2. Finding Mistakes
Our ideas may indeed be inspired, but our writing is not. I have never seen a manuscript that doesn’t need critiquing and editing. This seems to be more of a struggle in the Christian writing community than the secular.
When a Christian feels that divine guidance has led him or her to write a manuscript, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking the writing itself is infallible. Although inspiration overflows from the heart, we still deal with flawed bodies. Mistakes hit the paper and corrections need to be made.
When we see a book on the shelf, we realize that the finished product did not come directly from the inspiration of the author. Though this inspiration drove the work forward, many rewrites, edits and critiques were made before the work could be published. When a manuscript is edited, re-edited, and polished to perfection, nothing is left behind to distract the reader. All the errors and miscommunication have been corrected, so the reader only sees the message and inspiration.
In the mechanics of editing, we must watch for several basic mistakes. Use proper punctuation. Don’t overuse exclamation points! Don’t do it! Don’t do it! In fact, the general rule is to only use one. Good writing should build the reader toward a climax. An exclamation point marks the highest level of emotion or thought; once it’s used, anything after that is flat. Be aware of how you are affecting the reader.
In American writing, periods are always inside quotation marks, and curly quotes should always be used since it is easier on the eyes. A curly quote is “ ”, versus a plain text quote ” “. Also, single space after a period.
Look for homophones, words that sound the same, but have different meanings. Example: “I here (hear) the sound of there (their) hooves pounding the ground.” Reduce the number of ‘was’ words, as well as ‘that’ and ‘-ing’. Also change passive sentences to active voice.
Remove redundant words, phrases, or paragraph sizes. Why do people get annoyed when someone taps a pencil on the table, drums his fingers, or pops gum? We don’t like constant repetition. As we read, first we feel distracted, then slowly grow annoyed. Starting too many sentences with the same word, writing sentences or paragraphs of the same length, and repeating phrases all detract from writing. Often the reader doesn’t even know why he is annoyed; he just knows something doesn’t seem right. A five-page article with every paragraph the same length promotes boredom. The same is true of sentences that always begin with the same word.
As if in a lapidary tumbler, the manuscript goes through multiple phases of editing, and the sparkling gem begins to emerge. First we might read through it, chipping away at the point of view errors. Then we put it in the tumbler again, looking for only ‘that’ words to eliminate, followed by ‘was’ words. It’s slow and patient work, but we must keep tumbling the manuscript until all these things are smoothed out. It’s too much to tackle every problem at once, so we use the fine grit method. Like polishing a rock, we start by grinding away at the blatant errors, then work on the finer points. As we clean up one thing and feel satisfied, we then move on to the next step.
Editing is hard work requiring patience and diligence. A rushed manuscript will look like an unpolished rock, its potential beauty hidden underneath a rough exterior.
3. Helpful Tools
There are a few helpful tools that assist writers in catching a large portion of mistakes. These tools will help you catch many errors, but the work is far from complete from our self-editing. Keep in mind, this is course grit polishing. These help smooth out the rough edges and find obvious problems. Each step of editing reveals more problems, but requires a finer effort to correct. Our goal at this point is to locate and remove mistakes that you wouldn’t want to waste time on during a critique session.
Text to Audio.
Few things will make glaring mistakes apparent more than hearing it read. Reading 300 pages of manuscript to yourself isn’t practical. Plus, there will be a point where you disengage and go into autopilot. However, text to audio allows you to focus solely upon active listening.
One of the best text to audio applications on the market is NextUp’s Text Aloud. The cost is about $30 and well worth the investment. You can buy it without voices, but I highly recommend adding a voice engine. The Windows default voices will work, but hearing a natural sounding voice is much easier on the ear. If you only buy one editing tool, this would be the purchase to make. Text Aloud also allows users to watch the text as it speaks. Odd sounding sentences stand out and the vast majority of blatant errors will be found while listening. The application can be purchased by clicking here.
Editor by Serenity Software is a great tool for self-editing. This software is not quite as user friendly as it should be, but is still useful for identifying homophones, wordy phrases, gives the number of redundant phrases, and offering suggestions to fix common problems. It is by no means a substitute for good human editing, but it does help polish the work to a more presentable state. It takes grammar checking beyond the capabilities of Word’s features, but the nuances of the English language make it impossible to automate all editing – for now.
There are many editing applications on the internet, and some are better than others. Once you get used to Editor’s interface, it is one of the best on the market. The cost is $55 – $75 if purchased with the Word plugin.
There are some applications available on the internet that make bold claims. One even uses multiple websites that claim to be testing sites. Of course, their product is always on top, but the product is overpriced and poorly designed. As of this writing, Editor is one of the best products on the market.
4. Effective Critiquing
Now we are getting into the finer grit of polishing our gem of a manuscript. Just as fine grit will do little to remove the rough edges of a rock, critiquing will do little good if the rough edges are still present when you present your work.
Taking a rough draft to a critiquing session is a waste of time. Never submit your work to others until it is polished to the highest quality self-editing can take it. When a rough draft is presented, critiquers will point out the obvious mistakes and will do little to identify the problems your eyes can’t see. Having someone show you a mistake you should have caught during proof reading will not benefit your work. Critiquing begins where self-editing ends. Of course, your editing will start up again when issues come to light, but you should go through the tedious editing process before inviting critiques.
Unfortunately, critiquing is a subjective process. Often, it’s the blind leading the blind. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Though a critique group may be filled with unpublished authors and inexperienced writers, it can still have value. If we look at critiquing as the preparation of our manuscript for publishing, disappointment is around the corner. Critiquing is one step in the process of going from a rock to a gem. It is not the process, but only part of the process.
Critiquing becomes ineffective when writers lose sight of its place in the process. Critiquing doesn’t replace self-editing. Critiquing does not replace professional editing. Critiquing is allowing other eyes to see your work, determining if it makes sense, and seeing if there are glaring mistakes you have overlooked. A critique session allows others to read the flow of your work, and determine if something makes sense, or if things are hard to follow.
The truth is, few critique group members have the skills to identify subject-verb agreement, past and present tense conflicts, or any number of grammatical problems with your work. By the nature of most critique meetings, it is impossible to follow the plot close enough to discover plot holes and contradictions in the story. If you are only reviewing 3-10 pages a week, by the time the group gets to the end of your 300 page novel, no one will remember the structure of your story well enough to identify problems. It is for these reasons we must realize the limited scope of critiquing.
A group of critique partners is good because many eyes are looking at your work. If two or more identify the same problem, it’s a good sign something is wrong. However, there is another option for critiquing every writer should seek. Partnering with one person who can consistently review your manuscript and you his or hers. When someone can read your work from beginning to end, it eliminates the blind spots and they can point out problems the reader will experience.
Critiques are often filled with both good and bad advice. For a writer, this can be confusing. Fellow writers sometimes attempt to impose their voice onto your work. Critiquing is not intended to cause writers to adopt a specific style of writing, but to identify problems that keep their voice from sounding through to the reader. Remember, most critique groups don’t have professional editors. Even professional writers have their own work edited, so they also are not infallible. There will be times when five people will have five conflicting suggestions.
Often, one will say, “I really like the way you worded this,” but the next will say, “I think this sounds amateurish.”
Fellow critiquers will force rules of writing upon your work that are subjective and often born out of misinformation. Read the work of successful authors and get a feel for how a good story looks. Analyze every suggestion, and weed out the bad while gleaning benefit from the good. I’ve seen writers massacre their work, trying to follow every suggestion. Get a birds-eye view of the critique in light of your story, and take suggestions based on your gut feeling about what is good for the manuscript.
Here is an example of a critique given for a novel. The original line read like this:
Accustomed to the fresh air of rural Tennessee, Raquel almost gagged at the smell of exhaust in the tunnel.
The critique offered follows:
The tunnel perfumed with exhaust gagged Raquel like a skunk spraying a raccoon inside of a log.
I suppose, in the right setting, this might have been a good suggestion. If it was a light-hearted story where the writer wanted to convey a redneck’s humorous perspective of driving in the Lincoln Tunnel, this might fit in somewhere; however, this does not work for the story in which it appears. Each author must use discernment while receiving critiques. Never argue with a critique – even if you feel the suggestion was dumb. Just thank them and toss the suggestion into your mental wastebasket.
Critique partners should be in a similar genre so they can understand the writing style you are trying to convey. Someone who doesn’t understand fiction would not be a good critique partner for a fiction writer.
Once, an author with a very good story was part of a critique group I met with. She had her work professionally edited by a successful academic author. When she showed the manuscript to the group, all emotion had been stripped from the story and only factual descriptions remained. It was awful. The editor was very good in fixing grammar and presenting effective writing for an academic audience, but he had no comprehension for the world of fiction. The novel read like a text book.
Have a thick skin. In business, a bigwig who surrounds himself with yes-men accomplishes nothing. Some people want to have their ego fed and want to view the world through rose-colored glasses. The same is true in publishing. To surround yourself with those who will praise your work has no value. Have you ever watched American Idol and heard a horrible audition? The person is then shocked when the judges tell them the truth. They often say something like, “My family and friends all say that I’m a good singer.” To spare this person’s feelings, friends and family allowed them to be humiliated before the world.
Don’t be this person. Find someone who will tell you the hard truth. And don’t get offended when they do. The person who tells you something is wrong is a better friend than those who tell you it’s great. Of course we want to season our criticism with grace, but we still want to be truthful. While it is true that successful authors persevere through rejection, a poorly written manuscript will never be published no matter how persistent the author may be. Your goal is to find problems in your work, not praise. The praise will hopefully come after the work is in print. It’s called critiquing for a reason. While you’re polishing, you want people to look at your writing with a critical eye.
Never get defensive. Never become argumentative. Even if you don’t agree, take a look at the suggestion before tossing it out. It may be that the suggestion doesn’t fit, but the area in question should be rewritten. You, as the author, get to determine how to rewrite.