Seven Subtle Copy-Editing Mistakes You Might Be Making

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.re

Mixed metaphors
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.

Confusing description
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.

Stealth cliché
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.”

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5 Signs You’ve Revised Your Novel Too Much

Everyone knows revision means CHANGE—sometimes deleting characters, merging subplots, or even ripping your novel up by the roots and starting again. But how can you tell if your revision is changing too much in your story? Here are 5 warning signs to be on the lookout for.

1. Your characters are becoming inconsistent.
If personalities are changing from scene to scene, that’s a bad sign—you’re hopping around too much and not considering the throughline of your character’s growth arc. But a revised character can also become incompatible with the plot of a novel, especially if the stakes or motivation hinge on something personal: a revenge plot, for example, won’t make any sense with a character who’s mild-mannered. This is especially true for romance: if one character changes, their love interest needs to adapt to remain compatible with them.

2. You’re losing sight of your novel’s genre.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with blending two genres (who doesn’t love a good romantic thriller or humorous fantasy?) but if your edits are making your novel unrecognizable to fans of the genre, you’re not going to hook readers. It’s not about being cliché, but rather about catering to the expectations of your book’s readership, and delivering the satisfying plot tropes and characters that make them fans. Have a reader take a look at your manuscript and help you decide if it’s still got a hook.

3. You’re adding words.
Sometimes revision does involve lots and lots of new scenes, especially if the plot isn’t hanging together. But if you’re ballooning up more than a few thousand, or to over 100k words total, you might want to re-examine what you’re adding. Is it necessary, or just more fat you’ll need to cut.

4. You’re deleting too much.
There’s a flip side, naturally: sometimes, in a rush to get your novel as lean as possible, you end up cutting plot points or details that are necessary to make the whole thing make sense. Removing too many plot dominos can lead to the narrative falling flat, or falling apart. An outside reader will be able to tell you whether things are still lying logically.

5. You don’t care about the book anymore.
Revision is a long haul, and if you work your manuscript over and over and over, your writerly passion can die away. You’ll never finish a project that you don’t care about, and if you hack away at it too much, no matter how focused you are in the beginning, you’ll end up losing steam by the end. Bottom line: any revision course that sucks away your inspiration isn’t the right one for you book. Take a break, maybe work on another project, and revisit when you’re feeling more fresh.

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