how to fix common writing mistakes

Editors are busy, time-constrained professionals who read all day long.

With only so many hours in the day, your editor wants to focus on helping you create amazing story arcs and deep, engaging characters. She does not want to spend her valuable time fixing your spelling, grammar, weak words, and awkward sentence constructions.

Your editor—whether a freelancer you’ve hired or the publishing house acquisitions editor you’re asking to publish your book—expects to see a certain level of polish. Unless you want to see the veins stand out on her neck, fix these 7 common issues before you submit your manuscript.

7 common editing mistakes and how to fix them

1. Cut the Adverbs

Have you heard these wise words before?

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”
— Stephen King

“An adverb modifies a verb, and nine times out of ten? If you need to modify the verb? It’s because you’re using the wrong verb.”
— Max Adams

“Cross out as many adjectives and adverbs as you can.”
— Anton Chekhov

“Death to all modifiers, he declared one day, and out of every letter that passed through his hands went every adverb and every adjective.”
— Joseph Heller

Adverbs, more often than not, prop up a weak verb. You’re better off cutting the adverb and using a strong verb in its place. Consider the following before-and-after examples:

  1. “I never want to see you again,” she said furiously. She pulled the door closed loudly as she left.
  2. “I never want to see you again,” she snapped, slamming the door behind her.

Which version paints a better picture in your mind?

Trust strong verbs and nouns to do the work for you rather than rely on adverbs. Use an editing tool to highlight every adverb and then go back and replace them with stronger wording.

2. Fix Your Repetitions

Do too many of your sentences start with pronouns?

She said okay. He held the door open. They left together. It was raining outside.

While this is an obvious example, you’d be amazed how often it happens. When you’re writing a scene about your main character, I’ll bet you’ve used “she” too many times. Frequently starting sentences with a pronoun makes writing feel tedious and dull.

Similarly, you might not notice that three sentences in a row start with an “-ing” word. Consider the following:

Eliminating the errors is the best course of action. Fixing the discrepancies will go a long way to making your editor happy. Submitting your manuscript in a polished state makes any editor smile.

Vary your sentence structures to keep your readers engaged with your work. When you start some sentences with clauses, some with pronouns, and others with proper nouns, you mix it up enough to keep it fresh.

3. Death to Clichés!

And you thought adverbs were bad!

Editors suffer apoplexy when confronted with clichés. Unoriginality at its worst, clichés scream of lack of imagination or just plain laziness. Safeguard your editor’s health by finding an original way of describing people, places, or situations.

This great quote comes to mind:

“Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”
— George Orwell

What should you do instead? Call on vivid imagery, weird associations, counterintuitive comparisons, and so on. This is the time to let your personality as a writer shine through—be as unique as you like, and use those writing skills of yours to paint a truly original picture that will captivate your reader, instead of making their eyes glaze over at a well-worn turn of phrase.

4. Eliminate Redundancies

Redundancies creep into manuscripts all the time and they drive editors crazy.

Don’t “add an additional” chair to the table.  Just “add” the chair.

Don’t send “send advance notice” to your editor, just “notify” her.

Don’t “ask a question” of your editor, just “ask” him what you need to know.

Each of the above examples creates excessive words that your reader, and your poor editor, must wade through. Why do that to them?

Be kind. Ruthlessly cut redundant words and phrases—your editor will appreciate it. And, perhaps even more importantly, so will your readers.

Here are some more redundancies that seem to roll off the tongue (or fly from the fingers):

  • First began
  • False pretense
  • Final outcome
  • Collaborate together
  • Advance planning
  • Absolutely necessary
  • Frozen ice
  • Armed gunman
  • Past history
  • First conceived

Are you guilty of using any of these?

5. Use Active Voice

This is one of those rules passed down by generations of writers—because it’s good advice. Sentences written in the active voice tend to be stronger than those written in passive voice.

In an active sentence, the subject is at the start and the object is at the end. For example:

  • Tommy delivered the newspapers. (subject – verb – object)

In the passive, it’s reversed:

  • The newspapers were delivered by Tommy. (object – verb – subject)

Neither of these sentences is grammatically incorrect. However, you want your strong verbs coming from the subject, rather than the subject having something done to it.

Like many of these rules, this does not mean that you must remove every occurrence of the passive voice—sometimes it works—but often, your sentence will be more effective if you rearrange it.  To more effectively self-edit your passive voice out, use an editing tool to highlight instances of passive voice so that you can reconsider them.

6. Declutter Your Sentences

“Sticky sentences” are filled with glue words (of, the, an, on, at, that, is, have, etc). Glue words offer no meaning or clarity to your sentence; they just take up space.

Here’s an example:

Because of the fact that I was able to get good grades, my dream of becoming a student at an Ivy League college is almost coming to fruition.

The Glue Index (the number of sticky words compared to the total words in the sentence) is 53.6%. You want that number below 40%. Consider this rewrite:

With my good grades, I will reach my dream of attending Yale.

The first sentence had 28 words that wound around and didn’t get right to the point. The second one is 12 words long, has a Glue Index of 33.3%, and states the point succinctly.

Use an editing tool to find the sentences in your document with a high Glue Index and see if you can make them clearer.

7. Vary Your Sentence Lengths

Short sentences are choppy. Long, verbose sentences that crawl around, weaving through several different ideas without leading anywhere in particular, are hard to follow. Sentences with between 11 and 18 words are average and easier to read.

When you vary your sentence lengths, you create an engaging rhythm that readers and editors respond to. You want your editor to comment positively on your sentence variety. Good sentence variation looks like this:

writing sentence length report tool

Source: ProWritingAid Sentence Length Report.

Another important element to make your work engaging is how easy it is to read. Check the Flesch Reading Ease Score of your document. If the average fifth grader can read your manuscript and understand it, you’ve achieved success. If your editor sends your manuscript back with red pen everywhere asking you to simplify, your readability needs work.

Your goal is not to impress your editor with your command of a unique and intricate vocabulary—or to prove that you own a great thesaurus. It’s to clearly tell an engaging story in the simplest, most inconspicuous way possible. If a reader—or an editor—stumbles through your work, expect some yelling.

Conclusion

Give your readers, and your poor editor, a break! Don’t bog them down with errors and technical gaffes that you could (and should) have caught.

An editing tool like ProWritingAid will help you tighten up your writing so that everyone can concentrate on the amazing story you’re telling. Your editor can focus on helping you create real-life characters and a thrilling narrative arc that keeps readers turning pages until the very end.

And isn’t that what everyone wants?

About the Author

lisa lepki prowritingaid headshotLisa Lepki is the managing editor of the ProWritingAid blog. A word nerd, she loves the technical elements of writing almost as much as the writing itself. She is the co-author of The Novel-Writing Training Plan and 20 Editing Tips from Professional Writers.

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