It’s easier to find flaws in someone else’s work than it is in your own. There’s a lot you can do to minimize errors and make your writing shine, but another set of eyes on your work is always a good idea.
We’ve posted plenty of advice about the editing process, the need for editing, and the perils of not having your text edited. Still, some writers seem unconvinced. As someone who works both as a writer and an editor, I have seen the publication process from both sides. I’ve come to realize there are certain errors and tendencies I have difficulty seeing in my own writing that would stand out if I were editing someone else’s work.
I suppose this is an obvious one, but typos have an insidious ability to blend in and become difficult to see in your own work. And typos go beyond simple misspellings, especially as those will be caught by any word processing app.
Common typos include missing words, duplicate words (which can be particularly difficult to spot if they occur on a line break), and misused homophones.
Missing word: “We walked into the urgent care, but their waiting room was so we turned and left.”
Duplicate words: “We walked into the the urgent care, but their waiting room was so full we turned and left.”
Misused homophone: “We walked into the urgent care, but there waiting room was so full we turned and left.”
All of the mistakes above are easy to include in your writing, and when missed once, tend to evade subsequent reviews. There’s also the sneaky missing letter that turns one word into another which won’t show up as a misspelling in spell-check and might escape your detection.
I’ve been called out for mistakes like this that have been posted to this blog (like I said, it’s harder to see it in your own writing). In one instance, the word “exiting” was used in place of “exciting,” and I always double check to be sure “you” isn’t used in place of “your” (as in, “get you free PDF download”). That typo is a recurring one for me, may be a matter of my inelegant typing technique. It’s likely you may have a similar words or sets of letters that are prone to get missed or transposed.
Adverbs, and even adjectives, are on many editors’ list as inherently evil and having no place in writing. There’s a subtle moment in Spotlight, the fantastic film about The Boston Globe‘s investigative journalist unit, where Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), the Globe‘s new editor, takes a pencil and crosses out a word in a print-out of a story in the presence of the Spotlight team. This gets a noticeable reaction from the journalists. Baron looks over the paper and says, “Another adjective.”
I’m not on the “adverbs are evil” bandwagon, but I have edited pieces where they seem to be part of every sentence, and I appreciate the disdain readers and editors have for them when used without restraint. It’s analogous to using spices in your cooking. The right amount, in the hands of a seasoned chef, can make the difference in the meal. Too much, and you can barely taste anything else.
In just about every case, when adverbs are removed, the clarity of the sentence and the conveyance of meaning is increased. When self-editing, try removing as many adverbs (and even adjectives) as you can and read the piece again. You’ll probably (!) find it’s a tighter, more expressive bit of writing by subtraction.
3. Convoluted descriptions
In the hands of a skilled writer, flowery prose or the use of 25¢ words can improve the communication of information or the enjoyment of a passage (or book). When overused, misused, or just used inelegantly, it has the opposite effect.
There are times, as an editor, when I have to stop and re-read a sentence or passage because it didn’t make sense on the first read. Sometimes, it’s me missing an emphasis or reference and when I re-read more attentively, I find the passage is right on the money. More often, though, there’s something in the construction or use of words (or misuse of a word) that requires a fix. When you’re writing, if you’re not 100 percent sure of the meaning of a word or phrase, or you find yourself struggling with the wording of a descriptive passage, mark that for review.
I’ll sometimes highlight text in orange as I write so I know I might need to revise it at a later time rather than toil over it in the moment. And with online resources at your fingertips, there’s no reason not to get the subtle meaning of a word right rather than use something you’re “pretty sure” is correct.
4. Get to the point
Did your character “begin to cry” or did he cry at the news of his father’s death? Did you “finally start to realize” something or did you realize it? Was your heroine “tasked with the job of being a caregiver” or was she “tasked as caregiver?” A direct and concise approach is most often the best choice.
And if you are stating something, state it boldly. I find that writers, even experienced ones, will qualify a statement so as not to corner themselves. But that tends to undermine the credibility or power of a statement or observation. You ought not twist the truth or sensationalize things, but you also don’t want to water down a salient point to avoid upsetting your readers and miss the opportunity to offer a provocative insight or opinion.
5. Be consistent
I’ve seen characters have the spelling of their names change and even go from she to he in the course of a story. There are many reasons why this can happen, but when submitting a final draft for review, these are inconsistencies that can undermine your credibility or a reader’s enjoyment. I’ve written a book that has multitudes of characters and places with names that range from the ordinary to the fantastic, and I have a bulletin board with the spellings of names and other pertinent info (eye color, relationships to other characters) posted at my workstation so I can keep those details in order.
And there are other details to keep track of as well. If you’re going to have titles for your chapters, make sure you do that for every chapter. If you’re going to include epigraphs (quotes that head a chapter or section), make sure the formatting and attribution is consistent throughout — and do it for every chapter in the book.
6. Serial or no?
Like a good politician, my stance on the serial comma has evolved over time. Many years ago, I was of the mind that any unnecessary punctuation should be left out of writing, and I believed that comma was superfluous and even pretentious. As I’ve written and edited more and more over the years, I have become an advocate of the serial comma. Without it, there is too much room for misunderstanding and miscommunication.
That said, the use of the serial comma is a choice, and once you’ve committed to using it or not, that should remain consistent throughout.
7. Strange idioms
I’ve become rather fascinated by the use of idioms, mostly because I use them quite a bit and, upon reflection, realize I don’t always know where they come from. Again, the Internet is a remarkable resource to clarify things.
For instance, if you read that someone had “free reign” over something, that would seem to make sense, right? Well, the correct use of the term is “free rein” (even outside of its use here, many writers confuse “reign” and “rein”). If you’re not sure what the correct use of an idiom is, find a trustworthy source, do a little research and get it right, or find another way to express your thought.
8. Dialogue tags
This, like the adverb police, is another topic that can raise the blood pressure of an editor. No doubt, as a creative writer, using “he said” or “she said” after every line of dialogue can seem boring. As a reader, it’s practically invisible and conveys the information simply.
Now, again, there are plenty of times where “she whispered” or “he retorted” may be a more expressive choice, and peppering these options into your writing is just fine. But using dialogue tags as a means of flexing your creative muscles typically ends up being distracting.
Not to mention that a dialogue tag may not always be necessary. If you’ve established there’s a conversation happening between two characters, there’s a point where it’s clear who is saying what and you may not need to attribute every line. Or, if a character asks, “Mary, what do you think?” Mary’s response may not require a tag.
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There is plenty more you can do to see your writing with fresh eyes, like critically reviewing your work the next day or reading in different formats — on screen and in print, for example — to get a different perspective. With this blog, I usually work in Word, then a text doc, and then do a final read online. But I always ask for someone else to give it a look to make sure I didn’t miss something that blended into the fabric of the prose.
How Editing Software Helps Improve Your Manuscript
Book Editing Insights From A Professional
[Bracket] shorthand helps you draft with lightning speed
Nine Idioms Traced To Their Origins
Dialogue Tags: When “Said” Doesn’t Say Enough [Infographic]