Recently, I gave an online class on revising and self-editing. Before that, I asked a group of editors for their thoughts on the most common errors they came across when editing fiction. More than two dozen colleagues responded. These are the errors they say they find the most:
· Punctuation and misplaced modifiers
· On the other hand, over-adherence to the rules of grammar, particularly in dialogue, said Barb Adamski.
· Inconsistencies in names, geographical errors, and timeline issues
· Attempting to say something really simple—but in a convoluted “fancy” manner that results in the line making zero sense.
· Unnecessary segues, such as “and then” or “having said that.”
· Repetitiveness and redundancy
Telling versus showing
Telling, rather than showing was mentioned by numerous editors. What is meant by “telling”? Here, several editors discuss how they see this in novels they’ve edited.
· “Lengthy dialogue recaps of events from earlier in the book,” said Kate Cousino.
· A subset of telling versus showing is “having characters discuss things in dialogue that no rational person would,” said Karin Horwatt Cather. “For instance, two characters at a fireplace, one of whom says, ‘And you know, of course, that the pasteurization of milk contributed greatly to reduction of food-borne illness in children and is one of society’s greatest advances.’ The other says, ‘Why, yes, Myrtle, and this century has seen the invention of many labor-saving devices.’ ”
· “Laundry list” descriptions. Said one: “Most fiction writers I’ve worked with, except for a few who are highly skilled, think that they are a camera, a lens that looks at things, so they have to describe what they're looking at, e.g., ‘Her honey-gold hair was parted in the center, framing a high forehead above two exquisitely arched brows, over two azure-blue eyes, gracing a pair of rosy, slightly in-drawn cheeks...’ and so on for a dozen pages until we get to the shoes, sandals, or boots in question.”
· Overtelling (listing every single move or step or word exchanged).
· Overdescription, also, “can turn a good story into a slog,” said one editor. “Readers don’t need to know exactly what everything looks/sounds/smells/feels like. One or two well-chosen details are usually enough; readers have enough imagination to fill in the rest.”
· But, as writer and editor Carolyn Haley said: “As a writer, I find showing versus telling spectacularly difficult to do in many instances. So I represent a majority of our fiction client base, I suspect.”
· The expectation that “everybody” knows what they’re talking about
· Unduly assuming readers will understand a character’s point of view or motivation, when the writer has done too little to make that a fair assumption.
Characterization, POV, Dialogue
· Head-hopping: Changing the character’s point of view to another character’s point of view from one paragraph to the next.
· The Uncle Remus “dialect effect” (using dialect so much that it becomes a parody or is insensitive to a culture).
· Disappearing characters. “Aunt Lydia plays a large supporting role in the first three chapters and then disappears, never to return,” said one editor.
· “Ten variations of describing eye color for one character in two pages: cerulean, cornflower, azure, sapphire, turquoise,” said Dori Birch.
· Not enough world building and not enough character building. “Too much basing—subconscious or otherwise—their plot and world on stuff they’ve seen or read. Which is something that good world building will combat,” said one editor.
Lack of historical research. Authors don’t check timelines and when certain technologies were invented. “If the story takes place before the early 1990s, your characters cannot have cell phones and iPads,” one editor said.
· Heavy use of narrative at the beginning, dumping backstory.
· Lazy writing near the end of the story. “I call it ‘I’m sick of this story’ syndrome,” said Birch.
· Confusion of tenses, especially in flashbacks.
· Jerky, choppy rhythm
· Too much irrelevant detail.
It’s all about the word count
“Getting more obsessed with word count than the story. ‘It can’t be a story unless it’s more than 200,000 words!’ It then becomes the story that never ends...” said Birch.
One editor summed it up nicely: “Much of what has been discussed could be reduced if the writer would read it aloud. If it doesn’t seem correct when read aloud, fix it. If portions are deadly boring to read aloud, delete or edit those portions.”
Lourdes Venard is a freelance editor and copyediting instructor.