Easily Overlooked

You’ve written your first draft and you’ve read it over, perhaps focusing on some particular aspects of writing (like using your pet words too much, or checking for “ly” words), and after rereading your manuscript until you think you could recite it from memory, you feel ready to publish.

Not so fast! First, let’s check for some common mistakes. In a novel I recently read, I was reminded of two kinds of errors that are easily overlooked.

One involves words left out, and the other, words left in.

Here are some examples.

Sometimes, as you re-read, you realize that you’ve used a character’s name too many times within a few sentences, or you might have used too many pronouns when you should have used a name once in a while. So you make some changes. Let’s say you’ve used the name too often, so you put in “her” instead of “Miss X,” but you don’t take out “Miss X” until you’ve had a chance to reread the whole section, checking for a good balance of names and pronouns.

You get into your self-editing and several pages later, you remember that you should read it all over. This is when the brain and the eyes start fighting. You’re already getting tired and as you read, your brain tells you, “I know what this is supposed to say. I wrote the thing. I know what it says.”

Your eyes tell your brain, “Yes, that’s what it says. I know because I’ve read it so many times already. It’s fine.”

But is it?

“Miss X” is mentioned several times in the chapter, but now, one of the sentences has “Miss X” AND “her” as well.

The road was rough and the driver reached over to check her Miss X’s seatbelt.

See how easily that slipped in there?

Very often, mistakes like this are added to the text with the purpose of fixing a problem, but it ends up causing a different one.

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Correcting sentences where words have been left out is even harder to do. Again, our brains tell us what we know the text to be, and the eyes go along with it in agreement. But as we read work over too quickly, we think that all the necessary words are in there. That is how many small words are left out (words like: to, at, in, an, it). A good way to catch these omissions is to read your work out loud.

A similar error occurs when we type “and” for “an” or “it” for “if” or “in,”

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A word of advice:

Don’t work at your self-editing for too long in one session. Take breaks. I have often noticed that when I find mistakes in the writing, they occur close together within a page or two. This tells me that the writer was probably getting tired at that point.

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Oh, Bother

No, I don’t mean “Oh, brother,” but it basically means the same thing.

Here are some words that are a real bother to some people as they try to use them in their writing. (They are also a bother to people who read that writing if the words are not used correctly.)

Recently I read a book of well-written short stories. In the whole book I only came across two mistakes, but one of them really jarred me.

The character in the story went fishing and was waiting for that allusive bite.

I groaned and shrieked out loud. It grated so much and ruined that short story. That is the only thing I remember about the story. Allusive! I suppose it could have been an allusive bite if the fish was referring to something as he took the bait. Maybe he was saying to his school of fish, “Now, class, here is the perfect example of the kind of bait to avoid – the kind I was alluding to in our last lecture.” Of course, the writer meant to say “elusive.”

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Here are two more words that are similar and cause a lot of trouble for both writers and readers. I’ll confess right now that this one used to give me headaches before I got their meanings straight.

restive/restless

I used to think those were opposites. They are, in fact, very similar in meaning.

Restive means “difficult to control or keep still.”

Example:

The Kindergarten class was restive as the children awaited the arrival of the visitors.

Restless means “unable to rest, fidgety.”

I tossed and turned all night. I had so much on my mind that it made me restless.

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Here is one more. These two words can actually have four meanings.

plane/plain

The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain. The plains are the flat prairie lands. It’s interesting though, that the plains are flat, and yet to plane something, such as a piece of wood, also makes it flat. Uh-oh! Now I’ve confused you.

Add to that, something plain, or ordinary for transportation and you have a plane that will fly you to your destination.

If you had a workshop in the prairies, on the plain, you could use your planer to plane some wood and build yourself an ordinary, or plain flying machine, a plane.

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So do you remember who is known for saying, “Oh, bother”?

I’ll give you a happy face if you guess it.

Scare Quotes, So-called, and Italics

Sometimes we use terms in unusual ways and we want to alert the reader to that fact. Perhaps we want to draw attention to the irony of using a certain word, or the fact that the term is not normally applied this way. By putting quotation marks around the term, it draws the reader’s attention to the unusual usage.

Examples:

The “caregiver” neglected his patient whenever possible.

The bulldog wore a collar that had a watch as a buckle. Now he was a “watchdog.”

 

The standard way of using the quotation marks for these so-called scare quotes is with double (rather than single) quotation marks. The British system uses singles, but in my posts here, I will always be using the Chicago Manual of Style guidelines, so doubles it is. (The British would reverse the rules for single and double quotation marks).

The exception to using double quotation marks for scare quotes is when that term is already inside doubles as in dialogue. In that case you would put singles inside the doubles.

Example:

When I saw the bulldog walking, I said to his owner, “Oh look at that cute collar. Your pet is a real ‘watchdog’ now.”

If I wanted to refer to the bulldog I mentioned above, I could say that I meant the so-called watchdog. In this case, where the term “so-called” precedes the word I wanted to emphasize, I would not put quotation marks around either word.

It would be:

the so-called watchdog

the so-called caregiver

*Most North American writers use the American style guide and so scare quotes would never be used with single quotation marks (unless they were already inside doubles, as shown above).  Check your manuscripts and see if you’ve used singles instead of doubles.

You may be wondering if you could just put the scare quotes in italics instead. Italics would be used in the case of a foreign word or phrase used in English writing, unless it is a proper noun (such as the name of a city or person).

Italics would also be used to highlight key terms the first time they are used in a piece of writing.

Example:

We will be studying biodiversity in these workshops.

Have fun sorting these out. You’ll get used to it after a while.