This week's Refresher Friday takes an edited look at some copy editing tips and how to spot some subtle goofs in your final draft. Enjoy!
I’ve been lucky to have worked with some really top-notch copy editors over at HarperCollins. Their attention to detail and the variety of things they catch is quite impressive, and I learned something every time they proofed one of my books. Which of course meant my next book was cleaner and took less editing (or at least that's the goal).
As you do the final polish run on your own novels, keep an eye out for these very common editing goofs
Writing always feels immediate to me because it's in my head and pouring onto the page. So tenses can get a little wonky without me realizing it. As a result, sometimes those pesky “hads” don’t always make it into a sentence that really needs them.
Watch for places where the text refers to something that has already happened, but perhaps left off a necessary “had.”
His greed had turned to war, and he crushed all of us under his boot, racing to get even more power.Spot the goof? “he crushed” should be “he’d crushed,” because the narrator is talking about something that happened in the past, not something happening right now. Doing a search for every "had" to ensure the verb tense is aligned correctly is too much to expect, but it's not a bad idea to check the passages you know are referring to past events.
When we talk about things in a series, the things all need to match. When they don’t, it can create some really weird sentences that don’t make sense.
He had thousands of acres, hundreds of farmhands, and some merchants and traders had established shops there like a small village.See the awkwardness of the last bit? If we broke this into individual sentences, we’d get:
He had thousands of acres.
He had hundreds of farmhands.
He had some merchants and traders had established shops there like a small village.
Ew, that doesn’t work at all. We need to break it up a bit and get that last part out of the series of what "he" had.
He had thousands of acres and hundreds of farmhands, and some merchants and traders had established shops there like a small village.Now it's two separate ideas--this dude has a lot of land and workers, and a village has appeared. When you spot a passage in the text with a series, pause to see if they're parallel or out of whack.
“It” tends to be the most common offender here, but ambiguity can happen with any pronoun. Since we as the author know what noun we’re referring to, the unclear sentence reads just fine to us. But there might be other nouns that the pronoun actually refers to structurally.
How could you stop someone who could heal their own wounds, push it into their pynvium armor, and keep on fighting?What does the “it” here refer to? Based on that sentence, it seems like “wounds” right? But the narrator isn’t talking about that. She’s talking about pushing pain in to the armor, which isn't mentioned.
Check those its.
(Here's more on ambiguous pronouns)
Not Quite the Right Word
We see this a lot with eyes and heads doing things eyes and heads can’t do. We visualize something, and describe it, but what we really mean isn’t what made it to the page.
The horse nibbled grass, tearing it out of the ground with quick twists of its teeth.Teeth don’t exactly twist, do they? You probably know what I meant, but the visual is more like some freak of nature with a mouth that rotates. It’s really the horse’s head that twists.
Pay attention to body parts and make sure they can actually do what you say they’re doing.
(Here's more on wandering body parts)
Who vs. That
Mixing this one up can create some pretty funny sentences, but it's easy enough to fix with a quick search for "who" and "that" and edited as needed. Who is for people, that is for things.
Some of the people looked Baseeri, a few entire families with black hair and sad blue eyes, but we met a lot more folks with strong Verlattian features and clothes, and farmers with blond hair that could have been from Geveg.Okay, is it the hair that’s from Geveg or the farmer? “That” implies the hair, so it really should say “who” here. Farmers who could have been from Geveg.
(Here are more words to check on that final polish)
You don’t have to have a copy editor’s skills to get published, but developing good writing skills is never a bad idea. But for those choosing the indie author path, developing your copy editing skills is a necessity if you don't have the budget for a copy editor to proof your work--typos and bad editing look unprofessional and that will hurt your sales and your credibility.
What goofs have you made recently? (or ones you seem to keep making?)
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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