As a bestselling author and manuscript editor for hire, I’m a stickler for good editing. In these days of “hurry up” self and traditional publishing, there are far too many books, articles and blogs out there that are littered with errors, even the works of major bestsellers. I get frustrated and pulled out of what I’m reading when there are too many typos, instances of poor grammar, or repetitions. And I know I’m not alone in that.
Once a month, I facilitate this group, Writers, Ink. of Greater Phoenix. Writers come from all over the metro area to meet at a surprisingly successful indie bookstore, Changing Hands, in Tempe. We’re a casual group in that there are no professional speakers, no regular dues required or specific exercises or assignments to complete. Members are encouraged to bring two to four double-spaced pages of their WIPs (works in progress) to each gathering for critiquing and feedback. If they haven’t written anything, it’s okay to simply attend and give input, if desired. However, when prepared, they are required to read their pieces out loud.
Why read aloud? Several newcomers have balked at this. They’re shy and haven’t ever done it before. Many of them mumble or talk really fast to get it over with. I make them speak up and slow down because reading aloud isn’t just for kindergarteners or first graders; it’s for us, too. If a writer achieves any kind of success—i.e., crosses over from dabbler to published author—sooner or later they’ll be asked to read their works (or excerpts thereof) in public, and this practice helps prepare them for this, especially when they read aloud in front of others. Also, whether done alone or in public, it’s one of the most useful editing tools there is.
I was first introduced to this notion when I attended the Gold Rush Writer’s Retreat hosted by Antoinette May and her husband, Chuck Herndon, in Mokelumne Hill, CA, several years ago. This author has achieved what all serious writers strive for, a sustainable living from her writing. She’s the bestselling biographer of Pilate’s Wife (not to be confused with The Pilot’s Wife) and The Sacred Well, plus numerous other books and articles.
On my second morning at the retreat, I went to Toni’s house hoping to speak with her in private. Chuck informed me she was working and would not be available, said she wrote religiously every morning for four hours. Since I was standing outside her office, I could hear her talking, and at first, I believed, He’s shining me on. She’s in there with someone else right now.
Having a “too expressive face”, I must have shown my thoughts, because Chuck explained, “She’s reading her work aloud. She always does that.”
Later, when I asked Toni about it, she told me, “Reading aloud helps me catch my mistakes and make sure things flow right.” I took that to heart and have been doing it myself ever since, even if it does make me sound “cuckoo” to an uninitiated bypasser.
The novice members in my group discover the same thing the very first time they vocalize their work and stumble on an improperly worded sentence. The timing gets interrupted, and they realize they need to fix it. Because I insist on a slower pace, they can better hear what’s not working.
In order for this special editing tool to work to its best advantage, writers need to learn to listen as they read aloud for several things, not just flow.
1) REPETITIONS—My BIGGEST bugaboo as an editor, and the sign of a lazy or careless writer. Every wordsmith should have a voluminous vocabulary (and a good thesaurus) at their disposal.
These abound and include:
- Making the same grammatical or spelling errors over and over again (Reading aloud should slow the writer down enough to catch some of these, especially if they are speed readers or fast typists.)
- Repeating the same word (or root word—says, said, saying—for example) more than once in a sentence or in the same paragraph
- Starting multiple paragraphs with the same word on the same page or throughout the piece
- Using a pronoun in place of a name too often (This can confuse the reader as in: “His uncle is convinced there will be an attempt on his life once he enters the capital.” [Actual editing error used with author’s permission.] Whose life is in danger? The uncle’s or the nephew’s?)
- Characters replicating the same actions—usually mundane—such as “She woke up and…”
- Duplicating the same idea, phrased with slight differences, that has already been introduced (Readers generally remember when they’ve read something before and don’t need to be reminded.)
- Two or more adverb (“ly”) or adjective (“ful”) endings in the same sentence or paragraph (Use of adverbs, in general, is frowned upon today. Stronger verbs can often take the place of these. However, I don’t agree 100%; just employ them sparingly.:-)
- Excessive metaphors and other writing devices (Two or more metaphors, mixed or otherwise, in one paragraph or even on one page can be two too many—and there’s another form of reiteration—homonyms, words that sound alike used too close together. But I did that for effect. :-)
One caveat: Sometimes, restating a theme can be used effectively to hammer a point home as in Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, but this takes real skill and talent to pull off. Err on the side of avoidance if you’re not certain this intentional ploy will draw readers in or repel them.
- Word order (We all tend toward dyslexia when writing and often don’t catch this when reading silently.)
- Sentence arrangement—when a sentence at the beginning of a paragraph should be at the end or vice versa
- Synchronicity—events are out of order (except when flashbacks are utilized)
- Full circle (Does the story conclude by transporting the reader back to the beginning or to the main theme somehow? This is an exception to the idea rule above.)
3) OTHER THINGS TO LISTEN (AND LOOK) FOR
- Proper paragraphing (Does the body of the paragraph go with the first sentence—the topic? Is there a new paragraph for each change in dialog or separate action?)
- Punctuation (Pausing, even for a split second, that indicates a comma, colon or semi-colon is needed depending on the circumstance; yelling or raising one’s voice points to an exclamation mark; coming to a full stop means a period should be placed there, etc.)
- Setting and descriptions (Are these too verbose and/or unwieldy? Do they work to propel the story forward?)
- Verbs (Are action words weak or strong, passive or assertive? Notice I used the word “hammer” instead of “bring” when writing about purposeful echoing above. That, too, was deliberate. :-)
- Dialog (Is it realistic? Does it sound the way we really talk? I’m forever turning words into contractions when I edit dialog because we don’t speak formally and say things like, “I cannot believe it!” or “That will not work.” We say, “I can’t believe it!” or “That won’t work.”)
- Showing versus telling—are you, the narrator, telling the reader the story, i.e.: She told John to stop it. Or, are you showing the reader the story: “Stop it, John!” She backed away. “I mean it!”
There are multiple other functions served by giving voice to our written word, things we discover for ourselves when we make this a habit. The more we, as writers, slow down and read our works aloud with the conscious intention of improving, the faster we will advance, guaranteed. Then we can graduate from “grammar” school with honors.:-)
Copyright © Shari Broyer, July 31, 2016. All rights reserved. No part of this blog may be used or produced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. For information, email the author: firstname.lastname@example.org
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