Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Red Pencil Your Prose

By Deborah Sharp

Wearing my hat as a board member for the Florida chapter of Mystery Writers of America, I choose the speakers for our monthly luncheon meetings.

Recently, we had a professional editor come to talk. She filled us in on some of the most common mistakes made by newbie writers. Some not-so-newbies, too, since I recognized some of my own manuscript missteps in her talk that day.

I was a newspaper reporter for many years, and I learned to be a pretty ''clean'' writer -- not a lot of typos, misspellings, or bad punctuation. Still, I have some blind spots. I sometimes rely too heavily on adverbs (she said apologetically). I'm also guilty of using ''-ing'' phrases at the beginning of sentences: Pausing while writing, she realized it was now past her bedtime and she should have begun this post two hours ago.

Susan Bryant, the founder of EditorGuru in southern Florida, says both those are common mistakes she sees in manuscripts. Susan provides her editing and writing services to clients who need help with everything from crafting a resume to polishing a full-length novel. As part of her talk, she also gave our group information on the range of services provided by an editor -- all the way from basic proof-reading to a comprehensive reconstruction, which would add depth and details and crystallize focus. Anyone hiring an editor, she said, should request references. The writer and editor should also be in clear agreement about cost, and whether the fee will be based on word count, number of pages, or hours the editor works.

Get those red pencils ready. Susan pointed to the following errors as among the most common she sees. How many have you committed?

* Redundancy (Watch for wordiness, or characters repeating things they've already mentioned)

* Factual errors (Be sure to check the spelling/location for proper names and places)

* Passive instead of active verbs

* Cliches (Whether hackneyed sayings, or one-dimensional characters lacking depth)

* Clunky substitutes for the word ''said.'' (John sneered. Amy chortled. Roger roared. )

* Adverbs instead of strong verbs (Sue angrily set her glass on the table. Sue slammed her glass . . .)

* Stilted, unnatural-sounding dialogue (Read it out loud)

* Telling, instead of showing (Donna was nervous. -vs- Donna chewed her nails. Her leg jiggled.)

* Long tangents that spotlight an author's passion or hobby, but don't advance the story

* Jarring shifts in point-of-view. (You can't be in the head of more than one character at a time)

* Introducing a character with a long description of personality and emotions. Instead, let actions reveal character, or have other characters tell the story of who this person is.

How'd you do? Not a flood of red on your pages, I hope. Have you ever hired an editing pro? Good experience or bad?


Unknown said...

Excellent reminders, Deborah - and for too many would-be writers, excellent new information! I am sharing this link on my author page and with a community writers' grouo I sometimes attend.

Unknown said...

Perhaps proofreading before sending comments should be added to the list for people like me, who are in writers' groups, not grouos. :-)

Deborah Sharp said...

Ha! I laughed when I read that, Sheila. I also noted in my post that, sure enough, I started a sentence with an 'ing' phrase!! Ack. Talk about do as I say, not as I do ...