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What a Good Editor Can Do For You
by Patricia L. Fry

Return to Polishing Your Prose · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

Are you ready to start showing your manuscript around to publishers? Are you sure? Is every i dotted and every t crossed? Is your fiction story easy to follow? Is your how-to book well-organized? Even if you feel inclined to respond with a resounding yes to these questions, I still encourage you to hire another pair of eyes. And make sure that those eyes belong to someone who has a good track record as an editor.

What's the downside? Hiring an editor may delay your project by a few weeks. And it may cost you $1,000 or more. But without an editor, your manuscript could just end up a perpetual reject -- never having a chance to shine.

Why Hire an Editor

Contrary to what many new authors want to believe, publishers will not wade through a messy, disorganized, poorly written manuscript in hopes of finding a good story in there somewhere. A blockbuster story or a great nonfiction book idea will go unnoticed if the writing stinks. Publishers want to see neat, clean, well organized, well written manuscripts. With today's high level of competition and limited publishing slots, hopeful authors must give the best presentation they can. Hence, one of the biggest mistakes you can make is not having your manuscript edited before sending it to an agent or publisher.

Even if you are self-publishing or going with a fee-based POD publishing service, it's still a good idea to hire an editor to take one last look at your manuscript. You may not realize it, but once you've finished your book, you've lost your ability to be objective. You've looked at the manuscript so many times -- you are so familiar with it -- that you are now seeing what you want to see. You've ceased noticing problem areas, even blatant mistakes. Besides, you are accustomed to your way of speaking and writing. It seems right to you. But is it appropriate in today's commercial market?

Do you have any idea what an editor could do for your manuscript? I know two first-time authors who landed contracts with major publishing houses only after getting editing help. One of those manuscripts needed extensive work while the author of the other one simply required some lessons in structuring more effective sentences.

How to Choose an Editor

If you've never worked with an editor before, you may feel inadequate in choosing one. Hire an editor with whom you can easily communicate. Locate one who has a track record. Read client testimonials, ask for references and request a sampling of the editor's work. Discuss fees and the time element. The best editor for your project is someone who is familiar with your genre and/or who knows something about the topic of your book.

What Could Possibly Be Wrong With Your Wonderful Manuscript?

What are some of the most common problems, mistakes and oversights that editors (and, unfortunately, many publishers) see in manuscripts today? Here's a list of twenty things that a good editor looks for and often finds in manuscripts written by first-time or otherwise inexperienced authors.

1: Errors in using possessives. Heed the following:

It is the girl's ball. (The ball belongs to a particular girl.)

It is the girls' ball. (The ball belongs to more than one girl.)

The ball belongs to those girls. (No need for an apostrophe.)

2: Inaccurate use of contractions. Read and learn:

"It's" is the contraction for "it is" or "it has." (It's hot today. It's never been hotter.)

"Its" is the possessive form of it. (The butterfly spread its wings and flew away.)

"Your" means this belongs to you. (This is your shoe.)

"You're" is a contraction for you are. (You're terribly sunburned.)

"Whose" is the possessive of who. (Whose horse won the race?)

"Who's" is a contraction for who is. (Who's coming to dinner?)

3: Instances where the wrong words are used ("could of" instead of "could have," for example.)

4: Redundancies. Some examples of redundant phrases are:

ISBN number
two twins
widow woman
unmarried old maid
old, ancient antique

5: The overuse of words. A surprising number of writers use the same words two times or more in a sentence or a paragraph. For added interest, vary your choice of words.

6: Too many sentences in the passive voice. Write stronger sentences by using the active instead of the passive voice. For example:

Passive: He was taken into the police station.

Active: The officer arrested him on the spot and drove him directly to the police station.

7: The overuse of cliches. It's tempting to use cliches in your writing. I happen to like some of these familiar old sayings. But they do make your writing rather stale. Find fresh ways to say things such as:

In the nick of time.
Let the cat out of the bag.
It's as plain as the nose on your face.

8: Qualifiers that weaken sentences. Many writers overuse what I call qualifying words and phrases such as "very," "really," "in other words," "on the other hand," "it seems to me," and so forth.

9: Outdated phrases. Most of us glom onto favorite phrases and they become part of our vocabulary. It's unwise, however, to make them a part of your manuscript, unless, of course, they're used in dialogue. If you can't think of fresh terms, use a thesaurus.

10: Punctuation problems. First-time authors often lack punctuation skills. And it is no wonder, because things keep changing. The rule used to be two spaces after a period, question mark, colon and other end-of-sentence punctuation. Today, it is one space. Get used to this in everything that you write. It won't take you long to make the switch.

In America, quotation marks generally go outside of other punctuation. When you see quotation marks inside the punctuation, it may be a work generated in Europe or Canada. There are additional rules when you're quoting inside the quotes. Keep a good style manual nearby and use it.

The "em" dash used to dangle between two words. Now, the em dash --which is traditionally the width of an M -- stretches between the two words and connects them. To accomplish the em dash, type your word, type two dashes, type the next word. The em dash is formed when you hit the space bar after typing the second word.

11: Muddy writing. Many authors today are what I call muddy writers. I spend a lot of time trying to teach my clients to write with more clarity. I tell them, "Write it so that someone from outer space will grasp the meaning." Muddy writing occurs when the author tries to say too much in one sentence. I consider it muddy writing when the sentence doesn't make sense or is unclear.

12: Incomplete sentences. Hey, that is one -- an incomplete sentence, that is. And more people than you can imagine use them in their manuscripts. In dialogue, it is generally okay. But otherwise, make sure that you write complete sentences every time, all the time.

13: Lack of variation in sentence length and style. Good writing includes sentences of many lengths and styles. Vary your sentences for more pleasant reading.

14: Unnecessary words. Most writers are too wordy. Maybe this is because we love words. It's sometimes painful to eliminate words from our perfect manuscripts, but this surgery is often necessary. As authors, we're often so attached to our work that we can't identify, let alone, omit the superfluous words. A good editor, however, is objective and can easily and skilfully do the trimming. Following are some usually unnecessary words and phrases. Eliminate these from your writing and see how much more effective it is:

As a matter of fact
It could happen that
It is interesting to note
It is possible that
In all likelihood
Of course

15: A writing style that is confusing to the reader. Some authors love to impress their readers with their extensive vocabulary. In most cases, you'll only manage to confuse them. If you hope to go mainstream with your manuscript, you'd better consider your audience. Most readers do not want to work at reading. They want the time they spend reading to be educational and/or enjoyable, relaxing and entertaining. What tends to confuse readers or turn them off? Unfamiliar words and complicated sentence structure.

16: Problems with the way dialogue is presented. Authors, I urge you to read the type of books that you write. If it is fiction, notice how the dialogue is handled. Here are some important rules for using dialogue:

  • Start a new paragraph when changing speakers.
  • Use quotation marks to clarify that dialogue is taking place.
  • Make sure the reader knows who's talking by adding speech tags.
  • Vary the speech tags.
  • Use appropriate attribution or speech tags in order to set the scene.

17: Discrepancies in tense and person. Choose the tense and person for your story or nonfiction book and stick to it. Most how-to books are written in second person: you. Of course, it's okay to shift to first or third person (I, me, my, we or he/she, they) when offering an example or sharing an anecdote. Most novels are written in first ("I" or third ("he/she") and the past tense; some are written in present tense. Discover what works best for the material you're writing and then maintain that tense/person throughout. When you change tense or person, do so with clarity. The last thing you want to do is confuse your readers.

18: Inappropriate paragraph breaks. Inexperienced writers often create paragraphs that are much too long. They don't know where to break them, so they don't. Here's a rule of thumb: Start a new paragraph when you introduce a new topic, shift to a different time or place, a new person begins to speak or you want to create a dramatic effect.

19: Transitioning troubles. Another difficulty common to new writers is making an appropriate transition from one topic to another -- from one paragraph to another. Seamless transitions help to make your story seem more fluid. If you want readers to continue along with your story, you must build adequate bridges designed to lead them from scene to scene or from point to point. Sometimes all it takes is a word or a phrase. In other instances, you'll want to add a sentence to assist the reader in easing from one subject or scene to the next.

20: Problems with organization. While some authors have natural organizational abilities, others just don't know how to establish the proper order of things. How important is the organization of a book? You tell me. Would you like to read a suspense story wherein the secrets are revealed before the mystery is presented? And you would not appreciate a book on how to build a log cabin that has you putting the roof on before the walls are up. If you are not sure if you've organized your book in the most logical, reader-friendly way, study books like the one you're writing. Then hire a professional -- preferably an editor who is familiar with this type of book.

As you can see, there's a whole lot more to think about when writing a book than just writing down your thoughts or ideas. Before sending your manuscript out to your choice of publishers, make sure that your story or nonfiction work is ready to read. Hire a pair of professional eyes to give it that final coat of polish.

Copyright © 2009 Patricia L. Fry
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Patricia Fry is the president of SPAWN. She is also the author of The Right Way to Write, Publish and Sell Your Book. Read excerpts from the many 5-star reviews this book has received this year at http://www.matilijapress.com/mediacoverage.html. Order the revised edition of this 366-page book and the accompanying "Author's Workbook" at http://www.matilijapress.com/rightway.html. Visit Patricia's informative blog at http://www.matilijapress.com/publishingblog.


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