Welcome all dreamers, fantasists, bibliophiles, and romantics. Join me Mondays and Fridays for speculation about other worlds, exploration of the human heart and soul in fiction and fact, sojourns in history and science, advice and tidbits in the realms of story, and thoughts on everything in between...

Friday, June 13, 2014

How Not to Drive Away Readers: Clean Prose

Have you ever read a book that had a decent plot and reasonably engaging characters but was riddled with typos, grammatical errors, and misspellings? It can be difficult to enjoy that plot and those characters while wading through the swamp of technical errors. Would you feel inclined to recommend the book, even if you managed to finish reading it?

We’ve all read books with numerous technical errors. Most books have at least a few, but the ones that look like an editor never saw them are the ones that turn us away. Readers’ tolerance levels vary, but it’s safest to bet that most will not continue reading, much less recommend, a story strewn with flaws.

So how do we writers avoid turning our readers off with poorly edited prose? How can we safeguard our stories? After all, despite the fact that we write fiction, not all of us excel in grammar, punctuation, or spelling.

To tackle this, let’s look at polishing our prose in two states: first, the pre-publishing phase and second, the publishing phase. Pre-publishing accounts for all work done before sending it to a publisher. Publishing accounts for the polishing accomplished with that publisher, specifically with an editor.


1) Create Distance: Once you type that last word and officially finish your first draft, take a break from the story. Our eyes and brains play tricks on us, inserting the correct words, spelling, and punctuation whether it’s there or not. If we immediately go back to a story we just finished, with all its details fresh in our minds, we run a much greater risk of this. So set the story aside for a few weeks, perhaps a month or two, and work on something else.

2) Go Over the Work Repeatedly: Good editing takes a lot of time and effort. Only one or two passes over a work is insufficient. Exactly how many times you comb through a story and exactly what you look for each time is up to you. But go into the process expecting to put forth a lot of work.

3) Strategize: It’s impossible to look for every possible type of flaw in a work at once. Make a list of the things that need editing: spelling, grammar, character development, internal consistency, repetition, etc. Pick just a few to look for on each pass over a story. It’s usually best to start with broader elements and work down to the more precise such as spelling and punctuation. However, as technical flaws such as misspellings and incorrect punctuation are the focus of this post, bear in mind that, even while strategizing your editorial approach, it’s beneficial to keep an eye out for small technical errors on each pass. Devote at least one full read specifically to grammar, spelling, and punctuation, though.

4) Get Another Opinion: No matter how good you are at the technical characteristics of writing, have others look over your work. Beta readers and critique partners are invaluable. Like the first point in this segment, our eyes and brains play tricks on us. Other readers catch things we miss, no matter how many times we look over our stories, we will always miss things. Rely on other eyes for help.

5) Read the Story Aloud: For some reason, our mouths are not as easily tricked as our eyes. When we read aloud, we hear flaws in the work. If you do this as either the last or one of the last rounds of edits, you’ll catch many errors.

6) Study: No one is perfect, and skills vary from individual to individual, but as writers, we should make a continuous effort to improve our mastery of the craft, even its mundanities. This includes our mastery of grammar, spelling, punctuation, and any and all other technicalities of prose. The more we study, learn, and practice, the better we become and the fewer mistakes we’ll need to correct later.

7) Do Your Best: Don’t cut corners when editing. There are times when weariness and the tedium tempt even the best of us to take the easier path. Don’t give the process half efforts or take short cuts. There are few things to excuse this, a looming publishing deadline perhaps. Cutting those corners risks missing the very errors that might turn readers away from the story, and that translates into the loss of income and success.

8) Hiring an Editor: There are few instances when I recommend this, mainly only when you seek self-publication. Hiring an editor is expensive and not always worth the money. Granted, there are some fantastic editors offering their services out there. However, there are al least as many mediocre or poorly skilled editors, and it can be difficult to tell the difference. Besides this, different publishing houses use different standards and unique style preferences for the fiction they accept and publish. There’s no way a hired editor can know all of these specific preferences. First of all, until you receive and sign a contract, you won’t know what publisher you’ll have. Second, even if the editor you hire has the best of intentions and is familiar with a publisher’s in-house preferences, their efforts cannot guarantee a publisher will make an offer for your story. When seeking publication through an established house, whether small or large, save your money and rely on beta readers and critique partners rather than professional editors. That said, no one will stop you if you genuinely feel you need to hire an editor. For some, the reassurance of a professional editor is worth the money.

However, in cases where an author intends to self-publish, hiring a professional editor is essential. No book should go to print without an expert’s scrutiny. A professional editor helps give a self-published book a competitive polish. Hiring an editor is, of course, no guarantee of success, but it can be a safeguard against turning off readers with easily correctable technical flaws. Though, be sure to hire a skilled editor.


1) Listen to Your Editor: Publishers pay their editors for a reason, because they’re skilled and experienced in bringing a story up to professional standards. No, you don’t have to agree with every single change, but trust that the editor your publisher assigns to you has the story’s best interests in mind. After all, the quality of your story and its marketability, partially due to how well polished it is, translate into dollars for your publisher. There may be times when their vision differs from yours, and you should stand your ground on important issues, but they want a good quality work, and that means one without technical errors.

2) Don’t Leave Everything Up to Your Editor: Editors are human and usually quite overloaded with work. They make mistakes. They miss things. Even trying their best, they are not perfect. So don’t rely solely on your editor to catch little errors. Yes, you spent ages editing your work before you even sent if off to a publisher, but this is the time to dig back into the editing trenches. Whenever you receive a new round of edits from your editor, also read over the work in full. This accomplishes two thing: 1) You will catch any snags that new changes create. Even if those new changes are needed, it’s easy to forget to alter the tense of a verb, for example, when another part of the sentence is altered from the original. 2) You will catch things that both you and your editor missed on previous passes through the story. Yes, this is tedious. Yes, you’ll be sick to death of your story by the time you’re done, but the payoff will be a highly polished piece of work that won’t stumble readers on their quests to enjoy your intriguing characters and riveting plots.

3) Accept Imperfection: No matter how may times you and your editor, or you and many editors, go through a story, errors will be missed. No story is perfect. We should do our utmost to bring it close to flawlessness, but accept that, when you go back and read it after publication, there will be points that make you cringe. It’s the nature of writing and publishing. Do your best, but don’t fret over the small stuff once it’s all said and done.

4) Improve: Each time you finish a work and it hist distributors’ shelves, seek to improve your skills so you’ll have fewer technical errors the next time. Being a writer means constant growth. There’s no time when an author reaches a pinnacle and cannot become better.

5) Handle Criticism: In today’s world, an author cannot escape critical and negative reviews. Even with an excellent book, no story appeals to everyone. However, if your book’s Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or GoodReads page earns comments complaining about poor editing or technical errors, resist the temptation to lash back or answer such comments in any way. Take note of them, learn from them, but don’t let yourself get swept up by them, and absolutely, do not try to defend your book. Readers are entitled to their opinions just as you are entitled to write whatever you write. There is value in sifting through comments and reviews, especially if a particular complaint comes up frequently, for it generally reveals something an author can work on in the future. However, once published, let the story rise and fall on its own merits. Aside from self-promotion, there’s nothing you can do to sway the tide of opinion, and when a writer actively defends himself against reviews, he gives the impression that he is petty, uncertain, and often unpleasant. That turns off readers just as fast as anything else.

Above all, approach your writing and editing with deliberate care, be persistent, and strive for your best work. If you’re not strong in grammar, punctuation, spelling, or any other writing technicality, seek the aid of those who are skilled in those areas. You, your book, and your future readers deserve the best you can produce.

On Monday, we resume reading The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle and learning what he does to create a masterful story. See you then!

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