Can Using Editing Tools Improve Your Writing?

writing tools

By Corina Koch Macleod and Carla Douglas
@CKMacleodwriter @CarlaJDouglas

This post appeared first on June 17, 2015 at The Book Designer.

In the tongue-in-cheek post How to Write a Book Even Faster, the author suggests that writers are not editing their writing. That can’t be true! (Right?) How do you edit your writing? Perhaps you use one of these self-editing approaches…

Approaches to Self-Editing

There are many ways to improve your writing. You can

  • set your writing aside for a month or two and tackle it again from a renewed perspective
  • get structured feedback from beta readers
  • hire an editor to assess your first draft and suggest improvements
  • run editing tools on your writing

Let’s look at each of these self-editing approaches.

DIY Feedback

You may be exhausted from your first-draft efforts. Setting your writing aside for a spell may give you the time you need to recharge and become excited about your book project again. It may also afford you the perspective you need to see where your writing needs fixing. This approach to self-editing is most effective if there aren’t time constraints, and if you’re able to see what needs improving.

External Feedback

The remaining items on the list above are different from the first item in one important way: they offer feedback on your writing from an external source — from someone, or something, other than you. Because it’s difficult to be objective about your own writing, external feedback can alert you to your writing blind spots.

Not everyone responds well to feedback from beta readers and editors. Writers need to be able to develop resilience for receiving feedback, but this takes time and practice. If you’re still working on developing your resilience, we have another “external” self-editing option for you: editing tools.

Editing Tools

Many editors use automated editing tools to efficiently find problems in a piece of writing. If writers want to learn how these tools work, they can use them to diagnose their own writing!

Below is a list of some our favourite editing tools, linked to articles that describe how to use them. We’ve organized them into the four levels of editing that every manuscript should go through.

Not all tools are diagnostic and automated.* Some of them, such as the paragraph-level and big-picture tools, will help you when it’s time to fix your writing. We’ve selected tools that we think will be most helpful to writers, but there are many more tools that you can explore and try.

Self-Editing Tools for Writers

Tool Word-level Sentence-level Paragraph-level Big-picture level
Consistency Checker* x x
Hemingway app* x x
PerfectIt Pro* x
Self-Editing macros* x
Scrivener’s Binder+ x x
Word’s Navigation Pane+ x x
Split-screen feature in Scrivener+ x x
Split-screen feature in Word+ x x

 

*Diagnostic tools: these tools will check for one or more potential writing problems with the click of a button.

+Fixing tools: these tools will help you fix writing problems, once they are identified.

As far as we know, there aren’t automated diagnostic tools that will point out paragraph-level and big-picture problems. At least not yet. For now, you’ll need to educate yourself about common paragraph-level and big-picture problems, or get some direction from beta readers and editors. You can use the paragraph-level and big-picture tools in the table above to efficiently fix problems, once you know what they are.

Advantages of Editing Tools

Editing tools have a few distinct advantages over the other self-editing methods mentioned at the beginning of this article:

  • They aren’t people, which means that writers probably won’t respond to feedback emotionally, or take feedback personally. A tool also won’t roll its eyes because you’ve forgotten to close quotations and parentheses 54 times in a 300-page book. It’ll point out these errors, without judgment. And we could all use a little less judgement.
  • If you consider what these tools are telling you about your writing, you will sharpen your self-editing skills.
  • You can use diagnostic editing tools five minutes after you’ve typed the period on the last sentence of your first draft. This makes editing tools brilliant for on-demand writing.
  • These tools are widely available, and some of them are cheap or free. (Editors are widely available, but they’re not cheap or free.)
  • If you plan to use tools for self-editing, and later decide to hire an editor, your editor may have less to do, and that can save on editing costs.

Can these tools help you to become a better writer? We’re still gathering data on that. From what we’ve seen — with authors who’ve been willing to act on the information suggested by diagnostic editing tools — it does seem possible.

For example, if a tool suggests that you’ve included needless words in your writing, after deleting 103 needless words in the first 50 pages of your manuscript, there’s a good chance that you’ll include fewer of them in your writing in future!

Limitations of Editing Tools

Editing tools will not do it all. They have limitations that are important to understand. They will not write your book, cook your breakfast, or collect your kids from school. And they also won’t do these three things:

Won’t Think for You

An editing tool can alert you to potential problems with your writing. You need to decide when to address a highlighted instance and when to ignore it.

For example, the Hemingway app will highlight adverbs in blue, so you can, presumably, obliterate them. Why? Adverbs can clutter your writing and indicate instances of telling instead of showing. (Show, don’t tell!)

But does that mean you need to excise every adverb in sight? No. Depending on what you’re writing, you may choose to sprinkle adverbs as you would expensive fleur de sel.

Won’t Fix It for You

Editing tools are not designed to fix your writing for you. They identify problems, or help you fix problems efficiently. You have to do the heavy lifting.

For example, if your tool has highlighted a sentence that’s too long, you will need to divide that unwieldy beast into two shorter sentences. Your tool won’t do that for you.

Won’t Do the Footwork for You

If a solution to a writing problem isn’t obvious to you, you may need to dig around in writing craft books or style guides for help with interpreting what a tool is telling you.

Consider the example below. PerfectIt Pro 3 is asking the author to check the use of a hyphen in this instance. Has the author used the hyphen correctly?

Looking things up isn’t a waste of your time. The more you know why something might need fixing, the better your writing will be. If you let them, editing tools will show you where you quirks are, teach you what to pay attention to, and inspire (or provoke) you to make adjustments.

How to Use Editing Tools

As with any kind of learning, you need to go slowly or you could become overwhelmed. Here are some tips for keeping things manageable:

  1. Remember to begin with big-picture editing fixes and work your way down to word-level fixes. Editing order matters.
  2. Run diagnostic tools, one chapter at a time, until you become familiar with how these tools work. Exceptions: Run Consistency Checker and PerfectIt Pro on your entire book. Why? They’re designed to check for consistency across an entire manuscript.
  3. Run one tool at a time. Don’t run several tools at once. You’ll have too many things to pay attention to. The key is to remain focused and to improve your writing by degrees.
  4. Be strategic. You don’t need to run every tool on your writing, every time. Once you’re familiar with the tools we recommend, you’ll know which ones best address your most persistent writing quirks.
  5. Consult self-editing books for solutions to the writing problems your tools uncover.

Editing tools can help you to become aware of your writing blind spots and sharpen your self-editing skills. They may even help you become better at writing.

If, however, you’ve decided that learning how to use these tools is not for you, and you prefer to have writing problems fixed for you, we have yet another solution. Hire an editor! (You had to know we were going to say that.)

Note: We used the Hemingway app and PerfectIt Pro 3 to edit this article.

Image by Mark Hunter

The Indie Author’s Bookshelf: 20 Best Titles for Self-Editing

Book shelf

By Corina Koch MacLeod & Carla Douglas
@CKmacleodwriter  @CarlaJDouglas

This post appeared first at TheBookDesigner.com, December 24, 2014.

Below is a list of 20 self-editing books that we believe every indie author should have on his or her bookshelf. These books will arm you with valuable writing tips and insights so that you can tackle your writing with new resolve.

We’ve divided the books into levels of editing, so you’ll know which book to refer to when you need to. Keep in mind that a book may not fit neatly into an editing category. Some books will address more than one level of editing. The key is to be systematic when you self-edit, and often, addressing one level of editing at a time can make the editing process more manageable.

To remind you, how you’ll revise and polish your book will depend on how you tend to work as a writer, and where your strengths and weakness lie.

Self-Editing Workflow

If you’re not sure where to begin your revisions, start with big-picture items. When assessing a manuscript, editors begin with big-picture items and slowly work through all the stages of editing, ending with word-level details. If you’ve nailed your plot (big picture), for example, begin with the next area that you know needs work. If you’re not sure what needs work, run your manuscript past a couple of betareaders.

Criteria for Self-Editing

It wasn’t easy narrowing our choice to 20 titles for self-editing. Many excellent books have been written on various aspects of the subject. We’ve chosen books that are

  • short(er) and to the point
  • helpful (some of them are personal favourites)
  • easy to understand, without too much editorial jargon
  • less than $15, with one exception (Jim Taylor’s Quick Fixes)

As a result, books commonly used by editors didn’t show up on this list. Why? Writers are not editors. Many books directed to editors are also written by editors, and they’re heavy on theory and discussion. Writers want accessible books that provide clear explanations, examples and instructions. (Editors like these books too—but we like to read everything and think about it, first.) So you’ll see some writers’ craft books on this list—our choices address revision and self-editing directly.

Finally, we’ve also picked a couple of titles specifically for nonfiction authors (they’re marked with an asterisk). When it comes to writing and self-editing guides, nonfiction often gets short shrift. The two we’ve selected complement each other well, and provide sound advice for focusing and delivering your message to the reader.

Beyond Paper Picks

Big Picture

  • Making Shapely Fiction, by Jerome Stern
  • *On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, by William Zinsser
  • Revision and Self-Editing for Publication: Techniques for Transforming Your First Draft into a Novel that Sells,  by James Scott Bell
  • Story Engineering: Mastering the 6 Core Competencies of Successful Writing, by Larry Brooks
  • This Year You Write Your Novel, by Walter Mosley
  • The Ebook Style Guide: Creating Ebooks That Work for Readers, by Corina Koch MacLeod and Carla Douglas

Paragraph Level

  • How Not to Write  Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them—A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide, by Howard Mittlemark and Sandra Newman
  • The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile, by Noah Lukeman
  • *Quick Fixes for Business Writing: An Easy Eight-Step Editing Process to Find and Correct Common Readability Problems, by Jim Taylor
  • Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne and Dave King

Sentence Level

  • The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White
  • Woe is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English, by Patricia T. O’Conner
  • You’ve Got Style: Copyediting for Self-Publishing Authors, by Carla Douglas and Corina Koch MacLeod

Word Level

  • The best punctuation book, period. by June Casagrande
  • Copyediting and Proofreading for Dummies, by Suzanne Gilad
  • Missed Periods and Other Grammar Scares: How to Avoid Unplanned and Unwanted Writing Errors, by Jenny Baranick

5 Books that Will Inspire You to Write

You may not always feel like writing. These books will light a fire under you:

  • The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron
  • Juicy Pens, Thirsty Paper, by SARK
  • The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield
  • Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg

Self-Editing is a Process

Don’t try to do it all at once, and don’t try to do it only once.

Each of the books we’ve recommended offers a different voice and a different approach. Some are straight “how-to” and some are more “what” and “why.” What works for one writer might not be right for another. So take time to explore a few of these titles to find an approach you can work with.

If you haven’t already, over time you’ll develop your own self-editing style. This may mean working to a detailed plan or, as it does for some writers, simply reading, re-reading and re-keying your draft multiple times.

And, as we’ve said before, how you self-edit depends on how you wrote your first draft. It will also depend on your manuscript and what it requires—your second, third and fourth books will present different issues than your first. All the more reason to have our 20 titles at the ready, lined up on your shelf.

Image by Brett Jordan

Post-Nano Tips for Revising Your Writing

Valentine's Day Book

by Carla Douglas and C.K. MacLeod
@CarlaJDouglas @CKmacleodwriter

This post appeared first at TheBookDesigner.com on November 19, 2014.

If you participated in National Novel Writing Month, and you took our advice, below, to rest your manuscript, it’ll soon be time to revise your first draft. How you revise your writing will depend on

  1. your prewriting and planning style
  2. the kind of book you’re writing

But first, an explanation of what we mean by revise.

What is Revising?

The prefix “re” means again. To revise is to re-vision—to look at your writing again, hopefully from the perspective of a reader. To bring something new to your writing, you need to give it time to breathe. Revision involves waiting.

In How to Make a Living as a Writer, James Scott Bell recommends airing your writing for three weeks. That means sticking your NaNo draft in a drawer on November 30, and vowing not to look at it again until the winter solstice. If you take Stephen King’s advice, you’ll be pulling out that first draft on Valentine’s Day.

After the recommended period of rest, you’re ready to work on your first draft.

What’s Involved in Revising

Depending on what you’re able accomplish in a first draft, revising might entail

  • restructuring your story or book
  • removing “noise”—sections, paragraphs and sentences that slow the story’s pace
  • relocating paragraphs and chapters
  • rewriting sections or sentences for clarity and flow
  • replacing weak words with stronger words

Is Revising the Same as Editing?

Yes and no. The items you address in a revision are similar to the range of issues an editor might focus on in an edit. But to borrow from the definition in Idea to Ebook: How to Write a Quality Book Fast: “Revising is the best you can do with your own writing with some or no feedback. Editing is the best that someone else can do with your writing.”

In the editing process, an editor will suggest changes you might accept and implement to improve any number of features of your book. Making those changes—going into the manuscript and deleting, rewriting or moving text—is revising. Only you (or perhaps a ghostwriter) can revise your work.

So revising is the same as self-editing, but it’s different from editing in the traditional sense.

Three Kinds of Writers

Writers approach the writing process in a variety of ways. Often, writers are characterized by their prewriting or planning style (see below). A writer’s planning style can influence the kinds of tasks that will need to be addressed later, during revision.

Plotter

Plotters engage in a great deal of detailed, and often extensively documented, prewriting. Prewriting can take the form of a traditional outline, plot points, story beats or detailed chapter summaries. Plotters generally know how a story ends before they write. It’s not uncommon for plotters to have every scene worked out in advance.

Because plotters do much of their work beforehand, it’s likely that their plot is watertight. So when it comes time to revise the first draft, plotters may spend less time tweaking plot or structure and more time working on elements of story (character, dialogue, etc.) or rewriting sections or sentences for clarity and flow.

Overdoing it at the prewriting stage can show up in the finished first draft. A too-carefully structured plot risks confusing the reader. Remember, you’ve spent a long time with this book idea, plot and characters. The intricacies and sub-plots you’ve introduced might serve the plot, but they might not serve the novel.

Tips for plotters: Don’t be afraid to deviate from your outline if the story carries you in a new direction. If you’re surprised by what happens next, there’s a good chance your readers will be surprised, too. Look for signs that you’re telling and explaining ideas that readers might like to infer themselves. Good writing feels vigorous and lively. Rigidly adhering to your plan—no matter how clever and well-intentioned it was—can make your writing feel contrived, or worse, wooden and dead.

If you’re writing in a genre with specific rules (mystery, for example), studying craft books on the genre will be time well spent. And nothing beats reading extensively in a genre to understand better how it works.

Pantser

Pansters have a tendency to write episodically or non-chronologically. They’re least likely to use an outline or to formally capture a book’s structure before writing, either because they can hold that structure in their heads as they write (as Michael Ondaatje reportedly does) or because they’re open to allowing a book’s structure to emerge through the writing process.

After the first draft, pantsers may find themselves engaging in several rewrites in order to finetune a plot line or the book’s structure. They may need to remove the noise in places where the story deviates or drags. (Indeed, they may need to remove more than noise. In a recent panel discussion about the writing process, author Nancy Lee confirmed that, unhappy with her manuscript, she had thrown out an entire draft of her new novel, The Age, and rewritten it from a different point of view. And while she didn’t indicate whether or not she used an outline for the draft she discarded, she did display her willingness to throw it all away at the revision stage.)

So “pantsing,” or writing without an outline, almost certainly guarantees more work for the writer post-first-draft. This kind of writing is exploratory, and likely describes the process of many literary fiction writers.

Tips for pantsers: Pantsers can benefit from writing software that allows them to write episodically and then reorganize their writing later. The Binder feature in Scrivener is designed for this purpose. You can also tweak Microsoft Word so that it’s possible to move around sections and chapters more easily.

Because pantsers may find themselves writing several drafts before publication, they’ll need a method for keeping track of revisions. Using colour-coded labels in Scrivener, or Scrivener’s Snapshot feature can help pantsers keep track of several drafts in one place.

Keep in mind: If one of your writing goals is to write fast, then pantsing probably isn’t the best path to take. Many writers who achieve their NaNoWriMo goals engage in extensive prewriting before Halloween arrives. The skeleton’s there—they just have to flesh it out, probably with the details they’ve already documented. Plotters hit the ground running; pantsers may not actually hit the ground at all.

Plotser/Tweener

Plotsers, or tweeners, document a book’s structure in advance, but not in as detailed a way as plotters. Where plotters write detailed chapter summaries, plotsers might be inclined to sketch a mind map or flowchart, or dash off a one-page point-form plot or book outline.

There’s also the plotser who will dash off a very quick first draft and then sketch an outline. As editors, this method makes sense to us—we’ve often said that it’s easier to work with an existing text (edit) than it is to create a text (write).

At the revision stage, plotsers may find themselves revising big-picture items, while at the same time addressing the finer details of word choice. You might have to do a little of everything, and working from a checklist will help. The elements you have the most fun writing and are the easiest are probably those that you’ll need the least help with later. In other words, if you keep getting stuck on dialogue or if it’s that part of writing you dread, then paying careful attention to it in revisions is a good idea.

Tips for tweeners: Tools like Scapple or MindMeister can help to design mind maps with moveable parts. Try this: create a separate mind map for three or four story elements you are not especially confident about. Mind maps are helpful in the planning phase, but they can also be instrumental in helping you work out a problem in your manuscript visually. Trouble with pacing, dialogue or description, for instance, often becomes clear with a visual representation.

Tips for all Writers

Regardless of your prewriting and planning style, there are several things that writers of all stripes can address during the revision stage. We’d recommend proceeding in the following order:

  • focus on big-picture items, such as plot structure, point of view, and pacing, first
  • focus on characterization and dialogue next
  • read for plausibility and consistency
  • use automated revision tools to point out ways to clarify and smooth your writing

You’ll find other tips for applying feedback here.

Finally, experience will help you develop both the instincts for knowing when your story holds together—with fully developed characters and believable dialogue—and the confidence to trust your instincts. Until then, beta readers can be an enormous help in diagnosing any trouble spots, and we recommend bringing them on site sooner rather than later in the revising phase of your writing.

Conclusion

What we’ve outlined (pun intended) are all ways to take a book from concept to publication. Choose any method you like, but be aware of your preferences and the places you might hit a snag. Ideally, in the end, a reader or reviewer shouldn’t be able to identify which path you’ve taken—only that you’ve reached your destination in a way that satisfies.

Image by Viola

3 Ways to Pare Down Your Prose

by Corina Koch MacLeod
@CKmacleodwriter

Ebooks are wonderful because you don’t have to write them to a prescribed length—you can stop writing when your story is done. This isn’t true for every kind of writing, though. If you’re writing a magazine or journal article, you may find that your writing needs to fit within certain space restrictions.

Recently, a PhD student came to us at Beyond Paper with this very challenge. She needed to pare down her prose. If you’re writing nonfiction—particularly academic nonfiction—here are three editor’s tricks for reducing your word count:

1. Omit needless words and phrases.

Authors often use phrases such as “due to the fact that” or “in order to” like condiments (hey, we all do it). Often, your meaning won’t change if you trim these phrases. For example, “in order to” can become “to.” Refer to this article by Christina Thompson for a list of the worst offenders and some solutions for fixing them.

Authors also pepper their prose with filler words. If you use Microsoft Word or WPS Writer (free), you can run the NeedlessWords macro from Tech Tools for Writers on your writing, and the macro will highlight potentially unnecessary words. This 20-Minute Macro Course will have you up and running with Macros in no time, and this macros for beginners post by Carla Douglas offers suggestions for what to do with those highlighted words. You can try the lyWords macro to delete unnecessary adverbs, too.

If you haven’t pared down your prose significantly by now, read on…

2. Decide if figures and tables are essential.

Our PhD student discovered that some academic journals will count each figure (diagram) as 250 words. It’s tempting to add figures because they’re like pictures, in that they’re tiny oases in the expansive desert of unbroken text. However, if you’re writing to a word count, or you have file size limitations (and you will with ebooks, too), resist decorating your prose with images and figures. If the reader can understand your meaning without a figure, leave it out. If the figure is essential to the text’s meaning, and it adds new information or clarifies a concept, keep it. Use images judiciously, and be sure that you have a good reason to include them.

Here’s another tip…

While writing a first draft, I often insert placeholders for images I think I’ll need. For example:

[Insert image of porcupine walking a tightrope here.]

Later, when I’ve inserted the image, I sometimes find that my explanation preceding the image can be pared down as the image, in many ways, speaks for itself. Images, with the addition of well-chosen captions, often bring their own meaning to the reading experience, so don’t be afraid to trim the lead-in text.

3. Insert a hyperlink.

Does the figure or table live somewhere online? If the figure is a nice-to-have instead of a need-to-have, consider adding a hyperlink in place of the figure. Only do this with nonessential figures, though. You don’t want readers going off-text or off-book in search of an image, figure, or table that is necessary for understanding the text.

There are many more ways to pare down text, but these three ways will have your manuscript looking trim in no time.

Image by Zechariah Judy

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Finding Your Way Around Style Guides

by Corina Koch MacLeod
@CKmacleodwriter

Detail of doorstop
Image by David Wall (CC BY 2.0)

It’s essay season! (I can hear the collective groan from my desk as I type.) If you’re writing an academic paper, thesis, journal article or dissertation, you’ll be required to format your paper in a particular style using your academic department’s preferred style guide.

(Selfpubs, you’re not off the hook. Your book’s style will be greatly improved if you follow a style guide, too.)

Have you ever seen a style guide? Some of them are doorstops! Giant tomes filled with nitpicky rules. You’ve used every brain cell to write your paper and then you discover it has to be in a particular style. I know, right?

Don’t despair. We’ve written a primer for finding your way around style guides at Cambridge Proofreading this week. Have a look!

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