Most Common Editing Problems

One time I taught a writing workshop in Salt Lake City and spent some time reading stories. In the past, I haven’t spent much time talking about stylistic problems, but I thought it would be interesting to bring up the six problems that I see most often:

1) Weak verbs. Very often, people will use the “to be” verb—was, were, had been, will be—when something stronger is called for. Other verb problems include the overuse of look: “He looked at the girl. She looked good.” In a situation like this, it’s doubly confusing because “look” is being used a couple of different ways. You can replace the first “look” with something like watched, studied, peered at, and so on. The second “look” can be replaced with “appeared.”

2) Sound/word repetitions. It’s easy to repeat sounds or words too much. In a structure like “Jacer studied the castle. The castle walls had eroded, so that the merlons rose up like rotten teeth, but a single pennant still rode the above the castle.” In a sentence like this, you look for a way to avoid repeating the word castle.

3) Hyphenation. Any twenty-year-old writer who doesn’t know how to hyphenate, really ought to read up on the topic in the CHICAGO MANUAL OF STYLE. The reason is simple: editors often look for reasons to reject a story, and an inability to hyphenate properly seems a bit sloppy.

4) Scottishisms. The Scottish often added an unnecessary S to certain words, and in some places in the world, the use of this S is considered to be substandard. Thus, we fall forward, not forwards. We step backward, not backwards.

5) Farther/Further. The word “farther” is used for distance. The word “further” is used for anything but distance. Thus, “I can throw the ball farther than you, and I don’t want to argue about it any further.”

6) Modifier’s Disease. Some authors can’t seem to leave a noun unmodified: So we see constructions like this: “The rusty sailboat floated upon a solemn sea, an unmanned derelict.” Eventually, the novel takes on a singsong quality. Because of this, I recommend that you never add adjectives to two nouns in a row.

Certainly, there are a lot of usage problems common to new writers, and on a different day, I might choose a few others, but these are some that you might want to pay attention to.

Note: One of my assistants, Diane, is looking for editing work. She is a published writer/editor and has a vast knowledge base of military history. You can email her at

3 thoughts on “Most Common Editing Problems

  1. Candida Spillard

    Greetings from England!

    I was intrigued to read point no. 4 above, about the adverbs ‘towards’ etc sounding ‘Scottish’ (and low style) to some readers. I write science fiction & fantasy populated by both UK and USA characters, so I like to keep up with these subtleties.

    Here in the UK all these adverbs (towards, forwards, sideways, etc) are standard English, both north and south of ‘the border’. I give you as an example the election slogan “Forwards not Backwards” once used by one of our political parties. As a slogan I admit it’s pretty terrible, but it is at least gramatically correct 🙂

    The relevant page from the Oxford English Dictionary can be found by putting “OED towards” into a google search.

    Furthermore ( 🙂 ), British English makes no distinction between ‘further’ and ‘farther’ used for physical distance. Here, both are correct. Blues star Eric Clapton, to give one example, sings “Further on up the road…” The OED agrees with him.

    Anyway, thanks for the chance to expound on the differences between USA and British English, and for your work judging ‘Writers of the Future’ – in which I twice placed with an ‘Honorable Mention’.

  2. Pam

    I keep coming back at these posts, they are great! Is further vs. farther an American English rule, though? Because I see no difference in meaning in British English (only that ‘further’ is more often used).


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