Use your tools…

There comes a time when the big things are done: you’ve figured out your audience; you’ve finally got your voice down; your themes, concepts, and symbols are there; your plot is running; and your characters are who they need to be. But, sadly, the big things being done doesn’t mean everything is done.

This is the point where editing becomes a bug hunt. You’re triple checking continuity. You’re checking punctuation. You’re fixing wrong word and spelling errors. You’re straightening out formatting problems. Unless you are a very special person this part of the editing process isn’t a lot of fun.

But, you can make it better if you use your tools

Formatting follies…

My wife is a full-time employee and affiliate faculty at our local university. I go there to do research. Between us we hear many people (students and faculty) whining about nitpicky problems with formatting.

Yes, weird stuff happens. But, you can cut a lot of your formatting headaches out of the bug hunt if you do your work up front.

Think then write…

Think and plan what you’re working on from the start. This helps you have the formatting in place from day one. There is less to do at the end if you’ve been doing it all along.

Learn, use, and love styles…

A certain professor who shall remain nameless constantly protest that styles are a plot by Microsoft to control our writing. To be honest, I’m not sure if it is laziness or just paranoia. Styles existed before we had any word processing or desk top publishing software.

Most desktop packages have styles options. Most good ones allow you to edit styles and create your own. Even if you’re not ready to create your own styles, just using and changing existing styles helps you a lot.

Using styles helps keep all those formatting bits under control and allows you to change the easily when needed. I can change the body text of my entire 73,000+ word novel from Calibri to Times New Roman, or even Wingdings with a couple of mouse clicks using styles.

Without styles… Now we’re having headaches.

Styles allow you to have your formatting under control without having to do lots of little fiddly stuff on every page.

Choosing and/or creating styles at the beginning allows your manuscript to be formatted right from the get go, even if you want to do something obscure.

Using styles simplifies the bug hunt. But, we can do even more…

Editing add-ons…

A while ago I wrote about Pro Writing Aid and Grammarly. Choose the one you like, or some other that works better for you, and use it. The sad truth is we can easily go blind to punctuation, spelling, and grammar issues in our work. These packages can help us find these problems (but like I said don’t let them do all the work…)

You might even consider volunteer or paid copy editing help. A good editor is better than the software, and can really help. Software doesn’t understand intent. Editors just might. Editors can hash through things with you in ways the software can’t.

You might get away with eyeballing an email or text. But, maybe not… For a book… Do yourself a favor and get some help (and if your help finds nothing wrong, maybe you have a career as a copy editor…)

Summing its up…

The bug hunt is necessary dear reader. Even the best story becomes hard to read if it’s full of errors. A story without copy editing is kind of like showing up to a wedding in your underwear… You might get away with it in some limited circumstances, but most of the time you’re opening yourself up to ridicule and denial.

Using your tools helps make your bug hunt easier.

Do your editing dear reader. I know your pain (I’m working on mine…). And, I’ll see you next post.

The middle of the pass… And facing the hard stuff…

Two weeks ago I talked about the “one and a half pass” editing pass. And, 345 manuscript pages (73,500 words) later I’ve dug through the reader feedback, made my notes, and found three things that need more than a one word fix or altered point of punctuation.

Two of the three are relatively easy. I need to move a little character description earlier in the story. There’s work involved, but it could be worse. The first fits in with my heroine’s natural way of going and the second is easily dropped into my ‘rather particular’ (aka anal) antagonist’s running commentary about the people around him.

As I think about it, it’s kind of weird I missed them in the first place… But that’s part of the challenge of writing fiction. You have to get the story in your head onto the page in a complete form that the readers will want to read. It takes practice and training, but if you’re willing to do the work, you can get there (And if you think you’re there… Check anyway).

The last change is big. It’s the hardest change to make. It means the most work. But, it will pay off in the long run.

Part of the stress on my heroine comes from two videos that show up in the middle of the story. Initially, I thought the same character shot and posted both. But, the videos need to be on two different accounts, and have different styles and kinds of content. It feels like more than the original perpetrator would do. Generally, things don’t feel right.

The videos are important. They help put pressure on the heroine and drive her toward making a mistake. They need to be there. But, the way they were initially conceived didn’t work. So, I borrowed some teens I know and had a talk about embarrassing videos. And yeah… I’m making some changes.

And, the changes are more than just inserting a different name. Two different characters are putting up the videos now. One of those characters is the original. His video was put up on a false account and the two characters didn’t get along well in the first place (and the account hasn’t been tied to him yet). So there’s not much change to be done.

But, the other video is now being put up by a female character that the heroine knows. It will change some interactions between those characters, which means I have to work through all the references to that video, all the interactions with that character, and stuff relating to that character and rework things to fit her being the video poster.

It’s a lot of work. But, it focuses and increases the pressure I wanted on my heroine. It gives my antagonist something to be mad about (in his mind he’s protecting the heroine). And it fits. It’s a lot of work; it means digging through, thinking, and reworking, but makes the story better. Making the story better matters.

I’ve already put in a lot of work. This is supposed to be the last go ground. And, I’m lucky; there’s only one significant change, and it’s a fairly manageable one.

Taking your story apart and reworking pieces can be a pain in the butt. It’s not something we like to do. But, if you want the story to work, sometimes you have to rework a piece or two. And, that work extends beyond just rewriting a sentence or two. It can mean making changes across the length and breadth of the story.

It’s not something you have to do; it’s something you have to do if you want the story to be right. It’s something we all need to do from time to time (Ask Steven King if you don’t believe me…). It’s rewarding. It makes your story right; it helps your readers love your work; it matters.

Telling a good story should be a goal for any fiction writer. And revision is part of that. It is worth the effort.

That’s it for this one dear reader. Do your revisions. Make your stories great. And, I’ll see you next post.

The “one and a half pass” editing pass

The day this post goes live I’m collecting the last of my reader feedback for Unintended Consequences. That means Monday, June 3, 2019, I am starting what will, hopefully, be my last pass on the book before the whole thing gets submitted to the ‘big’ editors for publication. It’s time to give the whole manuscript one big once-over using everything I’ve learned, just to make sure it’s ready.

I’ve said it before, one of the best things you can do to develop as a writer is to read about writing.  A while back I read Steven King’s On Writing and learned something important….

One of the most helpful (to me at least!) things in that book is the simple statement that when Steven edits, he makes notes on themes. When I read that. I realized I should do the same thing. It would help in longitudinal (through story) editing. I tried it, and my system’s grown from there.

This new and evolving system has really helped me pull the book together. Since I’ve developed the “one and a half pass” editing pass I honestly get more done each time I go through a manuscript.

Why a “one and a half pass” pass.

Well, that’s because the first pass isn’t really a complete pass. The first time through, I might fix little things: typos, little bits of formatting, etc. But I’m spending a lot more time marking the bigger stuff I need to work on and making notes. What this does for me is it helps focus on the themes important to the book (and the ones that need to be edited out). It also helps identify problems in continuity within the book (and between books if you’re doing a series…) and gives me time to think about those big fixes and insight about how to resolve them in the context of the whole book.

So, the “first” pass isn’t really a complete edit. It’s a list of what I need to work on in the edit. The second pass begins armed with the notes I’ve made and helps me fix the things that need to be fixed, drop the things that need to go away, and focus on the story as a whole.

That “second” pass is really a complete editing pass, but I couldn’t do it without the first ‘partial’ pass.

Why not just make notes and edit everything in one pass? Because, that results in lots of little mucking about with things that will change again (possibly back to the way they were in the first place!). The point of the first “half” pass is to find the stuff that needs attention in the big picture of the story. If I’m giving up a bunch of time just focusing on the section I’m in, I miss some big stuff.

When I come back on that second pass I can fix the stuff I need to with an improved understanding of how it meshes with the rest of the work.

Is it really that simple?

Umm… We’re talking about a manuscript over 50,000 words long (73,571 words for this specific manuscript at this specific point…) simple isn’t the first word I would use to describe any effective editing process for a document of that size.

The idea is really that simple: make notes about themes and the editing to be done, then go back and do the rest of the work. But, the practice can (and does) become more complex.

There are tools to be assembled. There is a mindset to be developed (and possibly habits to be broken). You have to figure out how to adapt the process to the way you work, and the manuscript you’re working on.

Tools?

Well, we’re talking about making notes. So, you need a way to make notes. That could be the comment feature in Microsoft Word. It could be a feature in Scrivener. It could be a separate document on your computer. Or, it could be an actual, physical notebook. Myself, I go with the actual notebook because sometimes I like to work and think away from my computer.

You also need tools and a system for marking within a text. Again, this could be a software solution or physical tools, but you need a way of working that makes sense to you (and any co-authors and editors working with you).

I use a ‘dead tree’ edition of the manuscript and a collection of colored pens (yep, the weird colored ones you can’t use on official, legal documents). The colors help me recognize at a glance what the notes I’ve made refer to. Usually my color system goes something like this:

  • Blue: actual edits to the text (fixing typos and immediate edits). It’s old school classical editor stuff (though in the old days it would be a blue pencil…)
  • Black: notes on themes and general notes on stuff to be worked on in the second pass (this color gets used more in the notebook than in the manuscript)
  • Purple: Voice issues. Honestly, if I feel like there’s a problem with the voice in a section, I put a big purple circle around it. That way when I come back later I can figure out the right way to do the voice in view of the whole story.
  • Red: Continuity stuff. Red ink helps me make note of things that differ or shift between one section and another. Before I developed this technique, there were times the calendar and time of day started to feel more like suggestions than facts. And, that’s saying nothing of who did what to whom issues…
  • Green and other colors: I add other colors when necessary to reflect issues and needs within a specific project. For instance, in Unintended Consequences there are several points where texts and online chats are used for character communication. I used green to mark things that should have been in my text/online style but weren’t.

The tools I use (and the ones you develop for yourself) should make that “second” pass easier and more effective. When you get it right, a “one and a half pass” pass can easily get more done than three or four passes doing the “just focus on this chapter” method.

Summing up…

It’s really about productivity and improving your story (both interesting and readable/salable). Yes, the “one and a half pass” pass takes more work than a “single” pass. But, because you can look at the whole work with the help of your editing notes, you can get a lot more done in a pass than you could otherwise.

Nobody said this stuff was easy. The truth is writing takes work.

This method is a way I’ve found to make that work easier and more efficient.

And today I’m sharing it with you dear reader. Use it if you will. Adapt it to your own needs and process. And, I’ll see you next post.

(As usual, if you have something to say, leave a comment. Thanks)

Hear what they’re saying

Two weeks ago I said Unintended Consequences was in the hands of some teen readers. Well, we’ve got the first reports back and I have to say I’m happy, and I learned a thing or two.

One of my teens is a very avid reader, and claims he can usually guess how the story will end. He didn’t see this one coming. I won’t say the ‘twist’ got him, because there is no intended twist. Instead, we have a natural flow of events that doesn’t come out quite the way he expected. That’s both fair play and a surprise ending!

Possibly the best part of the review was that he wanted to see the second one already (which is sitting on my desk in slightly edited first draft form).  I’ll get it to him when I’ve got this one further down the road and that one is ready for people to see it.

Initially, I was just interested in feedback on the story. While I agree with Steven King and prefer to fix spelling/grammar issues when I find them, I wasn’t looking for feedback on grammar and spelling from the teens. But, they’re giving me some and its giving me something to think about.

My readers picked up on grammar and punctuation differences between sections, and could tie those sections to the correct point of view character. They’re telling me that my characters, and their reader experiences with those characters, are distinct. After a chapter or two they can tell who’s speaking/experiencing the action with no section header to tell them.

This is good. But, they also told me that some of the punctuation/grammar use for one character was annoying. Which is good, because the character is supposed to be annoying. But, it’s also a warning sign. I have to walk a balance. If the annoying punctuation/grammar helps make the character distinct and adds to the feel of the character, that’s good. But, if the annoyance is so great that the reader stops reading, that’s a problem. If the grammar and punctuation are annoying enough to drive the reader away, my stuff isn’t getting read.

There’s some good there, but I have to be aware and walk the balance.

Listening to reader feedback can tell you a lot. But, you have to put the work in and really see what they’re telling you.

The good stuff we want to hear.

The bad stuff (if given and received constructively) can be helpful.

The unexpected feedback leads us to new learning and discoveries.

If we’re not hearing new information, of finding new ways to apply that information, we’re not growing as writers. And, growing is how we get better.

Listen to your readers. Learn from them and become better.

As always, if you have any feedback, responses, or arguments for me, leave a comment.

Be successful dear reader, and I’ll see you next post

It’s the result that matters

Recently I overheard a debate between a group of firearms enthusiasts. As a group they were ranging from vehement to butt hurt about their preferred theory of aiming over iron sights, and that there is more than one opinion on the issue. For me, the whole thing was resolved by one statement, “It isn’t the technique that matters, it’s the result.”

That statement is true.

It’s true about a lot of things. It doesn’t matter if you look down the sights with one eye open or two if you’re not hitting the target. In the same way it doesn’t matter if you’re first draft is typed, handwritten, or spoken into a recorder. The important part is you produce a story or article that fulfills your objectives in writing.

There are lots of techniques out there, and lots of people that will take your money and time while promising to teach you ‘the’ secret.

But, the only techniques that matter are the ones that help you get your words on the page and the ones that reach your audience.

All the other techniques, all that other stuff out there, is just stuff. It’s not practically relevant for what you’re seeking to accomplish.

The thing is… You have to find out what works for you and your audience. And, that means you have to do the work. Try different things until you figure out what works. No matter who you are, there will be some research and learning involved in becoming a proficient writer. There will be something you have to figure out in telling your story and reaching your audience.

There is no point in getting hung up on what ‘they’ tell you is the right way. There is also no point in sticking with something that isn’t working. If what you’re doing works keep doing it, and tune up the parts that aren’t working so well.

If what you’re doing isn’t working, find another solution. It doesn’t matter if your old teacher said what you’re doing is the right way. If it doesn’t work it doesn’t work, and you need to find something that does.

If what you’re doing is working, who cares about what ‘they’ say (unless they are your main audience…). History is littered with books, movies, and songs that critics said were garbage, but their audiences loved them!

What matters is what works for you. Anything else is a bunch of guys arguing about having one or two eyes open while shooting instead of proving they can shoot a target.

That’s it for this one dear reader. Find what works and do it, and I’ll see you next post!

Audience expectations

Playing with what our audience expects can be dangerous. Sometimes you can pull it off. Sometimes it really backfires. This week we’re looking two audience expectation failures I’ve found.

Email oops…

First, early this week, I got an email from a spice monger I buy from. The first couple of lines were what you would expect, “Hey we have some great deals and a free offer!” Then, instead of telling me about the great deals and wonderful spices, the author hits me with two rambling paragraphs about the president and the Muller report before getting on with talking about the spices

I will not go into what I believe, or don’t believe, about the Muller report. This isn’t the place for it. And, an advertisement for spices wasn’t the place I expected to find it either… Mulling spice, probably. Mulberries, possibly. But Muller the ‘special council’, no.

The author was passionate about the report and presidential politics, but he was talking about them in the wrong place. At best, he got a “Huh, what?” response.

Or, he could get “this is click-bait $#$@#%@$#!!!” and the audience stops reading.

What if the author was actually successful with those paragraphs? The reader rages about presidential politics and forgets to buy spices!

We can, and do, have many interests and many things to talk about. When we are writing, or talking, we need to think about our purpose and what we’re trying to achieve in a piece.

If we’re here to sell spices, we need not talk about politics.

If we’re here to talk about politics who cares whether the Cumin is available in a quarter cup jar and the three-quarter cup bag.

And, if we’re supposed to be talking about either of those topics and somebody lurches into “why rainbow suspenders are cooler than bow ties”… Forget it! I’m out!

When you come to your audience with a topic and a subject line, you probably want to stay on topic (or at least explain why you’re changing topic and make  your topics somehow related…)

Video Voops…

Unfortunately, switching topics without a clutch isn’t the only way to offend your audience and violate their expectations.

One of the basic assumptions a good audience has is that you are a credible source. And if you mess with that belief you can get yourself in a lot of trouble.

Ok, in fiction we have the unreliable narrator, that’s a device authors can use in telling a story. It isn’t the author screwing up or failing to do research. It also isn’t the easiest technique to use in fiction. In non-fiction, it’s better to stay away completely.

The day I wrote this I watched a non-fiction video about exotic weapons and watched the narrator/writer’s credibility burn on impact. The problem: the narrator/writer put up a wacky old pistol design and proclaimed it had 20 barrels and 2 chambers. He then described the function of the mechanism, and just like his picture, his description proved he didn’t know the difference between a barrel and a chamber.

It wasn’t just a onetime mistake. He made the mistake three times in that description and then made it with multiple other museum pieces…

Ok, the gun community has debates and wierdnesses about terminology. In practice, the person on the street probably doesn’t care whether you call them clips or magazines (stay away from clipazines though…). If you really have to call a revolver a wheel gun I’ll try to be patient with you. But, when you describe things in a way that is obviously wrong, even to people outside the field, there’s a good chance you will come out looking like an idiot.

For other examples, just turn to the customer reviews at Amazon or other online sources. Somewhere, right now as you read this, somebody is posting a review calling a pipe wrench @$@#!!! because it doesn’t ‘hit down’ the screws right…

One of the basic audience expectations is that you have some basic knowledge about your subject.

In fiction, that means you know something about genre conventions and the lore of the world you’re in. (Please, please do not show up at the Star Trek convention and talk about the time R2-D2 piloted the Serenity straight into a black hole while Captain Reynolds watched from the Bridge of the Galactica…)

In non-fiction (and in fiction) you need to do your research. You need to have some understanding of the subject.

When you claim knowledge you don’t have, your readers will figure that out. Maybe not all of them, not right away at least, but some of them will figure it. And, readers talk to other readers, especially in the day of social media.

When your readers figure out you don’t know what you’re talking about, say goodbye to your chances to get them to do anything, and (probably) your chances of them reading something else you wrote.

There are times and ways to play with audience expectations, but going off topic unnecessarily or proving that you don’t know what you’re talking about aren’t good ones. The good ways of playing with audience expectations take skill and practice; and even then you only want to do it when there is a payoff for you and the reader.

That’s it for this one dear reader. If there’s something you’d like to say, or a way I can improve in my fulfillment of audience expectations, leave a comment. And, I’ll see you next post.

Software vs writer… You have to choose

Spell checkers, grammar checkers and other software tools can be helpful, but they don’t replace the human mind. Eventually you will come to a point where you disagree with your computer; sometimes your computer won’t even agree with itself.

Last week I almost got a 100% score from my ProWritingAid, except for one comma. If I included it, the grammar editor said I was wrong. But, if I removed it the style editor said I was wrong. So, I had to make my own decision (I went with the comma because it fit what I wanted to say).

My wife brought me another example. While writing an email she used the phrase “I want to talk with you,” which her computer flagged and wanted to ‘correct’ to “I want to talk to you.”

With and to are different words with different meanings. When you talk with someone you’re having a conversation. When you talk to someone, that could be a monologue, a lecture, or some other “talking at you” situation. And, those can be two very different things.

Ultimately editing software is useful, but it can’t replace your human writer/editor skills. I recommend finding editing software you like, but I also recommend learning for yourself. English (or whatever your primary writing language is) classes help you understand the rules of the language you’re working in. Foreign language classes can also help you understand those rules…

Literature classes (and just reading on your own) can help you understand how language is used. It’ll also help you see when and how to break those language rules…

Software can tell you what is ‘normally’ correct, or ‘usually’ correct, by the parameters it’s given. But, software doesn’t understand what you’re writing. It doesn’t understand your purpose and meaning. So, while the software helps with the day-to-day grunt-work editing. It can’t make the decisions you do about intent, purpose, and artistry.

Ultimately it’s helpful to use the software, but you have to make your own decisions. You are the writer, and while the software advises it is you who have the final say on what you write.

That’s it for this one dear reader. Choose your words well, and I’ll see you next post.

Beginnings and entry points

When I started Johnson Farm (my first published novel) I started with events found in the second half of the story as it reads today. Most my first ideas are in the story’s ending.

My entry point into Unintended Consequences (hopefully my second published novel) was, I thought, in the middle of the book. It turns out my entry point is actually the beginning of the second book in a trilogy.

A similar thing happened yesterday in a real life conversation, I had to help someone ‘catch up’ to where I was in a conversation so I could make my point.

As writers, this is something that happens all the time; the point where we enter a story is seldom correct entry point, the correct beginning, for the reader. And, the same thing happens in many real-life situations.

A customer may walk in wanting to buy a car, but that doesn’t mean she/he is ready to buy the car you want to sell.

You may need to explain to a doctor what symptoms are bothering you before he/she can find a correct course of treatment.

The students in your class probably need a review of previous studies and a transition into how that stuff relates to the current topic before they’re ready to move on to that capstone project about new material.

Understand who you’re talking to…

It’s said in writing classes all the time, “you need to understand your audience.” Well, here’s a practical example. If you want to persuade, or even entertain, you need to understand where your audience is coming from, and then set up the entry point into your story/lesson/sales pitch or whatever else you want to say or write.

If you’re telling a fantasy story, or a science fiction story, or a horror story or… You need to give your reader some idea of what the rules are before you dump things on them. (Not everything at once, but give them a starting point!)

In any story, fiction or non-fiction, you need to give your reader some orientation to where they are or what’s going on; even if that orientation is “Hey! You have no idea where you are or what’s going on!”

Sure, there can be a twist later. Sure, you can turn the tables on someone in a debate. But if you don’t give the reader/watcher/hearer some grounding, you’re not turning the tables or creating a satisfying twist. Without that grounding you’re cheating, or convincing the reader/watcher/hearer you don’t understand what the @!%”$#@$@$!!!! you’re talking about.

And that’s a sure way to make people unhappy. And unhappy people don’t buy books, do stuff you want them to, learn stuff, or share things with their friends.

But, how do I know where the beginning is?

Well, you might not when you start out. Once you have an idea you need to think about who you’re talking/writing to and figure out what the right beginning point is based on your idea and your audience. That might take effort. It might just mean learning about your audience and your idea.

Remember, texts and tweets are about the only place a first draft is acceptable, and even those first drafts can be iffy. It’s a good idea to think before you hit that send button or return key.

Get a little meta. Think about what your purpose is and who you’re talking to, not just your content.

In the last few years I’ve talked to several people about the subject of diabetes. One of the best started with, “So, what do you know about diabetes?’ The single worst started with hand puppets.

The presenter who asked “What do you know?” was coming in at the last minute and was doing an impromptu presentation. The one with hand puppets knew for at least a week that she was doing a continuing education class for a group of mental health and social work folks (most of whom had master’s degrees!).

It doesn’t matter how much time you have to prepare if you don’t think about your audience. If you don’t think about them and start at the wrong place, you will struggle.

It’s the nature of life dear reader. We love our own ideas. We understand our own views and positions better than those of others (If we don’t understand our own, it actively hinders us in understanding other people’s…). But, we can’t just assume that the person we’re talking to is at the same place. We have to find the right beginning for the person we’re trying to communicate with.

Otherwise, there’s a really good chance he/she will be too confused and annoyed to go with us through the whole story, much less to do something more.

Knowing where to begin is a success skill. It creates a foundation on which we build.

That’s it for this one dear reader. Find your beginnings, help others understand what you have to say. And, I’ll see you next post…

Not as good as an editor, but…

Even the best writer can’t go it entirely alone for editing. The best thing, the most helpful option, is people reading your stuff. The human eye and mind are the best tools for finding things you need to fix, and options and opportunities you missed. But, sometimes no one’s available, or sometimes you want to cleanup and edit before you show your stuff to anyone (I don’t even like to send texts without reading them twice…).

It’s still a good idea to find help…

You really need the help…

Some will try to rely on their own skills and resources. But, to be honest, I’ve met people that can’t get a 144 character ‘tweet’ right on their own. I’ve known good and intelligent people who find a 20 page paper challenging. And, if 20 pages (about 5000 words in double-spaced school writing or 10,000 in single spaced ‘legalese’) is challenging, how hard is it to work your way through a 50,000+ word novel?

At some point you go blind to the annoying little errors (grammar and spelling).

Somewhere else in the text you get wrapped up in the meaning of your thought, and miss those nasty little word substitutions (affect/effect, there/their/they’re, patients/patience…).

Somewhere along the line you miss the fact you ‘yada yadaed’ certain details and explanations that are clear in your mind, but the reader will want spelled out more.

It’s ok… At some point any writer’s brain gets a little overwhelmed with his/her own stuff. You have big ideas. You have passion. You are too busy looking at the forest in its entirety to see that particular tree.

What you need is help to see that stuff…

But, like we’ve already said, sometimes you don’t have the resources available (time, money, favors, people) to have someone read it over, or you really want to go over it and clear up some of those embarrassing little derps before you show it to anyone…

So, we bring in other resources.

Editing software

I’ve already talked about the voice input option in Google Docs, and some oddities of using it. And, I would wager that most of us reading/writing/thinking about this have met the basic tools in Word; Word’s clones; and other popular writing software, apps, and browsers. What we’re talking about here is something bigger and deeper.

After running into problems, and not wanting to let those derps slip through the cracks again, I checked out more heavy duty grammar and style software.

The two that rose to the top of my list were Grammarly and ProWritingAid. In both cases I tested the free version before deciding to spend money on something. Grammarly worked ok… But I wasn’t willing to go farther with it. ProWritingAid worked better for me, and I’ve got a lifetime paid subscription now (before I wrote this… this is not a paid add…).

For the users, fans, and makers of Grammarly, there are still times I recommend it; I think it is probably good for folks that are general purpose/basic writers. But, when I ran the same piece of text through both apps, ProWritingAid better matched my style. And, Grammarly has more of a tendency to be overly fixated, and over regularizes language structures in ways I don’t like (Grammarly’s way of handling commas was annoying, but your mileage may vary…).

In either case, the software helps fix the little stuff, the derps and glitches in style and grammar that are so easy to overlook while you’re focused on the big ideas. It spares you and your readers time and headaches looking for the nasty little typos and allows you to work on story and content.

ProWritingAid and editing a post…

As promised in Words Mean Stuff, here is me editing a post with the help of ProWritingAid. For the record, I use the MS Word add on version.

ribon

But, there is a web browser option too.

I do a couple ‘read and edits’ to get the ideas in place and get the ‘human eye’ stuff largely in line. Then, I turn to the software.

First, I usually get an overall report…

report1

This gives me an overall Idea where things are gives me an idea on where I am with style, grammar, etc. I also like the fact that ProWritingAid gives me an idea of the reading level for the piece.

reading ease

If I’m writing from the POV of a little kid, I like that number to be lower. If I’m writing from the point of view of a professional lawyer who teaches Shakespeare on the side… Well, in that case those numbers might get higher…

Then I go into the style and grammar tools to fix some of the biffs.

style 1

This gives me a list of stuff the software has problems with and suggests fixes. Usually there are some I agree with and follow, and others I don’t. This is one challenge of software versus a real person, the software can’t tell when I misspelled or misused a word on purpose. It will always mark those things as wrong. But, you don’t have to follow what the software tells you. The software will bring up issues; this allows you to leave the ones you make on purpose and helps you fix the ones that really are mistakes.

But, even here the software isn’t as good as a real person. Sometimes fixing a real mistake with just a mouse click creates a new mistake. Omitting a word instead of changing a tense may change the of the sentence. Or just be wrong… You still have to do some reading and thinking for yourself. Otherwise, you’re in the same boat you are with good old spell check and auto-correct… (And we all now how that goes…)

There’s more to say on ProWritingAid (I haven’t even used all the features yet), but this isn’t a full product review (that one’s still coming…). The point for today is: grammar and style software helps you fix the little things, so you can stay focused on the big things, and not look like a dork while you’re doing it.

If Grammarly works great for you, then keep using it. If ProWritingAid serves you better (like me…), then use it. If you find something else you prefer, use that.

That’s it for this one dear reader. Check out some software, and or comment on what you like to use. And, I’ll see you next post!

A Writer’s Instinct…

I was working on another post for today dear reader. I stopped in the middle… Why did I do that? To be honest, I could see I wasn’t creating the quality of post I wanted to. I couldn’t do it in the time I had.

The way the week has gone I haven’t been able to put in the amount of work the post really needs (at the moment I’m wondering if I don’t want to do a shorter post and also offer a  class…). I could see and feel that the post would not be as good as it should have been, and that, even if I had everything ready, to do it properly the post would be much longer than the 750-1000 words I had in mind.

There are times I see and feel things like this when I write. There are times working on a manuscript I think “this isn’t right…” or “I have no idea where I’m going with this”. Sometimes I’m reading over a manuscript I think “Boy, I really ‘yada yada’ed on that part!”

I’ve learned over time I need to pay attention to those feelings.

A whole brain activity…

Writing is a whole brain activity. As a fiction writer I’m drawing on my imagination, I’m pulling stuff out of memory and my subconscious (and according to my friends I’m pulling things out of a few bodily orifices).

Even in non-fiction, it’s more than the brain’s ‘language centers’ and ‘motor control’ that are involved. Your memory is going. Your internal editor is running. If you’re an active writer, you will work on all circuits (and if you’re a serious writer, you may find a part of your mind writing even when you’re supposed to be doing something else).

Because writing is more than just flailing at a keyboard, really getting into your writing can be both rewarding and exhausting. For myself, those days where I’m pulling 3,000+ new words, editing what I did the previous day, and trying to pay attention to an overall story can be downright exhausting. But those are really good days, in the back of my mind I’m living my story. Even when I’m doing non-fiction, on those days I’m “right in there” with things I’m interested in and care about.

Because we can, and do, become focused and “right in there” with the things we’re working on, our conscious mind can really develop tunnel vision. Sometimes when this happens other parts of our mind seem to know something needs to be said differently, that something is missing, or any number of things. It’s sort of like back at grad-school, those of us with offices in the basement navigated around each other even when our minds weren’t on where we were going. When we’re writing, those parts of our minds occasionally get our attention. And we need to pay attention to them.

It’s not something that happens right away…

We didn’t start out with a writer’s instincts. Where do they come from? Reading, writing and reading about writing.

Writer’s instincts are something we learn as we are learning our craft. You pick up some when you’re reading; you see what other writers have done. You apply what you’ve learned while you’re writing; your own work is your practical laboratory. If you’re doing it right, your reading about writing helps you refine your understanding and strengthen your weaknesses. And then it all repeats…

Your instincts about what you’re writing develop just like your vocabulary and your ability to write (both in phraseology and in number of words…). Instincts are simultaneously something that seem to be ‘just there’ and something that results from ‘getting your hands dirty’ with the work.

It can take a while for them to show up, but those instinctive warnings and feelings can really help you in your writing. It’s worth taking the time to develop them. Developing them sometimes means ‘crashing into the walls’ and making mistakes, but that’s part of the learning process. You will not become a writer of any level of merit without it. You will have to learn to take criticism, but that’s part of the process.

Fear of criticism is both something that prevents us from showing our stuff, and thus prevents us from developing, and a useful instinct to develop. I will not let my fear of criticism stop me from saying what I want to say, but I like to know when I will be criticized, and for what, so I can decide if it’s worth it.

Writer’s instincts are something internal to us. Just like our brains, our instincts are unique and develop as we do. I can’t tell you all about your instincts (and you might not entirely ‘get it’ if I try to totally explain mine…). But I can tell you this dear reader, as writers we all have them, and develop them. We also need to learn to pay attention and use them. Sometimes it’s our instincts that help us do the good and creative writing when no one and nothing else can.

That’s it for this one dear reader. Learn to recognize your writer’s instincts. Take them out to dinner and have an honest discussion about why that part of your story feels ‘weird’, ‘not right’, or ‘unfinished’; find out why you’re uncomfortable writing that post. And then figure out how to fix it! And… I’ll see you next