Tag Archives: proof-reading

New ways to read, new ways to write

I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about usability expert Mark Hurst and his Good Experience website. Today’s post is inspired by Mark’s January 13 piece about reading using a Kindle e-book reader.

While reading a lengthy thriller, Mark stumbled across the phrase “his heart in his mouth” (or “her heart…”) often enough to bug him. Using the Kindle’s search tool, he discovered the phrase occurred 17 times.

My interest in Mark’s “user experience” is as an author. Here’s the sting for me. As an author, I need to be hyper-vigilant when writing. I need to deliver positive usability – a book that doesn’t unintentionally bug readers.

With people finding new ways to read and analyse text, I need to find new ways to keep them engaged and entertained. I need to use word combinations that are fresh and fun.

And I need to proof read and re-write my manuscripts until I have terminated any passages that are dull or don’t work.

Mind you, that’s a whole lot easier with a 40,000 word manuscript than one ten times longer.

How to make judges smile

I started entering writing competitions when I was about 17. The encouragement I got from even the most obscure of commendations helped build my confidence, little by little. It was enough to keep me writing, even when I didn’t seem to be getting anywhere.

After the dust had settled from a competition, I always found it useful to hear what the judges were looking for and what they enjoyed. What gets published in an anthology and what misses out is always fascinating too. (Just don’t get sucked into buying a book on the hope that your work is in it. Unless you have confirmation you’re being published, wait and look at it in a library.)

Anyway, as mentioned previously, I have been judging a secondary school short story competition for several years now. I never meet the winners or their teachers so it is all very impersonal – but if I had the chance to chat with the entrants here are the tips I’d pass on:

1. Proof-read your work for spelling and grammar errors. Spell-check software doesn’t always work (e.g. someone had “delicate” when they meant “delegate”) and is set by default to US English rather than Australian. I’d rather read Aussie English than Bill Gates’ best guess.

2. Reading your work aloud is the best way to check how it will sound to other readers.

3. Strive for unique humour, situations or insights. Taking a character on a journey only to conclude with “it was all a dream” is … yawn … a tired idea. But perhaps the dream changed the character in some way … Perhaps the author has a new spin to put on this old idea.

4. Let your character grow or learn. When you put yourself in the character’s shoes, ask how the events of the story would have changed them.

5. Surprise me. Knock me off balance. (Read Roald Dahl short stories for some classic examples.)

6. Think about descriptive language and be innovative and fresh. “Ice cold”, for instance, is unnecessary; everyone knows that ice is cold. In what other ways could the cold be described? Cold as the footy clubroom showers? Cold as my sister’s glare? Cold as an empty bed. Create an image that works for you and then sell it to your reader.

Get all or even a few of these right and you’ll be a contender!

Oh, and fancy fonts and silly stationery just annoy judges. Stick to something that’s easy on the eye!

Pathways to publication

During author visits to schools one of the regular questions is “how long did it take you to write your book?” When speaking to adults, there’s inevitably someone with a manuscript in their top drawer who wants to know how to get published. Here are some tips that might be useful for the latter query.

1. Make sure your manuscript is unique or at least a fresh way of looking at an old idea. If you stand out from the crowd you’re a big chance. This means researching the genre you’re writing in and making sure you’re not trying to pitch an idea that has already been done to death.

2. Once your manuscript is complete, I recommend road testing. Show it to trustworthy and honest friends in your target audience. If you’re writing for children, for instance, show it to teachers or childcare workers and read it to kids in the applicable age group. If these expert test “readers” don’t offer feedback, ask them direct questions – what did they like, what didn’t they fully understand, how could you improve it, etc.

You might even be able to get some vox pop feedback to use in your pitch. (“This is my favourite and best book of the day.” – Rhys, 4 yrs old)

2. Reading your manuscript aloud is vital as you’ll hear any passages that don’t sound 100% right. If you’ve used rhyme there might be phrases that don’t scan correctly. If not, there still might be sentences that the tongue stumbles over. If it’s tough to read aloud, it won’t work for young kids or the adults reading to them (unless it’s a tongue twister book.)

3. Based on feedback, polish your manuscript until you are confident it is as good as you can make it.

4. Print it and proof read it (and your book proposal – see A Decent Proposal) until you can’t see the words any more and then get a friend to proof read it carefully for you. Spelling and grammar errors can severely dent your prospects.

5. Now you basically have three options:
– get an agent who will promote your book to publishers;
– submit direct to publishers; or
– self publish.

Agents charge 10-15% of your (generally meagre) earnings from a book project. If you submit to an agency they will probably read your manuscript quicker than a publisher. If they think they can sell it, they will offer to represent you and then pitch your manuscript to the most appropriate publishers. If all goes well, they’ll conduct an auction on your behalf.

Agents also haggle with publishers over contracts and represent your interests in any difference of opinion with a publisher. If you choose to go this way, research the various agencies (via www.awmonline.com.au). Select one that covers authors in your genre. Ring and ask if they have an agent that specialises in your type of book and write your approach letter to that individual.

Submitting to a publisher direct will be slower. Why? Because publishing companies get thousands of unsolicited manuscripts each year and employ sifters to sort through them all.

If you’re proposing a picture book, my understanding is that publishers prefer to receive proposals without illustrations so they can choose from their own stables of artists.

Before mailing your proposal, check out the publisher’s website, looking for any submission/style guidelines – or warnings that explicitly state they don’t want unsolicited manuscripts. Then ring their switchboard and ask who you should send your manuscript to.

Self-publishing is basically backing yourself and investing in your own book. You bear the costs up-front but get instant results – including control over the look and feel of your book. On the other hand, you will find it much harder to get publicity and on to shelves in bookstores, libraries, etc. That said, it can work very well for entrepreneurial authors.

Another possibility might be to get published overseas. I have heard of authors getting involved in online chat forums about their ideas and being plucked from obscurity to get a US agent and then publisher – but this would depend on the nature of your project. Be careful not to give too much away in case you get ripped off.

I’m still very new at this author business and have plenty to learn myself. That said, I hope there’s something of value here for any would-be writers out there.