Have you finished the first draft of your Great American Novel and then given it to your spouse, mother, brother, best pal to look over? Anxiously you wait for their opinion and they hand it back to you, all the while shaking their head. You wonder why, and then they dish–“You misspelled supercalifragilisticespialodocious!”
“Sheesh!” you whine, “But I used spellcheck!”
You must have more than one edit of your story before it goes to the publisher. It is possible to self-edit, but believe me, it is a Herculean Task. At the recent IndieReCon, one contributor spoke about ways to clean-up your work before handing it off to another set of eyes (you can read the article here). I’m of the opinion that, if you opt for the self-edit only plan, don’t.
And the reason why? Self-editing is tough to do because your eye is trained to see things that your brain tells it to look for.
What do I mean by that? Well, have you seen those funny little exercises that make the rounds of email chain letters or Facebook memes that show a word cloud that is intentionally made up of mixed letters, numbers and symbols that challenge you to read and show how smart you are?
Then you may know what I am talking about. Your brain is hardwired to make order and find patterns that make sense. You know what the letters are, you have learned the correct pattern of letters that make up each word, and so you can read these chaotic sentences. (Does this mean that spelling is optional?)
Your work is just like that; a word cloud made up of letters in some order with misspellings, homonyms, bad punctuation, poor grammar, and just about every mistake you can think of. If it isn’t, you must have struggled for aeons to produce a perfect first draft, and still there will be misspellings, incorrect or missing punctuation, run-on sentences, incomplete sentences, etc. And the more times you read it over, the easier it is to gloss over mistakes.
Spellcheck is a good helper, but it can lead you down the primrose path too.
[They’re] is nothing like a correctly spelled incorrect word to spoil your perfect draft.
One of the first times that I ran headlong into this phenomenon was for a school paper. I composed it in longhand, read it over, corrected the obvious mistakes and prepared to type it out on my portable manual typewriter. My typing skills had lots of room for improvement. My aunt just happened to come for a visit that day and she offered to type it for me. She started to type and began to point out all of the mistakes that I had missed in my first edit. So, I went through it again, correcting spelling, usage, grammar, and sentence length, etc. I handed it back to her, and she began to type it out but soon ran into the next round of errors. Long story short–it was midnight before we had a usable paper for me to hand in.
I have learned that the chances of me writing a perfect first draft are next to zero. If I don’t have the opportunity for editing help, then I write and revise, correct, then let it sit for a day or two, and then go back over it. I repeat that until I am satisfied with the quality of the final draft. If I don’t have time to let it marinate, then the process is shortened, but I still go over it multiple times. Preferably, I hand it to my wife to look over and she can be brutal with the red pencil.
So, you might ask, what can you do to publish a clean piece of writing?
If you have written anything for a grade, for submission to a third party then you know how important it is that your work is as perfect as you can make it. How often has a well written essay or research paper been downgraded because of misspellings, poor formatting, horrible grammar or nonexistent punctuation? You have seen this before. If your query letter doesn’t measure up, how do you expect an agent or publisher to take you seriously?
I suggested above, maybe the first step in the refining process should be to finish it and then let it sit for as long as time will permit before re-reading and revising. Time has a way of allowing a fresh look at the piece.
The more that you read it through, the more likely it is that you will gloss over mistakes.
Read it aloud. For some reason unknown to me, the act of reading my sentences aloud gives me a fresh perspective. My ears can hear what my eyes can’t see.
Have your wife, mother, BFF, or stranger on the street read it with some means of marking the problems that they see. It is better that this read-through be by someone you trust to be honest. (If you expect honesty, be prepared for the truth!) At this point the last thing that you would want is platitudes and false bonhomme.
Fix the errors and then read aloud again. Your ears will inform your eyes. Make sure that you read each word, don’t rush the narration. You could even record parts of it, or maybe the whole thing, with the aim of listening to the cadence and pace of your sentences.
Time is the cruel master in many of the projects that we take on so if your deadline looms, then by all means hire a pro. It will be worth the money to save the time needed to make critical corrections. Even if you have read, re-read, corrected, revised over and over again there will be mistakes that we miss. Don’t beat yourself up.
I may be preaching to the choir, but every self-published book and even ones published by major publishing houses that I have bought and read has had spelling errors, homonym errors, punctuation faux-pas, and poor sentence structure. I’m serious, everyone. Obviously, those published by the established authors and publishers have fewer embedded problems, but I have spent major dollars for books from my favorite authors had errors that jumped off of the page and distracted from my experience.
If it can happen to them, it can and will happen to us.
Remember…IF YOU CAN READ THIS…make sure you are not letting your brain trick your eyes.
Michael D. LeFevre is the author of the newly published novella, “Ghost of the Black Bull”. He lives on the verge of the Great Basin, overlooking the historic Lincoln Highway, Pony Express Trail, and Hastings Cut-Off of Donner Party notoriety–literally in the midst of history. “There are so many anecdotes that lend themselves to dramatization, that I am at a loss of where to go next in beginning my next story.” He works at being retired, reading and writing. He is enjoying his hobbies as well.