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by Patricia Fry

What Can You Expect from Your Book Editor?

I’ve been doing quite a bit of editing, lately and I’m loving the work. I’ve edited a fantasy, a thriller, a few spiritual books and memoirs as well as a true crime, a historical, some how-to and self-help books and mass market novels.

While the books are different in content and purpose, there are some similarities between many of them as far as editing goes. Are you curious as to what they are? Here’s my tell all:

1: Most writers still leave two spaces after a period, question mark, etc. The rule now is one space after all punctuation. You’ll save yourself some money if you will correct this problem throughout your manuscript before turning it over to an editor. If your editor doesn’t know about the one-space-after-a-period rule, maybe she/he isn’t the right editor for you.

2: Many authors still leave the em-dash dangling between two words. The em-dash is correctly placed when it is about the width of the letter “M” and it connects the two words—thusly. Also, make sure that you use the em-dash appropriately within your text. I can see that I need a new Associated Press Stylebook. While there is text within the book in which the em-dash is used correctly, the punctuation section of this 1992 edition still shows the em-dash as a dangler. Use the em-dash to denote an abrupt change in thought within a sentence, to set off an explanatory element of the sentence and sometimes it’s used in place of a comma. My 2003 edition of the Chicago Manual of Style shows the em-dash (or dash) used correctly.

3: Many authors engage in what I call “muddy writing.” They sacrifice clarity for some sort of desire to use complicated, go nowhere sentences. Write so that you can be understood, or why bother.

4: Writers use incomplete sentences. Make sure that your sentences can stand alone—in other words that it has a subject, an action and appropriate connecting words.

5: New authors commonly write sentences that are too long and/or too complex. If someone has to read a sentence through again just to figure out what it means, the author has failed that reader.

6: Novice writers tend to repeat themselves. As an editor, I spend a great deal of my time suggesting that authors replace copycat words with fresh ones. When you finish a paragraph, read through it again to make sure that you haven’t repeated words such as, “had,” “also,” “very,” etc. When you are writing about a dog, vary the way you refer to him. Use his name, call him pup, the old guy, pet, canine, four-footed friend, fur kid, man’s best friend, etc.

7: I see some excellent, fresh writing and some boring, stale text. Make your paragraphs more interesting by varying the size and style of sentences and using unexpected words and phrases. One way to jazz up your writing is by increasing your vocabulary.

8: I also see manuscripts where authors use words that are too fancy and even obscure. Again, think about your audience. Ask, will they enjoy reading this or will it become a chore for them to make their way through unfamiliar territory?

9: Many authors aren’t sure where to break for a new paragraph. I deal with a lot of paragraphs that are too long.

10: Most authors use far too many instances of quotation marks. Often, it is Italics that they should use in order to emphasize a word or a phrase. Use Italics sparingly, however. Likewise, authors use quotation marks incorrectly in dialogue. They put punctuation outside of quotation marks and omit the comma before the quote, for example. Some don’t capitalize the first word in a quote—you should, you know. And, in dialogue, each new speaker starts a new paragraph.

11: Many writers today still use the passive instead of the active voice. Instead of writing, “The worm was put on the hook by the fisherman.” Say, “The fisherman baited the hook.” Rather than, “The chick was thought by us to be stunning.” Say, “We all agreed that the chick was hot.”

12: Probably the most consistent problem I see in editing is lack of consistency. Rather than charging my clients to fix inconsistencies, I generally suggest that they use the find and replace tool on their computer and do it themselves. When you finish your manuscript, make sure that the words you want capitalized are all capitalized, that the names of your characters stay true, without different spellings throughout, and that your facts stay the same.

13: Some authors lean too much on their editors. When I edit a manuscript for a client, I provide lessons as I go along. I teach the rules and techniques in hopes that the author actually learns from the experience. But, alas, some of them send me their second manuscripts with the same mistakes I encountered in their first. I guess some writers just aren’t interested in developing new skills.


Patricia Fry is the Executive Director of SPAWN (Small Publishers, Artists and Writers Network) and the author of 35 books. See her most recent books in the left column of this page.

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