Friday, October 30

Do You Copy? Tips on Copy Editing Your Own Work

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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

Tense Issues 

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.

Parallel Series 

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. 

Ambiguous Pronouns 

“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?)

Looking for tips on planning and writing your novel? Check out my book 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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  1. One of my goofs was "the waves rolled like the serpentine back of a serpent." *headsmack*

    P.S. I actually order all my blond hair from Geveg.

  2. Love your examples. I'm working on revisions now so this is great. Thanks!

  3. Steve: LOL oh you just made my day with that blond hair comment. Thanks!

    Raelyn: Most welcome. :)

  4. Awesome post, Janice! I love new editing tips.

  5. I leaned toward all WAS and HAD is evil, but I realize now they are sometimes actually needed!

  6. Angie: Thanks. Me too ;) They're great on those days when I know I need to write but don't feel creative. I can edit and do the more proofing-type stuff.

    Stephsco: They really are. The longer I do this the more I see no word is evil. Everything has its place. Hmm...that might make a good post actually. Thanks!

  7. My Freshman English T.A. really hated it, and would mercilessly criticize my use of it in my assignments. Now I rarely use it unless I think it's blatantly obvious what it means.

  8. JD: And copy editors will love you for that :)

  9. I'll chime in and say this is a great post, too. In my last book, my editor noted that I gave 3 characters some of the same facial features. It takes a steady eye to catch inconsistencies.

  10. Karen: Don't you love when that happens? (well, love/hate if you know what I mean) I feel so bad that I missed it but so impressed by those who find it.

  11. Re: Ambiguous Pronouns I know in this era of political correctness, writers like to use "it" and "they" so as to include both sexes in a reference. That being said, what really makes me wince is writing in which a character's gender has been established previously, but who is referred to as "they" later in the narrative.

    1. I'm guilty of using they as a neutral pronoun (all those "his or her" just sound too formal to me), but I agree with last part. If the gender has been established, they would indeed feel weird.

  12. A reader (and friend thank goodness) made fun of me mercilessly for a body part mistake - instead of writing "he spun around" I wrote "his feet spun around". I didn't really get the problem at first until she pointed out that feet only "spin" on cartoon characters.

    1. Funny! It's such a weird thing, because we all do it, and sometimes it works fine, but others it sounds hysterical. I think it all depends on what image it evokes.

  13. Oh, tenses definitely! I can go back to work on a different day and I want to change all the tenses around. I've lost count of how many times I've changed my chapter and sub headings (restore to restoring and back again etc.).

    I'm not sure how to master them...

    1. I was working on two projects at once a few years ago (drafting one, edits on the other) and one was in past tense, the other present tense. I can't tell you how often I caught myself using the wrong one and had to backtrack to fix it. Ugh.

  14. "His greed had turned to war, and he crushed all of us under his boot, racing to get even more power." - Not necessarily a 'goof'. His greed had turned to war at some point in the past and now he was in the process of crushing us under his boot. Anyway, normal advice is to suet he pluperfect sparingly. Once you've taken us to that previous point in the past, it's considered fine, even recommend to carry on with a normal perfect or preterit

    1. I suppose it stands out more to me as the author :)