My thanks today go to author and editor Ann Henry for her permission to include this most useful article on my blog. Ann Henry holds a BA in Journalism from the University of Mississippi and has worked as a writer and editor for newspapers, magazines, radio, and television in the United States and the British West Indies. She is author of non-fiction book The Novel Pitch and novels A Bit of Sun and Sailing Away from the Moon.
This article is full of useful tips for authors and allows readers to see 'behind the scenes' about the creation of a good book. Thank you, Ann, now over to you.
If you've had the means and the fortitude to follow through on your dream to actually finish writing a book, whether it took one year or ten, congratulations! Take a deep breath and relax. Let your mind, your fingers, and your book rest for a few days. Celebrate! And then…
It will be time to get down to the serious work of revising and editing your manuscript.
This may seem like a daunting, tedious, or even distasteful task, but it must be done. And the truth is, it can be fun! Once you know what to look for, you can enjoy the adventure of the hunt and the satisfaction of weeding out or correcting all those places in your manuscript where the words or punctuation are not quite right. And don’t be afraid to cut, cut, cut! Such attention to winnowing out excess verbiage and fine-tuning your prose will enable your readers to enjoy a much smoother ride as they become totally immersed in your story or engrossed in your words of wisdom.
In my experience as an editor, a reader, and a literary judge, the two areas where fiction writers most often stray from the proven course, often confusing or disorienting their readers, involve point of view and the nearest antecedent.
1: Shifts In Point Of View
These occur when thoughts and observations change from being filtered through the mind of one character or narrator to being filtered through the mind of another.
'Oh, no! I mustn’t let him kiss me! she thought as he held her in his arms thinking, I never realized how luscious her lips look!'
You will often see this sort of point-of-view shift in romance novels where it is more tolerated than in most other fiction. But shifting the point of view in the same paragraph, never mind the same sentence, is almost never a good idea. General advice on this issue is that the point of view should remain consistent throughout a scene.
In many cases, however, the shift is much more subtle—and therefore more easily overlooked—than in the example above. Consider the following paragraph:
John closed his eyes as Mary reached the end of her story. Sorrow squeezed his heart. He looked at her once more and laid a gentle hand on her shoulder. Mary turned her head toward the window so he wouldn’t see the tears in her eyes.
From whose point of view is the reader experiencing this passage? John’s? Mary’s? Or both?
The paragraph begins with John’s point of view. Only he can know that his heart feels squeezed by sorrow. But while John might guess that Mary turned her head so that he wouldn’t see her tears, only Mary knows for sure. That part is from Mary’s point of view, not John’s.
Author Bonnie Garmus deftly switches point of view numerous times in some of the scenes in her acclaimed novel Lessons in Chemistry. Kudos to Garmus. It works! But best general advice is to stay in the head of only one character or narrator throughout a given scene. And, of course, if you’re writing in the first person, then everything must be experienced from that character’s point of view as long as that character is “on stage,” which is often throughout the entire book.
2: The Nearest Antecedent Rule
Yes, we all know that when it comes to writing fiction, the only true rule is that there are no rules. However, there are many useful guidelines, and the “nearest antecedent rule,” which states that a pronoun should refer to the preceding noun (of the same gender) that is nearest that pronoun, is a guideline well worth adhering to in your writing. Ignoring this guideline can result in confusion on the part of your reader (not to mention your editor) and sometimes promote unintended hilarity as in the following example:
When the family’s dog finally quit chasing two-year-old Bobby around the yard, he went over to a tree, raised his leg, and peed.
You get the picture. Or maybe you don’t. That’s the problem when you break the nearest antecedent rule.
Best advice? Don’t do it. If replacing the pronoun with the name of the person, animal, or thing to which the pronoun refers makes the sentence too clumsy, then rewrite it in a way that avoids this problem.
3 Other Issues
For any type of published writing obviously include the use of proper grammar, punctuation, capitalization, and spelling. One of the most common punctuation mistakes I’ve noticed is the use of a comma to separate a compound verb. There should be no comma in the simple sentence “Jerry went to the store and bought some milk.” There should, however, be a comma separating the two independent clauses in the compound sentence “Jerry went to the store, and he bought some milk.”
For fiction, at least, the preferred references for these matters are Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and the Chicago Manual of Style. By all means, use spell-check and grammar-check programs on your computer as a first line of defense, but don’t believe that all their recommendations are good ones, and do not think that such copyediting alone will suffice.
Here are a few practices and errors you should try to avoid and make sure to watch out for when you’re revising:
Weak Verbs, including the “being” verbs (such as is, are, was, and were) as well as forms of the verbs appear, seem, and feel. Ferret out these words and, when reasonable, replace them or rewrite the sentence to use stronger action verbs.
Passive Voice has its uses on some occasions but is best avoided in most situations. Instead of writing “the boy was hit in the head by the ball,” write “the ball hit the boy in the head.” Make the active voice your go-to form of expression.
Turning Strong Verbs Into Nouns weakens their impact on the reader. Instead of “it was time to make a decision,” write “it was time to decide.”
Redundancies such as past history, hot water heater, or golden-haired blonde, should be avoided. Simply history, water heater, or blonde will do.
Cliches are okay in a rough draft but not in finished copy. Delete them or replace with new and fresh expressions.
Dialogue Tags That Stand Out pull the reader out of the story. You don’t need to say who is speaking every time the speaker changes in a conversation between two characters, just often enough in a long dialogue section so that the reader doesn’t lose track. And in most cases, the verb “said,” which is virtually invisible to the reader’s mind, will suffice. Punctuation plus the surrounding narrative should give your readers a good idea of whether someone is speaking angrily or cheerily or sadly. Such adverbs are deadwood and distracting to the reader. And remember that in dialogue, the characters are speaking, not smiling or laughing or snorting their words. At least 90% of your dialogue tags should be he said, she said, they said, and that’s it.
Telling Instead Of Showing Don’t tell the reader “Katherine was sad.” Instead, show her raising her shoulder to wipe a tear from her cheek with her sweater while she holds a photo of her late husband in her hands, gently rubbing her thumb over his lips in the picture.
Overuse Of Adverbs especially the -ly variety, should be avoided. Instead of “he skated haphazardly over the ice,” write “his skates carved looping whirls and crisscross marks all over the frozen lake.”
Overuse Of Needless Words such as very, just, really and that, can clutter your prose and dilute its impact. A cautionary note, however: sometimes the word "that" is needed to make the meaning clear or for the prose to flow more smoothly, so don’t automatically delete it without giving it due thought.
Overuse Of “Glue” Words those little words and phrases such as into the, over by the, out of which, and in order to, also clutter a sentence or paragraph if used to excess in proximity. Consider substituting "by" for "over by" and "to" for "in order to."
Word Repetition When you are writing, a particular adjective or verb may stick in your head, and without realizing it you’ll be using it several times within a few paragraphs or maybe even the same paragraph. Note these instances when you’re revising and replace the repeated words with something different.
Chronology Make a list of the order of events in your story and in the lives of your characters so that you don’t have John telling his best friend about the charming Mary in Chapter 2 if John doesn’t meet Mary until Chapter 3.
Anachronisms John cannot call Mary (or Sally either, for that matter) on his iPhone in 2003 if iPhones weren’t available until 2005. You don’t have to be writing historical fiction to wind up with an anachronism in your story. If you’re not sure, do the research.
Similar Character Names If your main character is named Tom, don’t have another Tom or Tommy or Thomas in the story unless it is an intentional part of the plot. And don’t use similar names, especially starting with the same letter or letters, for different characters. Don’t have both a Mick and a Mike or a Jane and a Joan or a Brady and a Brandy in the same story. It’s too easy for the reader to confuse these characters.
Lack Of Consistency This can be an issue on several fronts, including use of the serial comma (also known as the Oxford comma), the spelling of a word that has more than one accepted spelling (such as OK and okay), and the spelling of a character’s name. Choose an acceptable version and stick with it. I vote in favor of the Oxford comma because sometimes it is needed for clarity, and if you choose not to use it except when needed, then your style will lack consistency. But more important is consistency with your characters’ names. Of course, you can have a character named Michael and have him sometimes go by the nickname Mike or what have you, but don’t have a character named Ann without an E and then sometimes write her name as Anne with an E. And don’t have Shawn become Shane halfway through the story for no reason. This sort of inattention to detail will really confuse your reader.
Misused Words By far the most misused word I’ve noticed in my reading is the use of "further" to mean "farther." Note the correct use of these two words in the following passage:
“Let’s discuss this further as we walk farther into the lab,” Tom said. “Time is of the essence, and the farther behind we get in our research, the less chance we have to further our careers at this institution.”
“And here I was thinking that there was nothing farther from your mind than work this weekend,” Susan replied. “I guess I’ll just have to spend a little time getting further acquainted with you if I want to stay a step farther ahead.”
Misuse of the verb "lay" to mean "lie" (as in using "lay down" to mean "lie down") is another frequent error. It’s okay to have your characters use casual or incorrect grammar in dialogue or their own thoughts—or when the narrative of your story is written in the first person—if such speech is consistent with that character’s background, education, and current circumstance. But more formal nonfiction writing and third-person fiction narrative should use proper grammar or at least, in the case of more casual writing, grammar that is basically correct.
Keeping such guidelines in mind while both writing and revising your manuscript will make it a clearer and more enjoyable read. Your readers may not realize it, but they will nonetheless thank you for it.