Friday, June 25, 2010

Using What You've Got

or, In Praise of Simple Tools

Once, when I was "between books," my publisher asked me to edit a manuscript that had come in rife with holes. Shortly after submission, the expert who wrote it took an extended break with reality, sequestering himself away from the world and refusing to respond to the publisher's requests for changes.

Since it is widely known that writers will do anything for money, and since the book's publication date loomed on the imminent horizon, I agreed. I focused all of my initial efforts on a particular chapter that the publisher felt had a hole in it. What an understatement. It turned out that the "point" of the book -- the obvious reason why someone would buy it -- was missing.

And so, rather than begin my edit at the beginning, I started with a chapter in the middle, looking for ways to plug the hole.

Only after working on the mid-book edit did I go back to the beginning and start critically looking at the work as a whole. While the project was rife with mistakes -- spelling errors, usage errors, incomplete sentences and sweeping generalizations -- I was unprepared for the magnitude of the problem. (In all fairness, the publisher had warned me before I began. It is my fault that I didn't grasp the enormity of what I agreed to do.)

For instance: the very first word of the entire manuscript was misspelled!

And that's not all. The very first sentence contained two usage errors, an agreement error, and a flat-out sloppy workmanship error.

Here's the thing: I don't mind. Things like this keep me in business. But it can quickly put you out of business if you're submitting manuscripts in this condition. Sure, the occasional mistake might make it into the final draft. But shoddy workmanship shows a disregard for the editor that publishers don't find amusing. It can also drastically slow the book's progress into print.

The moral of the story? Use what you have. A simple spell-check could have taken care of the basic errors in this manuscript. (If you think a word is spelled correctly, but there's a little wavy red line under it, take the few seconds necessary to have your computer look it up. That's what the little wavy red line means: "Check me!" The person who wrote the original manuscript evidently thought it meant, "Get more Twizzlers!")

Running a grammar check would have highlighted most of the usage problems and misspellings that made "real" words. Now, I loathe grammar check. It annoys me beyond words. But that's not the point. If you're not sure of your spelling or your grammar, use the tools widely available to you before sending something that represents you off to someone who is going to PAY YOU to put it in print.

Then, if doubtful of your abilities, ask a friend with a good grasp of the written word to do a read-through. Your manuscript will need edited before it goes to print. However, it behooves you -- and will only strengthen your relationship with your publisher -- to make the in-house edit as painless as possible.

The book in question required a complete re-write. I ended up putting my life on hold in order to beat the manuscript into publishable shape in time for the publisher's deadline. Though the final product came out rather well, I feel it is safe to say that the expert will be hard-pressed to find a publisher who is willing to work with him again.

We can all use a little help from our friends. In the writing world, spell check, grammar check, and beta readers are our friends. If you want a career, instead of a single-book debacle, don't hesitate to use them!


Kay Tee said...

I'd also recommend using the AutoCrit Editing Wizard. It finds errors like overused words, repeated phrases, slow pacing, etc. It really helps me tighten my manuscript.

Unknown said...

> In the writing world, spell check,
> grammar check, and beta readers
> are our friends.

A good program is spell check anywhere (SpellCheckAnywhere.Com). It adds spell checking to all programs, including blogs, and including an optional grammar checker.