Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Importance of Self-editing

If you've been following this blog, you know that I'm a writer of mystery novels and short stories, and I also occasionally review both fiction and non-fiction books. What you may not know is that I once worked as an editor for a small press publishing company. Now I do free-lance editing jobs for small press and self-published authors, and I truly enjoy the work.

I was not accomplished at self-editing when I started writing my "Rhodes to Murder" series. It took six rewrites under the guidance of a very patient editor before my first book saw the light of day in 1998. That same book underwent further editing when it was reprinted in 2007. Today, after years of striving to improve my writing skills, I'm quicker to catch errors in my manuscripts before my work is published. I'm also quicker to catch errors in other people's manuscripts and published books. I now find myself mentally editing every book I read, and the result isn't always pretty.

I read four novels last week, two published by Penguin and two self-published by authors using Amazon's CreateSpace. All four were amateur sleuth mysteries, all four held my interest, and all four contained errors of one type or another that could have been prevented either by the author in a self-editing session, or by the person hired by the publisher for his/her supposed editing skills.

The Penguin titles were books one and two in a series by a respected writer. The errors consisted mainly of missing words that resulted in confusing sentences. Example: "She sat there, wiping away." Wiping away what? Yes, we were told earlier that the woman in question was crying, but was she now wiping away tears? Wiping away smeared mascara? Wiping away at a drippy nose? It could have been any one of those things. Why didn't the author just finish the sentence and tell us? And why didn't the Penguin editor advise the author to clarify such sentences? 

Given the length of time between series releases, readers often fail to notice small discrepancies in descriptions of characters or settings. When you read the first and second book back to back, though, you tend to catch those kinds of mistakes. In the Penguin series, I immediately noticed the heroine's house underwent a color change between the first and the second book. In book one, the home's exterior was beige. In book two, it was white. Sure, it's a small mistake. But again, it's a mistake that the author or the Penguin editor should have caught.

As for the two self-published books, the mistakes were mainly grammatical. Example: Referring to an FBI Special Agent, the author wrote "a agent that...". It should have read "an agent who".
"An" always replaces "a" before a word starting with a vowel. An agent, an apple, an olive, etc. And things are "that". People are "who". An agent is a person, therefore "who" is the proper word to use.

Example #2: The author referred to "the Caribbean Ocean". This is a fact check error. There are five oceans, the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Indian, the Arctic, and the Southern (or as we learned it back in my school days, the Antarctic). The Caribbean is a sea, and a simple fact check on Google would have told the author that.

Example #3: Words like "honey", "babe", "sweetie", "darling", "kiddo" are called terms of endearment and are not capitalized unless they start a sentence. In an otherwise smartly written story, I found it distressing to read terms of endearment capitalized in the middle of sentences.

Joseph Pulitzer wrote: "Put it before them briefly so they will read it, clearly so they will appreciate it, picturesquely so they will remember it, and above all, accurately so they will be guided by its light."

Writers cannot rely on others to catch all their mistakes. It's imperative that we all learn to self-edit our work. Grammar checking is important. Fact checking is important. Clarity of thought and action is important. If we want to be taken seriously by readers and reviewers, and if we want to succeed in the highly competitive world of publishing, we must produce the best work we can. 

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26 comments:

  1. Re: capitalization. If you're referring to a specific person as "the professor" or "captain" outside of conversation, is it okay to leave it lower case?

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    1. Yes! Capitalize the title only if used with the name -- Professor Atwater, Captain Tully -- or when directly addressing the person -- Do you have the paperwork, Captain?

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  2. My critique group always want these words capitalized if they refer to the person, In other word, "What do you think, Professor?" I've just gone over my latest book so many times and kept finding errors, Drove me nuts.

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    1. Yes, you capitalize the title if speaking directly to the person ("What do you think, Professor?")or using his name (Professor James thought the term paper was well written.) but not if referring to the person without using his/her name (The professor thought the term paper was well written.)

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  3. Drives me nuts, too. I don't have a problem with using the caps in quotes. I'm thinking about the other parts.

    Example: Bob took out the carrots while the professor studied the recipe.

    It gets even trickier in first person.

    Example: I took out the carrots while the professor studied the recipe.

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    1. Both examples you gave were correct because of the reasons stated in the previous replies to comments. (See above)

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  5. I had a mother who hounded me about spelling, punctuation, and sentence structure. It drove me crazy at the time but has been a great help as an adult. Unfortunately, I am so extreme, I reread and edit even text messages. Last week I read the latest release by one of my favorite authors. I loved the book. EXCEPT. In the final quarter of the book she was repeatedly referring to the gardai (Irish police) and consistently used garda every time it should have been gardai. It ruined the end of the book because that was all I was thinking about. When writing about something foreign to you, at the very least Google it. Typing it into Google would have brought up:
    garda [ˈgɑːrdə]
    n pl gardaí [ˈgɑːrdiː]
    a member of the Garda Síochána
    For the record, it was published by Berkley, a part of the Penguin group, which makes me wonder about Penguin editors.
    And you don't want me to start on about a secondary character in another series who went from being petite to an amazon!

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    1. Yes, it's always best to check foreign words to get the correct spelling. Of course, it may not have been the author's fault. I've heard numerous authors complain that their editors change the spelling of foreign words in their books, and no amount of explaining or arguing by the authors will change the editors minds. The problem is, many publishers are hiring kids right out of college as editors (they come way cheaper!) and these young people don't have the life experience or the reading background to recognize the correct spelling of certain words. Instead, they rely on their computer's spell check.

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  6. I've seen several books with 'a person that' when it should be 'who.' I chalk it up to laziness. I read a book where the author misspelled the name of his protagonist at least once. The main character!

    However, catching mistakes in other books helps me catch mistakes in my writing a bit easier.

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    1. I think the "that" and "who" thing is a common mistake made by many people, especially those who don't read books on a regular basis. Reading should teach you how to write.

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  7. Good advice, Mary. No matter how many times I read/edit my books, there's always something I miss. Missing words, especially articles, are tough. I often find them in action scenes where we type faster and read faster as the tension builds. Oh, well. I try. :-)

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    1. We all make mistakes, especially when we're typing at a hurried pace. And sometimes our eyes deceive us. We see what our brains expect to see instead of what's actually there on the paper.

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  8. Whooo, Mary! You are tough.
    But, truth be told, I agree with you. My problem as a reviewer is that it's sometimes hard to get past the appalling condition of ARCs (or should that be arcs?). Will typos, misplaced words, grammatical gaffes be fixed? One hopes so, but I begin to doubt it more and more. Some manuscripts and review copies are so flawed it becomes difficult to enjoy and assess the story.

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    1. Aw, Carl. Me tough? No way! I'm a pussycat, and you know it. :)

      I agree with everything you say. It's hard to review an ARC that's badly flawed by mistakes in grammar. What if the mistakes don't get fixed before publication? Then you, as a reviewer, look like you either don't care about mistakes or never saw them in the first place. People will stop trusting your reviews.

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  9. Mary, You used some great examples. I know I miss things no matter how many times I go over a manuscript. I think at least part of it is because I know what it's supposed to say, and that's the way I read it. Time to slow down and read the text closer. Excellent post!
    Marja McGraw

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    1. Right, Marja. Tests have shown that your brain doesn't need to see all the letters in a word to recognize the word. "Word" could be spelled "wrd" and your brain would still recognize it as "word". I think it helps if you allow at least a few days to pass before reading your work with a view to editing. That way you more or less clear your mind of your previous conceptions of what you wrote. Starting out fresh can help you notice the little errors in spelling, etc.

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  10. Hi Mary,
    I agree we should learn to self-edit, but I strongly believe that's just a starting point. I've tried setting the book aside, reading out of order---all the tricks---and have accepted the fact that I can't self-edit. That said, even after my efforts, my initial editor's work, and a copy editor's efforts, I just found a missing quotation mark on page 46 of "Mags and the AARP Gang," my latest effort, as I read it to listeners on a conference call set-up. Yikes.

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    1. That's a bummer, Nancy. I agree that no matter how hard we try -- and how hard our editors try -- some mistakes still seem to get into our books. I can understand and forgive the occasional mistake. I have them in my books, too. It's the repeated mistakes that get to me as an editor. Sometimes I just want to throw a book against the wall!

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