Tag Archives: publishing

Sadie’s Top 10 Tips For Mechanical Edits

I’ve spent my day editing. This is a painful and time-consuming necessity for any piece of work a writer wishes to present to the literary public. I mean it. It’s necessary. Anytime I see a bio or book description in which the author claims to have written the book in a month and spent another month editing before publication, I cringe. There is almost no chance I will read that book.

I fully believe that there are people out there who can write a book in a month. Look at NANO. I do not believe that there are many people who can adequately proofread and edit 200+ pages in a month. It should take that long to find the typos alone, and it pretty much rules out the use of a professional editor (which I recommend for a book destined for publication). Since it is such a difficult thing to do I thought I might share a few of the tips that I use. I don’t mean grammar tips, like avoid the dreaded passive voice or exile unnecessary adjectives to the foul recesses of the metaphoric rubbish heap, though those are obviously important. I mean the nuts and bolts of how to find those pesky errors lurking in every lengthy work.

Of course what works best for me is going to be different from what works best for you or anyone else. This is just my list in no particular order. I’d love to hear your tips too.

1. Give it time. Don’t expect to finish your first draft and then execute a quick fix before sending it off to print. Reading and rereading and then reading again takes time.

2. Step away. This too takes time, sometimes a lot of it. Put your novel in a drawer. Walk away from it for at least a few days, so that you can look at it with relatively fresh eyes. One of the hardest things to do is keep your brain from reading what it thinks it wrote as opposed to what is actually on the screen.

3. Use someone else’s eyes. Beta readers are your best friends. It doesn’t matter if it’s a colleague with a grease marker or a professional; let someone else read it for you. Trust me, they will find the repeat words you keep looking over. It will save you a lot of time in the long run.

4. Print it. I know it feels horribly wasteful to print 200 pages. I personally print two pages to a page and double side it so that I don’t feel like an environmental criminal. But taking the work from the screen to paper forces you to look at it in a different format, enabling you to see different errors. Use coloured pens to circle mistakes, scratch notes, and draw arrows. By the end of this stage my manuscripts often looks more like abstract art than anything else.

5. Use the spelling and grammar check on your computer, but don’t depend on it. A lot of homophones and homonyms will slip right past it. Try cutting and pasting your work into more than one grammar checker. I often write in LaTex, but will paste it into Word temporarily. The two systems find different mistakes. Don’t ask me why, but they do.

6. Learn your own common mistakes. I know from experience that I frequently start sentences with ‘but.’ This is a no-no. It is simply poor writing. So I will give a piece of work at least one read in which all I look for is this one mistake. Find your personal habits and correct for them.

7. Learn your body’s optimal process. I, for example, am creative in the mornings and detail oriented in the evenings. So I dedicate mornings to new writing and the evenings to editing.

8. Remember your purpose. The point is to fix errors not add content. If you come up with some fabulous new arc to follow, make a note to address it later. Stay on task.

9. Start at the end and read backwards. My high school English teacher told us this. It really works. It forces your mind to address the word before it instead of the word it expects to be there. Some people also suggest actually turning the paper upside-down. But I have never tried this.

10. Let the computer read it to you. My husband first suggested this to me, and it is ingenious. You can often hear mistakes you keep reading over. On my computer I just have to convert it to a PDF, open it in Preview, go to Edit and then Speech. voilà

So there you have it, my top ten tips for manual edits. I do every one of them more than once for every manuscript. It is a really slow process, but it is worth it in the end. So what do you do?

Good writing practice

I had to do something horrible today. I had to take a 2,900-word thesis proposal and squeeze it into a funding application form with a 1,500-word limit. Painful does’t even begin to describe the experience. The problem was exacerbated by the fact that the original proposal was about 3,500 words before I edited, trimmed and sacrificed content to get it down to the “two sides of A4 paper” limit imposed at the first stage of the application process. I already felt like substantive information had been lost, so cutting out another 1,400 words felt very very wrong.

“How can I adequately relay the pertinent information in 1,500 words? How can 1,500 words be better, or even as good as 2,900?” I asked myself this over and over as I snipped, and snipped, and snipped. Literally – I even went through and made sure that any reference with two authors used an & sign instead of the word ‘and’ in order to save the two extra characters. They really do add up.

The answer to the above question is the whole point of this post. While I miss my elucidating examples and florid language, the 1,500-word proposal does all of the same things as the 2,900-word proposal did, and while it pains me to admit it, it probably does it better. An example might make this more apparent. This sentence came from the Aims section, “… the utilising of quantitative survey analysis to assist in assessing children’s wellbeing in a culturally relativistic manner is both innovative and necessary. This is because the rich qualitative data inherent to anthropological research is notoriously difficult to utilise for policy reform and social change.” It became “Using quantitative methods to help assess children’s wellbeing is both innovative and necessary because the rich qualitative data inherent to anthropological research is difficult to use for policy reform and social change.” I could probably have taken the ‘inherently’ out and trimmed it just that much more.

I like the first sentence. I like the way it reads, but the second is sharper. The second is both a better sentence, and a better fit to purpose. How does this relate to you the reader? Well, I put to you that the extreme editing necessary for my thesis funding application is not that different from that necessitated by the traditional publishing industry.

I recently followed a forum discussion in which the original poster complained of being criticised for using long, comma and clause laden sentences. I felt her pain. I am that writer too. I also agreed whole-heartedly with the posters who reminded her that there is a time and place for different writing styles. You wouldn’t write a business brief in hyperbole, and a bullet-pointed novel wouldn’t sell many copies (though I am tempted to try it). The unfortunate fact is modern best sellers often require short punchy sentences to keep the reader interested. Not all of them. Historical fiction often allows authors to retain a slow, languid pace, but by and large quick reads sell books.

When the thread moved on to publishability being dictated by digital formatting requirements  such as short sentences and paragraphs designed to fit small screens my blood boiled. This seems instinctively wrong somehow. But isn’t it the same argument? As much as I dislike it, I have to think that it is. It is another example of making your writing fit for purpose. Does this mean that a lot of good writers will never be picked up by traditional publishers because they are not willing or able to conform to the industry’s stodgy rules of literary and stylising  formating? Yes. Is this too bad? Yes, but it is also a reality.

Thus, to bring this back to my original task of fitting the substance of 2,900 words into 1,500, I have a challenge for you. First, choose your camp. If you write solely for the personal joy of it, or you are satisfied with being self-published, write anything you want and to hell with everyone else. But if you aspire to sell your books to the traditional publishers, just as I hope to sell my PhD proposal to the funding board, be a professional. Look at the industry standards and make your writing fit to purpose.

For those in the second camp the real work begins now. Take out your literary shears and snip away. Take out every unnecessary word, no matter how much you like it. Set a ridiculously low word count and pair the whole thing down to the bare bones. See what you think when you look at it. The process is incredibly painful, but I bet you won’t hate the end result as much as you think you will. I have to wonder if this isn’t the very reason my finding board set two different limits within the same application process, thereby forcing applicants to distill their work. I both love and hate them for this.