‘The Top 5 Mistakes I Find as an Editor’ by Smoky Trudeau Zeidel

Please welcome today’s guest. Smoky Trudeau Zeidel is the author of two novels, On the Choptank Shores and The Cabin. She is also author of Observations of an Earth Mage, a photo/essay collection; and two books about writing. You can find Smoky and her three blogs at www.SmokyZeidel.wordpress.com. Smoky writes:

As an editor and as an avid reader, I see a lot of mistakes make their way into print. Many, if not all, of them could be avoided by having a professional edit your manuscript before submitting it to your publisher, or putting it up on Smashwords or Kindle if you ePublish on your own.

You might think you don’t need an editor, because your next door neighbor/best friend/Aunt Thelma offered to do it for free, or because you’ve read and re-read your manuscript a hundred times and just know it’s perfect.

You’d be wrong. First, your neighbor/best friend/Aunt Thelma may spell great, but do they know all the rules of punctuation and style? I doubt it. The Chicago Manual of Style, the go-to book for American publishers for punctuation and style issues, is more than 900 pages long and two inches thick. I doubt your beta readers have that thing memorized. I refer to it frequently, and I am a professional editor.

Second, as the book’s creator, finding your own mistakes is hard. That’s because you see what you thought you wrote, rather than what you actually wrote. Even though I’m an editor, I don’t edit my own stuff. I have my best friend do it—but hold on, before you protest, let me say that my best friend is a professional editor, so she is exempt from the best friend rule.

That said, I know a lot of writers won’t hire an editor. And this really isn’t a pitch to get your business (although, of course, I am always open to that). So since you probably won’t hire me or any of my editor cohorts, I’m going to share with you a list of the five biggest mistakes I see in manuscripts, so you can watch for them, and fix them, yourself.

Mistake #1: Writers don’t place a comma between independent clauses separated with a conjunction. Independent clauses are clauses that can stand on their own as sentences, e.g., “He took the 405 freeway to work, and he exited at the Getty Museum.” Because both “He took the 405 freeway to work” and “he exited at the Getty Museum” are independent clauses—meaning they can stand alone as sentences, you must, must, place a comma before the conjunction, “and.” This is probably the biggest, most common mistake I find in manuscripts and books. Don’t make it. It’s a very easy punctuation rule to remember.

Mistake #2: Writers place commas between independent clauses and dependent clauses. This is probably the second most common mistake I see. A dependent clause is one that cannot stand on its own as a sentence. Let’s take the above example, and change it just a little: “He took the 405 freeway to work and exited at the Getty Museum.” I took the second “he” out. That makes the clause after “and” a dependent clause, because “exited at the Getty Museum” cannot stand alone as a sentence. It is dependent upon the first clause to be understood; thus, no comma should precede the “and.”

Of course, there are other places you need—and don’t need—commas, but this isn’t meant to be a comprehensive study of the comma. If in doubt, look up comma placement in The Chicago Manual of Style or other style manual.

Mistake #3: Writers don’t know their homonyms. In just the last few weeks alone, I’ve seen characters who were unphased, waiving to people, and peaking out windows. The writer’s spellchecker should have alerted her to the fact that “unphased” isn’t even a word. She meant “unfazed.” To waive means to relinquish, to set aside. The word this author wanted was “waving.” And a peak is the highest point of something; one peeks, not peaks, out a window.

Please, unless you are 100 percent sure you are using the right homonym, look it up. The wrong choice could have your characters doing some pretty strange things!

Mistake #4: Writers rely on their spellcheckers. This is a big no-no. If ewe think you’re spellchecker will fined awl yore miss steaks, your wrong. That sentence went through my spellchecker just fine, and there are no less than eight errors in it (“ewe” should be “you”; “you’re” should be “your”; “fined” should be “find”; “awl” should be “all”; “yore” should be “your”; “miss” and “steaks” should be “mistakes”: and finally, “your” should be “you’re”). Homonym spelling errors are the most common type of spelling error I find. Do not rely on your spellchecker. It will let you down every time.

Mistake #5: Writers who make errors in syntax. For example, look at this sentence: “I saw a deer driving to work today.” Uh, no—you didn’t, unless there are some very talented deer in your neighborhood! The correct sentence structure is, “I saw a deer while driving to work today,” or, “While driving to work today, I saw a deer.” Please, don’t put the deer in the driver’s seat!

Here’s another example: “If your toddler won’t drink milk, warm it in the microwave for a few moments.” Warm what in the microwave? You’ve got a choice of antecedents here. Heaven help the toddler if you make the wrong choice! The correct structure would read, “If your toddler won’t drink milk, warm the milk in the microwave for a few moments.”

Of course, if you and I were having a conversation, we’d probably understand each other if we made these syntax errors. But you can’t count on that when people are reading your words. Make sure you have them in the correct order so your meaning cannot be misconstrued.

I cannot list every error I run across while editing manuscripts. To do so would fill a book. But if you watch for these top five mistakes in your writing, your manuscript will be a lot more polished, and you can be more confident about submitting it to your publisher.

Good luck, and happy righting . . . er, happy writing!


Click here to read an excerpt from: On the Choptank Shores

Click here for an interview with: Smoky Trudeau Zeidel

Click here for an interview with: Grace Harmon Singer, Hero of On the Choptank Shores by Smoky Trudeau Zeidel

5 Responses to “‘The Top 5 Mistakes I Find as an Editor’ by Smoky Trudeau Zeidel”

  1. Joylene Butler (@cluculzwriter) Says:

    I’m guilty. I rely on #4 way too often. Mostly because I’m Canadian and I’m not adverse in American spelling. So when my spellcheck says something’s wrong, I assume it is. Bad, bad, joylene.

    Great list.

  2. mickeyhoffman Says:

    I love the one about the deer driving to work.

  3. Pat Bertram Says:

    I came across a good example today: “He’d heard from the foreman he’d hired every now and then.” The foreman doesn’t do much good if he has to keep hiring him now and then!

  4. Sheila Deeth Says:

    Neat examples. The comma is one I’ll have to be careful of.

  5. Rod Marsden Says:

    Useful information.

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