By Lisa Lepki
As the Editor of ProWritingAid’s blog, I am constantly reading submissions from writers, and few things irk me more than common technical gaffes and stylistic errors. And I don’t mean just grammar errors (though you better catch those too)! A text can be grammatically correct but still awkward and technically lazy.
As a writer, you want your editor to pay attention to the meat of your work, not your weak word choices and convoluted sentence structures. I have neither the time, nor the inclination, to spend ages working on the basic readability of a text, and so nothing makes me reject a piece faster than writing that is not technically tight.
Here are five things you can do today to make your editor happy.
1. “Cross out as many adjectives and adverbs as you can.” —Anton Chekhov
Sage advice that still holds true today. Many editors, publishers, and authors all advise writers to search out strong nouns and verbs so you don’t need to rely on adjectives and adverbs. Adverbs, in particular, are too often used to prop up a weak verb. In most instances, you’re better off deleting the adverb and finding a strong verb to take its place.
Note the difference in the following examples (adverbs in bold):
“You need to leave now,” Chloe said furiously. She pushed him forcefully out the door and closed it quickly.
Chloe grabbed him by the collar and said, “You need to leave now.” She shoved him through the door, slamming it in his face.
Which version brings up a vivid image in your mind’s eye?
Before you send work off to an editor, circle every adjective and adverb. Is there a stronger noun or verb you can use instead? Or, can you demonstrate the meaning of the adverb (e.g. furiously) through actions (e.g. grabbing his collar and slamming the door) instead of description?
2. Use active voice
Active voice uses a subject followed by a verb in its sentence construction. Passive voice puts the verb before the subject, and it’s sometimes hard to catch. Here are a few grammatically-correct examples, but they’re still passive.
The Leaning Tower of Pisa is visited by thousands of tourists every year.
The entire subdivision was flattened by the tornado.
Here are the sentences rewritten in active voice:
Thousands of tourists visit the Leaning Tower of Pisa every year.
The tornado flattened the entire subdivision.
Unless you’re a mystery writer trying to misdirect your readers, try to always use active voice. It keeps your readers flowing through your work. If readers have to stop and reread to understand who’s doing what, you will take their focus off your idea.
Sometimes it’s hard to find passive voice in your work. An editing tool can instantly find both passive and hidden verbs to help you strengthen your work before an editor sees it.
3. “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” —George Orwell
If something is a cliché, it means that everyone has heard it so many times that it has lost all impact. You will never impress your readers by using words that they have heard a thousand times before. Instead, you need to find a new and unique way to make your point—that is how you really make an impression.
But sometimes clichés slip in as you’re writing. That’s fine. If you are in the flow of writing and let a cliché or two drop in so you don’t break your momentum, no problem. Just remember that when you do your self-edit, you need to ferret out the overused figures of speech and replace them with something original and fresh.
And if you’re too close to see where you’ve slipped into clichéd writing, use an editing tool that hunts them for you.
4. Fix your repetitions
Again, when you’re in flow, you may not notice that four sentences in a row start with a pronoun. But your readers will because something will feel wrong, or repetitious, about your wording. Have a look at this example. It’s all grammatically correct but it is tedious to read:
She woke up and smelled coffee brewing in the kitchen. He entered the bedroom a short time later with a sheepish smile and tray of precariously balanced plates of scrambled eggs and toast. It was nearly 11am. She patted the space beside her on the bed and he climbed back in under the covers. She could already tell that this was going to be a wonderful day.
Another common repetition is starting several sentences in your work with “-ing” words. Here’s an example:
Eliminating the easy-to-find technical gaffes will make any editor happy. Fixing the bigger discrepancies like plot holes is the best use of your editor’s time and your money. Turning your manuscript over to your editor as polished as possible benefits both of you in the end.
Vary your sentence structures to keep readers engaged throughout. You want to mix it up to keep your readers focused on your story instead of how many times you start a sentence with “She.”
5. Make your work as readable as possible.
There are two ways to accomplish this: vary your sentence lengths and simplify your language.
Too many short sentences will make your writing feel choppy. On the other hand, too many long sentences that wander along different avenues can make your writing feel overly-complicated and verbose. Medium sentences between 11 and 18 words are average and easier to read. You want your work to have a rhythm to it, and you do this through sentence variety. Each paragraph should have some short, medium, and long sentences.
Secondly, make your work more readable by telling your story plainly and simply. Don’t try to impress your readers with an intricate, polysyllabic vocabulary. Rather, make your words as simple as possible so readers fly through without stumbling or needing a dictionary. A good rule of thumb is if the average middle-schooler can read your work and understand it, you’re good to go. Use an editing tool to check the readability score of your text.
So, give your editor a break. Don’t rely on her to find the technical and stylistic gaffes you should have caught yourself. Let her concentrate on the big picture while you take care of the technical writing edits.
Sometimes self-editing is easier said than done. In fact, some writers will put their manuscripts aside for years because they don’t want to face editing them.
Don’t let your manuscript collect dust. Use an editing tool like ProWritingAid to catch the above suggestions and more. More robust than your spell checker, an editing tool will find a multitude of technical edits beyond simple grammar and punctuation. It will also help you find clear, concise ways to improve your prose and make it shine.
Give online editing tools a whirl, take them through their paces, and then decide which gives you the best return on your valuable resources.
Lisa Lepki is the Editor of the ProWritingAid blog. A word nerd, she loves the technical elements of writing almost as much as the writing itself. She is the co-author of The Novel-Writing Training Plan and 20 Editing Tips from Professional Writers. Her work can also be found on Writer’s Digest, bookbaby.com, The Write Life, and DIYAuthor.
The basic version of ProWritingAid is free to use but Lisa has generously offered to give all Kobo Writing Life readers 25% off ProWritingAid Premium, which allows writers to integrate the editing tool into MS Word, Google Docs, Scrivener and other writing software. Just use KOBO2018 when on ProWritingAid.com.