As an editor, I’m sometimes asked what writing problems I see most often in nonfiction manuscripts or even in long-form business copy. Note I say “problems,” not “broken rules.”
Professional writers break grammar rules all the time, often to great effect. Sentence fragments, for example (this is one). Breaking the writing rules can vary pacing and create interest and emphasis, if you do it well. Style guides will tell you that rule-breaking is a no-no, but prose “errors” like fragments, while technically incorrect, are common in business writing and in books (especially in creative forms like novels, memoir, voice-driven how-to or self-help books, and advertising copy). When used correctly, this particular form of rule-breaking is understood by readers. Maybe they even like it—breaking down the “King’s English” replicates how we speak in real life.
What I want to talk about here isn’t conscious, stylistic rule-breaking like I describe above. I’ll be using this space to address sloppy rule-breaking, the kind that really is an unconscious mistake, and reads as one.
Every writer at one point or another works rapidly to get ideas down on paper before they evaporate. But when the techniques you use as temporary placeholders carry over into your final draft, readers do notice. Your writing may appear loose or confused, and that can pull focus from your argument or story, or maybe even undermine it completely. This is why you need an editor—ideally, multiple editors. A developmental editor can help you if your work has structural weaknesses, and a line editor and/or copy editor can catch common prose errors, including issues like word choice, punctuation, and grammar.
Over the next several posts, I’ll take a look at some of the more common “first draft” missteps I’ve seen as a developmental editor and line editor. If you can catch these errors and fix them before you hire a professional, you may save some time and money—and perhaps, in the process, find some real problems in your thinking or storytelling that need to be addressed.
Let’s start by looking at the most common issue I run across in client work: pronoun over-usage.
why Pronoun over-usage is a problem
This is probably the number one most common issue I see in my clients’ writing. No shame—that means everybody, and I mean EVERYBODY, does it. I’m doing it right now. It’s a problem. If you’re don’t know you’re doing it, it’s a serious issue. A copy editor will catch it, but it can cost you money and time.
Let’s rephrase the above for clarity:
Overuse of pronouns like “this” and “it,” especially at the beginnings of sentences, is probably the number one most common issue I see in my clients’ writing. No shame—rampant overuse means everybody, and I mean EVERYBODY, does it. I’m doing it right now (in the example above). Pronoun overuse is a problem. If you don’t know you’re doing it, your lack of awareness may indicate you have a serious issue. A good copy editor will catch your numerous unclear sentence subjects and objects, but flagging them for replacement with more specific and descriptive words will cost you time and money.
What’s the difference between the first paragraph and the second? Precision.
The first paragraph works well if you’re trying to build mystery by delaying the revelation of what the “this” and “it” is. But if suspense is not your intention, you may be doing your prose harm. Relying too heavily on pronouns creates vagueness. The problem compounds as you move from one idea to the next. Strings of sentences beginning with “it” or “this” create a linguistic shell game, where your readers remember you had a noun once, but can no longer find it because you’re not lifting the shell (pronoun) long enough for them to see it. The same goes for unspecific words like “things.” (“Things like this make for vague writing.”)
I’m not saying you can never use pronouns or simple words in place of more specific ones. Like all parts of our language, pronouns have a place and a function. Using them replicates natural speech by allowing you to stop repeating a word or its synonyms. This, in turn, keeps you from sounding like a robot. But if you use pronouns in place of nouns in almost every sentence you write, you’re avoiding the subject, quite literally. (Awful pun intended!)
My advice: after you write, do a pronoun pass through your work. Circle all the pronouns you see. Use a separate color pen or highlighter for “it” and “this.” If your pages are covered with that color, go back and look for opportunities to plug in a more descriptive noun or phrase. Later, after you’ve had some time away from your work, read the revised piece aloud to yourself and see if it sounds natural, direct, and persuasive. Would you as a reader be convinced without being bored? Are you following your argument? Does your speech sound natural? Then you’re on the right track.
Did you like this post? Please share it, like it on social media, and check back on Mondays for more tips like this. If you have a project that needs developmental editing or line editing, contact me and let’s talk.