Revisions can be a challenging part of the writing process, but also one full of opportunity. In this delicate stage, authors look at their work from a fresh perspective. But knowing which mistakes to look out for can be a challenge. We’ve asked our fiction and nonfiction editors about common pitfalls they see in early drafts and how authors can overcome them.
Overly expository writing
At the intersection of imagination and early research, authors know who their characters are and have a grasp on the rules of their fictional worlds. But when you’re anxious to get the reader up to speed as quickly as possible, rushing through the story can cause a misstep. Be patient and trust in your own writing to show the reader who these characters are and what their world is like, rather than feeling the frantic need to tell them all at once. In first drafts, expository sections can serve as placeholders—some writers need to put things down on the page in order to discover insight into their own stories, and that works—but treat them as notes to yourself, not part of the story. In revisions, show your story with care and detail, and readers will be more engaged.
Dialogue without narration
It will come as no surprise that dialogue is an important part of your story. However, sometimes writers create scenes full of dialogue but void of physical actions or narration. Many writers imagine characters speaking to each other, and end up transcribing the conversation without taking into account the context. This technique is a perfect way to build a scene, but afterward it’s good to go back in and think about what the characters are doing, where they’re sitting, what they’re noticing, and what they’re thinking. Use that narration to flesh out their world and amplify the emotions they feel while talking.
Exposition through unnatural dialogue
By mixing the two missteps above, you can create an entirely new pitfall. This happens when a writer attempts to get the reader up to speed by using a conversation that wouldn’t naturally happen between two people. When you want to get information across while avoiding too much exposition in your prose, the natural response is to put more information into your dialogue. It’s a good idea in theory, but it’s important to put on your reader hat and make sure the information you give is written in a way that fits the story, rather than just filling in gaps for the reader.
Not thinking about your audience
Having a clear audience in mind is one of the top five things our editors look for in a rough draft. But a common mistake writers make is forgetting to think about their audience and what draws them to pick up a book in the first place. Readers of prescriptive nonfiction, for example, see books as tools to help them improve their lives. As a result, the most successful authors in this space think about their readers’ needs and how to meet them. Ask yourself: “Who is my likely reader?” and “What advice or knowledge can I offer that he or she can’t get elsewhere?”
Failing to draw out the lesson
The best writers of practical nonfiction pepper their books with engaging stories and anecdotes. This results in a richer reading experience, and, more important, it helps readers better absorb the material. Facts and pointers are great, but at the end of the day, readers remember the human stories. However, offering those stories without expanding on the lesson is one of the easier pits to fall into, and it can result in confused readers. Never assume a reader immediately recognizes the point you’re trying to make.
Overuse of jargon
Successful nonfiction authors are, by definition, experts in their subject matter. But with this title can come the tendency to overuse jargon or professional lingo, or to explain things in a way that’s difficult for a layperson to understand. It all comes back to one concept: the importance of knowing your readers. What is their background? How much do they already know about the subject matter? When you connect with readers and develop a relatable but unique author voice, you can become a permanent part of your readers’ lives.
The writing process is full of pitfalls that writers of all experience levels can slip into, but great stories are made by how you address and overcome them. Whether by focusing on showing your story to readers or drawing out the lesson for a richer reading experience, you will end up with a stronger story by watching out for these pitfalls in revisions. And in this way, your readers will stay engaged and learn from your words.
Phil Stamper-Halpin is Manager of Publishing Development and Author Platforms for Penguin Random House. He wrote this article together with editors from several publishing imprints.