Before you submit your writing to any online resource, a publishing house, a writing contest, a literary press, or any of the other venues that writers now have available to them, STOP!
Maybe it’s time to start acting like a writer? Edit, proofread and spellcheck your documents before you upload them!
Just a few days ago I began to read three articles on Medium. All three were riddled with typos and other grammatical mistakes in their opening paragraphs.
Over the past twenty five years I’ve been involved in the book industry and other numerous literary endeavours. What I’ve come away with from this extended period of absorption is that good editing, excellent proofreading, and consummate spell checking skills are important to a writer. Perhaps even more so than your writing skills themselves. They are what makes a good writer great!
Nothing frustrates me more as a reader, and former editor, than being enticed into a document by a solid hook in the first two lines. Then, to find that it was merely window dressing. In so many cases the remainder of the document has not been edited, proofread or spellchecked.
That’s the point at which I scroll farther down the page, looking for an article written by an author who actually gives a damn about their work. And there’s plenty of them out there!
Unread manuscripts will not turn you into a widely read, well-respected, money earning, published author. Editing, proofreading and spellchecking your manuscripts are the only things that can help you move towards that goal!
You’re writing stories, poems and articles on a tablet, a smartphone, a laptop, a netbook, or a desktop computer that has access to the Internet. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be able to post your stories on Medium.
Each of these devices also have access to browsers, to Google, to dictionaries, to thesauruses, to grammatical software, and so on. But they’re only of value to you as a writer if you begin to understand that you need to use them.
What else do you need to do to act more like a writer?
Remove The Barriers
Read everything you can get your hands on about writing! And in particular, read what published authors (authors in your genre, or ones you admire) have to say about their own writing processes. Many have interesting ideas for getting past some of their writing limitations. I’ll use my own writing in one example.
I seem to have an innate need to edit-as-I-go when writing. Editing in and of itself is not a bad thing, it’s imperative for a writer. But breaking the flow of your writing, to edit ad nauseam as you go, can be extremely unproductive!
Numerous authors I’ve spoken with over the years have told me that a good way to break this habit is to simply turn off your monitor.
Once your monitor is off, there are no distractions that might entice you to stop writing and begin the editing process. Just start typing and don’t stop until you’ve run out of things to say. Then turn your monitor back on and edit away. You might be surprised at what has been transferred from your mind to the screen.
This cunning diversion allows incessant editors of their own work to complete a lot more of the writing before editing can actually take place. It’s a very mechanical solution designed to circumvent a mostly psychological problem. But it works!
It worked better when I was using a Windows based computer with a separate monitor. Now, so many devices are all-in-ones. But there are still workarounds. On my MacBook Pro, I simply turn down the brightness until the monitor turns to black, and then I proceed to type.
The same dimming technique doesn’t work on my iMac though (or iPhone, or iPad). No matter how low I turn down the brightness the words can still be read and the distraction remains. Sometimes I’ll just dim the monitor on the iMac (or iPhone & iPad) as low as it will go and drape something over the screen to cover everything but the keyboard, and proceed.
If you’re an incessant editor like I am, this might be a useful way to get you past the editing process. Then you can allow yourself to enter into a real stream of writing without having to hesitate.
Learn From TV
Can you imagine what programs on TV that seek out new singing talent would be like if almost every singer that auditioned left out words to the songs they were singing? Or, if they chose to sing a song in a different key than that which was being played by their backup band?
Or if they sang completely off key for large portions of the song? Or, if they decided to randomly replace some words in a cover song which had completely different meanings than the original words?
It would be a confusing, disappointing, unentertaining mess. The judges would (and do quite often) overlook artists like these quickly. They focus on the singers who have musically developed their repertoire.
The ones who have physically trained their voices through extensive vocal practice. And the ones who have psychologically prepared themselves to offer the best presentation of their abilities that they can. In short, those that are serious about becoming a professional singer! Submitting a story online should be no different than auditioning for one of these musically based TV programs.
Clearly you want others to read your manuscript or you wouldn’t have bothered to submit it to begin with. So make the best possible impression you can right from the start!
If you think that online sites are simply places to toss your partially completed, non edited manuscript to gain readership. And that you’ll edit later. I think in some ways that you’re just smokin’ the hopium!
Any individual reading your story could be a book editor, publisher, literary agent, or reviewer. Don’t go by what’s written in their profiles. If I was a literary agent looking for the next great writer. Or a publisher hunting for a new literary voice. I’d spend a decent part of my day reading Medium under a bland and nondescript pseudonym.
Doing this incognito would prevent me from being inundated with questions and requests to read manuscripts. Then I’d have free reign to review the multiplicity of writing that is available through this online source.
Editors, as do judges on one TV program in particular, don’t need to see the writer. And they don’t necessarily have to know anything about the author’s background to determine if they’re worthy. All they care about is the content of the work the writer is producing. It’s that content that will sell books. And selling books is what keeps publishing houses afloat.
With each manuscript they read they’re going to ask themselves, as I used to when reading a manuscript submission:
- Does this author edit and proofread their writing?
- Does this author have a unique, fresh new voice for their genre?
- Does this author say something meaningful in a distinctively captivating way?
- Does this author have a larger body of work, outside of this one story, that is also worthy of publishing?
- Does this author really care about their own writing?
- Does this author act like a writer?
Uploading any of your documents in unedited form is simply a bad idea. Anyone beginning to read them will soon be able to tell that you’re clearly not serious about your craft. And they’ll use this reasoning to move on to the next story. I do this every single day on Medium.
If an author doesn’t care about their manuscript enough to edit and proofread it before posting, why would a reader, a literary agent, or publisher be interested?
Learn From Literary Presses
I volunteered for six years as an editor, proofreader, spellchecker, judge, and in the latter years a book designer, for a small literary press in Canada. We focussed on publishing previously unpublished Canadian poets through a bi-annual poetry contest.
The winner saw their manuscript put into book form (after a lengthy almost 2 year editing and design process). Press releases were sent out across the country. Countless readings were organized in a variety of select locations to help promote the author’s book. We also provided a meagre publishing tour because that’s all the press could afford.
Only three of these authors’ submissions made it through to our shortlist. How did they do that?
By submitting powerful writing, from a unique perspective, with a distinct literary voice, after carefully and painstakingly editing and proofreading their manuscripts before submitting them. In essence, by acting like writers!
While I was at the literary press, manuscripts that I read which did not follow our submission guidelines went directly to the round filing cabinet. It was the brutal reality of publishing then, that only the cream could rise to the top.
These guidelines included editing, proofreading, spell checking, and the use of a specific typeface and font size (Times Roman, 12 pt). We also requested an extra line of spacing between lines (where the judges could make notes). And we required that the text be in b & w, that no pictures were included, and that a printed, hard copy was submitted.
Why did we have these guidelines? Because we’d previously received over a hundred manuscripts through one contest. Each manuscript contained anywhere from twenty five to thirty pages. These manuscripts were initially circulated through eight individuals for consideration and shortlisting.
2500 pages (on average) were read by each individual on the first round! Once we’d whittled the shortlist down to three manuscripts, another round of reading those manuscripts would follow, which meant reading another 75 pages each.
Prior to using standardized submission guidelines it had become increasingly difficult to read manuscripts that were written in whatever font the writer decided to choose. Reading the manuscripts became a very tiring challenge unless they were presented per the guidelines. Manuscripts using the guidelines gave the judges an opportunity to focus on the writing alone and not be distracted by fonts, colours and pictures.
Even after the guidelines were implemented we had an author submit a manuscript that baffled us. Every page used a different font (I personally call this fontitis), was in a different colour, contained no extra line spaces and had accompanying pictures. This submission went directly to the round filing cabinet, circumventing round one entirely. Do not pass go, do not collect $200 (or in this case, a book)!
Take some pride in your writing!
No matter where you submit your stories, poems or other written content for perusal, adhere to their guidelines! Most publishing houses and literary agents are inundated with submissions. Don’t screw up an opportunity because you failed to follow the directions that they usually clearly provide.
Make Your Manuscript Accurate
Ezra Pound tended to believe (and I wholeheartedly agree with him) that “Fundamental accuracy of statement is the one sole morality of writing, as distinct from the morality of ideas discussed in the writing.”
This does not mean your characters have to be moral. Far from it. Your characters can be as degenerate as you like, as long as their part remains true to the rest of your story.
All of the details surrounding your central character need to be correct and consistent throughout. From what the character wears, to how the character thinks, to the colour of the sky from scene to scene.
And on a much simpler scale you need to ask yourself the following questions:
- Are my sentences accurate?
- Is my syntax correct?
- Are all the tenses of my words correct?
- Am I using grammatical rules correctly?
- Am I using articles correctly?
- Have I duplicate any words, one after another?
- Are there extra spaces in my manuscript that could make the story appear oddly on smaller devices when sentences wrap from one line to the next?
- Have I used punctuation correctly?
- Does my manuscript have a title?
I would argue that editing your manuscript effectively is a larger, even more daunting process, than writing one. Some tips that we used at the literary press, and some that I used at my own book design business for catching simple mistakes, can be found in the next few sections.
I can’t tell you how many manuscripts I received over the years when I was designing books that the authors had never bothered to edit or proofread.
They contained dozens of errors including multiple identical paragraphs, missing articles, misspelled words, hundreds of extra spaces, inconsistent formatting and the list goes on.
Whenever an author provided me with a manuscript on USB, CD, DVD or via Email to put into book form I would always ask the same question.
“Have you printed out your manuscript and proofread it?”
Inevitably the answer was no. More often than not I would hand them back the device, or return their email and ask them to print out and edit their document on hard copy. Then incorporate any editing changes you found before before resubmitting the file to me for publication.
You’ll find more mistakes than you could possibly imagine by simply adding this one step to your editing procedure.
If you don’t happen to have access to a printer for whatever reason, then please edit your manuscript with the next section in mind. This section also applies to those who do have access to a printer.
Read Your Manuscript Out Loud
Word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, read your manuscript very slowly out loud. Run on sentences, glitchy phrases and poor sentence structure quickly become glaringly evident. This also provides you with an opportunity to sense how someone (like a literary agent, publisher or editor) might feel when they read your manuscript.
Are some of your sentences so long that you run out of breath before you finish them? Shorten them up so readers can ingest them in smaller bites. This makes the content easier to absorb!
William Carlos Williams referred to what he termed a breath unit. When he ran out of breath when editing his poems he would start a new line. For him the end of breath meant the end of a sentence (or line in the case of poetry). It’s a very simple tactic to learn where you need to tighten up your writing so that it’s more palatable for the reader.
How We Read
When we read, our eyes tend to skip across the tops of the letters, not absorbing the whole letter, or the whole word for that matter. Try to read the sentence below where only the bottom half of the letters are shown:
Not so easy, is it?
Now, try reading the sentence below where only the top half of the letters are shown:
It shouldn’t take you too long to figure out this sentence. Now you know that our eyes tend to skip across the tops of the letters when we read. So how can we make ourselves pay attention to the words more carefully when we’re proofreading?
If you’re using a Seriffed font (like Times Roman) in whatever software you use to write with, try changing the font in your document to a Sans Seriffed font (like Arial) for proofreading. Our eyes skip over the tops of Seriffed fonts more quickly than they do over Sans Seriffed fonts because of the little tails on the Seriffed letters.
Now, print out your document, or have it open on your device, and read it out loud word for word. You’ll find that using a font like Arial will slow you down and help you catch mistakes more rapidly. It will also give your brain an opportunity to focus on each word individually instead of just the tops of the letters.
How Ambitious Are You?
Ambitious writers, editors and proofreaders will use another proofreading technique that we used at the literary press. Read your entire manuscript backwards, word for word, out loud. This really slows you down and makes you focus intently on every single word at a time.
Even after numerous editing rounds on various manuscripts at the literary press, we’d leave this method of proofreading until the very last. And inevitably we always found the odd typo, missing word, or extra space.
Distance Yourself From Your Writing
I know that you’re anxious to release your latest creation to the world. But is it really as ready as you think it is?
Most of the writers that I know will print out a final copy of their manuscript. Edit and proofread one last time. Make any changes, then toss the manuscript into a drawer for a week, or two weeks, or a month, or even a year. The longer the better!
Then they carry on with more writing. They create new stories, or produce news poems. They read new books. They expose themselves to every opportunity that will inspire them to act like a writer.
And after their self-imposed, self-determined sabbatical away from the original work they filed, they’ll read it again. And they’ll ask themselves a lot of questions:
- Is this as fresh an idea as I thought it was when I first wrote it?
- Is the hook in the first few lines as powerful as it needs to be?
- Does my storyline hold up to scrutiny now, as it did when I first filed it?
- Was my editing and proofreading as accurate as it could have been?
- Are my sentence structures and phrasing as solid as I remember?
- Are all my tenses expressed correctly?
- Is everything spelled correctly?
- Is the story closure really as powerful as I thought it was?
- Can I improve the manuscript in any way, shape or form?
Short of hiring an editor to review your work, this is one of the easiest ways to approach your own writing with fresh eyes.
Your Friends Are Not Editors
Your friends love you. They will tell you something nice about what you have written simply because they are your friends. You need to find another writer, preferably in your genre (but outside your genre if need be) and begin trading drafts back and forth. This will provide a feedback mechanism for one another before you post your articles.
This kind of feedback can be incredibly helpful and many writers will be happy to do so. You can also learn a lot about different writing styles while editing and proofreading the manuscript of another writer.
Don’t think of it as a challenge to your work. Act like a writer and think of it as an opportunity to expand your knowledge and perhaps provide fodder for some future poem, story or article.
Brutally Honest Feedback
If you find yourself in a position to proofread or edit another writer’s work, be as brutally honest as you can. That’s what editors do. Because editors know that receiving honest feedback on a writer’s work will help them view their work from the perspective of a reader. This kind of feedback is invaluable.
Too many writers take feedback as personal affronts, when really they are simply about making your writing as impactful, concise and entertaining as it can possibly be.
Feedback is not about you. You can’t take it personally or you’ll be crushed by a publishing house editor when one finally gets a hold of your story, or poem, or book manuscript.
Feedback is about your work. The writing. It’s always about the writing. And the more feedback you receive from knowledgeable sources, the more comfortable you’ll be when that publishing house editor starts clawing their way through your manuscript.
I read a lot of articles or article intros on Medium with dazzling artwork, or phrases of other author’s work indicating taken from whatever the source might have been. Very seldom do I see any artists’ references for the pictures used, or words of permission from the original authors.
Just because something is available for you to read or view online, doesn’t mean that you’re free to use it at will. And just because an author is no longer alive it does not mean that you have a right to assimilate their work into your own without proper credit.
Copyright in North America extends for the life of the author plus 50 years. In the United Kingdom, those rights continue for 60 years after death. In some places, the author’s work may not enter the public domain until 100 years after their death.
Quoting a sentence or paragraph, as I did with Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams in this article as part of this commentary on writing is considered fair use.
What is not considered fair use, was brought to my attention recently by the intro to an article on Medium. The author indicated in the intro that they’d copied and provided an entire story (by some other writer) for the benefit of Medium readership. That’s not fair use. Written permission from the author or the publisher is required.
If you’re in doubt about whether you can use a quotation fairly, then don’t use it! Or, do some research on copyright law as it applies to writing. Nobody wants to be remembered as the writer that plagiarised other writers’ work.
Only when you become a published author will you begin to understand how little money authors (and artists) actually make, and as a result, how important it is to respect copyright on all creative works.
When I was with the literary press, we had one author who wanted a quote from Seamus Heaney included at the front of her new book. We went through due process, contacted Heaney’s publisher and paid for the right to include two sentences, in essence a very small paragraph, at the front of the book. These rights (if I remember correctly) cost the press somewhere around $450 dollars.
If you’re an aspiring author or artist, keep a tight reign on all the rights to all your work. It may make the difference between you being able to survive as an author, or slinging hamburgers at some poorly paid McWriter job.
Writers seem to have an obsession with ending a story. With wrapping up all the details in a cute little bow and explaining at great length how everything turns out. You don’t have to do that!
Some of the best written stories that I’ve read on Medium are left very open-ended. This is done for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the author has a follow up book or story in mind. Or, perhaps their intention was simply to make you seriously think about the story and the characters within it. Or, maybe that’s just the point at which their inspiration (muse) left them. Whatever the reason, it’s the writer’s choice. How you deal with it as a reader says a lot about what you’ll be like as a writer.
I always find that stories with no set ending are the most entertaining and allow me as a reader to cultivate the closing in my own mind. This, in and of itself, can be great forage for a writer. Ideas swirling around about potential outcomes can inspire you to begin thinking more imaginatively.
What you do with the results of your contemplation may yet be the most sincere indication of a well rounded reader and writer. Take that open-ended closure, all the thoughts about it left swirling around in your head, and spin off the next literary masterpiece!
All images courtesy the author.
All links to Wikipedia shared under the Creative Commons Deed.