When I became an editor for Third Person Press, I had no idea what a vast improvement being this role would make to my own writing. Poring over dozens of stories in the last few years has honed my ability to spot errors in my work as well as others. If I had one piece of advice to writers who submit work to us, it would be to revise more ruthlessly before submitting. However, if you can’t spot the problems and errors in your own work, you can’t improve it. To this end, I offer my SPOT list. Just for fun, let’s say S.P.O.T. is an acronym standing for: Solving Problems On Time. “On time,” in this case means before sending it to a publisher and therefore before you receive that first rejection letter. Remember, when you do get a rejection letter, 90+% of the time, it won’t tell you what’s wrong with your story. Do the work on the front end. You’ll still get rejections, but you’ll have much more faith that your story really is good enough and that will sustain you until you find the right spot for it. This list assumes that you have already written a story that has well-drawn characters who have understandable motivations and actions and a interesting plot that has a beginning, middle and end. If your story doesn’t have these things going for it, the rest won’t make much difference in its acceptability. The best way to spot most of these is to read your work out loud. Once you get to the nitty-gritty line edits, read it backwards, one page at a time. You’ll see typos and errors that your brain won’t notice if you read it normally. S.P.O.T. list
Verbs: Make sure your verb tenses are consistent and make sense. Check every one. Rout out passive voice whenever possible (had, would, could) as well as excessive use of forms of “to be” (mainly, is and was).
Telling: Occasionally you have to move the story forward with small bits of telling, but if it’s more than two or three sentences, find a way for your character to demonstrate. SHOW IT.
Info Dumps: This is usually back story. Often it’s what the writer needed to know in order to write the story not what the reader needs to know to visualize and enjoy the plot. Cut out non-essential information, intersperse the rest throughout the story (see also: Telling).
Flat Writing: Areas you ‘phoned in.’ (In the first draft of my novels, it’s always Chapter Seven. 🙂 ) This happens to all of us and is tricky to spot. Best advice: Read your story out loud.
Transitions: Be sure your characters aren’t dropped into places or situations that haven’t been set up. Provide your reader with breadcrumbs so they don’t lose their way. Put in a scene break if you’re starting a whole new situation.
Plot Holes & Logical Inconsistencies: Sometimes we can’t see these but the best way is to be honest with yourself. If you feel slightly unsure about a plot point or if there’s some part of the writing that causes you to stop or stumble, deal with it now. If you think someone else isn’t going to notice, you’re wrong.
Phony Dialogue and Over-writing: These go together because there’s an attempt by the writer to give too much information in the wrong way (see also: Telling). Dialogue has to sound natural (though in order to sound natural in writing, it generally has to be more succinct than the way people actually talk). Cut information and dialogue that keeps the story from flowing. This is also a good time to point out that any dialogue tag other than “says/said” or “asks/asked” is risky. This is because those words are almost invisible to the reader. Other tags like “interjected” or “peppered” may seem descriptive but they distract and take the reader out of the story.
Tell-tale Adverbs: If you often end a dialogue tag with an adverb, you are telling the reader what the emotions are, not showing (see also: Telling) (is there a pattern here?). This is a matter of degree. Adverbs are allowed, but use sparingly. Try to show what the character is feeling. Examples – “…she said, morosely,” becomes “…she said. Her mouth drooped, echoing the downward curve of the umbrella she held over her head. “…he responded, suspiciously,” becomes, “he responded, his eye darting like erratic ping-pong balls.”
Narrator Intrusion: This is tricky. Does your narrator speak like one of the characters? Even in first person narration, you need to be aware of and make a distinction between what is narrative and what are the character’s thoughts. Also, in first person, reduce the number of “I’s” used. Find another way to say the same thing.
Floating Characters & the Smell Test: Floating characters do a lot of talking to each other without being grounded in their world. Intersperse bits of information that tells us where they are, what the environment around them is like and what their senses are picking up. This brings us to “The Smell Test” which is more than smell, it’s about incorporating all the senses into your writing. “The breeze, while refreshing in its warmth, repeatedly whipped hair into her eyes and mouth.” “He idly played with the peas left on his plate.” “She caught a whiff of cilantro as she walked past the restaurant. The smell zapped her back to the day she met….”
Repeated words: This seems nit-picky but is important because using the same word too often in the same vicinity causes a careful reader to notice. This pulls them from the flow of your story and that is the last thing you want. Also, be careful about using an unusual word too often in the same work. It’s noticeable and causes the same reaction.
Spelling and correct usage, of course: Spell-check your work, but be aware that it won’t catch your confusion over “there, their and they’re” or lie/lay or past/passed or other usage errors. If you’ve had these problems corrected by other people in the past, make a list of your common errors, pin it on your bulletin board, and make sure you always check your work for them before sending it out.
It’s a lot, but don’t let yourself be overwhelmed. The more you write, the more you pay attention to these things, the more automatic some of them will become. It doesn’t mean you’ll be able to spot all your mistakes. It’s always easier to see them in someone else’s work, so trusted first readers are a vital part of the revision stage. However, your first drafts will improve and you won’t have as much work to do afterwards. And here’s the most important part: if you do your best to look for and solve the problems associated with these issues, your work will have a better chance of being published. End of story. 😉 Happy writing and good luck!
Feel free to copy this graphic as your reminder: