What Big Teeth You Have, Grammar – Part 4

Here’s the next post about the wonderful world of grammar, he says to accompanying groans. Actually, it can be a fascinating world. No, really. I’ve been recently engaged in editing for indie authors, which I enjoy, and it’s been having a beneficial effect on my own understanding of how grammar works.

My grasp of grammar comes from a lifelong love of reading and writing. I can read something and instinctively know when a grammatical mistake has been made. However, I didn’t study English at a high level (my degree is in law) and so my ability to explain the error is lacking, especially when it comes to using the correct technical terms. Yet, when editing, I often find myself having to explain the reason for a suggested correction. That is when I turn to the style guides—I use Chicago and Oxford style manuals—and then try to couch the reason in layman’s terms.

I thought it might be fun (yeah, yeah, I have a strange idea of fun) or, at least, useful to explain some of the more common errors I come across while reading and/or editing indie work. (Not, I hasten to add, that these errors are entirely confined to books by independent authors, but I think most people would accept that they are much less commonly found in traditionally published works since they tend to go through more rounds of professional editing.)

I’ll deal with two of the more common ones I come across in this piece. There are plenty of others to discuss in future instalments. (Seriously, stop groaning.)

Run-on Sentences

The humble comma has a multitude of uses. It separates items in a list, it can be used for parenthesis (where a stronger break as indicated by an em dash isn’t required), it punctuates speech, it breaks up wordy sentences into more easily readable chunks, it denotes a slight pause. There are more uses, but that’s enough to be going on with.

What is not a function of the comma is to join two complete sentences. That is the job of a semicolon (sometimes a colon) or em dash, or conjunctions such as ‘and’, ‘but’, ‘then’, etc. I see this sort of construction regularly:

John was exhausted, he fell over.

‘John was exhausted’ and ‘he fell over’ are two complete sentences. You could rewrite the example properly as, ‘John was exhausted. He fell over.’

The author has tried to make the comma do the work of the semicolon. It’s sometimes known as a ‘comma splice’. There are plenty of ways to merge these sentences without abusing the poor comma:

John was exhausted, so he fell over.

John was exhausted and he fell over.

John was exhausted; he fell over.

John was exhausted—he fell over.

More creatively:

John was so exhausted, he fell over.

Since John was exhausted, he fell over.

You get the point (and I’m fed up of writing about John and his problems).

Another incorrect use of the comma is to use it to splice two clauses linked by adverbs such as ‘nevertheless’ and ‘therefore’. So, the grammatically correct translation of the famous philosophical statement attributed to Descartes is not ‘I think, therefore I am’, but ‘I think; therefore I am’. On that profound note, let’s move on.

Like v As

Consider this (admittedly lowbrow) sentence:

I felt scared, like I was about to shit myself.

Not the most edifying of sentences, but is there anything wrong with it grammatically? The answer is, technically, yes.

Ah, technically. So here, according to Chicago, is the technical reason:

‘[Like’s] traditional function is adjectival, not adverbial, so that like governs nouns and noun phrases.’ There’s more, a lot more, but you’ll have to look it up yourself.

In essence, traditional grammar dictates that ‘like’ shouldn’t be used before a verb phrase, such as ‘I was about to shit myself’. Instead, the conjunction should be ‘as if’ or ‘as though’:

I felt scared, as though I was about to shit myself.

On the other hand, this would be grammatically correct:

I felt scared, like a man about to shit himself.

‘a man about to shit himself’ is a noun phrase (i.e. ‘man’ is a noun and the remaining words modify it) and so ‘like’ can properly link it to the preceding clause.

I imagine some writers reading this and shaking their heads, thinking, “What the heck is he wittering on about? I use ‘like’ all the time in the way he’s condemning without any problems.”

Such is your prerogative. However, far better to break grammatical rules through educated choice rather than ignorance. In other words, know the rules before deciding to break them. At least, then, if an irritated reviewer tears you a new one, you’ll know why.

And I’d strongly recommend breaking them sparingly. You’re far more likely to run foul of a disgruntled reader through constant disregard of the rules than by the occasional informed decision to break them.

That’s enough about grammar for today. No doubt there’ll be another post along in a while. Groan away—I can take it.

Guest Post – Zachry Wheeler

Today I’m hosting the author of a novel I read a few weeks ago and greatly enjoyed. And it’s in development to be made into a feature film—seriously, how cool is that? (he says, without a trace of envy.) The novel is Transient and the author is Zachry Wheeler. He recently hosted me on his blog (that was fun) and it’s good to return the favour. He’s going to talk about a subject on which I’ve written a couple of posts myself: self-editing. Beneath Zachry’s piece you’ll find plenty of links to his website, social media and books so you can find out more about him. Enough from me—over to Zachry.

 How Many Edits Does It Take?

Ah, the age old question. How many edits does it take to get to the center of a good manuscript? As with everything else in writing, the answer is crisp, clear, and concise: it depends. I hope you enjoyed reading this useless post and I look forward to your frustrated hate mail.

But seriously, it’s a difficult question to answer because it depends on a ton of factors. I lost count of the editing rounds with my debut novel Transient. When it came time to edit my second novel, Max and the Multiverse, I had graduated from complete hack to competent author and knocked it out in a dozen passes. Today, I edit down my manuscripts with a tried and true strategy. For me, and I cannot stress the me part enough, I have learned that it takes four major editing passes: Content, Format, Verbal, and Polish.

Content editing should be self-explanatory. You edit for content. This includes fleshing out detail, adjusting pace, fixing structural issues, deleting anything that doesn’t make sense or push the story forward, anything that gives your narrative a clear direction. Usually, my first draft is about 3/4 the word count of the finished product. I add the other 1/4 during content editing. In fact, I sometimes add notes in the first draft like [need more detail about the pickle] and come back to it after completion.

Content editing takes about as much time as writing the first draft. After this round, my story is complete.

Format editing is when I take the results of content editing and dump them into a formatted file that I will use for publication, usually a tricked-out Word document. I set margins, select fonts, add titles, credits, dedications, headers, page numbers, all that tedious stuff. Once I have everything in place (and technically ready to print), I start a fresh round of editing and adjust anything that is not pleasing to the eye. Sometimes it’s a simple word choice. Other times it’s a complete rearrangement of a paragraph or scene.

Format editing takes about half the time of content editing. After this round, my narrative is complete.

Verbal editing is when I read the entire novel out loud and adjust anything that is not pleasing to the ear. You would be amazed at how many errors you uncover by simply vocalizing the words you have written. Your ears have a way of uncovering linguistic quirks that don’t sound right. It might look good on paper, but your ears will tell you things like “no human talks that way” or “this phrase makes you sound like a pirate.”

Verbal editing takes about half the time of format editing. After this round, my manuscript is complete.

Polish editing is quick and easy. This is when you and your find/replace become best friends. You start at the top of your manuscript and search for all those dumb little mistakes that manage to slip through committee. Things like double spaces or inverted quotes or there/their/they’re. I keep a running list of common typos that I search for and destroy in every final manuscript. One of my common failings is using “sunk” when I mean “sank.” At least one of those bastards will make it through to the end.

Polish editing should only take a day or two. After this round, my novel is complete.

Once I complete my polishing round, it’s off to the races. I hand it over to my copy editor for one final nit-pick while I concentrate on cover design, back blurb, and all the other fun stuff that goes into getting a completed book into the hands of readers. It’s quite a daunting process, but I enjoy every second of it. Hopefully this post helped to answer that annoying question, or at the very least, give you an expectation of things to come. Best of luck and happy editing.

Links:


Amazon US
Amazon UK


Amazon US
Amazon UK

Zachry’s website (where the above article first appeared): http://www.zachrywheeler.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/zachrywheeler

Twitter: https://twitter.com/zachrywheeler

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/zachrywheeler/

Editing – Part 2

If you’re a writer and anything like me, when you finish the first draft of your latest work you’ll type the words ‘THE END’ and feel a curious blend of euphoria and sadness. Although I know those two little words won’t make it into the published version, I type them every time; it’s a form of closure on my least favourite part of the writing process, producing that first draft.

But what then? Unless you’re unusually gifted, or have painstakingly edited as you’ve gone along, chances are that the manuscript will need some work—some spit and polish—before it’s in a fit state to be released into the world.

Whether you’re just starting out and haven’t the funds to spend on editing, or whether you intend sending the manuscript off to a professional editor, there are various steps you can take yourself to improve the work to make it more publishable or in a better state to present to an editor.

There are various methods of self-editing. I’m going to set out what I do for my longer works, which might be helpful to someone who doesn’t know where to begin. (For shorter works, especially short stories, some of the following steps might be truncated or missed out altogether.) Like writing itself, this is not the only way of doing it; it’s not the best or recommended way—it’s simply my way. Each writer must find what works best for him (or, as ever, her).

So, I’ve typed the two magic words ‘THE END’. What next?

Step 1: Let it Rest

After saving and backing up the Word document, I close it. Then I try to forget it about for a minimum of four weeks. Longer, where possible. Two months is better, three perfect, but I don’t have that much will power.

Step 2: The Bigger Picture

When I can’t stand ignoring the manuscript any longer, I’ll read it through from beginning to end. This is where the importance of Step 1 comes in—it’s as though I’m reading a novel someone else has written. Obviously, I know the story and recognise the style of writing, but I will come across entire passages I can’t recall drafting.

The main purpose of this step is to make sure the story works on the broadest level. It isn’t to make corrections, although I usually can’t stop myself changing any typing errors I come across. While I’m reading, I’ll keep at the back of my mind questions like:

  • is the opening interesting enough to draw the reader in?
  • does the plot flow?
  • do the characters act, um, in character?
  • are all sub-plots resolved?
  • does the story ever lag?
  • is the ending satisfying?
  • are there any themes that could be better developed or emphasised?

There are other questions, but that should give a flavour. Essentially, I’m looking at the bigger picture during this step.

Step 2A: Major Revisions

If I identified a need to rewrite part(s) of the work during Step 2, this is when I’ll do it. I’ve been lucky—only once have I needed to do a major rewrite after the first read-through. This was with the final instalment of the Earth Haven trilogy.

Even as I was writing the original ending, I knew it was too easy: the characters weren’t having to sacrifice much to achieve their ends and it lacked a final face-off between the two main groups of protagonists. In short, it was unsatisfying. Nevertheless, I let the manuscript sit for a few weeks before embarking on Step 2.

It confirmed what I already knew. I discarded the last few chapters and rewrote the ending, adding another chapter or two in the process. I knew immediately it was better, a much more satisfying end to a 300,000-word trilogy.

Then I returned to Step 1. After I’d let it rest for another four weeks or so, I embarked on Step 2 once more. This time, the bigger picture looked complete.

Step 3: Snagging

Now I’m happy with the overall structure, I’ll start the fine-tuning process. During this second read-through, I’m looking for passages of narrative or dialogue that don’t flow as well as they could, and correcting them as I go, or that don’t add value to the tale. This might involve rewording paragraphs or sentences to make the writing clearer, and deleting words, phrases, sentences or entire paragraphs that are superfluous.

Step 4: Eradicating Clunkiness and Repetition

During this third read-through, I’m looking at individual sentences and revising any that are awkward or contain unnecessary repetition. I find that when writing the first draft, I often use the same word repeatedly in places when there are perfectly good alternatives that freshen up the prose.

I will search for how many times words I tend to overuse appear, like ‘just’, ‘that’ and ‘the’, together with certain swear words, and either delete some instances or substitute alternatives. It’s about removing clunkiness and repetition to make the reading experience more pleasurable.

I’m looking, too, for inconsistencies such as referring to ‘Jenny’ as ‘Jill’, or (true example) saying a character comes from Hull when earlier in the novel he came from Grimsby.

Also, at this stage, I’ll check any facts or references are correct.

Step 4A: Rinse and Repeat

Whether I repeat Step 4 depends on how many alterations I made the first time around. If not many, I’ll move on to Step 5. If there were a lot of changes, I usually feel I have to repeat Step 4 in case the changes themselves have introduced more clunkiness or repetition. 

Step 5: The Nitty Gritty

The final read-through. The proofread. For this, I reformat the Word document into a mobi file and transfer it to my Kindle. It’s surprising how many simple errors I spot on the Kindle that I missed on the computer screen. Reading it in this different format seems to make typos jump out at me. I keep my laptop close at hand so I can change the master Word document as I find errors.

Step 6: Spellcheck

Having corrected all errors I noticed during the proofread, I’m almost ready to publish. Before I do, I run the manuscript through Word’s spell-checker. What I’m mainly looking for are any final spelling errors I missed during the proofread and things like double spaces, which sometimes go unnoticed, especially if they occur at the edge of the page.

These steps are broadly equivalent to the various types of editing mentioned in Part 1: Step 2 – developmental edit, Step 3 – line edit, Step 4 – copy edit, Step 5 – proofread. 

In theory, I should now be ready to publish a book filled with flowing narrative and sharp dialogue, free of spelling errors, grammatical mistakes and other blemishes, polished and shining like a new pin. In practice, of course, I’m unlikely to have caught every single tiny error in a ninety-thousand word novel. The aim is to achieve perfection, whilst recognising that I’m only human and am certain to have missed something.

It’s accepting that I’m not perfect which enables me to publish anything. Otherwise, I’d never get past Step 4. I could read through a draft novel a hundred times and find something to change on each occasion, though after a while it’s only because this time I prefer a particular sentence construction over another, or a particular word over the one I used, when either do the job perfectly well. We have to draw the line somewhere, say to ourselves, “Enough’s enough. Publish and be damned.”

Here are some other methods I’ve heard writers say they use. I’ve tried some of them and they’re not for me. But try them and find what works best for you.

– change the font size and/or type (this is of similar effect to what I do when transferring the book onto my Kindle, and should be useful for those who don’t own an e-reader)

– print the manuscript onto paper and edit/proofread the hard copy

– read the text, particularly the dialogue, aloud

– have someone (or the voice function, if present, on your word processing program) read it to you

– read sections of the work backwards (useful, I imagine, for proofreading rather than editing)

If there are any novice writers looking in who aren’t sure where to start when it comes to self-editing, I hope you’ve found this to be of some use. Don’t forget: this isn’t ‘one size fits all’. You’ll need to try various methods and combinations until you find what works best for you.

Good luck!

Editing – Part 1

Any aspiring author considering self-publishing their work who seeks guidance online is likely to be furnished with three stock pieces of advice:

1. Obtain a professional-looking, genre-specific cover;
2. Write an enticing blurb*;
3. Have the book professionally edited before publishing.

This won’t be the only advice offered, but is probably the most common. It’s also sound advice—not something that can be said about every pearl of wisdom bandied about on the net.

It’s that third item I want to talk a little about: the advice to have the work professionally edited before letting it loose on the reading public.

The word ‘editing’ is often thrown about with gay abandon as a catch-all term for polishing a raw manuscript until it shines, but there are various types of editing, requiring different degrees of skill and coming with varying price tags.

Generally speaking, editing can range from in-depth analysis of a novel’s structure (developmental editing), to a final proofread to eliminate any spelling mistakes or punctuation errors remaining from previous editing passes. The various intermediate stages may be called substantive editing, mechanical editing, line editing and copy editing—there is often overlap between these terms, or they are used interchangably, or given different meanings by different editors.

And cost will range widely, perhaps from a few thousand dollars or more for a developmental edit, to less than fifty dollars for a proofread from someone who will run it through a spellchecker and little else.

That’s the thing: anyone with a computer and internet connection can set themselves up online as an editor. While there are experienced and skilled editors and proofreaders out there who fully justify their fees, there are also people claiming to be editors who I wouldn’t trust to check my shopping list. Such is the internet.

There are two main issues I see facing the new author who wants to follow the advice and have their work professionally edited. The first is cost—not many new authors are likely to have a few thousand dollars to spend on an editor. The second is finding a knowledgable, reliable editor who’s a good fit—that’s when recommendations from other authors become important, but many newbies might not have the necessary contacts. They will need to poke about online until they find a forum or group that fits their genre and personality; they’ll need to join in, get to know people (in as much as that’s possible on social media) and learn whose recommendations they can trust.

What of the new author who genuinely can’t afford to hire an editor? I’ve seen authors advised to go without whatever it takes in order to save funds for an editor. The advice I’ve seen hasn’t gone as far as to recommend selling a kidney; at least, not yet.

No matter how sincerely the well-meaning advisor believes that the newbie can find a way to raise the funds, the fact remains that for some this will simply not be possible. For some, self-editing might be the only option.

I’ll talk a little more about self-editing methods in my next post on this topic—not, I hasten to add, that I’m an expert, but I can at least talk about what I do. To someone who doesn’t know where to start, it might be useful.

Before I end, there’s one important thing to add: even if self-editing, try to get at least one other pair of eyes on your work before you publish it. Look around on Facebook and other social media for critiquing groups you might be able to join, or suggest to other writers at a similar stage as you that you get together to set one up. If all else fails, it could be a friend or family member whose opinion you trust and who, preferably, has a reasonably high standard of written English. Ask them to read through your final manuscript and note any spelling errors or other mistakes. Though not everyone on the forums will agree with me, I appreciate that in some cases this might the best a novice writer can do.

* I know that historically the word ‘blurb’ referred to a catchy phrase about the book, often by a famous author, used to promote the work, but language evolves and the word is often used nowadays to refer to the book description, and that is the sense in which I’m using it. So there.