How to Avoid the Red (Pen of) Death

Last week I read a blog post from author Molly Greene (@MollyGreene on Twitter) describing a method she uses to edit her manuscripts before sending them off for public scrutiny (and only an author, and maybe Rick Santorum, can truly understand the horrifying implications of the words “public scrutiny”). As one of those poor souls who agonizes for far too long over which word would be precise enough to describe something, or how best to leverage a comma to get my meaning across, or at what point to italicize vs. bold face a word, I have a deep and compulsive (obviously) appreciation for, at least, technical perfection in what I write. In other words, I cultivate and hoard editing tips the way gamers hoard Red Bull and joystick combinations (the last video game I played was on Nintendo, whaddya want?).

Molly’s post got me thinking of the different ways I’ve tried to weed out every last typo, grammatical faux pas, and silly word choice in my writing, and I thought I’d quickly share them with you all. Let’s start with her lesson, which is rather brilliant.

1. Simply turn your manuscript into paperback format. This enables you to get a picture of the work that is as close as possible to how it will appear when it is a book (if you plan to publish in a print medium). Her post more fully explains the gist of this concept, which she originally borrowed from Christine Nolfi (@ChristineNolfi on Twitter) and gives step-by-step instructions on how to accomplish this with MS Word.

2. I’ve heard from a number of authors that simply changing the font of your manuscript when you’re ready to do a line edit is enough of a visual “flicker” that your brain is able to see things it’s never seen before. This, of course, is incredibly handy when you’re going over a page for possibly the hundredth time, and every word you read is already inscribed on the meat of your mind like a cattle brand. When you look at something enough, you really do lose the ability to pick out details. We all know that feeling when someone in our critique group hands us back a red-penned copy of our last submission, every last extra word or typo gloating from the page as if to say, “What are you—blind and illiterate?” If you’re like me, you die a little inside when you see all that red pen.

3. Which is why I tried this next thing. Because we humans have such sophisticated and helpful brains that enable us to comprehend things better by “autocorrecting” missing or misspelled words as we’re reading, it truly does become somewhat impossible to accurately read our own work. For short pieces, a coworker once taught me that reading the project backwards will help suss out typos and misspellings. Imagine trying to do that for an entire novel though. Gah. Instead, what you really need are new words. Or at least, all the same words in your manuscript set out in a different order. Let me explain.

Maybe this happens to you, too. When you start that final edit of your manuscript, you’ve read the whole thing so many times that you find it very, very easy to slip into a lazy mental cadence that fools you into thinking you’re already done, there’s nothing new to see. The story itself is so familiar that you’re really barely reading it anymore, your eyes just skim the paragraphs and relive the story, yet again. To break out of that cadence, I simply rearrange all the paragraphs in the story. This way, there is no storyline anymore; it’s all just a jumbled mass of unconnected paragraphs that are each forced to stand on their own.  This has helped me read each paragraph more closely, get a better sense of the way the sentences are flowing and linking, catch those missing words (usually articles like “the” or “an”) or inappropriately used punctuation, and assess overall comprehensibility.

Here’s how you do it in MS Word (using Mac commands).

  1. Open your document and select all (Cmd-A).
  2. Go to Table – > Sort – > By = paragraph, type = text.
  3. Then start your edit. Here’s where personal preference comes into play. You can either print and edit by hand, or, like I do, use the MS Word track changes feature. The most important thing is that you save this mixed up document AS A NEW FILE.
  4. Once you have edited the entire work, the final step is to open up your “real” manuscript and start applying all of your changes. I generally search the real manuscript for key word phrases that happen in the paragraph I have to make changes to, then fix the mistakes.

Yes, this is incredibly time consuming. But if you don’t do it, who will?

Lastly, I have a few elements I always check again. I do finds for all the following words and just make sure…

  • They’re, their, there
  • It’s, its
  • Your, you’re
  • May, might
  • Compliment, complement
  • Fewer, less
  • Each, every
  • Further, farther
  • Em dash vs en dash vs hyphen, making sure they’re all the type of dash they are meant to be
  • And you can add to this list with any other strings of words, characters, or grammatical ticks you personally have. Always, always, always give them one more check. If you don’t, a little more of you will die inside once the horrible red pen of death is let loose on your submission by your critique group or editor.

Incidentally, I also tried the “friend method” for editing, which was to send a single chapter of my first novel to a twenty or so different gullible schmucks friends, and ask them to proofread it for me. This had very, very mixed results. I definitely don’t recommend this method. Your friends will be frustrated with having only a disembodied bit of story to read, and you’ll be frustrated with both what they do find and what they miss. Remember, no one but grammar snobs and word nerds—like you and I—actually enjoy proofreading. Trust me on that.

PS: If you find a typo in this post, I beg you not to print it, red pen it, and send it back to me. Funeral make-up really doesn’t become me.

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All content copyright unless otherwise specified © 2008-2013 by Tammy Salyer, writer. All rights reserved. Permission is granted to use short quotes provided proper attribution is given.