Writing Habits That Vex Editors

Some casual writing habits can produce a smile on an editor’s face. Slogging through six hundred pages of language that reads like the speech of a drunk telling a fireside story can turn that smile upside down quickly. Consistent grammatical errors and inconsistencies add to edit review time and take the editor away from helping to make your story shine. In this brief article, we cover just a few common habits that keep our editors amused, or not.

A writer invited the past, the present, and the future to a tense meeting. One sure way to throw your readers off balance, and keep them lost, is to switch between the past and present tense in your story. Here’s an example:

Doug enters the room, throws his briefcase onto the sofa, and says, “What’s up, Alice?” Alice sat with her nose buried in a popular magazine. Her silence tells Doug that something is indeed up.

Maybe the problem was that Doug lived in the present tense and Alice lived in the past. No wonder they failed to communicate! Writers sometimes switch tenses within a paragraph, as in this example, and sometimes they switch from one paragraph to the next. Pick a tense and stick with it.

Overuse use of the words ‘would’ or ‘had’. When referring to habitual activities, ‘would’ is perfectly acceptable, as in:

Every month for five years, I would walk my dog early in the morning around the golf course.

However, when describing a series of past events, the use of ‘would’ or ‘had’ turns a story into tedious reading, like this paragraph:

I would write about my day in my journal. I would close the journal and store it safely in the top drawer of my dresser. I would find a surprise waiting for me in the dresser drawer - a crisp fifty dollar bill! I had studied it for a while when I had heard a noise from the hallway. I had crept quietly to the door to investigate. As I had peeked through the doorjamb, I had been greeted by a shocking sight. It had been my grandpa standing there. I had thought he had been dead!

Imagine this with tenses being mixed from past to present at the same time. The writer forces us to tediously battle with all those ‘would’ and ‘had’ words, which distract from the story. Try this version instead:

I wrote about my day in my journal. I closed the journal and stored it safely in the top drawer of my dresser. A surprise waited for me in the dresser drawer - a crisp fifty dollar bill! I studied it for a while when I heard a noise from the hallway. I crept quietly to the door to investigate. As I peeked through the doorjamb, a shocking sight greeted me. My grandpa stood there. I thought he was dead!

A common habit borrowed from casual speech is starting a sentence with ‘And…’, ‘But…’, ‘Also…’ or ’So….’ In casual conversation, this may be perfectly acceptable. However, in writing just about anything, replace those words with their more formal counterparts. For example, ‘And…’ and ‘Also…’ become ‘In addition …’ or ‘Furthermore….’ ‘But…’ becomes ‘However…’ or ‘Alternately….’ ‘So…’ becomes ‘Therefore….’ Better yet, eliminate them, as they often make the story weaker. For example:

My grandpa stood in the hallway. Therefore, I was shocked.

Eliminating ‘therefore’ from this sentence increases the impact of the written words:

My grandpa stood in the hallway. I was shocked.

Readers want to believe your story is plausible so they can go on the ride of your story with you. Technical errors, such as misnaming or incorrectly describing places, objects, technology or people, challenge the credibility of the story. If you don’t set it up or describe the context accurately, you will lose readers who see the errors. Search the internet if you are unsure about any of these things. A few examples:

South Africa is not near Morocco.

AK47 rifles do not come in a .38 caliber.

Yellowstone National Park is not Yellow Stone….

Amtrak is the name of a railroad company, not AmTrak, or Am Track.

Tennessee does not have large open prairie grass plains.

Finally, this topic would not be complete without discussing the habit of ending a sentence with a preposition. What word would you had chosen to end a sentence with? There goes the editor’s smile, turned downward by a misplaced word, or two. Just as you want to engage a reader with a believable story, an engaged editor will help to make your work shine brightly. Keep a smile on the editor’s face with a little more attention to these and other common habits as you write.