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What Can a Good Editor Do For You?

By Patricia L. Fry

Are you ready to start showing your manuscript around to publishers? Are you sure? Is every i dotted and every t crossed? Is your fiction story easy to follow? Is your how-to book well-organized? Even if you feel inclined to respond with a resounding YES to these questions, I still encourage you to hire another pair of eyes. And make sure those eyes belong to someone who has a good track record as an editor.

What’s the downside? Hiring an editor may delay your project by a few weeks. And it may cost you $1,000 or more. But without an editor, your manuscript could end up a perpetual reject—never having a chance to shine.

Why Hire an Editor

Contrary to what many newbie authors want to believe, publishers will not wade through a messy, disorganized, poorly written manuscript in hopes of finding a good story in there somewhere. A blockbuster story or a great nonfiction book idea will go unnoticed if the writing stinks. Publishers want to see neat, clean, well-organized, well-written manuscripts. With today’s high level of competition and limited publishing slots, hopeful authors must give the best presentation they can. Hence, one of the biggest mistakes you can make is not having your manuscript edited before sending it to an agent or publisher.

Even if you are self-publishing or going with a fee-based POD publishing service, it’s still a good idea to hire an editor to take one last look at your manuscript. You may not realize it, but once you’ve completed your book, you’ve lost your ability to be objective. You’ve looked at the manuscript so many times—you are so familiar with it—that you are now seeing what you want to see. You have accepted it as written. You’ve ceased noticing problem areas; even blatant mistakes. Besides, you are accustomed to your way of speaking and writing. It seems right to you. But is it appropriate in today’s commercial market?

How to Choose an Editor

If you’ve never worked with an editor before, you may feel inadequate in choosing one. And maybe you have no idea what an editor could do for your manuscript. I know two first-time authors who landed contracts with major publishing houses only after getting editing help. One of those manuscripts needed extensive work while the author of the other one simply required some lessons in structuring more effective sentences.

Hire an editor with whom you can easily communicate. Locate one who has a track record. Read client testimonials, ask for references and request a sampling of the editor’s work. Discuss fees and the time element. The best editor for your project is someone who is familiar with books such as yours and/or who knows something about the topic of your book.

What Could Possibly Be Wrong With Your Wonderful Manuscript?

What are some of the most common problems, mistakes and oversights that editors (and, unfortunately, many publishers) see in manuscripts today? Here’s a list of 20 things that a good editor looks for and often finds in manuscripts written by first-time or otherwise inexperienced authors.

  1. Errors in using possessives. Heed the following:

    It is the girl’s ball. (The ball belongs to a particular girl.)
    It is the girls’ ball. (The ball belongs to more than one girl.)
    The ball belongs to those girls over there. (No need for an apostrophe.)

  2. Inaccurate use of contractions. Read and learn:

    It’s is the contraction for it is or it has. (It’s hot today. It’s never been hotter.)
    Its is the possessive form of it. (The butterfly spread its wings and flew away.)
    Your means this belongs to you. (This is your shoe.)
    You’re is a contraction for you are. (You’re terribly sunburned.)
    Whose is the possessive of who. (Whose horse won the race?)
    Who’s is a contraction for who is. (Who’s coming to dinner?)

  3. Instances where the wrong words are used. Here are a few commonly misused words.

    Toward is the accepted word used in America.
    Towards is commonly used in the UK.
    Instead of using could of, would of or should of, the correct phrases are: Could have, would have, should have.

  4. Redundancies. Some examples of redundant phrases are:

    ISBN number
    two twins
    widow woman
    unmarried old maid
    old, ancient antique

  5. The overuse of words. A surprising number of writers use the same word two times or more in a sentence or a paragraph. For added interest, vary your choice of words.

    Poor: He has a phenomenal personality and a phenomenal aptitude for mathematics. He would be a phenomenal catch for any woman who wants a phenomenal husband.
    Better: He has a warm personality and a phenomenal aptitude for mathematics. He would be a great catch for any woman who wants a good husband.

    Poor: The dog wanted out, so I let her out in the dog run where she could run with the other dogs.
    Better: Our beagle wanted out, so I let her out in the dog run where she could frolic with the Shih Tzu and the poodle.

  6. Too many sentences in the passive voice. Write stronger sentences by using the active instead of the passive voice. Here are some examples:

    Passive: She was hit by the ball.
    Active: The ball came out of nowhere and hit her on the head.

    Passive: He was taken into the police station.
    Active: The officer arrested him on the spot and drove him directly to the police station.

  7. The overuse of clichés. It’s tempting to use clichés in your writing. I happen to like some of these familiar old sayings. But they do make your writing rather stale. Find fresh ways to say things such as:

    In the nick of time.
    Let the cat out of the bag.
    It’s as plain as the nose on your face.

  8. Qualifiers that weaken sentences. Many writers overuse what I call qualifying words and phrases such as "very," "really," "in other words," "on the other hand," "it seems to me" and so forth. Here are some examples showing how these words and phrases can weaken potentially good sentences:

    Poor: He felt very sad. The pain from his loss really hurt.
    Better: He felt sad. He didn’t think he could bear the pain.

    Poor: I really do hope that you will follow the advice I’m offering in this chapter.
    Better: Heed the advice in this chapter and you will benefit immeasurably.

  9. Outdated phrases. Most of us glom onto favorite phrases and they become part of our vocabulary. It’s unwise, however, to make them a part of your manuscript, unless, of course, they’re used in dialogue. If you can’t think of fresh terms, use a thesaurus. Here are a few time-worn words and phrases to watch out for:

    You know…
    It sucks.
    Good to go.

  10. Punctuation problems. First-time authors often lack skills in using punctuation. And it is no wonder, because things keep changing. The rule used to be two spaces after a period, question mark, colon and other end-of-sentence punctuation. Today, it is one space. Get used to this in everything that you write. It won’t take you long to make the switch.

    In America, quotation marks go outside of other punctuation. When you see quotation marks inside the punctuation, it may be a work generated in Europe or Canada. There are additional rules when you’re quoting inside the quotes. Keep a good style manual nearby and use it.

    The em dash used to dangle between two words. Now, the em dash—which is traditionally the width of an M—stretches between the two words and connects them. To accomplish the em dash in Word, type your word, type two dashes, type the next word. The em dash is formed when you hit the space bar after typing the second word.

  11. Muddy writing. Many authors today are what I call muddy writers. I spend a lot of time trying to teach my clients to write with more clarity. I tell them, "Write it so that someone from outer space will grasp the meaning." Muddy writing occurs when the author tries to say too much in one sentence. I consider it muddy writing when the sentence doesn’t make sense or is unclear. Here are some examples.

    Poor: Rushing out the door, the mat tripped Margaret.
    Better: As she rushed out the door, Margaret tripped over the mat.

    Poor: Hanging upside down, the storm blew the bats away
    Better: The bats were hanging upside down when the storm blew them away.

    Poor: Gladys shoved the dead rodent into the bag and, setting it near her husband’s old car, she continued thinking about the puppy she saw and she couldn’t help but wonder what Jack’s thoughts would be.
    Better: As Gladys shoved the dead rat into the plastic bag, she thought about the puppy she saw at the pet store that day. Would Jack agree with her that bringing a dog into the household might help keep the rodents away?

  12. Incomplete sentences. Hey that is one—an incomplete sentence, that is. And more people than you can imagine use them in their manuscripts. In dialogue, it is generally okay. But otherwise, make sure that you write complete sentences every time, all the time. Here are some examples:

    Poor: Raced to the finish line.
    Better: Brenda raced as fast as she could toward the finish line.

    Poor: Sack of peas.
    Better: There, in the corner of the cupboard, sat a lone sack of peas.

    Poor: Crying out loud to be heard.
    Better: Jesus wept.

  13. Lack of variation in sentence length and style. Good writing includes sentences of many lengths and styles. Vary your sentences for more pleasant reading.

  14. Unnecessary words. Most writers are too wordy. Maybe this is because we just love words. It’s sometimes painful to eliminate words from our perfect manuscripts. But this surgery is often absolutely necessary. As authors, we’re often so attached to our work that we can’t identify, let alone, omit the superfluous words. A good editor, however, is objective and can easily and skillfully do the trimming. Following are some usually unnecessary words and phrases. Eliminate these from your writing and see how much more effective it is:

    As a matter of fact
    It could happen that
    It is interesting to note
    It is possible that
    In all likelihood

    Poor: It has come to my attention that a new flavor of coffee is now available at the coffee house down the block across the street from the antique store.
    Better: Latte Haven introduced a new coffee flavor this week.

    Poor: I rather like the new high school teacher, although I don’t think I much appreciate the way that she dresses in those flimsy, short dresses.
    Better: I like the new high school teacher, but her dress is inappropriate.

  15. A writing style that is confusing to the reader. Some authors love to impress their readers with their extensive vocabulary. In most cases, you’ll only manage to confuse them. If you hope to go mainstream with your manuscript, you’d better consider your audience. Most readers do not want to work at reading. They want the time they spend reading to be educational and/or enjoyable, relaxing and entertaining. What tends to confuse readers or turn them off?

    Unfamiliar words.
    Complicated sentence structure.

    Poor: After the game, Ginger rode home with George who wanted to stop for a beer before giving his girlfriend the ring he had traded the roadster to Jonathan for.
    Better: After the soccer game, Ginger rode home with George. He was eager to give her something and he asked, "Would you like to stop for a beer?" She agreed and he reached into his pocket and ran his fingers over the ring. He still couldn’t believe that Jonathan agreed to trade him the solitaire for his old, rusty roadster.

  16. Problems with the way dialogue is presented. Authors, I urge you to read the type of books that you write. If your genre is fiction, notice how the dialogue is handled. Here are two important rules for using dialogue:

    1. Start a new paragraph when changing speakers.
    2. Use quotation marks to clarify that dialogue is taking place.
    3. Make sure the reader knows who’s talking by adding speech tags.
    4. Vary the speech tags.
    5. Use appropriate attribution or speech tags in order to set the scene.

    Here are a few examples. Note punctuation:

    Sally wrinkled up her nose and shouted, "James, I will pinch your head off if you don’t stop teasing me."

    "Sure you will, little sister." James faked a belly laugh and then added, "As if you could catch me, you slow poke."

    "I will fly," said Sally. "You can’t run faster than I can fly."

    "Well, that’s original. I suppose you learned that from your imaginary friend," James said in a taunting voice.

  17. Discrepancies in tense and person. Choose the tense and person for your story or nonfiction book and stick to it. Most how-to books are written in second person, you. Of course, it’s OK to shift to first or third person (I, me, my, we or he/she, they) when offering an example or sharing an anecdote. Novels seem to work well when written in first person and present tense. Discover what works best for the material you’re writing and then maintain that tense/person throughout. When you change tense or person, do so with clarity. The last thing you want to do is confuse your readers.

  18. Inappropriate paragraph breaks. Inexperienced writers often create paragraphs that are much too long. They don’t know where to break them, so they don’t. Here’s a rule of thumb: Start a new paragraph when you introduce a new topic, shift to a different time or place, a new person begins to speak or you want to create a dramatic effect.

  19. Transitioning troubles. Another difficulty common to newbie writers is making an appropriate transition from one topic to another—from one paragraph to another. Seamless transitions help to make your story seem more fluid. If you want readers to continue along with your story, you must build adequate bridges designed to lead them from scene to scene or from point to point. Sometimes all it takes is a word or a phrase. In other instances, you’ll want to add a sentence to assist the reader in easing from one subject or scene to the next.

  20. Problems with organization. While some authors have natural organizational abilities, others just don’t know how to establish the proper order of things. How important is the organization of a book? You tell me. Would you like to read a suspense story wherein the secrets are revealed before the mystery is presented? And you would not appreciate a book on how to build a log cabin that has you putting the roof on before the walls are up. If you are not sure if you’ve organized your book in the most logical, reader-friendly way, study books like the one you’re writing. Then hire a professional—preferably an editor who is familiar with this type book.

As you can see, there’s a whole lot more to think about when writing a book than just sitting down and writing the book. Before sending your manuscript out to your choice of publishers, make sure that your story or nonfiction work is ready to read. Hire a pair of professional eyes to give it that final coat of polish.

–Patricia Fry is the president of SPAWN. She is also the author of The Right Way to Write, Publish and Sell Your Book. Read excerpts from the many 5-star reviews this book has received this year at

Order this 300-page book at Visit

Patricia’s blog at



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