Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Picky, Picky, Picky

Okay, maybe I’m too picky when I read. My husband keeps telling me to quit reading like an editor and just read to enjoy the book. And sometimes that works. Sometimes I do get so caught up in the plot or with the characters that I overlook little mistakes that would otherwise jerk me out of the story.

But when I first start a book and haven’t yet connected to the character or the plot, those little mistakes keep prickling me like the thorns on my blackberry bushes.

For instance, we really have to stop and think about the words we are using and what they mean or convey, especially the misuse of reflexive pronouns. “I smiled in spite of myself.” What exactly does that mean? Perhaps it would be better to write, “I smiled, despite my glum mood.”

Inappropriate sensory descriptions can also be a problem. “My own voice sounded dank…” Dank is a smell. It can’t be heard.

“Soft-smelling hair.” Soft is a touch, not an odor.

A common dialogue attributive is also problematic. Authors often have a character mutter to himself, which to me implies that it is not something the other people in the scene heard, even though the muttered dialogue is written out in full. But if the character simply mutters, leaving off the “to himself” it is more believable that the other people could hear it. And when the narrative is in first person, it is especially important to make sure it is believable that the narrator can hear the other person mutter.

I know these are silly little details, and we all see them over and over in published works, but I don’t think that is a good enough reason not to take a little extra care with what we write. Well, actually rewrite. Because it is in the editing and rewriting that we find these little mistakes and fix them.


Maryann Miller is the Managing Editor of, an online community magazine, and a reviewer for and ForeWord Magazine. Her latest books are One Small Victory and Play it Again, Sam. Visit her Web site for information about her books and her editing services. If you have a good book, she can help you make it better. When she is not working, Maryann loves to play "farmer" on her little ranch in the beautiful Piney Woods of East Texas.

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  1. Oh, er, follow that! Anyway, I've got better at this, not least because I am married to Mr Pedant who is also my trusted reader. It's a good point to make since it's those kinds of mistakes which jerk you back into the real world and which, at worst, can make you put the book down.

  2. I've made the 'mumbling to himself' mistake before, and you're right, who else would he be mumbling to?

  3. I so agree. I just finished reading a self-published novel that had quite a few typos. The writing was good enough to keep me reading, but I found it bothersome.

  4. Most mistakes in published books don't stop me. I keep on reading, as long as it's not too many. But what stops me is when I read a sentence, then haven't a clue what the writer said or meant to say. The sentence makes no sense.

    Straight From Hel

  5. I'm with you, Helen. I can overlook an occasional mistake, but load them up on me and I'm done. :-)

  6. I recently noticed that a bestselling author used 'she' a lot to start a sentence in one of her books. Now my inner editor won't shut up.

    Typos drive me up the wall. I found on in a King novel once. :D

  7. Another great post. Thanks for sharing :)

  8. Great post and I agree, mostly.

    But sometimes 'soft' is a scent, and sometimes a color is a sound. It takes skill, I agree, but done right it can be masterful.

  9. I wasn't as aware of grammatical errors until I started writing seriously. Now the mistakes jump off the page and slap me in the face. However, I feel a twinge of pride when I find a grammatical miscue that I may not have noticed a couple of years ago.

    Plot errors are something else. I remember reading a scene in which the MC uses a set of keys to open a locked door. This is interesting since two pages earlier the reader is told the character leaves the keys in her car ignition in case she needs to make a quick getaway.

  10. I can't recall a mainstream published book that hasn't had multiple typos in recent years. There don't seem to be any copy editors employed anymore.

    I can overlook a certain amount, but attention to that final edit seems to be evaporating.

  11. Excellent points! it is these kind of lessons that if learned, really do improve a manuscript.

  12. I agree with Pan Historia. Mixing sensory descriptions seems to be a technique with no middle ground. Some people hate the technical impossibility and find it distracting, but others grasp the synesthetic connection right away. "Soft-smelling hair" makes plenty of sense to me. I imagine a subtle, pleasant, maybe slightly feminine scent.

  13. I now put books down after one chapter if the lack of editing keeps pulling me out of the story. I remember the days when I knocked off one book after another and never saw those little goofs. Those were the good old days.

  14. It's the overuse of ellipsis... and odd punctuation (in the middle of a sentence!!)... and My. Absolute.Favorite.

    All these in published novels. I run screaming from the room. Do I dare write another blog post about these indiscretions?


  15. LOL, Dani. I think we both need a valium. :-)

    Although I do. Use. This. But sparingly. It is a screenwriting trick to show the actor that each word has equal emphasis. I have started seeing the technique more and more in mystery and suspense novels, but I think once, maybe twice in a whole ms. is enough. Sort of like the exclamation points. If they are overdone they lose the impact.

  16. I'm proud to say I've Never. Done. This. (until right now...)
    That was for you, Dani!!

  17. I'm generally willing to give the author leave if they want to bend gramatical rules a little. It is only when things are blatantly impossible (such as a voice sounding dank) or completely indecipherable that I begin flipping the pages in a desperate bid to get into the story before my impulse to drop the book becomes all consuming. Thanks for pointing out the muttering to himself issue - I'm quite certain I've made that particular mistake a dozen times and have never pulled it up.

  18. I completely agree with you. I tend to see things beyond a typical reader's eyes and act as an editor serching for mistakes. This is exactly how I do it with myterm papers. I am the critic of my own work.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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