Welcome to my monthly editor’s guest column.
To edit or not to edit?
Well that isn’t the question.
The question is whether to pay for an editor, and if so, who to pay?
But let’s look at self-editing for this post and leave the ££££/$$$$ for a later post. Because self-editing comes first.
If you are useless at spelling and punctuation, you might as well admit it and hand your baby over to a skilled proofreader.
As for self-editing. One golden rule. Please, please leave your work for a while before you go back to it.
Self-imposed impossible deadlines are crazy when you are self-publishing.
There are lots of tips about how to self-edit: read it out loud, read it backwards (that so does not work for me), change the font/font size (that’s a good one, well recommended), and print it out. I would recommend printing it out but oh! the paper and cost of ink cartridges has me tearing my hair out. In Ye Olden Days reading print proofs was a lot easier. But times change and I honestly can’t justify print proofs.
You can over edit. How many times have I written something only to rewrite it and change it back or write something later on when I’d already said it previously.
In journalism, our stories went through a number of people: chief reporter/news editor, sub editor, chief sub editor, deputy editor, editor. Not all of them all of the time, but a goodly combination.
For example, someone might take the intro and use it as a headline. Then I had to write a new intro. Then someone would rewrite the intro back to my original and choose a different headline. And so on. Aaagh!
Sometimes, what you initially write is best.
Because I am incapable of reading past a misspelt word, wrong quotation mark, non-existent full stop, I’ll start with these small but noticeable errors as basics. They do matter. Please please please check for them.
There are basically two ways of writing fiction in the English language: English and American English. If you don’t know about style guides then I suggest you may wish to buy one. Hart’s for British, Chicago for American. I have and use both. Canadian style tends towards American, Aussie/Kiwi is more British, as are India and Pakistan. South Africa technically goes British, but informally leans US centric.
One of the small but main differences between UK and US is quotation marks. UK preferred style in fiction is ‘single marks’. Americans use “double ones”.
I had a ridiculous exchange with someone on a forum who asked me for my sources about quotation marks and quoted wiki at me. While wiki has (IMO) improved it is hardly the first resource for editing fiction. Talk about telling granny how to suck eggs.
I don’t care what quotation marks people use, but I do tell authors of the differences so they can decide for themselves.
One of the biggies I notice in most books is the misuse of compound words. Again, there is often a difference on the two sides of the pond. Brits wear make-up, Americans wear makeup. Well, some of us do, or don’t, as the case may be.
Americans put punctuation marks inside quotations. Brits vary it, depending on the sentence.
Numbers in fiction should be spelled out up to a hundred (in journalism and many text books it’s 1–10 or 12 that are spelled out).
One of my pet peeves is repetitive words. Especially distinctive ones. Do we really need to hear about someone’s obsidian eyes in every other paragraph?
And on the same repetitive theme, starting consecutive sentences/paragraphs with a subordinate clause is just dire.
If your writing looks like this:
Rushing out of the door, Jamie tripped on a banana skin …
On his way to school, he stopped to speak to the old tramp …
Turning up late for class, he was embarrassed to see Miranda laughing at him …
Edit. Big time.
Technically, it’s regarded as weak writing. More importantly, it is actually jarring to read. What we need is smooth prose for an easy read. This type of construction holds up the reading experience.
I read a draft query letter to an agent and virtually every paragraph started with a subordinate clause. My first thought was that an agent wouldn’t even consider the book based on the poor writing of the letter. What on earth would the book be like?
Authors love dramatic tags and adverbs. Purists prefer ‘said’, or nothing, if the exchange is clear. I despair when I read about characters hissing (snakes do that), barking and growling (my Podencos do that), laughing, chuckling and chortling (you can’t do that while speaking).
Trans and intrans
I’ll end with one of the most frequent mistakes I see. Lay and lie. We lay the table, we lie down. That’s not too difficult. But, what happens is, we get constructions like, ‘she went to lay down’. No, she went to lie down. The confusion often arises, because, in the past tense, she lay down. Aaaagh! again. But not she laid down.
Lay ALWAYS takes an object, eg the hen laid an egg. Lie does not have a direct object. Remember the hens if this one confuses you. The hen lays an egg, the hen laid an egg. The person lies down, or did lay down (but doesn’t lay an egg!).
With which, I will lay me down to sleep 😉
Next month I’ll be looking in more detail at the differences in transatlantic writing and discuss pros and cons of sticking to a specific national style, or morphing into one globalspeak.
Happy editing authors!