“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.
Holy Crap Bag! Talk about an extended, involuntary hiatus. I got some editing gigs (Yay!); they were bumpier rides than I expected (Yay for ‘lessons learned’!); and I have less than a week left to the month and for my goal (Yay for working under pressure!).
Good thing I have motivation:
Marc Bolan (pictured here in 1977), of T.Rex fame, has been my rock ‘n’ roll muse for the last month or so. And at his beckon call, in the last couple of days, I have been able to complete my rough draft of Survival Instinct! I was worried there for a bit, but it’s in the trunk and growing some flavor as we speak. It’s strange with the shortcut missing from my desktop now, but Midnight Ladies is keeping its spot warm. Making a beckoning call of its own.
I know I’ve been an absent parent the last week or so. I hope that you’re all staying on better track than I did. But, being able to blast out a couple scenes whenever I could take a moment or two to write was a great feeling! I haven’t written in bursts like that for years. At least not since graduate school. And, it felt really, really good!
It was also kind of nice to “know” which scene was coming up next; though, not necessarily what would happen in that scene. Because, as usual, my characters surprised me. And those things may get redacted in the beta-reading and editing phases, but for right now, I’m pleased with how my characters reacted or acted out in certain scenes, and then held back in others.
While I considered one track of evidence to hook my antagonist, it was a surprise character–that I’d felt lurking in the background, but wasn’t certain of his existence–who ended up turning the tables. The homeless squatter was not completely on his own, though, because some outlying character connections among the supporting cast also came to the surface that really brought the plot to a head. Again, while those “logical” connections seem so now, it’s going to be some distance, a round of editing, and then some beta reading that will really test how those connections support or detract from the story.
Overall, coming back to this story after considering the option of letting it go unfinished–not all of them are home runs, kids–has added fuel to the fire. I’m excited to get back into Midnight Ladies, even if I don’t meet the end of the month goal. I got halfway there, finishing this rough draft, and I’m willing to take that for a win!
How are you all doing going into the final week? Are you close to making the 50K goal? Are you struggling? Did life get in the way for you, too? Don’t let it stop you. Keep on keeping on, Authors!
So, I purposefully took the day off to do some reading yesterday–I’m in the middle of Jack Ketchum’s ebook Peaceable Kingdom right now–and I’m so much the better for it! We met a new character and my antagonist and protagonist finally meet face-to-face, and it’s kind of unceremonial–but I like that aspect of it. It’s low-key (for being a response to the protagonist’s first escape attempt) and isn’t a big, bloody fight–at least, not right now. All that might change. There is a whole other 24 hours that they will have with each other. Does she get away? Will they be discovered? And by whom?
Like I mentioned the other day, I have scenes plotted, and there are a handful of people who may discover them. The new character already knows that a woman is being held against her will, but will he be able to make it to the police? Will the police believe him when he gets there?
Got over 2000 words today, cleared two scenes away, the new character and the instigation scene I started the other day. Now, we’re going into the third and final day for the story. I’m so excited to wrap this up! So glad I decided to go this route this year.
How are you all doing on Day 5? Are you making goals, struggling? Keep on keeping on, Authors!
Words written Day 5: 2,178
Today was a great stretch of writing. I’m one more “scene” (Well, sets of scenes because until today my antagonist and protagonist hadn’t technically shared a space, except for the kidnapping, which took place off-camera, in a word.) closer to being done, and boy, did my characters surprise me today!
The antagonist seemed so much more prepared for his captives, then my protagonist got a crazy idea. She’d, apparently, had enough of her antagonist, too. Though she didn’t articulate the reason why to me yet, she may still have a chance because my antagonist isn’t done with her. But, she took a chance, got creative, and felt like she had the power to. It flew out of my fingertips, and I love when the writing goes like that.
I’ll also be introducing a new character tomorrow, minor but important to what remains of the plot. Like some of the other minor characters in this book, I think I’m going to have some fun with him. I’m already working on a profile–well, in my head anyway–and I can’t wait to come back tomorrow and round out this surprise-laden scene!
How did your third day go? Are you making your daily goals?
Words written Day 3: 1,863
So, here we are, back at it a year later, and hopefully you’ve had a successful first day! Getting back into the swing of writing everyday has been bumpy for me so far, but I’m not going to let that get me down. I spent Day 1 re-reading my two-year-old manuscript and getting reacquainted with my plot and characters. Some of them surprise me, as if someone else had written them. Coming back to a manuscript I’ve left for an indefinite amount of time always surprises me.
For the sake of moving quickly, because I have much more ground to cover in Midnight Ladies later this month, I’ve plotted what I think will be the last five or seven scenes that will need to happen in Survival Instinct for the story to be completely told–without any loose ends, anyway–neatly tied up but not necessarily “done.” I don’t normally plot, but I also don’t normally “know” how the story will end.
In this case, because I was watching a lot of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit at the time that I started, I had an idea where the story would go. Having just a sentence of who is in the scene and what may or may not happen, how that scene will propel the story, is already making me feel like I’m close to the end. And, I want to be. I don’t like being in my antagonist’s head, and I really want my protagonist to get out. It’s just a matter of getting there.
How was your first day? Will you be able to write on your second?
Words written Day 1: 355 (Paltry, I know. But, I did spend most of the day re-reading, mildly editing the 74 single-spaced pages that already existed.)
Words written Day 2: 1,340
Hello Fellow Writers, Readers, and Annual Novelists!
NaNoWriMo is up and running, and I’m so sad to say that I won’t be starting a new novel this year. I won’t even technically be taking part in NaNoWriMo (or, National Novel Writing Month) as a word-tallying member of the website, that is.
I’m going to be taking part in my own version of NaNoWriMo, which I will handily call NaNoFinMo, or National Novel Finishing Month. In 2012, when I officially began taking part in NaNoWriMo, I actually completed the story I started writing. In 2013 and last year, I only got about 3/4 and 1/2 way through those stories, respectively.
So, for this year’s NaNo goal, I will be taking the first two weeks-ish to finish the serial killer novel I began in 2013 (working title: Survival Instinct) and the last two weeks for the dark lesbian erotica I chronicled last year (working title: Midnight Ladies). Though, I think that “little” collection may take me beyond that amount of time. Maybe Survival Instinct won’t take the full two weeks at the beginning of next month *crosses fingers, partakes in wishful thinking*.
What’s great about this is that I technically don’t have word counts to meet each day, because my overall goal is simply to finish the stories, get a rough draft I can “trunk” until I feel ready to come back and polish them. My plan right now is to chronicle the
spectacle adventure as I did last year: so, tune in to the same MeliSwenk channel for the same MeliSwenk fun as you had last year!
You did have fun with me last year, right?
Because I certainly had fun with all of my readers last year. And, I’ll be glad to get back into some regular blogging, too! I have recently cut some of the fat and scored some extra time for networking and general, all-around friend-making.
Looking forward to getting started! Who’s with me? And, what are your writing goals for NaNoWriMo (Or, NaNoFinMo) this year?
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.