Tag s | Writing Craft

Proofreading: Tips and Tricks

[Since today, March 8th, is National Proofreading Day I thought I would re-post this article from a few years ago, with some revisions. I’ve left the comments attached below since so many were illustrative. Please add new thoughts as well.]

I have regularly displayed my lack of proofreading skills in past blog posts. In fact, it got so bad I’ve had to hire someone to proofread my posts before I fling them upon you. Thus it might be appropriate to look at some ways everyone can effectively proof their own work.

At every conference I’ve ever attended, there is at least one person’s proposal, pitch page, or sample chapter with a typo that jumps off the page. It is never a “fatal” error, but noticeable nonetheless.

At least try not to have the typo in the title of the book. (Yes that has happened more than once.)

Worst typo in my publishing experience? While I was working at a major publishing house in editorial (over 20 years ago), we published a book where the author’s name was misspelled on the front cover. Correct on the spine. Correct on the back cover. Correct on the title page. INCORRECT on the cover. Went to press and books were shipped; then the error was discovered. Not much happiness that day.

So what are some things you can do?

Read Your Work Out Loud

Better yet? Have someone else read it to you. This can also help with clarity. Amazing how others emphasize the wrong word in your sentence.

An author recently told me that nearly 30 typos were discovered during the production of the audio version of their already published novel. The voice talent discovered and pointed them out.

Read it Backwards

The main reason your brain misses errors is that it anticipates what it will see. By going the other direction, you must intentionally see each word.

Homonyms in particular will stand out (like pray vs. prey, or accept vs. except, or taught vs. taut).

Hard-Copy Reading 

For some, the screen is an impediment to careful reading. I know some editors still use hard copy for their edits and then transfer them all to the screen for Track Changes. There is something about the tactile nature of pen on paper that helps me. I’ll print a contract and then read it. Never only on screen. Often it depends on how one learned to edit in the first place.

Avoid Speed-reading

Hopefully, you are not like the rest of us and you have planned ahead. You are not rushing to proof your work at 2 a.m. because it is due the next morning.

Proofreading is not something to do at the last minute. Take your time.

Hire a Pro

There are a number of freelance editors who will do the job for you. Prices vary. Use your writers group networks to find the best (or take a look at the latest edition of The Christian Writers Market Guide where there are 70 pages of freelancers listed). However, even though you hired someone, the responsibility lies with you.

Your Turn

Any other suggestions?

It has been mentioned that you can have your phone or computer read it to them. Can someone explain how that works?

What was the worst error you ever let slip through and onto the page?

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Diligence Is Rewarded

by Steve Laube

The ease of today’s social media communication brings a casual layer to the task of writing. Careful composition is trumped by the need for speed. For most “throw away” emails and posts that is the new normal. But it should never leak into the business of writing, either in craft or in delicate communication.

The other day I received an email query/proposal. There was a very large file attached and the body of the email read, “Here is my book. Please take a look.” No signature line, that was it. At least it rhymed. This was not a friend, a client, or someone I had ever met. But the casual, even flippant, nature of the note all but says, “I’m not serious about the craft or business of writing.”

The best writers are those who take their ideas and their words and run them through a gauntlet of critique and reformation. They pour their words into a garlic press and slice and dice them into bits that can flavor their entire book.

This takes time. This takes hard work. And it is a process that seems endless.

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Responding to Criticism

When someone tells me she’s not sure she wants me to read her manuscript, I know she’s not ready for publication. Such sentiment shows a lack of confidence and a fear of both rejection and criticism. Even though readers usually treat writers with respect, a critical word can puncture the heart.

Imagine the wounds delivered on Internet sites such as Amazon from readers who lack that respect. A major complaint I hear from distraught authors is that people download free Christian novels and then post hostile reviews. A cursory bit of research reveals some say they felt duped because they didn’t realize they were downloading a Christian novel. It is likely they just grabbed it because it was free and did not look at other reviews or the book’s description. These readers aren’t victims of duplicity, they were, at the very least, lazy and then blamed others when the book wasn’t to their taste. Unfortunately the temptation is for the author to strike back with a serrated reply.

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He Said. She Said.

A blog reader recently left an excellent comment on an earlier post:

Tamela, fiction workshop presenters taught me that the best word for “said” is “said”–that others only tend to slow down the reader’s eye. I’d appreciate a discussion on this.

While I don’t know the workshop presenters in question, what I can guess they meant is to avoid substituting creative verbs for “said” as a tag. For example:

“Cyrus, tell that joke about the tortoise and the hare,” the cowboy chuckled.

“This caviar is not up to my standards,” the dowager sniffed.

These tags aren’t without merit, because they do help convey the emotions and actions of the characters. In fact, they could even be expanded into effective action tags. At the least, simple punctuation would keep these characters from performing the improbable task of sniffing and chuckling words:

“Cyrus, tell that joke about the tortoise and the hare.” The cowboy chuckled.

“This caviar is not up to my standards.” The dowager sniffed.

So why would fiction workshop presenters tell writers to use the word “said” as a tag? I would say that there is a time and place to use a simple tag. In a fast-paced scene, a simple tag will keep the action flowing. For example:

“Get the gun,” Bruce said.

“What?”

“I said, get the gun.”

“Why?”

“Don’t ask questions,” Bruce said. “Just do as I say. Now.”

In a case such as this, complicated action tags could slow down the rhythm and urgency of the scene, distracting the reader rather than adding to the story. The “said” tag is used infrequently to help the reader keep track of the conversation.

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Letting Go of Your Babies

One of the worst mistakes writers can make is being too possessive of their words. They fight for each adjective, adverb, and conversation tag.

My early writing suffered from too many words. I once wrote an artist didn’t “really” understand the difficulties of making a living in his profession. The editor kindly cut all instances of “really,” “just,” “so,” “very,” and other weak words experienced editors call “weasel” words.

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The Editorial Process

It is important to understand the process through which a book takes under the umbrella called “The Edit.” I meet many first timers who think it is just a one-time pass over their words and that is all that will ever happen. And many who self-publish think that hiring a high school English teacher to check for grammar is enough of an edit.

There are four major stages to the Editorial Process. Unfortunately they are called by various names depending on which publisher you are working with, which can create confusion. I will try to list the various terms but keep them under the four categories.

Rewrites / Revisions/Substantive Edit

These can happen multiple times. You could get input from your agent or an editor who suggests you rewrite or revise those sample chapters of the full manuscript. Last year I suggest that one of my non-fiction clients cut the book in half and change its focus. We sold this first time author. But the writer had to do a lot of work to get it ready for the proposal stage.

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Floating … Floating … Gone …

Writers conferences and blogs talk about this topic often so I don’t pretend to be breaking new ground with this post. Yet I still see some floating body parts and cliches creep into otherwise great stories. No, I don’t mean murder mysteries depicting a stray arm floating in a river. I mean much gentler fare.

Yes, floating body parts offer the reader — and writer — shortcuts. But relying on them as description in narrative doesn’t challenge anyone’s imagination.

Rolling eyes

The offender I see most often is:

“She rolled her eyes.”

Yes, we all know this means that her eyes went from the ceiling and back. No, wait a minute. Her eyes didn’t go the ceiling and back. Her gaze went to the ceiling and back. See the difference? No pun intended.

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The Stages of Editorial Grief

Nearly every writer will tell you they have experienced the proverbial “red pen” treatment from their editor. The reactions to this experience can follow the well-known stages of grief popularized by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross.

Skip Denial, I’m Angry!

There is no denying that the edits have arrived. And for the author who was not expecting a hard-nosed edit, they can transition from “shocked-angry” to “furious-angry” to “rage.”

And then they call their agent.

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Tag, You’re It!

One of the most common habits I see burdening stories is overemphasis on conversational tags, which goes hand in hand with not making good use of action tags. Here’s an example I just made up:

“No,” she exclaimed. She looked at the the pot of stew bubbling the stove and saw red juice splattering. She began to stir.

Unable to resist multitasking, I demonstrated several bad habits in the above sample of poor writing.

First, punctuation. When a character exclaims, use an exclamation point.

“No!”

“She exclaimed” adds no new information unless you need to designate a character from several so in almost every case, omit it. Same can be said for tags such as “said” and “asked.” In fact, “asked” accomplishes nothing because the question mark says it all.

Any tag should reflect what the character is saying. “He’s a slippery snake,” she hissed, trumps, “What a viper,” she hissed. If in doubt, entertain the office cat. Read sentences aloud to make sure the tag works.

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Never Burn a Bridge!

The sale of Thomas Nelson to HarperCollins and last week’s sale of Heartsong to Harlequin brought to mind a critical piece of advice:

Never Burn a Bridge!

Ours is a small industry and both editors and authors move around with regularity. If you are in a business relationship and let your frustration boil into anger and ignite into rage…and let that go at someone in the publishing company, you may end up burning the bridge. And that person who you vented on might someday become the head of an entire publishing company.

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