Editing Terms Every Author Should Know Before They Revise

When I started editing, one of the first things I did was create what I call a How to Read Your Edits sheet and made it a deliverable that I sent to all my romance and fantasy authors after their edits. This sheet tells you all the technical details (and a few encouraging notes) about how to get the most from your edits, but it doesn’t include terms I found authors get tripped up on from time to time. 

So if you’re one of MANY authors driven by the story you’re writing and a little less by the technical side of writing, I’ve compiled a list of basic phrases to be familiar with as you look toward editing your book.

Independent and dependent clause

The easiest way to say this is an independent clause is a complete sentence, which means it has a subject and a verb that acts upon that subject. This clause can stand independently as a sentence.

Example: He was there.

He is the subject, was is the verb, and there is the adverb describing where he was.

Dependent clauses are simply clauses that are not a full sentence. It can be an introductory clause or it can follow the independent clause to describe more about the subject or the verb. But the bottom line is that the clause doesn’t have both a subject and a verb. 

Example: He was there, which is frowned upon.

The added clause lacks a subject, meaning it would need to be attached to an independent clause because in order to fully understand the meaning of what is being said it needs to be attached to an independent clause. This leads us to our next phrase authors should be familiar with.

Why authors should  care:

This is essentially the basic information you and your editor need to know in order to punctuate your book so that readers can understand it. Understanding these two phrases is going to help you as a fiction writer know when you should or shouldn’t break the rules.

Fragmented sentences

A fragmented sentence is basically a dependent clause as a sentence. If we go with the above example of a dependent clause as a fragmented sentence the sentence becomes: which is frowned upon. On its own the sentence doesn’t make much sense because what was frowned upon? If you have multiple sentences before this and then use this by itself you’re opening the door for reader interpretation which can lead to further confusion later on.

Why authors should care:

Fragmented sentences can be used to your advantage as a fiction author and are frequently used in dialogue to help make it feel and sound more realistic. But as with a lot of tools it can also be used negatively and can confuse readers when used incorrectly.

Comma Splice

A comma splice is two independent clauses (full sentences) that are strung together with a comma instead of a period or coordinating conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so). This essentially links two sentences together in an illogical way, which can cause readers to misinterpret the writing or cause a stutter in reading. It also doesn’t allow the reader to separate the narrator or characters ideas and leaves no room for them to take mini breaks. 

Why authors should care:

As with fragmented sentences, comma splices can be great when you know how to wield them effectively. On the flip side, when you don’t know how to wield them correctly, your writing can look chaotic and unrefined. Which means, when your editor is taking the time to point these out to you, it’s your job to notice the pattern they’re trying to warn you of.

Note: Sometimes that is the intention of the author. Once you know what a comma splice is and how it changes how readers interpret your book, you can use it to your advantage. The most common use of a comma splice in fiction is to convey racing thoughts or to increase pacing to a near break neck speed. Knowing that the reader doesn’t get a break, means you can use these in moments of chaos, terror, or overwhelm to manipulate the reader into feeling the same emotions as your characters.

Dialogue Tag

The phrases at the end or beginning of a piece of dialogue that tell readers who is talking are dialogue tags. The most common ones are said and asked. For example: “I hate apple pie,” she said. Dialogue tags are set off by commas as they’re part of the sentence and when it follows the dialogue, it’s generally lowercased.

Why authors should care:

This is how readers learn who is speaking in a scene. Many editors are going to leave comments about how to use the dialogue tag or how to punctuate them. It’s important that you’re speaking the same language as your editor, so you can make changes accordingly. 

Action Beat

Bits of action that characters have with their environments during dialogue are action beats. They show what is happening with characters as conversations are had, typically in between or following pieces of dialogue.

For example:  “No, thanks.” She pushed her plate forward. “I hate apple pie.” Action beats are sentences in their own right and not part of the dialogue. Therefore, they follow the same punctuation rules as regular sentences.

Why authors should care:

Action beats are a great alternative to dialogue tags. It prevents you from writing too many he/she/they said sentences. Moreover, it lets you immerse your reader in the story by showing them how the characters respond or react to the world around them and other characters. Are they touchy? Do they feel anxious? Are they a stress cleaner? Trying to look nonchalant? You can tell a lot about a character by how they interact with their surroundings. You also can share about their setting without info dumping the state of the room.

Implied Speaker

Implied speaker is when you don’t use a dialogue tag or an action beat to show readers who is talking, rather it’s implied. Your editor will occasionally ask you to trust the reader and allow them to follow a conversation back and forth. The important thing to know about that implied speaker can only exist when there are only two characters in a scene. It’s best used when two characters are bantering, arguing, or having an epiphany about a discovery. Think quick speech.

Why authors should care:

Authors should care because any chance to give readers an emotional experience or a realistic one should be utilized. It’s also a nice break from writing said repeatedly. Authors should also know that this can’t be utilized in scenes with more than two characters because you then lose clarity. If you’re leaving off tags and letting readers interpret the speaker, you’re leaving room for them to get it wrong. It’s best to clarify who is talking when there are three or more characters.

Telling and Showing

Finally, the last phrases writers should know is actually two phrases, telling and showing. These refer to the way you’re using language to relay information to the reader. 

When you flat-out tell the reader what a character is doing or feeling that is telling. An example of this is: She was nervous. There isn’t much room for mistaking how the MC is feeling. Clearly, she’s feeling nervous. But the downside is this isn’t very immersive. The reader doesn’t feel her anxiety. It’s essentially a little boring.

When you relay information through bodily reactions, vocal clues, conversational clues, or setting that is showing. Essentially you build a scene or moment around the information you’re trying to relay. An example of showing would is: Beads of sweat formed on the back of her neck as her breathing quickened. It’s the same message as above, but you let the reader see how she’s feeling. It’s meant to let the reader follow along with how the main character feels.

Why authors should care:

This is important for authors to know and practice because it can be hard to see all the time. Your editor is likely to point out entire sections of telling over showing. In other words, you’ll need to rewrite some pieces for reader experience. That being said, telling does have a place too. All books should have more showing than telling, but sometimes, showing isn’t possible or necessary. Want to tell the reader mid-dinner scene that your character hates apple pie, do it. Maybe she thinks it when someone else professes their love for it. But try to keep the tells small and only the most pertinent information for that moment.

Interested in more?

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