Have you ever found yourself cringing at the thought of painstakingly searching for errors in your draft? Ever been oddly anxious that your editor won't be able to tell that you tried to fix the problems before it winds up on their desk? If you have, you're not alone. Editing a novel can be a tedious part of the writing process. It's common practice to self-edit before submitting your work to an editor for a professional opinion, but even when we are determined to refine our work to the best of our abilities, sometimes simple but consequential mistakes fall between the cracks.
The next time you're poised with your red pen, keep these 5 proofreading mistakes in mind. Your editor will thank you!
Excess Words, Fluffy Sentences, & Fillers
While scanning for grammar and spelling mistakes are the obvious targets when it comes to self-editing, consider doing a separate read-through for excess words, fluffy sentences, and fillers. These are the types of mistakes that aren't a writer's first choice when it comes to assessing their own errors, but they are the type of mistakes that have a greater impact upon your novel as a whole. The main way these devious hidden mistakes hurt our work is by increasing our word count and diminishing the effect our words have.
Excess Words: A good rule to edit by is less is more. When searching for excess words, begin by taking it line by line. Ask yourself: Can I say what I'm trying to say in less words? If the answer is yes, cut away! Replace mild words with stronger cousins.
Example: Maya ran down the street as fast as her legs could carry her.
Correction: Maya leapt across the pavement and tore around the corner.
Fluffy Sentences: As you're scanning for excess words, evaluate whether each sentence is "fluff" or vital to your story. You'll be surprised by how much you can cut. Typically this occurs when we are describing setting, characters, or explaining worldbuilding details.
Example: Derrick's blue eyes were the color of sapphires, flecked with gold, and framed with long dark lashes that curled naturally in a way that all women desperately hoped to achieve.
Correction: Derrick's sapphire eyes were framed with midnight lashes that highlighted flecks of hidden gold.
Fillers: Every writer leans on filler words and phrases. It happens when we're tired, typing too quickly, or when we can't find the right word. What's important is that we remember to trim out these words in our editing so that they don't go further than our rough draft.
Example: Words such as: "that", "then", "because", "just", "uhm", "eh", "er", "ah", "like", "okay", "right", "you know", "I mean", "basically", "so", and "actually".
Correction: Eliminate these words whenever they appear.
On Revision: The Only Writing That Counts (Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing)
On Revision steps back to take in the big picture, showing authors how to hear their own writing voice and how to reread their work as if they didn’t write it. On Revision will show you how to know when your writing is actually done—and, until it is, what you need to do to get it there.
Many of us are guilty of repeating words and phrases within our manuscript. This repetition occurs without us realizing it. There's a few different types of variations. The first is directly repeating the same word or phrase throughout our draft. The second is when we repeated the same thought within the same paragraph or within the span of two to three paragraphs but phrased it differently. The third type is repeated action or dialogue tags, meaning we've used the same attribute or descriptor multiple times within the same chapter ("said" doesn't count).
Example 1: Repeating the same word or phrase. This differs for each author, but for the purpose of this example, let's say we used the phrase "he rolled his eyes" throughout our draft.
Correction: Search out this phrase and eliminate/replace it if we've seen it used more than three times throughout.
Example 2: Repeating the same thought. Again, this varies, but in this example we'll use the following: "He couldn't believe she would do that to him". Use #1: The original phrase stated. Use #2 appears two paragraphs later: "He couldn't wrap his mind around her betrayal, followed by use #3 which appears later on in the same page: "How could she treat him this way?". You can see how these three lines are the exact same sentiment, phrased three different ways. They seem different enough that it would go unnoticed, yet it's really repetition in disguise.
Correction: Cut out the second two options and replace them with reaction and action thoughts. Tell us how the character reacts and then acts to the event that they are upset about rather than repeating the original thought to try to emphasize their thought process.
Example 3: Repeating dialogue tags/attributes. This occurs because dialogue gets tedious and coming up with strong descriptive actions and phrases to accompany it grows difficult after the first hundred pages.
Correction: If you find you've used "a grin spread over his face" or "she laughed loudly" one too many times, the best thing you can do is trim down your attributes. A common impulse when writing is to describe each sentence of dialogue so that tone, facial expressions, implications, double-meanings, and actions are presented in explicit detail. Fight the impulse. Instead, minimize your descriptions and allow the dialogue to speak for itself in areas where dialogue is predominant. Your reader will mentally fill in the blanks and your pacing will improve.
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Loss Of Voice
This is a hard mistake to find. It's buried within our writing but is clear to our readers. Just like we struggle to find our own unique writing "voice", it's also possible to lose sight of it once we've been writing for a while. This happens when we are unsure of what we truly want to say, when we aren't confident in our message, when we've spent too much time in writing workshops, or when we rely on the written thoughts of those we admire to express our ideas for us.
Example: Mimicking may be the ultimate form of flattery, but in writing, it's a sign of immature writing. As writer's we can't help but have heroes- other writers we emulate, compare ourselves to, and strive to be like. The trap is when we become too much like another writer and completely unlike ourselves.
Correction: Only you know who your hero is, but whoever they are, their style of writing, self-expression, word choice, format, etc. all influence your work. The fix for this is to go through and highlight whatever catch-phrases, stylistic choices, borrowed phrases, or inspirational mantras have invaded your story and replace them with your own thoughts and words. Write what's true to you, the way you would naturally say it. Trust us, your authenticity is enough.
Editors on Editing: What Writers Need to Know About What Editors Do 3rd ed. Edition
Since 1962 Editors on Editing has been an indispensable guide for editors, would-be editors, and especially writers who want to understand the publishing process. Written by America’s most distinguished editors, these 38 essays will teach, inform, and inspire anyone interested in the world of editing.
Generic Lines & Cliches
This ties into the aforementioned thought. Along with loss of voice, we find ourselves using generic phrases and cliches to express common feelings and to connect with our audience. While it may be effective communication, it unfortunately is also the mark of weak writing. Generic sentences are as boring as they sound. If you've heard before, it contains buzz words, or a lot of genre-specific jargon, it's most likely a generic phrase. The pitfall is that generic sentences aren't genuine, interesting, and only have shallow meanings or intentions.
Example of cliches:
Avoid it like the plague
Dead as a doornail
Take the tiger by the tail
Low hanging fruit
If only walls could talk
The pot calling the kettle black
Think outside the box
Thick as thieves
But at the end of the day
Plenty of fish in the sea
Every dog has its day
Like a kid in a candy store
Examples of generic lines:
Reach for the stars
Dream it, do it
Keep calm and carry on
Popular lines/catchphrases within a genre
A dream is a wish your heart makes
Just do it!
Slogans from company ads
Popular song and musical lyrics
While there are many more examples, these are just a few to pluck out of your book.
Nothing tanks a book like overkill. You want to get your point across simply and effectively. If you've found yourself trying to add to your word count, to add more detail into an emotionally charged scene (like a betrayal, death, or break-up), or are trying to emphasize your point, you may have unknowingly fallen prey to this mistake. It's good to know the line between stretching and over-playing a scene.
Example: You know instinctively when you've run out of things to say about a topic, just like you know when you read something that's been overdone. The trick is to reassess whether lines have been crossed and evaluate how to fix it.
Correction: Trust your gut. If it feels forced or overdone, chances are there's something not right. It may be because the scene isn't working, it could be due to writer's block, weak writing, or because you don't know exactly how to say what you're trying to say. Whatever the reason, return to the drawing board and come up with new, condensed material that won't leave you writing in circles.
By checking your draft for these common mistakes, you'll be saving you (and your editor) a headache. Improving your writing takes time, but these tips will help you elevate your writing and get your manuscript where it needs to be for publication.
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