I know you’re getting sick of hearing how much I hate copyediting, but it’s only my work I hate copyediting. I truly get a thrill out of reading a soon-to-be-published book that one day thousands of people might love. In addition, I get to mark up the manuscript. My suggestions probably won’t make any difference to the success of the work, but they might help keep future readers anchored in the story. It seems that nowadays most readers are also writers, and while we may be a forgiving lot, inconsistencies, word echoes, and improper phraseology easily jerk us out of the fictive dream.
One of the most common problems I’m finding is wrongly used participial phrases that end in ing. According to The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, a participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject.
The example in the book is: Walking down the road, he saw a woman accompanied by two children. Who is walking? He is, of course, since he is the subject of the sentence, and the ing phrase always refers to the subject. If the woman is walking, you have to rephrase the sentence: He saw a woman, accompanied by two children, walking down the road. You, I’m sure, would never have to worry about who is walking because you’d never use such an ambiguous sentence in the first place!
The other examples of wrong phrases Strunk and White give are humorous and show why it’s important to follow the rule:
Being in dilapidated condition, I was able to buy the house cheap.
Wondering irresolutely what to do next, the clock struck twelve.
As a mother of five, with another on the way, the ironing board was always up.
In case you don’t know how to rephrase the above sentences, here are my quick efforts:
Because of the dilapidated condition of the house, I was able to buy the place cheap.
As I wondered what to do next, the clock struck twelve.
A mother of five, with another on the way, I was never able to put the ironing board away.
Another ing problem comes from simultaneous actions, when an author has a character do something that’s physically impossible. For example: Pulling out of the driveway, he drove down the street. He cannot be pulling out of the driveway at the same time he’s driving down the street. He pulled out of the driveway, then drove down the street.
I know you know all this, but such sentence structures do slip into our writing. It’s up to us to wring them out of our work.