Editors do more than correct grammar

3d character hiding under notebook


The other night I watched the 1947 movie The Ghost and Mrs. Muir starring Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison (See the trailer or watch the entire movie online free). Mrs. Muir, a young widow in unexpectedly dire financial straits, consents to “ghostwrite” the biography of Captain Greg, the now-deceased original owner of the house she rented. He proceeds to dictate the book to her, and she comments as she types.

When the captain told her, “You can correct my grammar, but don’t make any changes to the story,” I had to laugh. I’ve heard that many times, usually from writers just finishing their first full-length manuscript.

To all those writers who fear editors, let me reassure you that you and the editor are on the same team. Your editor wants your book to be the best book it can be. Writing is a craft with many aspects and subtle nuances. It takes time, hard work, and experience to learn to write a good novel…and there’s always more to learn.

Take character for example. People are complex with often conflicting ideas. A writer lives with his or her characters for months, if not years, learning everything about the character: background, family, motivations, outward appearance, favorite music and on and on. This intimate knowledge can work against the book in either one of two ways. The writer may take many character traits for granted and not show them to the reader, thus erring on the side of writing a flat two-dimensional character. On the other extreme, the writer may try to communicate all the details and background. Either way, the book suffers. Pointing out mistakes such as these goes beyond correcting grammar and punctuation, yet falls far short of changing the story.

Another example is the time line of the story. Writers hear that every story must have a beginning, middle, and end so often that they sit and write the story straight through in chronological order. This may reveal details that appear irrelevant to the reader and cause loss of interest. Skillful use of weaving backstory into the tale is a learned skill—something an editor can help the writer recognize. Proper timing is essential to a well-told story.

Repetition is a common failing in manuscripts by new writers. It takes months or years to write a book, and the writer may think the reader has forgotten what he wrote 200 pages earlier. Believe me, readers remember details. I have read two manuscripts in which a scene was repeated. In one book, chapter two took place decades before chapter one. There’s nothing wrong with that—except that the entire first chapter was repeated later in the book in its chronological place within the story. The other book had the same scene in two successive chapters. The author claimed that it was necessary because it was told from two different points of view. The problem? The reader already knew what was going to happen next, and the tension necessary to hold a reader’s attention was lost. The author rewrote the scene alternating points of view within a single time line.

These are just examples of ways editors can change a manuscript for the better by doing what editors do—go far above and beyond finding typos and correcting grammar. Remember, your editor is on your team.

Jigsaw Pieces Being Joined Shows Teamwork And Collaboration

Question: Has an editor ever saved you from a potentially embarrassing mistake? Give that editor a shoutout of thanks.


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Just the Facts, Ma’m

facts1Fact checking isn’t just for politics or non-fiction writing. As an author, you make a promise to your reader and enter into an unwritten contract. The terms are never explicit, the details are shrouded and vary from book to book, but the penalty for breaking that contract is severe—bad reviews and loss of readers.

No matter what genre you write, if your story is set in a real city, and you tell your readers the character turned onto Main Street from 6th Avenue, you better be sure that the city has a Main Street and it connects with 6th Avenue. It would be even better if you mention the department store on the corner or the vacant lot across the street. Just remember, you have readers everywhere. If even one reader notices that you put a bank where a gas station lives, that reader is pulled out of the story. At the very least, that reader will have an impression of sloppy writing.

Historical fiction requires more in-depth research than most other forms of fiction. People change over time. It’s not just fashion, it’s food, expressions, common knowledge—even attitudes, morals, and values. You need to do serious research to make your novel ring true, especially for a lover of historical fiction familiar with the period. Ever wonder why authors write novel after novel in the same period? Yes, it must have something to do with a love of the period because the research can be time consuming and difficult, but more than that, they’ve already done the work. They already know their characters and setting.

But what about high fantasy? There are no facts to check, right? Wrong! Even high fantasy has facts. The story must match reality, even if it’s not the reality we live in. Every world has rules, and the rules you set in Chapter One must be the same rules you follow in Chapter Twenty. The rules must be consistent, and they must follow their own logic. If the rules are broken, the reader has to push a reset button and loses the ability to suspend disbelief.

Even the most intriguing plot cannot make up for settings that don’t ring true with internal and external consistency.

Facts 2



Place: Geographically correct and consistent (some authors draw maps and floor plans to remember)

Characters: In sync with the setting and consistent throughout the story (clothing, slang, values, etc.)

Time: Technology and common knowledge correct for the time and place

Does the mental video run smoothly from beginning to end?


Question: Have you ever groaned over an author’s lack of research? Tell us about it so we can groan (or laugh) with you.


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Every story needs a world

Globe Crate Retro

Most people think of fantasy and science fiction when they hear writers talk about world building. Writing good fantasy or science fiction requires a lot of thought to construct an original world with non-contradictory rules and limitations, but the truth is that every thing you write requires some world building.

If I were to write a story happening right now, right here as I sit at my computer, you would still need to “see” the world around me. Depending on the story, you might need a general idea of my surroundings. Is it rural or urban? Posh or run down? Winter or summer? The story determines which details the readers need to know, but no matter how familiar it may seem to the writer, the reader still needs information.

The first step in building a world is deciding what sets your world apart from other worlds. My story world is rural, and in August the white-tail deer regularly wander through the backyard searching the ground for apples. In someone else’s story, the people might go out on the porch, or sit on the stoop to escape the heat. In yet another story, everyone might be forced to live within a domed environment, breathing recycled air and rubbing up against their neighbors all too often in the cramped living space.

Once you have a clear and complete idea of the world, the next step is to determine how much of it needs to be shown to the reader. In a story set in my home, there are many details that the reader will fill in for himself without any prompting. All I have to do is mention a sweltering summer day, and the reader sets the stage with a yellow sun, blue sky and perhaps scattered fluffy white clouds. Green trees and grass would fill in the landscape automatically. I would only need to point out the specifics that pertain to the story—the half-dead spruce by the front door, or the stand of pine trees that shield the house from passers by. If the people from the domed environment stepped outside, the reader would need a lot more details to make a mental image. Color, wind, flat or hilly, rocky or sandy…maybe a huge red giant of a sun hangs in the sky.

You as an author need to know all the details, but only include the ones that pertain to your particular story.

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Memoir Needs Many Skills

Puzzle Solved And 3d Characters Displays Team And TeamworkWhen we sit down to write memoir, we mine our memories for material. The goal is to pass our experiences and some knowledge gained along to others, whether we are seeking commercial publication or just want our grandchildren to know we had interesting, productive lives. To accomplish this, we must have a manuscript that holds the attention of the reader from beginning to end.

Writing Memoir that holds the reader must use the techniques of novel writing to hook the reader and maintain his or her interest. You have to draw the characters and make the reader care about them. If you are writing in the first person (narrating as “I”), it is very important for the reader to learn who you are as early as possible. This does not mean reading your resume. The reader must bond with the main character and feel a vested interest in the outcome. This is as true with memoir as it is in fiction. Good books don’t just happen, they are carefully crafted with the reader in mind.

World Building is important. Young people today cannot understand things that happened in the past if they can’t imagine the past. As an example, my children, who are grown with children of their own, have trouble wrapping their minds around the idea of a bus station in a small town having two water fountains and four bathrooms. Although it makes me happy to know it is difficult for them to imagine the segregated South as reality, but it means I must remember it is an alien world to them, and before I tell a story set in that world, I have to make the setting clear.

Research Your Novel: There have been many studies of people witnessing the same event and reporting different facts. Even though one of the reasons to write memoir is to tell events as you remember them—complete with feelings, emotions, and personal responses, there must be some adherence to the actual events, especially those with which the reader may be familiar. If you write of an event such as the assassination of John F Kennedy as happening on a Sunday as you were coming out of church, yet anyone who remembers or looks it up finds that it took place on a Friday, your credibility is damaged. The rest of your work becomes less interesting in the eyes of the reader. If you discuss the huge snowfall that fell on Thanksgiving Day, make sure it was the right year and the right place.

Gather your skills and solve the puzzle of a great memoir. Jigsaw Solution And 3d Character Shows Solution Or Wholeness



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Don’t Beat Up Your Editor

3D-female-characters--TLC_3DGal_37“I’m so mad at my editor I could…” The sentence ended in a growl. “All the advice says to hire the best editor you can afford, so I spent my budget on an editor who came highly recommended.”

“So what happened?” I could see tears gathering in her eyes as she moved from anger to helpless frustration.

“All he did for me was fix typos and grammar mistakes. The author who recommended him said he did wonders for her novel.”

This was time for sympathy and comfort. Over a cup of coffee and big slice of strawberry cheesecake, the author poured out her story:

She had just finished her first novel and was super excited. Her mother and sister agreed it was really good. She couldn’t believe her luck when the editor replied to her email saying he had a cancellation and could take her manuscript immediately.

My heart sank. It was a common beginner mistake. I’d made it myself. Getting a novel from a story idea to a finished product is a process. Just like building a house, things need to be done in the right order. You can’t move in before the roof is done. Typing THE END is only the beginning. It was great that she had her mother and sister in her corner giving support through the long writing process. But this type of support team already loves you and will admire anything you write.


First: Let the manuscript sit for at least a week or two. This is hard when you are so anxious to get your book out into the world, but you need to distance yourself from it to see it as a reader.

Second: Read it through as though you had never seen it. Try to see it as a new reader. Play the internal video and see how it flows. Watch for jumps, disconnects, or inconsistencies.

Third: Find some resources that can guide you through the self-edit process. This will be a little different for each writer, but having a guide is a great help. The Short & Helpful Online Writer Workshop for June is a great resource, but there are many others.

Fourth: Find beta readers that you trust to give you an unbiased opinion. Your mother and your sister are being truthful, but they don’t always see your flaws. Has a mother ever criticized a handmade Mother’s Day card from her youngster? It is beautiful, and every scrawl is precious. The novel may be more mature, but the sentiment is similar.


After you have polished your manuscript to be as near perfect as you can make it, you are ready to send it to a professional editor. If an editor receives a manuscript with typos, grammar mistakes, poor punctuation, and inconsistencies, he or she has to smooth those out before getting a feel for the story. Equally important, the editor’s opinion is that the writer needs a lesson in the basics before advanced plot structure, scene setting, character building, etc.

3D construction worker with hammerIt does no good to furnish the house if the roof isn’t finished. Unless you have more dollars than time, don’t use your editing dollars on things you already know how to correct. Take advantage of the editor’s expertise by hammering down those shingles yourself.






Self-Edit Your Work
June Workshop with
Maryann Miller

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