The Top 5 Editorial Mistakes I’ve Seen… and How to Fix Them, Part 5.

This post is the last of a five-part series. You can read Parts 1-4 here, herehere, and here.

If you’ve gotten a lot out of this series, I hope you'll download the full course from my Writing Resources page. There’s a coupon code at the bottom of this post just for you, so go check it out!

We've learned to show instead of tell and not to engage in unnecessary POV shifts. We've learned when and how to explain character motivation.

Now, we're on the final of the five common editorial mistakes I see in manuscripts! I'll miss this blog series so much that this post is kind of a twofer.

Text: "Excessive Description, Unnatural Dialogue." Foot about to slip on banana peel. Source: Canva.

Text: "Excessive Description, Unnatural Dialogue." Foot about to slip on banana peel. Source: Canva.

While the other four Editorial Mistakes have involved structural and content-level concerns, this one concerns errors that happen on a line-by-line and sentence-by-sentence basis.

This is copyediting, which typically has a localized impact, if any, on the reader's experience. However, when copyediting errors are abundant in a manuscript, it can really keep the reader from investing interest in the story at hand.

Here are two copyediting concerns I especially want you to be aware of.

1. Edit out excessive description; give remaining descriptions a narrative purpose.

Much like the George R.R. Martin Effect, excessive description has a cultural phenomenon to thank: the book-to-movie pipeline.

This pipeline from New York to Hollywood has always existed, but it seems to have added an express lane in recent years, with film and television representatives working in-house at even boutique literary agencies.

If writers dream of movie deals while they write their books, not only are they distracting themselves by thinking five steps ahead, but they’re going to clutter their manuscripts with descriptions of clothing, gestures, and landscapes that have a negative effect on pacing.

It’s important to remember that a book is not a movie.

If you pause a scene in a film, you can learn what brand of cereal a character is eating. You may even see the logo on an extra’s shirt in the background.

However, in a book, description serves a different purpose, furthering the plot, a character’s development, or the mood of a particular moment.

When revising your manuscript, edit out any description that isn’t purposeful. I don’t need to know that a man is 6’4 with blonde hair, blue eyes, and a ruggedly handsome smile – that sounds like a casting call, frankly – but I do need to know that he’s excessively tall if he has to stoop through a low door frame.

There are some pseudo-exceptions to this rule.

For instance, in his novel American Psycho, Brett Easton Ellis references upscale brand names constantly. However, I would argue that in this case, such excessive, specific description is purposeful to the development of Patrick Bateman's character, who is as pathologically obsessed with status symbols as he is with murdering people.

2. Eavesdrop as research to avoid unnatural dialogue.

"It's for my novel, I swear." – Jane Austen, probably.

"It's for my novel, I swear."
– Jane Austen, probably.

In my copyediting experience, writers also frequently struggle to craft realistic dialogue.

One would think we’d be good at it, since humans communicate orally a fair amount of the time, but writing a conversation is very different from participating in one.

To improve in writing dialogue, I would encourage you to do some research. Listen to conversations when you’re out and about. Pay attention to the mechanics of conversations in novels, essays, and even television shows.

You may notice that most of the time, unless a speech is planned or being given by a very professional person, there will be fragments, incomplete sentences, malapropisms, slang, and so forth.

It’s highly unlikely to hear someone give a monologue in real life, and unless you’re writing something full of gravitas like Tom Joad’s “I’ll be there” speech from The Grapes of Wrath, I would encourage you to avoid it in literature, too.

While revising, you may consider reading a passage of dialogue aloud. If it feels clunky coming off the tongue, try to simplify in a way that sounds more like human speech.

Finally, think about the character who is speaking. In general, do women speak the same way as men? (Nope. Not if all these articles telling me I need to apologize less have anything to say about it.)

And for that matter, do all men speak the same way? No, of course not! Using the age demographic as an example, a twenty-something male might say “No problem” while an eighty-something male might say “You’re welcome.”

Keep such things in mind while revising for natural-sounding, believable dialogue.

Action Items:

  • Edit out any description that does not have a narrative purpose (i.e. plot, mood, or character development).
  • Listen to conversations when you’re out and about.
  • Consider the use of fragments, incomplete sentences, slang.
  • Read dialogue aloud as you revise.
  • What impact do a character's background and current location have on their speech patterns?