Feel free to imagine me giving you the stink-eye over the top of my Miss Crabtree spectacles when I say this. We've got to do a better job of proofreading books. I know it's hard, and I'll admit that the first edition of The White House despite my best efforts was published with a handful of errors that have since been corrected. I just have to get this off my chest. Because I love indie books and what indie publishing is doing to the industry, I feel like this must be said.
If we want to be taken seriously as authors/publishers, our stuff has to be as close to perfect as we can make it. I hear on many reader discussions and boards that people don't like to read indie books because of grammatical and formatting errors. Naturally this is followed by a comment left my some well meaning indie author who says some thing like, "Well, traditional publishers miss typos and errors too." And that's sadly true. But is the lowest common denominator really the measuring stick that you want to use?
My 7 year old son with ADHD frequently follows tales of how he got called out by the teacher for some infraction by telling me of the troubles of another student in his class with worse behavior issues. My response to this is to point out the worst behaved kid in the class should not be setting the standard for good behavior. "Well, they're just as bad." or "They did it worse." are not the statements of people seeking excellence. If we as independents want our books to be considered on par with traditionally published books, we cannot stop at good enough.
With that said, I'd like to point out some common mistakes that I have seen in many of the indie books that I have read lately. None of these would be caught by a spelling or grammar check.
- Mixed Up Homophones - Anyone who has talked to anyone on the internet is familiar with people mixing your and you're or there, their and they're and I'll admit I have to hold onto my desk to keep from correcting people constantly. But more disturbing lately are mix ups like past and passed. For the record passed is a verb. Past is an adjective and sometimes a noun. Too often lately, I have seen sentences like this, "The people on the street walked right passed the victim bleeding onto the sidewalk." That would be the wrong usage for the verb, passed. Here is a correct example, "I burned my fingers on the hot dish when Aunt Martha passed me the peas." This is just one of the examples of surprisingly mixed up homophones that I have seen in indie books of late.
- The Extra Word - This is an error that seems to occur a lot when the word flow from brain to fingers gets muddled, or when a writer goes back to make a change to a sentence, but doesn't completely delete the original words. Here's an example. "He heard the shallow wheeze of her breath and some small part of him tried to believe how that she would make it back to port." It's easy to see how this can happen, but is very jarring to the reader's ear. This can take a reader right out of your story and destroy the flow of your prose.
- Spell-check Escapees - These are misspellings that are actually words and therefore not caught by spell-check. Naturally these words just come off as wrong and the story teller loses credibility. For example: "He’d never been so chose to death before." Chose is a word and would not be detected by a spell checker, but it doesn't make sense in the context of the sentence. The actual sentence should read. "He’d never been so close to death before." which makes for an evocative sentence. The meaning and emotional punch of the sentence is completely lost with the incorrect word there. Spell-check is clearly not a reliable proofreader.
Now, I'm sure you're probably cursing me for a self-righteous busybody at the moment, but have patience. I have some suggestions.
Indies that we are, most of us (me included) don't have big budgets with which to hire editors. I'm currently publishing short stories while working on a novel, so I'm not going to shell out the cash for an editor for projects that small. However, there are a few tricks we can use to make those little errors standout for correction before you publish.
- Read It Out Loud - I'm sure you've probably heard this suggestion regarding the flow of your prose. If you've tried it for that purpose, I'm betting that while you were reading you came across some errors. Reading your manuscript out loud is one of the greatest tools a writer has. It can call attention to awkward phrasing, clunky dialog (more on that in another post), typos, and grammatical errors. I really can't say enough good things about it.
- Print It Out- Often a change of scene helps to call attention to things that we might not have noticed. It is hard sometimes to see these errors on our computer/laptop/iPad screens when we're typing or rereading what we've written. Printing it out calls more attention to some of those errors. I try to be a pretty green-living girl and I know toner is expensive, but this really is a great way to review your manuscript for errors. They just seem to pop out more on paper than they do on the screen. If you print it out and then read out loud from the printed manuscript you can kill two birds with one stone.
- Other Eyes - No matter how many times you go back and read your manuscript the reality is, those words came from your head. Because of that you are predisposed to mentally fill in any gaps that might occur. You might not be the best person to proofread your manuscript. The reader can't read your mind, so the words on the page/screen have to be clear. Chances are if you're writing a book, you probably have some friends who like to read. Get one or two or five of them to take a look at your manuscript. They will most likely pick out some things that you missed.
In my previous life as a corporate trainer, I saw quite a few resumes. It may sound cruel especially in this job market, but when faced with a stack of resumes, I would first filter out the ones with grammatical errors. My thinking was that if someone is putting this document out there to speak for them and they didn't take the time to proofread it, then they don't have the attention to detail that's required for the job (or frankly any job). I don't see our books as any different. They may not create the reader's first impression of you, but they will create a lasting impression. So, indie writers, what is the impression that you want to make?
In closing, I would like to return to the issue of homophones. Rather than prattle on about how annoying I find this, I'll leave it to Brian McKnight and a puppet.