I should have written this earlier, but sometimes you don’t always know what you need to write before you write it…
Looking through what other editors look for when editing…I’m going to be leaving out a lot of things that a “real” editor would check for, like awkward dialogue, using too much backstory, and character development. Those are things that your writer brain should be taking care of, not your editor brain–if you don’t know how to develop a character, then maybe your work isn’t ready to publish. Handing those decisions over to an editor…no. I know that people do it all the time, but those are the decisions that the writer has to make, if their work is going to have integrity. Not the editor.
If your early readers are pointing out issues consistently, you may want to consider addressing them. But once you’re past that stage, your editor brain is just going to have to trust the writer brain on those things. Otherwise, your writer brain is never going to develop a mastery of them. There’s always the next story.
One of the things that you, as an independent writer, should be taking advantage of is letting your readers decide how good you are. An editor is a reader, and a highly-trained one, but an editor is only one reader, and unless that editor is the perfect reader for that particular work, their opinion on larger questions should be suspect. One person’s “This is crap!” is another person’s “It changed my life.” The job of the editor should be to allow the writer to shine, not to shunt the writer into the editor’s happy place.
As the writer, you don’t have to deal with the editor’s brainwashing as to what is “good” or “bad.” In some ways, it’s better to edit your own stuff. You may not have the objectivity to do a great job, but you don’t have to deal with someone else being subjective about your work and declaring their opinion to be objective (and better than yours, the writer’s). You may not make your work perfect, but you won’t end up making it someone else’s work.
Is It Grammatical?
Before I get into the nitty-gritty of things that I check for, grammatically, I want to say a bit about when to follow standard usage.
If it sticks out like a sore thumb, change it.
If it works, leave it.
Any grammatical rule can be broken, in service of story.
So why would you want to stick to “correct grammar,” if it’s okay to break rules?
Grammar isn’t a set of mathematical truths, absolutely right or absolutely wrong. So what is it? It’s a consensus of the best ways to communicate meaning, currently. Grammar contains words; without grammar, words cannot mean more than just themselves; they have no context.
Is the fish inside the box? Outside? Is the fish alone? Is the box alone? Is the person writing the words alone with a fish in the box? Is the fish for supper?
Fish! is box insi9de. AlonE the fish. Is, aa, is. Bo–x person the fish. For is alo”ne a txxxe.
Grammar is how we agree that groups of words mean something. Grammar is the set of rules for the game called language. However, the meaning is more important than the grammar. Just as people can agree to house rules on a card game, if a writer sets up (and uses consistently) a pattern of rules in a work, the audience can agree that this is a special case in which the usual rules can be broken, as long as they aren’t broken so annoyingly as to hinder meaning or become a distracting pattern (like usin’ too many apostrophes to show that g is bein’ dropped, don’t you know?).
You can even break a rule inconsistently, if it aids meaning (Suddenly. Complete Sentences. Vanished. As she ran. Faster).
- If you’re going to break a rule, break it consistently, most of the time.
- If you’re going to break a rule, break it for a reason; laziness indicates a lack of concern with meaning, and readers will pick up on that.
Grammar is changing and evolving all the time. As much as people like to preserve the illusion that grammar is either right or wrong, it’s not. Grammar is an agreement that we use to communicate meaning as accurately as possible, not a science. For example, we’re in the middle of shifting from using “he/him/his” to indicate “either gender” and using “they/them/their.” You’ll see he; you’ll see he or she; you’ll see they; you’ll even see the rare it. But I think they is winning. Some people don’t like it one bit–but he or she takes too long, he is presumptious; it is insulting.
Is using they wrong?
It was, back when it was okay to say that he was the same as any given person.
Society is changing; it is no longer okay to mean that.
A grammatical rule that hinders meaning will change, just as the definitions of words change to reflect their meaning. It’s not a question of right or wrong, but whether the rules serve the meaning. If the rules no longer serve the meaning, the rules will change, even if the rulekeepers of the world are the last ones to know.