Friday, April 20, 2012

Tips for Editing Your Work


My wife and I have each read hundreds of books by Indie authors over the last 18 months or so, and there are three recurring problems.  These problems appear in some “professionally edited” works as well, and even the big publishers aren’t immune from them. 
   
  1. Improper use of the first person personal pronoun is common.  This one offends my wife and me every time.  If you think I made a mistake in the last sentence, you’re most likely an offender on this one.  “I” never serves as the object of a preposition.  If you think the sentence should have been, “This one offends my wife and I every time,” then you need to work on this.   If you have trouble with this, look it up in your favorite grammar reference.  Don’t depend on grammar check for this one.  Study it until you understand it.  You’ll be surprised at how often otherwise literate people mess this up in speech or in writing.  It’s easy to fix; there’s no excuse for it to appear in your written work if you want to be taken seriously.
  2. The use of dangling participles is a second common problem.  “Sitting on the porch, the bus went by,” was the grammar school example that stuck with me.  That one is obvious and comical, but less obvious ones often seem to slip past editors.   Writing this post, the answer to this problem is the use of a good reference.  There – that’s a less obvious example.  If you can’t see anything wrong with that sentence, you may be an offender.   Reach for that grammar reference and study it until it’s clear.  This is a problem that will make careful readers laugh at what was meant to be a serious passage in your work.  Again, there’s no excuse for a writer to do this.  
  3.  Incorrect use of the lowly comma is a major problem for all writers, and it’s something over which we all should agonize.  There are actually only a few rules to learn about the use of commas.  One of my standard proofing routines is to look at every single comma in my work and justify it based on one of the rules.  If I can’t make it fit a rule, it comes out.  This exercise often points out flawed construction and leads to rewriting.  The result is always more concise and coherent.   I have a tendency to insert a comma in my writing whenever my thoughts pause, and apparently a lot of other people do this.  That almost always results in an improper use of a comma.  Get that grammar reference out and learn the rules.  Try the exercise on a paragraph or two of your own or on someone else’s writing.   You’ll produce better work for the effort.
There are a number of other pitfalls for writers and editors, but if you avoid these three and scrupulously check for spelling errors and misused homonyms, you’ll be ahead of the rest.   If you’re in search of a concise reference that covers these and most other common problems, my own favorite is The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White.  It’s readily available and inexpensive.  I even have a Kindle version, so it’s easy for me to check things as I’m reading.  It doesn’t cover everything, but if you take it to heart, it will make you a better writer.

 Please post the errors that you catch most frequently, and let’s clean up our writing.

7 comments:

  1. As I descend into editing hell, I will attempt to apply your knowledge. Do I search for commas and delete them all? Does the word "I" need to be eliminated from all sentences? Can I borrow your wife? Is she sitting on the poop deck, watching the world float by? What an image for a science fiction writer...

    Thanks for pointing out potential errors that I promise to eliminate from my manuscript. No commas!

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    1. Thanks, Diane.

      I actually do use 'search' to keep from skipping over commas when I'm editing. My eye sees what it expects, otherwise. Nothing wrong with "I" except when it should be "me." You'll have to ask my wife. She's independent -- I know better than to speak for her. And yes, she is sitting out there reading some indie author's work.

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  2. Oh, yes, that "Bob came to visit Bill and I" thing is one of my pet hates! And the dangling participles. I often think (perhaps a tad harshly) that people ought to learn to write properly in their own language before they attempt a novel. I've actually seen mis-placed apostrophes in self-published work - you expect that on the odd Facebook status update, but not in a work that people are expected to pay money for!! I don't think you'll find any grammar errors in mine... I am a fully paid up member of the Grammar Police, and also, thus, a pain in the arse to have as a Facebook friend. Ah, well!!

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  3. Terry Tyler http://www.blogger.com/profile/15077413235902203848 made the following comment on this post, according to an email that I received from Blogger. Blogger, however, decided not to show the comment. I've copied it from the email and pasted it in. Shame on Blogger.

    "Oh, yes, that "Bob came to visit Bill and I" thing is one of my pet hates! And the dangling participles. I often think (perhaps a tad harshly) that people ought to learn to write properly in their own language before they attempt a novel. I've actually seen mis-placed apostrophes in self-published work - you expect that on the odd Facebook status update, but not in a work that people are expected to pay money for!! I don't think you'll find any grammar errors in mine... I am a fully paid up member of the Grammar Police, and also, thus, a pain in the arse to have as a Facebook friend. Ah, well!!"

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  4. Thanks for reposting my comment. Another pet hate of mine is the comma that ought to be a semi-colon.

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  5. One thing I see frequently is the failure to set off a direct address with commas. "Tell me Charles are you going sailing today?" instead of "Tell me, Charles, are you going sailing today?" Or the famous example, "Let's eat Grandma" instead of "Let's eat, Grandma." Entirely different meaning.

    Excellent post! I hope everyone reads it and pays attention.

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    1. You're right, Ellis. (See that comma?) I like the famous example. Improper punctuation can be a matter of life or death!

      Thanks for visiting and taking the time to comment.

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