From top editor Jane Mallin
ÔÇ£Easy reading is damned hard writing.ÔÇØ Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Hurrah! YouÔÇÖve done the hard work ÔÇô youÔÇÖve thrashed out your big idea, broken it down into its component parts and written the damn thing. YouÔÇÖve redrafted, revised and rewritten it. YouÔÇÖre happy with the big picture: all the sections are in place, the writing and ideas flow and youÔÇÖre talking your target audienceÔÇÖs language.
ThereÔÇÖs one last editing stage to go through ÔÇô the details. Now is the time to embrace your inner critic. This irritating little nit-picker is just who you need to polish your prose until it gleams.
But first make sure to have a rest. Go on, you deserve it. Actually, you need it because youÔÇÖll want to be fresh for the last part of the writing process.
Tip number 1: Take a break
Remember: youÔÇÖre now in the third phase and that means distancing yourself from the dreamer whose thoughts are still enmeshed in the project. Ideas that are crystal clear to the writer may not make logical sense to someone who is coming to the text for the first time. So taking a break and changing your mindset is essential. And, while youÔÇÖre about it, take off the rose-tinted specs and dig out a magnifying glass. ItÔÇÖs time to look at all the details.
How much of a break do you need? At least one day; longer if your schedule allows.
Tip number 2: Take your copy out for a coffee
Reading a hard copy is much easier than reading on screen. The light emitted by a computer screen strains your eyes, so always print out your documents and review them on paper. Before printing, double space the paragraphs and maybe increase the point size to you can read your text with ease.
Then find a place where you can read undisturbed such as a local cafe or library or even another room in your home. IÔÇÖm not sure why changing places aids concentration; maybe itÔÇÖs because it helps you shrug off the role of creator and become the critic. Although I donÔÇÖt know why this works, it definitely does. Try it and see for yourself.
Tip number 3: Read right to the end
Read it all the way through first: does the writing flow? Do the sentences make sense or are there any howlers ÔÇô clumsy, clunky phrases ÔÇô that need tightening? It also helps to read it out loud and highlight any parts that donÔÇÖt make sense straightaway. Clarity is key: if a sentence doesnÔÇÖt make sense the first time you read it, then change it.
Tip number 4: Easy does it
If editing and proofreading was a dance, it would be a slow one. SlowÔÇÖs the way to go when youÔÇÖre editing as the mind is very good at seeing what it expects to see. Read actively, asking questions as you go. Is that the right word? Could I put this more simply? Should that comma be there? Every time you have a query, make sure to highlight the relevant part of the copy.
Tip number 5: Simplify
ÔÇ£Never use a long word where a short one will do.ÔÇØ George Orwell.
Cut the jargon and the ÔÇÿten dollar wordsÔÇÖ as Hemingway called them. Jargon is sometimes necessary but, on the whole, the world and its readers can live happily without it. Used indiscriminately, jargon alienates the reader and makes the content difficult to understand. Cut redundant words. For example ÔÇ£this will help you in the development of new skillsÔÇØ. How about ÔÇ£this will help you develop new skillsÔÇØ instead? Cut some more. The pruning process happens in stages. With each read-through, youÔÇÖll invariably find something else to cut or re-work: extraneous sentences, woolly ideas, and repeated or over-used words and phrases. Be particularly vigilant about ÔÇÿliteraryÔÇÖ words or passages. My favourite advice on this comes from Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, one of the great Victorian novelists and Professor of English Literature at Cambridge University: “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it ÔÇô wholeheartedly ÔÇô and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.” So write your socks off and dream your dream fully during the first phase. Then cut, cut, cut!
Tip number 6: Be precise
Have you used the right word? Find the right word to express your thoughts clearly. A good thesaurus will help.
Is the meaning unclear? Then change it until it is clear. Imprecise writing usually means muddled thinking and, as you are trying to present your ideas in a compelling way, itÔÇÖs wise to rethink and rewrite until the sentence or paragraph makes sense. If you get stuck, try this exercise. Take out a notebook and write: ÔÇÿWhat I really want to say is…ÔÇÖ Then write it down. DonÔÇÖt think about spellings or punctuation at this point. Just focus on crystallising your core idea. Throw out unnecessary adverbs. For example, ÔÇ£Pauline screamed loudly.ÔÇØ Screams are loud, thatÔÇÖs the point of them. If Pauline screamed in an extraordinary way by all means feel free to use the right adverb. Put modifiers in their place. ÔÇÿOnlyÔÇÖ is a sneaky little beast and can be difficult to pin down. The rule is to put the modifier, such as ÔÇÿonlyÔÇÖ, adjectives and adverbs, next to the word it is modifying. So: ÔÇÿshe ran gracefullyÔÇÖ; ÔÇÿhe found only three mistakesÔÇÖ. Spellings. Use a spell-check first as this will weed out all the obvious errors. DonÔÇÖt rely on spell-check alone though; you also need to read and re-read for yourself. This is especially true if your book includes foreign or unusual names and words.
Punctuation. If commas and colons have you in a quandary, then check online as there are several good sources of information there. I find punctuation makes more sense when I read aloud. Look at where you naturally pause as you read through the text. Listen as you read and ask yourself what sounds right. You could ask a pedantic friend to read your copy closely. Alternatively, a professional nit-picker ÔÇô sorry, editor ÔÇô can clear up pesky punctuation problems for you. Check your corrections. After each edit, read through the text to make sure that youÔÇÖve included them all and that the corrections themselves are correct. All kinds of errors can creep in during the editing phase, especially if two or more people are working on the copy. If two or more people are involved with the edit, make sure to save each revised version. Change the file name to version two, three and so on.
Tip number 7: WhereÔÇÖs the action?
Use the active voice. One sure-fire way to improve your writing is to change verbs from passive to active. So, instead of saying: ÔÇ£costs must be controlled by youÔÇØ, say ÔÇ£you must control costsÔÇØ.
The problem with the passive voice is that it tends to sound pompous rather than professional. Active writing is far more engaging. Think before using the passive voice!
Nominalisations are a no-no. A nominalisation is a verb that has been turned into a noun. For example: ÔÇ£We made a decision.ÔÇØ Or, even worse: ÔÇ£A decision was made.ÔÇØ Passive voice + nominalisation = stodgy, flabby prose. Liberate your verbs to energise your writing. ÔÇ£To beÔÇØ. Watch out for this verb as it has tyrannical tendencies. It loves displacing other verbs and taking over their sentences. For example: ÔÇ£The purpose of this invasion was to strengthen the EmpireÔÇÖs trading routes and to weaken the French, who were becoming too powerful in that region.ÔÇØ ÔÇ£To beÔÇØ shows up directly ÔÇô ÔÇÿwasÔÇÖ, ÔÇÿwereÔÇÖ; and indirectly as a helper ÔÇô ÔÇÿwere becomingÔÇÖ. Be careful with ÔÇÿto beÔÇÖ. ItÔÇÖs indispensable, but dangerous, because itÔÇÖs so easy to overuse.
Tip number 8: Check for consistency Do your pronouns agree? If youÔÇÖre writing in third-person (he/she/it/they/them), make sure there are no sudden and confusing switches to second-person (you/yours) or first person (I/we/me/mine). Novelists may well experiment with different points of view. This is standard practice and perfectly acceptable. However, if you have used more than one viewpoint in a sentence, check for sense and readability.
Non-fiction writers: third person is best, unless you are writing your autobiography. Check headings, sub-heads, lists and so on. For example, what style do you use for lists? Bullet points or numbers? If you use numbers, are they all there and in the right order? I know that sounds silly, but youÔÇÖd be surprised at how often these sorts of mistakes get through. Spacing. On your last read-through, turn on the ÔÇÿshow formatting marksÔÇÖ function and check for extra spaces between words and at the beginning of each paragraph.
Tip number 9: Check your facts
YouÔÇÖve already checked for sense and meaning, but you also need to check: Names and titles. Dates. Contact details. Page ÔÇÿfurnitureÔÇÖ: sub-headings, section order, chapter titles.
Tip number 10: Know when to let go
YouÔÇÖve read, rewritten, checked and rechecked. YouÔÇÖve asked others to have a look too. Maybe youÔÇÖve worked with a professional editor and now all youÔÇÖre doing is changing the odd comma here and there. Let your copy go! ItÔÇÖs time to lock your inner critic back in his box and move on to making your dream a reality.
Jane Mallin is a business writer and editor with 20 yearsÔÇÖ experience. She has worked on a huge variety of print and digital projects with a client-base that includes blue-chip companies and individual writers and business owners. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on 07784 214237.
From AuthorCraft ÔÇô the writers Group www.authorcraft.co.uk