“Show, don’t tell” is a commonly cited rule among authors, editors, and literary professors the world over. The dreaded “infodump” is to always be avoided. “Showing” language is implied to be better writing; however, “telling” language can be just as active, clear, and compelling. Cecilia Tan at Uncanny Magazine makes a solid argument that strong, readable (i.e., “publishable”) writing can both show and tell!
In the last two posts, I’ve discussed beta reading and proofreading and how these processes will enhance the writing in your books and ultimately boost book sales. The more professional and easier to read the content in your book is, the more likely people will buy it, tell others about it, and leave you shiny 5-star reviews—no matter what genre you’re writing in. But in the vast world of fiction, genres like horror, erotica, paranormal, and sometimes sci-fi, can be seen comparatively as “less than” their literary and more “slice of life” type counterparts. If your work falls under any of those (or any combination of those) styles, investing in any one of these three services will do a great service to your book or novel and its subsequent sales.
Going a step beyond beta reading and proofreading, copy editing is far more invasive as a process. It is looking at the construction of the writing, each sentence, to make sure the words within that sentence work well together and to make sure each sentence builds to the next one without being redundant, overly complex, or laden with passive and unbalanced language. Unlike its more simplistic counterparts, copy editing will take on issues with layout, formatting, and developmental continuity (at every level, from running headers to table of contents to lists of figures and images to the color of your protagonist’s hair and the name of their one and only cousin).
Because this process is much more invasive and, in my opinion, more strict, I chose the definition provided by the Society for Editors and Proofreaders. Yes, it is a British source, and it’s an articulate and detail-oriented definition that leaves little to doubt. That’s precisely what I like about it.
Here is how they define a copy editor –
A professional copy-editor begins by checking that the copy is complete. Do the chapter titles and other elements match the list of contents? Are all the illustrations to hand? Is there a list of captions? What system of referencing is required? Are there footnotes or endnotes? Then the editor cleans up a copy of the document, fixes page set-up, spacing and fonts, cuts unwanted formatting, creates a stylesheet and starts to identify problems.
Working through the material, the copy-editor corrects errors in spelling, punctuation, grammar, style and usage, but also very long sentences and overuse of italic, bold, capitals, exclamation marks and the passive voice. They correct or query doubtful facts, weak arguments, plot holes and gaps in numbering. In fiction, they also check that characters haven’t changed their name or hair colour, look for sudden changes from first to third person and monitor the timeline, among other things.
And, here is how they define copy editing –
Copy-editing takes the raw material (the ‘copy’: anything from a novel to a web page) and makes it ready for publication as a book, article, website, broadcast, menu, flyer, game or even a tee-shirt.
The aim of copy-editing is to ensure that whatever appears in public is accurate, easy to follow, fit for purpose and free of error, omission, inconsistency and repetition. This process picks up embarrassing mistakes, ambiguities and anomalies, alerts the client to possible legal problems and analyses the document structure for the typesetter/designer.
One of the things that beta reading, proofreading, and copy editing seem to have in common is that they all look at the “larger” and “smaller” elements of the document simultaneously. It then becomes a matter of who fixes what and when. If you are pursuing the craft and services of a copy editor, it is most likely you have not published your book yet and it has not been under a proofreader’s loving gaze. You may copy edit before you select a beta reader, but you don’t necessarily have to. Especially, if you can find a beta reader who copy edits. (Or, a professional reader who does all three…)
Having a clear understanding of what a beta reader, proofreader, and copy editor bring to your document will help you select the right services for your document—no matter which stage of the game you are in. The great thing, in this quick-pub age, is that you can now, technically, perform these services at any stage of the game. However, knowing how hard it is to delete stuff off of the Internet, it may be a good idea to be more proactive, take some time, and get your manuscript edited before you publish.
Some writers and authors may wonder at the real value of investing in a beta reader and what kind of services will actually be provided.
“Well, I’ve got a cousin who reads lots of books. He’ll help me.”
“My best friend is an English teacher; she’ll give me good advice.”
While these options may seem like solid and cost-effective solutions, relying on friends and relatives for constructive, literary feedback can put writers and authors at a disadvantage. Most especially if that close circle of advisors errs on the side of camaraderie over criticism.
Since Merriam and Webster kind of let me down in their definition of “proofreading,” I decided to test the vast information waters of Google and got a Wikipedia definition of “beta reading” that is a bit more extensive, and articulate to boot.
…a non-professional reader who reads a written work, generally fiction, with the intent of looking over the material to find and improve elements such as grammar and spelling, as well as suggestions to improve the story, its characters, or its setting. Beta reading is typically done before the story is released for public consumption. Beta readers are not explicitly proofreaders or editors, but can serve in that context.
See? All kinds of fun things going on in that definition. Let’s unpack some of it, shall we?
“a non-professional reader” — Now, looking at that, you might jump back to the beginning of this article and say, “Hey, my cousin isn’t a professional reader.” Or, “Neither is my English teacher friend!” And this might be my only bone of contention with Wikipedia’s definition: beta readers should be professional readers. Granted, not every single reader in your audience will be a professional reader–they don’t need to be. However, if you want an honest, educated, and sometimes hard-to-swallow reading of your book and an effective opinion on how those non-professional readers will receive your book, you want someone who knows how to read books critically and not just for passing pleasure.
Ahh! Not “critically”?! Right?
Yes, critically, because there will be professional readers–critics, of course–who may (or eventually will) read your book, and their opinions are the ones that get passed around on social media and will reflect on your book. Which, for some of those non-professional readers, will determine if they buy it or not. What you need to ask yourself is, will your cousin or your best friend be honest with you about your writing even if their opinion is unflattering? This is where growth as a writer comes from, being able to take constructive criticism that doesn’t feel “constructive” when it’s being heard or read.
But, like Amanda Shofner’s quote above says, you need to remember that a beta reader’s opinions are not about you personally–even though your work feels deeply and inherently personal–but your book. The object that will reflect your work ethic, your effort, and your professional image as an author. Writers can also expect comments that are strictly personal opinions–even from professional beta readers. An author doesn’t have to take every piece of advice/criticism/guidance provided; you want the story to be yours, and it should be. But a beta reader can make sure that your story will be presentable and meet commercial readers’ expectations. Something a non-professional reader may not be able to provide, even if they are willing to be blatantly honest (with minor exception to that English teacher, actually).
“typically done before the story is released” — Unlike proofreading, beta reading does not have a specific place in the publishing process other than before you release the book to the public. However, if you’ve already published the book and you’re getting reviews that mention inconsistency in character development, plot structure, or the entire narrative’s arc, a single round of beta reading would definitely help to clear up those kinds of issues.
“not explicitly proofreaders or editors” — This much is true. Not all proofreaders are beta readers, not all copy editors are beta readers, and not all beta readers are proofreaders or copy editors, but they most certainly can overlap. Effective proofreaders and copy editors will comment on things that a beta reader would comment on, but they may not change them for you. On the flip side, effective beta readers will comment on issues with grammar, spelling, punctuation, even if they may not know how to change or correct them for you.
Overall, investing in beta reading services is making an investment in yourself, your craft, and your potential book sales. The adage that you need to spend money to make it didn’t become an adage for nothing. Hiring a beta reader will boost your book sales because the results will show every kind of reader that you cared enough to put out the best book that you could by making effective use of all the tools at your disposal.
Have you hired a beta reader recently? If you haven’t, would you consider it now? Would love to read about your experiences and opinions in the comments below!
As if the very act of writing isn’t hard enough, right? The passion and dedication it takes to sit down and put your heart and soul in a Word document is highly commendable, but then you have to make sure your commas, semicolons, and parentheses–not to mention adverbs, adjectives, and nouns and verbs–are all in the “right” places (some of which are subjective) and consistent. And that is only the tip of the writing and publishing iceberg.
Did any of that sound like a foreign language to you?
That’s why you need professional proofreading services–especially in a publishing world that might see your genre or category of writing as “less than” (erotica, horror, and paranormal writers, just to name a few, I’m looking at you). Every ounce of validity and credibility that can be given to these genres is needed to generate strong book sales and fan followings. Two surefire ways to generate validity and credibility is to make sure your language is clear and active and to make sure your style choices and punctuation are consistent throughout your manuscript.
Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary takes a somewhat simplistic point of view on the process of proofreading:
To read and correct mistakes in (a written or printed piece of writing)
And I only say that because beta reading and copy editing, which I’ll write about in more detail in later blog posts, could technically be described the same way. However, the specificity of proofreading is based on where in the publishing process this particular style of editing occurs. In one of the last-ditch efforts to catch errors before going to press, a proofread is a penultimate reading that looks at every element of the document, from layout to commas, to make sure it is clear of spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors and layout or style inconsistencies.
In most cases, a manuscript will be given a copy-edit, beta read, or developmental edit before it receives proofreading services. Proofreading traditionally “fixes” things like word usage errors (they’re for their, you’re for your, etc.), making all the quotation marks and apostrophes look the same (“curly” or “straight”), or minor formatting and layout inconsistencies (like applying a half-inch indent to each new paragraph or using periods, em and en dashes, and ellipses the same way in serial data).
Even though a good proofreader will make comments about larger issues if they have been left unedited (like plot inconsistencies, major language issues [subject-verb agreement or switching between past and present tense], and applying major layout or formatting styles [prepping for Kindle publishing]), these issues are usually met and resolved by a copy editor, developmental editor, or beta reader before sending the manuscript to a proofreader.
Have you invested in proofreading services recently? Why or why not? Did you have a good or bad experience? I’d love to see some of your stories or experiences in the comments below.
One of my favorite aspects of being an editor is conducting research and answering the questions new and established writers often have about the stories they’re writing. I’ve always thought I would be rather good as a reference librarian, if only because I so enjoy answering questions. To the point where I annoy the people who get trapped in the same room with me during any episode of Jeopardy!
For the last couple days (more like decades, really, I’ve known this woman since high school), my friend SuEllen (over at Sunshine Graphics on Facebook) has been exploring taking the plunge and publishing her writing. She’s been following my blog and my post yesterday about IngramSpark got her to point-blank and quite articulately ask me about query letters:
I know this is probably a long way off, but what the fuck is a query letter and would I really need one?
I have mad respect for folks who don’t waste time beating around the proverbial bushes.
My response was something along the lines of
A query letter tells a publisher who you are and about the manuscript you’ve sent or want to send. Put it this way, would you shake the hand of a potential employer?
Her response? (And this is just part of the reason why we’ve been friends since high school . . .)
I’m sure you probably want me to say, “Yes.” But all I really want to know is if he washed his hands first.
But her inquiry and curiosity about the idea and overall worth of a query letter got my brain working on building an advice column of sorts that could help any inquiring, newbie writers out there. So, for this first post I’ll define and link to examples of the perfect Query Letter.
According to Wikipedia, a query letter, “is a formal letter sent to magazine editors, literary agents and sometimes publishing houses or companies. Writers write query letters to propose writing ideas.”
Which is just slightly different from what I told SuEllen originally. I was thinking more along the lines of a cover letter, which is something one usually sends along with a writing submission in order to introduce themselves to the managing or department editor of the journal/anthology/magazine of their choice. However, the query letter can take the same format and tone.
Think of it as a professional introduction, an opportunity to stand out from the rest of the people submitting stories or story ideas, and a platform for selling your writing idea–from essay to novel. I told SuEllen that I’ve seen stories get tossed without even being read because of an issue on the cover letter. Be sure to do your research and know who you’re sending the letter and manuscript to. Catch an editor on a bad day, and your story might not get read just for spelling the name wrong or having the wrong name in the greeting. Paying close attention to submission guidelines will prevent errors like that, especially when it comes to whom or which department you’re sending your query letter.
Writer’s Digest is always a solid go-to tool and outlet for any kind of writing advice from craft to business-end guidance. And, they won’t steer you wrong here, either. The following articles come from Brian A. Klems‘ “The Writer’s Dig“:
“How to Write the Perfect Query Letter” breaks down a successful query letter one paragraph at a time with an agent’s response to each, explaining the strengths and weaknesses of each–from the greeting to incorporating effective summaries of your work as selling points.
“The 10 Dos and Don’ts of Writing a Query Letter” for those authors among us who require something closer to a checklist. Klems offers six dos and four don’ts that will give your query letter a leg-up over the competition by being thoughtful and aware of the information you’re sending the agent or editor. He even includes a link to examples of successful query letters.
Whoa! That’s right, fifty, 5-0, articles that will boost your writing mojo for the new year. Who needs to lose weight, get mindful, or eat healthy? Psh, not me. Not when I can increase my word might and flex those writing muscles.
As if I needed another reason . . . as if you did, am I right?
And that’s what I’m hoping for. Anything to keep your cursors flying across the great white expanse of digital-page landscape. Just when I thought I couldn’t find a decent collection of writing articles to share with my readers *gasp* I thought my brain might just give out.
But, Brian A. Klems, this guy, is always on point for me–even if I don’t get to his sage advice (or wise friends) as soon as he posts them. He waits, patiently, smiling from his “Writer’s Dig” and hopes I’ll just ask the right question.
Sift through the collection with the link and enjoy an introductory excerpt from the article below.
Over the past year I posted articles on this blog that covered everything—from grammar to writing better characters to getting published and more. Here’s a cheat sheet linking to what I consider the 50 best articles that can help you reach your writing goals. My goal is to help you move your writing career forward, and, by making this easy-to-reference guide, you’ll have a chance to bookmark it and have a one-stop place to help you have a successful year of writing.
Here’s to your best year of writing! ~Brian
Tom Jenks, the co-founder and editor of Narrative literary magazine is offering an intensive four-day workshop for novelists, short story writers, and authors of creative non-fiction.
The class will meet every day for four days, with a morning workshop and an afternoon seminar focused on craft. For the seminar, there will be reading assignments and study of works by well-known writers. Each participant will have one manuscript workshopped in class and a second manuscript reviewed for an individual conference with Tom. We will study storytelling and the formal elements of fiction, including voice, point of view, characterization, imagery, plot, and theme. Attention will also be given to scene building, sentence making, and the dramatic movement of descriptive writing.
The program can only accept twelve participants, which is based on the evaluation of a submitted manuscript. Application deadline is January 23, 2015, and the class runs from May 14 to 17. Find out more and apply using the link below!
For the last 40 years, Lake Superior State University has kept up the tradition of banishing certain words from general usage due to mis- or overuse. Though I’m seeing some of these words for the first time on this list (I admit, I don’t watch a lot of TV news or TV, period.), there are others listed here that I’m all for giving the old heave-ho!
You can view the entire list at the link below, while I’m just going to nitpick the ones I’m glad were highlighted this year!
This little collection of three letters really caused a stir last year. While I also find it a ridiculous term of endearment, there are goofier ones and far sweeter ones to employ than one which may have a nasty international meaning.
Please, to whichever mythological figure is looking over the land of letters, let this six-letter (or eight-letter, depending on if you add the “y”) phrase just go the hell away. It is so annoying to hear (Progressive Insurance Box, I’m talking to you!), and to whomever started it? May your tongue fall out and rot.
This is one of the words I’m experiencing for the first time on this list, and I’m pretty glad of that. I wouldn’t like hearing this too many times in one conversation, let alone actually partaking in the action. It sounds like it cheapens the connection of friendship by attaching a monetary expectation (or reward?). Hopefully, this suggestion won’t be taken lightly.
4) Enhanced Interrogation
Really? Did I wake up in a live-action version of 1984? Yes, this phrase needs to go. If you can’t call a spade a spade, maybe you shouldn’t use it.
5) Skill set
While I don’t have a specific gripe against this word (phrase?), I wouldn’t mind never using it again because I can never remember if it’s one word or two. Thanks to Lake Superior, I’ll never forget.
Now, I’m a staunch censorship dissenter. I don’t like bleeping words or calling words “bad” or anything like that. It’s all expression, but some words and phrases are simply annoying and are better left forgotten.
Which words did you want LSSU to banish for the new year?
I first learned about Robert Aickman (1914 – 1981) in the September 2014 edition (Issue 148) of Rue Morgue, and since then I have learned that this author had the respect of many in his cohort (from the same time and contemporary) but not nearly their level of visibility. He’s been virtually an unknown, so far; but within months of what would have been his 100th birthday, Rue Morgue asked us, “But, what about Robert Aickman?” And the response is, “Boy, that man could write some strange stories.”
And that’s exactly what he called them (p.31, Rue Morgue, Sept. 14). It is almost as if he brings together the perfect blend of literary prose with elements of the strange, supernatural, and fantastic — it depicts a life set to explore the potential for strange interactions.
The stories I’ve managed to comb from my local library appeared in short story collections: The Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century Ghost Stories, I Shudder at Your Touch: 22 Tales of Sex & Horror, and Shudder Again: 22 Tales of Sex & Horror.
And, strange interactions are exactly what Aickman delivers in “Ringing the Changes”, “The Swords”, and “Ravissante”, respectively.
Michael Cox included “Ringing the Changes” in The Oxford Book, and it was a great place to start to really get a feel for Aickman’s perspective and tone. He uses details and genuine interaction to set the mood and bury our feet in “reality” only to allow the strangeness of Gerald and Phrynne’s unconventional honeymoon (due to their 20-year age difference and the low status of Gerald’s work position) to fly off the page. The changes they experience as a newly married couple are counterpointed against the major changes the bells bring to Holihaven every year. Never on the same day and never after the same amount of ringing, changes in life are unexpected and as Aickman points out, it’s all about how you face them.
In her first sex and horror anthology, Michele Slung included “The Swords” much to her own joy — and I wouldn’t blame her. Being able to talk up Aickman right now is plastering a perma-grin on my own face. Not to mention, if you watch British horror TV shows, you may already know about this short. Focusing on the path of decisions a young man makes toward his “first experience”, Aickman’s unnamed protagonist starts by admitting that it is “to beginners that strange things happen, and often, I think, to beginners only” (p. 132). It couldn’t have helped finding the young woman of your dreams at the unique sideshow of a fair that was “pretty and old-fashioned, but no one could say it cheered you up” (p.136). Mildly, it might not have been the best choice, but being young and inexperienced will do that for you. Additionally, this story could be used as an exploration of the delicate relations between men and women — how one is viewed by the other, what is “typically expected” on a date, and how each reacts to or anticipates the fallout of a traumatic experience.
Michele Slung brings back Aickman in her second anthology, Shudder Again. “Ravissante” (a loose French translation turned up ravishing or charming as the meaning) is structured in a frame and comes with comparisons to Henry James’ “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes” and “The Aspern Papers”, even a little bit of “The Turn of the Screw” with the calling at the end. However, since I’ve never read any of those (shock, horror, gasp!), I’m coming to this story completely clean, and when I think of frame stories I always think of Shelley’s Frankenstein — “In order to tell you this story, I’ve got to tell you that story.” So, Aickman begins with another unnamed protagonist who will take us to meet a struggling artist — controversial and only kind of sought after — and his oddly dressed and almost always silent wife. I think maybe she just doesn’t dig a party scene, but I digress. More than a couple years after the last party they share, the protagonist hears of the artist’s death and his listing the protagonist as co-executor of the will. That isn’t even the strangest part of the story; remember, there’s a frame in place. The protagonist takes a painting and the manuscripts his friend edited from the estate the wife anticipates destroying. But among them is a small discovery, a harried, surreal memory from the artist of a strange Madame A. and her desires in meeting an artist who appreciates her former husband’s work. In this case, I think Aickman was going for “Ravishing” as the title, more than charming.
After getting just a taste of what Aickman creates of fiction, I can’t wait to get my hands on more. According to Rue Morgue, an established and known publisher from the UK, Faber & Faber, are re-releasing Aickman’s collection, which includes a novel The Late Breakfasters and a novella, The Model. I can’t wait to get my hands on it!
Have any of you ever read Robert Aickman? Are you hearing about him for the first time? Do you know of other anthologies he has been included within? I’d love to hear about it!
I love the memoir genre. In my mind, that truly is the essence of another’s story. It allows for the memory to flit and float around haphazardly as it naturally does, and it allows for a little fantasy on the behalf of the writer and the readers.
So, for any memoir writers struggling with finding the essence of their own story, Abigail Carter, who has published her own memoir and a novel, has compiled 10 easy tips for finding your memoir’s theme. Like Abigail says, “It’s OK to have a whole book written and still not be sure what it is you’re trying to say. In fact it’s common.”
Read the entire article by clicking the link below, and enjoy an introductory excerpt about when Abigail discovered the theme of her memoir–probably a pretty frustrating experience!
I don’t think I truly understood the theme of my memoir until it was published and I began doing radio interviews where the announcers expect short, quippy replies to their questions. I had to make up sound bites on the spot and in doing so I discovered my theme: The silver lining of grief.