Whether the manuscript is a historical romance, an urban fantasy, or a contemporary teen novel, I've learned to expect certain errors when copyediting. They are so common and understandable that they appear in most manuscripts—including my own.
It's a good idea for writers to look for these mistakes themselves, before handing the manuscript over to a copyeditor. Why?
With that in mind, let's get to the top ten corrections I commonly make. (And be sure to read to the end, because the last one is the most prevalent!)
If you ever used a typewriter, then you learned to put two spaces between sentences. That break was important when each letter was the same size, but with the use of word processors and scalable fonts, those two spaces are neither necessary nor visually appealing. Every style guide recommends and every prominent publisher uses a single space between sentences.
Habits die hard though. Even if you've switched to that single space, your muscle memory might slide in an extra space now and then. You might be surprised how many have gotten into your book without your knowledge.
Run the Find & Replace function in whatever software you're using. Type two spaces into the Find, one space into the Replace, and Replace All.
Did you notice the extra space at the beginning of this paragraph?
Those extra spaces tend to show up at the beginning of paragraphs a few times in most manuscripts I've seen, and they may appear even more obvious in print.
Use that Find & Replace function again, this time typing in the formatting character for a paragraph break (^p in Word) followed by a space. Then put only the paragraph break in the Replace box (^p) and Replace All.
So we often begin sentences with extraneous words. And while that's okay now and again, we can overuse those beginnings. Then the flow begins to bog down, or character dialogue sounds too much alike across characters.
The words I began each of the sentences with in the prior paragraph—so, and, then—are some of the most common culprits. But you may have your own repetitive sentence openers.
Becoming aware of this tendency is the best long-term fix, so you can self-correct as you write or in early edits. However, you can also scan the manuscript's left margin, looking for those common words and then choosing which ones to keep and which ones to delete.
Homophones are words with the same pronunciation but different spellings and meanings. Because they sound the same, we often confuse one word's spelling for another. Want an example of homophones? Here you go.
Other common homophones include:
Different writers tend to confuse different homonyms. Knowing your own I mix up those words tendency can help you know which words to run a search for later to make sure you used the spelling you intended to use.
Let's look at a familiar sentence construction and ask whether it needs a comma:
What if the sentence was:
In both circumstances, what's really meant is and then. That is, two separate activities occurred sequentially, first one and then the other. Accordingly, both sentences should have a comma before the word then.
When then is used as a shorthand for and then, a comma usually precedes the adverb....
She filled in the last square in Sunday’s puzzle, then yawned.Chicago Manual of Style 6.23. See also 6.57.
Now, not all thens require a comma! For instance:
But it doesn't take long to run a search for the word then and check for commas where they should be.
Let's say you have a character who is a sheriff and resides in Badland County. Is he the Sheriff of Badland County or the sheriff of Badland County? What if you address him directly or by name?
Titles can be difficult, whether it's sheriff, queen, or master of the third realm. But here's the quick scoop to getting it right:
Sometimes your story will dictate a different approach for a particular title. For instance, in our Muse Island series, my coauthor and I chose to capitalize the m in Muse whenever referring to an individual. However, that was a conscious style choice to indicate the authority and personality of this magical energy source.
If you have characters with titles, go hunting for them and make sure you use the proper capitalization. If you make a different style choice, be consistent.
These are not homophones but rather words with the same meaning and two accepted spellings. In this case, it doesn't matter which one you choose, as long as you use the same one throughout the book.
You can find lists of words spelled two ways here, here, here, or by searching the internet. See which ones you use often and run searches for those words with both spellings, double-checking for consistency.
Heading southwest isn't the same as heading to the Southwest. Cardinal and ordinal direction words (e.g., north, northeast) can be used for direction or region. But if it's a direction, it's lowercase, and if it's a region, it's uppercase.
For example, if penning a novel set in my home state, I could write:
We left West Texas and headed east on I-10. The road turned south taking us toward Central Texas and a fresh start.
Consider the regions of your chosen setting, whether factual or fictional, and make sure you capitalize accordingly.
When it comes to the Oxford, or serial, comma, I ask for and follow my client's preference. For myself...
Either way, a writer should be consistent and clear. That is, if you're going with the Oxford comma, make sure to use it throughout. If you're not going with the Oxford, be consistent in leaving it out unless doing so confuses your message.
Now you're hardly going to search for every comma or every and to check for consistent usage, but a fair number of writers haven't decided which approach to use. Pick one, use it as much as you remember to, and inform your copyeditor of your preference.
(Though if you want to do it right, go Oxford comma. ~wink~)
What's the number one thing I write over and over in the margin of manuscripts? "I don't know who's talking here."
In dialogue that goes back and forth or gets interrupted by action, internal dialogue, or exposition, it's easy to lose track of who's speaking. Let's look at an example.
Twila sat at the table. "I ordered a bottle of wine at the bar."
Craig smiled. "We can probably get through a bottle."
"The bottle's for me, mister. Get your own."
"Long day, huh?"
When she wasn't overworking, Twila was complaining about her schedule. Sometimes, she did both.
The waiter delivered the bottle, two glasses, and poured.
"So I guess this means we are sharing, even if that wasn't the original plan," she said.
With that last sentence, it could have been Twila or Craig speaking. You don't know until the very end! But if you simply move "she said" to earlier in the sentence:
The waiter delivered the bottle, two glasses, and poured.
"So," she said, "I guess this means we are sharing, even if that wasn't the original plan.
Scan your manuscript for large chunks of dialogue and read through those sections. See if there's any place where the speaker might not be clear. If needed, move the dialogue tag or cue earlier to avoid confusion.
Finding and correcting these mistakes will take additional time at first, but over time, your prose will be cleaner and clearer as you write and edit.
Julie Glover is an award-winning author of mysteries and young adult fiction. She also writes supernatural suspense under the pen name Jules Lynn.
She is currently working on book five in that series, which begins with Mark of the Gods.
When not writing, she collects boots, practices rampant sarcasm, and advocates for good grammar and the addition of the interrobang as a much-needed punctuation mark.
Image credits: Lorenzo Cafaro and Gerd Altmann from Pixabay, Polena Zimmerman from Pexels
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Nice article! I plan to share it with my writing critique group.
You do have an error, though, in the "Commas with Then" section. You wrote: "Accordingly, both sentences should have a comma after the word then." I'm sure you meant "comma before the word then."
Thank you! That IS what I meant. I have corrected it. I appreciate you copyediting me!
Excellent, Julie - I learned something! (direction vs region)
And my go-to throw away word is, 'well'.
Yay! I love when I learn something even after I think I know everything. I thought you were already there so... 😉
Me too, Laura! At least we're aware of it.
Great article, Julie, and a good reminder for us all.
Great tips and I'll never pry that Oxford comma from your hands. LOL
My biggest things from your list are making sure you know who's talking in scenes with multiple characters and titles since I have military characters. One thing not on your list I've had to look for is setting the scene so readers know where the characters are at the start of a chapter or scene break.
Oh, that's a good one too. Frankly, however, I'm terrible at it myself! My critique partner is always saying, "Ground us in this scene." Lol.
Wonderful list, Julie. I will share. 🙂
Excellent advice, and timely as I'm currently editing my latest wip.
Great! Best wishes with the edits.
Julie, these are great points! Homophones come to get me all of the time!
Thanks for select all tip.
Yes, those homophones can be tricky!
Great tips, thank you! BTW, whisky from Scotland is always without the 'e.' The US and Ireland tend to use the e, whiskey.
Good to know! Thanks. (Though I'll drink whisk(e)y with or without the e. ~grin~)
I've converted some friends over to the Oxford comma.
As for whiskey and whisky, it depends on the country where it is made.
All good points! You sound exactly like my editor when talking about the Oxford comma.
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