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.