First, this document was never intended to replace a good editor. (Good editor defined – i.e. one who works with you, who suggest rather than insists, and who occasionally doles out compliments. They are not your friend, they are the defender of your precious baby – your book – first and foremost, by making sure that it is concise and grammatically correct.) In fact, you should apply the rules of this list before you even send it to an editor. As for those of you absolutely convinced of your grammatical superiority, run through this checklist and see how you do. BTW, none of the people involved in this article are in any way convinced of their grammatical superiority. Most of them committed these mistakes. However we also recognize that sometimes and for some writers the services of an editor are not always something a new writer can afford. So we also offer this list so you can eliminate the mistakes most writers make.We’d also suggest that any writer pick up The Elements of Style. (Nothing against other style manuals, but TEOS is small, easy to access, and fairly inexpensive.)
So, to begin:
- One of the first things they may or may not tell you in your writing classes, groups or seminars, is that a novel is all about the action. It’s about doing things. People don’t ‘begin’ to do things, they don’t ‘start’ to do things, they DO them. When editing do a search for those particular words. So for example – ‘Smoke waited until they were distracted to begin nibbling at her hair again’ vs. ‘Smoke waited until they were distracted to nibble at her hair again.’ Which sounds better? (Smoke is a horse by the way…)
Don’t have your characters ‘start’ to do anything unless it’s the first in a series of things they’re going to do.
- Ditto feel and felt. Which sounds better – When he touched her it felt like she tingled all over -or- When he touched her she tingled all over?
For #1 and #2, a professional editor will often scribble “SDT”. This is not a disease, it means “Show Don’t Tell”.
- Next, search for contractions. For some reason many writers – and I am one of them – do not write in contractions. Especially with ‘had’. He had, she had, rather than he’d or she’d. This is a case by case option – for some to whom English is not their first language, they may not use contractions. Some folks don’t like to use them in writing (and some just like them because they bring their word count up). However, reread that second sentence. Sound funny? Not using contractions can leave your writing sounding stilted. Be very careful, though, not to do a universal search and replace, you’ll hate yourself in the morning. Once it’s saved you have no other choice but to search the entire document for the awkward mess you made of things. (We recommend starting a new copy of the manuscript when editing, just in case. It’s a lot easier to start over sometimes.) For example, a universal search and replace for ‘had not’ to ‘hadn’t’ will also changed ‘had noticed’ to ‘hadn’ticed’
- ‘There was’ Sometimes it’s justified. Look at each sentence to see if it can be rephrased to take those words out. Sometimes the sentence becomes much clearer without it.
- Speaking of there – their (possessive) there (in that direction) and they’re (they are). Also its (possessive) and it’s (it is.).
- *arrggh* The dreaded ‘that‘. That she, that he, that they… In most cases the use of the word ‘that’ is completely unnecessary, but we use it in speech and so it can sound right when you write it. Then there’s my personal bugaboo, using that rather than who. “The man that…” when it should be “the man who… “
- Just and only. Always make sure you really need to use them and they’re next to the word you want to modify. only costs vs. costs only, for example
- Was. Jim was shaking his head. Jim shook his head. Always watch for those ‘ing’ words. If you see a lot of them in your writing in conjunction with was, you need to change that sentence to make it more active.
- As if/like. Make sure you know which of them you really mean. Do a search for like, and in each place see if ‘as if’ doesn’t sound better.
- Watch split infinitives. Not all of them are bad – to boldly go where no man has gone before, where boldly splits to and go – is generally accepted. “I decided to not go” can sound awkward unless it’s dialogue.
- Of…. that’s another sneaky little beggar. ‘Inside it’ works as well as ‘inside of it…’ in most cases.
- Then and than. Then – what happens next, than – comparative. This is better than that.
- ‘Then’ and ‘and then’ are telling words, don’t use them. For instance: Then he went to sit down. Just say: He sat down. And then she set a bowl on the table. Just say: She set a bowl on the table. Using those words is like a narrator in your book telling us a story, it slows it down.
- Commas. If you have more than two it might be a good idea to look at the sentence and decide if it would work better as two separate sentences. This is DEFINITELY true if you have more than three. Watch for comma splices and run-on sentences.
Comma splice – It’s nearly half past five, we cannot reach town before dark. (Those are two separate thoughts, separate them by so, a period, dash or semicolon.)
- Run-on sentence – The airport is about to shut down because of the snow and if the plane doesn’t land soon it will have to go on to Boston. (Sticking an and in there doesn’t make it one sentence. A comma might help… but too many isn’t good either. Instead try – The airport is about to shut down because of the snow. If the plane doesn’t land soon it will have to go on to Boston.)
- Singular and plural pronouns. When speaking about an individual, the pronoun should be singular, when speaking about a group, it’s plural. Ex. It brought him to their feet.
- (Although this is primarily a grammar document, it is about writing and this has been seen too many times to go unremarked.) Don’t ‘Slug a Nun’. In other words, when doing anything, get to the point as quickly as possible. Don’t say “Mikey slugged a nun” and then take ten pages, eight of which explain the history of the Catholic Church before you explain WHY Mikey slugged the nun. You can explain why the history of the Catholic Church was instrumental after you explain why Mikey slugged the nun.
- Another very common mistake – Her eyes wandered. Please put them back in her head, that’s disgusting. Gazes may meet, or lock, etc., they might stare at each other but his eyes will never wander over her breasts unless it’s a zombie movie and they’ve gained legs. Some editors might let this go by, but still, there are many synonyms for look, you should be able to find a much better way to say it.
- Watch for sentences that begin with the same word or same type of beginning. He did this, he did that. Or There was. Mix sentence structures up, long and short. Use sentence structure to convey urgency or to slow the pace down. For whatever reason change it up so the reader doesn’t get bored.
One last little hint. By not doing a read-through sentence by sentence but using search instead, it forces you to look at each sentence individually, in isolation. It makes it much easier sometimes to spot errors you might otherwise have missed or question the wording of sentence. Try reading it out loud, or using text to voice to read it back to you, sometimes that will also pick up errors in flow.
Without a doubt there are many more examples, but these are the most common errors reported by editors blogs and comments. Even so remember that you have to preserve your ‘voice’ and the voice of your characters. They might use bad grammar. You can’t.
(Thanks to Valerie Douglas, Dannye Williamson, Rik Hall and Kai Wilson-Viola for their contributions.)