Saturday 3 September 2011

Rebecca Hamilton: Common Mistakes Writers Overlook While Editing

Today’s guest post is by writer and editor Rebecca Hamilton. Rebecca is a writer and editor and you can find out more about her on her website and blog. In this post, she offers some helpful tips for editing your own writing.

I’ve edited for and exchanged with many writers. And, being admittedly picky about who I edit for, I will say that many of them were extremely talented. As I edited for them, there were times where I pointed out things that I knew they knew, but they had just missed. How did I know they knew these things? Because they pointed these same things out to me, even though they knew I knew, too. These are problems that are just all too easy to make when you are too close to your writing.

What does it mean to be “too close to your writing”, anyway? It means you are unable to see problems in your own work that you would see in others. It’s not because you think your writing is better, or that your writing is “the exception”, or even that your writing is too precious to you. It’s that you simply know the bigger picture. You know where that train of thought leads, and so at no point are you confused about what you are trying to say.

This leads me to the first thing on my list. This is the one I see the most – very often in writers who aren’t aware to edit for this, but also occasionally in the works of authors who do.

This is what I use to describe the order events are relayed. Sometimes there is disconnect between this, and the order events happened. Or it can just be the context in which something happens. Most specifically, this happens on a sentence level, and it’s easy to miss because by the end of the sentence, the entire idea has been relayed. And to the author writing it, they can see that whole sentence as a single idea/moment. But for the reader, that’s not always the case. Sometimes to the reader, putting context at the end of the sentence can make an idea seem “tacked on” or like it’s materialized out of nowhere. This is because readers “fill in the blanks” as they go. This is automatic, and it happens on a moment-by-moment (not sentence by sentence) basis.

Here I will give an example. Let’s say your character just got in a huge fight with her sister. You are now jumping in time to your character working on a birdhouse she’d started building at some earlier point in the story. I’m going to force you to read this like a reader now:

I headed back to my work station to put some final touches on the birdhouse…

I will stop the sentence there. As you are reading, you can guess where that sentence might go (though you don’t know yet). You can also make some assumptions about what happened between the fight with the sister and the working on the birdhouse. Most likely, you’ll assumed nothing happened in between. So when the sentence finishes….

…after calling mom to tell her about the fight with Kara.

Well, that feels a bit tacked on, doesn’t it? If she called her mom first, and THEN worked on the birdhouse, then the reader should be given that information in that order. To a writer, something like this can be a single idea, because we already know the order of events. This is why it’s a common mistake among writers, even those who know context needs to come first.

The good news is, that when you DO spot it, it’s easy to fix. Just reverse the parts of the sentence:

After calling mom to tell her about the fight with Kara, I headed back to my work station to put some final touches on the birdhouse.

So how can you catch these errors? There are two solutions:

1)  Have someone who isn’t close to the work read through for this. The average reader might only know it feels “off” but another writer might be able to help you figure out why.
2)  Give yourself some time away from your MS. Wait a month, then come back to it. A lot more of these instances will pop out at you.

The above two solutions can be used to readdress any common editing mistakes. I’ve listed more of them below:

Especially where commas are concerned. A lot of writers struggle with commas as it is, but even those who know them inside and out have trouble. And it’s with certain commas in particular:

a) The introductory phrase comma (these are often left out intentionally by UK writers). Introductory phrases are usually phrases that show context – they introduce the main clause. For example: With a thick pair of mittens on, I could barely feel the rollercoaster safety bar I was grasping. Or After the sun set, I set out on my journey to Lemming Cliff. Or When she told me about what happened to Hank, I nearly vomited up last night’s chilli cheese dogs.

b) The parenthetical phrase comma – this one is a bit more specific. The error with the parenthetical phrase comma is usually that the comma that would close the phrase is left off, and this is most often done by those who don’t use oxford/serial commas and have an and directly following the parenthetical phrase. For example: I went to the store, hoping to buy bread and met with Mark along the way. There should be a comma after bread. Your independent clause is I went to the store and met with Mark along the way. The hoping to buy bread was a parenthetical pit-stop along the way and needs to be encapsulated with commas. This is different from: I went to the store to buy milk, bread and eggs. Which doesn’t need a comma (if you don’t use oxford/serial commas) after bread because bread wasn’t a parenthetical phrase. I went to the store to buy milk was the end of the independent clause. That said, you can use a comma after bread there if you use oxford commas.

c) This leads me to a problem more common with US writers than UK writers – using a comma before a small conjunction. In the US, we are supposed to use commas before a small conjunction only when the next part of the sentence is an independent clause. Too often we (myself included) leave it off more than we should or add it more than we should. For example, you need a comma before and here: I went to the store, and Mark went home. But you don’t need one here: I went to the store and bought cheese. The bought cheese isn’t an independent clause. But Mark went home is.

When trying to figure out which to use, there’s a simple little trick: Objects lay, people lie.

A lot of writers use character “filters”. I think this has its place when trying to create narrative distance, but when hoping to engage the reader in the experience, you’ll want a deeper POV. A deeper POV will allow the reader to experience the story, as opposed to have a character narrate it to them. For example: She could see the silhouette of a man outside her window. This isn’t her seeing, it’s saying she could see. Example 2: She saw the silhouette of a man outside her window. We’re hearing what happened, but we aren’t seeing it for ourselves. Example 3: The silhouette of a man walked past her window/shifted outside her window/approached her window. There are lots of options there. Now we’re deeper in POV. We’re seeing it, and we know she saw it, too, because it’s her POV and it’s being narrated to us. It wouldn’t be narrated to us if she hadn’t seen it (unless you’re writing in an omniscient POV). But instead of telling us the obvious (that she saw it) we get to see it for ourselves. It allows the moment to come to life.

The best way to fix this is to do a search for filter words, such as: saw, see, felt, feel, hear, heard, taste, tasted, smell, smelled, knew, know (I knew I shouldn’t do this versus I shouldn’t do this). And so on. This also helps to reduce some of the personal pronoun starts, without unnaturally convoluting your sentence structures. (And the same could be true of fixing the first common error I mentioned: Context)

So many times, in my work as well as others, I see sentences that didn’t end soon enough.
For example: He smiled at me. The at me isn’t needed if the two are having a conversation and there is no one else in the room. That sounded like a horrible idea to me. The to me is implied. It’s that person’s POV after all.

Looking for opportunities to cut unneeded sentence endings can help make your voice carry more authority and will also strengthen the impact of your sentences. Emphasis goes at the end. Do you want to emphasize to me or do you want emphasize horrible idea. Which words carry more power?

I’ll sign off here, as this post is already a mile long. But for those who haven’t looked out for these things in their writing, I think you’ll find these 5 simple tips help you improve your MS a great deal!

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