Helga Schier, independent writing and publishing consultant and founder of Withpenandpaper.com, recently gave a brilliant presentation at the Writer’s Digest Conference covering the trials and tribulations of book editors. More specifically, she eloquently and succinctly outlined a list of the top ten errors editors hate — and often see — the most. For the writers in the room, this was a gold mine of valuable information and I would like to share what I learned.
First and foremost, there are three levels of editing and they should all build upon each other.
- Editing that deals with the surface structure of the words on your page – copy-editing.
- Editing that deals with style and voice, as well as, tightening your manuscript by getting rid of unnecessary sections – line editing.
- Editing that deals with ways to make your world come to life, including ways to create your characters, build your world, and write good dialogue – conceptual editing.
Before you hand your book to an editor, you should have already gone through these three levels of review…
The Basics: Writing
1. Editors hate it when it’s clear that you never ran that spell-check.
These are things everyone can fix. This level deals with spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Your words are your tools so make sure they are in good working order. Some may argue that editors should care more about the story and characters. This is true, but these kinds of mistakes greatly distract readers from understanding and absorbing the book. Your job as an author is to take the reader by the hand and take them on a journey through the story. Bad grammar or spelling mistakes detract and sway from that journey.
2. Editors hate it when you serve leftovers.
- Plot or character inconsistencies
- Timeline issues
A good way to keep this from happening is to run a second reader check. Give your book to someone who will critically read it and ask them to report on things that don’t make sense to them.
Beyond the Basics: Writing in Style
3. Editors hate it when the writing is heavier than a ten-ton-truck.
- Inflated sentences – polish your sentences, don’t use unnecessary lead-ins. Get to the point or meat of the sentence quickly.
- Stilted language – you want to meet your readers through your work and you want to call the readers attention to your story or argument. Unnecessary language reminds readers that they are actually reading and takes them away from being immersed in your world.
- Overuse of adjectives and adverbs – makes a story feel cumbersome and lazy. Most adjective and adverb phrases don’t do the description justice.
4. Editors hate it when style isn’t really style but writing in your comfort zone.
- Repetitive use of vocabulary
- Repetitive sentence structure and length
Every writer has a set of words that they fall back on and don’t often notice unless they specifically go looking for them. Remedy: make a list of your most used words/phrases and go through your manuscript hunting them down. Make sure your characters use their favorite words not yours.
Vary the length of the length and structure of sentences to provide a unique mix for the readers. Also, allow your characters to use varied sentence structure depending on their personality, background, and environment in which they find themselves. Step outside your comfort zone and find your voice.
5. Editors hate clichés. Except when they don’t.
- Innovate and personalize clichéd images and comparisons.
- Use clichés and stereotypes as character markers.
- Turn stereotypes upside down to define a personality or relationship.
Leave trusted clichés behind. Clichés are predictable and writing should never be predictable. Replace established clichés with your own creative ones. These images should be new and personal but, not obscure to your readers. You want your readers to turn the pages because they can’t wait to see what is beyond the next paragraph.
Far Beyond the Basics: Writing to make your world come to life
6. Editors hate it when characters resemble cardboard cutouts.
Don’t let your characters be predictable and don’t give your character’s entire back story all at once. Readers can’t digest that volume of information and the story comes to a screeching halt with all suspension of disbelief gone. Giving the character’s back story is not the same as creating and developing a character that comes to life. You want fully developed characters with their own psychological make-up, who have a past, hopes for the future, and most importantly, a motivation or reason for their actions.
7. Editors hate it when the narrative tells rather than shows.
- Scenes need to show how characters act and interact.
- Narrative needs to observe, not comment.
Show don’t tell, but this does not mean that you should shy away from the description. “Show don’t tell” refers to the way your characters should interact. Scenes cannot happen in a vacuum. Your narrative must develop the scene. Don’t simply say, “the restaurant was loud”, rather describe the conversation at the bar, the waiter dropping the tray, the phone ringing off the hook at the host stand. If you show something well enough, there is no reason to tell the reader.
8. Editors hate it when dialogues turn into speeches.
- Dialogue requires that people interact with each other verbally and non-verbally.
- Dialogue passes on information.
- Dialogue defines characters and their relationships.
- Dialogue exposes tension and conflict.
Dialogue in a novel is polished speech that serves certain functions…it shows relationship, moves the story along, creates scenes, etc. None of your characters should ever lecture or pontificate. Dialogue should always have at least two people interacting verbally and non-verbally. The words a character chooses says a lot about the character’s background, personality, and status. Again, words should be theirs, not yours. Dialogue words must also fit the situation. Someone will speak differently given a different situation.
People don’t necessarily say what they mean or mean what they say. There is often a subtext. Do the characters have a relationship? Trust each other? Hate each other? Have a secret crush? This all can come through in the subtext of the dialogue.
9. Anything goes! But just because you say doesn’t make it so.
- Events must be caused by earlier events and lead to the next.
- Natural story development depends on the interplay of plot and character.
- A character’s natural behavior must be motivated by his/her psychological disposition.
Remember, in a novel one event must lead to the next and the interplay of your characters and events should create the plot…in other words, it is the characters that write their own stories.
10. Editors hate hangnail writing.
- Everything in your story has an impact on your readers.
- Show and tell your readers only what is relevant. No more.
- Show and tell your readers everything that is relevant. No less.
An extra scene, banter, subplots, or characters that don’t drive the story forward create boredom and distrust of the author. Show the readers what is relevant, no more and no less. Readers take in everything about the story, so you must follow through. You absolutely must show everything that is relevant as readers only see what you show not what you may know.
Quick but hugely important tip:
Take time off from your manuscript, a step back, and gain distance. In that time…READ, READ, READ (other people’s work) then, reread your work. First, start looking for the big picture stuff. Before you edit, read it again and look at style and genre. The third time, go for typos, spelling etc. DO ALL OF THIS BEFORE YOU BEGIN TO REVISE!
For access to Schier’s slide deck, click here.