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My biggest gripe when I edit

Man running after train

Do I see what you see?

Hmmm…reminds me of a song.

I read a novel a few years ago that I really enjoyed, up until the closing paragraph. Now it’s the only thing I can recall about the book, and the paragraph still annoys me. I remember thinking, ‘Where was her (the author’s) editor?’

The narrator had boarded a train and was leaving the man who loved her. The book finished with this paragraph, from the viewpoint of the main character: “What I didn’t know was that he {her ex-lover} was running along the platform as the train pulled away from the station. I didn’t see him.”

Why did this bother me? I’m sure you already know the answer. If the main character didn’t see her ex-lover and didn’t know what he was doing, how did she report it to the readers?

confused woman
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How could the author have fixed it?

Since it was written in first person, there’s one way: someone had to tell the main character about it, after it happened. However, there was no indication that anyone did. The writer left the character's point of view to describe the man running along the platform.

The other possible fix would be to write the novel in third person omniscient. When this point of view is used, the narrator knows the thoughts and feelings of every character in the story and isn't limited to one character’s perspective.

I find point of view issues crop up often, and sometimes they go unnoticed. That’s why writers need a thorough and sharp-eyed proofreader to spot these tricky deviations. Let’s call that person ‘Sharpie’.

woman tearing paper into pieces
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Do you need an extensive re-write?

Sharpie is sometimes referred to as P.I.T.A (pain-in-the…well, you know the rest). While it’s true that you will be forced to rethink your scene (or scenes) and it means extra work, you don’t necessarily need to tear apart the book, use a different point of view, or re-tell the entire story. There’s usually an easier way.

Let’s take a simple example. Your main character has just been insulted and the resulting reaction goes something like this: ‘My face turned red and I wanted to hit him.’ The problem is that the narrator couldn’t see her own face turn red, not unless she was looking at herself in a mirror (and we don’t want to use this tired, clichéd device).

It’s a minor issue, that’s true. But it’s one that can easily be fixed by simply saying, ‘My face grew warm and I felt flushed.’ Or else, have another character tell her, “Your face is red.”

puppy with eyeglasses and on open book
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Sharpie says …

“When too many small problems merge together, they create a huge problem. The powers-that-be won’t take your work seriously.”

Sharpie is right even if she is annoying. Sometimes I feel like saying to my Sharpie, "Oh come on – no one will notice that!" Before I say it, I hear her voice in my head: Are you willing to risk it?

Your readers might not notice your red-faced mistake. But every time a writer strays from a certain point of view, someone somewhere will see it. If that someone is a publisher, more than one transgression could ruin the image you are hoping to create - that you’re a polished and professional writer.

As we all know, writing is a very competitive field and writers always need to prove themselves if they hope to have their work read and published. Even if you’ve decided to self-publish, you count on your readers to recommend your story. “It’s so good!” is a critique that will increase your book sales.

We don’t want a reader saying, “Well, the plot was good but the writing could have been better.” Or, in the case of the man running along the platform, you don’t want an irritating slip-up to be the last thing a reader remembers about your novel.

Kitten with hair sticking out
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Common point of view issues

Most of the problems I catch relate to physical descriptions.

Things like, “I came in from outside with my hair sticking out in every direction” and “My face glistened with sweat” and “My frown created deep lines on my forehead”. In all cases, how could the narrators see themselves in order to describe their appearances?

Different problems with point of view relate to other characters and events, reporting on things that the first-person narrator wasn’t there to personally witness. Here’s one example: “Terrified, Robin cowered when her mother lashed out at her with the strap.” Robin and the mother were in the house alone, so the narrator couldn’t see Robin’s terror.

Again, this can be fixed by simply changing it. “Robin told me that she cowered in terror when her mother lashed out at her with the strap.” You still create a visual image of Robin in the reader’s mind — this frightened young girl, cringing from her mother — but you do it without a point of view issue.

If you’re struggling with point of view or not certain that you’re handling it well, hire an editor. Yes, I’ve mentioned this before. But I’ll add, if you can’t afford to hire one (and most of us aren’t lugging around bags of money), find a writer who’s willing to look at your manuscript, someone whose writing you admire.

It often helps to have a Sharpie of your own. If you like, you can secretly refer to your Sharpie as PITA. I won’t tell anyone.

Woman shushing someone
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