4 Reasons Automated Checks will Never Replace an Editor

#amwriting #amediting

There is a great benefit to automated checkers, because they’ll alert you to the possibility that you’re spelling a word incorrectly, using an inordinate number of adverbs, repeating pet phrases. But there’s more to good writing than that, and here are four of the reasons that you need a great editor.

1.) SPELL CHECKERS: No spell checker has every English word built into it, and that goes double for common foreign words and phrases (“joie de vivre” is one my checker always flags, while it lets “da nada” go when it should be “de nada”). What’s more, spell check won’t tell you if you’ve used the wrong word.

Having worked in financial services for twenty-odd years, I constantly type “form” when I mean “from”. Since “form” is an English/American word and it’s spelled correctly, it will never be flagged, and it’s up to me to catch every one. I also make a mistake when I type “to the”; as my thumbs seem to work more slowly than they should, what comes up quite a bit is “tot he”. As both “tot” and “he” are words in English, it doesn’t get flagged, regardless of the fact that it makes no sense at all!

Examples that I’ve seen others make just within the past few weeks are:

He “lied” on the floor (and probably also lied to his boss at the office!)
He held a “taught” rope (yes, a really smart rope!)
He was easy “pray” (a very religious guy.)
He “expanded” on the subject (as he expanded his belly with a big meal.)

All of these are words in English, correctly spelled, and they will not be flagged. Though that last definition might be stretched (ahem!) to include conversation, the better word is “expounded”. But spell check won’t tell you that.

2.) GRAMMAR CHECKERS: Most of these, in my experience, have severe limitations. For one thing, they’ve usually been set up to identify adverbs as all words that end in “-ly”. So whether you’re writing about a wind that comes up “suddenly” or a “cuddly” teddy bear, you’ll get a flag. But say you write about a wind that comes up “all of a sudden”: the checker won’t flag your adverbial phrase, which can be a more egregious transgression. For now, not only have you used one unnecessary word, you’ve actually used four of them.

For the record, and as I’ve stated in previous posts, I am in favor of adverbs when they’re used judiciously. “Suddenly” happens to be one that, IMHO, is seldom needed. And if you use certain checkers, they won’t flag words like “seldom” as adverbs… It doesn’t end in “ly”, so well, you’re on your own there.

3.) DICTIONARY/THESAURUS: I have a friend who writes in English, her second language. It floors me that she would even attempt to do this, as after eight semesters of French, I can barely spell “joie de vivre”. But she does a magnificent job. We had quite a discussion a few weeks ago about the phrase “common practice”. The sentence was a question: Is it a common practice? Word™ kept telling her it should be “practices”. Why? because it was seeing “practice” as a verb, and the correct declention would be “it practices”. But here, it’s being used as a noun, and Word has no way of understanding the difference.

The biggest problem with on-line dictionaries and thesauruses (thesauri? My Latin’s no better than my French!) is lack of context. Take “expand” from Item 1, above. I checked four different sources and as a primary definition got: 1. stretched, 2. swollen, 3. broadened, 4. elaborate. Without the context of American English, where “expand” is usually understood to mean “grows” or “stretches”, the writer may feel he chose the best word for the job. He was going for the more obscure meaning of “elaborate”, and the dictionary/thesaurus would never tell him any different.

Context is everything. And no on-line checker is going to give you context.

4.) STYLE: Regardless of the perceived perfection of any automated checker, it will not take your individual style into consideration. If you write a horror novel, your style is going to be much different than if you write a cozy mystery. A dystopian novel will not utilize the same language as a historical romance. Any checker that professes to be “the best for everyone” can’t live up to its hype, because it will never recognize your style as distinct from everyone else’s.

Moral of the story: Take all automated recommendations with a grain of salt, and then have your story or manuscript reviewed by an editor. It doesn’t have to be a paid professional: if you’re lucky enough to have a critique partner or someone in your writing circle that can do the job, by all means make use of their knowledge. If not, seek someone out. Someone who has an AWESOME command of both language and grammar, and who understands the complexities of style.


Critique Partners: What if the Relationship Bombs?

#amwriting #amediting

Your relationships with Critique Partners and Beta Readers are all-important. But let’s face it, you and your partner(s) start out strangers (or at least you should most of the time, see previous articles here and there). So partnering is going to be trial and error, at least at first. What, then, happens when the relationship isn’t working out for you?

This is a sticky situation. You have no desire to insult someone, and brushing them off can be just as hurtful. But if the feedback you’re getting is of little or no use, the relationship may have to end. How you manage that is up to you, but it’s important to realize that your reputation may eventually be at stake.

When I completed my first novel, LET THE CANYONS WEEP, I found two critique partners on-line. Both had written thrillers. I might have had more luck with other writers of Historical Fiction, but they were the only two people who replied to my post. I didn’t want to turn them down.

For one of them, English was their second language and their goal was to publish in America. I thought I could be of great help in converting “The King’s English” into “American”; that was one of the services I offered, and it seemed to be of great interest. However, after reviewing two sections of the revamped manuscript, I realized that none of my suggestions had been taken into account. I felt a bit let down.

And, although I had fully explained up front that the work was a literary work with an undercurrent of romance, the other critiquer wanted me to turn my book into a shoot-’em-up western. Not an option.

Aside from that, the only feedback I was getting was that I needed to follow “The Rules.” Now I know all the rules – learned them in grade school, when diagramming sentences was something I did for fun. (Yes, I’m that much of a grammar nerd!) I’m a firm believer in these word of the Dalai Lama: “Know the rules well, so you can break them effectively.” I know them, and I break them when the situation commands it.

The rules I was told to follow included most of what we now view as archaic (like never starting a sentence with a conjunction). And others were rules I’ve never heard of before or after:

  • Don’t use more than one comma per sentence.
  • Never use an em-dash.
  • Never use ellipses.
  • Never use the plu-perfect tense: reword your sentence to stay in simple past.
  • No flashbacks.
  • No internal dialogue.

Etc., etc., and so forth … I couldn’t help wondering what kind of writing courses these Rules came from.

But that’s beside the point. The point was the relationships just weren’t working out. And what was I going to do about it?

I know people who have broken off with a critique partner after the first 50 pages. And I thought about that – I really did. But I also thought about what the possible repercussions of that decision might be.

These days, anyone and everyone can write a review on Amazon, GoodReads, etc. Most people are very honest in their opinions, pointing out both the strong and weak points of a work. But I’ve seen some posters who seem to take pleasure in denigrating others’ works – their reviews seem like personal vendettas. And I didn’t want to put myself in the position of inviting that sort of feedback.

I may have taken the easy way out: I completed my critiques of their works, and accepted their completed critiques of mine. I thanked them for their time and diligence, for their willingness to help. And I moved on to three new critique partners (two write historicals, one writes thrillers, and all of them are wonderful!)

Would you have done what I did? Were you ever in a critique or beta partnership that didn’t work out? What other solutions would you recommend?

Critique Partners: What are they & why do I need them?

#amwriting #amediting #revise

First of all, notice that the question isn’t “Do I need them?” because that’s a given. You need them, and they need you. So what are they and how do you find them?

A critique partner is someone who reads your manuscript after you’ve gotten it to a somewhat polished state. A critique partner should never be given the first draft of your novel (unless that’s the arrangement you’ve made with them up-front). Don’t expect a critique partner to do your work for you. Do your spell-check, check the grammar rules, and make your manuscript as good as you can without independent feedback.

Yes, independent. As in, not your mother, your best friend, or your great-aunt Sadie.

books glasses

The best critique partners are people who also write, and normally critiquing is a give-and-take situation. They critique your work, you critique theirs. It’s often best to pair up with someone who writes in the same genre as you do. I’ve had critique partners who write in other genres who have been an enormous help to me, but I’ve noticed that writers in my genre have been a little more specific about their suggestions, because they understand the wants and needs of the genre better.

So, what does a critique partner look for? That’s largely up to you. You can agree upon any or all of the following services:

  • Grammar check (with or without punctuation)
  • Sentence construction (varying lengths of sentences; repetition in the openings of sentences)
  • Cliche identification
  • Fact checking
  • Plot consistency, resolution, & pacing
  • Consistent characterization
  • Excessive back-story or descriptive scenes
  • Showing vs telling
  • Any other area where you feel your skills are not as strong as they could be

When you list a want ad for a critique partner, offer your own skills honestly. If you’re not a grammar maven, that’s okay – just don’t say you are. If you’re a danged good researcher, offer fact-checking as one of your strengths. Whatever your skill level, you want to team up with someone who needs your skills and who offers what you need. And make sure it’s someone who wants as much work done as you do: if one of you is doing significantly more work, chances are that person will soon be feeling a little resentful.

The most important thing about critiquing is to be kind. Be honest – no need to tell a lie – but couch your criticisms in kind words. You are offering an opinion on a manuscript that someone else has taken months or years to create. Say anything that needs to be said, but don’t say it in a way you wouldn’t want to hear applied to your own work.

The second most importing thing is to be constructive. “I didn’t like Chapter 3” is not a critique. “I felt like the plot moved slowly in Chapter 3” is better; “In Chapter 3, my attention wandered due to the amount of back-story” is even better. Be precise, give a specific idea of what’s amiss, and be sure to add praise when the story exceeds your expectations. If Chapter 3 is slow, but Chapter 4 is perfectly paced, be sure to mention Chapter 4 in your critique of Chapter 3.

But remember, the critique you’re giving is only your opinion: your partner has absolutely no obligation to accept it. And vice-versa. Your work is your own: no matter what critique you receive, it’s up to you to adjust or not. But it’s important not to argue with your partners – after all, they’ve gone to some trouble to give you their best advice. For free. Thank them, if for nothing more than their time and good will.

So, how does one find a critique partner? If you belong to a writers’ group or association like Romance Writers of America or The Historical Novel Society, you may find it a ready-made source of interest. If not, there are many services listed if you Google “writing critique partners”. Twitter also offers connections, as will Yahoo Groups, though you may have to join the groups first. In short, critique partners are easy enough to find – and your work will be much better for their input.

Did you use a critique partner service? Would you recommend it to other writers? Tell us about your own experiences.

Coming next: Beta Readers …