Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

Fix Your Writing Mistakes

I’ve worked as an editor for over 25 years and have hosted Write On! Radio for the past dozen. I’ve spoken with authors young and old, good and bad, serious and frivolous. So there isn’t much that surprises me anymore about writing and writers. But there is a lot that continues to disappoint me.

Writers make mistakes, just like everyone else. No big deal. But it would be nice if writers would fix the obvious mistakes in their writing before turning it over to their editors or publishers.

Here are some of the most common mistakes I find:

—Failing to include end quotes in dialogue. This is an easy one to miss, and the occasional slip is not a huge deal, but when it happens multiple times, it’s frustrating because it pulls you out of the story. You now have to figure out where the conversation ended. Sometimes that’s easy, but at times it can be difficult.

For example: “I went to the theater, but didn’t see Pete there. I also went to the bowling alley and bowled a few frames, but I’m not going to tell you that.

This second sentence, we learn, is a thought, but we don’t understand that until we get to the end of it. Now we have to go back in order to place in our minds where the end quote should have been, slowing us down.

—Failing to include commas when addressing people. This is more carelessness than anything else.

For example: “You know Jim, we never should have stopped at the bar.” Are you addressing Jim or are you talking about Jim and saying that because we know Jim we shouldn’t have stopped at the bar?

Again, we can probably figure out from context that you’re actually speaking to Jim, especially if Jim responds. But why tax the reader? Why pull the reader from the story? All it does is annoy the discerning reader, who is likely, after seven or eight of these kinds of mistakes, to put the book down and find something else to read.

It’s okay for authors to be vague about what they wish to convey. But it’s generally not okay for writers to be vague about how they present what they want to say. Of course there are exceptions, like James Kelman, who can get away with it. But he does it deliberately, to make a point about the way people speak.

—Changing the tense of verbs in the same sentence or paragraph.

For example: I went to the cemetery. As I kneel beside the grave, I spoke to my father. Yes, we can figure out what the writer is saying. But it leads us not to trust his message. If you’re in past tense, stay in past tense. Simple, right?

—Apostrophes in the wrong spot. Either putting them where they don’t belong or failing to put them where they’re needed. For example: I stopped off at Joes Bar and had a few drinks with the Johnson’s. You need apostrophes for possessives, not plurals.

—Misspelling common words. The one I see most frequently is probably lead – as in, “Abraham delivered them. He lead them to the promised land.” The past tense of read is read, but the past tense of lead is led.

Why is this stuff a big deal? For several reasons. First, in today’s publishing industry, there are way fewer editors than there were in the past. Fewer eyes looking at the text, fewer chances to catch mistakes. So if you don’t find these mistakes, there’s a good chance no one else is going to either.

Second, if you want to be taken seriously by readers, editors, agents, publishers, journalists, etc., you need to demonstrate mastery of the basics. If you can’t do that, how are you going to convince them that you can master the more difficult aspects of storytelling?

Third, reviews are vital to sales. All it takes are a few nasty reviews from readers who talk about how poorly a book is written to doom it to oblivion. Yes, there are exceptions – books that are poorly edited and written that still reach tremendous sales goals (e.g., Fifty Shades of Grey). But those are rare.

In short, clean up your writing. Edit it and proofread it, then do it again and again until you’re sick of looking at it. When you’re no longer finding any mistakes, then there are probably not that many left.


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