Friday, September 7, 2012

Beware of the Editor, she bites

I keep swearing to myself I’m not going to post any more “how to” or “editor” posts on this blog, but occasionally I’m moved to have a bit of a rant about pet peeves, or shit I’ve seen authors catch during the past year. Sometimes I wish I could reach through the computer screen and physically shake some sense into an author whose manuscript I’m editing but jawellnofine. That isn’t possible.

I do, however, feel like carping on about some of the shit just so I can feel like I’ve gotten it off my chest. Because I can’t afford therapy.

I’ve been editing other people’s shit for almost a decade now and, while my knowledge base is still growing, I’ve been around the block enough times to see people pull the same shit over and over again. Different authors/writers. Same shit. Some things never change.

The writers I adore sort their shit out and I don’t see them repeating past mistakes. These hardy souls show a marked improvement in their writing and make me feel as though I’ve contributed to improving the written word. But there are others, a disproportionate amount, who have the attitude that it’s the editor’s job to somehow wave a magic red pen and make it all better. That after a document has been edited, it’s somehow ready to go off into the wild and woolly world of publishing. This is bullshit, of course.

But allow me to bitch just a little bit about the most common gripes I have. This is easy shit you can use as a check list that will already make it so that an editor will not be reaching for her magic red pen so that she can stab you repeatedly in both eyeballs until you bleed out on the floor.

1) Attack of the “killer He/She”. Watch out for starting all your sentences with pronouns. If almost every sentence in your paragraph starts with He/She/His/Her … I’m sure you catch my drift. Related to this is finding pet words/phrases that reoccur either within the same paragraph or on the same page. If a word jumps out of the page and grabs you by the eyeballs, and looks awfully familiar of a sudden, it’s usually because it’s already appeared very recently.

2) One of my all-time favourite instances of that result in my already infamous tabbed comment of KILL THIS WORD is the word “suddenly”. My rule of thumb is that if a novel has more than three instances of this word appearing in it, it’s three instances too many. This is a lazy word and if you find yourself writing it, please, for the love of all that is dear to the heart of a Grammar Nazi, look deep within yourself to figure out if there isn’t a better way to express the suddenness of whatever action is taking place. Ten to one, the use of a stronger verb will sort this shit out.

3) Listing of clothing. I don’t care if Laurell K Hamilton sells millions of books and she does it, but please, please, please, with tears in my eyes, don’t give us a hair-to-shoes description of EVERYTHING each newly introduced character is wearing every time they walk into a scene. Just don’t. Go look at how Stephen King or George RR Martin or JK Rowling show what their characters look like. Then think about how you can apply it to your own writing.

4) Head-hopping drives me bugfuck. I know for a fact it drives most of the other editors I know completely bugfuck. Yes. Bugfuck is a word because I say it is. Terry Pratchett and Frank Herbert write very good third-person omniscient viewpoints. Unless you are confident that you understand the mechanics of writing third-person omniscient, rather don’t do it. Current commercial fiction trends show a preference for deep third-person viewpoints, with one viewpoint per scene. My rule of thumb: *resist the urge* to tell your readers absolutely fucking everything. Keep ’em guessing. Limit the number of viewpoint characters you use, don’t give away all the secrets, and you’ll have a tighter story with much stronger tension.

5) Something else that can be lumped with the *resist the urge* sub-heading is exposition. I have this alarming habit of taking my red pen and slashing big red lines through pages and pages of back-story and exposition. I make authors cry. For good reason. Because ninety percent of the time when an author starts chapter one with the prehistory of his character’s childhood, and who they dated in high school, and what their favourite food is, and why, my eyes have glazed over after the first sentence and I start twitching. Yes, there are authors who’re awfully good at delivering lush, delicious exposition that suck me in. But they’re in a minority. If you’re still learning the ropes, rather don’t do it. Find creative ways to share information. They exist.

6) Motivation. Believe it or not, I like to know what your character is thinking when he abruptly veers off the road and drives his car into a tree. This goes hand in hand with layering. Show your readers what your character is seeing, thinking and feeling. I want to know why Bob kicked the dog or decided to take that twenty dollar bill lying on his colleague’s desk.

7) Starting your sentence with a present participle is generally not a good idea. [smiles] It’s not wrong, but it often results in repetitive sentence structure or even that dreaded dangling participle. If you don’t know what a present participle is, don’t worry. Just try not to start a sentence with a word ending in “ing” and you’re on the right track and you won’t make your editor cry.

8) Watch your “it”. It’s not wrong to start a sentence with “it”, but it’s easy to fall into a habit, so take a long, hard look at that sentence and ask yourself if “it” is really necessary. Ten to one, stronger sentence construction exists.

9) “There was” or “there were” constructions aren’t wrong either, but they’re also dirty little habits. Filler words, as such. Stop being lazy as fuck and search deep into your twisted little black heart and ask yourself if it’s truly necessary to use that construction. Most times, it isn’t. Now brand that into your brain.

10) While there are plenty more nasty, dirty, evil little quirks that make me bitey, like overreliance on the word “that”, or incorrect punctuation of dialogue, the last one I’m going to bitch about here is filter words. “I saw”, “Polly heard”, “Winston thought”. I’m sure you can think of a bunch of other ones. Get into the habit of when you see yourself writing along those lines, to pinch yourself hard and work to avoid that type of sentence construction.

There you go. There’s plenty more where these came from, and authors are well known for finding new and unusual ways to mangle the English language. These little points are the most common I’ve had to try to beat out of folks of late. Catch me next year and other issues will be trending. No go out and read books outside of your genre, and read widely. And for the love of all that’s unholy, try to absorb what your editor teaches you so that you don’t make her all stabbity and twitchy.

Yes, I am a red pen for hire, and if I haven’t scared you off, or you feel you can benefit from having me leave tabbed comments saying KILL THAT WORD all over your darling, you’re welcome to query me at to find out what my rates are.


  1. I happen to love being spanked senseless in my manuscripts, madam. It makes me a better writer. :)

  2. Ah, but you don't make me cry. I might have a quiet chuckle from time to time, but I don't feel like beating you senseless!

  3. I'm guilty of several of these, although I *think* I've mastered avoiding some of them. :)I certainly don't believe the editor is supposed to fix my writing. That's my job. An editor points out paths to better, but it's an author's job to take them.

    1. You've definitely blossomed, Amy. Glad to see that you're getting that monster from your blog tamed too!

  4. This year, I've worked with three editors. One sent me an email saying she liked the story but had a few "minor" changes. I emailed her and said there was no such thing as "minor" when it came to content edits. :-) (This was for a story I'd been invited to submit to an anthology.)

    My biggest pet peeve is lack of conflict. I've been reading stories where there is no conflict or it's too easily resolved.

  5. This could be the best blog post ever. I <3 this in an epic way, and yes, I did edit this comment before posting. You've taught me well. :-)

  6. A big bugbear of mine is when a writer uses (or I catch myself using) the past progressive when the simple past is stronger. As in: "There was a knock at the door. Suddenly Joe was barging into the room. My jaw was falling in surprise..." NO. "There was a knock at the door. Joe barged in. My jaw dropped...." (Yes, I know this example started with a "there was" -- crap!) Past progressive muddies the action. Simple past makes the sequence of events clear!

  7. Great post, Nerine. Head-hopping and the he/she tennis match going on are the ones that make my eyes bleed. Thanks for "bugfuck," by the way. Can I use it with your permission? It's smexy. ;-)