By popular demand--
This is something I'd never really contemplated before becoming an editor, but every editor I've spoken to since knew immediately what I meant. That is, "What tips you off about a submission that this isn't an experienced writer? What are the marks of the amateur?"
Now I don't mean to be insulting here. These marks don't actually mean that the writer is an amateur, rather that we see these mostly in submissions by newer or inexperienced authors, and so we sort of automatically assume.... well. What's important is to make sure you don't inadvertently trigger our "oh, amateur" assessment.
So anyway, when I was in England (very nice-- I want to live there, seriously, and I've narrowed my future home choice down to Somerset, Wiltshire, or the Yorkshire Dales), I asked my friends who had edited what they would put on this list.
Just to get started, and please add on or ask questions as we go:
1) Improper dialogue formatting. That's first for me, because, uh, if you've been reading for decades and never noticed there's a comma after the quote tag and before the quote mark, and a capital letter starting the quote, and the punctuation INSIDE the quote mark, and a new paragraph with a change in speakers, well, you are apparently not really absorbing writing conventions as you read. That will make the work of editing this rather onerous.
2) A whole lot of introductory participial phrases. One or two or three, sure. Sometimes the meaning of the sentence calls for that. But for whatever reason, whenever there are many intro participles on a first page, the submission proves to be a little amateurish in several ways. Hey, I don't make the rules. I'm just reporting.
3) Lynn said semicolons, but really, I'm okay with the occasional semicolon, even in fiction. (Theresa is sighing-- another round in the Great Semicolon Battle.) But more than one or two semicolons on the first couple pages? Trying too hard to sound mature, are you? And improperly used semicolons? Even worse. It looks like a 10-year-old wearing mascara.
4) Clumsy quote-tagging. Everyone agreed on this. I am the most lenient (yes, really-- I am a positive libertine compared with Some Sticklers Recently in Yorkshire), as I don't mind the infrequent "hissed" or "grumbled" if that's in fact what the speaker sounded like. But the default for tagging your dialogue should be "he/she said" or an action.
He adjusted the rearview mirror. "I think we're being followed."
A bunch of "creative" quote tags-- He intoned, she simpered, he ejaculated (I couldn't help it, sorry!), she expostulated, she exclaimed, he temporized-- indicates to me that the writer is more obsessed with the tags than with the actual thing being said by the speaker.
5) More than a couple homophone mistakes (then/than, here/hear, etc.). This suggests the writer is making too extensive use of spell-check rather than actually READING the sentences.
6) Starting the passage with whatever the latest trend is-- an unattributed line of dialogue, a "cute meet" and (this is important, because a good writer might do this and I'd like it) doing it badly. Yeah, those are so old they should be interred with Milton Berle, but I'm still seeing them, and what they say is, "I don't care about what makes my story unique. I want to sound like all the others."
7) Starting with odd stuff that we might put in the published edition, if we got that far, but shouldn't be in a submission (acknowledgments, dedications, a history lesson). But you know, I do like maps. Go figure.
8) Too many names in the first couple paragraphs. Who is the POV character? That's the name we need.
9) POV shifts on the first page. This presages a book full of headhopping that I really don't want to have to fix. Not to mention this must be a submitter who has not read my many posts and articles (and book!) about POV. :) (I am NOT against multiple POV-- but keep it controlled, and open in one POV and stick with it awhile, okay? So I know you know how to do that? (Again, a good writer might have a good reason for doing this, but I'll know the difference when I see it.)
What else? We'll make a list.