Sunday, August 12, 2012

Pet Peeves of a Professional Editor

Sometimes as I read other writers' blogs or email comments, the topic triggers an interest, and I sense it would be a great topic for Writing Fiction Right, but who better to write the article than the person who caught my interest. Linda Yezak has a critique service for writers and reads many manuscripts. As she studies them, she has identified numerous errors that writers make that she has identified as "pet peeves."  I've asked her to share those with you.  So here is my second guest blogger with her take on weak writing that catches an editor's eye.
Pet Peeves of a Professional Editor

Because of the three editorial positions I hold–content editor for a small press, editorial assistant for a popular agent, and freelance editor in a budding independent business–I get to see quite a few manuscripts in various phases of perfection. And because I love to study the writing styles and techniques of published authors, I read quite a few books. I’m not sure how unique all this makes me, but it does put me in a position to see things that drive me nuts as an editor.
Words and Cliche Phrases
Among these things are phrases–certain expressions–that didn’t appeal to me to begin with, but I’ve seen them so often they’re cliché. Sleep drool used to top the list of things that turned me off. I’ve seen it in several published and unpublished works, and I fail to see the charm. I understand the appeal of seeing your love sleepy-eyed and vulnerable in the morning, but drool fails as a turn-on point.

But as I said, drool used to top the list. I’ve also been seeing more references to “boogers,” “slipping in vomit,” and “throwing up in the mouth.” Ugh. Really? Granted, I’m old. I still don’t like reading about someone having to “pee,” much less “take a leak”–but vomit? Please.

There is one cliché that seems to make it into one out of every three works I read, including my own, I’m embarrassed to say: having a character speak with his or her mouth full. This doesn’t land as high as vomit on the “gross” spectrum, it’s just overused and illustrates bad manners.

I mentioned this to a writers’ group, and a lady responded that it’s okay as long as it’s part of the characterization. That’s like saying, “It was a dark and stormy night” is okay as long as it’s part of the setting description. The thing about a cliché is that, well, it’s cliché–it’s used too often, it loses it’s impact, it’s not fresh, and it’s a sign of laziness. Since I’ve used it myself, I can point the “you’re lazy” finger my way as well.

The “solitary tear” has lost its impact. “Bile rising” has too. So have physical reactions dealing with the heart and breath–not that these two are so bad, because sometimes it’s just difficult to get around them. But a wise author will do a search to see how often he or she uses these two words and try to cut about ninety percent of them out of the manuscript.

Words and phrases aren’t the only things that pop out at me as an editor, punctuation does too. I’m the world’s worst at remembering all the comma rules, which is why I keep the Chicago Manual of Style handy (which, unlike the AP manual, requires the serial comma. Keep that in mind). However, I am good at catching semicolons and colons.

The powers that be have deemed two little beasties to be too formal for fiction. I’m not entirely sure I agree, but I do agree their use should be rare. More often than not, a semicolon can be replaced with either a comma or a period, and only on rare occasion should colons be used as introduction to a dialogue line or in the prose. Neither should be used in the dialogue itself.

But it is the mark of many newbies to want to impress with loftiness. Lofty prose, lofty sentence structure, lofty punctuation. Jump from the loft, kids. It’s safe. Come on down.

Dashes and ellipses are popular these days too, but as with cliché phrases, these lose their impact with use. Ellipses illustrate trailing thoughts, an expression that dies because the author stopped speaking as if not knowing what else to say or losing his speech to his mental processes. Dashes serve two purposes, to illustrate the interruption of speech or to set off a parenthetical phrase. These tools shouldn’t be used too often, and when they are, they should be used correctly.

Once upon a time, I read about the apostrophe as used in the place of a missing letter in a word. She wrote, “Now that you know this, you’ll never forget it. You’ll see it every time, and it’ll drive you nuts too.” She was right. I don’t remember who she is or what I was reading, but I haven’t forgotten what she said, and I’ve noticed the phenomenon every time I see it.

What am I talking about?

The unreversed apostrophe.

Writers with word processing programs that use the curled apostrophes ( ‘ ’ ) need to be careful which way the apostrophe faces when the first letter of a word is missing. The mark is to point in the direction of the missing letter. For instance, leaving the “g” out in “wanting” to make “wantin’”–first hit of the apostrophe key has it facing the right direction, no problem. But what if you want to leave the “a” out of “about”? When you don’t pay attention, you get this: ‘bout. Oops. Apostrophe is facing the wrong direction. It should be: ’bout. Easiest way I know to make this work is to hit the key twice, and delete the first mark.

Once you start catchin’ on to the ’postrophes, you’ll see ’em every time too. You’ll be wantin’ to change ‘em to face the right direction. It’ll ‘bout drive ya nuts. Best to get ’em in the right direction to begin with.

Cliché expressions and misuse of punctuation are among the things I mark when I edit. These are the things for which I am responsible as a freelance editor, and the things I notice as an editor for the agent and publisher I work for. By the time a manuscript reaches the desk of these two individuals, and eventually my desk, it should be as fresh and error free as the author can possibly make it. My hope is that this post will help authors recognize a few more things to catch during their personal edit of their manuscript.

Linda Yezak lives with her husband and three cats in a forest in Texas, where tall tales abound and exaggeration is an art form. She is a two-time finalist in ACFW’s Genesis Contest (in 2008 for Give the Lady a Ride, and in 2010 for The Cat Lady’s Secret) and a finalist for the 2012 Carol Award (for Give the Lady a Ride). After serving five years as a freelance editor, getting jobs by word of mouth, she finally hung her shingle to make her business, Triple Edge Critique Service, public in 2012. Link:

Linda is a member of ACFW, the Christian PEN, and Women Writing the West (WWW).

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