You’ve written your masterpiece and you’re ready to show it to a publisher … or are you? Having a good story is not enough. In fact, no matter how good your story might be, it will probably be rejected unless it is properly self-edited. The purpose of this blog is to show some common errors missed during the self-editing process. The items below are examples only. The list is not complete; there are dozens more. Your manuscript must be squeaky clean or will most likely be rejected; the editor will not fix your mistakes. In the examples below, an arrow (=>) is used to show a better way.
1. Eliminate filler words and weak verbs, such as: was, were, that, had, just, very, as, went, put, and many more.
As the door swung open, the heated air struck Peter in the face. => The door swung open. The heated air struck Peter’s face like a sledge.
I went to the fridge. => I walked/stalked/stomped to the fridge.
I put my cup on the worktop => I placed my cup on the worktop with delicate finesse … or … I flung my cup down on the worktop. It shattered, adding a definitive exclamation point to my outburst before I ran out of the room.
2. Remove repeated words, phrases, thoughts and actions. Say it once; say it well.
Redundancy includes repeated words/character movements, similar scene venues and secondary characters or names with same beginning letter.
Beware of unintentional redundancy: gathered together, sank down, climbed up, widow woman, ask a question, brief synopsis, in close proximity, cluster together, suffocate to death, exact replica, frozen solid, old adage, over-exaggerate, same identical, separate out, trail behind and countless others.
She was so scared her heart hammered in her chest, and she felt her knees go weak. Question: Where else would her heart hammer? => Her heart hammered. Her knees weakened.
3. Handle dialog with finesse.
Minimize attribution of speech (tagging) => infer the character who is speaking.
Eliminate long sets of discourse without some action to break it up.
Remove unnecessary chit-chat; if it isn’t necessary, don’t say it.
People cannot snort, laugh sigh or grimace words. “I’ll get the water hose,” he laughed. => “I'll get the water hose,” he said, laughing.
Too much introspection or narrative with no breaks for dialogue or adequate paragraphing makes a reader skip ahead for some excitement.
4. Use active voice vs. passive voice.
They were discussing => they discussed
I was thinking => I thought
The lump in my throat nearly choked me => I almost choked on the lump in my throat.
5. Use a thesaurus to get vivid verbs and adjectives (better, stronger, fewer).
6. Avoid impossibilities (“and” is for parallel action).
She walked across the room and sat down. => She walked across the room and then sat down.
Disappearing into my tent, I put on jeans. => This is impossible. 'Ing' or 'as' clauses indicate parallel action.
Note: “Then” is a conjunctive adverb, not a conjunction. Although there are different opinions on the use of "then" as a conjunction, I believe “then” must be coupled with "and” to join independent clauses, or punctuated like "however" if the "and" is left out. For example:
He walked to the refrigerator, and turned back to glare at her.
He walked to the refrigerator, and then turned back to glare at her.
He walked to the refrigerator; then, turned back to glare at her.
He walked to the refrigerator, then turned back to glare at her.
The first sentence is incorrect because "and" defines parallel actions (he can't walk to the refrigerator and turn back to glare at the same time). The middle two sentences are correct. The last sentence is not correct because "then" isn't a conjunction.
7. Use “but” correctly (do not use “but” when you really mean “and”).
=> To suggest a contrast that is unexpected in light of the first clause: "Joey lost a fortune in the stock market, but he still seems able to live quite comfortably."
=> To suggest in an affirmative sense what the first part of the sentence implied in a negative way (sometimes replaced by on the contrary): "The club never invested foolishly, but used the services of a sage investment counselor."
=> To connect two ideas with the meaning of “with the exception of” (and then the second word takes over as subject): "Everybody but Goldenbreath is trying out for the team."
8. Minimize italics for emphasis. Never use capital letters for emphasis.
9. “Show vs. tell” is a real killer, perhaps the major reason for rejection. Delve into the character's emotions and bring out all five senses (touch, hearing, sight, smell, taste).
Hales thought she smelled smoke, and it scared her. She looked all around the yard. => Hales clasped her hands together to still the shakes. A tremble chased up her spine. Smoke curled outward from the edge of the forest and filled her nostrils. Oh God. If the fire got out of control, the crops would be destroyed and she would lose the farm. Where would she and her children go? How would they live?
It was cold. => Katarina shivered from the cold drifting in under the door. She looked out the window and saw large fluffy flakes of snow fall to the ground.Joanna was very, very angry. => Joanna slammed her palm onto the table. The china cup fell off the edge and shattered. She didn't notice.
10. Don’t tell and then show. Telling what’s about to happen, and then showing it, destroys dramatic effect.
Excerpt from Lonesome Dove: “He found them an hour later, already stiff in death. He had raced as fast as he could over the rough country, not wanting to take the time to follow the river itself but too unsure of his position to go very far from it. From time to time he stopped, listening for shots, but the dark plains were quiet and peaceful, though it was on them that he had just seen the most violent and terrible things he had ever witnessed in his life…
(And then, three paragraphs later…) He could see the three forms on the ground as if asleep…”
So there’s half a page of dramatic, suspenseful writing, but it’s wasted because we already know the outcome.
11. Eliminate most adverbs, or consider them a call to “Show vs. Tell.” At a minimum, think it through whenever you use one.
Absolutely certain => certain
Excitedly wailing => wailing with such fervor that a silent tear slipped down my leg.
I stop abruptly => I slam on the breaks
I bat my lashes slowly => I bat my lashes with suggestive wile while moistening one side of my upper lip with my tongue.
I answer sarcastically => I smile, ignore her tone and let her know I speak sarcasm as a second language.
He walked casually into the barn. => He dusted off his hat before putting it back on, cocked to one side and tilted toward the back of his neck. He shrugged and sighed, and then ambled into the barn like he didn’t have a care in the world.
12. Adjectives can also be a call to “Show vs. Tell:” Adjectives like handsome, beautiful and good-looking – anything that describes a concept – should be expanded to show what you mean.
13. Keep a consistent and clear point of view (POV).
The man smiled at me and my face turned beet red. => Note that, in her POV, she can't know her face turned red because she can't see it. She can, however, feel her face heat up and therefore assume she's blushing.
Avoid “Head Hopping” at all cost. Stay in the chosen POV throughout the scene. When changing scenes, the POV must be clear.
14. Eliminate vague words like somewhat, perhaps, maybe, sometimes, etc.
15. “Maybe” and “perhaps” do not imply a question.
Maybe I will? => Maybe I will.
16. Don’t be trite; avoid clichés. Make up analogies that match the situation.
His hand is rough as a scouring pad.
His hand is huge and powerful. He’ll crush mine like a Tyrannosaurus biting a goat if I take it.
She dismisses me with a flip of her hand and drops off to sleep faster than a drunk on Demerol, snoring like a damn chainsaw.
“Push hard with my stomach muscles” => “bear down like I’m giving birth.”
As any God-bothering hypocrite would, Father Wally loudly proclaims his innocence and exclaims his outrage at being treated like a common criminal.
17. Punctuation, punctuation, punctuation! There are entire books on this. Just be sure it’s correct.
Be certain ellipses, hyphens and dashes are properly used
Commas (be consistent with series commas)
Quotations (punctuate outside except at the end of a sentence). Example: “My name is ‘The Brazilian’, not ‘you idiot!’”
Minimize exclamation marks and make sure they are warranted. The text must show the need for them.
A run on sentences, comma splice and fused sentence are the same thing. All these terms refer to two independent clauses connected only by a comma. Eliminate all run on sentences. Even short sentences can run on: It’s hot, use sunscreen. => It’s hot; use sunscreen.
18. Use the right word.
Further vs. farther. (If we push him further, he’s bound to break). Farther is for distance.
If you mean 'famous' or 'superior', you want eminent; if you mean 'impending, about to happen' that is imminent; and if you mean 'present, inherent', your word is immanent. Imminent is 'about to happen' and immanent is 'inherent' or 'pervading the material world.’
Use blond when talking about male hair, and blonde when talking about female hair.
It’s vs. its. “It’s” means “it is” while “its” implies belonging, as in “its toenails.”
Don’t use “may” when you mean “might.” If you used dandruff shampoo and developed dandruff, you may be entitled to a claim. => If you used dandruff shampoo and developed dandruff, you might be entitled to a claim.
May (asking permission) vs. Can (do you have the ability?)
Use “ when there is a change in emotions. Use when a physical change has occurred. (
19. Resist the Urge to Explain (RUE). If the reader doesn't need to know, don't tell.
20. Don’t begin sentences with “there” (unless you are writing a limerick).
There was a man with one blue shoe and one brown shoe standing at my front door. => The man standing at my front door wore one blue shoe and one brown shoe.
21. Follow Publisher’s rules for submittals. All are different.
Double vs. single spacing. Blank line between paragraphs vs. none. Font type and size. Indented first line of paragraph. One space after each period. Etc.
22. Re-read. Don’t trust your spelling checker. Spelling checkers can’t help with: than/then, think/thing, he/her, can/can’t, mail/male, her/his, his/this, pound/pond, noise/nose, dose/does and many more.
23. Input from an editor: When I'm reading a submission this is my #1 pet peeve and will get the book rejected by me. I absolutely hate when an author feels the need to tell the reader step by step every little thing they do as if we the reader are too stupid to know or imagine the events. For Example:
She looked at Brad and said, "I'm going to go take a shower."
Kim walked up the stairs and went into her bedroom. She got a change of clothes and then walked down the hall to the bathroom. As she turned the water on and filled her bath, she added some bubble bath. When the tub was finished filling up she sank down in the steamy hot water.
All the above paragraph did was increase the word count. If she is taking a bath, we already know she would need to fill the tub with water. Step by step sentences do not add important detail.