Here, extracted from my coauthored book, Finding Go! Matching Questions and Resources in Getting Published (available for free use at http://www.publishingquestions.com) , are some basic aids in reviewing your own manuscripts before you send it for an edit to help the editor concentrate on more important issues in the manuscript.
Comments? What other advice can you add? Questions that you have?
There are many habitual writers’ practices that either are clearly grammatically incorrect, even though commonly used, or do not match the presentation practices of most publishers. (There are some practices, like the use of serial commas, that may be optional in writing but that are usually uniformly rendered one way in published works.) It is helpful when writers have not fallen into these pitfalls, because although these problems usually are easy for editors to see and correctundefinedsince they crop up so frequentlyundefinedwhen these nonconforming styles are not present, the editor can spend more time concentrating on other elements of the manuscript. Here are some common errors (in alphabetical order) to keep in mind (and to try to avoid) while you are writing:
Affect, effect: “Affect” is usually used as a verb, meaning “having an influence on.” Its less-used noun form means “an emotion.” “Effect” is most commonly used as a noun meaning “a result.” Its verb form means, “to bring about or execute.” If you “affect” something, you are likely to have an “effect” on it. When you use the word, you usually will be using the “affect” version.
Appositives: Novelists may be the world’s biggest promoters of bigamy through the habitual use of the construction “Tom’s wife Mildred went to market.” If Tom only has one wife, the sentence should read, “Tom’s wife, Mildred, went to market.” The sentence in this instance is nonrestrictive, meaning the name could be dropped and the meaning would still be clear. The sentence should read “Tom’s wife Mildred went to market” only if Tom has more than one wife and “Mildred” has to be included (ergo a restrictive sentence) for the meaning of the sentence (specifying which wife) to be clear.
Compound Sentence Clauses: Independent clauses with subjects and verbs are usually set off by commas, while dependent clauses (ones with only verbs) usually aren’t. It is precisely the presence or absence of such commas that unconsciously signals to the reader what sort of clause to expect next (and thus to smoothen their journey through your work).
Comprise, compose: Careful writers don’t use these terms as synonyms, because doing so will cause picky readers and editors apoplexy. The whole “comprises” the parts and the parts “compose” the whole. If you really want to see such readers and editors choke, use the verbose phrases “are comprised of” or “are composed of.”
Due to: The only legitimate uses of “due to” are in the contexts of loan-sharking or the date you are supposed to turn in your term paper. In most cases in which you have the urge to use that phrase, you should be using “caused by,” “because of,” or “as a result of.”
E.g.,/i.e.,: “E.g.” is an abbreviation for “for example.” “I.e.” is an abbreviation for “that is.” Many writers incorrectly think they are synonyms. Also, each term has a comma separating it from the clause it introduces: (i.e., she shot him with his own gun, not hers). Also, the abbreviations should only be used in parenthetical phrases and endnotes; the terms should be written out in the body text.
Endnote/Footnote and Bibliography Styles: There are several well-known and quite acceptable sets of rules for formatting endnote/footnote and bibliography citations, most commonly (and most usefully) the Documentation One style of the Chicago Manual of Style for humanities works, the APA Publications Manual for scientific works, and the MLA Handbook for academic works. Most writers use no knownundefinedor internally consistentundefinedendnote/footnote style. As a result, publication processes tend to have to devote a greater proportion of their effort working with reformatting endnotes/footnotes (and making authors go back looking for missing information) than with book content. This doesn’t seem all that bright, when a nonfiction writer can easily find out how to create complete, consistent endnotes/footnotes from the beginning of the process and save project time and expense.
Etc.: “Etc.” is an abbreviation for “and so forth.” It should only be used as an abbreviation in parenthetical phrases and endnotes; the term should be written out in the body text. When it is used as an abbreviation, it concludes with a period.
Farther, further: “Farther” and “further” are actually interchangeable as adjectives, but so many people have come to think that they aren’t that you might as well make a distinction in your writing, so that people don’t point mockingly at you in their ignorance. “Farther” is thought to be restricted to meanings connected to distance, while “further” is thought to be restricted to meanings connected with addition.
Fewer, lesser: “Fewer” is used with countable units (e.g., people and distinct items: “fewer than five ballerinas and fewer than four kumquats”); “less” is used for spans of things (like time: “less than five nanoseconds.”)
Foreign Words: Unfamiliar foreign words are set in italics; familiar foreign words are set in roman type. Deciding which is which can be as simple as looking in the dictionary. If the word is there, it’s a familiar foreign word (e.g., de facto, a priori, dacha, fait accompli, mea culpa, status quo).
Impact: If your car has hit a brick wall, you can use “impact” as a verb to describe your experience. If you use “impact” as anything but a noun in any other context, you have been writing memos for the Pentagon too long.
Insure, Ensure, Assure: When writers reach for one of these words, they almost always use “insure,” and they almost always should have made another choice. “Insure” is only used for taking out an insurance policy. “Ensure,” the most commonly meant variation of the words, means, “to make secure or certain.” “Assure” is usually used in reference to a person, as in “setting the mind at rest.”
Hopefully: Most word experts, which would include most editors in publishing, insist that “hopefully” cannot be used as it almost always is used: “Hopefully, we will survive until spring.” They do not offer up very good substitutes for all instances where the writer would be encouraged to use the word, however. Whether or not they are right, if you use it, they will mark it outundefinedso it’s best to try to write without using it.
Most Importantly: Whenever a book editor sees this phrase, the “ly” will be excised in one swift stroke. You might save editors (and readers) from being distracted by this by writing it “most important” in the first place.
Not Only/But Also: This is a “complete set” combination. Writers often leave out the “also,” but the book editor won’t let it go without the “also.”
On the Other Hand: The “On the one hand/on the other hand” construction is another complete set. Writers often use just the “on the other hand” part and send intelligent readers running back up the page looking for an “on the one hand” they missed. The isolated “on the other hand” should really be something else, such as “however,” “conversely,” or “in contrast.”
Parallelism: Much editing time is spent in making clauses in series and such things as subheadings parallel (e.g., if you use a verb in one element of a series, every element of the series should use a verb, or vice versa). These also are among the hardest errors to see before the book is published, but the easiest for snickering readers to see afterward. Time spent going over your manuscript, checking on parallelism, is time well spent.
Personal Titles: Personal titles in apposition (e.g., U.S. president George Bush) are more often rendered incorrectly than they are rendered correctly. That’s because proper usage looks like it can’t be proper. This is the proper progression (and I’m using the U.S. president’s title to make a point that, if it’s right for this position, it’s right for all other positions, evenundefinedin U.S. publishing, at leastundefinedfor British queen Elizabeth, or “the queen”): the president; U.S. president George Bush; president of the United States, George Bush; former president George Bush; President George Bush; President Bush.
Serial Comma: Use of a serial comma, or the comma before the “and” or “or” in a series (e.g., blue, green, and purple cows) has become optional in U.S. market word usage, and the trend is toward not using it. Conversely, the majority of U.S. publishers do use it. So, if you don’t know your publisher doesn’t use it, you’d best do so.
That/Which: There are convoluted rules on when “that” and “which” can be used for independent clauses (thus set off with a comma) and dependent clauses (thus not set off with a comma). Most publishers make it quite simple. If it’s a dependent clause, use “that”; if it’s an independent clause, use “which.” Therefore, if you’ve written a “which” clause and not put a comma in front of it, you may have been grammatically correct, but most publishers will insert a comma or change the word to “that” (and they’ll also be grammatically correct in doing so).
Trademarked Names: Some company and product names are trademarked (e.g., Coca-Cola, Kleenex, Styrofoam, Band-Aid, Barnes & Noble, Kool-Aid). The myths have become established either that trademarked names can’t be legally used at all in creative writing or that they have to be rendered with a trademark sign on them. Neither of these assertions is true, but they do legally have to be rendered exactly as trademarked. For more information on this and to find out how to obtain a list of trademarked names, consult chapter 8, “Protecting It.”
Troops: “Troops” means a unit of soldiers, not an individual soldier. (Oh, yes it does; go look it up in the dictionary.) Thus, it’s highly unlikely you would send 10,000 troops (units of multiple soldiers) into battle. You’d send 10,000 soldiers or combatants. You also, incidentally, wouldn’t be sending “servicemen,” unless you were dealing with the army of a country so backward it doesn’t include woman in its armed forces.
Unclear Antecedents: In following up a reference to a formal noun (e.g., “Gertrude”) with a pronoun (e.g., “she”), writers will often let another formal noun intrude between the antecedent and the pronoun (e.g., “Hector”) that can be confused as intended as the antecedent. This is anathema for the writer, because the reader invariably will stop reading and backtrack to figure out where they went off track. Do what you can to keep your antecedents clear.
U.S./United States: “U.S.” is the adjective; “United States” is the noun. They are not interchangeable.
Verb-Noun Agreement: Everyone knows that singular nouns require singular verbs (even when a prepositional phrase with a plural objects intercedes) and plural nouns require plural nouns. Wonder why writers fail to correctly match them so often.
Web site Citations: The use of sources found on the Internet as endnote citations has become very popular, and it is very new. It is so new that authors rarely provide enough information on Internet citations in the endnote references and invariably have to be sent back into belated research to find more information. (Incidentally, publishers will rarely do the footwork to ensure that full endnote and bibliography citations have been obtained. But they usually demand to have complete citations before publishing, because the content of these is connected to copyright requirements. The author usually has to do any necessary follow-up research.) What authors usually fail to provide is an access date, a date on which they can affirm that the material was, in fact, present on the Web site being cited. Since the content of Web sites is quite dynamic, there’s a good chance the material will no longer be there if a reader wishes to check out the source citationundefinedand if it’s not there, suspicion builds that the author has just made up the supporting citation.
Word Capitalization: Writers are habitually cap happy and publishers aren’t. When in doubt, don’t.
Word Hyphenation: The rules for word hyphenation are very complex, and authors can be forgiven for not being experts on this. However, it’s hard to forgive them when whether or not the word they are using is hyphenated is very clearly explained in black and white in the dictionary and they still render it incorrectly. This happens an astonishingly percentage of the time.
Youths: Although it’s becoming a losing battle, the word “youth” has a perfectly good plural form: “youths.” Thus, you don’t grammatically send twenty youth over the cliff in a bus, no matter how much these youths irritate you.