Some call it proof reading, some copy editing, I call it checking what you’ve written.
When do you check what you’ve written? I like to do this when I have the bulk of a chapter or short story written. I rely on Word’s in built spell checker and grammar checker to pick me up as I type but only do a serious spelling and grammar ‘pass’ once my creative juices have run dry at the end of a writing session – this might be only half an hour or as long as three. I take a little time to review what Word is suggesting I’ve got wrong (fragments always fragments) while I wind down.
I’ll do several rewrites covering questions of structure, style, tone of voice, continuity (Robinson Crusoe’s pockets), the time of day, weather, the senses etc. layering stuff to build a better story, and only then will it be time for a proper check of what I have written.
So at this point I’m not questioning story, plot etc. I’m just looking at the technicalities of the writing; most obviously spelling and punctuation. Most people would call this proof reading I guess, and so without being pedantic here’s my 6 top tips pilfered from various sources over the years I have been writing:
1. Sit back and wait
This doesn’t just apply to the stage of checking what you’ve written. This also applies to the formation of your narrative. Your subconscious will quite happily work on tricky plot points for you while you are sleeping and you’ll find that if you ‘sleep on it’ a solution can be plucked miraculously out of the air. The human brain really is a marvellous thing given enough time and distraction from the writing process.
In terms of proofing, put the story away for a while so you have forgotten all the little details and you won’t fall into the trap of skim reading and auto-correcting mistakes in your head
2. Print it out
Easier said than done right? But I think it’s worth the expense of toner and paper to get a good proof done. If it is a full novel I actually go one stage further and get a copy bound into the paperback format. This way I can spot what I think are called widows and orphans – those pesky sentences that hang around looking messy on an otherwise blank page, and blank pages that seem to pop up unexpectedly after a lot of cutting and pasting of large blocks of text with section breaks in.
The brain treats printed text in a different way to on screen text. It processes the input differently and mistakes are easier to spot on paper. Also try using a different font and maybe a larger font size than usual to put your brain to work having to read each word and analyse each sentence to make sense of it.
3. This vehicle is reversing
Changing the font and size of font is one small way to take your brain out of its normal autocorrect routine. Another way is to read each paragraph ‘backwards’. So if a paragraph has five sentences 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5, read them in this order: 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1. This forces you to look at each sentence in isolation. It’s kind of freaky to begin with and takes a bit of getting used to, but I have read in quite a few places that pro proofers do it all the time.
4. Read it out loud
I bet you already do this for your dialogue while you in the process of writing. Reading dialogue out loud helps with tone of voice and distinguishing the vocabulary based habits of characters. But try reading everything out loud. If it doesn’t sound right coming out of your mouth then there’s probably a better, simpler way of saying it. Rewrite accordingly.
It’s often said that writing is the art of rewriting. Don’t be scared of having to rewrite stuff. Ultimately it will read better and people never see what you wrote but deleted do they?
5. Just the facts mam
Are you sure you checked all your facts while you were in the process of writing or did you make a few educated guesses or worst still, gasp, assumptions?
Make a note with a highlighter of all those things that you might need to check. Did Accrington Stanley play at home on Saturday 12th April 1938? Was the 12th April 1938 actually a Saturday, are you sure? Are police cars in Germany green or blue? What time does the sun normally set at that time of year in that country? How many bullets has he fired? Did he reload? Tell me punk do you feel lucky?
It might hold you up to check these things one by one. I usually find its best to highlight them all and then do another pass. Sometimes one fact has a relation with a later fact and can potentially have a critical effect on the story – sometimes requiring a major rewrite. I’m thinking again of Crusoe’s pockets.
6. Keep an eye on your nuts and bolts
Headings, subtitles, footnotes, chapter numbers and page numbers are little tinkers when it comes to developing typos and mistakes. It’s easy to ignore these things. So do a pass of your document when all else is finished to make sure these are spelt correctly or are consistently numbered.
I remember using contemporary song titles for chapter headings in one of my books and using the same song title for two of the chapters. They were both spelt correctly, but duplicates.
It’s also easy for page numbers to go awry if you are merging documents or moving from one word processing package to another. These days page numbers tend to get deleted from my documents when I render them for Kindle, but this introduces another problem – the table of contents.
Make sure that when you are using heading styles in Word to automatically generate a TOC that you don’t miss any titles or accidentally format whole chunks of text as a title. Also make sure you cleanse away your meta-data if you’re doing an e-book – you might have an old document title in there or some private comments you don’t want to share publically.
Of course none of these rules apply to my blog posts!