Long before I started taking my writing seriously I was a member of the Brotherhood Without Banners, the George RR Martin fan group. Our online home was a place called Westeros.org, and it was my first real taste of the joys of online community. The people I met there were some of the most generous and genuine folk you could imagine and, while I have scaled back my posting, I still keep in touch with many of them and consider them a big part of my life.
This generosity of spirit was demonstrated a few weeks ago when I was moaning on Twitter about how much I hate proofreading. It’s something I suck at, I am a big picture sort of guy, rather than being gifted with a great attention to detail (or, to put it another way – I am lazy). Zoë was kind enough to offer me some tips and I was so impressed that I rewarded her kindness by asking her if she would like to write a post on the subject, knowing it would be of great interest to the many other writers who struggle in this area.
Instead of stabbing me in the eye for presuming on our somewhat limited acquaintance in such a way, Zoë immediately agreed and produced a truly exceptional article which I am sure will be a great help to this blog’s readers. Any proofing errors below are, of course, mine!
When David first asked me to contribute to Wednesday Writers, I was pretty daunted, given the extensive writing credits of so many of the other contributors. I have never had a novel picked up and have never submitted a short story. I do have professional publishing experience, though, but from the other direction.
I started proofreading at an early age. I was the annoying little oik who wrote a letter to Corgi about the typos in my edition of Dragonflight when I was nine, although, owing to the practicalities of obtaining stamps, I never posted it. When I started writing novels a few years later, I absorbed as much as I could from as many different sources as possible about editing, and carried that on as a saleable talent as well as for the pleasure of improving my writing.
Proofreading and Editing: In The Beginning
So. Your completed first draft is staring at you. Well done: it takes a lot of work to get this far. You’ve heard of editing, but don’t know where to start…
Novels require three types of editing: structural editing, which addresses issues of story structure, character development, plot progression, flow etc., line editing, which is nitpicking each individual word independent of the plot, and proofreading. “Copy editing” may refer to either line editing or proofreading depending on which country you are in.
Holly Lisle has perfected and promoted her One-Pass Revision technique where she tackles structure, line editing and proofreading in one large revision phase. I typically proofread while I am editing my novels, though I do structural edits and line edits separately. Once you are confident with structural editing, line editing and proofreading, you will find yourself doing all of them at once, but they are different skills.
Structural editing is beyond the scope of this article, so from now on I will assume that the draft you proofread is structurally sound. You should have already cut out extraneous scenes, rearranged dialogue and action to improve the book’s flow, deleted unnecessary conversations where characters discuss their plans for the next chapter, riffled two characters into one, changed three characters’ gender, and knocked the book down to its approximate final shape.
Line by Line
No matter how tight you thought your first draft prose was, it will invariably be less concise than it could be. Now, consider your working genre carefully. In literary fiction, prose is critical, whereas in SF, fantasy, horror, romance, crime, thriller or any of their subgenres, the author’s usual aim is to stop the prose from getting in the way of the plot.
We genre authors therefore have a great opportunity to remove 10% of a book, or anywhere up to twenty thousand words, at the line edit stage. (This is habit-forming. I line-edited down this article by 10%.) Did you say something in nineteen words where you could have used twelve? In twelve words where you could have used seven? Knocking out extra words will knock down a wall between the story and the reader. Adverbs are a big pitfall: most of them are unnecessary. It’s more effective to delete the adverb and use a more precise verb. English has rather a lot of them.
During a line edit, ask yourself whether each word is in its correct place. Sometimes you will want to use a coruscation of purplish, perfect prose: keep these patches to a minimum. Over-wordiness is off-putting to readers. If you are writing a pure romance novel the mileage will be slightly different, particularly on sensual topics such as sex and food, but on the whole, you will still need to pare down the book.
Other things to spot while line editing include unintentional rhyming and rhythm repetition (intentional is great: unintentional isn’t), overuse of the definite article, overuse of the construction “the pen of my aunt” (what’s wrong with “my aunt’s pen” unless you are writing dialogue for a character whose first language has no possessive?), inappropriate variations in each character’s dialect/register, repeated use of the same word in any given four or five lines of text, starting successive paragraphs with the same word even if this word is a character’s name or “the” (in general, twice in succession is OK but three times in succession is not), repeated use of the same punctuation marks and sentence structure, unintentional double entendres, and unintentional use of phrasing that could cause confusion.
Line editing will alter your prose, but this is a necessary component of polishing your style, which will change every year you write. As you grow as an author, focus on creating a pleasant environment for your reader. In genre fiction, the story is important. Pare out those words that are getting in the way of the story.
(For pointers on line editing literary fiction, please contact a specialist.)
Proofreading is line editing’s analytic companion, complete with librarian-glasses and a disapproving expression. Line editing is a craft with more than a little art in it. To proofread is to correct your mistakes.
This includes mistakes in typography and in content. If a character is called Maria 95% of the time and Mariah 5% of the time, proofreading is the process that picks up that discrepancy.
Before you start proofreading you should create relevant lists of character names and titles (especially if complicated), fictional place names, relative distances between plot locations, time taken to travel between those locations etc., so that you can check during the proofing step that they are correct. Even if you are certain of your facts, keep appropriate reference material close at hand, just in case a fantasy country moves position on the map while you aren’t looking.
Pay particular attention to technical terminology – make sure you aren’t constructing cutlery from silicon and circuits from silicone. In my day job I once printed a finance industry textbook that lauded the delights of pubic accounting in a chapter that should have been about public accounting. (I didn’t proofread that one.) More relevant to most here will be my mistake while writing an SF novel of putting a decimal point in the wrong place, overstating the speed of light by a factor of ten, and factoring that error into my spaceplanes’ speed and the distances between my space stations. That one took a while to fix.
The Art of Proofreading
Your right brain may be rebelling at this point. On the face of it, originating and proofreading are two diametrically opposite skills. The one requires creativity and spontaneity: the other is an exercise in concentration.
You need to learn to take off one hat and put on the other. Just as with synopsis creation, something else that differs from writing fiction, proofreading is a necessary part of the strong writer’s skill set.
In order to proofread you need a high standard of English spelling, punctuation and grammar, and the discretion to know when to use misspellings, variant grammar and creative punctuation. If you know your English is faulty for any reason, including dyslexia, someone else needs to proofread your work. This may have the side effect of correcting things you did not want to be corrected, such as appropriate misuse of language according to context and character.
How Not To Edit
Editing requires concentration. If you corrected obvious proof mistakes while you were working through your structural edits, and if you are not combining a proofread and a line edit, you may find yourself proofreading a pretty clean copy. It is quite difficult under these circumstances to maintain concentration. Make sure you do so. The moment you lose concentration, your eyes will slide past a mistake. That said…
Editing is a marathon, not a sprint. Studies of schoolchildren and university students show that neurotypical humans have a concentration span of around twenty to thirty minutes. Every half an hour, stop and look at pictures of kittens (or supercars, or My Little Ponies, or mediaeval Welsh castles, etc.). If you persist for too much longer than this your concentration level will drop and your work’s quality will suffer.
It will take you a long time to edit a book properly. Don’t become discouraged when you realise you have been working for hours and are still only on chapter 6. This is the step where a book becomes finalised: you can’t skimp on it.
Electronic v. Paper Editing
Modern editing professionals work on screen ninety percent of the time. There is a specific drawback to doing this for one’s own writing – even if you handwrite your first drafts, the version you line edit and proofread will be a Word, OpenOffice, Indesign or other DTP document that you have seen several dozen times before.
The notorious difficulty of proofreading one’s own work stems from this familiarity: as authors we become too used to each sentence’s visual appearance. I therefore suggest that before attempting to proofread, you change either the font, or the font size, or both. One of my sentences spent nine months missing a “was” before I read it in Palatino instead of my usual draft font, Times New Roman.
As an alternative, you can print out your book and proofread it on paper. This has three down sides: it is expensive in terms of paper and ink unless you work for a very understanding (or oblivious) manager, the results will take up space on your shelves, and you have to make each change twice – once on paper and once when typing it up.
Despite this, I normally line edit and proofread on paper after my major structural work is done. I find it helps me to focus on just the errors in the text rather than on the story structure.
Nitpicking on Screen – Markup Functions and Not Using Them
Microsoft Word has a markup version whereby you can enter changes for later approval. If editing someone else’s work, use this. If working on your own, just put through everything you can at once, and create a separate document for noting serious inconsistencies. You know when you’ve missed out a punctuation mark rather than leaving it out for dramatic effect, you don’t need to ask which of two spellings of a character’s name is correct, and if you notice a discrepancy in the current-year income of Fantasy Country W, maximum acceleration in a gravity well of SF Spaceship X, scholastic history of Fictional Character Y or lethal dose of Genuine Poison Z, make an entry on your problems list and work out later which is correct. (You do not have permission to ignore the problems list.)
Nitpicking on Paper – Proofreading Marks
In order to line edit or proofread your work on paper, you need to use proofreading marks. Learning the BSI Standard marks, or equivalent, will be useful for the future if you ascend the ladder far enough to sign with a publishing house.
Even if you normally single-space your drafts to read on screen, double-space or 1.5x space your final draft before printing it out to edit. You need room to mark it up more than you need to save paper. If you are concerned about the number of trees you are killing, reduce the font size and narrow one margin, preferably the left (you need one wide margin).
The usual method of marking a page is:
Left margin In the text Right margin
X (denotes there is an error) Textual mark Marginal mark
The most basic BSI proofreading mark, the insert mark, looks like the foot of a Hangman tree:
If you have missed out a word or punctuation mark, put this symbol in the missing item’s space. Note the missing item in the right margin. If you can’t fit it in, for instance if you have left out a fantasy nobleman’s full title, an SF IT technician’s whole shopping list, or most of a paragraph because you leant on the DELETE key while doing the structural edit, put a capital letter (for reference) in the right margin and write out the missing text on the reverse of your current sheet.
If the missing item is any punctuation mark other than an apostrophe, circle it for added visibility. Don’t circle missing apostrophes, in order to distinguish them from commas.
Score through text to be deleted. Underline text that should go in italics. If text is in italics incorrectly, underline the affected text and score through said underline. Double underline denotes a change to small capitals, and triple underline denotes a change to large capitals.
The BSI mark for inserting a paragraph break looks like this:
Underline the last word you want to put in the shortened paragraph, put a vertical line in the break place, and add a line over the first word in the new paragraph.
If you have been overenthusiastic and marked up something that does not need correcting, “stet” means “leave this the way it was”.
These marks and others are online at http://www.lancingpress.co.uk/factsheets/images/proofmarks1.png. There is much more to learn about proofreading marks, including the minutiae of when to use a blue pen and when to use a red pen (really), but this will get you started in on-paper editing.
Twice to Tango?
Should an author line edit just once? Extra passes are likely to give diminishing returns, partly because you will have picked up most errors on the first pass, partly because of enervation. I prefer to read through the book as a book once I have edited it, and to try to experience it from the reader’s perspective. If I’ve missed any proofreading errors, or if my prose isn’t tight, I’ll notice. Proofreading twice is an option you should certainly take if your “final” read reveals a lot of errors.
When Enough is Too Much
A famous author once observed that when a book is finished, the author should stop writing it and step away. The same goes for editing. You can’t keep reworking that one scene again and again, and neither can you keep on editing its every sentence into perfection and checking it for punctuation errors.
Your novel will never be perfect. Your goal is to make it as good as you possibly can, and release it into the wild. The search for perfection will carry on, into your next novel.
Zoë Sumra started writing fantasy novels at the age of twelve, because she lived in the countryside and there was nothing else to do. Twenty years on, her working credits include typesetter, proofreader, print controller and stock controller, sometimes all at once, in two branches of non-fiction publishing. None of her fantasy or SF novels have been published, though not for want of trying. She cherishes the moment when Alastair Reynolds opined that her most recent novel’s opening was “pretty good”. She is an associate member of the Society for Editors & Proofreaders. Away from the written word, she is an enthusiastic amateur fencer, currently ranked inside the British top forty at women’s sabre. Her knees hate fencing and are plotting a rebellion. She lives in London with her husband. You can find her online at http://zoeiona.livejournal.com