Karin has a unique perspective: she has considerable experience working for a trade publisher in Australia and is also a freelance editor.
On top of that, her own work (both fiction and non-fiction for children and adults, as well as poetry) has been published the traditional way and has been self-published; she really has seen all sides of the equation.
Karin is also my editor. I have first-hand experience of her impressive pleonasm-hunting skills as well as her uncanny ability to turn my sopa de letras into intelligible prose (no mean feat).
If you missed the first installment in this series from UK author and editor Harry Bingham – on the importance of editing and developing your own self-editing skills – that’s here. For the rest of you, here’s Karin:
Self-editing: back to basics, part I
Let me start off by stating that there is no such thing as self-editing to a publishable level (at least not without a team of skilled beta readers); I would say this even if my livelihood did not depend on editing. I scour my own text for errors before I submit it to my publisher, but I am still always surprised at what my in-house colleagues pick up when they read through my manuscripts. As much as writers attempt to edit their own work, and should for the purposes of enhancing their drafts, I firmly believe they are incapable of doing so as effectively as a professional editor because they lack the necessary objectivity to assess their own writing.
The human brain also employs all kind of tricks to convince writers that what they put down on the page is correct (if not Man Booker Prize material). Taht yuo cna raed tihs at lal is prcaticlaly a mriacle! But such is the power of the human brain. Read a whole paragraph of that and soon you’ll be able to wade through even the most atrocious, unedited drivel and make perfect sense of it. It is little wonder that most authors—even those who are competent self-editors at a draft level—miss a few transposed letters, misspelled words, homonyms, or misplaced modifiers. It’s all thanks to the human brain’s excellent ability to decode and process what the eyes see.
However, knowing that some Indies cannot afford to employ a professional editor, and that any self-editing you undertake will streamline the editorial process and vastly improve your writing, what follows are five of the most common editorial issues I find in manuscripts that cross my desk. Many professional Indies will scoff at this list, declaring it small fry—and much of it is—but you’d be surprised how often authors make these mistakes.
Wonderfully florid, flamboyant, descriptive and wordy verbiage
Some ambitious authors regularly find unnecessary cause to heartily and readily pepper their wordy prose with long-winded, superfluous, and exceedingly boring adjectives and adverbs, continually. See what I did there?
This kind of writing constitutes an adjective and adverb overload. Adjective overload is usually found in descriptive passages, and adverb overload in dialogue. When most of us write, we are relaying a scene we have visualized in our minds. As a result, we sometimes think that providing all of the rich detail we imagine will make the scene more vivid for the reader, who will feel almost as if they are watching a movie. Unfortunately, it rarely turns out that way.
Reading is a different exercise to watching a movie. Providing the reader’s brain with too much visual or sensory information too quickly can actually befuddle it. Rather than getting a clear picture of what is happening in a scene, the reader gets a fuzzy, out-of-focus mess. Because they’re not sure what they will need to recall later, readers will be trying hard to process all of that information, which distracts them from the real task at hand—comprehending. The brain just isn’t able to hold all of that visual detail in there while you get to the “verbs” (action), so it just switches off.
Take for instance:
The girl walked into the long, dim, stone-floored corridor lit only by the softly glowing beams of candles in carved pewter candlestick holders that lined the grey stone walls where richly embroidered tapestries danced in the slight draught. The candlelight flickered off her beautiful emerald-green, floor-length dress made out of Chinese silk flecked through with gold, which left one of her pale shoulders bare, revealing the small scar where she had been nicked by Zhung-ze’s katana as a small girl. At the end of the gloomy hall stood a shadowy assassin wearing an ominous black robe and holding a giant, heavy bronze battle-axe engraved with the curious symbols of the Wey Tu Mutc clan. (116 words)
Phew! There’s a lot going on in this scene, isn’t there? Short answer: not really. The only action is a girl with an interesting scar walking into a candlelit corridor with an assassin at the end—that’s it. There is a lot of good sensory information in there, but it is obscured by all of the padding and setting. It could be more effectively written as:
The girl’s green silk gown swished on the stone floor as she entered the corridor. Flickering light from candelabras lining the walls made her pale skin glisten, illuminating the small scar on her shoulder where Zhung-ze’s Katana had nicked her as a child. At the end of the corridor, the assassin’s black robes billowed in the draught. He lifted his heavy axe in anticipation. On the bronze weapon, the engraved symbols of the Wey Tu Mutc clan shone in the candlelight. (82 words)
Even with thirty-four words pruned off the original, I think you’ll agree that the second version provides a clearer visual image of the scene? Of course, the above passage is far from perfect, but it’s simply to illustrate my point. Ninety per cent of the manuscripts I get sent that are over 130,000 words are rife with adjective and adverb overload.
Some authors (such as Stephen King in On Writing) suggest ditching adverbs entirely and even go as far as insisting there is never any reason to use them. I disagree. Sometimes adverbs can add spice to your writing while allowing you to remain succinct. Take the following example:
“Because I love her,” Dan said dispassionately.
The therapist said nothing. Removing her glasses, she carefully wiped the lenses with a tissue while waiting for him to continue. When he did not, after several seconds she asked, “Really?”
There are three adverbs in this passage (dispassionately, carefully and really). I believe all of them have some role to play. If the author were to remove “dispassionately,” the reader might well assume Dan’s statement were true, which would remove the subtext of this passage. As it is, the adverb provides a clue that Dan’s words and his feelings are not in accordance. The therapist “carefully” wiping her lenses helps flesh out her character. Although this is the most dispensable adverb in this example, it underscores that she is a thorough, analytical person. She is not giving her glasses a cursory swipe with a tissue. [Incidentally, the glasses also provide metonymy here. They represent her clarity of purpose and foresight, her ability to peer more closely into Dan’s thoughts and feelings to see the truth about his life.] The final adverb here (really) demonstrates that she is aware Dan is not being truthful, even if he does not realise it. It could perhaps be replaced with “Do you?” But I think that “Do you?” would be slightly less accusatory. She is calling him on it, so “really” makes that more clear.
There is a way to recast this passage to remove all of these adverbs and still keep some undercurrents in the conversation between Dan and his shrink, but it would require more words. E.g.
“Because I love her,” Dan said, knowing he did not mean it.
The therapist said nothing. Removing her glasses, she wiped the lenses with a tissue, careful to cleanse them of even the smallest smear, while waiting for him to continue. When he did not, after several seconds she asked, “Do you?”
Some writers who have bought into the “Adverbs are bad M’kay” school of writing advice will prefer the second example; others will prefer the first. In defence of adverb haters, in many cases adverbs are used as to prop up weak nouns, especially when it comes to dialogue attribution. It is true they can often be removed to strengthen text. Following are some common culprits:
“Get out!” he said loudly. (Substitute “he shouted” or remove the attribution as the exclamation mark and context make it clear he is shouting.)
“I love you,” she said softly. (Substitute “she whispered”).
“You complete me,” she said honestly. (This adverb is best removed unless there is a specific reason for doubting her honesty in the first place, e.g. she is a compulsive liar.)
She ran swiftly toward him. (She sprinted, she bolted, she pelted, she tore)
He walked slowly. (He ambled, he loped, he strolled)
He smiled happily. (He beamed or he grinned).
Note: Take care not to use “he/she smiled” after dialogue, e.g. “Whatcha doing,” he smiled. No one is capable of “smiling” words. However, you can insert it as an action following dialogue by using a full stop and capital letter in place of a comma, e.g. “Whatcha doing?” He smiled. Persistently using dialogue tags that are impossible is the mark of the amateur.]
“I hate you,” she said spitefully. Now, I know I’m going to cop some flak for this, but in my own writing I would use “she spat” here. But … but … You said you can’t smile words, so how can you spit them? I can hear you flak-throwers thinking. My answer to that is: I’m sure all of us have been spat on accidentally at least once when someone we were chatting with was being over emphatic. Also, language doesn’t have to be literal all of the time. Another option might be: “I hate you,” she said, enunciating each word. Or, if you really want to push boundaries: “I. Hate. You.” She spat out each word.
A worthwhile exercise is to set aside one edit of your draft where you do nothing but go through your manuscript and pinpoint adjectives and adverbs. Assess whether each is necessary and identify the role it plays. If an adverb is not enhancing meaning, aiding characterisation or providing subtext, strike it out. Where an adjective follows a string of other adjectives (especially if you have three or more adjectives in a sentence) delete the weakest one.
Not knowing, where to put commas, some authors believe, that the best way to avoid seeming as if they don’t know, is, just to, put them in, entirely randomly. ßDo not do this! I’ve read a lot of comments on forums suggesting that commas are entirely subjective. The rules are: there are no rules. Right? Wrong!
While “rule” is too strong a word, there are conventions regarding comma use. Just thwacking a comma down whenever you pause for breath, or whenever you freeze up momentarily when tapping away at the keyboard, is not going to cut it. Some commas, however, are a matter of personal preference and are called “pausal” commas. Old-school grammarians mostly favour pausal commas; more modern grammarians tend to advocate using as few commas as necessary to achieve clarity. For some good examples of where NOT to put commas, check out my blog post Don’t Put a Comma in your Ear. For some examples of where commas are necessary, click here.
One regular error is the comma splice, which is also known as a run-on sentence. It occurs when a comma is incorrectly used to join two independent clauses in place of a coordinating conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, or so) or in place of an appropriate punctuation mark (such as a semi-colon, colon, or em dash). An example is: He ran to the bus, it was running late.
Because both of these clauses constitute short sentences—that is, they both have a subject (a noun or pronoun, in this case he and it) and a predicate (a verb form, in this case ran and running)—this is incorrect. This sentence could be correctly written as:
He ran to the bus; it was running late.
He ran to the bus: it was running late.
He ran to the bus—it was running late.
Or, perhaps best of all:
He ran to the bus, which was running late.
Any one of these is better than the original splice, although the first, second and last are the most standard.
Modifiers Gone Mad
Poor comma usage can also lead to another editorial bugbear: the misplaced modifier. Modifiers are usually adverbial or participial phrases that cause problems when they unintentionally modify something other than what the writer intended. Groucho Marx once quipped, “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I’ll never know.” The problem with Marx’s joke (or at least part of the problem!) is that the modifying phrase (in my pajamas) is positioned close to the object of this sentence (elephant) rather than to the subject (I), which is what it should be modifying. To make it correct, it would require recasting. E.g.
One morning, while/whilst still in my pajamas, I shot an elephant.
[I say while/whilst because it depends on which side of that debate you squat on. Old school is to use whilst; new school would be to go with while, which is now commonly used in both British and American English.]
Participial verb forms regularly create an insidious type of misplaced modifier known as a “dangling participle.” Participle verbs are -ing form verbs, e.g. Running, smiling, dancing, glancing. When a subject does not immediately follow a participle phrase at the start of a sentence, a dangling participle can occur. Take, for instance:
Glancing up at the clock, the photograph on the mantelpiece caught my eye.
The subject in this sentence is unintentionally the photograph, which is accidentally performing both of the actions—glancing and “catching” (in “caught”, the past participle of catch). To make this sentence correct, it would need to be reworded:
As I glanced up at the clock, the photograph on the mantelpiece caught my eye.
Or, Glancing up at the clock, I noticed the photograph on the mantelpiece.
You could also rewrite it as: Glancing up at the clock, my eye was caught by the photograph on the mantelpiece. But that sounds awkward because even though the subject is now “my eye” the photograph is still performing the action of the verb “caught.” You might also try: Glancing up at the clock, my eyes were drawn to the photograph on the mantelpiece. Or even just: I glanced up at the clock, but my eyes were drawn to the photograph on the mantelpiece.
The good thing about misplaced modifiers and dangling participles is that, once you have identified them, there are several easy fixes. Spotting them in the first place is usually the tricky part! For more on misplaced modifiers, visit this page.
Some adverbs also need careful consideration when it comes to their role as modifiers. Mostly, adverbs are freewheeling. They are the only words that can move around a sentence without throwing too much into disarray. Take:
The cat climbed quickly up the wall.
Quickly, the cat climbed up the wall.
The cat climbed up the wall quickly.
The cat quickly climbed up the wall.
We’ve no issues there; they all make perfect sense, although some are slightly more euphonious. But some adverbs “limit” or constrain the words they are close to. An example is the adverb “only,” which should be placed just before the word it modifies. For example:
Go to school only if you are well.
Not: Only go to school if you are well
The latter implies that if you are well, you should do nothing else but go to school.
Those are the first three things I notice in a new manuscript that hint an author is still learning the craft. Of course, there are many more, and Dave has been kind enough to let me waffle on about the other two at length on Friday this week, so tune in then to learn about some basic Dialogue Dilemmas and Wrong Word Whoopsies. In the meantime, keep on scribbling.
Karin Cox is an Australian editor, poet and author and, like many women, is doing her best to be a modern Wonder Woman (minus the cape and the gold lasso). Trained as a professional editor, and with more than fourteen years in the trade publishing industry under her belt, she edits and writes in her “spare time” while being a fulltime mum to her infant daughter and to a black cat with the improbable name of “Ping Pong.”
A huge thanks to Karin for this, and I’m looking forward to the final installment on Friday. For those who can’t wait until then, Karin’s blog is here and you can find more information on her editing services here.
If you are interested in checking out her work, she has self-published two titles. Cage Life is a collection of shorts available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords, and Growth – a poetry collection – is also available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords.
Karin also has a string of trade published titles (too many to list here, but you can see some of the covers above), and you can get more details on those here.
Australia, given its far-flung location, is a little ahead of us, but I’m sure Karin will be along to answer questions in the comments, once she has dispensed with the Australia Day tradition of eating Kangaroo Burgers and wrestling the Prime Minister.