Monday, June 6, 2011

Writer- edit thyself-mostly!

When you read a book and find a typo, misspelled word, or a sentence that simply doesn’t read well, what do you think of that writer? Lazy? Uneducated? Unedited? Probably any or all of the above. Do you want to continue reading that book? Or will you toss it aside in favor of a better one? Chances are if you tossed it, you won’t read anything from that author again. Now, what if it was your book that someone tossed? Or wrote a bad review citing all the errors? I’m sure that wouldn’t make you happy. As authors, (and especially Indie authors) we should strive to put out the finest quality work we can. No excuses!
Okay, now that you have your masterpiece together, now what? Well, you can’t send it out to the adoring public without a few (usually many) editing passes. Sending out an unedited book will do two things: kill you as an author, and kill your book. The public wants to read books written by intelligent, educated people. I’m not saying you need to write your book with a college level vocabulary; no, simply put out a GOOD product, as free from errors as possible.
How do you go about doing this? I’m going to use MS Word as my platform for instruction. Recently I upgraded to Office 2010, and it has a few interesting differences, but nothing that I’ve found in the spelling and editing departments. So pretty much any MS Word version you have will do the trick. If you use any other word processing software, I’m sure they have similar capabilities to Word.
Editing is the most boring, frustrating part of being a writer. But if you use the tools available to you, it’s not as painful as you think. Just making sure everything is spelled right can drive you batty, especially if you’re typing in either a dialect, or a foreign language (Word doesn’t take kindly to them). Those particular items will wreak havoc with spell-check and drive you insane. You can, however, teach spell-check to recognize names, languages, and dialects. The most important part is YOU need to make sure they are spelled right! Don’t tell spell-check the word is right, and it’s not, and the rest of your document will be wrong—what a mess!
A quick word about dialogue: have your characters speak how you speak, not how you write. Humans don’t speak with perfect diction and grammar, or in complete sentences, why should your characters? I can see having a well-educated character speaking with good grammar, but a street hood? Or someone from the south with an accent? We tend to speak in fragments; don’t be afraid to let your characters be who they are. Southerners tend to drop “g’s” from their words, so going is goin’, playing is playin’, and you get the idea. Don’t overdo an accent or you’ll tick off your reader. You can introduce the character, say they have a strong accent, and then use a few words here and there to punctuate it. The same goes with the use of foreign languages. It’s okay to use them to add flavor and color to the scene, but do translate somehow for your reader. Not all of us speak Elvin, Spanish, Norwegian, or any language you may create. Readers may read, but they’re not mind readers.
Using spell-check is your single best friend in the war against typos. Word will put a wiggly red line under any word it feels is not spelled correctly. I tend to type and read a little, so most of what I catch is rather quick. Some will type for a while and then go back and catch errors. It’s really your own personal preference. Just don’t forget to do it! Don’t forget if you have a word you want to use and aren’t sure of the actual proper usage, you can highlight the word, right click and “look up” the questionable word. Use your available resources.
Auto-correct—you will either love it or hate it. I’m 50/50 in that department. Word is smart enough to follow along as you type, and if you misspell a word, and it thinks it knows the word, it can change it for you. Now, if you absolutely hate auto-correct, you can turn it off. To do this: Go to the circle button in the top left corner of the screen and go to “Word Options.” Click on “proofing” which will open up a window to the right with all your correction options. Take a look around this window, there’s tons of stuff that will help you out later. In the auto-correct function, you can add words and if spell-check comes across them and you’ve misspelled them, it will fix it for you. And there’s also the lazy way of typing—using macros. If you have a name or word you type a lot and you get tired of typing it a lot (or even a difficult spelling of a name) you can tell spell-check to finish it for you. For instance, I have a demon in one of my books, its name is Khyrpizhus, a long, hard to type name. You can tell spell-check to recognize the first few letters and then to complete the word for you. So if I was to type Khy, spell-check would automatically finish the word for you. But this can be a double edged sword, so be careful.
Spelling and grammar pretty much go hand in hand. Unless you are writing in a dialect, grammar is pretty important. The next section under the proofing tab is “When correcting spelling and grammar in Word.” I strongly recommend checking all the boxes. In the drop down box, you can select grammar only or grammar and style. If you pick the grammar and style, it will nit-pick all your sentences and warns you of passive voice and other things. It’s not a bad thing, according to statistics; a novel should have less than 4% passive voice.
How do you find the passive voice? Well, if you have that option turned on, it will leave a green squiggly line under the passive section. If not, it’s up to you to decide what is passive. But here’s a clue- if you use “was” “had” “were” or any version of those words, you’re treading into a passive voice. I’m notorious for “was” and I will freely admit that I now scan my documents for it before going on. It’s easy, just use the “Find” option on the top tool bar. You can do that for any word that you think you’ve used too much—and we all have them!
Your next best friend will be the Readability Statistics in the proofing tab. This will give you the percentage of passive voice and also let you know what grade level you are writing at. Sorry, I’m a “keep it simple person.” Most of my works are 3rd-4th grade reading level.  I hate having to look words up to figure them out, it slows down the story. Keep it simple and keep your readers happy. Shoot for less than 4% passive voice. The higher the Reading Ease percent is, the easier it is to read. And the scale below it will tell you what grade level you are writing at. This whole section is a wealth of information, giving you word count for the section, average sentence length, and words per sentence. The shorter the sentences, the faster the book will read.
Now that you have everything working for you, it’s time to read through your document and check it over. I’ve heard some folks read it backwards to catch errors—not my slice of pie. You’ll find what works for you. Most important, keep it consistent. Try and devote a certain amount of time to editing. Don’t allow yourself to get tired, or you’ll start missing things. Reading aloud is another good tactic. If it doesn’t sound right, it probably isn’t. There are programs like Autocrit, but if you don’t want the expense, you can use the “find” function in Word. You just have to know the words you’re looking for.
Another thing to look for is run-on sentences and run-on paragraphs. Can they be successfully broken up without disjoining the storyline? If so, do it. Readers like to get the story going, and not have to be bogged down with long narratives. Describe what you need, move on, and let your characters tell the story. Studies show readers prefer books with a good helping of dialogue. White space means a page turner, and readers want to see what comes next. Patience is not always one of their virtues. There is no hard and fast rule for sentence and paragraph length. Some say 3-6 sentences is adequate for a paragraph. Some say you can have a 1 word paragraph. Not sure about that, but I suppose in the right situation it’s possible.
Once you think your work is complete, it’s not. I highly recommend finding 2-3 more sets of eyes to look it over. Some people (like me) have a paid copy editor, and their job is to bleed all over your work and show you the errors of your ways. Don’t get discouraged by red (or whatever color they use), think if it as a learning experience and file the information in the back of your mind NOT to make those mistakes again. Do we? Heck yeah! But the object is to make less work for your editor, and in the end, it’s less work for you, because you get to go back and fix all the errors. A good copy editor is worth their weight in gold, so keep them happy!
Right, you’re now armed with handy tools in which to do some self editing, it’s time for you to quit reading this blog and get to work!

Until next time, my creatively obsessed friends….