A few personal editing peeves.

editingI have a touch of OCD, not debilitating, just annoying. One of the milder rules it makes for my life is the necessity to finish one book before I’m ‘allowed’ to start another. I suffer terrible guilt if I leave a book unfinished but it does happen, usually because I’m reading a first draft, not a finished product. I sometimes read reviews on Amazon that say there were some editing/writing/grammar (pick your poison) problems with a book but the story drew the reviewer in anyway…which might be fine for that reader but it won’t work for me.

It amazes me that some authors seem content to appeal to a minority of readers. One more edit or a bit of advice-taking and I might go on to read everything else they’ve written, instead of moving on. I know criticism is rough, so here’s how I learned to take mine on the chin.

I am on my third editor. The first just proofread my book and told me it was great, which did me no favours because I knew it needed work. Number Two demolished it completely. It had to be written his way and not mine. The book lost my voice and I hated him for it. Everything stayed resolutely as it had been before, because clearly I knew best after all.

My beloved third editor explained some of my little tics and habits to me. Things I didn’t know I did—such as starting a paragraph in the past tense and bringing it into the present. ‘It’s not exactly wrong,’ she told me, ‘but it’s tiring and annoying to read all the time. Try changing most of them and maybe leaving one or two when you can really justify it for emphasis.’ She did the same with my habit of breaking the fourth wall for fun. This had become a lazy trope and I should only do it when I had a compelling reason. She also told me to add more dialogue and lose the tags. Apparently my characters came alive when they spoke their own words, leaping off the page in a way they just didn’t when I described them. Of course, she was teaching me ‘show not tell’ but in a way that made me feel good about my work.

I listened and learned and my writing improved. I have plenty more to learn but this editor taught me that I don’t always know best, people who understand and love my voice know just as much, sometimes more.

Now, I quite often see this sort of advice given free in an Amazon review, and an author who gets huffy about it. But really, who wouldn’t want to know?

These days there are three specific issues which make me throw a book across the room (metaphorically for the e-versions) and guess what? They are exactly the things I had to learn the hard way.

• Mixed up tenses! I still do it, but I seek it out with the guided missile that is reading aloud. Please, please read your book aloud to yourself, this is one of many things you can pick up on.

• Dialogue that describes the plot instead of illuminating the person. If you are tempted to add all manner of dialogue tags, you are using it to tell me stuff. If you want your characters to be real in my head, just let them speak, I’ll do the rest.

• ‘Seeing the strings’. As soon as I know you are rewarding or punishing a character because you do or don’t like them, you’ve lost me. It may be therapeutic for you to make the school jock come to a sticky end, but I have to believe he did it to himself.

If a bad review has no detail in it, or hates something you chose to do for a reason, feel free to ignore it (best not to abuse the reviewer though, that never ends well) but if it contains free editing notes, you might just want to take another look at your work. Some of us pay good money for those observations.

My pet hates are just that, personal peeves. There are others of course, and plenty of people who don’t mind things that I can’t abide, but the moral of today’s little rant is: if your reviews contain constructive criticism your book might not be finished.

Next time, I’ll take a look at the pet editing peeves lurking in the hearts of the rest of the minions.

Author: Carolyn Steele

Carolyn writes websites, copy and nonsense about emigrating. She also occasionally ambles off to do something daft in case it’s interesting enough to write about. Her latest book grew from the blog Trucking in English, and you can learn more at her blog and her Amazon author page.

29 thoughts on “A few personal editing peeves.”

  1. This is a great post. It resonates with me as a reader and instructs and reminds me of things I can’t forget as a writer. Moments well spent reading this one.

    1. Thanks Yvonne, you’ve reminded of a line I used to use about husbands, they need to be better than nothing, not worse than nothing. lol. I shall begin to think of editors the same way.:-)

  2. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I, too, am guilty of some writing bad habits and am in the process of revision AFTER publication. (The second edition must be better, no?) Carry on, dear writer, and keep telling it like it is.

    1. Well, it’s like it is for me, others can and do differ but so long as none of us think we’ve stopped learning the writing benefits eh? Thank you for your thoughts.

  3. This is a really brilliant post; one of the best I’ve seen this year on IU.

    You highlight a number of the lessons we can all learn from a good editor; things that will help us improve our writing style yet still retain that unique voice. At the same time you reinforce the importance of working with an editor who’s looking at the other side of the equation: the reader, and how he or she may respond. It’s something that is all to easy for an author to ignore, forget, or not notice and, by so doing, limit the book’s potential.

    There have been so many discussions on Linked-in and in other fora on the topic of editors and whether or why we need them. This one answers that question very neatly.

    If you’ll permit me to, I’d like to quote this in a workshop I’m running next week for a local writing group. I’ll certainly give you all the credit, Carolyn for your wise words.

  4. Carolyn! You nailed it. I especially liked you pointing out that an editor who edits and suggests without undoing the author’s voice is supreme. In our indie universe I have learned it is only pseudo editors and beta readers who insist upon their way or no way–trying to shore up a sense of self that lacks affirmation and true skill. We have to be so careful because anyone can hang out a cyber shingle suggesting a skill they might not truly own which benefits neither the author or a reader. I would not published a title until it has been through the hands of a skilled editor. Like you–every editor has pet peeves. As a reader, I have them, too. In the end–it’s a balance.
    eNovel Authors at Work

  5. I’m not sure you meant by “authors content to appeal to a minority of readers”, but I think it’s pretty inevitable. Unless you write romance or mystery you’re looking at a minority slice of readership anyway. Even best-sellers never, I would think, appeal to the majority of readers.
    Which got me interested enough to poke at numbers. The combined populations of US, UK, and Canada are around 410 million people. Supposedly about 75 percent read books, leaving us around 300 million readers in the main English countries.
    The biggest best-sellers ever only run around 100 million sales, and that includes translations. So even a Harry Potter or Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings is not going to appeal to the majority of readers.
    I hope this doesn’t sound like nitpick quibbling, because I kind of see it as something to be aware of. So much advice we get is of the “please everybody”, “be everywhere” “consider everything” variety, and I’m not sure it really works that way. It only takes a few thousand fans to support you.

    1. Thanks for the observation Lin, I think that maybe if I’d had an editor look over this post they would have flagged that phrase as lazy, lol. 😉 I already write for a very small minority of readers so I guess what I meant was that settling for the fraction of those who don’t mind grammar and proofing goofs would make the appeal pretty minuscule.

      1. Ah… I probably should have figured that out from the context. I’m not so sure that forbearance is so miniscule, but frankly have no idea. I’m trying to figure out a way to get some data on that, but I already used up my whole number skills for the whole day.

  6. So now I’m feeling proud that I didn’t tick you off when you editing my last novel,, Carolyn :-). Good points all. My personal gripe is with repeating words–they drive me nuts. In general, for me, finding a good book to read gets more difficult the longer I write. Suspending disbelief is tougher now because the writing has to be clean enough to switch off that little editor in my head!

    1. Indeed Pete, and maybe we are a tougher crowd to please than readers who don’t also write. Or writers who don’t also edit. I’m mightily glad I didn’t tick you off too, by the way. 🙂

  7. I totally understand. I have a bit of CDO too. (It’s like OCD, but I put it in alphabetical order). I have a grammar and spelling Nazi (aka copy editor) and a substantive editor to look at the story elements. It’s worked well for me. I wouldn’t be comfortable leaving a book out there with obvious flaws. Weakness as a writer, well I’m working on that.

    1. Can I steal the CDO gag please? With attribution, natch. I suspect we’re all working on it, which is all it really takes. Thank you for stopping by to comment.

  8. By co-incidence I was just reading a book I picked up, and noticed something I think is worth mentioning here. The book is “The Top Of The Hill” by Irwin Shaw, author of “Rich Man. Poor Man” and dozens of best-sellers. It was first published in 1979 by Delacorte, after portions appeared in “Playboy”.
    I have been seeing a spelling error about every three pages.
    I won’t conclude anything from that, but I think it’s worth mentioning here.

    1. FWIW, Lin, I did a two-part series a couple years ago on copyediting and proofing errors in indie books versus trad published. It was based on 195 indie books which I theorize were most likely not a representative cross section. Of those about 71% were, at least based on the things I personally notice while reading, fairly error free. Another 19% had enough errors to notice, but weren’t that far off. The remaining 10% were atrocious. (I know I have some weaknesses in what I’ll perceive as an error, some of which I’m aware of and my primary reason for reading wasn’t to proofread, so I’m sure there were issues I didn’t spot.)

      Then, to get some means of comparison, I read 8 trad published books, chosen based on being books I wanted to read. A small enough sample that it could be argued reasonably to not be a large enough sample size, but it can at least add a few more data points to your “Rich Man, Poor Man” data point. Of those 8, 7 of them were relatively error free and 1 of them fit the second category. None were in the atrocious group.

      However, the trad pubbed books, almost without fail, had other issues. The most common were what I called “ghost hyphens,” essentially hyphens that I’m sure were inserted for the print version of the book and left in during the conversion to an ebook. The other issues were this same kind of problem, things that I was almost certain were artifacts of the conversion process.

      I’ll leave it to you to interpret what, if anything, this might indicate.

      1. I remember that, Al. Very interesting.
        There errors in the book I mentioned were mostly of the “thought” instead of “though” kind.
        One would think that trad books, with their budgets and staffs, would always be squeaky clean, but it ain’t always so.
        My point, I guess, isn’t so much about the quality that comes, but reader tolerance.
        Last month I read three William Gibson ebooks a friend sent me. All three has major formatting screw-ups. One was like “beyond atrocious”… most lines with double or triple spaces between them, weird artifacts, line breaks at all hyphens. Also a LOT of misspellings. Many looked like what you get when you scan a print book into an ebook file, but there were inconsistencies with that.
        BUT… I read it all the way through and was delighted to have it. So maybe that’s my conclusion: if a fan wants to read your book, he’ll forgive about anything.
        Of course you want to have as few strikes as possible against you, and you aren’t starting out with committed fans. But I think the ragged edges of this entire issue are pretty interesting.

        1. “But I think the ragged edges of this entire issue are pretty interesting.”

          On that, we definitely agree.

          There is some point at which even rabid fans, if you’re able to acquire them, would say a books isn’t up to an acceptable standard. (I actually read and reviewed one book where I’m convinced I may be the only person ever to read it cover to cover. I seriously doubt even the authors mother read it.)

          There is another point at which everyone would agree, at least in terms of polish, that a book is good enough. (Even if there is some small number of minor errors, I suspect no one expects to see perfection.)

          It’s where those points are and the impact of being somewhere in the gray area where I think the interesting questions are. (Which I think is what you’re calling the ragged edge.) I suspect based on past comments and discussions that our opinions on this lean in different directions. It would be interesting to have some hard data on this.

          Then you’ve got the issue that should, IMO, be a non-issue that Linda mentions below, that rules can be different. The different spelling, punctuation, and even grammar conventions in different English speaking countries causes confusion with some readers who may perceive issues where there are none.

          1. It’s an interesting debate, without a lot of reader tolerance few of us would get started at all. I do think that when you are creating a product that you want people to buy, it makes sense to make the customer work as little as possible, particularly in the interests of gaining fans in the first place.
            But that’s a choice we can all make or not, we know that ‘badly written’ books sell millions whereas our perfect (ish) efforts languish somewhat. If readers’ personal views didn’t differ then fewer books would be sold overall.

  9. My pet peeves are the lack of necessary or proper punctuation and misspelled words. Every writer needs to master the basics of grammar and punctuation before deciding to break those rules. Oh, and the rules in the UK differ from the rules in American English, which can account for some inconsistencies. I always take that into consideration when reading a book by a favorite (or should that be “favourite”?) British or Aussie author!

    1. You are right that the different rules can cause problems, it bugs me to be criticised (lol, that is underlined in red) for something that it right in the UK and I do see British writers using more of the US conventions now, presumably because the US has such a huge book-buying public. It bugs me slightly if I can ‘hear’ a UK voice in the writing and the publisher uses US conventions, which happens a lot with the big 6 these days. Thank goodness all our tolerance levels are different.

  10. I think some kind of endorphins must kick in when we get to the end of a story and write ‘the End’. While we’re on that high we truly believe that what we have written is the most perfect prose imaginable. And then the endorphins drain away and we see that first draft for what it is – a good beginning [if we’re lucky].

    There should be some cosmic law that keeps writers from pushing the Publish button for at least one month after ‘The End’. A month should be long enough for us to come back down to earth. Or perhaps we all need a dose of 4 x 2 to bring us to our senses. 🙂

    1. That’s a great idea! Maybe a bit of software that detects The End and won’t let you onto Amazon or Smashwords without a 3rd party reference, 😉 I can see the Evil Mastermind working on it already.

  11. “Reader tolerance” indeed. I’ve been there. Even with the eyes of two final proofers a kind reviewer sent me an e-mail with five errors I hadn’t caught. I was most appreciative. We are ultimately responsible for quality control. 😉

  12. Great post. Finding the “Goldilock’s Editor” is indeed the key to success. Each of us have things we do that we don’t even notice. It’s very helpful to have someone point them out–even if they aren’t grammatically incorrect–so we can pay attention and minimize them.

    At the risk of getting myself in trouble, I have to say that readers seem to be more and more prone to ignoring grammar and spelling mistakes these days. Just look at many of the best sellers and you will see lots of 1 stars mentioning grammar problems, and lots of 5 stars from readers who didn’t care.

    Which doesn’t mean we should stop being perfectionists. Far from it. It’s just something I’ve noticed recently.

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