Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Writer Wednesday: 3 Editing Tips for More Polished Prose



I am frequently asked to read and review books published by other Indie Authors. I'm happy to help other writers out. I love meeting a new story for the first time, and I'm in awe of the creativity of today's independent authors.

But I'm going to say something honest. It's a  truth that is mostly left unspoken.

Most self-published books aren't done baking yet. Authors rush to hit the upload button before the manuscript has received the attention that it deserves. The result: books that read like a unpolished manuscripts and fail to inspire readers. Readers may not finish such a book and if they do, will likely either not review it, not recommend it to their friends or worse, give it a negative review.

You may think this doesn't apply to you. Odds are, it does. Sorry, but statistically speaking, this probably applies to you.

I have downloaded over 200 samples of self-published works on my Kindle since I got it (about 2.5 years ago). Of those samples, I've been moved to purchase only about 10% and of those purchased, I can recommend only a handful to friends, family and other readers.

Lest you think me a book snob, understand that my unscientific stats of my  purchasing habits jibe with the habits of the general reading public. Like other readers, I'm drawn in by the covers and clever, well-written descriptions. I'm excited about the story and download the sample. But most of the time, generally within the first three chapters, I'm unwilling to continue.

Why? It's not for lack of interesting story or creativity. We Indies ooze creative ideas.

The problem, my writer friends, is not the pitch or the plot but the lack of punch to the prose. Okay, sometimes it's the plot too and the ubiquitous telling rather than showing (I feel another post coming on).

But even when the plot is kicking and the characters don't annoy the shit out of me, most Indie books lack polish. Before you roll your eyes at me and tell me how polish is overrated and doesn't matter, allow me to bitch slap some sense into you and tell you that polish does matter to readers. Passive voice, head hopping, inconsistencies, redundancies, typos, and poor grammar weigh down your story. The reader tends to lose their steam for an amazingly creative story when the lack of polish continuously jolts them out of the storyline.

Before you accuse me of being a self-righteous bitch, let me admit that I am guilty as charged. I published Emily's House, my first book, without taking it through the polishing phase that I now apply to my manuscripts. If I had taken the time to apply to Emily's House the tips I'm posting here today, it would have been a stronger book from the start. I'm not saying it would have been perfect or hit the NYT Bestseller list, but it would have been a more enjoyable read for anyone who was drawn in enough to purchase it.

But one of the truly wonderful things about self-publishing is that you can fix your mistakes. I first published Emily's House almost two years ago. Since then, I've written three more novels, gone to more writing workshops, worked with several more editors, and read and studied many more books both on my own and with writer pals.

I've learned a lot and grown exponentially as a writer. To honor that growth, I recently applied the editing and revision tips I've learned to Emily's House and uploaded a new edition (complete with a new ending!).

BUT, I don't recommend doing it that way. You only get one chance for a good first impression. It takes a lot of effort to find a reader and once you have them you don't want to squander the opportunity and end up turning that reader off, maybe forever, to your writing. Give readers the absolute best book that you can the first time. Take a few more weeks or even months to polish your manuscript. The result will be a much more successful book. I guarantee it.

If I've made you feel insecure and worried, good. That's the way you should feel. Somewhere inside that feeling like you've been punched in the gut lies the testament of your devotion to your craft. If you didn't care, you wouldn't hurt so much you want to puke.

After you cry in your coffee, wallow in your ice cream and decide that writing a novel is a crazy, foolish vocation for someone far more nuts than you, pull yourself up out of that pile of melted Phish Food and get back to work.

Before you hit the upload button, take a step back and apply these tips and  polish your prose. If you do, you will be rewarded with an eminently more readable, a.k.a. enjoyable, book.

And that, my writer friends, makes for happy readers. And as we all know, happy readers come back for more of your work, and that makes for happy writers.



Let me know if you use any or all of these and how it worked for you. And if you have editing tips, please leave your tip in the comments. Need an incentive? I'll choose one random commenter to win a nifty prize :-) Make sure you leave your e-mail address in order for me to contact you about your prize. Prize will be announced on my Facebook page and the winner will be e-mailed on November 13, 2013.

1. The Find Function is Your Friend

This is a super easy thing to do but time consuming. It's perfect for a day when you feel brain fried but you have time and will feel guilty if you don't work on your novel.

Use the "Find" function in your word processing program to seek out superfluous words. I've got my own list but feel free to add:

  • Just
  • Even
  • Then
  • Began
  • Start(ed)
  • Now
  • Some
  • -ing

Example: 
I fried a whole package of bacon then drained it on some paper towels then began to eat the entire pile of greasy, smoked pig.
Let me try that one again:
I fried a whole package of bacon, drained it on paper towels, and ate the entire pile of greasy, smoked pig. 
Do you see the difference? Do you agree that the second sentence flows more smoothly?

Did you notice the -ing in my list above? That -ing means that you should root out and eradicate as much passive voice as you can. I've lately been driven nearly insane by the passive voice in self-pubbed books I've picked up. There are appropriate times to use passive voice. But if every verb in every paragraph ends in -ing, you are using too much passive voice. Try this. Take one paragraph from your manuscript that's loaded with passive voice. Rewrite it  in active voice. Have a friend or family member read both out loud to you. Which sounds better to your ears? Which flows better?


Now imagine that you have cleaned up your entire manuscript this way. This incredibly simple step will tighten your prose and make it more enjoyable to read.


2. Grammarly

It seems to me that we now have two camps of writers when it comes to grammar. The first camp is made up of curmudgeonly grammarians that take pleasure in knowing each and every archaic rule of grammar and in pointing out to others when they have gone astray.

If you are a Grammarian, you can skip this tip. It's not for you. It's for those of us who are mere mortals (and who likely have not studied grammar since, you guessed it, grammar school).

The second camp contains writers who flip off the Grammarians as they happily write run on sentences, squint their modifiers and gleefully dangle their participles. The camp two Grammar Rebels think that grammar rules are terribly outdated and, for the most part, unnecessary. "Hey, as long as they know what I'm saying, who cares?"

And you know, the Grammar Rebels have a point. What is the point of grammar rules if not to ensure that all who read your work can understand what you're saying?

But listen up Grammar Rebels, grammar rules still matter. Yes, there are some that you can ignore because to follow the rule will make you - or your character - sound like a pompous ass (unless you want your character to sound like a pompous ass in which case apply as many old-school grammar rules as you can when writing their dialogue). The rules that can be kicked to the curb are the exception, not the rule.

"Is the grammar and spell check in my word processing program enough?" you ask.

No.

If you have been out of grammar school more years than you've owned your current car and you're not a Grammarian, I highly recommend that you invest in Grammarly.

Grammarly will not only point out grammar errors but it will tell you the rule and give you examples of both the correct and incorrect use. I found this very helpful to not only clean up my draft, but also to learn how to do it better next time. Trust me, after you've been told that you have squinting modifiers about a hundred times, you start to get the drift. I have found that using Grammarly consistently has helped me to avoid some of my most common errors in the first place.

But the program also checks not only for spelling errors, but it will also point out places where you can sauce up your word choice. For example, the program highlights the word "good" and suggests more descriptive words you could use instead.

Neat, huh?

Grammarly has a plug in for Word for Windows. If you use Mac, you'll have to cut and paste the text you want to check into the web-based program, make your changes, then cut and paste it back into your document.

After you've applied tips 1 and 2, time to move onto Tip #3:


3. Story Time


Have you ever read your entire manuscript out loud? If you haven't, I highly recommend you try it. Even after all the revision, tweaking, editing and re-writing, you will be amazed by how much you change as you read aloud.

As you read and speak at the same time, your editing brain is engaged in a different way than when you are merely reading silently. Things that have slipped by you (and maybe even an editor or two) will jump out at you. You'll find typos but you'll also notice redundancy and inconsistency.


Are any or all of these tips news to you or old hat? Do you have others that you recommend? Please leave your comment below :-)


4 comments:

  1. Excellent, no-nonsense post, Natalie! My favorite tip is #3 - read your work out loud. This is important for anything you write, even social media comments. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Bridget! I should learn to read my comments out loud ;-)

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  2. As a reviewer, this is a pet peeve of mine. I am amazed at the number of grammatical and proofreading errors I find in some of the indie published books available on the market. This is a wonderful guide for all indie writers out there! :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Kathryn, I'm glad you found the post useful. I read a lot of Indie books as well and I agree with you. If the book is full of errors, it detracts from the story. Hopefully as indies become more experienced and editing services more available and affordable, the quality of indie books will improve.

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