Common Mistakes I See in Manuscripts, Part One: Pronouns

Word "mistake" in red on white background

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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.

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The 3 Most Common Writing (Thinking) Mistakes Nonfiction Authors Make

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Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Note that I put “thinking” in parentheses. This post isn’t about common grammatical errors—it’s about common mistakes authors make in thinking about their subjects and how to present them.

In my experience as a developmental editor, I’ve seen many nonfiction authors dive into their topics without thinking much about the audience first. But this approach can lead to confusion—because you’re jumping into a subject from your own vantage point as an expert. You’ve lived the experience and researched the heck out of the topic, usually over a span of years or decades.

In other words, you’re too close to the material to know if you’re explaining it clearly to those who are less familiar, or maybe even unfamiliar.

Remember, unless you’re writing a book for people with the precise same expertise as you, you’re likely to have blind spots about reader understanding. Not taking these blind spots into consideration means you could be confusing your audience more than helping them, which is the opposite of your intention. (Unless you’re an evil mastermind, that is.)

With these blind spots in mind, here’s my answer to the question, “What are the most common writing mistakes you see?”

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Where to Submit Your Work for Publication: Advice for Beginners

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Photo by Kat Stokes on Unsplash

This post is for new creative writers—writers of fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry—who don’t know where to begin seeking an audience for their short-form work.

Maybe you’re launching a writing career without the benefit of an MFA program. Perhaps you come from a different professional background altogether, having little to do with creative writing. Maybe you’re a lawyer, a tax accountant, a doctor, or an Uber driver. (All clients I’ve worked with, by the way!) Where do you start looking for places to submit your shorter form creative work?

Here’s a list of resources I shared recently with a friend who’s writing ghost stories while pursuing a masters degree in urban planning. (Proof that you don’t need an MFA to write and submit.)

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