All authors remember that important day—that fateful moment—when they finished the last sentence for the first draft of their novel. Authors often go through many revisions while crafting the first draft of their novel. After the first draft is complete, one of the next critical steps in the publishing process is finding a professional editor that has the right expertise, experience in editing books in related genres, and personality to edit your book.
An experienced, detail-oriented editor—with excellent communication, time management, and fact-checking skills—can improve your writing on many levels, but it is not possible to cover all the benefits in one article. A developmental editor can help an author with issues in the story itself, including plot holes, characterization, and pacing; but this article will cover some of the finer points and common writing issues that editors look for and correct in a manuscript.
This article will focus on how the right editor can improve the cohesiveness, the consistency, and the overall readability of an author’s manuscript in three important areas: language and flow, clarity, and common inconsistencies.
Table of contents
- I. Language and Flow
- II. Clarity
- III. Common Inconsistencies
- Some Final Thoughts
I. Language and Flow
1. Repetitive Language and Sentence Structure
When authors are so focused on creating and answering the call of inspiration, it is not uncommon for some to have repetitive language and sentence structure issues in their manuscript without realizing it.
Overused Words: Editors review and note when authors have overused words in a manuscript and suggest other word choice options the author can use to break up the repetitive language. When authors overuse certain words, those words lose their appeal and effectiveness.
For example, some authors will overuse certain adjectives and verbs because they like the impact those words have and don’t realize they’re overusing them.
Repetitive sentence structure: It is recommended to avoid starting three or more sentences in a row with the same word and/or similar sentence structure, as this habit can lead to monotonous, less engaging writing.
For example, it is too repetitive if an author uses “She” or “Her” (pronouns) at the beginning of each sentence in a paragraph—instead of having more variation by using the person’s name or other wording to start some of the sentences.
Repetitiveness in dialogue: Sometimes, some authors use repetitive language intentionally, but it is recommended to keep dialogue fresh, and that writing habit includes not overusing the same dialogue tags or other verbs.
Writers include dialogue tags—for example, “said” (“Sarah said”)—so readers know who is speaking a particular line (or lines) of dialogue. Editors flag repetitive dialogue tags and can offer alternatives where authors are experiencing issues in this area.
- Repetitive dialogue tags: The common dialogue tags—such as “said,” “replied,” and “asked”—are often overused. When authors repetitively use the same dialogue tags with no variation, this habit can lead to monotonous and redundant writing. When authors write and structure conversations correctly in a novel—and they use action (action beats) to show who is speaking, not just dialogue tags—it is unnecessary to have dialogue tags every time there is a new speaker in a conversation.
- Inappropriate dialogue tags: A skilled editor can assist authors to ensure they are using appropriate dialogue tags; if an author uses inappropriate or overly dramatic dialogue tags, this habit can create redundancies and/or give the impression to readers that the author is an inexperienced writer.
For example, ideally, the dialogue and action in a story should be strong enough in conveying the emotions of the characters, so it is often unnecessary to use “dramatic” dialogue tags such as “shrieked” and “howled.” If authors use these dialogue tags instead of the more common tags—such as “said” and “replied”—to add more “pizzazz” to their story, then this stylistic choice can make their writing seem overly dramatic.
Tip: When you’re writing dialogue, keep in mind the physical challenges of hissing or full-on laughing while saying a coherent sentence; it is not recommended to use “laugh,” “sigh,” or “smile” as dialogue tags, as that would mean that the person speaking is “laughing” (sighing or smiling) that line of dialogue.
Avoid using “laughed” as a dialogue tag: For example, “Jane is wearing such a hideous outfit,” Sally laughed.
An experienced, professional editor is skilled in reviewing an author’s writing and trimming sentences or rewording sentences that are overly wordy; they are experienced in offering suggestions while honoring the author’s voice—which includes their tone, their choice of words, and how they commonly structure sentences.
Editors offer suggestions in many areas to improve conciseness in a manuscript:
- Editors suggest other wording options and/or trim a sentence where an author can get their ideas across in fewer words.
- They combine sentences where needed to eliminate redundancies, repetitiveness, and wordiness.
- Editors suggest more specific word options when the original wording is vague so readers will not be confused or interrupted while they’re reading.
3. Redundancies and Clichés
Editors apply their knowledge of the meaning and power of words to eliminate redundancies and cliché expressions by suggesting alternative words or wording the author can use. When an author uses two words together that have similar meanings, it is a waste and makes the manuscript unpolished; and cliché expressions have outlived their usefulness and power because authors have overused them.
Cliché expressions: “It’s an uphill battle.”, “Here’s a blast from the past for you.”
It is redundant to say, “He is a tall, lanky man,” as lanky means tall and thin.
Mary drove to the hospital to see Greg.
MaryShe drove faster than normal to get there and tried to ignore the sadness and despair she felt. When Mary arrived, she went to the gift shop first to buy Greg his favorite chocolate. She didn't know what she was going to do when Greg left her for good, but she thought, I'll have to cross that bridge when I get to it.
This example above has various issues that an editor would comment on and suggest changes for the author: The editor’s changes are in blue font.
- Repetitive Sentence Structure: There are three sentences in a row starting with “Mary,” so the editor in this example has offered two suggestions to break up the repetitive sentence structure and left a comment for the author about the repetitive language.
- Redundancies: Sadness and despair share very similar meanings, so it is redundant to use them together. The editor has deleted “despair” and left “sadness” to avoid the redundancy, and they also commented about the redundant word choices there and that it is up to the author’s final say what they choose to use.
- Cliché: The author has used a cliché expression: I’ll have to cross that bridge when I get to it. The editor has added a comment for the author to consider using different wording to avoid using this cliché expression.
Tip: If you review your writing while it is still fresh (after you have finished writing for the day), then you can spot and note where you are being repetitive, redundant, or cliché and work to break that habit earlier on in the manuscript. You will have a helpful guide if you write down/track the words you overuse so you can research other word choice options and break up the repetitive language in your manuscript.
Oh, and by the way, did you catch the intentional cliché in the title of this article?
Clarity is something all authors need help with from time to time. Editors review an author’s word choice/wording, sentence structure, and transitions to ensure the writing is clear and flows with ease.
1. Vague/Unclear Words and Sentences
An experienced and thorough editor will flag the words and sentences that are unclear or need more elaboration in a manuscript; and they will offer suggestions, if possible, so the author has new ideas/options to ensure the writing is clear, informative, and engaging.
For example, when authors start sentences with vague words, such as “it,” “this,” and “that,” this unclear wording might confuse readers and disrupt their flow while they’re reading.
2. Active Voice or Passive Voice?
It is recommended to not use passive voice excessively, as that can negatively affect the clarity, flow, and conciseness of your writing—but, in some cases, passive voice works better for certain sentences. In a sentence written in active voice, the subject is clearly identifiable and performs the action expressed in the verb in the sentence; in a sentence written in passive voice, the emphasis is on who or what is receiving the action (instead of the subject performing the action).
Active Voice Example (recommended sentence structure): An intruder shattered the kitchen window to enter the home while the owners were on vacation.
Passive Voice Example (not recommended): The kitchen window was shattered by an intruder as he entered the home while the owners were on vacation.
As seen in the example sentences above, the first sentence (the active voice example) is the better option in this case for added clarity, conciseness, and flow. (Read more about this topic on the CMOS website.)
3. Smooth and Clear Transitions
Word choice is an important part of clarity in writing, but a manuscript also needs to have smooth, consistent, and clear transitions for added readability and flow. Editors can offer a fresh perspective and suggestions to improve the transitions between sentences, paragraphs, scenes, and chapters in a manuscript; smooth transitions help to ensure that readers will not experience unintentional confusion or a loss of flow and focus while they’re reading.
- Clear and consistent transitions between time changes/scene jumps are a crucial element so readers can follow the story and timeline in a book. One of the more common ways to alert readers about a scene and/or time change in a story is to put a string of three asterisks (* * *)—a dinkus—before the paragraph of a new scene. For the sake of clarity and cohesion, it is recommended to choose one style/option and use it consistently to mark all scene changes in a manuscript.
Tip: Before you begin the professional editing stage, it can be very helpful to have friends and family—or other people of your choosing—read your manuscript and have them note where the sentences, word choices, and transitions are unclear to them.
III. Common Inconsistencies
Authors often need help with spotting and correcting various inconsistencies in the text and the manuscript itself.
1. Incorrect and Inconsistent Spelling
A common consistency issue is when words are not spelled the same way throughout a manuscript.
For example, an editor tracks and will correct when characters’ names or other names are inconsistently spelled, and they will correct any misspelled words according to MW Dictionary when an author has a habit of incorrectly hyphenating words.
Tip: It is important to keep track of (log) the names of all the characters in a novel and use the “Find” feature in MS Word to track the spelling and references, especially in fiction novels, where authors sometimes change the name of a character after they’ve started writing a novel.
2. Inconsistent Punctuation
Professional editors have the skills and tools to ensure that authors are consistently and correctly using punctuation throughout their manuscripts. If sentences have inconsistent, incorrect, or missing punctuation, then readers could misunderstand what the author was trying to say.
- Inconsistent use of the Oxford (or serial) comma (for US English books)
- Inconsistent use of double quotation marks for dialogue and single quotation marks for quotes within quotes
- Incorrect and inconsistent punctuation where an author has altered words (For example, abbreviated decades should have an apostrophe before them: the 1980s abbreviated becomes the ’80s.)
These examples listed above are just a few of the inconsistent punctuation issues that editors flag, track, and fix to polish an author’s writing.
3. Inconsistent Capitalization
Another common issue editors track and correct is capitalization errors and inconsistencies.
For example, titles, such as “Sergeant” and “Pope,” should be consistently capitalized when someone uses the title before the person’s name to address them or speak about them, but titles should only be capitalized when they come before the person’s name and have no “the” before them.
For example (sergeant is not capitalized in this case): The sergeant arrived late for the meeting.
When a professional editor reviews and edits an author’s manuscript, they use their knowledge of CMOS guidelines and know to look for these inconsistencies, so it reduces the chances of these inconsistencies appearing in the text at publication.
Tip: The creative process is a two-way street when you work with an editor. Your manuscript is your creative baby; and it is important to have open communication with your editor—including sharing your personal preferences and stylistic choices—as this helps them honor your authorial voice and meet the specific needs of your manuscript.
Some Final Thoughts
Nothing, not even software programs, can fully match what a professional editor can offer in catching errors and inconsistencies and providing in-depth feedback on an author’s writing.
Is your manuscript ready for an expert editor to take a deeper look at your writing? The friendly, skilled editors at Ebook Launch are ready to help you on this journey. Read about the various editing levels that Ebook Launch provides here.
Chicago Manual of Style. “Usage and Grammar.” Style Q & A. Last modified 2017. https://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/qanda/data/faq/topics/Usage/faq0198.html.