Part 5 of writing skills : Proofreading and editing.

Great going so far. Your story’s been written and now you have to publish it, earn millions and bask in all the reflected glory. Well, not quite. The final piece in this little series will relate to publishing but before we get there we need to check over our work.

You might say, “Why? Surely I send off my manuscript and the publisher will sort out little details before going to press.” The answer is that this will not be the case unless you are exceptionally lucky. Publishers are very likely to throw your work straight into the bin if it is riddled with errors. They may not even bother to tell you that they ever received it. It has to be as good as you can make it before you send it. Even if you are going down the self-publishing route, one bad review could stop your sales dead.

Spell checkers.

First of all, you are probably using a word processor. If you are, it will have a spelling and grammar check. Use it in full. Don’t be tempted to think that it is too time consuming with the grammar check on, so switch that facility off for speed. It is a tedious process but well worth the effort. I would do a chapter or two at a time. Look carefully at each of the suggestions that are made by the checker. Don’t simply accept each recommendation because there may be a perfectly good reason that you wrote the words that way. equally, don’t get in the habit of disregarding the suggestions without careful thought.

Another word on the spelling and grammar checking, it is easy to get sick of the device continually pulling you up on the same point of grammar. You may have the option to ‘always ignore this rule’. Don’t do it! After that, the checker will never again question that point of grammar until you alter the setting back manually. You’ll probably forget to do that. An example that always makes me grit my teeth is the warning ‘Fragment: consider revising’. This comes up time and again in my writing. The problem stems from the fact that my characters are like real people: they seldom speak in a grammatically correct fashion, because few of us do. The dialogue, “See you later” will provoke this advice from Word. I always click ‘ignore once’ and continue my merry way. It’s a pain but this way I am warned when I actually do agree with the checker.

Always have a good dictionary to hand when going through this laborious procedure. Word processors are only as good as the vocabulary built into the software when you buy it. I have a reasonably large vocabulary and it shows by the number of times the spell checker highlights a supposed error, which is a perfectly valid and correctly spelt word. Check in your dictionary when this happens, make sure your spelling and understanding of the word are both appropriate and add it to the word processor’s dictionary, if you’re right. I always do this step because with the best will in the world we do occasionally make mistakes! this way you will teach your stupid little computer as you go along and it won’t make the same mistakes again.

If you’re British, you’ll probably get pulled up on spelling more often than if you are American, even if you have the word processor set to English, UK. Rather irritatingly, the spell checker will still stubbornly try to get you to spell like an American, especially with words like ‘theorise’ and ‘energise’ which it always wants to see spelt with a ‘z’. You’ll just have to put up with that. I’ve found at times that yelling “I’m not a bl**dy Yank!” at the screen is very therapeutic. If you’re American, then you’re lucky in this respect but please let me know if you experience the same problem in reverse. It would be funny to think of you hollering “I’m not a bl**dy Limey!” whilst I’m cursing my own software at the same time.

Save your draft. A handy tool that you can use is Amazon’s Kindle Previewer. This lets you convert your manuscript into a form that can be read by Kindle readers and I-pads, etc. This is handy because if any friends have these devices you can send your draft to them. They’ll be much more likely to read it for you in this form, than by sitting for hours at a PC or running a laptop. It also gets you out of printing hundreds and hundreds of pages to hand out to people.

Proofreading, part one.

So, we’ve now checked our book with the software and removed any glaring mistakes of spelling and grammar. Hopefully, you are still reading and have not thrown yourself from the nearest bridge in despair by this time. That’s just the start, I’m afraid. Proof-reading is essential. You may be better off getting on with a new book for a while before you attempt this stage. The reason for this is simple. you may have been hand-writing your novel non-stop for weeks or months. You’ve then spent weeks typing it and spell checking. you know the story and characters inside out: you know what they are reacting to and why. If you try to proofread too soon, you’ll happily read through your own work and think that it makes perfect sense. If, on the other hand, you write something new for a few weeks, you displace some of the memory of your last work from your mind. Proofread it then and you’ll be amazed at how many times you read a sentence and think ‘what the hell is that supposed to mean?’ Well, that’s exactly what the reader will think too.

You needn’t think of the delay in reading through your work as a waste. Think of it as a necessary evil which will get you a better end result: nor does this time need to be lost. While you’re getting on with your next blockbuster, send copies of the first book to your friends and family. Get them to read it and comment on it. You don’t have to act on everything they say, but if you get the same adverse (or positive) feedback time and again, you really do need to consider it carefully.

Another useful avenue for you to use to hone your work is the use of internet forums. I submit parts of my work to ‘Writer’s Beat’, especially troublesome bits that I just don’t feel sure of. You’ll get good critiques on these forums. Pay attention to them. Again, you don’t have to act on every bit of advice that you get there but believe me, some of the advice will be good. I spent hour after fruitless hour on one prologue in particular. I submitted it to the forum and the answer that I needed came back within a day. Be careful how you use these forums, though. You can’t just submit the whole novel. There’s normally a limit of two or three thousand words. If your novel is any length at all, you’ll spend years getting it all critiqued that way. At this point, just ask for general opinions about the strength of your storyline, how good your characters are. Detailed critique can come later.

So you’ve got answers from friends and family. You’ve maybe got some general responses from websites. Make any adjustments that you see fit, based on all of this lovely constructive criticism. Do yet another spelling and grammar check on anything you’ve just edited. Now move onto the next stage.

Proofreading, part two.

Read through it yourself. If you’ve got a Kindle or the like, read it on that. You’ll get much more of a feel for your potential customer’s experience this way. When you’re relaxed like this, you’ll also pick up on parts that aren’t very clear that much easier. Write a few comments down at the end of each chapter. Alter anything that you need to  in your original manuscript, as you go. Spell and grammar check your edits again!

Read it aloud, too. This is the best way of finding out how it flows and how easy your reader is likely to find it. You’re going to feel silly but it’s worth it. If you find yourself stumbling over a sentence or gasping for breathe trying to get it all out, there’s something wrong. this is best done at the PC or laptop, while reading from your original manuscript.

Reading aloud like this is the best way that I’ve found for assessing things like punctuation. Alter every bit of punctuation as you see it. On occasions, you may want to substitute another word in place of the one that makes you stutter.

Get people to look at your latest draft again. Good friends shouldn’t mind this too much, they’ll be pleased if you took some of their advice first time around. Go back to your web forum pals, too. Ask them for their opinion and maybe detailed critiques at this stage. Hopefully, they won’t find much to complain about. Pay attention to your new reviews. Make amendments. Spell and grammar check.

Is this getting repetitive and boring? Too right it is, but believe me, you have to keep at it until you are satisfied that it won’t get any better. There does come a point where you are just altering things for the sake of it. When you think you’re at that point it’s time to publish!

The final part will be about agents, publishers and self-publishing. See you next time!

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