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Are These Editing Mistakes Costing You Readers?

Writing It Wells is here to help you learn the in's and out's of writing. Today we look at 6 editing mistakes that could cost you your next reader.

We all know that the physical act of writing a book is only one part of writing. As writers we tend to wear several different hats, one of which (and arguably one of the more important ones) is that of an editor. Even if we end up hiring someone to edit our book, self-editing is still inevitable. Whether we're scanning for copy editing mistakes or looking deeper developmentally, it's vital that our editing skills are up to date and that we have the knowledge to make wise decisions.

Here are 6 common (and dire) editing mistakes:

1. Your/You're, There/They're/Their

We see this type of mistake all too often both online and in our own work. It's typically born from carelessness or from rushing while we write. An easy fix, it often goes unchecked because we simply don't take the necessary amount of time to comb through our work the way it should be done.

While easy to make, it's the number one mistake that readers notice. It's also one of the most annoying mistakes that exists in the English language, as evidenced by the many times it's been called out on Twitter and the like. This is the mistake that inspired the "Grammar Nazi" t-shirts and remains controversial today. One thing is for certain: if you let it go unchecked in your work, whether in your manuscript or in your query letters, people WILL take notice and it WILL negatively affect your chances of being published and of readers enjoying your story.

To help fix it, sweep your draft for this mistake (and only this mistake). Ask yourself if your sentence requires a possessive or a contraction.

Your is possessive, implying ownership: “I love your dog.” You’re is a contraction of you are. The apostrophe indicates that you and are are joined together to make them shorter and smoother to say: “You’re giving me a stomachache with all this rich food.”

Their is possessive. There is a place (“I’ve been there before”) or a pronoun (“There is no way I’m kissing a frog.”). They’re is the joined result of "they are".

For more resources on this particular mistake and those that are similar, check out the links below:

The Copyeditor's Handbook and Workbook: The Complete Set

English Grammar: 100 Tragically Common Mistakes (and How to Correct Them)

The Best Punctuation Book, Period: A Comprehensive Guide for Every Writer, Editor, Student, and Businessperson

2. Misuse of Commas

Another obvious and unfortunate mistake that will stop readers in their tracks is misusing commas. Whether you're overusing them or forgetting them, readers (and publishers) pick up on this mistake almost immediately and can be rather unforgiving if it continues.

Here is an example:

Leaving out a serial comma, meaning that when you list something you forget to use a comma to separate all of what is being listed. Notice in the example below there are two commas needed.

Example: I bought three lemons, four apples, and a loaf of bread from the store.

The rules of how to use commas are a little more complex and should be revisited and refreshed every once in a while. If you're unsure whether or not you're making a mistake while you write, take a moment to verify using the following:

Purdue Online Writing Lab, Rules for Using Commas

Purdue Online Writing Lab, Comma Quick Rules

Grammarly: Rules for Comma Usage

Grammar Book: Commas

3. Writing The Way You Speak

You see it time and time again, writers writing their novels the way they speak as opposed to the way they should be written. What this refers to is the could of, should of, would of mistake.


"I should of done my homework ahead of time, but I was procrastinating."

"I could of finished my dinner, but I'm watching my figure."

"I would of made a smarter decision, but I was intrigued by the stranger's proposal."

This mistake occurs when we mistakenly think that we can use "of" in this way. When we speak we tend to slur could've (the contraction of could have) so that it sounds like could of. Unfortunately if you write this way, you're incorrectly using the word "of". While this can be overlooked in speech, it doesn't have the same leniency in the written word.

To correct it, you have to change should of, could of, and would of to could have, should have, and would have.

4. Dangling Participles

Dangling participles bring out the humor in grammatical errors. It's a word or phrase that is incorrectly placed so that it modifies the wrong thing. The result is that a sentence can become nonsensical in the most amusing way.


"Walking through the kitchen, the smoke alarm was going off."

This sentence literally states that the smoke alarm was taking a stroll.

“After rotting in the back of the fridge for three months, my son cleaned out his forgotten leftovers.”

This implies that the son is the one doing the rotting.

While the outcomes may be hilarious, there's nothing funny about bad grammar. You may be laughing, but guaranteed it won't lead you to a book deal should it fall into the hands of a publisher.


Grammar Revolution Dangling Participles

Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing

5. Ignoring House Style/Style Guides

“House style” refers to the preferred style guidelines for a specific publication or publisher. Most companies also have their own style guides. Style guides give writers basic rules of how to cite sources, how to note quotations, and the preferred rules for formatting and grammar, including punctuation.

Ignoring house styles and style guides can be a death sentence in the literary world. The reason being that if you can't play by the rules, no one is going to want to work with you. Period. If you submit a manuscript to a publisher you should always give them exactly what they're asking for- nothing more and nothing less. If you're self-publishing you should always follow the style guides presented by your publishing platform as these are designed for quality control.

Most importantly you have to consider your reader. Readers are used to certain styles, standards, and visuals. Deviate from these and your reader will notice them immediately- and it will bother them. Instead of "giving you an edge" or making your book "unique" you'll find that it will stand out for all the wrong reasons and will actually repel future readers once word gets out.

Use the following style guides to help you learn the rules inside and out:

The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th Edition

For specific style guides, you should find the specific submission pages on the publisher websites that you intend to submit your manuscript to. The requirements vary depending on who you're sending your work to so make sure you thoroughly read it over and take your time when formatting your manuscript. If there isn't a specific summary available, take the next best approach and study some of the publications already in print from that source.

6. Assuming You Know Best

There's nothing worse than a fledgling author who thinks they know better than one who has been published several times over. While experience and learning serve as guide to publishing, even those with experience admit they aren't perfect. These sage authors also know that they should never rely entirely on their own biased input to judge their books by. This logic especially applies to the processing of editing.

Whether the reason is arrogance or a budgeting issue, some authors believe that they can cut corners when it comes to editing their manuscripts. As a result they are often met with less than favorable results, as readers and sales never reach the level of success they dream of.

It's not far off the mark to say that you wouldn't dive off a 10m platform with the other Olympic swimmers if you don't know how to swim. You also probably wouldn't join a championship poker game if you've only ever played one game at your uncle Phil's house. Alas, editing is best done by those who are certified to do so, and should be left in their capable hands to get your book to the caliber it needs to be. That's not to say that you can't and shouldn't self-edit as well (you should). The best approach is to cover all your basis and do both.

Whether you're an experienced writer or a newbie, we all make editing mistakes. By learning the basics we can improve our skills and our chances at a successful writing career.

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