About a year ago, I finished writing and re-writing my novel and decided to self-publish it. I knew, though, that I still needed a professional editor and a professional cover designer.
I found a professional graphic designer (with an impressive portfolio) who was writing a book and needed an editor, and another author and teacher who also needed an editor.
You may not know this about me, but I have been a professional editor for close to 30 years, now. I offered the designer and the writer my services in return for their design and editing services, respectively. I think it has worked out very well.
Since then, I have taken on more fiction editing. And while editing others’ work, I re-edited my own. I learned not only about some of the most common errors and problems that new authors today make, I also learned a lot about my own writing style and process.
Some common errors
It strikes me how common people, particularly in the US, misuse words like “lay” when they should say or write “lie.” Sometimes, I fear that this misuse will become the accepted, proper use—English is a living language, after all. That would be bad, because then I would be wrong. No one wants that, right?
Other common errors included writing “try and” (use “try to”), using “they’re” when it should be “their,” or overusing capitals (capitalize only proper names and some titles, but not all of them—check a good style guide).
New authors often tend to over-describe, adding unnecessary details like “sudden flash.” Flashes are sudden, or they’re not flashes.
And no matter what their experience, many writers are just too wordy. For instance, “the low rumble of approaching thunder” is a noun phrase that could be easily replaced by “thunder rumbled.” The two words completely replace the six, without losing information.
Improving my own writing
Editing fiction has changed the way I read fiction. I now have a deeper appreciation for realistic characters and a strong story, and a writer who can tell an original story free of cliches.
I have also become sensitized to problems in my own writing. One of my most common sins is using “then” as a conjunction, as in “he nodded, then turned away.”
I have to admit, sometimes I over-describe as well, as in “she hesitated, then turned slightly and nodded, looking down.” While it really paints the picture, that much detail gets in the way of the story.
I’ve learned to be more economical in words, and to give the audience credit. Tell them that the character looked down and nodded slightly, and they’ll fill in the rest of the details about hesitating, the shadows across her cheeks and everything else.
The most valuable lesson I have learned from editing fiction and looking at successful books is a simple one: what an audience wants is a story. Readers are not impressed with dazzling descriptions or deep metaphors. Tell a good story about characters they care about, and they’ll read.