Module 4: Editing

Editing and Finalizing Your Manuscript, Part Two: 13 Mistakes Readers Always Catch

Andrea Levitt from Reader's Digest introduces the second video on the process of finalizing your manuscript. George Nedeff from Author Solutions walks you through examples of common writing mistakes, stressing that the frustration of the English language is best shared with a professional editor.

Video Transcript

Hi, this is Andrea from Reader's Digest Select Editions. I'm here today to introduce part two of the webinar, "Editing and Finalizing Your Manuscript." In part one, we explained the value of different types of editing. Today in part two, we'll talk about the 13 common mistakes that always aggravate readers. Some may seem kind of trivial, like the improper use of hyphen. Others are a little more structural in nature, like too much telling. A good editor should catch these things, but to make your book the best it can be, you want to be your own editor and take out things that can distract the reader from the story you really want to tell. Part three will cover how to select the right editor, how to maintain consistency throughout your manuscript and the importance of indexing for a nonfiction book. In part four, we'll talk about the do's and don'ts of writing an effective title. In part five, we'll conclude with tips on how to get around common roadblocks that prevent writers from completing their manuscript. So let's get started with Part 2.

Hi, this is George Nedeff. I'm the learning instructor at Author Solutions, as well as a former editor from the traditional industry. As you work toward perfecting your manuscript, we are going to review 13 mistakes that readers always catch. These are 13 good reasons to hire an editor. No matter what your education background and experience are, mistakes are easy to make and even easier to overlook.

Number one: homophone mix-ups. Even the most experienced writers can make the mistake of using a long word. This is especially true with homophones, which are words that sound the same, but are spelled differently. It's critical that you use the right words. I mean, Mark Twain once said that the difference between using the right word and almost the right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. If you're not sure about a word's meaning, look it up. Using a word incorrectly can pull a reader out of the story, and even if you're sure of a word's meaning, ask yourself whether it's the best word to make your point. Here are a few common homophones. "Your" verse "you're." Y-o-u-r is the possessive of you, while y-o-u-apostrophe-r-e is a contraction of the words you and are. Example: Mike asked, "You're going to your brother's game tonight, aren't you?"

There, their and they're. T-h-e-r-e is a place or position. T-h-e-i-r is the possessive of third-person plural. And t-h-e-y-apostrophe-r-e is a contraction of the words they are. Example: "Yes, they're going there with their cousin, Kyle."

Too, two, to. T-o-o means also. T-w-o is a number. And t-o is a preposition adverb or infinitive marker. Example: "I gave the two hotdogs to Kyle, who came to the game, too."

Its, it's. I-t-s is possessive, while i-t-apostrophe-s is a contraction of the words it is or it has. This homophone is especially confusing since typically using an apostrophe is how you form the possessive. Example: "The ball found its place in the catcher's glove. This pitcher smiled and thought, 'It's going to be a good game.'"

Peek, peak, pique. P-e-e-k is looking quickly at something. P-e-a-k is the highest point. While p-i-q-u-e means to interest or annoy. Example: "When he was at his peak, the pitcher could peek over his shoulder and catch the runner stealing second. His natural instinct piqued the interest of fans and recruiters alike."

Pore, pour, poor. P-o-r-e is a small opening in the skin or verb meaning examined closely. P-o-u-r is spilling liquid out of a container. And p-o-o-r means lacking sufficient income, pitied or less than adequate. Example: "Poring over the game program, Kyle poured himself another beer and watched his brother toss peanut shells on the ground. He pitied the poor soul who would be cleaning up after all the spectators.

Prey, pray. P-r-e-y is something that is hunted by a predator, while pray is speaking to God or making a request. Example: "Kyle prayed that the pitcher would strike out the batters one by one like a leopard taking off prey."

Number two: spell-check errors. Spell-check can be a blessing and a curse. It is a useful tool, but it can also mislead. Many writers trust it like it's infallible, but you'd be surprised how many spelling errors an editor in spite of the spell-check function. Word mix-ups are by far the most common misspellings. Spell-check might catch some of these errors, but it won't catch every mistake.

For example, perhaps you accidentally typed the word "loins" instead of "lions." Spell-check would pass over it, but a reader would not. Depending on the context, it might confuse readers or even make them laugh. Having a competent editor read the manuscript is worth the investment. Here are a couple more examples.

"Starring through the cage bars, the bares were angry," he rote. Obviously, it should read "Staring through the cage bars, the bears were angry," he wrote. Second example: "Writing has lead me to affectively take changes, which compliments my life." It really should read: "Writing has led me to effectively take changes, which complements my life." But a computer would be unable to understand the context of these words. Technically, these errors are properly spelled words. They're just in the wrong context. This is why you need an editor to interact with your manuscript, because the editor can see the context.

Number three: improper hyphen use. Hyphens are used and must be used in many ways of which an average writer isn't aware. Such as in a sentence like: "He worked full- and part-time jobs." Note there's a hyphen after the word full. Improper hyphenation can cause a lot of confusion. These errors, if not corrected by an editor, may even change the meaning of the intended sentence. The example below is a very basic one, however, it shows that hyphenating incorrectly, or neglecting to insert a hyphen, not only makes a sentence unclear, it often inadvertently changes the meaning of the sentence itself. Which is correct? Sentence one: "He went to the old book club" versus sentence two: "He went to the old-book club." Accuracy completely depends on what the writer means. In the first sentence, he went to a book club that has been around a long time. In the second example, he went to a club for people who collect old books.

Number four: unnecessary capitalization. While proper capitalization may not seem like an egregious mistake, unnecessary capitalization throughout a book can make sentences cumbersome to read and affect the overall look of the page. Capitalization might be the trickiest of editing decisions. Style guides as thick as dictionaries address when to capitalize and when not to. Context is key. It can take years of experience editing different types of books to make capitalization choices that result in professional copy and prose. For example, which is correct? Technically, all could be correct. In the first example, New York is capitalized because there is more than one state police department in New York, therefore New York is only capitalized. In the second example, New York State is capitalized because we're referring to New York State as a proper noun separate from New York City the proper noun. So we're specifically speaking about New York State the one and only, therefore all three are capitalized. In the last example, New York State Police Department is referring to the one and only New York State Police Department, thus all are capitalized. It depends on the context and the style applied in your book. That's why you want to make sure you work with a seasoned editor who knows how the context of the sentence dictates proper capitalization.

Number five: punctuation errors. It's not just about what you say, but how you say it. Punctuation to find your voice, your unique way of speaking to your reader. Which punctuation mark should you choose? Which one communicates the sentence to the reader the way you hear it in your head? Which one reflects your personal style and voice? A good editor polishes your punctuation to reflect your voice. No matter your subject matter, or whether your book is scholarly or casual, precise punctuation throughout your book breathes life into your words.

Good punctuation can bring emphasis to the right word or words, and used properly, it can create a rhythm to your writing. For example, which of these sentences uses the correct punctuation? In different contexts, any of these could be preferable. It depends on what you want to say and where you want the emphasis. They all sound different if read out loud and look different on the page. Your editor listens for your voice in the text and then adjusts the punctuation to you, your voice and your story.

Number six: grammar-check errors. Let's take a look at grammar-check errors embedded in word processing software. Language is complex you have to read words in context to identify how they function in a particular sentence. That's why sometimes grammar-check makes suggestions that are not appropriate or correct. It can be helpful, but it can also cause you a lot of error if you are too trusting of its suggestions. It can handle the sentence: "See Spot run," but for any sentence more complicated than that, grammar check should always be verified by you or your editor.

For example: "Either make any additional changes to the text as you see fit or simply disregard the comment." Grammar-check advises: "Either makes any additional changes…," which is incorrect. As you can see, without human intervention, grammar-check would make the first sentence incorrect and the second sentence incomprehensible.

Number seven: incomplete or run-on sentences. Writing a complete sentence seems like a simple thing, but that's not always the case. Run-on sentences and incomplete sentences happen to every writer from time to time. Just be aware of this fact and don't take it personally when an editor finds one. Focus on capturing your thoughts and developing the story and then use an editor to help you polish your manuscript. A run-on sentence occurs when two or more main clauses are separated by a comma instead of using a conjunction or the proper punctuation. This can also be referred to as a comma splice or fused sentence.

For example, the following sentences are run-ons: "Don't worry, this book doesn't have errors. It's not just a story, it's a true story. I tell you what, I'll read it. Don't get me wrong, I like that sentence."

Another issue that often comes up for writers is incomplete sentences. An incomplete sentence occurs when the sentence does not express a complete thought or question and lacks either the predicate or subject. Incomplete sentences are also called sentence fragments.

For example, the following is an incomplete sentence: "Some interesting books which caught our eye even though they were on the back shelf." Much like run-on sentences, long, incomplete sentences tend to get away from an author and need to be sorted out or restructured to avoid confusion. That's why no matter how long you have worked on your manuscript or how many times you've read it, you should have your book edited before you publish.

Number eight: compound-word confusion. Sometimes writers ask, "When do I combine two words into a single word?" Many people experience compound-word confusion. Compound words can be frustrating because there aren't any hard and fast rules for determining what should be a compound word and what should be two words. Take these words for example: schoolbook and schoolteacher are compound words, but school bus is not. You might think that pay phone and web page would each be one word, but they're not.

Many compound words are mistakenly treated as two words. It's also common for authors to accidentally put spaces between words like someone, something, somewhere, sometime, anyone and anything. Although in some cases, words like sometime could be spelled as two words depending on how it's being used. Always refer to your style guide, such as the Chicago Manual of Style, for rulings on word usage. Your editor should know the style guide well.

For example, review the sentences below. The first one is written incorrectly. The second sentence in the pair shows how compound words should be used properly in the sentence.

Number nine: misplaced modifiers. Misplaced or dangling modifiers happen when a descriptive word, phrase or clause is arranged awkwardly in a sentence, so it seems to be describing the wrong thing.

For example: "Walking down the aisles, many books draw Shelley's interest." Due to the way this sentence is arranged, it reads as if the books, not Shelley, are walking down the aisle. To correct this issue, simply place the subject "Shelley" next to the modifier "walking down the aisle." So it will sound like this: "Walking down the aisles, Shelley is drawn to many books." Or: "As Shelley walks down the aisle, many books draw her interest."

Here's another example of a misplaced modifier. The sentence reads: "We could understand the book read by the man easily." What was easy? Was it easy to understand, or was it easy for him to read the book? You can see this can be pretty confusing. An editor might reword this in one of two ways, depending on the author's meaning. Let's try this one: "We could easily understand the book read by the man." Or: "We could understand the book read easily by the man." By moving the modifier "easily" next to the subject that you wish to modify, it clarifies the sentence.

The following sentences have very different meanings based on where you place the modifier. "He has read nearly every book on the shelf." "He has nearly read every book on the shelf." The first sentence states that he has read almost every book cover-to-cover. The second sentence states that he hasn't read any of the books on the shelf. He has come close to reading them, but has never actually done so.

Number 10: too much telling. When writing fiction, there is a common saying: "Show, don't tell." You may have heard this one before, but it's easy to forget while you're flying through your first draft. As you read through your manuscript, look for any sentences that tell the reader what a character is feeling, instead of showing it. Let a character's actions show what he or she is feeling instead of using an adjective.

For example, here's telling: "He was tired." Here's showing: "He yawned."

Number 11: sentence structure repetition. You will bore your readers if you repeatedly use the same sentence structure. For example, imagine one of your characters arrives at a restaurant where he plans to propose to his girlfriend.

Repetitive structure looks something like this: "He parked the car. He thought about how he was going to propose. He got out. He walked to the passenger side door. He opened it for his girlfriend." By repeating the same sentence structure over and over, the rhythm becomes dulled. By varying the sentence structure and length, you can make things more interesting.

"He put the car in park and sat there for a moment, thinking about popping the question. What if she says no? Finally, he got out of the car, made his way over to the passenger side, and opened the door for his girlfriend."

Number 12: impossible simultaneous actions. Simultaneous actions occur when using verbs that end in "ing." The issue is when you use simultaneous actions that are impossible to occur at the same time.

For example: "Walking down the driveway, she opened the car door." This sentence implies the character simultaneously opened the door and walked down the driveway, which is unlikely.

And, number 13: unnecessary scenes. It can be hard to cut a scene you spent time on, even though you know you should. To create the best work, you or your editor must be ruthless. For fiction writers, cut out any scenes that don't advance the story. For nonfiction, cut any paragraphs that don't directly support the chapter's topic. Each new scene needs to push the plot forward, or provide the reader the new information that's important to the story.

The point of illustrating these 13 mistakes is not to frustrate you with how the nuances of the English language can make it difficult to create a flawless manuscript. Instead, these examples show the importance of hiring a professional editor to review your manuscript before you publish it. It is one of the best investments you can make as an author.

Thanks for watching part two of "Editing and Finalizing your Manuscript." Next in part three, we'll talk about how to select the right editor, how to maintain consistency throughout your manuscript and the importance of indexing for a nonfiction book. For information about publishing, go to for a free publishing guide and a free consultation.