For this exercise in editing I’d like to suggest that you pull one of those old manuscripts we all have stashed around the house to use for practice. You can work on whatever your most recent WIP is, of course, but chances are you’ll be more aware, and more willing to be ruthless, with a piece you’re more removed from.
There are, essentially, two kinds of editing to consider. Both are important, and to some degree you will probably do them simultaneously, but it is worth noting the differences between the two.
First is the editing we do to clean up the manuscript. This includes searching for and correcting actual errors of grammar, spelling and punctuation, as well as editing to improve the style and flow of the work. We want the manuscripts we submit to be the very best representation of our work possible. We don’t want any distracting conflicts or awkwardness to draw the reader’s attention to the words instead of the content. This is the kind of editing that these exercises will focus on.
There is, however, another critical kind of editing, and that is the editing we do to make our manuscripts conform to the requirements of the publisher. If you are writing on assignment, your publisher will have given you specific guidelines for the work you are doing. If you are writing on spec (“speculation,” meaning that you are going to submit the manuscript without the publisher having made any commitment to buying it), you need to figure out what the guidelines are. Many times publishers have printed guidelines which you can find on their websites or request by mail (one of the places where the old fashioned Self-Addressed-Stamped-Envelope, or SASE, is still appropriate). With or without written guidelines, you will also want to analyze other works in the series or imprint you hope to sell to.
Editing for publisher’s requirements includes such details as word count and reading level. It may also involve subtleties such as how often a key word repeats on a page; stylistic preferences such as whether “Black” and “White” are capitalized when they are being used as race-defining adjectives (and indeed, whether the publisher uses those terms or not); and such content-preferences as whether there are an equal number of male and female characters in a story or examples in an article. (You should also notice style points like whether the publisher allows or discourages complex sentences, such as that last one. Many publishers would never print such a thing, although it is grammatically standard.)
I recommend that in your first edit you target those publishing requirements. There’s little point in investing time and effort perfecting your parallel structure if your publisher is going to require only simple sentences in the final draft, and if your manuscript needs to be cut by 15% to make the word count, you don’t want to be doing that after you’ve lovingly coiffed each phrase. So do the cutting, trimming, and rewording you need to do to fit the publication first.
Next you want to look for the kinds of grammar errors that often slip past us when we’re writing. First and most important step: Read your work out loud. Really. Go in the bathroom and close the door if you need to, but read it out loud. This does two things. First off, it slows you down and makes you notice each individual word. You will be surprised at the things that leap off the page when you’re reading aloud that slip past when you read silently. The leftover “ing” from when you changed the verb structure. The doubled prepositions. The hanging bits of dialog tags. They all become obvious when you stumble across them as you pronounce those sentences you’ve crafted so carefully.
And speaking of stumbling, the other advantage of reading aloud is the number of places where you discover that a phrase is awkward or a sentence ungrammatical because it doesn’t sound “right.” You may or may not know the name of your error, but you can hear it – and, oftentimes fix it, without ever actually identifying its species.
There are, however, species of errors you should be aware of and search for. Dangling prepositions, for example, which are a particular weakness of mine (as you will have noticed in this post, if you are sensitive to such things.) Dangling prepositions are not the bugbears they once were, as many grammarians have conceded that they are, in fact, indigenous to the structure of English and were only considered “wrong” because they don’t work in Latin. Nevertheless, in formal writing they are still to be avoided when possible, which generally means flipping a sentence around (or just dropping the preposition – I could have said, “flipping the sentence” and you’d have known what I meant.)
Agreement is another common problem to look for. Plural nouns require plural verbs, while a singular noun requires a singular verb form (see?). Collectives can be tricky (and are handled differently in England than in the States) so pay particular attention to those. And don’t rely entirely on your word processor’s grammar program. As I write this, Word is insisting that in the sentence above I should say “is a particular weakness” rather than “are,” presumably because it is a singular weakness, although possibly because it thinks “example” is the subject, rather than “prepositions.” If you strip out all the intervening words, it becomes more clear: “Prepositions are my weakness” not “prepositions is my weakness” (which deliberate error, ironically, Word is ignoring). The use of “their” and “them” to avoid saying “he/his” or “she/hers” leads inevitably to mismatches, and highlights the other big area of agreement issues: pronouns and their antecedents. (The antecedent is the thing the pronoun is standing in for. If it was singular, then the pronoun needs to be singular. If it was male, the pronoun is male. But what if it is neutral or unknown? Standard English says "male," modern sensibilities say "Ack!" Simplest approach is to make the antecedent plural, if you can.(But see this great post about the "singular they."
While you’re inspecting your verbs, check for tense consistency. If your account is in the present tense then things that happened previously are past tense, and if your account is written in the past tense, previous action is in the past perfect– but then when you come back to your account, did you come back to the correct tense? These kinds of inconsistencies often creep in during rewriting.
Parallel structure is another thing to check while you’re scanning the verbs, although it is a nice stylistic touch that applies to adjective phrases as well. “After Johnny ate lunch, washing his hands and playing with his toys it was time to go home.” “Susie’s favorite dress had pink bows and gray kittens but was woolen. “ Read aloud. . .
Double check uses of the verbs “to be” and “to have:” while both are obviously very useful in their own right, each also gets a great deal of work as an auxiliary verb, and auxiliary verbs tend to lead to weak expression. Everyone has heard “don’t use the passive voice” (say, “Johnny hit Mary,” not “Mary was hit by Johnny.”) Other auxiliaries are similarly weakening: “he has gone” vs “he went,” “she may be lost” vs “she is lost.” If you want to mitigate the impact, then use the auxiliary, but do so intentionally.
Adverbs and adjectives are other words that can be used to fill in details and make a story more vivid – or that can just be filler. In general if you can find a single word that conveys your meaning, it will be stronger than a pair of words. And shorter, which is a good thing when you have a strict word count!
It’s best to go over your work looking for just one of these kinds of correction at a time. You will focus more sharply on the text that way. (Think of it as having several different fine-toothed combs, each of which pulls out different kinds of nits.)
Over time (and with the help of your critique group) you will doubtless discover YOUR particular weaknesses. Be sure to do a final sweep looking for those.
If you’re uncertain about your grammar, there are some helpful websites you may find useful:
Purdue has great info for their students.
Grammar Girl has a light approach and a very handy search function: http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/
The University of Northern Iowa has a “Dr. Grammar” page with lots of good things – and a great links page.
Next time (Finally) proof-reading!