A hand holding a red mark marks up a page of writing

When we do a content edit, we focus on the big-picture stuff first. There’s no point in nitpicking small things that might be rewritten anyway. However, we do run into lots of problems at the wordcraft level. To help everyone improve their prose, let’s go over the most common issues Mythcreants sees in content editing – and whether a copy editor can fix them. That way if you have a manuscript that’s rough in one of these areas, you can decide whether to spend more time on it yourself or invest in a heavier copy edit.

1. Repetitive Telling

Many common wordcraft problems fall under the old adage “show; don’t tell.” However, show/tell problems manifest in a variety of ways. In the case of repetitive telling, the writer is showing as appropriate, but then they waste words telling what they have just shown. This problem is incredibly common; we see it in almost every manuscript.

Let me give you some examples. Let’s start with the classic repetitive telling dialogue tag.

“Stop right there,” she commanded.

This line of dialogue is obviously a command; stating it outright is unnecessary.

Similarly, emotions frequently feature in repetitive telling. Take this line from my critique of City of Bones.

The bouncer shrugged, abruptly bored. “Whatever. Go on in.”

Stating the bouncer is “bored” is repetitive here. Unless your character is hiding their feelings, body language and dialogue should be expressive enough that you don’t need to clarify the character’s emotions.

It’s also common to see a whole sentence summarizing what the narrator has already described. Take this example.

Spaghetti noodles covered the kitchen floor. Marinara sauce was spattered across the counters, on the walls, and even on the ceiling. Dirty bowls half-filled with the pasta were piled in the sink. Miguel groaned. The kitchen was a terrible mess.

That last sentence doesn’t say anything the reader doesn’t already know.

At its best, this kind of useless filler bloats the narrative, reducing the entertainment value of prose. Readers may also find repetitive telling condescending, because it’s written as though they aren’t clever enough to pick it up on their own. And if you tell something that isn’t clear to readers after showing, they are unlikely to take your word for it. For instance, if your character acts like a jerk, insisting they’re charming will only make you look silly. Instead of condescension, it becomes a contrivance.

Can a copy editor fix it?

Copy editors can help with this one quite a bit. It usually just takes some strategic cuts and some light rewording in some cases. If you have a lot of these problems in your manuscript, however, you might need a heavy copy edit (also called a line edit).

2. Over-Summarized Scenes

This is another “show; don’t tell” mistake. As I’ve mentioned before, showing and telling falls along a spectrum, with lots of sensory description of the showing end, and summarizing events on the telling end. Generally, your scenes should be on the showing end of that spectrum. If you’re too far toward the center, you’ll end up with an over-summarized scene. In these scenes, the writer tells readers what’s happening instead of letting events unfold before the reader’s eyes.

Here’s an example of what this looks like:

The thief slunk back into the tavern. She wove her way through the crowd to the bar, then noticed someone watching her. A guard’s uniform was poorly concealed under a ragged cloak. She glanced around and spotted several more guards all around her. She raced to the back exit. Just before she could reach it, a guard grabbed her ankle and she fell.

In the context of a novel, this would feel very rushed. What’s happening in this paragraph is clearly important, but it’s glossed over instead of fleshed out. Events that should be exciting instead feel distant.

Then if the writer tries to add excitement with dramatic wording, it usually comes off as melodramatic:

The thief slunk back into the tavern. She struggled through the drunken crowd to reach the bar, then noticed a dark figure watching her every movement. Cold steel glinted maliciously under the figure’s ragged cloak. The city guard had come for her. She furtively glanced around; she was surrounded by a whole regiment! She fled desperately toward the back exit. Freedom was just within reach when a guard seized her ankle and she crashed to the floor.

Fix this problem by savoring each moment in the scene. For instance, let’s zoom in on when the thief notices the first guard. That moment in a full scene should look more like this:

As she drummed her fingers on the bar, she caught the eye of a hooded stranger sitting in the corner by the kitchen. She looked away casually; she never let herself be noticed if she could help it. Yet in the corner of her eye, the broad figure still watched her. Was it her imagination, or was the posture oddly rigid for someone who drank alone in a dirty, ragged cloak?

Diving into the moment allows the mystery and tension to build. This produces more genuine excitement with less dramatic wording.

Can a copy editor fix it?

Generally, no. Copy editors might leave comments to point these issues out, but correcting this involves rewriting those sections. Instead of an editor, you’d need a ghost writer. Quality ghost writing is very expensive.

3. Too Much Narrative Distance

The term “narrative distance” refers to how close the narration is to the viewpoint character. Distant narration watches both the character and their environment from an outside vantage. Close narration describes events as the character perceives them.

In most cases, close narration is the best choice for the story. It allows writers to show rather than tell the thoughts and emotions of a character, putting readers in the character’s shoes. This increases immersion, raises tension, and helps readers empathize with the viewpoint characters. Unfortunately, most manuscripts we receive don’t achieve this closeness.

Distance can appear in several different ways:

  • Sometimes the writer just chooses to write in omniscient instead of close limited. Omniscient allows writers to describe whatever they want without making it fit a viewpoint character. This freedom can be very tempting, and most new writers don’t realize how hard it is to make omniscient add more to the story than it takes away.
  • Other times, the story is written in what I call “film POV.” In this perspective, any narration that describes the emotions or thoughts of a character is absent. The narration describes the external view of characters and their surroundings in a dry, neutral manner. Writers who do this simply don’t understand the medium in which they are telling their story. The ability to reveal thoughts is the advantage writing has over film, and it shouldn’t be given up.
  • Often, the writer is focusing on one viewpoint character and narrating their thoughts and emotions. However, they unintentionally do it in a way that makes readers feel like they are watching the character from the outside. I refer to this perspective as distant limited.

Let’s focus on this last one a bit, because the intention is often good, but the execution flawed. And once again, “telling” is a big culprit. Writers often fall into a habit of telling what a viewpoint character is thinking and feeling. But then the narration is watching the viewpoint character, not being the viewpoint character.

Take these examples of distant narration:

  • He wondered where the portal led.
  • She noticed a strange shadow moving across the far wall.
  • The cook crossed their arms, angry at Naya for leaving.

Now I’ll move the narration into the head of the character:

  • If he stepped into the portal, where would it take him?
  • A strange shadow moved across the far wall.
  • The cook crossed their arms. It was so typical of Naya to leave the moment there was real work to do.

You’ll still want to narrate the viewpoint character’s physical actions and body language, but avoid stating any mental actions. Those include seeing, hearing, wondering, and realizing. In close perspective, all of these should be shown rather than told.

Can a copy editor fix it?

This depends on exactly what kind of narration you have; copy editors can only work with what’s there. If your story is missing information on thoughts and emotions altogether, the copy editor won’t have anything to work with.

If you’ve aimed for close narration but your implementation is inconsistent, a copy editor doing a heavier edit can usually close the distance where needed. However, if it’s consistently distant, it will be hard to do it everywhere. Your copy editor will probably leave it rather than risk making it inconsistent.

4. Listing Facts Instead of Establishing Relevance

Story readers have to learn a lot of new things. They have to get to know characters, imagine places, and understand why things happen the way they do. Part of a writer’s job is to carefully manage the introduction of information so that it’s easy and entertaining for readers.

Unfortunately, new writers often neglect this. Instead of stepping readers through a story, they narrate as though they’re listing a bunch of facts or describing a technical schematic. The result is dense and dry.

As an example, I’m going to describe a spaceship. First, I’ll do it the dry way:

Space Navigator Zeep entered the ship through the back hatch. The hatch opened into a cargo area that was fifty by one hundred feet, with racks for oxygen canisters on the long side and twenty rows of stacked containers running perpendicular to the entrance. The officers gathered in the bridge at the top of the ship, and the front held the spherical engine room, which was equipped with four new hyperdrives and a maintenance crew of over a dozen people.

Fixing this is a matter of both what you write and the way you write it:

  • Focus on what the viewpoint character is doing right then. If they are baking a cake, the oven is a lot more relevant than a house two blocks away.
  • Highlight the relevance of what you’re describing to the story in general. How is it related to what readers already know? Does the information cast existing story elements in a new light or suggest something might happen in the future?
  • Work to give exposition or description more personality.
  • If it’s not interesting or relevant, leave it out.

Revised, our spaceship description might look like this:

Space Navigator Zeep opened the hatch and stepped into the cargo hold. The ship’s official dragon’s hoard, it was a cavernous area stacked with supply bins, oxygen canisters, and spare parts. Zeep wove past the hoard to reach the ladder leading up to the bridge, and then paused. Heated voices carried down through the hatch above – another debate between the officers. Zeep wanted no part in that, so instead they took the back hall to the engine room. In the spherical chamber, a dozen mechanics hovered over the state-of-the-art hyperdrives. Using the new drives, the ship could venture into the center of the galaxy and back. Or so Zeep hoped.

When you introduce a place, you don’t need to describe how everything is positioned unless that matters to the plot. In most cases, it’s sufficient to give some general descriptors (cavernous) and list some specific things that are in the space (supply bins, oxygen canisters, and spare parts).

Can a copy editor fix it?

If you get a standard or light copy edit, your copy editor won’t cover these issues. However, with a heavy copy edit or line edit, an editor can reword description and cut anything that isn’t relevant or engaging enough. An editor can’t turn stale description completely around, but it will help.

5. Jarring Introductions

When something new is introduced, readers need to know what it is and how it fits into the story. Unfortunately, new writers have a habit of introducing lots of things with little context or explanation. This is jarring and confusing.

For example, many writers will just name a new character without any  introduction to who that person is. Imagine this is the opening of a story:

Nesh spent the whole day at the potter’s wheel. Maybe if he learned to make new dishes, he would never have to wash them again. Exhausted and covered in mud, he came inside and gave his handiwork to Koxi before heading up to bed.

Who is Koxi? Explaining should only take a few words:

Exhausted and covered in mud, he finally came inside and gave his handiwork to the household golem, Koxi. Then he went up to bed.

The same goes when using unfamiliar names for places, objects, animals, or anything else. Give readers a general idea of what it is (golem) and its relationship to the viewpoint character (household). If you manage to make these things clear from context, that’s great, but it’s better to put in a sentence of exposition than to leave readers confused. Without clear information, they may even think an object is an animal or an animal is a person.

Remember that not everything in a scene needs a proper name. Above, the assumption is that Koxi will appear in the future. If they don’t, it’s better to simply call them the household golem. If you have an entire crowd of people, introduce one or two characters to represent the crowd, but then leave all the background characters unnamed. The more names you throw at readers, the more likely they are to be confused.

Last, which character, animal, or thing you are talking about in any given sentence should be crystal clear. It’s especially difficult for readers to keep them straight when they are first introduced. Try not to use more than two unfamiliar names in a paragraph, and consider separating actions by different characters into different paragraphs. So instead of this:

Exhausted and covered in mud, he finally came inside and gave his handiwork to Koxi. The golem popped a misshaped goblet into their mouth and chomped away. Judging by their slurping sounds, the clay at least tasted good. Nesh sighed and went up to bed.

Consider this:

Exhausted and covered in mud, he finally came inside and gave his handiwork to Koxi.

The golem popped a misshapen goblet into their mouth and chomped away. Judging by their slurping sounds, the clay at least tasted good.

Nesh sighed and went up to bed.

It isn’t always necessary, but it can give readers a better experience.

Can a copy editor fix it?

Copy editors might be able to clear up confusing introductions or unclear references to characters. However, they’re more likely to leave a comment that points the issue out rather than make changes that risk introducing errors into your work.

6. Convoluted Sentences

Some people love long sentences. Certainly, some longer sentences are needed to vary the rhythm of a paragraph. But the longer the sentence is, the more concentration it takes to read. Often, readers have to remember all the different pieces of a sentence as they go, assembling them into a cohesive thought once they reach the end.

On top of that, longer sentences are harder to write. If you sometimes neglect commas, the result will be worse in your longer sentences. If you have imperfect grammar, the result will be worse in your longer sentences. With added length, unexamined clutter builds up. And that’s why so many manuscripts are sprinkled with sentences that are not only long but convoluted. These sentences slow readers down, add confusion, and create an unpleasant reading experience.

I’ll give you several examples of convoluted sentences from manuscripts, with the details altered:

  • She cleaned, somewhat reluctantly, in the house a few more hours before the returning children demanded all her attention finally for the better part of the day.
  • But even more important than his fealty to the high circle, the council that watched over the dark lands, was that he was a night fae whose members were under continual surveillance because they often succumbed to the dark song during the long winter.
  • She had been longing for this moment since the first time she heard him speaking eloquently alongside Senator Walden during a rally a year ago when they first met and discussed a possible collaboration.

Sometimes this is the writer’s natural style. Other times the writer was trying to make the sentence do too much – especially if it’s a first sentence. Remember that the primary function of a first sentence is to get someone to read the second sentence. It doesn’t have to stand alone as a piece of poetry.

While it’s possible to make convoluted sentences more legible by rearranging the clauses and punctuating correctly, the easiest fix is to make them shorter. If you have a problem in this area, hunt down long sentences and either split them into multiple sentences or trim them down. Many of these sentences have tangents, meaningless clutter, or other phrases that can easily be removed.

I’ve revised the three example sentences:

  • Somewhat reluctantly, she cleaned in the house for a few more hours. Then the children returned, demanding her attention for the better part of the day.
  • More importantly, he was a night fae. Because his people often succumbed to the dark song during the long winter, they were under continual surveillance.
  • She had been longing for this moment since she first heard him speak at a rally a year ago. They met soon after to discuss a possible collaboration.

Can a copy editor fix it?

Even a light copy edit will make your longer sentences better structured and easier to read. If you order a heavier edit, the copy editor is more likely to break up sentences and trim unnecessary words.

Even when it’s too early to have an editor mark up your sentences, proactively assessing the general state of your wordcraft will save you time and money later. That way you can improve it while you are reading through your story or doing rewrites.

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