Editing Writing for Basic Errors

There’s a subtle error that I’ve been seeing a lot lately as I’m editing writing. It really is quite simple to notice, once you know what to look for. I don’t know if it’s something in the air, with this beautiful spring in full blossom outside, but I have noticed it in almost every MG and YA I’ve been working on so far in 2016.

editing writing, how to write fiction, punctuation error, grammatical error, manuscript editing
Get out your red pen when you’re editing writing, you’ll see basic errors you might’ve missed.

Editing Writing for a Subtle Grammatical Error

See if you can spot it:

He ran as quickly as he could, his lean body like a jaguar.

Want another one?

Her arms jerked like a robot as she scrambled to hide the candy into her backpack before the store owner saw her.

What’s the common thread? Both sentences make comparisons. However, both compare a part of the protagonist to a whole, rather than the same part. The fix is very easy to implement when you’re editing writing. Look:

He ran as quickly as he could, his lean body like a jaguar’s.

Her arms jerked like a robot’s as she scrambled to hide the candy.

So easy! So elegant! The more correct choice is to compare the protagonist’s part to the corresponding part by making the subject possessive. This way, the girl’s arms are like the robot’s arms instead of the whole robot itself, which muddies the image. As you’re learning to write, smoothing out these details will make your work stronger and easier to read.

Avoid Basic Errors When Writing to Get Published

As long as we’re talking about editing writing, I would love for everyone to read up on what a dangling modifier is, and try to avoid them. These guys are tricky, and another good detail to nail down when you’re learning to write. In my exuberance to get my point across, I still find myself using them all the time. I’m sure there are a few in this blog, or even in my book, and I’ll be the first to admit that I have my own grammar and spelling blind spots, as everyone does. (Fun fact: The word “mustache” is misspelled in my book as “moustache” in one instance. It’s nobody’s fault but mine. What a terrible failed hipster I am!)

The Bigger Picture in Editing Writing

Now, to put your minds at ease, you are not going to get immediately disqualified if you don’t catch every little mistake when you’re editing writing. Everyone has their off days. If you keep doing it throughout a manuscript, then maybe. If you keep doing it and then some with other errors, then you’re calling your credibility into question. The bottom line is, you are a writer and you’re submitting a piece of writing to agents and editors who deal in the trade of writing. So, your writing needs to be of very high quality in order to compete with every other writer who is trying to break through. You need to work out all the bugs when you’re learning to write, and then pour all of your knowledge and experience into crafting an agent-worthy manuscript (check out the difference between editing and revising).

Words and grammar are your stock in trade. If I was hiring a seamstress (because I suddenly live in the 19th century), I’d look at her stitching. And if it’s shoddy, I wouldn’t hire her. Because I’m not hiring her to trim a mustache, I’m hiring her to sew. Right? That’s just how it works.

Increase Your Chances With Literary Agents

Sure, an agent will overlook some typos, but why submit a manuscript with typos, misspellings, incorrect formatting, and grammatical errors? I have actually heard some writers say, “Well, that’s what an editor is for. It’ll get fixed once someone buys it.” Are you kidding? Why would a publishing house take a (potentially expensive) gamble on a writer who can’t submit a manuscript that demonstrates a basic grasp of grammar and writing? If you’re making sloppy errors or you just haven’t managed to nail dialogue formatting (the capitalization and punctuation surrounding your dialogue), which is another problem that I’ve been seeing in almost every single manuscript, then what confidence is an agent or editor going to have in your skills?

If you’re not editing writing, then you’re probably leaving simple spelling, grammar, and formatting errors in your manuscript. The simple truth is that you’re setting yourself up for a completely preventable tragedy. And what am I always talking about? Giving yourself a stronger shot at success. The two don’t go hand-in-hand.

Though I am primarily a developmental book editor, I offer proofreading and line editing services with each manuscript critique.

7 Replies to “Editing Writing for Basic Errors”

  1. This is extremely helpful, Mary. I can’t wait to check out the link on the dangling modifiers. I’m sure I use them more than I realize.

  2. Once I read an article by a writing coach, “Sally,” about what she does and how she helps budding novelists become better writers. Intrigued, I scrolled down to Sally’s bio.

    “A former teacher, award-winning author, and mother of two, Sally’s first book was a USA Today bestseller.”

    I remember thinking that Sally’s first book was quite the overachiever.

    In casual situations, I dislike grammar cops who judge others by their language skills. I don’t care if people mix up “it’s” and “its” while leaving comments on the Internet; that doesn’t mean they’re imbeciles and all of their opinions are invalid. But if you’re trying to sell yourself as a novelist (or a writing coach), your language skills are fair game.

    Imagine a real estate agent who tries to sell you a house with dirty carpet, decades-old appliances, and ugly wallpaper with huge pineapples all over it. When your reaction is less than enthusiastic, she says, “Well, prettying the place up is your job after you buy, isn’t it? My job is to offer you a good house. If you look past the cosmetic stuff, this is a good house.” While that real estate agent might be correct, she’d also be a fool. No matter how great the architecture, nobody falls in love with a house covered in huge pineapples.

    If you’re a writer selling a book, grammatical errors are huge pineapples. You can’t expect people to see past them and fall in love with the story. Agents and editors have many, many stories to choose from that are polished and pretty. Why would they waste time on writers who can’t be bothered to clean up their manuscripts before trying to sell them?

  3. This was very helpful. It took me a few times looking at your examples before I “got it”, but I get it!

  4. Romel Escobar says:

    Not sure if you mentioned it, but what if a character is speaking, and the next line, no character is speaking? Do you have to indent it or leave it.

  5. I have a beef with Bill in the dialog formatting example. Bill, only little girls scream like little girls. If you must put down your male friends, you might want to come up with something a little closer to home. 🙂

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