Self-edit like a pro: Look differently

In this series of blog posts, I look at how you can approach editing your own work in a similar way to how professional editors approach their clients’ work.

Writing and editing are two very different beasts. Writing is very intense, very personal, a way of expressing all those thoughts that are in your head. Editing, to be effective, has to be a little less personal. You have to look at your work differently, which is difficult when those words on the page are the result of your hard work, sweat and tears (hopefully no blood. I’m not sure you’re doing writing right if there’s actual blood). And one of the best ways to look at your work differently is to, well, look at it differently.

Changing the way you physically read your manuscript can also alter the way you approach it, and this is why many editors, including me, will do at least one read-through of a manuscript in a different format (if time and budget allows). One of the things that makes editing and proofreading so difficult is that you have to train yourself to see what’s actually on the page and not what you think should be there. Your mind is a clever thing – it fills in missing words, takes out duplicate ones, rearranges letters. As an editor, you need to stop your brain from doing what it wants to do, and for some reason, changing the format seems to help with that. Mistakes leap out at you that you missed the first time.

My preferred method of changing the format is to email the Word document to my Kindle (instructions for this are available here), but you could also print it out (although I wouldn’t recommend this for long manuscripts because the environment, and also, cripes, printer ink is expensive). Failing that, even just changing the font and the background colour can help change the way you read.

And it’s not just useful for helping you spot typos and other little mistakes your brain hid from you while you were writing. Changing the way you read can get you into a totally different mindset – when you’re at a desk, tapping away on a keyboard, you’re very much in writer-mode. But if you curl up on your sofa with your Kindle or paper printout, it can be easier to put yourself in the place of a reader, and that’s who you really need to have in mind at editing stage. Physically taking yourself out of the position of the author and into that of a reader will help you get a much better idea of how your story flows, what your pacing’s like, whether your characters are coming alive.

Another thing you might want to try, particularly when you’re editing for style, is reading the manuscript aloud, or having the computer read it back to you. This will highlight things like unintentional rhymes, alliteration and repetition that can spoil the flow of your writing.

What all these things do is create a little distance between writer-you and editor-you, helping you edit more objectively and effectively.

I’ll leave you with a quote from this article about how our brains ignore mistakes:

“…a normal functioning human is one that sails blithely past mistakes in a text while understanding perfectly what it means.

The next natural step in this line of reasoning is that anyone whose job it is to catch these mistakes – editors, copyeditors, subeditors, proofreaders – has to be an abnormal and malfuctioning human.”

I wanted to add that becasue* it made me laugh, but I’ve just noticed a typo in it. Now I can’t decide if that’s a perfect example of what the article talks about or the Guardian purposely fucking with us.

*This typo was not the typo I was talking about. A reader just drew my attention to this, more than a month after I published this post. It’s like some kind of mind-boggling typo-Inception.

 

Self-edit like a pro: Get to know your tools

In this series of blog posts, I look at how you can approach editing your own work in a similar way to how professional editors approach their clients’ work.

Whether you write in Word, Pages, Scrivener, or another piece of software, chances are there is at least one feature of it that you’ve never discovered that will make your life a little easier. Maybe a lot easier. Most of us aren’t taught how to properly exploit the capabilities of everyday software like Word, but if you’re a writer, that’s your tool, so you need to train yourself to use it without causing death or injury to yourself and those around you (a little easier said than done, sometimes, if only because of Word-induced rage).

Most of the professional editors I know are always eager to learn ways of using our software to edit more efficiently – I recently gave a talk about this very subject at a conference for fiction editors. That’s because the quicker we can edit, the more work we can take on, therefore increasing our earning potential. But getting to know your tools and using them more effectively has other benefits besides speed. The more time you spend puzzling over how to do something, or going through several laborious steps to make a change, the less focused you can be on the actual text.

I’m not really going to give out technical tips here – I don’t know which software you’re working with or which version of Word you have, if you have that (I have Word for Office 365, which means I get all the latest features, whether I want them or not. I’m looking at you, “Editor” function). I don’t know what you already know, or what particular things would help you to speed up and smooth out your self-editing process.

But I do want to encourage you to find that out for yourself. Luckily we live in the age of the internet, which means there are tons of resources available at your fingertips. The easiest one to find is Microsoft Word’s own Help – considering how frustrating Word can sometimes be, the Help is actually quite comprehensive and straightforward. If you can’t find what you’re looking for there, though, there are many great blogs out there that talk about what Word can do, and a good place to start is WordRibbon.Tips.Net. You can also check out YouTube for tutorials if you’re a video kind of person.

But I think one of the best ways to explore your software is to open up a fresh document and click on everything you see. Explore all the menus and drop-downs and see what they all do, and make a note of anything you think you might be able to use. (Do pay attention, though, if you’re doing anything that looks like it might change a setting – you want to be able to go back and unchange it if you need to!)

Although the purpose of this post isn’t, as I mentioned, to give out technical tips, here are a few things that might be worth exploring in Microsoft Word – things that I and many professional editors use every day:

  • Keyboard shortcuts – they’re usually quicker and much easier on the wrists than clicking. Cut, copy and paste are the most useful and probably the best known, and where would we be without Ctrl+Z (Undo), but using the keyboard rather than the mouse to navigate around and select text can be really helpful too.
  • Headings – format your headings using Word Styles to make your manuscript easier to navigate.
  • Track Changes – learn how to use this if you don’t already, so you can see what you’ve changed and undo it if you change your mind, and use the comments function to leave notes for yourself. If you do end up getting your work edited for publication, the editor will use Track Changes, so you might as well familiarise yourself with it from the beginning 😊.
  • Customising your Autocorrect – Autocorrect has a list of words it corrects automatically, but you can add to that, so if you know there’s something you mis-type a lot, add it to the list (in File>Options>Proofing>Autocorrect Options. I wish I’d known this before I did a degree in “Thetare” Studies and “Musci”.). You can also use Autocorrect to assign a kind of shortcut to a word or phrase, because all it does is recognise strings of characters and then change them into other strings of characters. So if you have a character called DCI Blitherington-Smythe, you could pair that with something like “DCBLI” – when you type that, Word will change it to the full name. (Just make sure your shortcut code is not something you’d type in another word. You don’t want a Hugh Jackilometresan situation)

That’s obviously just scratching the surface of Word’s useful features, and other programs have their own things to discover. Go forth and explore!

Networking works

This week I’ve been to a fiction editors mini-conference, superbly organised by the lovely Carrie O’Grady and Sarah Calfee. It was a great opportunity for a lovely day of CPD and networking. I can hear some of you scoffing at the placement of “networking” and “lovely” in the same sentence. I get it. Networking used to be a word that put the fear of God into me. What was it? How the hell was I supposed to do it? Why should I do it? Thankfully, as a not very senior member of staff in a very inward-facing department of my old company, it wasn’t something I had to do very often. On the rare occasions I was made to go to a conference or other event, I usually stood around talking to the people I’d come with from my own team, wondering how many free glasses of wine or canapés we could take before someone noticed.

But now, all is different. I’m supposed to be a Proper Businesswoman, and, whether I like it or not, that means I have to do networking. It turns out I like it a lot. Gone are the days of awkwardly nursing a glass of terrible chardonnay while men in suits talk to each other about things I neither understood nor cared much about. It seems that networking, if you love what you do and don’t often get a chance to chat in person about it, and are pretty plugged in to an online community, mostly involves squealing “It’s you! I know you from Twitter!” at people and telling the kinds of stories that are only remotely interesting to those in the same profession as you.

These days, I take any opportunity to network, because it’s SO MUCH FUN. I’m aware that it’s not quite so much fun for everyone – many editors are much less gobby more introverted than me, and I know networking can be a struggle. If that’s you, you may need to figure out strategies to make the whole thing less horrifying (the SfEP blog has a great guide to surviving a conference as an introvert). But I think that’s definitely worth doing, if you can. And that’s not just because of the aforementioned fun. Networking is a valuable part of marketing your business, because you are your business. If you want to grow your business, you have to make sure people know you exist, and that doesn’t just include your potential customers. Editors are generally helpful, kind people, and when an editor can’t take on a job, perhaps because they’re too busy or don’t feel they’re the right fit for the project, they often want to be able to point the client in the direction of someone else. If nobody knows you, that person is not going to be you. But if you’ve made an effort to get to know people and let them get to know you, you never know what opportunities will come your way.

Oh, and should you be within easy reach of Newcastle and would like to test out my Networking is Good theory, why not buy a ticket for the SfEP NE mini conference on 22nd May? It’s going to be fabulous, and it will be even better if you’re there. Yes, you 😊.

Self-edit like a pro: Don’t be one editor. Be three

In a new series of blog posts, I look at how you can approach editing your own work in a similar way to how professional editors approach their clients’ work.

You’ve finished a draft. Yay! Go you! Seriously, go you. So many people never make it that far. But you’ve still got a long way to go. You know that, or you wouldn’t be reading this.

It’s very tempting to finish a draft, then sit down and go, right, let’s fix everything that needs fixing. I know. I’ve definitely done that.

But there’s a reason professional editors offer different levels of editing – broadly speaking, there’s story-level editing, stylistic-level editing, and then the fine-tuning copy-editing stuff – and very few will offer or attempt to do all three at once.

One reason for that is because it can be a waste of time – there’s no point agonising over comma placement in a sentence if the whole scene is ultimately going to get deleted. But it’s also because you have to think differently. To look at the issues that can arise at story level, you need to be thinking about pacing, plot, structure. You need to consider how the story as a whole is going to work for the reader. Sentence- and word-level editing need much closer attention to detail – should this word be hyphenated? How does that read if I split this long sentence up into three short ones? Those are quite different mindsets to be in, and it’s not easy to switch between them. If you’re trying to tackle too many problems at once, it’s likely you won’t give each problem the right kind of attention. If you need to get a good idea of what your pacing’s like, you’re going to get slowed down by a passage with lots of typos, and therefore your idea of your pacing will be skewed. If you’re focusing on the nitty-gritty of spelling, you might not notice a huge gaping plot hole.

So, to make sure you’re editing effectively and not getting overwhelmed, imagine yourself as three different editors. First, send your manuscript to your developmental editor (you) and read through your manuscript focusing on making sure your story works. Then send it to your line editor (also you) and think about how your paragraphs and sentences flow. Then send it to your copy-editor (again, you) and hunt down as many errors in grammar, spelling and punctuation as you can. Later in the series, I’ll look at the kinds of things you might want to look at in each of these rounds and how.

And, as I always say, editors deserve to be properly compensated for their work. So make sure you reward your editors (you) with plenty of biscuits.

New Series: Self-edit like a pro

It is a truth universally acknowledged that if you write stuff, you have to edit stuff. Editors exist and we’re marvellous people and you should all hire us, obviously, but even if you do that, you’re going to have to do a bit work beforehand. Well, I mean, you don’t have to. It’s not like there’s a law or anything. But if you’re going to spill words out onto the page and then send them to an editor without even giving them a cursory glance, chances are you’re going to end up paying someone to fix a lot of things you could quite easily have done yourself. I imagine there are authors out there who do do this, but I suspect they’re far from the norm.

So, self-editing is an important part of the process, whether it’s wrestling your first draft into shape, polishing up your manuscript to attract the attention of an agent or publisher, or even getting it ready for self-publication because you can’t afford an editor. (I would never advise that, by the way. Proper professional editing is a totally different kettle of badgers to searching for mistakes on your own, or even having that grammar-nerd friend of yours look it over. But me saying that doesn’t put the money in your pocket that proper professional editing costs, so I accept that there are always going to be authors who make the choice to go without.)

There is a limit to how much you can really self-edit like a pro – as I’ve just said, editing your own work is very different to editing someone else’s (I know, I’ve done both). But there are definitely tools in the professional editor’s arsenal that can help you with your self-editing, and in my new series of blog posts, I’m going to share a few of them with you. They might not all work for you, because the self-editing process is as personal as the writing process is – everyone has to find their own way of working. But hopefully at least some of them will be useful in helping you to edit (and perhaps write) your work more efficiently and effectively.

Stay tuned for the first instalment!

Turning words into worlds

A question I often see from new authors is “How can I make sure the reader has enough information about the world my characters live in?” It’s a good question. World-building can be really hard. Even if your world is, or is based on, this real one, you have to firmly establish that in the minds of your readers, and you have to make sure they know exactly which bit of our world it is.

The mistake authors often make is to try to tell the reader everything they need to know at the very beginning of their story. This makes sense in a way – you want to establish your setting so your reader can settle into the story. But, especially when the world is not the real one, this can sometimes lead to long, clunky bouts of exposition, where the narrator intrudes on the action to explain the situation, or where characters tell other characters things that all involved already know.

It’s a tricky balancing act – you need to induct your reader into the world you’ve created for them, but you also need to get them and keep them invested in the action of your story. Luckily, world-building can be done extremely subtly, using very few words, and you don’t have to do it all at once. Readers are good at waiting for answers, as long as they understand that something has purposely raised a question. If they come across something unfamiliar very early on, they’re going to understand that no, they haven’t missed something – this is something that exists in this world that presumably will be made clear in the course of time. Obviously you can’t leave them hanging for too long, but it does mean you give yourself some space to stretch your exposition out a bit.

For example, this is the first paragraph of The Hunger Games:

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course she did. This is the day of the reaping.

We learn some important things in those 52 words. The main character has a sister named Prim. There’s a hint, in the rough canvas cover, of poverty and discomfort. And there is the “reaping”. The reaping is not explained for another 12 pages, but from just these few sentences, we know that there’s something different going on here, something ominous, and it gives us a clue that we might not be in the world we know. So we’ll read on until we find out where we are.

Here’s another example, the first paragraph of The Other Boleyn Girl:

I could hear a roll of muffled drums. But I could see nothing but the lacing on the bodice of the lady standing in front of me, blocking my view of the scaffold. I had been at this court for more than a year and attended hundreds of festivities; but never before one like this.

The lacing on the bodice, the scaffold – those little details take us straight back in time. This chapter actually has a date marker, but we don’t need that to know immediately that we’re in a historical novel.

I’m not claiming these openings are revolutionary; many stories start by going directly into a scene without explanation. But paying attention to how much information can be conveyed about a world through seemingly minor details can be really eye-opening. Worlds build themselves, almost without the reader realising, freeing you, the author, to focus on the story rather than on throwing information at them. There will be times you need to explain things, of course there will, but by keeping longer chunks of exposition to the necessary minimum, you can tighten up your writing and keep the action moving.

I recently tried a little exercise with my writers’ group to show how simple this kind of subtle world-building can be.

She opened the BLANK. They’d run out of BLANK. She’d have to go and ask BLANK for more.

We used these sentences as a prompt – people filled in the blanks and used those sentences to start a story. The results were wonderfully diverse:

Jeff looked in the canal. They had run out of pellets. He would have to go and ask Mike for more, but it was five miles to the lockhouse and he had no way of knowing if Mike would even be there.

She looked in the larder. They’d run out of eggs. She’d have to go and ask Ivy for more. She felt a chill as she remembered how well-stocked the shelves once were.

Helen looked in the empty box on the shelf of the stationery cupboard. They had run out of pens. She’d have to go and ask bloody Moira for some more. That battle-axe of an office manager would undoubtedly treat her to an extended lecture about wastefulness and dwindling budgets.

Carter looked in the robot’s sensor pods. They had run out of diffusion filters. Now he would have to grovel to Morgan for more. She was not going to be happy.

Other stories included some post-nuclear dystopia, and a comedy scene involving counterfeit money and a horse. With just a few nouns, we managed to start creating very different settings and situations. Why not try a similar exercise and see where you end up?

(Oh and Morgan, if you were wondering, was actually perfectly happy, because her evil plan was working. She killed Carter and released the black mist…)

With love and endless thanks to my writing buddies at South Shields Fiction Writers x

Across the fucking pond

One of my favourite pastimes is going on Facebook and asking one of my editors’ groups about how they use a particular swear word or phrase. (Look, I don’t get out much.) The group is very international, and I often need that perspective, particularly when I’m editing in a variety of English that isn’t my own. I admit, it’s not the most scientific way of finding out about language use, but it is the most fun.

And it’s a lot easier to mess it up than you’d think. An f-bomb’s an f-bomb, right? Ha ha ha no. Swearing is like any other kind of language – it varies across eras, places, and social groups. And an editor’s job is to make sure the language being used is appropriate for the readership and, in fiction, for the characters. Swearing is used for emphasis, often to highlight a moment of significant emotion. That means that authenticity is important. The reader needs to believe in that moment, and inaccurate word usage can pull them right out of it.

Here are some things I have learned about transatlantic swearing differences from my lovely colleagues. (A disclaimer: I’m no linguist, and as I’ve mentioned this is not a very rigorous method of research. All the below are just what the general consensus seems to be on questions I’ve asked or read, not definitive statements. I’ve learned that whenever anyone asserts that people in the UK/US always/never say a thing, they’re almost certainly wrong.)

  • You can be “fucked” in a variety of ways in the US – you can be in trouble, injured or broken, or engaging in sexual intercourse – but you cannot usually be drunk, as you can over here. If you want alcohol to fuck you in some way, you’ll have to get “fucked up”, which is used less for drunk in the UK, probably because we have so many other words for it.
  • “Pissed” is one of those – but if you get pissed in the US, you get angry, not drunk.
  • You can, however, get “shitfaced” on both sides of the pond.
  • “Shitholes” are universal, but “shit-tips” are British. Some terribly dirty-minded US people would have a quite different definition of a shit-tip.
  • “Shite” looks like a spelling error to many in the US, but it’s a real word, and a good one.
  • Placement of the word “fucking” as an intensifier in a sentence seems to depend more on context and personal preference than location. Although Bostonians are perhaps more inclined to put “fucking” at the start of an imperative sentence than others in the US, and they might well put one in the middle and one near the end too.
  • “Fuck all” is listed in some dictionaries as British, but it’s not unheard of in the US.
  • In the UK we use “shit” and “crap” as adjectives, whereas in the US it’s more likely to be “shitty” and “crappy”. Editors might want to change a flat-adverb “shitty” to “shittily”, but a good one won’t, because who really says “shittily”?

If I’m wrong about any of those, then do tell me! And tell me of any other differences you know of, either in the comments or on Twitter, @kiathomasedits. If you’re interested in reading posts by people who do this kind of research properly rather than by titting about on Facebook, check out separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.com, stronglang.wordpress.com and notoneoffbritishisms.com.