When you’re editing fiction, whether it’s a short story or an epic novel, you need to edit on several different levels.
There’s the full-scale revision stage: where you go from first draft to second draft, and probably lose or gain some characters, cut or add a bunch of material, and make some major alterations to your text.
Depending on how tidy your first draft is, you might go through several complete rewrites. But at some stage, you’ll get to a point where you’re fairly happy with the broad strokes of your novel: you’ve got the right scenes, in the right order, and you’re pretty happy with the general progression of paragraphs: the pacing feels good and you’ve got a balance of dialogue and narrative that’s appropriate for your style and genre.
At that point, you’re into the “sentence-level” of editing. This is where you zoom in on the details and make sure that every sentence is pulling its weight … and that there aren’t any awkward words or phrases that distract your reader from your story.
Quick note: I’m not going to cover common typos and misspellings here, or how a sentence is put together in English. If you want advice on those, check out Your Dictionary’s list of commonly misspelled words and About.com’s information on Subjects, Verbs, and Objects.
Here are ten common sentence-level mistakes that crop up for a lot of writers (me included!) and that you might need to fix when you’re editing at this level:
When this happens, it tends to be a problem throughout the story – so watch out for it cropping up in multiple places.
Over-explaining is when you spell things out too much for the reader. It’s like giving them the punchline of a joke, then laboriously explaining why it’s funny: you don’t make the joke funnier, you just diminish its impact.
Here’s an example:
While watching Martin and his friends carrying Martin’s belongings from his comfortable seat in the air-conditioned cab, Uncle Ray noticed that Martin owned no tools. Martin told him, “I’ve always lived with my dad, so I’ve never really needed tools. While you’re noticing things, have you noticed that you sitting there in the cab of the rental truck with the motor running and the air conditioning blasting is costing me a fortune in gas?”
Uncle Ray said that he had noticed, and that it was fine, and didn’t bother him.
Later, Uncle Ray gave him a fairly well-stocked tool set as a housewarming gift. The tool set came in its own toolbox. Martin told him, “Thanks! Uh, did you notice that the toolbox is pink, and says Her First Tool Kit in sparkly letters?”
Uncle Ray said that he had noticed and this was also fine, and didn’t bother him. Good old Uncle Ray. That guy was unflappable.
— Scott Meyer, Off to Be the Wizard
This would work much better without the final two sentences. We can tell that Ray is “unflappable” – we don’t need to be told. And adding these sentences on dilutes the “punchline” and ruins the nice (intentional) repetition from a couple of paragraphs previously.
Over-explaining is an easy mistake to make, especially when you’re drafting. It’s also an easy one to fix. If you suspect you’ve over-explained something, try cutting the second or third sentence of the paragraph and see if the rest stands alone more strongly.
#2: Repeated Words
When you’re writing, there are some words you’ll inevitably have to use over and over again: your characters’ names, functional words like “the” and “said”, and so on.
Watch out, though, for other words that creep in a bit too often. If you use the word “door” four times in a paragraph, for instance, it can start to sound a bit clunky and ill-thought-out.
In this single paragraph, “glass” is used three times (I realise there’s no particularly good alternative, but I feel that “front doors” would have been adequate without “glass” here), and “glass and steel” is almost repeated in “glass, steel”. Then “sandstone” is repeated across the paragraph break.
My destination is the headquarters of Mr. Grey’s global enterprise. It’s a huge twenty-story office building, all curved glass and steel, an architect’s utilitarian fantasy, with GREY HOUSE written discreetly in steel over the glass front doors. It’s a quarter to two when I arrive, greatly relieved that I’m not late as I walk into the enormous – and frankly intimidating – glass, steel, and white sandstone lobby.
Behind the solid sandstone desk, a very attractive, groomed, blonde young woman smiles pleasantly at me. She’s wearing the sharpest charcoal suit jacket and white shirt I have ever seen. She looks immaculate.
– E.L. James, Fifty Shades of Grey
Of course, you can repeat a word for effect: that’s fine. What you’re on the look-out for here is unintentional repetition.
#3: Too Many Similar-Sounding Sentences
This is one that I’ll admit I’m still working on! I have a habit of starting sentences, “He [verb]” or “She [verb]” and it can become a bit too repetitive.
You might find that you get into a run of lots of long sentences – or lots of short sentences – or lots of sentences which have a similar structure (e.g. a sub-clause, then a comma, then a main clause). Like having several instances of the same word, this can start to jar for the reader. Switch things around a bit by breaking a sentence up, or pulling two sentences together.
In these two paragraphs, for instance, it would help to have a few shorter sentences to break things up:
Although not overly handsome in a classical sense, the forty-five year old Langdon had what his female colleagues referred to as an ‘erudite’ appeal – wisps of gray in his thick brown hair, probing blue eyes, an arrestingly deep voice, and the strong, carefree smile of a collegiate athlete. A varsity diver in prep school and college, Langdon still had the body of a swimmer, a toned, six-feet physique that he vigilantly maintained with fifty laps a day in the university pool.
Langdon’s friends had always viewed him as a bit of an enigma – a man caught between centuries. On weekends he could be seen lounging on the quad in blue jeans, discussing computer graphics or religious history with students; other times he could be spotted in his Harris tweed and paisley vest, photographed in the pages of upscale art magazines at museum openings where he had been asked to lecture.
— Dan Brown, Angels and Demons
#4: Awkward or Clunky Phrasings
While this can be a tricky one to spot in your own work, sometimes a particular sentence just sounds … off. Maybe it uses a cliché, maybe it needs to be read twice in order to be understood, or maybe you’ve chosen a word that doesn’t quite fit the context.
One particularly common awkward phrasing is using lots of different nouns to refer to a character, in order to avoid repeating their name. Here’s an example – “Steve,” “the Australian” and “the man” all refer to the same character. (The sudden description of Steve, plonked into the narrative, is a little awkward, too).
‘I’ll just say a few words,’ Steve said, clearing his throat.
Sue adjusted the frame so that the Australian was on the left of the picture. The man was of medium height, thirtysomething, with black curly hair and a not unattractive face – what she could see of it behind his bulky sunglasses.
— Greg Wilson, Murder in Paradise
You might find that, when editing for this, it helps to actually read your work aloud: this slows you down and helps you spot when something sounds unnatural or awkward.
#5: Missing or Incorrect Commas, Dashes or Brackets
This is another one where I sometimes struggle! Brackets (parentheses) come in pairs, so it’s clear when one is missing – but dashes and commas can be used on their own in a sentence, so missing ones aren’t always obvious.
Here’s an example:
The rain had gone from a steady drizzle – early in the day, to a downpour that no-one, not even Bobby wanted to venture out into.
This should be punctuated with a matching dash (not a comma) at the end of the phrase “early in the day” and with a comma after “Bobby” to enclose the phrase “not even Bobby”.
The rain had gone from a steady drizzle – early in the day – to a downpour that no-one, not even Bobby, wanted to venture out into.
#6: Confusing Use of Pronouns
When you’ve got multiple characters of the same gender in the same scene, there’s always the risk of the reader getting confused about who’s being referred to by “he” or “she” – especially if the sentence involves a “he” and then a “him”, referring to different individuals.
To return to the example from #1, above:
While watching Martin and his friends carrying Martin’s belongings from his comfortable seat in the air-conditioned cab, Uncle Ray noticed that Martin owned no tools.
Here, “from his comfortable seat” seems at first to refer to Martin, and the structure also makes it sound like the belongings are being carried from the comfortable seat. It’s not until we get the words “Uncle Ray” later in the sentence that we realise it’s Ray who’s sitting in a comfortable seat, not Martin (or the belongings).
The sentence could be rewritten as:
As Uncle Ray sat in a comfortable seat in the air-conditioned cab, watching Martin and his friends carrying Martin’s belongings, he noticed that Martin owned no tools.
Often, you can fix confusing pronouns by switching one for a character name, but sometimes (as in this case), it makes more sense to rewrite the sentence, or to use dialogue to help indicate who’s taking what action.
Keep in mind that if you ever have to re-read what you’ve written in order to make sense of it, a reader almost certainly will – so change it!
#7: Use of Unusual Dialogue Tags
Most of the time, “said” works fine as a dialogue tag (or you can get away with using an action or thought instead of a tag – see this post for more on that).
Trying too hard to find variations can distract the reader from the actual dialogue taking place. In the following example, “insisted” and “urged” are a bit overdone. (Note, too, the “lied” / “liar” / “lie” near-repetition in the first paragraph.)
“I want to go,” I lied. I’d always been a bad liar, but I’d been saying this lie so frequently lately that it sounded almost convincing now.
“Tell Charlie I said hi.”
“I’ll see you soon,” she insisted. “You can come home whenever you want – I’ll come right back as soon as you need me.”
But I could see the sacrifice in her eyes behind the promise.
“Don’t worry about me,” I urged. “It’ll be great. I love you, Mom.”
– Twilight, Stephanie Meyer
It’s fine to have the occasional different tag, like “whispered” or “shouted”, if you need to make it clear how a particular line is spoken. Watch out for – and remove – any particularly unusual tags, though. Characters don’t need to “quip,” “exclaim”, “hiss” or “remark” anything.
#8: Chit-Chat Dialogue
While it’s good to have dialogue that sounds realistic, this doesn’t mean having several lines of meaningless chit-chat between characters. Yes, real life conversations might begin with discussion of people’s journeys, the weather, tea versus coffee … but in fiction, you need to get to the point.
Chit-chat looks something like this:
“How was your journey?” Julia asked.
“The train was a bit crowded,” Steve said. “But that was fine, I just read the paper most of the way.”
“Would you like a cup of tea? Or I’ve got coffee, if you’d rather?”
“Thanks – tea would be great.” Steve pulled up a chair and sat at the kitchen table.
“Remind me how you take it. Just milk?”
Julia set a plate of biscuits on the table. “Help yourself.”
While this might all be perfectly realistic, it’s also very boring. If it’s particularly crucial for your characters to be talking over tea and biscuits, you could just set the scene with a quick line like “Once Julia had made tea and offered Steve a biscuit…”
The only good excuse, as I see it, for this sort of chit-chat is when you’re using a fairly bland conversation to demonstrate something going on beneath the surface. That might look more like this:
“How was your journey?” Julia asked – and was pleased to find her voice held steady.
“Unexceptional,” Steve said.
“Would you like a cup of tea? Or I’ve got coffee, if you’d rather?” She made herself stop. She always talked too much when she was nervous.
“You’re sure? A biscuit, then?” She held out the plate, jammy dodgers and bourbons carefully arranged, alternating.
He sighed, a little irritated. “Let’s just get down to it. Okay?”
#9: Overuse of “Crutch” Words and Phrases
All authors have certain words or phrases that come very naturally to them. During the long process of drafting, revising and editing, it’s easy to end up using those words and phrases just a little too often (sometimes several chapters apart).
In my own work, for instance, I’ve had to squash my tendency to use the single-word sentence “Silence” to indicate a pause between lines of dialogue.
You can get away using these “crutch” words or phrases a few times, particularly if they’re relatively unexceptional ones. After a while, readers will inevitably start to notice. For instance, in The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt, the word “stolid” (a pretty unusual choice) is used a little too often, particularly in the first 200 or so pages:
“Herbert Methley stood up, stolid on his naked feet…” (p172)
“His face was stolid.” (p13)
“His tone was a strange mixture of cheerful enthusiasm and stolid gloom.” (p71)
“He imagined a stolid, unimaginative small boy writing, and wrote what he imagined such a boy would write.” (p197)
“He thought Philip was stolid…” (p208)
“Philip felt the mass of the water in his bones, and was changed, but found nothing to say, and stood there looking stolid.”
“The queue of women was stolid and anxious.” (p612)
If you want more examples of different authors’ over-used phrases, here’s a long, long list of “Author Catchphrases” from TV Tropes.
Normally, the fix is simple: switch half (or more!) instances of the offending word/phrase for a different word/phrase. The tricky part is actually spotting the words you’re overusing: once you’ve found a suspected culprit, do a “find and replace” to replace that word with itself (if you see what I mean) … nothing will change in your manuscript, but your word processor should tell you how many instances it found!
#10: “Head-Hopping” Point of View Shifts
If you’re writing in first-person, it’s pretty easy to avoid point of view shifts: the “I” character is only ever one person at a time (unless you’re doing something very experimental and/or something in the SF/F realm).
If you write in the very popular third-person limited, though, you may need to watch out for inadvertent “hops” into other characters’ heads. Stay with the viewpoint character: give us their thoughts and feelings, but don’t give us other people’s – except through what the viewpoint character surmises.
Here’s an example:
Samantha was thoroughly fed up. First she’d had to trail around what felt like a hundred shops while her darling sister tried on every pair of boots in town, and now she was stuck in a massive queue with her mum while her sister was “trying on just this one top.”
“We’ll go to the library once we’re done,” her mum said, trying to cheer her up. Even after fifteen years, it still surprised her how different her two daughters were: Trish lived to shop; Samantha could spend hours curled up with a book.
“Can’t I just go there now?” Samantha asked.
“We’re not splitting up,” her mum said.
Samantha, of course, knew why. Mum never spelt it out, no-one even talked about it – sometimes, often, Samantha wished they would.
This is jumping around between Samantha’s thoughts (first paragraph) and her mum’s (second paragraph) and Samantha’s (third paragraph). It would be easier for the reader to engage if the point of view stuck with one person – probably, in this case, Samantha.
(For lots more on head-hopping, check out Do You Head-Hop? Getting Third Person Point of View Right.)
When you’re drafting, it’s impossible to get everything right. When you’re rewriting extensively for a second draft, you’ll be more focused on big-picture issues like characters and plot than on individual sentences. That’s absolutely fine and normal – but once you do start to edit on a more detailed scale, you’ll likely have at least one (and if you’re me, probably a good eight or so!) of the above problems to fix.