Copy editing your novel is meticulous, time-consuming, and far from easy. Some writers love getting into the nitty-gritty of their language use, others…not so much. But even if you’re planning to work with a professional editor, and especially if you’re about to start querying your novel, it’s an essential step in preparing your manuscript for a reader. Small, obvious mistakes will yank the reader out of the story and torch your credibility as a reliable, polished writer. In short, every writer should have a basic idea of how to copy edit a novel—and most do! Nevertheless, there are some basic copy editing mistakes that are far from evident at first blush—or even third or fourth blush. Make sure you’re copy editing thoroughly and keep an eye out for these subtle errors.
Metaphors make writing sing; they give it depth, color, and panache. But using a metaphor correctly means more than just picking something that sounds good—an attentive writer will make sure that her metaphors are logical, especially when combined with the rest of the sentence or paragraph. This means going deep on what a metaphor truly means, and not just what we’re accustomed to using it to mean. If your novel includes phrases like “weave together an ocean of options” or “weeding out the bad seeds” take a second look (you obviously can’t weave together an ocean, and how can you weed out a seed that hasn’t even bloomed? Think about it!) If you’re really unsure of whether you’re abusing metaphor, hire a professional editor to give your book an expert eye.
Illogical word order
Similarly, drafting a novel doesn’t necessarily mean you’re thinking all the way through the way you lay down information in a series. Elements in a list need to proceed in a logical order to make sense. For example, the sentence “we’ll give your book our insight, hard work, and attention” isn’t correct—you have to give the book attention before you work hard on it and provide insight. This is a truly common error (made even by some freelance editors) and can be hard to spot, but it’s worth fixing every time.
Writing character description or writing setting description is like filming a movie: the camera has to move logically from point A to point B. Too many jump cuts and you’re making it impossible for your reader to follow. Describing a character with “blue-streaked hair, red combat boots, a pink plaid skirt, and deep red lipstick” is confusing: you’re darting from her head to her feet to her hips to her head again. Work top down or bottom up; scan over the scene like a camera.
Commonly misused phrases
“A hare’s breath.” “For all intensive purposes.” “I should of known better.” “Sneak peak.” “Deep-seeded.” If any of these look familiar, your book could no doubt use another go-over. Even smart writers slip up on these—but that doesn’t mean these commonly misused phrases should make it into your final draft!
The Department of Redundancy Department
Phrases like “very unique,” “collaborate together,” “true fact,” “end result,” “final outcome,” “free gift,” and so on are needlessly wordy—the kiss of death for clear writing. Strike out any adjectives that don’t truly modify; only keep them if they change the original intended meaning of the word.
It’s easy to think of phrases like “pitch-black,” “blood-red,” “dead as a doornail,” and “thick as thieves” as almost entire words in themselves: we use them together so frequently that they’ve practically inseparable. But they should be separated: clichés like this cause the reader to speed up, glossing over rather than truly reading, and absorbing less of your story. Whenever possible, break up clichés with more unexpected descriptions to force your reader to pay attention. Good writing doesn’t have to be needlessly complicated, but it should be complex (and non-generic) enough to provide texture in the reading experience. Eliminating these tired phrases will go a long way.
Bad dialogue tags
It’s a truism of editing that the word “said” is far and away the best choice for 99% of dialogue. That said (hah), there are times when you may wish to opt for a slightly more descriptive dialogue tag. But besides making sure it isn’t distracting, you also need to ensure that it makes sense. A character can’t “hiss” a phrase with no S sound—think about it—and it’s impossible to “laugh” a line of dialogue. Be on the lookout for tags that don’t make sense—and again, when in doubt, swap in “said.”
Want a free eBook guide to querying? The Coffee Break Query Letter is our free workbook for brainstorming, drafting, and polishing a killer query.