Even if you re-write as you write (like me), when you reach “The End,” that’s the beginning of proofreading and editing. These strategies helped me find most (but not all) of the things that needed fixing in Irish Firebrands:
- Is your manuscript all in one big file? Save chapters or chapter-sized segments (roughly 5,000-6,250 words, about 30 minutes’ reading), as separate documents. It’s much more manageable to wrestle baby alligators instead of The Big Momma.
- Use a spreadsheet program to track chapter word count as you manipulate the segments. Make the program exhibit a color-coded bar graph to do this. This helped me find the right place to begin and end each chapter.
- Use a notepaper cube to jot down a brief description of each scene, flagged with chapter number. One sentence will do. This helped me find scenes that I had put in the wrong place, and it revealed overlooked plot holes.
- “Plot” the story on a timeline. Depending on how much time elapses in the story, this could look like a number line, a calendar or a table. Irish Firebrands takes place over about 18 months (from May 2007 to December 2008), so I used a calendar. This helped ensure scene continuity, as well as to keep things like seasons, the weather, and cultural stuff in context. (My new book, Irish Firebrands: The Patriots, takes place from 1907 – 1935, so right now I’m using a table to display events in the lives of the three main characters, as well as pertinent historical events, year by year.)
- “Outline” the book by writing down who is the point-of-view character in each scene, along with one sentence describing the main event of that scene. This helped me to catch “wandering POV” problems, and to decide which character was the best POV choice to portray the story in each scene.
- Use your spelling and grammar checker. It’s not foolproof, but it’s a place to start. For best results, program the checker to do only one or two tasks at a time.
- Convert each chapter to Adobe PDF. Use Adobe’s “Search” function to double check that as many spelling and grammar issues as possible get found and fixed. Adobe PDF is also easier to read and spot errors, especially when you display the manuscript book-style. The full-screen view also helps with proofing. Then, have Adobe assemble the lot into one “binder,” and do it again.
- Read it on a cathode ray tube monitor, not just an LCD screen. Trust me: it makes a difference.
- Print it in various formats: such as a double-spaced manuscript (and use a red pencil to mark changes); then print each chapter in “book fold” format, single-spaced, to see it as it might appear on a real page.
- Read the book from back to front. Reading the chapters in reverse order helps prevent the brain from making a sort of Gestalt out of what you’re reading that obscures your perception of errors when you read it chronologically.
Some specific things to look for when editing:
- Failure to communicate: GUBU grammar can happen to anybody (even grammar-police sticklers, like me).
- Vocabulary: context clues lacking, or terms inadequately or unnecessarily defined.
- Continuity issues: person, place, time, subject or scene out of order, or lacking follow-up.
- “Information dump”: Details in summary and exposition paragraphs, ruminations or dialogue not appropriate in content and quantity. (Back-story or background information should establish the setting or character, foreshadow or justify action, be in character for the speaker to think or talk that way, and be reasonable for him to want to say it to the other character.)
- “Sheesh” factor: too many cornball clichés and abysmal adverbs cluttering the prose.
- Can’t tell the players without a scorecard: inadequate or incorrect dialogue attribution tags.
- Typographical and punctuation errors: including italic punctuation to go with italic words. Decide if you’ll be using “Oxford commas.”
- Check the research truths that plausibly glue together the lies.
- Root out copyright infringement and ensure that all necessary acknowledgments get made.
- Tie together any foreshadowing, repetition, symbolism and parallelisms.
Are you still awake? If so, go take a nap. You’re going to need the rest. Editing is a full-time job.