There is a lot to keep in mind when you write a novel, memoir, or other non-fiction book. Enthusiasm is great to have and necessary for getting that first draft and subsequent revisions done. But here are some common issues I frequently see in manuscripts from clients. Are any of them ones you need to watch for?

Let’s look at some technical matters.

Punctuation: Not everyone loves punctuation. Not everyone knows how to use it. If you don’t know how to use it and aren’t inclined to learn, be certain to use the services of an editor or proofreader. A literary agent or publisher wants to see the best copy you can submit. If you self-publish, your readers will appreciate proper punctuation. You see, in real life our hand gestures, vocal intonations, and facial expressions clarify our intended meaning of the words we use. In the written word, punctuation is one way we accomplish this.

And then there’s dialogue. Many writers do not know how to punctuate dialogue. As important as punctuation is in narrative, it is equally important in dialogue.

Fact Checking and Spelling: You can certainly use the spell-check feature, but you still have to make sure the right word is used. If you mean to write “I put my keys right there,” but type “their” or “they’re,” spell-check will only highlight the wrong word if it’s misspelled. The grammar feature may highlight it, but you may not notice it.

When it comes to fact checking, just do it. I’ve seen clients use business or brand names, universities or institutions, song or video titles, and so on, without verifying the correct names, titles, or spellings. With the Internet so available these days (or a phone directory or library reference desk), there’s no reason for this to happen. And you don’t want readers, including agents or publishers, to see that you didn’t go the distance to get such things right. It won’t speak well for you as a writer.

Space between Sentences: When everyone used typewriters, it was necessary to have two spaces between sentences. Now that most people use computers, only one space is needed. In fact, it’s now industry standard. You can also look at this from a monetary aspect: The extra spaces create extra pages. Extra pages cost more to print. A traditional publisher won’t allow it. If you self-publish in print, your cost and cost to readers will be more than it needs to be. Even if you self-publish an e-book, that extra space throughout your text will make the book longer than it should be.

Space between Paragraphs; Indents: I’ve noticed that some e-books don’t indent paragraphs. Instead, they include a space between paragraphs. This isn’t a requirement for e-book formatting, and traditional publishers usually make e-books look like print versions. But I will say that for print, it’s best if you indent each paragraph (5 spaces) and leave out the space between the paragraphs. Again, you can look at the economics of this: extra space equals extra pages that results in extra cost. If you intend to submit to a literary agent or publisher, make sure your paragraphs are indented (including dialogue) and there’s no space between paragraphs. This is what they expect and consider professional.

No Chapters or Too-Long Chapters: Some writers get so excited about writing they forget to use chapters (some forget to use paragraphs). Or they get so into writing they don’t notice how long their chapters are. One client’s first chapter of his manuscript was 42 single-spaced pages. In paperback, that comes out to something like twice that number of pages—way too long for a chapter. Even 42 print pages for a chapter is too long. In times past, when readers didn’t have TV or radio, much less electronic devices, they didn’t mind long books with long chapters. That’s not the way it is today. Readers want pace and punch. And the fact is that if a chapter is only a few to several pages long, or has scene breaks, readers will keep reading to see what happens next.

No Scene Changes or Breaks: When the next scene comes after an interval of “time” has passed since the last scene, or an entirely new scene is presented, this must be indicated to readers.

Mixed Themes/Scenes in the Same Paragraph: Often a writer gets everything down but not necessarily where it best belongs. Each paragraph is a scene unto itself, within a scene. Everything that occurs in the story through narrative or dialogue is to lead to the very next thing that is to or should occur. This holds true for paragraphs.

Tense: I’ve seen people start out in the right tense then slip out of it. Sometimes the writer starts in the wrong tense and stays there. This usually means the manuscript is written in synopsis form, rather than manuscript form. Example of proper tense, in third-person point of view (POV): Marcus walked to the window and peered at the shadowed form behind the oak tree. Example of improper tense: Marcus walks to the window and peers at the shadowed form behind the oak tree. The first example puts readers into the story. The second example reminds them they’re reading.

Overuse of Words or Use of Incorrect Words: There will be words you cannot avoid using often, but there are words that should not be used more than once in the same sentence or paragraph or even again in the entire story—because they stand out. Example: Marcus suddenly stood, alerted by a sudden noise. He walked to the window and peered out. Suddenly, a shadowed form moved behind the oak tree.

As for incorrect words—if you only think you know what a word means, please look it up in the dictionary to make certain it’s the right word for what you mean to say. I’d say use a thesaurus, which is good advice, but be sure to check the definition of the alternate word or words. One client used a thesaurus to find another word for sensual, found salacious, and kept using it, believing the two words meant exactly the same thing. I knew she likely didn’t know what the alternate word actually meant, because it wasn’t that kind of book. When I provided the definition and asked her if that truly was her intended meaning, she was so very glad I paid attention.

Hyphens: If you aren’t certain whether or not two words require a hyphen, are written as two words, or form one word, the dictionary is the place to go to confirm this. I suggest that unless you have access to a proper reference online, stick with the dictionary. If someone wrote it wrong online, you’ll copy them. You don’t want to do that.

Those were some of the most frequent technical matters I see. Now for several creative issues that crop up often.

Proper Attention to Timeline: Are you familiar with the term “pantser”? Pantsers are writers who write by “the seat of their pants”—meaning they write without planning or an outline. This is not a promotion for outlining, but to bring your awareness onto the necessity of paying attention to what’s happening in the story so that scenes and events are logical and or sequential. Novel writers should have at least these three things on hand, whether created beforehand or as they write: a list of characters, character sketches, and a timeline for scenes and events.

The timeline will help you keep events, and when they happen in time, in proper order. This includes keeping track of hours, days, weeks, months, and years, as needed for the story. Also track the ages of your main characters, the year the story takes place in, and the year or years of any back story instances. If your protagonist is now 40 and you want to use a scene from his high school prom, including a special song he danced to, make certain the song comes from that prom year, rather than a song that didn’t exist at that time. This holds true for any real-life and fictional events used in the story.

Character Development: I mentioned character sketches above. The more you know about your characters the easier it is to write them. You can look up my article about this on this site: “Developing Strong Characters.” I provided what’s needed to create a character sketch, which you should do for each significant character. You want to make them as real to readers as possible. Cardboard characters do not engage readers.

Setting: Give a sense of place for readers. Your characters do not act and speak in a void. They need place. Readers want place. See my article about setting on this site: “The Importance of Setting in a Novel.” Even memoirs and other non-fiction books require setting in some form.

Inconsistencies: You have to watch for these. They can sneak up on you when you’re more involved with writing than with paying attention to what you’re writing. If your protagonist is completely bald, don’t have him run his fingers through his hair.

Keeping It Real: In books like the Harry Potter series and other magical stories, a character that needs a hammer can have one appear out of nowhere. That’s acceptable to readers (believable), because of the type of book it is. If your non-magical detective needs a hammer and “suddenly” has one in his hand, it won’t work. He has to look for or see a hammer nearby and pick it up. Also, figure out how things can happen. Never write something like this: Marcus somehow got out of the locked room.


One solution that can assist every writer with these or other technical and creative matters is this: Read. Read more than you may be reading now. Read to enjoy a book, but also read or reread it with the attention of a writer. One disclaimer: There are a number of differences between American and British writing. This includes some spellings, punctuation, and grammar. Do not mix the two up. Example: Among is the American usage; amongst is British.

Also, understand from the start that manuscript revisions are required. Every best-selling author does revisions. Any new or indie writer who doesn’t understand this or do this does an injustice to him- or herself, the work, and readers. From best-selling author Michael Crichton: “Books aren’t written—they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.” One thing that will absolutely assist you is to read your original draft and each revision aloud to yourself. I ALWAYS advise my editing clients to read their revised manuscripts out loud. It makes a huge difference, as this brief article by Wayne Hughes states: .

Writing a book is an adventure. The more you understand about the process and are on board with it, the better experience you have and the better what you’ve written can be.

I wish you the best with your writing and progress.

Author's Bio: 

Joyce L. Shafer provides developmental/substantive editing and book evaluation services, especially but not solely, for new writers. Details about her services, plus her e-book for aspiring and new writers—Write, Get Published, and Promote and her special reports—How to Get an Agent for Your Book or Choose Self-Publishing Instead: Tips, Lists, and More and How to Get Your Book Started: Plan Your Work Then Work Your Plan are available at .