We all know about my love for writing, but I rarely ever talk about my editing work. It’s probably something I should talk about more because editing gives me so much insight into writing. It also allows me to work closely with other writers and help them grow. My goal as an editor is to not just correct mistakes, but explain how the writer can keep them from happening next time (as long as they’re open to that kind of feedback).
The shocker here is that the biggest mistakes I see are tiny ones – but then they happen over and over again and become major issues. These are the types of errors that are easy to miss for the writer, but glaring to editors, agents, publishers, and, most importantly, readers.
If you find yourself making these mistakes often and aren’t sure how to fix them, contact me! I’d love to talk with you and help to make your writing the best it can possibly be. And be sure to subscribe to my monthly newsletter A Novel Idea to receive a FREE guidebook all about storytelling. There’s an entire chapter on grammar!
Now that you already have some resources to help you out, let’s dig into the most common “minor” mistakes that I see writers make!
1. Comma Misuse
Ah, yes, the comma. That sneaky little demon we all either love with all our hearts or hate with a passion. (When I’m writing, I love them. When I’m editing, I have the sudden urge to slay every comma in existence.) They’re understandably tricky, as the rules regarding them are infinite and ambiguous. However, many writers take this to mean that they can use commas however they want.
This is, in fact, not the case.
The most common comma mistake I see is using too many of them where they’re not supposed to go. I see professional, published authors use commas incorrectly, you guys. And when I see a comma in an obvious place where it shouldn’t be, I immediately get a sense that what I’m reading is not professional. Yet, so many writers still make these mistakes.
My advice? Learn the rules. Here’s a pretty thorough and easy-to-read article by Grammarly that covers them. This may sound like grade school all over again, but it’s important. Comma errors are everywhere, so obviously, this is something we all still need to work on.
And when in doubt while you’re writing, read the passage out loud! Commas are meant to indicate pauses in speech, so most of the time, if you read a sentence out loud and insert a brief pause where the comma is, you’ll be able to tell whether or not it should be there. Some comma placements are optional and/or based on personal preference, but most are not.
I promise the rest of the points won’t be this long, but I just want to emphasise how important it is to get commas right. It is, without a doubt, the biggest error I see.
2. Unvaried Sentence Structure
Many writers don’t realise that their paragraphs are made up of sentences that all sound the same, but once I point it out to them, they see the error and wonder how they didn’t notice. I like to think that we editors do come in handy sometimes.
Varied sentence structure is key when writing prose. There’s no real “formula” to this, but to oversimplify it, just make sure to avoid putting too many long or short sentences together in sequence. Don’t just do “long, short, long, short” either, though, because that’s just as bad. Just as with commas, read your paragraph out loud when in doubt. Chances are you (or someone you trust who you’re reading it to) will recognise if there’s a problem.
3. Misuse of Participial Phrases
Participial phrases have become very, very popular, but oftentimes, they’re misused or overused. Here’s an example of one in bold: “Falling into her chair, Annabel let out a long sigh.” These phrases are very convenient and much too easy to use in sequence. Before you know it, you’ve strung together four sentences in a row, all with the same kind of participial phrase at the beginning.
Maybe you even have multiple participial phrases in a sentence. This is generally not good and creates overly long run-on sentences. I’d suggest reading up on these, too, so here’s a brief article from Perdue Writing Lab.
4. Incorrect Word Usage
I see lots of words where they shouldn’t be, which tells me that the writer either didn’t know the definition of the word or got it confused with a different word.
The best way to remedy this is 1) if you’re not 100% sure about the meaning of a word, look it up and 2) read books! Do crosswords! Expand your vocabulary! All of this will help you build your repertoire of words and ensure you know how to use them correctly. You can also check out my review of Good Writing Words, a book that simply provides you with lots of good words to learn and use for your writing.
5. Other Punctuation Misuse (Besides Commas)
We really need to study our punctuation as writers. We need to know exactly what they mean and where they’re supposed to go. This may seem obvious, but what do you do when you have a character quoting something out loud? Do you use single and double quotation marks? Which ones go outside of the end punctuation mark (like a comma or question mark)?
And what about parentheses? Does the end punctuation go on the inside or the outside?
Don’t even get me started on colons and semicolons. Those can get almost as bad as commas sometimes.
The point is that there are a lot of punctuation marks out there and we need to know how to use them correctly. It may seem like a tiny thing, but remember what I said: tiny things often snowball into huge issues.
This website actually has a little test you can take to check how well you know your punctuation! It also gives you little articles associated with each question as well.
Anyone can write, but it takes work to write well. Take the time to do your research, learn about grammar, definitions, and style, and master these common mistakes. Your writing will be all the better for it!
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