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The Many Ways a Book Can Go Wrong

(or, 22 Reasons Every Author Needs an Editor)

— P. N. Waldygo, Professional Book Editor, Copy Editor, Proofreader, and Writer

When writing their first draft, authors can ignore the book-editing advice in this article. That is the time to discover their voice, go deep, and connect with their audience. Editing is crucial for any written work, but focusing on nitpicky grammatical issues too soon will inhibit writers’ spontaneity and communion with the Muse.

Book editors can work magic but not miracles. An editor needs good content to work with. That’s why the first draft is so important. If the subject matter and the narrative don’t resonate with readers, no amount of polishing and editing will transform a book into a best-seller. (When I say “first draft,” it could also be the second, the third, or the fifteenth—basically, I mean the writing you do without censoring yourself and before you start editing.) Yet at a certain point, editing must happen.

Can I Learn to Edit My Own Book?

Authors can either invest their own time and effort in learning how to edit their work (which fiction writers absolutely must do—see "Tips on Editing Fiction"), or they can use a professional book-editing service. A well-known rule of thumb says that it takes ten years to gain proficiency in a new skill or art form. Many nonfiction writers don’t want to spend this much time learning to edit, because their main priority is getting their message out to the world. Unlike fiction writers, some authors of nonfiction do not, first and foremost, consider themselves writers. Often they are experts in the fields of health, politics, history, psychology, self-help, and so on, and that is their main identity and source of professional gratification. For authors such as these, learning to give a book a professional edit would be a waste of time, when they could better spend their energy doing research for their next book.

Novelists are in a different category, though. Many have been writing since childhood, have a good grasp of their native language, and have probably developed a unique voice. They may have a few blind spots about grammatical issues, however, and most of them have not memorized the Chicago Manual of Style and its finer points of preparing a book for publication. In addition, most fiction writers become so familiar with their book after writing and rewriting multiple drafts, they could benefit from hiring an editor to provide an expert viewpoint.

Doesn't the Publisher Pay for Editing?

Nonfiction writers who are lucky enough to get a contract with a traditional publisher needn't worry about having a perfectly edited manuscript. They don't have to rack their brains over where to find book-editing services. The publisher will take charge of editing the book. Nonfiction publishers often accept manuscripts that are a complete mess. The writing may be ungrammatical, the thoughts disjointed, a million and one problems could exist. In these cases, the publisher depends on a take-no-prisoners copy editor to do whatever is necessary. The in-house editors may even jump in to edit parts of the book.

Why would a publisher go to this much trouble and expense? Because, for whatever reason, the publisher foresees a best-seller and is willing to pay extra to get the manuscript in publishable form. Maybe the book exposes a controversial issue, or the author has her own TV show and could promote the book to millions of viewers. In light of potentially huge sales, the expense of paying a copy editor to do an extremely heavy edit is a mere pittance.

The catch-22 is, if you want to take advantage of a publisher's book-editing services, how do you first get a book contract? Usually, by impressing either an agent or a publisher with your book. What's the best way to do this? With a professionally written and edited manuscript.

You may be able to skip this last step if you are a celebrity; if you are well-known in your profession and have a venue to promote the book, such as self-help workshops or a lecture circuit; and/or if the topic is cutting edge and of broad interest. If none of these fortunate situations apply, you should probably hire an editor to help bring your manuscript to its full potential. Then your sparkling prose can sell itself when you approach book agents and publishers.

Pitfalls of Self-Published Books

If you are self-publishing, you’ll need a manuscript editing service even more because you won't have access to a publisher's team of in-house developmental editors and freelance copy editors and proofreaders.

You've heard the old adage “The devil is in the details.” A related saying, however, is that “God is in the details.” One self-published book may be so riddled with fiendish grammatical errors that a reader throws it down in disgust. Yet another self-published book will be a pleasure to read, resulting in a transcendent mind-to-mind communication between author and reader. Sometimes the difference really does come down to good editing. Once the details are taken care of, the entire book snaps into shape.

What Exactly Does a Book Editor Do?

Whether you seek a traditional publisher or plan to self-publish, a book editor will work with you to:

* Emphasize your own unique voice, cut away the “deadwood,” and use language that will appeal to your target audience.
* Ensure that your words are clear, concise, and accurate in conveying your message.
* Focus not only on the details but on the macrocosmic view and, if necessary, rearrange sections of the book for better flow and understanding.
* Fix all errors of syntax, grammar, spelling, capitalization, and so on, as dictated by the Chicago Manual of Style.

If you need any further convincing about the wisdom of hiring a book editing service, read on. Following are 22 of the most egregious problems that a professional book editor will correct.

22 Reasons Every Author Needs an Editor

Disclaimer: Any resemblance between the following examples and books I’ve edited is purely coincidental.

1. Deadly Boring Passive Voice

Passive voice can lend the stamp of authority to a statement and can also absolve the author of personal responsibility. In certain cases, this is effective: “Mistakes were made.” (Visualize an army general explaining why a smart bomb blew up the cookie factory.)

Yet most of the time, passive voice slows down the action and weakens the impact. Often, academic writers will craft an entire book predominantly in passive voice. That’s fine if they are aiming only for a scholarly market or are writing college textbooks, but most publishers of mass-market books don’t want this. They usually instruct copy editors to change most passive verb tenses to make the book reader-friendly.

While writing, be on the lookout for an overuse of “is, was, were, am, are, will be, have been” and also “There is,” “There are,” “There was,” There were,” “It was,” and “It is.”

Use the following verb tenses only when absolutely necessary or in sentences where they actually sound better: for example, instead of “I am living on Maple Street,” write “I live on Maple Street.” Other examples of this verb tense are “I was living,” “they are living,” “we were living,” "she is living," “he was running,” “she was asking,” and so on (in other words, pairing any verb with passive “is, am, was, were,” and so on).

It's fine to use these verb tenses occasionally, but if you find that 90 percent of your verbs are in this category, you've got a problem. Your book will sound flabby and, IMHO, a bit amateurish. As a first choice, use simple present or past tense wherever possible: “he ran,” “she asked,” “we live,” “we lived.”

(Now forgive me if I proceed to break this rule and put some of these book-editing tips in passive voice. I need to invoke the voice of authority.)


[Passive] Holes in my sandals were patched with chewing gum.
[Active] I used chewing gum to patch holes in my sandals.

[Passive] The lawyer’s office was littered with cigar butts.
[Active] Cigar butts littered the lawyer’s office.

[Passive] The cash made from playing poker was plunked down in front of my mortified father.
[Active] I plunked down the cash I made from playing poker in front of my mortified father.

[Passive] In Churchill Falls at the time, there were only a few black families.
[Active]At the time, only a few black families lived in Churchill Falls.

[Passive] My secret mission was discovered, and I was punished for not paying attention to my studies.
[Active] The deacon discovered my secret mission and punished me for neglecting my studies.


2. A Misuse of Present Participles That Implies Simultaneity of Action

Lots of intelligent writers make this common mistake.

. . . .

“Still, we needed that poker money, so Snake wheedled his way into my Friday night foursome, shuffling the cards like a Vegas pro.”

[Editor's note: “Shuffling” implies simultaneity of action with “wheedled,” but these are consecutive acts.]

Two Possible Fixes:

“Still, we needed that poker money, so Snake wheedled his way into my Friday night foursome and shuffled the cards like a Vegas pro.”

“Still, we needed that poker money, so Snake wheedled his way into my Friday night foursome, where he shuffled the cards like a Vegas pro.”

3. Confusing Sentence Structure

One mind-numbing problem occurs with long sentences punctuated by several clauses that separate the subject from the verb. If readers have to stop and trace their way back to the beginning of a sentence to decipher the meaning, you’ve lost them. Nowadays people don’t have the patience for this.

“That it was the Pavlovians’ choice to jump into a battle in which they had no quarrel, when they would have gained incalculable rewards by patiently standing aside while the Canine Corps and the Feline Brigade tried conclusions, which profoundly altered the ultimate strategic result of the war, was ignored or minimized.”

[Editor's note: Too much information and distance between the noun “choice,” and the verb “was ignored or minimized.”]

. . . .

The following long sentence has no major grammatical errors, but with so much happening, the reader has to work hard to follow the thread of ideas. Breaking it into two or three sentences would help.

“Yet however effective the Pavlovians believed that the call to war would be in rousing the asylum’s inmates to invade Burger King and the other restaurants in their path—and the evidence is that Professor Barkley, at least, who hung onto his dreams of an invincible Canine Nation dominated by the schutzhunds, had high hopes for an inmates’ uprising—the threat of anarchy spreading would prompt the ASPCA to keep Feline troops permanently stationed in every Long John Silvers for the rest of the war.”

4. Dangling Modifiers

The term dangling modifier sounds like the crime of the century, especially when flung at us by our eighth-grade English teachers.

. . . . .

“I crashed into the row of orange barrels, and after making several white-knuckled attempts to stay on my side of the road, the driving instructor decided that further training of this idiot would be pointless.”

[Editor's note: Dangling modifier “after making” causes confusion about who made the attempts. We know it’s the student driver, but “after making” modifies the noun “driving instructor,” which implies that he was the one trying to stay on the right side of the road.]

. . . . .

After suffering through two years of Hebrew hell, the day of my bar mitzvah finally arrived.”

[Editor's note: This implies that “the day” is what suffered through Hebrew hell.]

One Possible Fix: “After I suffered through two years of Hebrew hell, the day of my bar mitzvah finally arrived.”

. . . . .

With a UCLA scholarship lined up for the fall, this would be a kick-ass summer of surfing at Malibu, guzzling In & Out burgers, and cruising for babes on the Boulevard.”

[Editor's note: It sounded like “this” would get the scholarship. “I” needs to be the subject of the sentence.]

One Possible Fix: “With a UCLA scholarship lined up for the fall, I looked forward to a kick-ass summer of surfing at Malibu, guzzling In & Out burgers, and cruising for babes on the Boulevard.”


5. Coining New Words: Sometimes It Works, Other Times . . . Not So Much

“The teen patted her ‘food baby’ and sneeringly referred to Dr. Atkins as a quack.”

[Editor's note: Maybe you thought I would single out "food baby," but someone coined this term years ago and it stuck, thus becoming part of the popular lexicon. No, the culprit here is “sneeringly.” We cannot turn every adjective into an adverb simply by adding “ly.” Well, technically we can, but is this a creation we’ll be proud of?]


6. Pronoun Confusion

Watch out for tricky situations where plural or singular nouns and verbs don’t match.

. . . . .

“Most Americans have a love affair with the cell phone, especially those that were made by Apple.”

[Editor's note: This sounds like some Americans were made by Apple. The only plural noun that appears before “those” is “Americans,” so “those” implies “Americans.” The simplest solution is to make “cell phone” plural.]

A Possible Fix: “Most Americans have a love affair with cell phones, especially those made by Apple.”

. . . . .

“My biggest challenge as a jockey—well, two challenges, really—were two skittish fillies bred from the same stallion at Live Oak Stables.”

[Editor's note: Singular noun “challenge” is incorrectly paired with plural verb “were,” but because the intervening clause set off by dashes includes plural “challenges,” the plural “were” seems correct. The mistake becomes obvious only when we delete the clause and read the blatantly wrong “My biggest challenge . . . were two skittish fillies.” The sentence would need to be completely reworded, because simply changing “were” to “was” sounds weird.]

. . . . .

“She went to one of her coworkers at Home Depot, to inquire whether they knew who I was.”

[Editor's note: Above, plural pronoun “they” is incorrectly representing singular noun “one.” Plural “coworkers” is not in the picture because it’s part of a prepositional phrase, so the pronoun “they” cannot represent it. Below are some solutions, after we determine whether the coworker was male or female.]

Three Possible Fixes:

“She went to one of her coworkers at Home Depot, to ask whether he knew who I was.”

“She went to a coworker at Home Depot, to see if he knew who I was.”

“She asked a coworker at Home Depot whether he knew who I was.”

. . . . .

“The finality of his decision was made obvious as Elvis gave his white-sequined cowboy shirt to the Elvis impersonator, telling him that he didn’t need it anymore.”

[Editor's note: “Him” and “he” each stand for a different person, but the noun that each pronoun represents does not directly precede it, thus creating confusion.]

A Possible Fix: “The finality of his decision was made obvious as Elvis gave his white-sequined cowboy shirt to the Elvis impersonator, saying that he didn’t need it anymore.”

7. Run-on Sentences

“When you finally get to the head of the License Renewal line at the DMV and the clerk hangs an ‘Out to Lunch’ sign on the window, after you’ve been waiting patiently for two hours with documents in hand, try not to make a nasty comment to the woman while she grabs her sack lunch and exits the building but instead muster up a little patience and remember other countries where people are not so rushed, like, for instance, in the story written by that American tourist in India, where, when the same thing happened to him, he looked around at the other individuals in line and they were not annoyed but actually seemed to accept their fate, as they spread scarves and blankets on the floor, sat down, and pulled food from their woven straw bags, even offering to share their impromptu picnic lunches with the tourist.”

8. Indefinite or Changing Point of View

“My initial appointment with the diet doctor consisted of a complete physical exam, including an embarrassing pinching of my skin with calipers to measure the subcutaneous fat.”

[Editor's note: Letting “embarrassing” modify “pinching” creates an indefinite point of view, as if the pinching or the doctor were embarrassed, instead of the patient.]

One Possible Fix: “My initial appointment with the diet doctor included a complete physical exam. Embarrassed, I stood ramrod-straight while he pinched my skin with calipers to measure the subcutaneous fat.”

9. Time Travel in All Directions

In the following example, by randomly switching verb tenses the author tosses the reader from the past to an indefinite imagined future and back to the present.

. . . . .

“Imagine that you have been invited to sail the Caribbean with someone who has equipped his yacht with a state-of-the-art audio system and jet-plane-decibel-level speakers. Looking forward to a quiet, peaceful voyage, you are trapped in a small space and bombarded with bone-jarring noise.”

[Editor's note: The previous passage travels confusingly back and forth through time. In the first sentence, you have been invited, but presumably this is before you go on the trip. In the second sentence, you start out looking forward to a trip that hasn’t happened yet, but in mid-sentence you are already on the yacht, trapped.]

10. Adjacent or Abundant “ly” Words

Thankfully, exactly thirteen hours later, we finished the grueling test.”

“Tom and Edgar, who seemed to motivate each other creatively, huddled privately while ostensibly writing the script.”

11. Comparing Apples to Oranges

"Cameron Diaz, in contrast to Garbo's cool exterior, was outgoing and talkative."

[Editor's note: This is comparing two dissimilar things: a person, Diaz, with another person’s exterior (Garbo’s).]

One Possible Fix: “Cameron Diaz—unlike Garbo, with her cool exterior—was outgoing and talkative.”


12. Redundant Actions

“When Sally entered the gym, she headed for the broken Stairmaster. I rushed over and, pulling her by the arm, guided her to the treadmill.”

[Editor's note: “Pulling” and “guided” are similar acts.]

One Possible Fix: “When Sally entered the gym, she headed for the broken Stairmaster. I rushed over and, grasping her arm, guided her to the treadmill.”

13. Misuse of Words

Endless possibilities exist for mangling the English language. Here are a few:

. . . . .

“Her one claim to fame in the music industry was becoming Lonesome Joe’s girlfriend during his waning years as a leading rock star.”

[Editor's note: “Waning” negates “leading.”]

“She projected the persona of a shy, bashful young woman who was new to the city.”

[Editor's note: “Shy” and “bashful” mean the same thing, so using both is redundant.]

"When attacked, a righteous person will turn the other chick."

[Editor's note:  No, I'm not making this up. I actually encountered this malapropism in a manuscript many years ago.]

14. Superfluous Phrases

Eliminate these to streamline your prose and get your point across more clearly.

. . . . .

“Needless to say, it goes without saying, for all intents and purposes, in light of the fact that, as you can plainly see, if you think about it, owing to the fact that, the question as to whether, in spite of the fact that, . . .”

15. Excessive Signposting

“Two cops climbed out of the black-and-white and confronted the drunk motorist. One shined a flashlight in his face, while the other began a typical interrogation.”

[Editor's note: Using “typical” alerts the reader ahead of time what will happen, that is, how the interrogation will turn out. In this case, it also attributes omniscience to the readers, because unless the entire novel was tongue-in-cheek or the readers were taken into the author’s confidence earlier, how would they know what was typical? This “excessive signposting” usually happens more in nonfiction, when the author might end each chapter with a paragraph foretelling what the next chapter will be. Use a light touch when you do this; give the reader a hint, but don’t let every single cat out of the bag.]

16. Random Changes in Point of View

“If you adopt a child from a Third World country, you may feel obligated to incorporate the child’s native culture into your lifestyle. When a couple does this, it broadens their horizons. That’s why I try to remember my daughter’s ancestral heritage when she acts in a way I don’t understand.”

[Editor's note: This switches from second person to third person to first person in three sentences. It’s a good way to confuse the reader.]

17. Annoying Alliteration and Too-Similar Words or Construction

“The diet had been instrumental in empowering her long-term weight-loss success, by intensifying her will power in a powerful way.”

“I recited the Wordsworth poem written on the blackboard, as the teacher pointed to each line with a stiletto-sharp brass pointer.”

“The old lady was thrilled that we wanted to buy her 1957 Cadillac. We were enthralled at the thought of having a classic lime-green Caddie.”  

[Ed. note: This not only has annoying alliteration, but both sentences are in passive voice, and their construction is too similar.]

More examples of annoying alliteration:
Bowser drowsed by the bedside.”
little drops of spittle
“she attached the collar around the hound dog’s neck”

18. “Good Flow” Is Not Merely Subjective

If we read newly written sentences aloud, we can improve their “flow” by chiseling away clunky, tongue-twisting groupings of words and cutting down on prepositional phrases (see the following).

19. Too Many Clunky Prepositional Phrases in a Sentence

“My job was in the Customer Complaints Department of Macy’s, a department store with a reputation at the time of being one of the biggest shopping meccas in the city.”
[Editor's note: Seven prepositional phrases make the sentence sound choppy when read aloud and really slow the flow.]

A Possible Fix: “I worked in Macy’s Customer Complaint Department, back when that store was reputedly one of the biggest shopping meccas in the city.”      [Editor's note: Prepositional phrases were reduced from seven to three.]

20. Inconsistency in Using Mass, or Collective, Nouns

Nouns such as family, couple, group, gang, brigade, majority, and so on, take a singular verb and pronoun when emphasizing the group (a majority is satisfied) or a plural verb and pronoun when emphasizing the individual members (the majority of voters are satisfied). It’s important to be consistent, however, both within a sentence and with similar words in close proximity.

. . . . .

“The family was sitting in their dining room.”

[Editor's note: Incorrect; it’s inconsistent because a singular verb is used with a plural pronoun.]

“The family was sitting in its living room.”
Or “The family were sitting in their living room.”  

[Editor's note: These are both grammatically correct, but neither one sounds great. I would reword it, e.g., “The family members were sitting in their living room.”]

“The family had lost several of its members.” [Incorrect: “Their” would be better than “its” here, because individual members are emphasized.]

21. Inattention to Paragraph Size

Paragraphs should not be too long or too short.

22. Repetition

Last, but definitely not least, is repetition. I'm not talking about intentional repetition of words or phrases for alliteration or to create an incantatory effect. I mean unconscious repetition that does not improve the text. Authors should always read what they’ve written to discover repeated words or phrases in close proximity. They may not be able to find an editor who is attuned to this, and even if they do, repeated words and phrases can easily slip past even experienced editors. Repetition can be subtle, unlike glaring grammatical errors that jump out and beg for deletion. I think it’s due to an epidemic of short-term memory loss, which, based on my observation, has escalated in the last fifteen years. Even young authors are susceptible to this problem, so it can’t be only age-related.

. . . . .

“We could sense his spiritual depth as he spoke to us, a man who due to the vicissitudes of life had to take on responsibilities at a young age. It had been his fate to take on large amounts of responsibility for many other people in his extended family.”

. . . . .

“I had hoped to meet someone I could travel around the world with; within six months I found a fellow adventurer.”

[Editor's note: Similar adjacent words. As for the other issue, in less-formal writing the Chicago Manual of Style is no longer a stickler about not ending a sentence or a clause with a preposition, as long as it sounds better or more conversational that way.]

. . . . .

“I discovered through my own spiritual journey that when I ultimately became ready to release my false assumption that I was in charge of any aspect of my life and thus became ready to release my anger toward others, I would be released from long-held habits that had gradually made my joints stiff and rigid.”

[Editor's note: Three repetitions of “release,” two of “ready,” when other words could be substituted.]

One Possible Fix: “I discovered through my own spiritual journey that when I ultimately became ready to release my false assumption that I was in charge of any aspect of my life and thus could let go of my anger toward others, I would be free of long-held habits that had gradually made my joints stiff and rigid.”

. . . . .

“The concentrations of glucose and plasma insulin were significantly greater in the participants after they ate the salted foods. In fact, the results were very significant.”

. . . . .

“Being clear about what you want is key; that way, you won’t make bad choices. Call the store in advance to see whether the desired item is in stock. Exercising your power as a shopping maven is key to minimizing hassles and wasted time. In whatever mall you enter, prioritize speed and accuracy. Always remember that the key is to ask for the clerk’s assistance in a manner that gets results.”

[Editor's note: Three repetitions of “key” in paragraph.]

. . . . .

“. . . the threat was such that I never tried such a cockamamie scheme again.”

. . . . .

“The wheels of this rickety vehicle were quickly coming off. With the deadline coming up, our partnership was doomed.”


For more writing tips, you can’t go wrong by re-reading William Strunk Jr.’s The Elements of Style, a slim 1918 classic full of invaluable advice.


Copyright 2011 by P. N. Waldygo