Sunday, August 19, 2012

What Will Your Editor Check?

Straight out of college I landed a job proofreading and later editing book manuscripts for a Christian publisher. Nowadays I'm more interested in writing my own stories than editing for others, but to this day I freelance edit for one magazine publisher.

"What do you look for when you edit?" a friend asked. "What do you do?"

I've edited so long that I never considered this work to be educational, but for writers wanting to know, following are a few typical things I check when reading a manuscript. Perhaps knowing them will help you to polish your own work to a brighter brilliance:

- Spelling (I know, "Duh." But you'd be amazed what kind of spelling errors I catch, even from PhDs.) This includes foreign words, which should be spelled as perfectly as English ones. (There will always be readers who know the right way to spell it, so don't ruin your story for them by flubbing on the spelling.)

- Numbers. A number is a fantastic place for an error to hide. If you type a street address, a ZIP code, a Bible verse reference, or anything else using numerals, you have a chance of including a typo that can pass many proofreaders' eyes undetected. Better to catch these mistakes before publication.

- Incorrect quoting. Multiple errors can happen in a quote. Here's one sample based on a real manuscript I read: As Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life, etc." (In other words, never place anything inside the quote marks unless the speaker literally spoke it. In this case, there's no recorded instance that Jesus ever said, "Etc.")

- Logic. Quite commonly, a writer understands exactly what he/she is trying to say, but the words on the page do a poor job of expressing those thoughts. If an idea comes across as muddled or illogical, either I'll fix it, or I'll flag it for the author to rewrite.

- Dangling modifiers. Modifiers are words or phrases that...well...modify something else in the sentence. Grammarians say they "dangle" when they're used improperly. Here's one spoken at a college commencement ceremony when honorary degrees were being bestowed:

"An alumnus and longtime friend of ________ University, the Lord has greatly blessed Pastor Johnson." (Name changed.) Literally, the speaker claimed that the Almighty was an alumnus even though he intended for his modifier to refer to Pastor Johnson.

         Here's another:

"Walking through a meadow in springtime, my allergies will always flare up." Wrong. Literally, this says that the person's allergies can go walking in a meadow (either with or without the person), so "walking through a meadow in springtime" is the dangling modifier. Better to say, "If I go walking through a meadow in springtime, my allergies will flare up."

-Age appropriateness. If your manuscript is destined for elementary schoolers, I'm going to flag any long $5 word that your audience will be unlikely to know. Don't dumb down your work, but don't force your readers to keep a dictionary handy either. Communicate!

-Unnecessary jargon. Many professions or hobbies use jargon unknown to the typical reader. If you must include some, either tip off the readers to the meaning or else switch to a generic word. Again, resist the urge to impress with your vocabulary when the real goal should be to communicate.

-Believability. Can your readers believe what you wrote in its own context? I once proofread a story in which the author included a bridge over a river. In fact, that bridge was a key feature of the setting. However, she plainly described the bridge as a couple hundred years old. Made of untreated pine. And on a blazing, sunny day, sap oozed from the timbers and made the surface sticky. Flag on the play! Untreated pine (a relatively soft wood) exposed to the sun, the wind, the rain, and the snow every day is going to rot away in less than two centuries. It will no longer exist, let alone be oozing fresh sap.

-Scientific credibility. I'm no scientist, but I'm interested in science. If I suspect you're playing hanky-panky with known principles of science, I'll question it.

-Geographic reality. Please don't make the Nile River flow south, nor the Mississippi River to flow north. I once proofed a children's novel that included the artist's illustrations. One picture showed the family car descending a small mountain road with the Mackinaw Bridge dead ahead, a couple miles farther north. In that case, I flagged the artwork, not the text. I've been on that highway. There is no such mountain (or even big hill) in that spot.

Well, there are many other blips that can pop onto an editor's radar. But this brief sampling can help you to eliminate many boo-boos that can make an editor shake his head. Happy writing!

--Rick Barry


  1. Rick, for me, this has been one of your best posts. It's really nice to see the "inside" scoop on what you are looking for as an editor. This would be a great reference tool after you "finish" your manuscript (or even magazine article) to run your peice by it. Thanks again. Great idea from your friend. :)

  2. Very good post, Rick.

    Your comment on spelling reminded me when I critiqued one author's work. One of the character's said he felt like Pontius Pilot. Worst part? That character was a minister.

    Likewise with your mention of numbers. One author I read alluded to 1 Corinthians 11:1, which says "Imitate me as I imitate Christ". But the reference written was 2 Corinthians 11:1, which reads "Oh, that you would bear with me in a little folly -- and indeed you bear with me."

    One last comment, related to jargon. When I met with a self-publisher, one person commented that a writer telling a hockey story said he "checked" the other player, and the editor changed it to "bumped". The author and the person speaking with me agreed that anyone who knew anything about hockey knew what checked meant. Also, another friend who was edited for that company wrote about a baseball player's batting average, and his editor (may or may not be the one referred to above) changed it to batting percentage.

    Have a blessed day.


    1. Jeff, are positive that Pontius Pilate wasn't also an amateur pilot in his spare time? Lol. Yes, I've seen that same mistake elsewhere. Everyone needs an editor, even editors!

  3. What great insights for all of us! Thanks HEAPS! I going to keep a printout. And HEY, these tips would make a great workshop -- have you used them in that way?? A book I read sometime back had a crucifix swaying in the front of a small Southern Baptist Church -- I had to smile. . . :-)

  4. PS -- How ironic -- please edit my first "I" to "I'm"! :-)

    1. That's okay, Millie. We regulars on blog posts type quickly, and we don't keep score on these informal notes. Typos happen!

  5. Hey Millie, even us moderators can not edit some one elses comment. We can only delete. Feel free to repost like you want, and I'll delete the others..

  6. Rick, great post. You and Normandie and those doggone dangling modifiers! I get caught every time and I know it's one of her personal pet peeves. So funny. But yeah, I been known to dangle a few!

    1. Linda, I've been caught dangling from time to time too. It's easy to do, especially when speaking or writing in a hurry. We know what we mean even if it's not grammatically correct. :)

  7. Excellent post, Rick. Thanks for the helpful and insightful points for us to keep in mind as we write. I love those unintentional mistakes we all make, and I learn something new all the time. And, of course, I praise the Lord for great editors. Blessings.

  8. Wow, thanks for such an informative post! Excuse me while I tuck in my dangles...

  9. I'm glad so many of you found this piece helpful. Blessings to each of you!

  10. I agree this will be a reference piece. I think it's easy to make mistakes. It's difficult to strive for excellence and yet be gracious with self when mistakes happen. I get a lot of practice. I once used peak for peek on the opening page and totally embarrassed myself in front of a large class of writers.

  11. Mary, I've also seen "peeked" and "peaked" used when the author really meant "piqued." A second pair of eyes is always helpful for any writer!