Avoiding Grammar and Word Usage Errors in your Manuscript
The years I have spent content editing have taught me that there are near-universal mistakes many authors (experienced or first-time; traditionally or self-published) tend to make. Regardless of experience, similar mistakes are made in their manuscripts.
I thought it might be helpful to some of you authors out there to have a list compiled of things that you should keep in mind while writing. A list of things you should absolutely avoid. While you are self-editing, please look for instances of these grammatical/ word usage errors in your own manuscripts. Replace/erase as many of them as you can.
Sure, this might fall more under the ‘copyediting’ category, but since I also copyedit, I try to keep an eye out for things like this.
So, what is the number one most common mistake I see?
Filter words! Oh boy. It’s so much fun to run across these in every single manuscript.
Look, you want your readers to be as close as possible to the perspectives of your characters. Your readers should feel as though they are viewing the world- which you have so painstakingly crafted- through the eyes of your characters. If you filter the experiences of your characters, your readers will not feel close to them.
Do I have examples of this? Only out the ass. Of course I do. I see and correct them every. Single. Day.
But let me first start by saying that there absolutely are exceptions to every single rule. In the case of filter words, there are times where their usage is acceptable. My main example of an exception would be if your character’s senses are in some way compromised.
If your character has all their wits about them and is not disabled- don’t write shit like this:
Harold started to see the leaves as they began to blow in the chaotic, constant wind.
Okay, where to start with shit like this? Well, first, assuming Harold isn’t mentally challenged or an otherwise unreliable narrator- what the fuck is wrong with him? How did he start to see shit that’s begun to blow around in ‘constant’ wind? Harold might need to see a fucking shrink. No. This isn’t what happened. Here is what happened:
The constant, chaotic wind blew the leaves through the air.
Now, that’s not a grade A sentence right there, but it sure does indicate that our friend Harold has his wits about him. And that he’s making direct observations that aren’t filtered through bullshit words that have no place in a regular human being’s thought process. Let’s stay with Harold. I don’t really want to, but let’s!
Harold heard the sirens in the distance. He felt his heart start beating faster. He knew they were coming for him.
Oh lord. Harold. Get your shit together. Here’s a better, closer, way to write the same thing:
Sirens blared in the distance. Harold’s heart pounded at the thought that those very sirens could be headed for him. After all- he had killed that goat.
So, again, not the greatest sentence in the world, but it’s arguably better. When the sentence is worded in a manner minus the filter words- the reader feels much closer to the action. Perhaps the reader will even feel what Harold is feeling. This helps to establish an emotional connection with the reader. When you properly engage the senses of your readers- you win. They experience the character’s world as the character experiences it. Non-filtered.
Other filter words are as follows:
He felt. He smelled. He realized. He knew. He saw.
You get the idea. Use direct descriptions instead of filtering your character’s experiences. Your reader will thank you for it.
What next? Oh! What about ellipses versus em-dashes?
Yeah, this is another one. It doesn’t really bother me much, however, because I understand what the author is trying to accomplish. This confusion usually occurs in dialogue. Take, for example this:
“I have to go, Gerald. The police. They’re coming for me. They’re going to arrest me and I’ll spend the rest of my life in jail with who knows what types of hooligans and riffraff and…”
“Dude, shut up. You’re stupid paranoid, okay? That goat was practically your property anyway, Harold. Let’s get our burgers and go.”
So, in this exchange (yeah, I hate Harold, too. I wasn’t particularly trying to make him likeable because I don’t care) Harold’s having a panic attack, and Harold’s friend interrupts said panic attack to attempt to calm him down. So where’s the issue?
The ellipses are the issue. Ellipses typically indicate that a character is either trailing off while speaking, or while thinking. Here would be a proper method of using them:
“I don’t think I could survive the prison life. Gang members assaulting me. I’m weak, I’m just not cut out for it. I…”
Here, Harold has trailed off. He’s lost his dialogue to his own train of thought. If you want to indicate that your character has been interrupted, instead, use an em-dash:
“I have to go, Gerald. The police. They’re coming for me. They’re going to arrest me and I’ll spend the rest of my life in jail with who knows what types of hooligans and riffraff and—”
There! That is what indicates an interruption in thought or in dialogue. The em-dash! I hope you all know how to use hyphens.
Oh, and if you have Word 2016- good fucking luck getting the em-dash into your text! I had to look it up online and figure out how to change my dash functions, but I got it. You will, too. I always say that you are more than welcome to e-mail me with questions, or general advice, but do NOT send me shit asking how to insert an em-dash in Word 2016. If you’re having trouble with that, it’s in god’s hands now. Good luck to you!
Next, let’s talk about excessive use of punctuation for the purpose of emphasis. Ugh. I hate this. I honestly hate exclamation points. I have fought many an author over their use of them. In dialogue, I don’t mind so much. But if you’re using exclamation points in your general narrative for the purpose of emphasis- stop. Stop it right now.
Your narrative should provide the tone, theme, and context needed for emphasis to be accomplished without adding exclamation points. If you fail to accomplish this, you may want to reconsider taking more writing classes, or reading more about the craft. You’re beyond my paygrade at that point.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen something like this:
“But, I can’t defecate in front of other people! How do you expect me to relieve myself?!”
Oh lord. The question mark/ exclamation point combo! How I love this. Look, the question mark on it’s own should be fine. The context and tone of the dialogue should reveal the exasperation of your character well enough that you should in no way need to abuse punctuation like that. However, if you must abuse punctuation and you must use the combination of an exclamation point and a question mark, please consider… the interrobang!
The interrobang is a lovely mixture of the two punctuation marks. It looks like this: ‽
I’ll enlarge it for you:
Here’s Harold’s dumb, whiny rant with the interrobang used in lieu of the question mark/exclamation point combo:
“But, I can’t defecate in front of other people! How do you expect me to relieve myself‽”
How cool is that‽
I still think it’s an abuse of punctuation, but I see it so rarely that when an author accurately uses one, I’m more proud than annoyed.
Here are a few other things that I see often:
*Tense switches. If you’re writing your story in the present tense, everything needs to happen in the present tense. Same for the past tense. Let’s check in with Harold:
Harold wandered aimlessly about the streets. He slips in a puddle and lands face-up, cursing the gods for allowing him such wretched luck.
Okay. I’ve had enough of Harold, too. Can you spot the issues here? If you can’t, then once again I would recommend that you read and write more often. I’ve been writing Harold’s story thus far in the past tense. Here is how that passage should have read:
Harold wandered aimlessly about the streets. He slipped and fell face-down into a puddle. He cursed the gods who allowed him such wretched luck.
This passage, while still rather shitty, is an example of using a consistent tense throughout. Consistency may just be the most important aspect of any manuscript. To succeed, you need to be consistent in so many things: narrative, tones, themes, plot, character arcs and development, dialogue, pacing and flow- among many others. Inconsistency will absolutely kill your story.
*Homonyms. There, there and their. Here and hear. Great and greet. Then and than. Too, two, and to. Basically, homonyms- or words that look like they may be homonyms- are a huge issue. You would think an established author would have these down. They don’t. You probably don’t either. You probably think you do, but you’ll slip up. And then you’ll hire someone like me to catch it for you. And I will. And I’ll bitch at you for it. (Not really. I’m honestly very nice and respectful of my clients. I just love my sarcasm in daily life).
*Head-hopping. This one is rather difficult for a lot of authors for some reason. This is why I always tell first-time authors that they may want to experiment with a bird’s-eye/ omniscient viewpoint. Even then, however, head-hopping can truly destroy an otherwise good story. If you are switching perspectives so often that the reader doesn’t know who they are with, or if they don’t get to spend enough time with any given character to gain an appreciation for/attachment to them, that’s obviously an issue. Try to stick with one character for at least a page. I’ve found this is the best advice for new authors. Use chapter breaks, also. They exist for a reason. Specifically if you are switching from one perspective to another.
*Harold and me vs. Harold and I.
This, oddly, is very, very common. For example:
The room wasn’t warm enough for Harold and I.
Well, that’s not right, is it? Why is it wrong? Because if you take Harold out of the equation, how would you say that? Would you say: The room wasn’t warm enough for I.?
No. You would say: The room wasn’t warm enough for me.
My advice (not to mention how I was taught to avoid the error) is to take the other person out of the equation all together. That way, you’ll know for sure whether it’s supposed to be Harold and I or Harold and me.
Well, that’s all I’ve got for now! I may add to the list the more I think on it. I’m sure there are many others. I’ll have to do a list for errors in content as well. Happy writing!