Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Editing Guidelines

Recently my friend and fellow author, Marilyn Meredith, posted a blog on self-editing. These are some of the guidelines I give my clients, based on the style sheets of several publishers I've worked for:

Proper English
Use proper English most of the time. This does not mean formal language, just correct word usage. The one place where diversion from proper English is allowed is in dialogue. A speaker may have a regional accent or may sound illiterate. Indicate these characteristics to emphasize characteristics of the character. However, with dialect, choose only one or two words and use them consistently.

Choose a Writing POV
Decide whether to write in first or third person. Don't use omniscient POV. Most people do not execute it well. When writing in third person POV, write in deep POV. Commit to the character's emotions or actions.

Point of View
Use only one point of view per chapter or scene. Identify your POV character. This person cannot know what anyone else sees, hears, thinks, or feels. Describe the scene only from this person's viewpoint.

Limit the POV to the main characters in the story. Do not write in the POV of peripheral characters.

Do not change POV by breaking the scene every few paragraphs with a hiatus (***). If the events happen in the same place at the same time, it's the same scene, and a hiatus does not work.

You may use a single transition during the scene from one POV to another. It works best mid-scene or at a crucial point where it makes sense for the POV to switch to another character. If the POV switch happens three-to-five paragraphs in, the beginning of the scene may not be necessary. Delete it.

Do not head-hop. Do not switch back and forth between characters in the same scene. This is annoying for readers, and as an editor, I don't allow it.

Show, Don't Tell
Don't say: "She was frightened." Instead, say: "Her heart pounded, she felt sweat pool beneath her arms, and her whole body shook."

Avoid Passive Voice
Use active verbs rather than passive ones. In passive, the character is the recipient of the action. Passive voice is usually awkward and unclear, while active voice flows better and is more direct.

Examples of Passive Voice:

The door was locked by Emma.
Todd's foot was stepped on by another student.


Emma locked the door.
Another student stepped on Todd's foot.

Use Direct Writing
Avoid “was -ing” and “began to” verb structures. They dilute the action. If a character does something, have them do it. As Yoda said, "Do or do not, there is no try." There is also no 'begin to.'


She began to leave the room.
He was making breakfast, while she was showering.
He was starting to suspect she was trying to confuse him.


She turned to leave the room.
He made breakfast while she showered.
He suspected she intended to confuse him.

When can a character “begin to” do something, or “'start to”' do something? When the action is interrupted.


Sally began to wash the dishes, but then the phone rang.
Damien started to leave the driveway when Dennis pulled in behind him.

Keep Up the Pace
Sometimes these words interrupt the flow of the scene. Be firm. Be clear. If you are, you won't need these words. This list is incomplete, but you should get the idea:
Began to
Just then
All of a sudden
Proceeded to
Started to

Limit “-ly” Adverbs
Stephen King said "The road to hell is paved with adjectives." The same might be said about adverbs. Adverbs are often redundant, and the action they describe can be inferred from the rest of the sentence.


He set the priceless vase on the table carefully.
“Let's get out of here," she said as she quickly turned to leave.
Betty rocked the baby and gently laid her back in her crib.


He set the priceless vase on the table.
"Let's get out of here.” She turned to leave.
Betty rocked the baby and laid her back in her crib.

The rest of the sentence implies the way they would complete the action. However, if the action is in contradiction to what the reader would expect, further description is warranted, but try to avoid “-ly” adverbs.


Bill slammed the priceless vase onto the granite countertop and glared at Janice.

Avoid the Word 'that'
Most of the time, the use of the word 'that' is unnecessary, and it is often overused. When you find the word 'that' in a sentence, read the sentence excluding the word. If it makes sense, without it, remove it.

Em-Dashes Interrupt and Ellipses Pause
Authors sometimes use one or the other all the time.

They may always use dashes (em-dashes, not hyphens), even with an abrupt halt or stutter isn't meant, or they may use ellipses (three dots used together as a single character) when they intend for the speaker to be cut off, not just trail off.

Use an Ellipse when the speaker doesn't finish their thought, perhaps because they're distracted, or they intend to leave something unsaid. Use Em-Dashes the speaker is halted or interrupted, for instance, in an argument.

No CAPS for Emphasis
Save CAPS for acronyms like FBI, CIA, IRS, etc. If you need to emphasize dialogue or narrative, use italics.

No Double Punctuation
Never use “?!” ever. This is not to say you can't use either character, but never use them together as a unit.

Eliminate Exclamation Points
Avoid exclamation points. My rule is no more than one per manuscript. Use your words to indicate the level of emphasis.

Use for internal thoughts, memories, dreams, etc. or for emphasis. Also, use them for book titles, brand names, television program names, etc. Be careful of copyright issues. Note: song titles are shown in quotes.

Avoid Semi-colons
Do not use these. Most writers misuse them. Try to rework the sentence before resorting to a semi-colon. Replace with a period and start another sentence.

Purple Prose
Avoid extravagant, erudite, or flowery language. It sounds stilted and may send your readers running to the dictionary. Once they are gone, they may not return.

Alright is Never All Right
All right is two words, despite how often it appears as one.

Replace Dialog Tags
Nothing is more annoying than repeated “he said” and “she said.” If your dialogue is between two people with identifiable positions and language styles, or a male and a female, no tags are necessary. Even when they are, replace the tags with action.

Reader Feeder
Avoid long, descriptive, and unnecessary paragraphs. They slow or stop the action. Some description is necessary to establish a sense of place, but too much bogs down the story. Especially avoid pages and pages of backstory. Include this information as the story unfolds. Always ask:
1. Is it necessary?
2. Does it move the story along?
3.  Are there any extra words?
Recently my friend and fellow author, Marilyn Meredith, posted a blog on self-editing. These are some of the guidelines I give my clients, based on the style sheets of several publishers I've worked for:

What are your pet peeves in writing?