Sure, taken individually, the #1 editing mistake is not knowing its from it’s. That’s a super-sloppy mistake, since spellcheck invariably places a gee-I’m-just-a-computer-so-you-should-probably-check-this blue line under the its/it’s, and only the most arrogant of writers make that mistake.
But, here’s the deal: writing is collective, a series of sentences that build paragraphs and (sometimes) build pages. And because writing is “collective,” by its very nature, we arrive at the #1 mistake made by writers, and that is continuity. Or, lack thereof.
Backstory. When I was at that conference I mentioned in a couple of earlier blogs, the highest, most sustained emotion I felt was fear. It wasn’t physical fear, of course, since we were listening to speakers in the hyper-air conditioned splendor of a Disney hotel; no, it was fear of a let-down. The speaker was telling a story about his father, and I felt a bolt of fear: was his father going to be like my father? Oh, no! Thankfully, there was a happy ending, but, as a speaker myself, I can recognize and appreciate that high-water mark in terms of the emotion that you elicit in an audience member. There were lots of laughs, lots of good laughs, during the conference, but those few seconds of fear are what I remember the most.
So I went out and bought this guy’s book (not paying $28, but $3, which, as an author myself…well, what can I say?). Since we all know that I (almost) never post identifying information about where my quiz and other materials come from, I am not going to be able to write much about what subject this guy writes about, except to say that it is in the first line of what I write about. (!!) In fact, when he began to speak, I elbowed my business partner to show her that specific word in the very first line of my online profile for this particular organization.
ANYWAY! I started to do a pretty serious edit of his book, which is hardcover, traditionally published (though I’ve never heard of the press), and laid out in a really attractive way that makes it plain that a lot of thought went into the look and feel of the book.
That’s a shame, because the editing (the first word that came to mind was “sucked,” but we all know that that word is inappropriate for professional use) was terrible.
There were mistakes on the back flap. Mistakes on the back cover. Mistakes throughout the book. Mistakes in the bibliography. Mistakes on practically every page. In summary, here are some of the most common mistakes he made:
Noun-pronoun agreement. Singular nouns were most often accompanied with plural pronouns, but that was not consistent. Sometimes both singular and plural pronouns were used to refer to the same noun in the same paragraph. This happened most often when he was referring to a company, and calling it “they,” but also, for example, when he’d call “a client” or “a customer,” or “someone” a “they.”
Rule: The noun drives the bus. There is no circumstance when a company is referred to with a plural pronoun, like their or they, unless you are referring to you and the company, like “We” are doing this or that. A company is an it. The possessive of it is its. You can, if you want, talk about “employees” or use a plural noun (an example other than “employees” is not coming to me at the moment, but I’m sure that’s not the only option) to refer to people who work at the company, and that’s the work-around when talking about a single company. That’s the only time you can refer to a company, an organization, a foundation, whatever, as plural. Period.
Collective nouns. A collective noun—staff, team, audience—is treated as a singular noun, and so uses a singular pronoun and a singular verb form. The work-around can be to add “members”: staff members, team members, audience members. You can also say “participants” instead of “audience members,” if you are talking about an audience. Otherwise…
Plural acronyms. He used “apostrophe + s” in every circumstance to indicate the plural of an acronym with no periods. Don’t do that. The rule is you can do that (though why would you?) with an acronym with periods, but not without. MDA’s, PSD’s, CPA’s, CNA’s…these are all incorrect, as well as darned confusing. Drop the apostrophe, keep the “s” lowercase. When you’re flat out wrong, consistency doesn’t really matter.
Caps. DO NOT USE CAPS. NO. NO. NO. If you need to emphasize, use italics. Using caps makes you look HYSTERICAL. I use ’em sometime. Yes, yes, I do. But this is a blog, not a book.
Indefinite pronouns. There was too much reliance on indefinite pronouns. Words like “many,” “most,” “it,” “these,” and “those,” used by themselves, really weaken your writing.
Example: “Those committed to worthy causes…”
Example: “Some would say…”
Example: “Many would think…”
So, “many” who? “Those” what? “Some” of what?
Many people. Those staff members. Some of us.
Equivalencies. Equivalencies really lard up your writing! What’s the difference, when you get right down to it, between these words:
aloof and distant
inquiries and questions
competent and capable
real and genuine
focus and intentionality
principles and values
sincere and heartfelt
care and compassion
empathy and understanding
continued hard work and intentional effort
The thing to do is use the best choice (the single best choice), and then use the other word as you go along. Mix it up: use “compassion” a couple of times, use “care” a couple of times, etc., but don’t use them together.
Capitalization. If it ain’t a proper noun or a proper noun phrase, it ain’t capitalized!
Okay, so these are all mistakes. But the main mistake, the mistake of continuity, can only be seen globally.
Harley-Davidson multiple times, but “Harley Davidson” multiple times
U.S and US, referring to the same thing
Martin Luther King, Jr. and Martin Luther King Jr.
21st Century in the text, but Twenty-First Century on the back cover
American Girl Dolls and American Girl dolls
Board room and boardroom
Fortune Magazine, Fortune Magazine, Fortune magazine, “Fortune Magazine”
Famous Dave’s BBQ and Famous Dave’s Barbeque. That was a jaw-dropper, since both are incorrect: it’s
So, for reference purposes, I’d characterize it as “Famous Dave’s Bar-B-Que.” That’s enough.
Booker T. Washington, 1856-1915 and Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)
The New York Times and the New York Times
Consistency, you see, is the biggest bugaboo (a technical term used by all the big-time editors) in writing.
So, I’m going to conclude this post, since the thunderstorm is getting very, very close, with two quotes from his book, which I’m going to send (all marked up and with a very polite letter) off to him today.
From this dynamic, talented speaker, who so needs a good editor:
The fastest way to build a brand is consistency of message and product.
And, this is a good quote as well:
“Success is the sum of the details.” Harry Firestone
And, from me: God is in the details.