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Website of author and professional editor Rachelle M. N. Shaw. Find information about her books, her editing services, and her blog, From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing.

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From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing

From Mind to Paper is a blog for writers, editors, and those interested in the English language. It covers a multitude of writing topics, from punctuation and grammar to plot development, character development, and world building. In addition to in-depth articles about various writing topics, this blog also has a number of series posts, which are currently being transformed into a nonfiction series on writing.

Filtering by Category: Editing Advice

How to Catch Typos in Your Own Work

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

For all you writers out there like myself, you probably know how hard it is to edit your own work, especially when it comes to typos. Your brain automatically fills in the blank—and corrects errors—as you read over each line in your head, making the little boogers near impossible to see. Now, I’m not suggesting that you use this method as a substitute for hiring a professional for the majority of your editing; in fact, you absolutely should be doing that before you even consider publication. However, I’ve come up with a solution that does a pretty darn good job of the proofreading process at least, and it even helps some with line editing. Best of all, it’s FREE if you already own Microsoft Word.

Word has a nifty little tool built in called text-to-speech (TTS). It’s no surprise that this feature is included, but since it’s not part of the standard toolbar at the top (I myself was unaware of it until after I stumbled across it in a Google search), many people miss it.

Activating Text-to-Speech

Next to the quick access toolbar at the top, you’ll find a drop down arrow. If you click it, a list of customizable commands for the toolbar will pop up. After clicking More Commands, make all commands available, then scroll down until you find the Speak option. Select it and click Add. Click OK to save the changes, then you’re all set. It should now show up at the top.

Now all you have to do is highlight the text you wish to have it read by selecting it in the document and clicking the shortcut for the Speak tool from the toolbar at the top. It looks like a comment bubble with a play arrow at the bottom right-hand corner.

For a more thorough step-by-step guide, you can check out the how-to article on Microsoft’s site.

Why This Works Better Than Other Methods

I’ve seen plenty of suggestions for other methods, such as printing out your book or reading it backwards to catch errors like this. And while those do work well for spotting the majority of the issues, particularly the print-out method, they have one major flaw: you’re still the one reading your own writing, which means you’re relying on your brain to pick up on its shortcomings through what you see. And as I’ve already established, your brain is generally pretty biased when it comes to reading your own writing. By having an unbiased source, such as the computer, read the text for you, you’re instead free to listen to the text. And believe me, it’s much easier to hear errors than it is to see them. My proof?

In my most recent book, I had nearly a dozen beta readers and two editors go through it, not to mention having revised it several times myself. But despite that, after using the text-to-speech feature, I caught over twenty additional typos and errors that all of us missed. And let me be clear about this, because this is a really important point. I’m in NO way knocking my betas or editors. They are fantastic, and my book wouldn’t even be half of what it is without their input. What I am suggesting is that we’re all human. And as such, we have flaws. One major flaw with our brains—well, it’s actually a huge upside that is an adaption for survival if you think about it—is that it’s completely wired to read things correctly, even when they’re not. It has a tough time picking up on all the errors in writing, which is why we editors have to work so hard to develop a keen eye for potential problems. Case in point is this well-known example:

I cdnuo’lt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mind. Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno’t mtaetr in waht oerdr the ltteres in a wrod are; the olny iproamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rghi t pclae.

So before you hit the “send” button on the final draft of your manuscript, whether you’re self-publishing or submitting your work to publishers, agents, or even magazines, give this method a try. Your betas, editors, publisher, and readers—not to mention you, yourself—will be glad you did.

The Editing Agenda: When Is It Time to Call in a Professional?

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

You’ve written the first draft, you’ve had your friends read through it, and you’ve even edited it a few times yourself. Time to start hunting for a professional editor, right? Well, not quite. First, there are a few steps you should take to ensure your book is at its best so you can find the perfect editor for it.

1. Beta testing. One of the easiest ways to find out if your piece is successful is to hand it over to some beta readers. Ideally, these readers will not have seen any of the drafts up to that point, nor will they know the details of the plot. Some of your beta readers can be your friends, but be sure you also have impartial voices who will provide completely honest feedback, even if it means that your book didn’t work for them. Sometimes that’s tough to swallow, but it’s a crucial step you don’t want to shortchange yourself on. If you can’t rely on honest feedback from your betas, you might end up with a book that is doomed to flop, but you won’t know it until after it’s published and the negative reviews roll in—or until you receive a brutally honest letter from one of the publishers or agents you queried telling you just how bad it really is. That’s not to say this always will be the case. Your book might be totally amazing, and if so, that’s awesome! But to be sure, get a second opinion before you commit to the final steps in the process. Once you hit the “send” button, you can’t take it back.

2. More edits. Once you get feedback from your beta readers, it’s back to the drawing board. A good place to start is with the comments that cropped up more than once. Those are usually the ones most worth listening to, and they should take top priority. Make any necessary adjustments, then scan over the remaining comments. Do they make sense? Are they based on personal opinion, or do they add validity to what you’re trying to accomplish in your piece? Pick and choose those which are both critical and uplifting—the ones that point out the positives in addition to what could be improved. Not all comments will be worthwhile, but the ones that are can vastly improve your manuscript. When you’re done editing your piece—again—or when you no longer know how to fix what’s wrong, that’s when it’s time to seek out a professional.

3. Research. Not all editors are the same. We each specialize in various types of editing and different genres, so you’ll want to find an editor that is the best match for your piece. Querying an editor who primarily deals with sci-fi about a romance novel probably won’t yield great results. Having said that, editors also have varying levels of experience, and you’ll want to find the right one for you. I recommend searching for one with reasonable pricing who is also a qualified professional. Two great sites to look on are Reedsy and 10 Minute Novelists. There are TONS of awesome editors on both, and I’m honored to be one of them. If you still can’t find a good match for your project after searching there, I’ll be glad to help!

4. Commitment. One last step before you send your query: Make sure you’re willing to work hard at improving your manuscript. Even with copy and line edits, you’ll still need to review changes and suggestions. An editor should ideally coach you through your piece, helping you identify its strengths and weaknesses. The best editors will not only give you suggestions to improve your piece, but they will also teach you how to become a better writer. For my own clients, I generally give suggestions first, then have my clients implement the changes themselves. It’s a lot of work for both parties, but by doing so, the author can practice the techniques of better writing as they learn them, making them stick longer. An editor can only be as invested in you and your work as you are in them; if you’re not willing to make sacrifices and work hard on your piece to make it perfect, you won’t get as much out of the editing process as you could.

Well, that wraps up the editing series. I hope my tips have been helpful, and if anyone has any questions, don’t hesitate to get in touch!

The Editing Agenda: Making Your Sentences Stronger

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

If there’s one thing that makes writing weaker than anything else, it’s those blasted filter words and passive sentences. They work their way into multiple paragraphs, sucking them dry, and before you know it, your manuscript has withered away into nothingness! Okay, not really. But they are a nuisance, and they do tend to sprout in unwanted places, making your writing less than awesome. So how do you identify filter words and passive lines, and how do you improve them?

Identifying Weak vs. Strong

Let’s start with filter words and phrases. Filter words are ones that put a veil between the reader and the character. Instead of the reader directly experiencing the action as the narrator or main character does, they hear it through a secondhand account. Many editors (myself included) will argue that the use of filter words—effectively summarization—separates the reader from the events of the story, making it harder for them to connect with the book and its characters. Many of you might recognize this as the old show, don’t tell technique.

The upside to identifying these filter phrases is there are some key words that can tip you off. Here are a few of the main ones:

  • to begin
  • to try
  • to seem
  • to start
  • to watch
  • to realize
  • to notice
  • to look
  • to feel
  • to decide
  • can/could/couldn’t
  • to know
  • to find
  • to remember
  • to be able to
  • to note
  • to let
  • to experience
  • to wonder
  • to touch
  • to gaze
  • to observe
  • to help
  • to become

These words won’t always indicate weak writing, but if you find one of these phrases or a variation of one, chances are pretty high that the sentence is in need of editing, even if it’s just to condense. To illustrate how filter words and phrases can distract the reader and overshadow an otherwise sound passage, here’s an example of a paragraph riddled with these creatures:

Jennifer WATCHED the school disappear and then closed her eyes, LETTING the scene slowly fill her head. She REALIZED just how slowly she was moving when she APPROACHED the finish line, and she FELT the air rush past her cheeks as she BECAME the first to finish. She heard the others behind her, but they were far enough away that she COULDN'T make out their words.

Now let’s take that same paragraph and reword, eliminating the filter words and strengthening each line:

As the school disappeared from view, Jennifer closed her eyes, the scene slowly filling her head. Her feet lunged toward the finish line in slow strides, and air rushed past her cheeks as the tape broke across her chest. She had done it. She’d won! The others straggled far behind, their words garbled in the wind.

Which paragraph would you rather read? Which one makes you feel more connected to Jennifer? Chances are, you picked the second paragraph. Not only is the veil lifted between the reader and the character using this method, the writing itself is clearer and more concise. Think of this technique as watching a movie versus a friend telling you about the same movie. While you can get a pretty good idea about what happened in a movie when your friend recounts it, the experience will likely be a more pleasant one if you see it firsthand. This technique also explains why first person and close third points of view have become popular in modern works of fiction—readers find it much easier to connect with those narrative styles.

Here are some additional articles I recommend for tackling filter words:

http://writeitsideways.com/are-these-filter-words-weakening-your-fiction/

http://www.invisibleinkediting.com/2013/12/23/how-to-find-filter-words-and-filter-them-out/

 

Taking the Active Approach

Another pest that may be inhabiting your paragraphs are passive sentences. Passive sentences are those in which the subject does not perform the action but rather the action is done unto them. While a few of these are okay, a manuscript filled with them can have the same effect as filter words and phrases: an unfortunate veil between the reader and your characters.

For example, let’s take this paragraph about a cake (because, you know, who doesn’t love a good cake?):

There WAS a three-tiered cake on the counter with chocolate icing. As I stepped closer and took a bite, I COULD TELL THERE WERE different flavors for each layer. The top layer HAD TO BE chocolate—my favorite. But the middle WAS much lighter in color, presumably a plain white cake. The bottom layer CONSISTED OF more chocolate cake, but it HAD BEEN FILLED with a gooey cherry filling. The cake TASTED absolutely delicious!

Apart from these lines being mostly passive and sprinkled with filter phrases, there’s little about the flavor and texture of the cake. After reading this passage, a reader might think, “Hey, cake sounds kind of good right about now.” But that’s not what we're after. We don’t want the reader to crave just any cake—we want them to crave that specific cake.

Here’s the same paragraph with active sentences, more descriptors, and fewer filter phrases:

A three-tiered cake sat on the counter, creamy chocolate icing covering every inch of its surface. As I stepped closer and popped a bite into my mouth, an array of flavors coated my taste buds. A powerful punch of fluffy chocolate cake—my favorite—created the first layer. A lighter-colored layer of plain white cake followed. An additional layer of chocolate cake lined the bottom, but a gooey cherry filling seeped through its pores, and a definite sweet-but-tart flavor danced on my tongue. Absolutely delicious!

To avoid passive sentences, I use a two-fold approach. The first task is to identify all the linking verbs and eliminate them wherever possible. The same is true for filter words and phrases. This may take a few attempts and sometimes even a considerable amount of wording, but that’s okay. If the changes make your sentences more powerful, the effort will be worth it. Once you’ve identified those and made necessary changes, go back through each line and apply some personification. This is an especially useful method for tackling descriptive paragraphs like the one above.

Though you may be skeptical that small changes like these make such a big difference to your manuscript, give it a try. It might take a considerable amount of time and rewording, but the process is well worth it. The result will be stronger sentences and an overall stronger manuscript.

The Editing Agenda: Tackling Tags

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

While I’ve made several posts in the past about dialogue, today it’s time to tackle tags. During my experience as an editor, I’ve corrected a ridiculous number of tags. In fact, they’re probably the biggest issue I run into—apart from maybe commas. What makes them such a struggle for writers? Honestly, I think the methodology has a lot to do with it. When many of us write, my included, we tend to get the story down on paper as quickly as possible and worry about the structure later. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. However, eventually we have to the editing stage. So what better time to hunt down the little boogers and spruce them up? This article will focus on the ins and outs of tags: what works as a tag, what doesn’t, and why diversity in tags can sometimes be a downfall.

Tag, You’re It!

The general purpose of a tag is to describe who is speaking and to indict tone of the dialogue.

Some tags may be very simple: “Put the water on to boil,” said Tommy.

Others may be more elaborate: “Why would you do this?” she asked in a strangled voice.

They can even be coupled with an action: “Of course,” he said, waving goodbye.

But all tags are used to further clarify the dialogue within the given context. Oftentimes, they are a way of depicting emotions as well as what is being said. But BE CAREFUL about using tags to convey emotion, especially if you’re relying on adverbs to do so. Usually, a much better way of illustrating these emotions is to use characters’ body language, facial expressions, and even the words themselves. While including some emotion in a tag’s description is okay, too much falls dangerously into the telling category. The best way to avoid this is to ask yourself, “Can this be shown better through the character’s actions or by others’ responses?” If the answer is yes, your tag probably could use some tweaking.

Example A (adverbial tag): “Are you going anywhere with this?” Jane asked impatiently.

Example B (alternative): “Are you going anywhere with this?” Jane asked, crossing her arms and pursing her lips.

While Example A definitely conveys Jane’s emotions and signifies that she is the one asking a question, it definitely lies more in the realm of telling. There’s no clear image of what the character is doing to show that she’s impatient, and it doesn’t engage the reader. Example B fulfills the function of a tag, and it does a much better job of showing how Jane feels without stating anything directly.

Not It!

A tag isn’t a linked reaction the dialogue. This concept can be tricky, because a lot of actions sound like they could be tags—but they aren’t. For instance:

“Well, of course I didn’t!” Joanie giggled.

Giggling, while an action often associated with what someone has said, is a reaction to the dialogue being spoken, not a description of the tone used or a simple signpost for who said the line; therefore, it’s NOT a tag. Here are a few other actions often mistakenly used as tags:

  • Coughed
  • Laughed
  • Hissed
  • Nodded
  • Smiled
  • Sighed

The best way to catch these pesky creatures is to make use of the search and find feature on your word processor. It can home in on all those non-tags (sometimes referred to as bookisms) for you in a matter of seconds. Once you’ve found all the subpar tags, get to work revising and tweaking them until you have a solid base sprinkled with appropriate actions to convey emotions. Your readers will thank you for it.

Keep It Simple

There’s still some debate over this technique, but I think editors and publishers as a whole have come to the consensus that when it comes to dialogue tags, keeping it simple is best. That doesn’t mean you can’t have some diversity in your tags or pepper them with action where necessary—in fact, using action with tags is a necessity to avoiding a phenomenon called talking heads—but tags are one place where variation isn’t necessarily a good thing.

The word said is one of the best markers you can use in dialogue. It serves the primary function of dialogue, to depict who is speaking, and accompanying actions can be used to further enhance the scene by conveying emotion and even tone of the dialogue. While it may feel like using “said” multiple times in a scene would be tiresome to the reader, quite the opposite is true. Readers treat the word like a signpost: it directs them without interrupting the flow of the narration, and that makes for a smoother reading.

If you want some extra tips on using tags, I highly recommend checking out this article by Writer’s Digest. They give excellent examples and go even more in-depth about showing vs. telling when it comes to dialogue and tags.

The Editing Agenda: Adding Layers

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

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Once you’ve finished your first draft and you’re ready to delve into the editing process, one of the first things you should tackle is adding layers. Layers make every great story come to life. They make a well-rounded character realistic, a plot and its details that much juicier, and they have a way of making the final pieces of the puzzle fall into place. And while there is definitely a time and a place for punctuation, grammar, and all things syntax, without layers, your story will always fall flat. So where should you start?

Plot

While there’s really no right or wrong answer to that question, the place I tend to start is overall plot. Take a look at your outline, timeline, storyboard, or whatever you have in the way of notes for your story, and review the major plot points. Don’t have an outline? I strongly suggest making one at this point. It will help you weed out any inconsistencies in your plot, and it will become increasingly crucial in tightening your story. Once you have a rough outline in place, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Does the plot make sense?
  2. Is there a clear beginning, middle, and end?
  3. Does the first two-thirds of the book build tension and conflict?
  4. Do the subplots make sense? Do they make sense on a timeline?
  5. Are there any inconsistencies, particularly with placement and foreshadowing?

Those may seem like rudimentary questions, but if the answer to any one of these is no, you have some corrections to make before you begin adding in layers to the plot. As anyone who has ever attempted to write a book can tell you, a solid foundation is immensely important to a writing a successful book. Without it, your work will break down and eventually cave in on itself like a house of cards, leaving you both frustrated and discouraged.

After you’ve made any necessary revisions and can answer yes to all of those questions, it’s time to add more layers. For plots, this means adding additional subplots, minor conflicts that will build more tension along the way. But don’t add conflict in haphazardly. Each subplot that you add MUST contribute to the overall plot or character development. If it doesn’t, it’s fluff, and it doesn’t belong in your masterpiece-in-the-making.

Characters

When you’re done tackling the plot, it’s time to move on to characters. Again, it’s always a good idea to keep a catalog of all your characters and their bios. There are a lot of writing programs out there that can help you with this if, like me, you like to keep things organized electronically, but plain old index cards work just fine too. Whatever your method, keep your character notes handy. You’ll need this during the editing process both for fact-checking and for layering. If you need help with writing character bios, I highly recommend using scribbledwriting’s (Kayla Detton's) character analysis worksheet. It’s got just about every question you could ever imagine on it.

After you’ve gathered all your character notes, use your outline to go through your book piece by piece and find your weakest characters, the ones who should stand out but don’t, or the ones who just don’t seem realistic enough. Those are the ones you’ll want to focus on. Pull their character charts and pick a handful of dominant traits you know you want to use in the story or that should be focused on in the plot. Then ask yourself these questions:

  1. What does this character want and why?
  2. What sacrifices are they willing to make to get what they want?
  3. What obstacles does this character have to overcome along the way?
  4. Is this character successful, or do they fail?
  5. How does this character change along the way?

By understanding what drives your characters and using their traits to affect their actions, you’ll be able to layer in scenes that reflect that and further develop them, making them more realistic to the reader. Dialogue is a great way to do this, and occasionally so are thoughts or backstory. But again, when you add in scenes, it’s important to keep only those that propel the plot or the character. Anything else would likely be seen an as info dump.

Environment and Worldbuilding

Next is environment and worldbuilding. This is my favorite part of the layering process, mostly because it gives the author a chance to really shine and bring to life the world they’ve created. Even if your story takes place in a real location, you still have to make the events of that location believable, and that’s where environment and worldbuilding come in.

The first step is to, yet again, dig up any notes you have about the world you’re dealing with. If it’s a real location, pull actual blueprints if you can find them, dig up articles about the kind of plants and trees that grow there, the weather, and the general atmosphere of that area and the surrounding ones. If your location is made-up, create a list of guidelines, rules, and/or any laws of physics that may come into play. Now it’s time for the questions:

  1. Do the rules of this world make sense?
  2. Are the rules consistent with each other and with the plot?
  3. If a character breaks a rule, can it be justified in the plot?
  4. Is the world easy to picture? Are there enough descriptions?
  5. Does each location serve a purpose?

If you answered no to any of these, it’s time to go back and rework the environment, or perhaps the rules involving it. Consistency is by far the most important thing since it’s the thing readers will probably call you out on first. If you make a rule, stick to it. If you have a character that breaks it, it should be justified. And each location you mention in your story should absolutely serve some purpose in the overall plot. After all, you want to relay the events in your book that matter the most. Most readers don’t like consuming empty calories.

Once your answer is yes to all the questions, you get to my favorite part—the incredibly artistic part—of writing fiction. You can add layers by bringing in new vivid descriptions and extra details to areas that were previously lacking them. One of the best ways to do this is through the eyes of the characters, describing the environment and objects when they first come across them, slowly adding more detail bit by bit as the scene unfolds. This part of the layering process is a lot like painting a picture—probably another reason why it’s easily a favorite of mine. Just remember, there is a line with adding description that you don’t want to cross. Too much detail or wordiness will leave your world looking more like a toddler’s finger painting than a Picasso masterpiece.

Backstory and Final Touches

After you’ve made it through all the other stages of layering, you’re ready for the final step: finishing touches. This including weaving in a bit more backstory and any other last-minute details that help put the final pieces of the puzzle together. The best way to do this is to examine the story scene by scene (a storyboard comes in handy for this one), breaking it down into chunks. You can then add in any remaining details that you wish, but please do so sparingly, or you’ll be left with—yep, you guessed it—fluff. Too much frosting on a cake, and you can no longer taste the cake.