“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.
Okay, maybe not so much the importance, but the inevitability of it. You will fail. You may not finish every story you start. It’s okay; there are other stories to tell. And even that partial chapter you punched out about the CEO-zombie attack will help you write the full-length KKK-zombie novel you knock out next month. The important part of failure here is that it teaches you that you can keep on going. Even if the first story you try doesn’t quite meet expectations. You gotta keep trying! These quotes aren’t all Issue 110 has to offer. Check it out, and then subscribe! Authors Publish Newsletter is free and drops right into your inbox; why not?!
There are incredible quotes here from some authors I’ve read and others I haven’t, but clearly should! Churchill’s was my favorite out of the seven, and these quotes aren’t all Issue 105 has to offer. Check it out, and then subscribe! Authors Publish Newsletter is free and drops right into your inbox; why not?!
Title: The Forest for the Trees
Author: Betsy Lerner
Publisher: Riverhead Books
If there’s one thing I can say about Lerner and Trees, buy it. Right now. Don’t bother with the rest of this review, or even the quotes I’ll be highlighting. If you’re a writer who wants to get published, and if you’re a reader who’s in love with authors, you may have found a career path. Just, buy it.
Rather than go into any formal review, which after fourteen years of publication (the links are for the updated, 2010 edition, but I checked out the 2000 edition from the library) there’s sure to be plenty somewhere, I think it would serve better to just share some of Betsy’s advice for writers. She’s got advice for editors, too, and I may share that at a later time. For now, I’m talking to the writers in the audience, because that’s really who Lerner’s audience is: the writers and authors in the crowd.
She loves you–almost as much as I do!–and she would do anything for you, even pull up the curtain on the process of publishing to give you an eye-full and maybe to set you off the high-anxiety calls wondering where your manuscript is and what she thought. But, that very anxiety is met and embraced with warmth, knowledge, and friendship. To say that being an editor like Lerner is the kind of editor I want to be, well, it’s an understatement of the highest order.
So, for the writers, here are the Top 5 writing quotes from The Forest for the Trees:
“But if you dream of having your work stay alive beyond your tenure on earth, if you hope to see it beside the unforgettable voices that are part of our literary diaspora, then you must be fearless in every aspect of your writing, from the syntax to the symbolism.”
This has always been one of my favorite Bradbury quotes. I personally love being a student and going back to school is always in the back of mind as an option, for any reason and any occasion. I only wish it were free, but then I reflect on Mr. Bradbury here. I know I could afford multiple trips to the library every week, and everything I want to learn about is there. Philosophy, Folklore, and, hell, Library Science, is even there. All I have to do is pick up a book! Click the image to see Bradbury’s other eight quotes, you won’t regret it!
I’ve mentioned in other posts how much I rely on email alerts to keep me “in the loop” of what’s going on, not only in my chosen industry, but in the world as well. While I was at a stopping point in the middle of a project, I saw a pattern emerge across my Writer’s Digest email alerts. Between December 2014 and January 2015, the concept of creating and writing better characters must have been circulating the editorial offices pretty heavily. Brian A. Klems gave us two articles (both guest posts by Les Edgerton and Anne Leigh Parrish) on the topic, and Rachel Scheller provided an excerpt from the revised edition of Word Painting by Rebecca McClanahan as a third.
The writing-tip count comes in at 17, Rebecca providing an 11-point list all by herself, leaving Anne and Les a 3-point list a piece. However, each tackles the element of a story’s character from a different angle.
Les Edgerton — This article gives a writer 3 of the best ways to introduce the main character; early on, reminding us that introducing the protagonist efficiently and immediately is a great way to hook the reader. Edgerton suggests keeping physical descriptions to a minimum, characterizing with action, and instilling individuality and depth.
Even though the readers may not need “10 pages of describing hair and eye color, height, weight and all of that kind of mundane detail” the writer may want to explore exactly how their character looks, and they can use and have that information without breaking it down into an RPG character bio right there in the manuscript. I find, in writing that I enjoy, that being able to work this information in creatively is an art and one that leads to fuller, easier-to-visualize prose.
Anne Leigh Parrish — This article gives a writer 3 steps to writing a plausible character, protagonist or supporting. Because there are plenty of things to consider when creating a fictional world, like “setting, plot, pacing, voice, imagery and so on”, it is important to remember that characters are an important part of the plot, too, and if they are weak your story could fall flat.
Keep in mind, a character doesn’t have to be nice, or moral, or a pillar of the community. Decent people with no flaws or vices don’t usually make for the most interesting reading. But nor can a character be all bad, with no redeeming traits. In other words, a character has to possess one essential element: complexity.
Parrish elaborates by stating that you should know what makes your character tick and don’t hide it under a bushel . . . essentially. The reader needs to be able to discern what drives your character, otherwise he or she won’t really be able to connect. Parrish suggests highlighting your character’s motivation, physical description (she agrees with Edgerton, that minimal is best except to highlight what stands out and makes the character unique), and personal idiosyncrasies will make them readable and memorable.
Rebecca McClanahan — In the 11-point list, Rebecca shares with writers the secrets to writing an effective character description. This would probably tie in to that RPG character bio template I linked to above, but, again, not as detailed. Six of the 11 secrets focus on how detailed (or not!) to be when presenting your characters to your readers. The other secrets focus on putting your characters in action, using active language to provide descriptions, and giving them props to show the reader who your character is.
Descriptions and walking the perfect tightrope when writing them seems to be the overarching theme here. You want your readers to connect with your characters and if you stick to the “all-points-bulletin” approach you run the risk of losing your readers to mere boredom.
This is where the axiom, “show; don’t tell” would definitely come into play. Don’t just tell us your character is using a cell phone and communicating. Think about who the character is talking to and how; why is that person trying to contact your character; is your character hiding out and about to be found? Providing context, which is what I think each of these writers is trying to say, is the best way to take your character from two dimensions to three.
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.