I love those lists of “things to watch out for” or “what I’m seeing a lot lately” from writers, editors, agents, and readers. I think they can be really helpful starting points for self-editing or brainstorming. So, I’ve decided to do one of my own. Here are the ten most frequent comments I make when editing a manuscript.
Now a disclaimer or two. These are only my most common critiques. I try to leave praise proportional to criticism (though my job isn’t to focus on what you’ve already done well), but those tend to be more manuscript-specific and also, aren’t as helpful to you all.
Also, when it comes to this kind of line-level editing, I allow a bit of stylistic wiggle room. I will not say “no filtering ever!” because filtering can in some places increase tension or suspense, or simply be part of a poetic voice. Sometimes these comments are up for debate; sometimes they’re not.
The other thing to remember about this list is that all these elements must be kept in balance. Lots of observable details are great, unless you’re repeating the same things over and over or filtering them through heard, saw and felt.
So here we go! My top ten editing comments. Hopefully this will help you get a jump on your self-editing! This list is not in any particular order or hierarchy.
1. Lack of observable details.
Observable details could also be called sensory details; they’re what your protagonist can observe with their five (or six, or seven) senses. When a scene feels rushed or a world feels poorly developed, it’s often because these details have not been fully fleshed out. They’re also commonly dropped from character interactions, which results in telling lines like “He stared at me. He was trying to guess my thoughts.” What, for example, can the protagonist see in his expression that makes them think he’s trying to guess their thoughts?
Details like these are great characterization opportunities for all your characters, especially if you’re in a limited POV. What your protagonist notices can be as important as what the other character is doing.
2. Repetitive or redundant
Gestures, descriptors, conversations, all these can get repetitive. This applies to big plot things, small paragraph or sentence things, but also word things like “whispered quietly.”
3. Mixed-up definitions
Are you trying to figure out if “Repetitive or redundant” is repetitive or redundant? They overlap, but by definition they are two different phenomena. One of the things I do a lot–and I really do mean all the time–is clarify whether the word you’ve chosen is, by definition, actually the word you want to use. Sometimes it’s a homophone mix-up (peek, peak, pique), sometimes it’s a similar sound (transpired/conspired), sometimes it’s just a word that really doesn’t mean what you think.
Check your definitions. Even dialogue tags.
4. Poor logical flow
What this means is that in a given paragraph, sentence 1 should be followed by sentence 2, followed by sentence 3, then move on to sentences a, b, and c. This is as opposed to going: sentence 1, sentence b, sentence a, sentence 2, sentence 3, sentence c. We’re not writing essays here, but you still want to make sure all the ideas that go together…well, go together, in an order that makes sense.
5. Unclear transitions
By transitions, I mean everything from chapter to chapter, to action to action or emotion to emotion. Sometimes, transitions are a logical flow issue (“wait, why are they doing this thing when they just decided they had to go do the other thing?”), and sometimes it’s just a question of missing info. If the last we saw of He-Man was that some T-Rex is dangling him off a cliff and you say he gets let go three paragraphs later, then suddenly he’s scooping She-Ra up and running away? I’m going to wonder why there’s not a He-Pancake at the bottom of that cliff.
Err on the side of stage direction when drafting. It can always be trimmed down later.
6. No poetic flow
This can be a little trickier to pin down and is pretty subjective, but it is important. What I mean is, how does this sentence sound to the ear? Is it awkward? If I tried to cold read it (read it aloud without reading ahead of time or preparing), would I stumble over a weird construction? Does the sentence have a rise and fall? Does the sound of the sentence match the mood or atmosphere of your content? To use a classic example, think Hemingway versus Fitzgerald. Old Man and the Sea versus Gatsby.
This is where reading aloud is crucial, and not just of your own work. If you’re really digging a book right now, read a page or two aloud and see what it sounds like.
7. Unbalanced tags
My comments on dialogue tags are primarily about balancing them. Are you using too many? Not enough? Constantly using saidisms instead of mixing in action tags before or after each spoken line? Does the tag you chose accurately reflect the dialogue? I usually recommend action tags because they’re more useful, and in a lot of cases, more realistic. People fidget. They pace. They move around and pick at themselves during a conversation. But tags, action and dialogue, must be in balance so that they don’t get repetitive and pull the reader out of the story.
8. Shifty POV
This one applies to novels written in a limited or close point of view, meaning that the reader only sees the main character’s thoughts and experiences. Everything else–the emotions and motivations of other characters, in particular–are observed by the reader through the main character. This is how virtually all YA novels are written these days, and a well-known example is Harry Potter.
So shifty POV, commonly known as head-hopping, is when the POV slips to include something that the main character cannot observe or know. This most commonly happens with what another character is thinking or feeling, or (as in our example above, with the boy staring) their motivation for an action or inaction.
This does not preclude main characters from guessing about the thoughts, feelings, or motivations of other characters, by any means! But authors need to use those observable details (of current or previous circumstances) to provide a foundation for those guesses.
9. Too much filtering
Like I said above, I allow a bit of wiggle room stylistically, especially with filtering. A little can be okay. Too much becomes repetitive and wordy. More often than not, it’s unnecessary. The example I use a lot is: “She heard a door slam.” Why not just say, “A door slammed”?
Some situations where I’d allow filtering: felt if the character is being touched (“He felt her fingernail scrape lightly across his collarbone”), or during some massive sensory experience (“She felt the fire’s heat on her face, heard the boom for a split second before it ruptured her eardrums. She saw the glow get brighter and brighter until it enveloped her.”) Again, this all depends on stylistic context.
10. Punctuation issues
Everyone has their own punctuation demon. Commas. Exclamation points. Em dashes. Commas are an especially common trickster, and often I see people placing them in such a way as to mess up the poetic flow of their sentences. A lot of people advise others to think of commas as breath marks, and that can be helpful. Not always, though. I like to recommend mixing it up. Move the comma around, read the sentence aloud over and over, making sure to take a real pause where the comma falls.
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun. (Original, no comma.)
My mistress’, eyes are nothing like the sun. (Eh, could make sense as an address if it weren’t for the possessive apostrophe.)
My mistress’ eyes are, nothing like the sun. (Only works if your speaker is William Shatner. Not what you want. If you really want to indicate a pause, use an ellipses–but sparingly!)
My mistress’ eyes are nothing, like the sun. (This one makes sense grammatically, but is pretty nonsensical.)
My mistress’ eyes, are nothing like the sun. (Another Shatner sentence.)
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What are some of the most common critiques you’ve given or received?