aren't rejected because the stories are "bad." They're rejected because they're
not "ready to read." In short, minor stuff like typos, grammar, spelling, etc.
mean places where we, as authors, deliberately break the rules. Those are fine.
That's part of our job. Language always changes with use, and we can help it on
its way. No, I'm referring to places where someone just plain didn't learn the
rule or got confused or overlooked it during the self-edits.
editing novels in 2001. Looking back at my experiences, I feel like sharing the
most common mistakes I've seen. If you'll go through your manuscript and fix
these before you submit it to a publisher, your odds of publication will
found a publisher who publishes what you write, you want to present yourself in
the best way possible. Submitting an unedited manuscript is a bit like going to
a job interview wearing a purple Mohawk, no shoes, torn jeans, and a dirty
T-shirt. Your resume may be perfect, and your qualifications impeccable, but
something tells me you won't get the job.
publisher is investing a lot in every book it accepts. E-publishers tend to
invest loads of time, and print publishers tend to invest an advertising budget
and the cost of carrying an inventory. Why ask them to invest hours and days of
editing time as well? If the publisher gets two or three or ten nearly identical
books, you want yours to be the one requiring the least editing.
thing you need to do, and I hope you've already done it, is use the spelling and
grammar checkers in your word processor. This will catch many of the "common
mistakes" on my list. But I've been asked to edit many books where the author
obviously didn't do this, and I confess that I may well have been lazy and let a
couple of mine get to my editors unchecked. Bad Michael!
list of the mistakes I see most often.
where everyone speaks in perfect English and never violates any of the bullet
points below. Okay, I made that up. That's not really a common problem at all.
But I have seen it, and it's a terrible thing.
* It's is a
contraction for "it is" and its is possessive.
* Who's is
a contraction for "who is" and whose is possessive.
* You're is
a contraction for "you are" and your is possessive.
is a contraction for "they are," there is a place, their is possessive.
is a contraction for "there is" and theirs is possessive.
* If you've
been paying attention to the above examples, you've noticed that possessive
pronouns never use apostrophes. Its, whose, your, yours, their, theirs...
* Let's is
a contraction for "let us."
making a word plural by adding an s, don't use an apostrophe. (The cats are
making a word possessive by adding an s, use an apostrophe. (The cat's bowl is
* A bath is
a noun, what you take. Bathe is a verb, the action you do when taking or giving
* A breath
is a noun, what you take. Breathe is a verb, the action you do when taking a
* You wear
clothes. When you put them on, you clothe yourself. They are made of cloth.
you read a sentence with the word "that," ask yourself if you can delete that
word and still achieve clarity. If so, kill it. The same can be said of all
sentences. If you can delete a word without changing the meaning or sacrificing
clarity, do it. "And then" is a phrase worth using your word processor's search
feature to look for.
* Keep an
eye on verb tenses. "He pulled the pin and throws the grenade" is not a good
* Keep an
eye on making everything agree regarding singular and plural. "My cat and my
wife is sleeping," "My cat sleep on the sofa," and "My wife is a beautiful
women" are not good sentences. (I exaggerate in these examples, but you know
what I mean.)
* I and me,
he and him, etc. I hope no editor is rejecting any novels for this one, because
I suspect that most people get confused at times. In dialogue, do whatever the
heck you want because it sounds more "natural." But for the sake of your
narrative, I'll try to explain the rule and the cheat. The rule involves knowing
whether your pronoun is the subject or object. When Jim Morrison of The Doors
sings, "til the stars fall from the sky for you and I," he's making a good rhyme
but he's using bad grammar. According to the rule, "you and I" is the object of
the preposition "for," thus it should be "for you and me." The cheat involves
pretending "you and" isn't there, and just instinctively knowing "for I" just
doesn't sound right. (I think only native English speakers can use my cheat. For
the record, I have great admiration for authors writing in languages that aren't
their native tongues.)
of, would of, could of. This one can make me throw things. It's wrong! What you
mean is should have, would have, could have. Or maybe you mean the contractions.
Should've, would've, could've. And maybe 've sounds a bit like of. But it's not!
Of is not a verb. Not now, not ever.
shorter sentences are better. Always. Don't ask a single sentence to do too much
work or advance the action too much, because then you've got lots of words
scattered about like "that" and "however" and "because" and "or" and "as" and
"and" and "while," much like this rather pathetic excuse for a sentence right
* On a
similar (exaggerated) note: "He laughed a wicked laugh as he kicked Ralphie in
the face while he aimed the gun at Lerod and pulled the trigger and then laughed
maniacally as Lerod twisted in agony because of the bullet that burned through
his face and splattered his brains against the wall and made the wall look like
an overcooked lasagne or an abstract painting." Now tell me this sentence isn't
trying to do too much.
* Too means
also, two is a number, to is a preposition.
said/she said. Use those only when necessary to establish who's speaking. They
distract the reader, pulling him out of the story and saying, "Hey look, you're
reading a book." Ideally, within the context of the dialogue, we know who's
talking just by the style or the ideas. When a new speaker arrives on the scene,
identify him or her immediately. Beyond that, keep it to a minimum. Oh yeah, and
give every speaker his/her own paragraph.
smiled his most winning smile and said, "What's a nice girl like you doing in a
place like this?" I don't like this. Use two shorter sentences in the same
paragraph. Billy-Bob smiled his most winning smile. "What's a nice girl like you
doing in a place like this?" Same effect, fewer words, no dialogue tag (he
* In the
previous example, I don't like "smiled his most winning smile," because it's
redundant and also cliched. Please, if you find yourself writing something like
that, try to find a better way to express it before you just give up and leave
it like it is. During the self-edit, I mean, not during the initial writing.
glow-in-the-dark poster of Jesus glowed in the dark." This editor won't let that
one go. Much too redundant, and it appeared in a published novel.
* Lie is
what you do when you lie down on the bed, lay is what you do to another object
that you lay on the table. Just to confuse matters, the past tense of lie is
lay. Whenever I hit a lay/lie word in reading, I stop and think. Do that when
you self-edit. (Note: Don't fix this one in dialogue unless your character is
quite well-educated, because most people say it wrong. I do.)
* Beware of
the dangling modifier. "Rushing into the room, the exploding bombs dropped seven
of the soldiers." Wait a minute! The bombs didn't rush into the room. The
soldiers did. To get all technical about it, the first part is the "dependent
clause," and it must have the same subject as the "independent clause" which
follows. Otherwise it's amateur, distracting, and a real pain for your poor
* If you
are able (many readers are not), keep an eye out for missing periods, weird
commas, closing quotes, opening quotes, etc. When I read a book, be it an ebook
or a printed book, I can't help but spot every single one that's missing. They
slap me upside the head, which makes me a great editor but a lousy reader. If
you're like me, use that to your advantage. If not, that's what editors are for!
* * *
LaRocca's website at
http://www.chinarice.org/ was chosen by WRITER'S DIGEST as one of The 101
Best Websites For Writers. He teaches English at a university in Hangzhou,
Zhejiang Province, China, and publishes the free weekly Newsletter WHO MOVED