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Clean Freak 2011/04/03

Posted by Sandra Ruttan in Writing.
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Clean writing, that is.

Brian will be the first to tell you that I’m not a clean freak, and when I’m locked in, working on a manuscript, the dustbunnies can grow into monster-sized Wraithrabbits that have to be fought and killed to be removed.

However, when it comes to writing, I’m a bit of a clean freak. Ask anyone who’s received a critique or graded assignment back from me.

The reality is, it’s almost impossible for a book to be published without a typo, typesetting error or blatant mistake. Not all of these glitches in a published product are the result of laziness or indifference, either. For example, imagine you have a character in your draft named Gina. For a number of good reasons, you decide to rename Gina and call her Lucy. You set up find and replace, hit replace all, and think you’re good to go.

But you forgot to click ‘whole words only’ and every time you used the word original in your book, it became oriLucyl. Yes, these things happen, and when you’re editing a 300+ page manuscript it’s very easy for one mistake to slip past you.

I know from my own recent experience, attempting to upload a Kindle file, that although the formatting was perfect in Word, when it converted it indented whole paragraphs and removed the formatting in other places, and I’m trained in layout and design, desktop publishing, Word formatting and have a lot of experience to draw from.

Imagine someone who doesn’t know how to use the features and settings for Word, who tries to upload their file. Heaven help them.

And it’s not just self publishing e-books where there can be legitimate problems. Typesetters try to make words fit on lines and pages and in chapters and sometimes, words are removed to fix a formatting issue. Sometimes, in the final editing phases, someone doesn’t realize the correction to their problem has created a new one. Just ask Barry Eisler about the name Dox in The Last Assassin, and how someone in the production phase with the book made a mistake that had to be corrected for subsequent printings.

No matter whose mistake is transferred to the pages, it’s the author who tends to get the blame. This is why authors should make every effort to ensure their copy is clean.

Most authors are 40+ when their debut novel is published, so I feel it’s fair to say that by the time the majority of authors are published they’ve had over twenty years of writing experience, and at least ten years of education related to writing. How to make a sentence, a paragraph, a story, an essay. Punctuation, grammar. Nouns, verbs, adverbs, conjunctions. Anyone who’s been to elementary school has a foundation in the basics of writing.

Which means they have a base line of pre-existing knowledge about how to construct sentences before they even sit down at their keyboard.

Depending on how rusty your skills are, it will take anywhere from a matter of hours to a few days to brush up on the basics of grammar and punctuation.

It will take considerably longer to learn how to write creatively and transfer your ideas to the page in a compelling way.

For those who do know how to use Word, the spelling and grammar checkers make it easy to correct simple mistakes as you go, and a lot of punctuation errors will be caught as well.

Here are some simple truths you may not know, or want to believe.

1. Editors will reject submissions that are filled with mistakes.

2. Agents will reject submissions that are filled with mistakes.

3. By the time you’ve drafted your masterpiece and revised it again and again and again, you will be so sick of your work that you won’t want to read it again.

4. By the time you’ve drafted your masterpiece you’ll have read it so many times the words will blur and you’ll recite parts by heart. This is not necessarily a good thing, because if you have to correct basic mistakes your mind will visually compensate. You’ll read what you know you meant to type, instead of what you actually did type, and easily miss mistakes in your work.**

5. You’ll have to re-edit the whole book if you wait to the end to figure out how to use punctuation and spell words properly. I’ve already explained why find and replace can’t necessarily cure all your spelling problems. If you learn the basics at the beginning, you’ll have far less to edit when your manuscript is finished.

Here’s my tip. Every time you sit down to write, re-read what you wrote the last time. It will help you remember where you are with the manuscript, and as you read you may catch errors or fix anything that isn’t working. You’ll be looking at the text with fresh eyes, and for most of us, thirty minutes of editing is enough to make us anxious to start writing. You’ll be motivated to keep your writing as clean as possible as you go, because you won’t have to spend so much time fixing mistakes next time you’re writing. Best of all, you won’t forget what you’ve written, avoid repeating yourself, and catch continuity errors in the text faster.

One final thought. We constantly hear about the battle with Writer’s Block and struggling through portions of the book when the ideas don’t seem to flow smoothly. Instead of letting the lack of inspiration derail your progress, start editing your work. It will save you time later. You’ll start catching your common errors and be able to avoid them as you write, and for most of us, root canal is preferably to extensive technical editing. Editing your work should help get your creative juices flowing again, so that you can get back to the writing.

And, in case you doubt just how vicious the reviewer and reader response can be when a text is filled with mistakes, read this review, and see how poorly the author conducts herself in the comments. Within days the author’s amazon page for the book was filled with negative reviews.

** A tip from author Alexandra Sokoloff: change the font of your manuscript when you re-read it. The words will look different on the screen or page, and will be in different places. It will help your eyes actually read the text instead of skimming it.

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