I’ve recently undertaken a couple of nonfiction editing jobs, which, of course, have brought everything that goes into editing back into focus. Editing isn’t one job: it’s a number of jobs that can’t necessarily be done all at once. Here are a few of them, from micro- to macroscopic.
1) Typos. What’s misspelled, or spelled correctly but misused — like “roll” for “role,” or “there” or “they’re” when you actually meant “their.”
2 ) Grammatical errors. And by God, police yourself out of things I see in published works all the time, like subject-pronoun agreement (the worst is using “their” when the correct word would be “his” or “her” — if you can’t get around that with a singular subject, make the whole damned sentence plural!) The other especially annoying one is — and yes, book editors miss this one a lot — using “of” when it should be “have” as in “would of” when it should be “would have.” YIKES!
3) Wrong word errors. Now, first of all, make sure you know what every word you write actually means. If you stop and think about it, you’ll be amazed at how many words it’s easy to use fairly correctly but if someone actually pins you down about the meaning, you have a hard time articulating it. (Ok, define irony. Define fortuitous. Define pragmatic. Define paradigm. Define catholic. Define hopefully — not the colloquial, misused meaning, but what it actually means. Define presently — and which definition is the preferred usage, as opposed to the one people use a lot mistakenly?) And never use “over” when you mean “more than,” “less” when you mean “fewer,” “since” when you mean “because” or “as,” “centered around” when it should be “centered on.” Amateur mistakes, all.
4) Vagueness. Two particulars, here — first, non-specific language (like using the word “thing” all the time, or describing something as “nice” in your exposition. Characters talking to each other — well, that’s different, because people say “thing” and “nice” all the time. But in the expos –no.) And the second is weakening qualifiers (kind of, rather, quite, very). Those are used quite often, very annoyingly, and I’m rather irritated and kind of tired of seeing sloppy editing that leaves those phrases behind.
5) Stylistic mistakes — by these I mean things like “there is” or “there are” constructions, which weaken writing, or using passive voice when active is better.
6) Point of view errors — if you start a paragraph in one character’s head, you better almost always end up there, and you better not have him know things he can’t possibly know — like what someone else is thinking if the someone else hasn’t voiced it, or what someone else’s motive is for doing things when the motive hasn’t been voiced either. Here’s a point of view error with commentary: “I watched him [we’ve established we’re in my head]. He stood there [so far, so good, I can observe and know that without being told] silently. Suddenly he turned, afraid [trouble! How can I know that, based on what I’ve already revealed?]. He thought I was going to kill him [uh, i’m a mind-reader now?]. I admit, the thought was crossing my mind [now I’m back in my own head, but the reader is getting seasick]. He was trying desperately to figure out how to distract me and make me move from between him and the door [but since I’m reading his mind again, I know better, don’t I?] . Avoiding point-of-view errors is why you often see “he seemed to be considering” or “she appeared to blah blah blah” or “he sounded” or “she looked,” because if you’re writing in anything other than third-person omniscient (and even then, a good bit of the time), you can’t know what someone else is thinking or feeling, you can only know what they’re displaying for the world to observe, and your own reactions to it.
7) Consistency errors. Susie has a red hat on page 7 but on page 30 it’s suddenly indigo. Or Susie’s name is spelled Susie on page 1 but Suzie on page 25. Or Mark and Susie’s first date is in springtime and they become inseparable immediately, but date 3 (which presumably takes place the same week) is spent out looking at the leaves changing color. Or your character is pregnant for 58 weeks, once you’ve added up all the time that’s gone by. And it doesn’t have to be internal inconsistency either — it can be inconsistent with your audience’s understanding of how the world works. For example, if your character is a 12-year-old and it’s October, the kid better be in school. If you have him out doing other stuff all the time and it’s not a weekend or after school or otherwise explained, you’ve screwed up in the eyes of your reader. Other inconsistencies arise out of errors of fact or anachronism — putting the First World War in the 1920s, or having a character using a microwave oven in 1949.
8 ) Character-development errors. If by the end of your work, your character’s actions don’t seem inevitable based on what your reader has learned about your character, you’ve dropped the ball. People don’t act out of a vacuum — they have pasts that shape their presents and actions. Your characters are motivated by the goals they’re trying to achieve that form the center of the story, but how they approach them and why those goals are important to them arise out of their pasts, histories, and natures.
9) Time-on-stage errors — did you leave subplots undeveloped throughout and suddenly pop them in to resolve them at the end? Did your main story line take a back seat to what should have been a subplot? Do you have characters who are important to the story but who aren’t seen enough? Or unimportant characters who spend too much time out there?
10) Too much exposition, not enough dialogue. Pick up books like the one you’re writing and thumb through them. Look at the ratio of dialogue to expos. Think about your own work in comparison.
12) Unanswered questions — all your little mysteries either have to be resolved, or closed in such a way that the reader understands a sequel is forthcoming.
13) Writing that assumes the reader knows more than you’ve told him. This is especially troublesome in nonfiction writing — you’re putzing along writing about how to knit, and you suddenly say, “having determined that you need a 9-gauge needle” and your reader thinks, “wait a minute, how did I determine that?” You haven’t put all the knowledge the audience needs down on paper — and this is easy to miss, because you already have the knowledge, so you aren’t going to experience the hole in the writing the same way your less-knowledgeable audience will.
14) Big picture errors. You wanted to make a certain thematic point but too many elements of your story lean in a different direction. Or the entire work is funny and lighthearted and then on page 297, it suddenly goes black. Or your characters fail to react appropriately to something serious when the reaction is called for. Or you spend 200 pages building up to something and then, when you finally reveal it, you do so in a way that doesn’t merit the 200-page build-up. (Like, you spend 200 pages FINALLY getting your heroine to MEET the guy she’s been fantasizing about all this time, and then, on page 201, without even talking about how the meeting went, you say “and then they got married. The end.”) Now, I’m not saying that variations of this kind of thing can’t work, but you better know what you’re doing. And if it doesn’t work, you’d better be ruthless about undoing it.
Well, that’s a start. I’m sure I’ll think of other things to edit for, and we’ll get to them all in time.