Wednesday, September 2, 2015


Karen Owen is a freelance editor of manuscripts, a monthly opinion columnist at The Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, VA, and the former publisher of Van Neste Books.  She lives with her husband, novelist and Hammett Prize-winner, Howard Owen, in Richmond, Virginia. 

This is her story, and a perfect follow-up to Daphne Athas’ THE GRAMMAR OF POWER which was posted last week.

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“As a former newspaper editor and former publisher/editor of literary fiction at Van Neste Books, I’ve been in a love affair with the English language for quite some time.  I also do freelance editing work on manuscripts in many genres, from novels to memoirs to local history.  While I continue to write a monthly opinion column for a daily newspaper in Virginia, what I enjoy most is the editing process.

“When I was a publisher, I did not have the financial wherewithal to hire any assistants.  I was chief financial operator, editor, creative director, book-packer and promotions person, and the joke was:  ‘I am Van Neste Books.’  Unless a manuscript grabbed my attention by the second chapter, I did not have the luxury to finish reading it.

“The same was true if I ascertained that the editing required to whip the manuscript into shape would be too onerous.  Assuming the writer was no William Faulkner, there were times when I was forced to move on to the next item in my in-box.

“And forget Thomas Wolfe.  For most publishers, the days of indulgence by a Maxwell Perkins are gone.   They don’t have the staffs or the time to wrestle a story to the ground.   It may sound shallow, but neither do they want overly long word counts, as the costs to publish these books can be prohibitive.

“What I try to do as an editor is to turn a diamond in the rough into what I call a lean, mean fighting machine, while preserving its inherent creative quality.

“A manuscript may be beyond redemption:  In these rare instances, after taking a look at sample chapters, I return it to the writer with the sad news that I cannot take money from him or her under false pretenses.  A book is either publishable, or it is not—unless a writer is willing to self-publish.

“Here are the kinds of things that I, as a professional editor can, offer.

“Most writers, even those who are professionals themselves, simply cannot edit their own work.  (I confess that I can’t edit my own creative endeavors.)  Even when I get a second or third book from one author, I often encounter the exact same mistakes that I did in his first.

“I generally read a book twice: Once for spelling, punctuation or factual errors, and a second time for inconsistencies in plot, redundancies in dialogue or expressions, or questioning the meaning of a particular sentence or the motives of a character.

“I can sense when a writer needs to tighten up or cut to the chase.  The best first sentence of a chapter, often buried beneath throat-clearing, is sometimes three paragraphs in, and the end of the chapter often could be cut short by two or three paragraphs. 

“Common mistakes by writers include:  Too many adverbs are used.  Characters are said to have ‘shouted’ or ‘grinned’ or ‘grimaced’ or some such other word when ‘said’ or ‘asked’ is all that is required. Exclamation points are overused or ellipses are used incorrectly or too many words are in italics or all upper-cased.  Sometimes these devices are used at the same time.  Dialogue is either too literal—needlessly adding ‘er’ or ‘um’—or is unrealistic, telling readers information better offered in general narration. 

“Sometimes the writer advances the plot too quickly, via sheer laziness:  A woman in the process of getting a divorce somehow encounters no resistance at all in a legal settlement with her husband, sometimes twice in the same book!  The same writer may become bogged down by descriptions of attire or interior decorating. 

“A character, paralyzed by the thought of a lover in a dalliance with someone else, time and time again allows herself to be distracted from confrontation by the prospect of terrific sex.  A judge seeking to preside over a speedy trial remonstrates to this effect repeatedly, yet inexplicably calls a recess 15 minutes after court has been called to session. 

“A famous line in a movie is misquoted.  The motive for murder or war is misunderstood or misstated.  A football player jumps up and down on a mattress after having suffered an injury to his Achilles tendon. Modern communication, such as texting, is too literally and liberally described, as are current, soon to be obsolete, expressions of speech.  New characters are introduced and given specific names but are never heard from again.  An “aha!” moment comes to a character in a dream.

“Words are misspelled.  Commas are omitted.  Quotation marks are misplaced.  Too many words are used.  Too many words are upper-cased, getting in the reader’s way.  Writers refer to ‘2 p.m. in the afternoon.’

“Consistency is a big problem for many fledgling writers:  It doesn’t matter whether a character’s interior voice is written as “No, no, no, no, no” or the more stream of conscious ‘No no no no no,’ nor is Cormac McCarthy’s lack of quotation marks in dialogue a problem.  But whatever device is used, it must be consistent throughout. 

“A character’s name or eye color changes. Whether a character sees a college mate every single day alters from chapter to chapter.  A turn of phrase is overused because the writer has forgotten it was employed in the first place, sometimes just on the previous page. 

“Long experience has taught me to never ignore the faint, teensy-tiny inner voice that questions a fact, or timing, or misuse of a word.  In the end, that is what is required, even when a missing comma is overlooked. 

“A writer often expresses reluctance at paying what is—for the time spent on a manuscript—a fairly modest fee.  If he doesn’t want to pay for a good editor, he should find a trusted friend, family member or educator—preferably one with knowledge of the English language—to read and correct the manuscript before he seeks an agent or publisher.

“A writer has but one chance to make a first impression. That opportunity must not be squandered.” 

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If you want to contact Karen, her email address is and I hope you will also post a comment on this blog.

COMING NEXT WEEK: Chris Knopf’s blog on What Authors Can Learn From Market Research. 


  1. Excellent article. I intend to forward it to a number of writers' groups.

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