23 September 2012 by Published in: Uncategorized 28 comments

As part of my continuing blogs on craft, I thought I’d do a short one on editing.

I’ve been very vocal about the need to use a pro editor and proofreader. That hasn’t changed. But the more polished your work when you hand it off, the better the eventual result will be. With that in mind, I offer a couple of tips that have made a large impact on my polish draft.

First, beware of echoes or overused phrases. Everyone has them. Sometimes we use them without realizing it. If you suspect you are overusing a word or phrase, plug it into the MS word find function and see how often it pops up. A few here and there aren’t so bad, but if you use the same word four times in two paragraphs, you’re probably being lazy and should revise the work to eliminate at least two. And eschew tautologies. Be on the lookout for them, and be relentless in eliminating them.

Second, forget all about spellcheck. It will give you a false sense of assurance. It will, for example, find no fault with they’re, there or their even if you are confounding the three, just as it will gladly approve its and it’s and than and then. There is no substitute for basic literacy and spending a few hours poring over your tome.

Third, and this is a big one, read your work on kindle, changing the font to Sans Serif when you do so, before sending it off to the editor.

I repeat. Read your work on kindle first with a new font.

Why? Because just as printing out your book and reading it on paper changes the entire experience and enables you to catch all sorts of uglies, going over it on the device most will read it on changes the experience. You’ll be amazed at the number of flaws you’ll find on your perfect manuscript. I actually save my final polish round now for the kindle read, as I know I’ll find so many errors and poorly-worded sentences that there’s no point in trying to do it on screen.

Fourth, actually READ your book, like a reader would. Do you have a character whose mouth is full or is gagged, suddenly talking? Someone whose hands are bound brushing a lock of hair away? Twelve attackers two pages ago, and seven this page? This seems rudimentary, but are your characters’ names the same throughout the book? Are your dialogue tags clunky and stiff? Are you overusing adverbs (I will do an entire blog on this. People. Adverbs are your friend. Anyone who thinks that you shouldn’t use them is an ass hat – just don’t overuse them, he said blithely)? In other words, read your own work, really read it, like you would a book you’ve just picked up and were unfamiliar with. Does it flow? Are there sections where you’re groaning? Be critical of your work, because I guarantee you will get some reviewers looking to tear you a new one at the slightest opportunity. Better you catch the flaws than they do.

I will usually do three drafts and then my final polish. Then I send the book off to my editor, who sends back changes I approve. Then it goes to a copy editor for a line edit for grammar and punctuation and spell checking. Then to a proofreader who catches all the nits everyone else missed. And even after all that, it’s not unheard of to find something wrong once the book is released. Just like Trad Pub. But I can tell you that if all those steps weren’t taken, there would be way more. My rule of thumb is to avoid writing by committee, but get as many eyes to spot errors as you can. And always listen to all feedback, leaving your ego at the door.

Now for the bad news. I can assure you that no matter how good you are, you probably won’t be able to edit your own work sufficiently. I am coming up on two million words written – actually that’s just published. Probably more like three and a half million written. And I can’t edit myself well enough to be satisfied. I don’t know anyone honest who can (okay, maybe I just don’t know anyone honest). I hear all sorts of excuses from people who put out sloppy, unedited work as to why they do so. My favorite is, “I can’t afford an editor.” I tend to say, hey, you invested hundreds or thousands of hours in writing your screed. Even if you only value your time at minimum wage, it’s a chunk of money. If you can’t afford an editor and can’t figure out a way to trade favors or do something creative, guess what? You can’t afford to be published. Because you’ll put out substandard work, readers will shun it, and word will spread. End of career. Put another way, how much would you pay not to have your dream career killed before it even starts? If the answer is nothing, then that’s the value you are putting on what your career is worth and that’s the value readers will likely assign to your work. Nothing.

Consider it an investment. Like violin lessons. You don’t expect to recoup the cost of the lessons immediately, if at all. Now imagine that you wanted to be a concert violinist, with your work recorded and bought by enthusiasts, but then complained that you didn’t have the money for lessons. What would your efforts probably sound like? What would be the likelihood you achieved your goal? And how reasonable would it be for you to even have that goal since you couldn’t pay for the lessons you needed to master your craft? Please. If you are trying to edit your own work, you are shooting yourself in the head. There are a million books on Amazon now. You’re asking for readers to discover and purchase yours. Why should they, if you can’t be bothered to figure out a way to ensure it’s up to par? Answer: they won’t. Or a few might, but they won’t return.

Having said that, I know a few excellent writers whose wives or their beta readers/writing group act as their editors and do a good job, so if you’re motivated you can find someone. Obviously someone with a relevant degree and experience is preferable to a well-dressed friend, but even that is preferable to nothing. To me, there is no excuse for putting out unedited work you are asking readers to pay for. Why should they, if it wasn’t worth your time and money to guarantee it’s as good as it can be? I can’t tell you how many books I’ve given up on by page 20 due to the obvious lack of editing. I’m quite sure I’m not alone in that. But when I see typos, grammatical mistakes and omitted words in just the first pages of the preview, I’m out. And that’s a surprising number of books. A shocking number, actually.

If your career is important to you and you value it, act like it. Polish your work till your eyes and fingers bleed, then get someone qualified to edit it, or you’ll be doomed to failure before you’ve gotten out of the gate. Sorry. That’s just the way it is. And I know you think you’re different. Everyone does, just like all the other different people.

Talent and drive only take you so far. If you want to sell a high quality product, you need to invest in making it one. Perhaps you don’t care whether you are selling something high quality or not. That’s fine, but I think it’s a loser as a business plan in all but the shortest term. As more books hit the market, there will be an ocean of unproofed, poorly written work vying for the reader pool. The only way I can think of to differentiate yourself is to craft the best product  you can.

So far so good.

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Comments

  1. Sun 23rd Sep 2012 at 1:54 pm

    Love your advice about reading the “final” version of a MS on a Kindle. I do the same for a last read through. It is amazing what stands out.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Sun 23rd Sep 2012 at 2:10 pm

      Yes, and if you read it with Sans Serif even more jumps out. I think it’s all about tricking the eye so that the familiar isn’t. Once we’ve read an MS on screen in Times New Roman a dozen times, our brain fills in the blanks and skips over things. So we need to trick it, jolt it, force it to actually read what’s on the page, not what we expect to be there based on all the other run-throughs.

      Reply
  2. Sun 23rd Sep 2012 at 2:59 pm

    I was talking to someone on this exact topic yesterday. She recommended I join indie groups and chat rooms to find an editor.
    Can anyone expand on this? I don’t need one quite yet, but I will. How does one find a good editor?

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Sun 23rd Sep 2012 at 4:03 pm

      Boy, that’s a tough one. I think word of mouth is best. There are so many sketchy ones out there who are marginal or worse.

      Reply
    • Tanya William  –  Sat 13th Oct 2012 at 7:28 am

      try Writers’villageuniversity.com

      Reply
  3. Mark
    Sun 23rd Sep 2012 at 5:11 pm

    Russell,
    Great stuff! But…I was wondering where you stood on the subject of “rewriting only to editorial demand” (i.e. Heinlein’s Rules)? Dean Wesley seems to religiously adhere to this rule. Last night as I was editing a sci-fi novelette, I found myself breaking the rule left and right. Nothing drastic, just a few tweaks on word choices here and there, while trying to keep the flow of the dialogue the same.
    Or do you think maybe there is room for some flexibility with that rule?

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Sun 23rd Sep 2012 at 5:52 pm

      I think that the “rule” is fine for someone with their 10,000 hours of writing in. I think it’s foolishness for everyone else.

      Even I, with at least 10,000 hours of writing under my belt (probably more like closing in on 20,000 hrs by now), will be the first to say that novels are made or broken on rewrite. I write fast to get the story out, and I’ve learned not to sweat the little shit – I’ll catch it on second draft, polish it on third, and polish it further on the final polish round.

      I did an author spotlight at the top of this year with John Lescroart, who has sold more than fifty millions novels in his 20 year career (I just made that up, but it sounds about right – one of his did something like five million alone) as a NY Times #1 Bestselling novelist. I would advise anyone who believes that Mr. Heinlein’s guidance is the only way, or even the best way, to turn out quality work, to consider carefully Lescroart’s guidance and consider the quality as well as the acclaim he has accumulated over his career. For the record, most rules touted by authors are BS. The “adverbs are bad” rule being a typical example. So many sheep-like authors who read Stephen King’s writing tome took that guidance (which I have to believe meant ‘don’t overuse adverbs’ unless he was reeeeeally drunk when he wrote it) and have colored their writing, as well as their appreciation of others’ work, using that flawed bit of counsel. Another is “show, don’t tell.” Bullshit. Do whatever works best to craft the story the way you want it to come out. David Foster Wallace, the most brilliant author of my generation and a grammar nazi of the highest order, understood that was bullshit. Perhaps it should have been rephrased, “until you know how to write well, better to show than tell.”

      Rewrite is where good novels are made great, and great novels are made exceptional.

      Reply
      • Dora  –  Sun 23rd Sep 2012 at 11:13 pm

        Yes!

        Well said.

        Reply
  4. Sun 23rd Sep 2012 at 7:28 pm

    My favorites are the people who don’t have their book descriptions edited. If the book description is missing words and incomprehensible, then what are the odds the book will be worth your time. I suck oily bilgewater at writing decent blurbs, but at least they’re grammatically correct.

    Reply
  5. Sun 23rd Sep 2012 at 10:05 pm

    Another great post. I constantly tell people if you can’t afford an editor then find a couple of writer friends and read each others work. But as soon as you start making any money on the 1st book put it into a fund to pay for an editor for the 2nd book. I’m amazed at the number of people that tell me “but they will edit out my voice” … umm no a good editor will help you find your voice and teach you to write better. I’m a newbie to fiction writing. Had a career as a technical writer. I knew I was going to have to learn some new stuff but had no idea how much I was going to have to learn. Just my short story alone with my editor and co-author is amazing what the edits are doing. But after this my initial drafts should get better – still be crap but not as bad. LOL

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Mon 24th Sep 2012 at 12:14 am

      That’s good advice.

      I understand having few dollars to do a lot with. Like I said, be creative. I’ve had some of my writer friends make suggestions on my blurbs, and even on the opening sentence of my latest book. Guess what? I take it all, use 90%, and lose the 10% I disagree with.

      A good editor trains you to be a virtuoso if you are already a good singer. A bad one will simply make work, or worse yet, stroke you and assure you that all is well. I can’t tell you how many books that have been edited by “a marvelous editor” seem like they stopped reading at around the 30% mark and just wanted to collect their check.

      More eyes on it looking for errors is preferable to only yours.

      Reply
      • Tasha Turner  –  Mon 24th Sep 2012 at 12:49 am

        I tell my clients and friends fire any editor that tells you your stuff is great and go find one that tells you it sucks and why. Yeah I’m a bit harsh and like my editors to be as harsh. I currently have a paid editor, a co-author, and a crit group. At the moment my ego is taking a beating but what I know is my writing will be better and those 1 star reviews I’m bound to get because everyone does? Well I’m afraid I’m going to critique them for creativity as I’ve heard just about everything already.

        Reply
  6. Sun 23rd Sep 2012 at 11:10 pm

    Wonderful post. Thanks so much for sharing these tips.

    Reply
  7. Sun 23rd Sep 2012 at 11:27 pm

    Russell,

    Excellent advice as always. I also thought I’d mention that a while back, I heard about a software editing program that tracks overuse of adverbs, phrase echos, etc. And the price was right (free).

    I downloaded it and tried it out. Not perfect, but damn good. I haven’t used it exhaustively, but from my limited testing, I’d say it works pretty much as advertised.

    It can be downloaded from the following site –> http://www.smart-edit.com/

    P.S. When I DLed it and then double-clicked it to install, it took several minutes before the initial screen showed up. In fact, at first I thought nothing was happening. However, I finally just waited it out and the opening screen finally appeared.

    It certainly won’t replace a professional editor, but it helps immeasurably in tightening up things before you send your ms off to the editor.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Mon 24th Sep 2012 at 12:18 am

      I’ll give it a whirl. Can’t hurt, and God knows I need all the help I can get!

      Reply
    • Mark  –  Mon 24th Sep 2012 at 1:26 pm

      Thanks for the link R.E.!

      Always looking to curb my use of the “F” words, like furiously, flurry and facetiously :)

      Reply
    • R.E. McDermott  –  Mon 24th Sep 2012 at 2:18 pm

      Just noticed I used ‘finally’ twice in the same sentence. I guess I should have run the comment through Smart Edit. :)

      Reply
  8. Sun 23rd Sep 2012 at 11:50 pm

    I disagree with one thing: your broad-stroke pronouncement to “forget all about spellcheck.”

    No, don’t forget about it. Do it. And do a grammar check, too. Because when you do (when I do, anyway) you’re forced to look at your words again with a different mindset, and it’s amazing how many things you spot that need fixing: word order, double words (the the), passive/active voice (I don’t mind when Word asks me if I really do want to say it like that; sometimes I do and sometimes I decide to change).

    It’s true, as you said, that “there is no substitute for basic literacy.” But I like getting help fixing my slip-fingered typing mistakes. And when the real editing begins, the part where you have to immerse yourself into your book again, it’s really annoying to have your concentration suddenly interrupted because you stumble upon a misspelled word or a mis-structured sentence that you missed earlier.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Mon 24th Sep 2012 at 12:19 am

      Well, I suppose I should have phrased that more carefully. I meant, don’t let spellcheck lull you into a sense of false security.

      I’ve been guilty of the the. As I have of so much.

      Sigh.

      Reply
  9. Robert Jones
    Mon 24th Sep 2012 at 5:45 pm

    I got a chuckle out of the Stephen King Comment. I think many rules concerning writing come from many personal tastes…much as they do in any of the other arts. The one thing King said that sticks in my head in terms of his adverb rule is that fear is the key to much of the bad writing in the world, and he overuses adverbs because he’s afraid readers just won’t understand what he’s getting at without them. Still, it’s best to look at those rules that have a common denominator in terms of the books on writing you might be reading.

    I believe there’s a large degree of truth in what a past teacher of mine once said about talent, that there really isn’t any accept that which you are committed to working hard at learning, perfecting. Everyone with an idea they think is great figures they can turn it into a novel…until they put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard. And depending on how much they’ve read and payed attention, many will acquire some type of understanding, but are unwilling to give it time…much less pay for those lessons you mentioned.

    For the bare beginner, or first time novelist, I would add that there has to be as much of an investment in the beginning, before writing that manuscript, as at the end in terms of editing. This coming from some ebooks and sample chapters I recently read. Not that the basics of some the novels weren’t potentially good, but the writer just needed some advice on how to put it all together in a structurally sound way. It would make a world of difference for some.

    I realize this might be going to the opposite end of the spectrum for this topic–or may be the subject of another thread entirely–but touching on Russell’s point of getting your manuscript in the best shape possible, I would say an investment has to come in at the beginning of the entire novel venture as well.

    Rules may be made for breaking, but if you at least have a basic understanding of those rules, you will know how to break them more effectively. Think of a car engine disassembled before a non-mechanic. If you’re smart, you might be able to figure out how most of the pieces fit together on your own, but the car still won’t run right because you didn’t know which parts to lube, seal correctly, and I guarantee there’ll be a few pieces left on the shop floor you figured no one would notice–until they tried to turn on the ignition.

    I’m not sure if you can find good ebook editors that will help with all those working parts and give how-to instructions, but if you do, it’s bound to take up more of their time and be more costly if they do it right. The rules of trad. publishing is that your manuscript needs to be in pretty perfect shape before letting anyone see it. So becoming the best self-editor you can be before sending it out to someone (anyone) is a must, or as Russell said, you’ll shoot your chances for something great all to pieces.

    Reply
  10. Robert Jones
    Wed 26th Sep 2012 at 7:47 am

    Hi Russell,

    I have a question or two on a subject that I would personally like to hear your POV on, and that’s taking time off between drafts to gain perspective.

    How much time do you take off before editing/diving into the next draft?

    The above mentioned, “Reading over a manuscript in a different format than you’ve written it in,” is a great way to gain distance quickly…but is it enough distance?

    I sometimes have a lot of revision ideas by the time I get through a draft. And taking time off between drafts has been beneficial in seeing the larger scope of what might be wrong with a story, but also has caused me to loose the momentum I had in terms of clearly seeing how some of those initial revision ideas would work…even when I wrote them down for future reference. The feeling was just different.

    Also, I find I need to stick with writing something (even it’s a short story) in between drafts where I took time off or my routine became messy sometimes and it was even a struggle getting started again after 4-6 week minimum many writer recommend.

    I suppose all this falls into the category of finding the way that works best for us. But I’ve been thinking about this since I’m coming to the end of a draft myself. And for some people out there struggling to write and keep their day job (as I’ve had to do at times) that stopping period can be murder getting back up and running with your writing again. Life swoops in and gives you a million things to do, and a whole lot of reasons not to work your brain that extra hour per day, or get up an hour or two early (which is what I’ve done in the past) just to make time to write every day.

    Not that some really have much choice, if we are serious about writing. But I’m thinking once that rhythm is in place, disturbing it is not always the best advice to latch onto.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Wed 26th Sep 2012 at 8:01 pm

      I used to take a month off between drafts, but now I find it hardly matters. Once you have written enough words, none in particular are all that beholden, so I can honestly say that by the end of the first draft I have forgotten most of the prose enough to go back and kill anything that I think sucks, with no remorse.

      Also, I think working with an editor teaches you to be more critical, so you can be dispassionate. Just me, perhaps.

      Reply
      • Robert Jones  –  Wed 26th Sep 2012 at 11:06 pm

        Thanks, Russell. Any common factors I find among other writers is very reassuring. I usually take about four months on a given draft…give or take. So by the time I’m finished, that’s quite a while between seeing those early words and scenes. And I’ll cut anything that’s not supporting the story as a whole. After years in the arts community, I have no endearing love for anything that’s not working right or just doesn’t fit.

        Reply
  11. Wed 26th Sep 2012 at 7:35 pm

    Excellent suggestions. As a reader, I know I get easily get knocked out of a promising book by poor editing.

    Reply
  12. Laura Antonia Freeman.A. Jones
    Wed 03rd Oct 2012 at 10:27 pm

    Great advice Russell. Ur right that if we are serious about our career we have to polish it until our fingers bleed. Anybody who loves their craft wants to perfect as best as they can.

    Reply
  13. Tanya William
    Sat 13th Oct 2012 at 7:40 am

    Great discussion going on there. Intimidating for a wannabe writer, but what the heck? Nobody said writing is easy.. As long as it answers a long time need, it has to be done. Authoring will be the final result..

    Reply

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