PROOFREADING AND EDITING material on website including full text novels (fantasy, SF and military SF), short stories (horror, fantasy and SF), writing advice, autobiographical material and blog entries on eg Islam. Site also includes full text of medical memoir CANCER PATIENT. This website by professional author Hugh Cook, aka Hugh Walter Gilbert Cook, author of the CHRONICLES OF AN AGE OF DARKNESS etc. Site also includes poetry and flash fiction. This site features PROOFREADING AND EDITING material about the art of writing: plotting, getting characters to act, proofreading and editing. Concise how-to-write advice by an expert. Read free online.
Advice on elements of writing, including plot, some mechanical issues and the business of proofreading and editing. A compact guide to the art of writing fiction.
This section on PROOFREADING AND EDITING is incorporated in the literary miscellany THIS IS A PICTURE OF YOUR GOD: A HUGH COOK READER.
Here are some suggestions on editing and proofreading, which flow from my experience with proofreading my war on terror alternative reality novel, the suicide bomber fantasy novel TO FIND AND WAKE THE DREAMER, set in the city state of Oolong Morblock. This very long fantasy novel is about 199,000 words long and, as a printed book, runs to over 700 pages.
Note that I made a special entry for "police" under which I put some police-related information to help me remember to look at other police-related entries, such as the entry for Enforcers Zisperchilp.
Not only does the rem.txt file have a special entry for "police", but it also has entries for "food", "drink", "music" and "nukes".
A rem.txt file is an easy way to keep track of facts and figures. How many people live in the city state of Oolong Morblock? About twenty million. How many thermonuclear devices are missing? Officially, none, but, in actuality, six. That kind of data.
This kind of alphabetically organized file can also help you figure out how well your key entities are spaced out along the alphabet.
When I was about twelve years of age I got into a horrible muddle while reading J.R.R. Tolkien's book LORD OF THE RINGS, gulping the whole thing down far too quickly, and taking not nearly enough time to digest it all.
Part of my problem, as a reader, was Tolkien's fault. He cooked up two very similar characters and gave the both similar names, Sauron and Saruman. They are both men, both dark lords and both masters of magic. They are both bad guys. Both of them live in fortified stronghold and each is served by evil orcs.
If one of these guys had been called Sauron and the other had been called Lushpuppy, then this book would have been a lot easier to follow. Similarly, if one had been served by evil blood-drinking orcs and if the other had been served by evil penguins which were addicted to intravenous marmalade, then the distinction would have been a lot clearer.
When I came to cook up my own two evil guys for TO FIND AND WAKE THE DREAMER, the names I chose were Beria Dag and Don Trash. Actually, "Dag" and "Don" both share the letter "D", so this is not optimal. However, in the book they are referred to not as "Don and Dag" but as "Don and Beria".
Note that the letters "D-o-n" do not occur in "B-e-r-i-a", whereas "Sauron" and "Saruman", which are not particularly long names, share the letters "s", "a", "r" and "n".
I take this differentiation of names pretty seriously, and I am not the only one who does so. During the Second World War, the British found themselves facing military contingencies relating to two similarly-named countries, "Iraq" and "Iran", both in the middle east, both states with oil, both Muslim countries a lot of similarities here, and no easy way to tell them apart.
So someone (I'm not sure who, but I think it may have been the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill) said, the hell with it, this Iraq/Iran business is a recipe for confusion and error, so we're going to rename "Iran" and call it "Persia" (which is historically what it was).
(If by chance I've got this story wrong and this renaming never happened, that makes no difference. The principle still holds good: it was appropriate, for the purposes of keeping the war straight in everyone's mind, to rename one of those countries.)
I make a point of making sure that my names are spread out across the whole alphabet, so TO FIND AND WAKE THE DREAMER contains, for example, the name Xgadriver (a big incineration complex), Zisperhaven (an island) and House Qorbethalmace (home of the City Exorcist, Gelbert Protctor Tosterburger).
I take the differentiation of names fairly seriously, as exemplified by a change that I made to the text of TO FIND AND WAKE THE DREAMER during proofreading.
While proofreading, I realized that in one chapter, chapter 70, I had a reputation manager named Dali Figueras and a great gong called Dalai Pastoosh. Nothing wrong with either name. But "Dali" is almost "Dalai", and I wanted the names to be differentiated from each other as clearly as possible. So I changed "Dali Figueras" to "Salvador Figueras".
The last of my practical hints is to try to proofread something at least four times, if it is important.
In the case of TO FIND AND WAKE THE DREAMER I wrote the original draft using a program called UltraEdit, a plain text editor which is optimized for the use of computer programmers, but which I have been using for years for my creative writing. (It is one of the very few programs that I have actually paid for, as I mostly use free software.)
Having made the plain text file, I checked it with my spellchecker (part of the UltraEdit package). Then I converted each chapter to HTML format. And, each time I made an HTML file, I proofread the finished result, and made any necessary changes in both the plain text file and the HTML file.
Then I used the corrected plain text file to make a Word document. (I don't know if it's possible to get Word's "intelligent quotes" when you do this. If it is possible, well, I made do without them.)
I then checked the Word document.
So, by the time I had a complete draft of TO FIND AND WAKE THE DREAMER, everything had been checked at least three times.
I then sat down and worked through the whole text a fourth time, and at this point I picked up a whole slew of errors, including the business of "nine" missing nuclear weapons at one point in the text and "six" at another.
I don't imagine that I caught all the mistakes, but I did give it a decent shot.
Each day I would sleep for a few hours, then wake up, sometimes as early as four in the morning, and, sitting up in bed with my knees raised and with my laptop computer propped up on my knees which, since I did not have the spectacles I needed, was the best way to get the computer screen at an optimal distance worked on proofreading until the middle of the day.
I made a point of doing something different in the remaining part of the day, such as working on a different project, and always went for a reasonably substantial walk each day.
The point I make about this setup is that I was able to work on the task of proofreading without distractions. It is work that requires concentration, and it is not compatible with any kind of multitasking.
Obviously, when proofreading, we have to catch bloopers. If there are nine missing thermonukes at one point in the plot, there had better not be only six later on. The two numbers have to be made to match.
While I was proofreading TO FIND AND WAKE THE DREAMER, I found that in one chapter the day was specified as being Saturday. Right? No, wrong. In the chapter before, it was Friday. And, what's more, in the following chapter it was still Friday. I had made a big boo-boo which a reader would quite possibly have noticed hey, it's Friday, isn't it, so why has it suddenly become Saturday? and my spellchecker did not pick up on the error.
Some errors you can only detect by reading the whole book in an intelligent manner, and thinking about the context. If it's Friday at the start of the day then it had better be Friday on the afternoon of the very same day, unless you have a very good excuse for it being otherwise. Similarly, if you have the full moon rising on Friday, you'd better be sure you don't have the full moon rising all over again on Friday week.
Bloopers will spoil the story for the reader.
So, when we're proofreading, and doing any light editing associated with the proofreading, we have to think carefully both at the sentence level (catch "the the" and deal with it) and also at the contextual level.
For example, in TO FIND AND WAKE THE DREAMER there are three consecutive chapters featuring TV journalist Sable Tauranga. In Chapter A, she is wearing a polka dot bikini. In Chapter B, she is doing a TV interview with Ibrahim Chess. We are told nothing about what she is wearing. In Chapter C, which takes place on the following day, she meets Ibrahim again.
In the original draft of Chapter C we are told:-
I checked that through three times, and it looked just fine to me. Never occurred to me that there might be a problem. Only later, when I was doing a final read-through, did I see the glaring error."Hello," said a bright blonde voice, Sable Tauranga in person, emerging from nearby undergrowth, dressed not in her polka dot bikini but in bright green vinyl strutgirl boots, stonewashed jeans and a leather buffalo-shooter's jacket with so many pockets that any boy would have envied it. "Am I interrupting something?"
In Chapter A, Sable was on a boat wearing her bikini. But then, in Chapter B, she interviewed Ibrahim on TV. Surely she wasn't still wearing the bikini. She must have changed into something. But the text reads as if Ibrahim had perceived a transition from bikini to jeans. That won't do. We have to either delete the clothing references or else establish what she was wearing in Chapter B.
So what was she wearing?
Personally, I am a zero when it comes to tailoring. At the age of five, I was enormously upset when someone gave me a pair of walk shorts for a Christmas present. The thought that went wailing through my mind was "That's not a present!" And I haven't changed.
One of the things that surprised me about my first seven years of life in Japan was all the clothes that I ended up acquiring. How can this possibly be me? How can I possibly own these tailor-made suits cut from high-quality English cloth? And all these pairs of shoes in the shoe cupboard, how can all these possibly be mine?
So, as a writer, I'm a zero on the clothes front, and, if I seriously wanted to write a thoroughgoing girl's life novel, I'd have to go buy myself some women's magazines, and make a habit of leafing through them during my coffee breaks.
(The first novel I ever wrote, "Plague Summer", featured a guy who rides a motorbike, something I've never done. While writing that novel, I always had, right beside me, a photo of a particular motorbike. The photo was on a page I'd cut from a magazine, advertizing a certain model of motorbike. For the duration of the book, that, if I needed to imaginatively refer to it, was the motorbike featured in the novel, documentation substituting for a gap in my own ideation kit.)
After years of practice, cooking up imaginative monsters or organizing fight scenes with high body counts comes really easily to me, but figuring out what Sable Tauranga might have been wearing for her TV interview, that was a bit of a struggle, and initially I drew a blank.
However, I got there in the end, and the final result was as follows:-
The other thing I added was the "Didn't hear her creeping" paragraph. Earlier, it had been established that Sable used an outboard motor when using the inflatable boat to which she had access. Ibrahim is in a very quiet place, so how come he is not cued to her approach by the noise of the outboard motor? That was another thing I did not think about when I initially wrote the scene."Hello," said a bright blonde voice, Sable Tauranga in person, emerging from nearby undergrowth.
Probably most readers would just have registered the story development, which is that "Sable Tauranga shows up without warning and takes Ibrahim Chess by surprise". But there is bound to be the occasional person who thinks, "Hey, but wait a minute. She must have got to the island by that inflatable boat we read about earlier, and that thing had an outboard motor, and those things are noisy!"
The reader who notices this might think, "Well, I suppose the writer has some excuse for this". But, ideally, the reader will not have to exercise this kind of tolerance. If you build a boat, then the boat should not have leaks in it, even if the leaks are not big enough to sink the boat.
In catching logical bloopers, it helps to think carefully about the logic of the situation. How many people does this scene require? In TO FIND AND WAKE THE DREAMER there is an interview between Sable Tauranga and Ibrahim Chess. At the end of the interview, Sable chats privately with Ibrahim. But are they private?
In writing this scene, I wrote it as if there were only two people in the room. But, logically, given that it's a TV interview, there has to be at least one other person, the cameraman. So, when editing the text, I spliced in the cameraman, as follows:
"Exiting the scene, Sable's cameraman banged shut one of the tug's heavy steel watertight doors, leaving Ibrahim and Sable alone."
Logically, there must have been a cameraman present at the interview, so I want to explicitly delete him so, when Sable starts chatting privately with Ibrahim, no reader suddenly thinks, "But, hey, wouldn't there be at least a cameraman in the room?"
I have had nothing to do with TV, apart from being a member of a TV studio audience, once, many years ago, so remembering that there must, logically, be a cameraman, did not come naturally to me.
(In an ordinary TV setup, of course, there would be people on hand in addition to a cameraman, but this is an improvised studio on a tug which is presently remote from civilization. That said, if I'd focused more on the TV activity, I'd have had to research the question of what kind of people make up a TV team, and would have had to put in more effort to present the TV broadcasting activities realistically.
Key point: do a simple headcount from time to time, and be sure you haven't missed someone. It's easy to overlook a necessary person, as I, initially, overlooked the necessary cameraman. Remember the story of the seven brothers who, having gone fishing, did a count and found they were missing one person. Problem? The person doing the count was neglecting to count himself.
Obviously, the further you go beyond your natural range, the more of a problem this "who's there?" question becomes. Someone who routinely worked with TV would automatically think of the cameraman (and, doubtlessly, a bunch of other peoples as well) but, as I've already indicated, for me, the TV world is well out of my natural range.
In 2005, the year in which I wrote TO FIND AND WAKE THE DREAMER, I think I probably watched no more than about twenty hours or so of TV in the course of the whole year, and that was in the "family room" at hospital, when I was staying in for days at a time while receiving chemotherapy. I spent the year 2005 with my parents, who do not have television.
Looking back at the words about the cameraman exiting, note that the tug is described in passing. Minimally described. We don't need five thousand words of tug description here, and the plot wouldn't benefit if the description was expanded. We just need the flavor of reality. A smear of tomato sauce, not the whole barbecue. Hence the key words "steel", "heavy", "watertight" and "banged". This is tug-flavored tomato sauce. The reader can build the rest of the tug in his or her mind.
(If the reader can't do that, then the book needs a different reader. Can't build human civilization from scratch for the benefit of a reader who doesn't have a properly developed concept of human civilization, complete with Internet sites, battle tanks, machineguns and tugboats.)
The key to efficient descriptive writing, then, is to aim to capture the flavor rather than serve up the whole barbecue, and to describe things while the plot progresses forward, while action is taking place, rather than bringing the whole book to a crunching halt so the reader can endure a description.
Descriptions are static, and a novel needs to aim at being dynamic, a machine constantly in the process of self-evolution.
Things to avoid, then, include basic bloopers on the "the the" level; mistaken choices concerning, for example, "their" versus "there", and, of course, spelling mistakes.
It also helps to think about clarity. Is this going to be clear to your reader?
Sometimes, coming to my own work after a gap of years, I find something in an old draft which quite simply does not make sense. It made sense to me when I wrote it, but now, having forgotten the context, it doesn't make sense at all.
One of the Roman writers, I believe, recommended keeping a piece of work on hand for seven years before publishing it to the world. Seven years might be impractical, but at least try for seven days.
In terms of clarity, I focus in on pronouns, sentence length (shorter is better) and sentence complexity (simpler is better).
Let me expand on those points.
During the first seven years that I spent teaching in Japan, I did a certain amount of editing work. In particular, for some years I taught e-mail writing. Students would get their writing assignments from a web site and would send me their efforts to be checked and corrected.
One persistent problem that I found was that the topic would become confused or lost entirely. In Japanese grammar, topic is explicitly marked with the topic marker, "wa". However, in the English language, topic is typically implicit rather than explicit, although it is possible to explicitly identify the topic if we really want to, by saying, for example, "Now, at this point I would like to discuss X" or "This brings us to X", which plainly marks X as the topic of the moment.
In the worst case, when Japanese students attempt to write complex English, the result can be a horrifying syntactic slurry in which four or five nouns are bubbling around in a discordant grammatical soup, with no way for any English-wired intellect to tell which noun is supposed to be in a relationship with which verb.
In response to this kind of apocalyptic grammatical breakdown, my standard advice was to work with short sentences and simple structures. And, when I'm editing my own work, and hit something which seems a bit murky, or is a little tricky to parse, I follow my own advice.
I also advise my students to be careful with words such as "it" and "they" and "he" and "she". If there's any distance between the antecedent and the pronoun, then, as a rule, it's a good idea to restate the antecedent.
On occasion, while editing the text of this long novel of mine, TO FIND AND WAKE THE DREAMER, I chose to lubricate the reading process by restating the antecedent anyway. What follows is an example.
There is absolutely no need to restate "Ten minutes" as the reader hitting "Maybe" will only need a microsecond to think back and find "ten minutes". And restating the antecedent like this could very easily become irritating, the danger being that the author will end up seeming to be accusing the reader of brain damage. So it's a judgment call. How I approach it is this: does the adjusted text read more smoothly to me? And does the adjustment make for a text which reads naturally, or does it result in something which seems ugly and forced?
This was modified to make the following:
As Ibrahim came up onto the roof, a snake stirred in the darkness, a python, black, huge, its massive coils picked out by the scattered glitter of its luminescent green scales. It was enormous, five times Ibrahim's length.
Thinking more carefully about "hugeness" takes the text in the direction of exactitude, toward "massive coils". It's a snake, and it's lying in coils.
To my sensibility, the "think", "thought", "thinking" sequence is not stylistically optimal in the following:
"Good think," said Ibrahim. "I hadn't thought of that."
And he went to work, thinking to himself: just how the hell did this happen? How did I end up sitting on the roof of the presidential palace, cooking in the sun, sharing the roof with an out-and-out lunatic religious nutter who happens to be my brother, with a thermonuclear device armed and ready to go, with a bunch of extremely deceased guys who got slaughtered dead in a firefight, and with the living incarnation of Toralina Soubliette, who is my partner in crime, the crime in question being organizing a drug deal so major that it's surely worth not just the ruin of my reputation but fifty years in a concrete box? How did this happen?
Because I didn't like the thing/thought/thinking sequence, when I did the final edit I modified "And he went to work, thinking to himself" to "And he went to work, wondering to himself".
You might or might not agree with this approach: your sense of style may not be mine. What I would say, however, is that style is worth thinking about at this level of nuance. After you have sorted out the dynamics of the plot. Once again, keep the main point in mind: if you haven't gone and built a decent table, then there's no point in fooling around with the varnish.
While I was busy proofreading this very long novel of mine, TO FIND AND WAKE THE DREAMER, I used some small fractions of the text as the basis of a short story, SHOOT TO KILL, as mentioned above.
While I was at work on the short story, I found an error which needed to be corrected at the proofreading stage. It concerned the TV news journalist Esmeralda Arizona. The error is as follows:
"Breaking news," said Arizona.
What is the error? Your spell-checker will not be able to tell you, and neither will your English teacher. The error is that Esmeralda has been labeled with her surname, Arizona, and the standard for this particular novel is, as has been previously indicated, that characters are referred to by their personal names, where these are known. For example, the head of the secret police, Beria Dag, is referred to as "Beria", not as "Dag" or as "Mr. Dag".
By referring to Esmeralda Arizona as "Arizona", then, I was breaching my own style book. The point here is that a text should be stylistically consistent. Should you use surnames or personal names for your characters? Doesn't matter, as long as you're consistent. Should there be one space after a period (that is, after a full stop) or two? Well, if you work for an organization, it may have its own style book, which may quite possibly lay down the law on this point, one way or the other. If you're being your own editor, however, you have to make a choice. Choose one or the other, and then be consistent about how you apply it.
Ideally, the reader should perceived the story and not the text. The text should be so polished, so exquisitely lacquered, that it slides into the mind without meeting resistance. And anything that it stylistically wrong any eccentric alteration in the way in which you handle the mechanical details, as exemplified above creates a distracting sense of friction which forces the reader to acknowledge the fact that this "story" is actually a bunch of words on a page.
When we are proofreading, we have to read at the letter-by-letter level, in order to catch bloopers such as "the the", which will usually be read simply as "the" the mind tends to see on the page what it is expecting to see there, not what actually is there.
But that is not how we read a book when we are reading as readers rather than as proofreaders. We read for meaning. And anything which throws the reader out of "reader" mode and into "proofreader" mode is disruptive to the reading experience and, especially in the case of reading fiction, spoils the reader's experience.
Moving on, to close out this selection of actual proofreading edits that I made while working my way through the text of TO FIND AND WAKE THE DREAMER, here is one more example of a stylistic error, the mindless repetition of the word "track":
Another grin, very blonde. This talkback show needed theme music, and an appropriate track would be the famous dance track by the group Metrotrash Jumble, Dancing on the Edge of Hell."
The sequence of "track" followed by "track" is not stylistically fatal, and probably the average reader would skip right over it without noticing. However, it leaves me unsatisfied, and the first reader I have to satisfy is myself. So, in the course of doing the final edit, I changed "dance track" to "dance tune".
I very firmly believe that doing this kind of highly nuanced tweaking is something that should be left until the editing phase.
Writing and editing are two different things, and it is not a smart idea to combine them.
When the text is actually in the process of being forged from the molten steel of the mind, then the focus should be on the overall shape of the whole, on the controlling dynamic which masters the book into a unity. In a word, plot.
In my concept of fiction writing, then, plot is supreme. The storyline is the mnemonic device which holds the complexities of the novel together in the human mind.
Writing, then, as I see it, is not about producing the elegantly turned sentence but, rather, about mastering the parts into a whole. A final edit which attends to nuanced is like varnishing a table. If you don't know how to make a table, and how to make sure that all four legs are exactly the right length, then an eternity of effort spent varnishing the table is really a waste of time. You should really smash down what you've built into firewood, and start over.
It's my impression that the academic world tends to sneer at the vulgar business of "story", of action B following action A and, logically, provoking action C. Snobbery values the varnish rather than the table. But, when we're talking about the novel, plot, in my mind, is what it's all about. What the hell is the story here?
And the main reason why I was happy to pour in the hours on a final edit of TO FIND AND WAKE THE DREAMER, the main reason why I was content to lie on my bed for days at a time, going through the text line by line, was that it's one hell of a story.
Also, in an act of supreme intellectual arrogance, an unashamed affirmation of my self-acclaiming ego, I had the temerity to put the words "The Ultimate Fantasy Novel" on the title page. And, once you've gone that far out on a limb, you'd better not deliver to the world a book which contains too many miscues and outright bloopers.
So, being supremely confident of the quality of what I had produced, I was happy to spend the hours required to polish and varnish it to the best of my ability. But it has to be stressed, once again, that the pretty work done on the shiny surfaces is not the important thing. The important thing is the basic table, and, if you don't have that, you're wasting your time.
Remember that a work of fiction is not just a bunch of words. It is a situation. It is important to visualize the situation and to figure out how this works on the level of perceptual dynamics.
I'm writing this in New Zealand where, as you drive along the road, you will sometimes see an idiot sign painted on the road, saying:
This actually means:-
However, some brain-damaged moron, generations ago, decided that, as you drive along the road, you see the word "give" before you see the word "way". According to this theory of reading, if we are approaching a sign that is painted on the road then we read it by starting with the word which is nearest to us and proceeding to words which are more remote.
Nothing wrong with the passage shown above. It's functional and moves the book forward. But Ibrahim is a politician, and is characterized as being a fairly effective political communicator. So, when I reread this, thinking about the situation from Ibrahim's, one adjustment seemed logical. Ibrahim, as a politician, and as someone who is reasonably media savvy, should be a habitual name-user. So I adjusted the text to read not "I love you" but "I love you, Prissy Colorful."Prissy: "But you want to explode us."
In summary, then, proofreading has to cover a bunch of different things. Data has to match. If it's Monday when the viewpoint character wakes up, the writer must have a good excuse if it is suddenly Tuesday by the time the viewpoint character reaches the breakfast table.
Errors such as the choice between "there" and 'their" have to be hunted for. Style has to be checked, to avoid the mindless repetition of terms.
And we have to think about the realities of this situation. About the order in which information is processed emdash for example, first you unfold a computer printout and THEN you see what is written on it. And about how long things take to happen. Was there time enough for this conversation? We have to live through the scene, imaginatively, and make sure that the words match the scene.
The last thing I would say is that proofreading is important. Blunders at this level have a tendency to wreck the reading experience.
Point: the writer is one person and the work of proofreading, however long it takes, is the work of one person and of one person only. Readers, all going well, are many. The work of the one, the writer, benefits the many, the readers. And if you're not prepared to do the job of proofreading, then why are you setting up as a writer?
(I do not aim this point at you, gentle reader, but offer this piece of rhetoric to you so that you may use it as a hammer with which to hit your students, assuming that you have students to hit.)
Bad-tempered academic type, character warped by years of frustration caused by laws which, unfairly and unreasonably, forbid the use of high-voltage electricity in academic situations:
"You! Yes, you, you bunch of idle layabouts! If you're too lazy to put in the effort to proofread, then why are you setting up as a writer?"
Answer: to have an excuse for drinking more liquor than is good for human health and to avoid the responsibility of forging a responsible and remunerative career in the cement industry. But let's not publicize that!
Tough, brutal SF fantasy novel: an alternative reality novel about
religious fanatics, suicide bombers and the excesses of the war on terror.
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