All the recent discussions around Amazon’s updated policy on error flagging have made me think about what truly constitutes an “error.” Language is fluid, and its rules of usage continue to evolve over time. What our teachers told us to do in elementary school is not always the right way to approach things today.
So how do you know whether you’re on the right track when you’re writing? When you receive your edited manuscript and it’s full of markups, is it time for you to panic? I’m sure many of us have experienced that gut-wrenching feeling of failure when we encounter all those red marks. I know I have!
This is why I like to write detailed comments as I edit — so I can explain why I’ve made a change. When I perform a stylistic/copy edit, there are a number of reasons why I mark up a manuscript, and only one of these reasons is to identify an error. Here are six other common things that can happen, which are definitely not signs that you’ve made some kind of horrendous mistake:
- The writing isn’t following an agreed-upon style. I’ve talked in a previous post about the value of using a style sheet, so that you and your editor can agree on various preferences around punctuation, spelling, and capitalization. The style guide that your editor follows helps them to identify and flag inconsistencies. But you shouldn’t think of these edits as corrections – you haven’t done anything wrong. It’s okay to use a serial comma, and it’s okay not to use a serial comma. But it’s best to have consistency throughout the manuscript, so that your reader doesn’t notice any variations.
- Unusual terms or phrases are being used. Maybe you know what that saying means, but your reader might not have heard of it. You don’t want to make your reader have to look something up or (even worse) think that you’ve made some kind of mistake. Which you haven’t – you’ve just used some words that some of your readers may not be familiar with.
- Your meaning is unclear. When we’re in the middle of writing, we know exactly what we are trying to convey, and we think that other people will see it the same way. But there are lots of cases where something can be interpreted in different ways. When this happens, it’s better to change the wording to make the meaning absolutely clear. What you’ve written isn’t wrong – it just happens to be representing a particular view that may not be shared.
- The style doesn’t suit your genre or audience. You may love using semi-colons and writing long, elaborate sentences that evoke the Victorian era. But if you’re writing a romance for a general audience, then it’s probably not the way to go, even if it’s a perfectly valid writing style.
- The style doesn’t suit your characters. In dialogue in particular, characters speak in ways that may or may not be “correct” based on common writing standards. This is a case where an editor may change your writing to make it grammatically incorrect on purpose — isn’t that a fun thought?
- You’ve used too many words. This is a very common challenge among writers. What you’ve written is perfectly fine, but it could be said in a more succinct way that captures the true essence of what you are communicating.
And here’s one final reason for marking up a manuscript that I try with all my might to avoid:
Your editor just plain doesn’t like it.
If I can’t explain the reason why I want to make a change, then I don’t make it. Like all human beings, I have my own personal stylistic preferences that influence my taste in books. But it’s my job as editor to set those preferences aside and work with the style of my author. In fact, one of the things I love about my job is that I get to experience stories being told in different and exciting ways. What a sad place the world would be if all books sounded the same because they were edited to some kind of common standard.
So before you start to feel bad about that feedback from your editor, remember:
- Those markups are mostly suggestions, not corrections. It’s your book – and your choice about whether to make those changes.
- If you’re not sure why a change was made, don’t be afraid to ask. Editors are human, too.
- Your style is unique to you and should be celebrated!
How do you feel when you receive a marked-up manuscript? Have you ever disagreed with someone over an “error”? Please feel free to share your thoughts below, or ask any questions about my services. I’d love to hear from you!