An Approach to Proofreading

All right, with this process of polishing our work, we’ve smoothed out any plot holes or cases of vanishing characters and fixed awkwardly worded sentences. We’ve determined whether every chapter, every scene, every paragraph, every sentence, and every word are absolutely necessary to the story. We’ve also considered grammar, punctuation, and looked for redundancy. So what’s next? Is it finally time to send it on to someone else to read?

Nope—not yet.

And yes, I heard you groan, but there’s one more thing you need to do—proofread. You can count on spellcheck for only so far, but you could have spelt the wrong word correctly. Say you wrote ‘strip’ when you meant ‘stripe’ or ‘strap’. Technically ‘strip’ is spelled correctly, so spellcheck can’t bring it to your attention because it doesn’t know it wasn’t the word you intended.

“Shouldn’t I have caught this when I went back to make sure every word was important to the story?” Yes, but there’s a chance you didn’t catch it because you weren’t looking for it, so that is why you must be patient and go back through it. It shouldn’t take nearly as long the revision and editing progresses did because you’re already done most of the heavy lifting.

Proofreading is also another opportunity to go back and look for any redundancy. You should have done this during the editing process, but it’s always a good idea to keep an eye out for it as you’re reviewing your work once more.

One thing you must understand when polishing your work. Most of the mistakes you make will likely take place during the polishing process. For instance, let’s say you have the following sentence: “John went to the store.” But during the editing process, you realized you used John’s name too much in that paragraph, so you decided to just say ‘he’ instead of ‘John’, so you write what you think is, “He went to the store.” However, you didn’t realize it, but you never took out the word ‘John’, so what it really reads is, “John he went to the store.”

Once while polishing up my historical fiction novel, I had the phrase, ‘Saladin’s army’, and I decided to change it to ‘his army’ instead. However, I backspaced only enough to erase the ‘s from ‘Saladin’ and ended up with ‘Saladin his army’, and nobody caught this small error until after the book was published! If you’re wondering why there are reprints of books, this is one of the reasons. How did that happen? Why didn’t I completely erase Saladin’s name while I was working on the sentence? To be honest, I don’t know. I have no idea how it happened, but it makes me want to do a palmface whenever I catch such a mistake in my own writing. So this happens to everyone, and you need to recognize that and look for it in your own work.

Another thing that needs to be examined is the punctuation. When you’re editing, you might change a statement to a question, but both punctuation marks are present, “It rained last night.?” Or you had omitted a word from the end of the sentence and never brought in the punctuation, “It rained last night .” Or punctuation might be completely missing.

It’s amazing how when you’re trying to fix something, you can actually cause more problems. It’s not that your writing is terrible or that you’re a horrible writer. This is reality, so you just need to expect it and take it one step at a time.

Now throughout all this, I kept saying not to show anyone your work, but let me define something for you. It’s one thing to let someone read in order to get confirmation that your story is interesting and even worth the headache of revision, editing, and proofreading, and it’s another thing to let someone read your work in order to be critiqued. If along the way while polishing your work, you just need that extra encouragement, find a friend who loves to read but won’t overwhelm you with criticism, and let him or her read it. Try sending the person a chapter at a time, allowing the person to give you feedback on that specific chapter before moving on to the next one. This way you’re motivated to keep working, and you won’t overwhelm your reader with a 200-600 page novel in their email.

Hopefully these last few posts have solidified the concept of revision, editing, and proofreading. Of course, others may have developed their own system of doing these, and they’re not wrong. If it works for them, that’s good. I have simply discovered most people aren’t sure where to begin the refining process, so I decided to present a few guidelines. Modify it to what works best for you, but understand the importance of delivering a sharp, clean, and polished manuscript to editor, agents, and publishers. They will love you if you make their work easier by doing most of the hard work yourself, and I hope you the very best in that regard!

Next week we’ll discuss the etiquette of beta reading and more on getting feedback from others.

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Steps to Editing

Last week we discussed revision, so today’s blog post is covering editing. Revise first then edit because in revision you may add entire scenes or completely delete some, and if you edit first, you’ll be wasting your time and have to do it over again.

By now you should have already revised a few times, and you’ve reread your manuscript multiple times. You’re likely tired of looking at it and can’t find anything wrong with it, but you know it’s not perfect. Now you think fresh eyes should look at it, so you call for a beta reader or ask someone you trust to be honest and has a good grasp on English to read it for you and give you feed back. However, there’s something you need to do before sending it to anyone.

One of the last things I said about revision was making sure every scene and chapter is absolutely necessary for the story and advances the plot. Now, this is where revision and editing almost seem to be one and the same. Once you’ve determined that every chapter you have in your story is necessary, it’s time to break it down even further. Is every paragraph necessary? Is every sentence essential? Is every word crucial? You should know why each word is included in the story. If you can take it out and the story still makes sense, then it’s insignificant to the overall story and likely redundant.

Determining this prior to allowing anyone to see the story means you have a firm grasp as to why this happened and not that. Once I let someone read a story of mine, and she came to a part when Lorrek revealed how he knew Mordora’s secret. My beta reader said the reader should see Mordora’s surprise in that moment, and it would have been an easy fix, but I explained the pace of the story and how that moment was focused on Lorrek—not Mordora. Lorrek already knew she would be surprised, so he didn’t have to see it, and he was giving her a chance to recover before turning around to face her. The reader catches all this by his attitude but can tell by Mordora’s guarded responses that she was unnerved but tried to pretend otherwise. This is how I wanted the scene to unfold, and my beta reader backed down when I explained to her the fundamentals of that moment. I have found most people will back down when they realize you have thoroughly thought through everything. Does this mean you don’t ever need to consider what they say? No. Always consider what anyone says because it might be a better idea, but if you disagree with the idea, then at least you know where you can stand. Some people might insist you change it to their preference, but be wary of those people.

So before you let anyone read it, you need to know why you wrote everything you did—everything. Why is this editing and not revision? Because revision works more on a larger scale whereas editing is more like looking at your story through a microscope. However, as I said, this is where the two stages collide. Some may call it revision, others might say it’s editing, but it’s the transition process to stricter editing.

Now, one more thing you should do prior to letting new eyes see your story. Go back through it and view the sentence structure with critical eyes. Are you using proper grammar and punctuation? If there are grammar and punctuation rules you don’t fully grasp, now is a good time to master those by either looking it up online or contacting those who know the rules and explain them well enough. This could be a family member, a friend, or online writing friend, or writing group. There is no shame in asking for clarification. We live in the era of the Internet, and that is a wonderful tool. Writers should be supportive of one another and helpful, so if you encounter unpleasant responses and are discouraged and intimidated, I’m sorry for experience. Just know no all writers are like that.

So go back through your story and look at grammar and punctuation and any form of redundancy you might find. You want your writing to be tight. For instance, writing ‘young boy’ is redundant because boys are always young. Or even ‘looked up at the sky’ is repetitive because the sky is always ‘up’—unless you’re upside down in which case it’s good to clarify. Or ‘black darkness’—darkness is always black. To write more concisely, consider purchasing the book ‘Write Tight’ by William Brohaugh, which you can purchase on Amazon here. It’s an easy read and a short book, and at the end of the book it contains a list of redundant phrases that will make you laugh because it’s common sense if you really think about it.

With editing, remember, regard each paragraph, sentence, and word, and make sure they are absolutely necessary to the story. Then dig deeper to consider your use of grammar, punctuation, as well as locating any redundancy in your story. And yes, you may go back and forth between editing and revising because you might have realized during the editing process that you have a massive plot hole you need to fix, so you shift gears and revise. That is all right.

Also, every time you are changing the draft drastically, create a new document, and copy and paste your manuscript, and move everything to that new document. This way you don’t lose anything you might like in the original as you’re redoing things.

NOTE: As you’re going through all of this so very carefully, keep in mind the dialogue is an entirely separate creature. Punctuation might be different there, and word usage might be repetitive or grammatically wrong because that is how the character might speak. Am I justifying people speaking wrong? No—I hate it when I hear it, but unless you have a character who can correct the verbally erring character, if that’s how the character speaks, then you might have to let it go. Simply make sure it’s because the speech pattern of that character rather than an error on your part.

Also, you might absolutely love what you’ve written and think it’s perfect, and therefore you can justify everything you’ve written, but keep an open mind. In another post I will go into more detail of the etiquette of beta reading and receiving feedback and how to apply it to your work, but for now I wanted to make clear that I am not promoting hardheadedness and absolute stubbornness when multiple people tell the same writer there is something wrong with their story. If that many people say the same thing (howbeit vaguely at times), you should seriously consider what they’re saying—not because everyone’s ganging up on you, but because there is something wrong that even they might not be able to put their finger on but can sense. It is your job to knuckle down and be objective as you try to determine the source of the problem.

Next week we’ll discuss an approach to proofreading.