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Clear Writing – No. 5

PROOFING!  Proofing.  proofing?

One of the hardest professions in the world is to become a successful writer. The lingering difficulties we fight against are criticism, proofreading, and our self-esteem, which can be our greatest nemesis.

Let me address each issue one at a time.

First, let me say to each of you that we often forget how to make failures work for us. Each time someone offers you good advice, and let me emphasize good advice, we get so caught up in our failures that instead of using the opportunity this good advice affords, we have a pity party.

Please don’t hear me say you shouldn’t be disappointed or you should suppress healthy emotional reactions. But to stay in a state of pity because things didn’t go right the first time robs you of victories just over the horizon.

Criticism, however, has to be good criticism. Too often, I find editors, especially those we pay hundreds, and sometimes thousands of dollars, don’t always spell it out for us. They leave too much to the imagination. But don’t think for a minute you and I are off the hook because of this. Our writings are our responsibility, no matter what.

Keep things in perspective. The purpose of criticism is to get your writing from Point A to Point B. Without it, you are planted at the ground level forever. Your adherence to criticism can quickly place you in the pool with the big guys. So, the next time you are critiqued, have a tantrum for an hour or two then get back to work. The key to criticism is determining if it is valid. If so, adhere to it and don’t forget to implement appropriate changes. If you don’t know how to make the appropriate changes, simply ask.

Proofreading, it seems, is thought of as being the easiest of the three difficulties, but the most flawed and overlooked. After you’ve submitted a manuscript, how many times have you gone through it a day later and found a host of mistakes. All of us have committed or will commit this infraction at some point. IT’S NOT THE END OF THE WORLD! However, to commit this infraction with a great deal of consistency is considered lazy. Your manuscript is the only piece of material which represents who you as a writer. The editors, literary agents, and publishers have no other way to evaluate your capabilities other than by your manuscript. Are you really willing to submit a manuscript you haven’t spent twice as much time proofing as you did writing it?

I must interject an experience I had several weeks ago. Someone on Facebook solicited a beta reader for her novel. With that solicitation was a beautiful book cover she planned to use once the book was published. It was an intriguing cover, the type of cover that pulled you into a mystery. Without a synopsis, I gave in to the pull and volunteered. It is my understanding, though I could be totally wrong here, that beta readers are individuals willing to read a book from cover to cover and provide a synopsis of their overall opinion of the book. I couldn’t get through thirteen paragraphs of the novel. Why? Because it was littered with mistakes. Typos. Misplaced dialogue tags. Insufficient paragraph breaks. Weak structure. Slow pacing. Repetitive words (more than can be considered as mere mistakes). Inconsistencies–the girl’s eyes are green, only to find out two paragraphs later that her eyes are blue without giving a valid reason for the change.

Proofreading is more in depth than looking for typos. It’s looking for consistency. Unless a character has dyed her hair, you’ll need to show us why her hair is brown in one scene and blond in another. If your character is stepping off a plane in Morocco, how is it that he’s sitting at a table having dinner in Chicago. How did he get there? More importantly, how did you get him there?

We also tend to neglect correcting overused phrases. All of us have our favorite phrases and words we like to use. It’s a daunting task to develop the patience to become meticulous about correcting mistakes. The problem is, most of us don’t really look at overused words as a mistake. Take it from me, it is. You and I are asking people to spend anywhere from $2.99 to $22.99 for our books. Would you spend $19.99 for a book only to read an author’s repetitive phraseology? I wouldn’t. So, we shouldn’t expect others to read it either. It is worth every bit of your time to go painstakingly through your novel and find the repeats; whether the repeats are of events or of wording.

Here’s a rule of thumb: many of our overused words can be found in the first chapter. Challenge yourself to find those same words throughout the entire novel. Do a word search. Highlight them. After you finish your first draft, go back to those highlighted words and replace them with appropriate substitutes. Use a Thesaurus with great care. It’s a fine reference tool, but if not used correctly, it can cause you a great deal of embarrassment.

Each of us has to develop good proofreading skills. We don’t wake up one day with this ability sharp and ready to go. This skill must be practiced over and over again until we develop keen eyes for it.

With that in mind, I’ve taken sentences from a short story I wrote several weeks ago and used them as examples. I hope these examples will help you better proof your work. Many of you might find better ways to reword these sentences. That’s great. Because you have mentally participated in this exercise is indeed the whole point.

Example 1:  She took her time and examined each dark portal as best she could until she spotted a mysterious man going in and out a door on the first floor.

Correction:  She took her time and with care examined each dark portal until she spotted a mysterious man going in and out a door on the first floor.

After I thought this sentence through, I realized “with care” means the same thing as “She took her time.” How redundant. So I changed it to read:

Correction:  She took her time and examined each dark portal until she spotted a mysterious man going in and out a door on the first floor.

OR you can say:  “She examined each dark portal until she spotted a mysterious man going in and out a door on the first floor.”

Notice how the word count decreased in this sentence. When you are making feverish attempts to pare down your wording, these are the things you look for in your writing. ALSO notice I left out “in and out of a door.”  OF isn’t necessary, so I purposely left it out. It’s a matter of style. Using OF will depend on your style of writing. However, there’s nothing wrong with omitting it.

Example 2:  We could use you in a supervisory role.

Correction:  We need you in a supervisory role.

Example 3:  Earlier, he couldn’t get warm; now he felt hot.

Correction:  Earlier, he was cold; now he felt hot.

       Correction:  To “show” action, edit the sentence this way —  Earlier, he shivered and his teeth chattered; now he couldn’t get his clothes off fast enough. <==Showing this action is what agents look for in our writing. They don’t want you to “tell” them what’s going on, they want you to “show” them.

Example 4:  Katherine exhaled slow and easy as she rested against the seat. When she looked at him again, he had joy in his eyes.

Correction:  Not sure I would change the first sentence.  There’s a lot there:  feeling, action, relief.  That one sentence creates a vivid scene.

Self-esteem is another issue plaguing many writers. Low self-esteem can cast you into a state of depression. All writers hit the wall at some point in their career. I describe self-esteem issues with one word: CHOICE. We either choose to stay in the ring and FIGHT! or we throw in the towel.

I have self-esteem crashes at least twice a day. Some are worse than others. I’m constantly picking myself up off the floor. Why? Glad you asked. I keep getting up because I’m passionate about writing. My passion drives me. My passion keeps me up at night . . . and I do mean “all” night. My passion pisses me off! Literally. Sometimes I get so mad I want to throw things. I remember one time I unplugged my computer and gathered my reference books with the intent to throw them in the trash.

But here’s the thing: After a pep talk from my husband (I just love this guy), I eventually returned to my writing. Why? There are three things I LOVE in this life. My God. My family. And writing. I have waited too long to be in this position to let go now. I have raised my children, pampered my husband (he’s such a big baby), and I serve God no matter what state I’m in. Some people work an eight-hour job. Others work half a day and make millions. The elite have inherited their monies and don’t have to do anything but sit around and whine about having nothing to do. YOU AND I, well, we write. We are no more or less important than anyone else. If we don’t write, we’d do something else. Trust me, we’d be miserable doing something else, but we’d be doing something else just the same.

So, give yourself twenty-four hours to kick, scream, threaten to throw your computer out the window, throw copies of Hamlet, Catcher in the Rye and any other favorite novel across the room. Then after you’ve worn yourself out, take a shower, grab a cup of your favorite beverage, and get back to work.

And choose to diligently become a wordsmith. Each and every time you hear a new word, immediately look it up in the dictionary, or jot it down and look it up later.  Consider the context in which the sentence is used. This is important. The one thing you don’t want to do is use a word you’ve heard on CNN pertaining to a legal matter and place it in a romantic scene of your novel. Using new words in the proper context is extremely important.

In conclusion, my strongest advice is to buy a copy of Stein on Writing by Sol Stein. If you will be diligent to read it word-for-word and implement his advice, this will end up being the best investment you’ve ever made. On Amazon.com, the book cost about $12.40. I also recommend you listen to K.M. Weiland’s weekly podcasts. Here is the website to her archives, divided by year: https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/podcast-episodes-archive/. Her writing tips are invaluable. I devote Saturday mornings to listening to whichever subject matter that I struggle with the most.

Happy Writing! . . . and don’t forget to enjoy the journey!!!

Go out on a limb and share with us the mistakes you’ve made with your manuscript. Also, share tips that you think we can all benefit from.

Updated this post:  May 5, 2018


  1. Karen Jones says:

    Need advice, my first book was all over the place. It’s Okay I’m still work in progress.


    • dcomeaux says:

      Karen, I’d be happy to help you and share all that I know. You can either send me a copy of your book or you can type up the first chapter. I’ll go through it and share all that I know. Let me know if this works for you.

      Love you!


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