clever and sparkling the reader can't undertand what the heck is going on.
- Dialogue at a standstill. Two people rarely stand in an empty room talking to each other without interacting with the world around them or reacting to what is being said. Long stretches of dialogue without movement are both implausible and dull.
- Unclear or inappropriate dialogue tags. It is critical for the reader to know who is speaking, so unless an accompanying action has already made that clear, use enough dialogue tags to ground your readers into the scene. "He said" is an invisible dialogue tag. "Said he" is less invisible, but a reader can adapt if it is used consistently. If your protag screams, cries, squeals, hisses, or otherwise deviates from having a normal conversation, let us hear that through the dialogue and see it through the action, don't tell us in the tag.
- Repetitive or distracting sentence structure. Mix up simple, compound, and complex sentences judiciously, and make sure your usage works within the pace and structure of your scene. Avoid using sentence structure to artifically drive the story, however. While longer sentences slow down the pace, and short sentences can increase the tension, the sentence structure has to be appropriate to what is going on at that moment in your story.
- Cardboard or useless charcters. This is usually a symptom of the characters not being alive enough for the writer, or of the characters not having specific goals to move the story forward. If the character isn't integral to the story, don't include her. If the character isn't interesting enough to come alive for the reader, go back and ask yourself what makes this character an individual. Find out what she wants and how that goal puts her in opposition to at least one other character in the story.
- Lack of plot. If nothing much is happening in the first few pages of the manuscript, you probably haven't started in the right place or there isn't enough plot to keep the reader hooked. And for the record, having something happen doesn't require car chases and death defying leaps. Important things can happen quietly between two characters, or a character can have an important realization all by herself. What happens isn't as important as the actions and interactions between your characters that ultimately take them somewhere other than where they were when your story began.
- Awkward pacing. Does the pace within your scene move too slow or too fast? Does your character need time to reflect a little afterward? Does the reader need time to adjust before moving into another tense scene? Are your scenes building in intensity or do you let them fall flat? Are you keeping your reader reminded of the character's problem? If you've let your tension dissipate, go back and add a teaser or a decision that makes it clear the danger or conflict isn't over.
- Invisible settings. Modern readers don't always want a lot of description, but your action has to take place somewhere. Think of each scene as a movie set. What do the characters interact with? What sparks a memory or emotion in them? Make sure these elements are unique, but remember Chekhov's gun on the wall: whatever you include in your description needs to be there for a reason.
- Grating sound or voice. Even if the sentence structure is technically correct, sentences can just sound wrong. If they don't flow when read aloud, if their rhythm is off, the reader can't enjoy the story. Voice is a similar issue. If the narrator's tone sounds too old, too scholarly, too self-consciously witty, or too mean, the reader won't be able to see beyond it to the action and emotion of your work. Try tape recording the first five to ten pages of your manuscript and playing them back. If they sound off or uncomfortable, it isn't time to send your work out quite yet.
Just as every writer has a unique style and process, we all have an individual approach toward self-editing. Working with a critique group is one of the best ways to catch problems both small and large. It can also help you identify habits and problems to add to your own checklist. But ultimately, you are the one responsible for your work, so before sending it off to an editor or agent, always give it one, last pre-flight check.
Helpful Additional Resources:
The First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile by Noah LukemanThe Elements of Style by William Strunk and E. B. White
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King
What Agents Hate from Writer's Digest
7 Reason's Agents Stop Reading Your First Chapter from Guide to Literary Agents