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Edit to Avoid Bad Reviews

May 23 2018
May 23 2018

One star I read a book review today from a site that reviews books for self-published authors for a fee, the lowest of which is $97. For this fee, the author got a one star (out of four) review for his book. Why? Because the book, although it may have a decent story, was riddled with typos, word usage, grammatical, and punctuation errors. This author is what’s wrong with self-publishing, and why it has a well-deserved bad reputation.* Why would anyone publish such a book? Maybe out of ignorance, or out of arrogance, or maybe out of lack of funds to hire people to proof and edit the book. I can’t fix arrogance or lack of funds, and I acknowledge that I am possessed of both, but I intend to help with the ignorance part.

Let’s assume for a moment that this author had a good and compelling story, and that he had all the other boxed checked. He had interesting, three-dimensional characters, and he had structured the novel properly. Three acts, and all of that.** It’s a tragedy to go to that effort, and then publish something that’s subpar.

What did the reviewer find so offensive? The author often used an incorrect word, such as, “there,” instead of “they’re,” or “its” instead of “it’s,” and the book was riddled with grammatical and punctuation errors, and incomplete and poorly structured sentences. The reviewer provided an example of the writing, which was one of the most hideous sentences I’ve ever read (which I spare you in the interest of keeping the author anonymous).

So, what can you do to keep yourself from being part of the problem? Fortunately, most of the issues about which the reviewer complained can be fixed, or at least seriously reduced, for free.

Learn the craft. Writing is not art. Coming up with the story and figuring out what happens and how to develop it is an art. Putting it onto the paper is a craft. You must have a good knowledge of grammar and punctuation. You must know proper word usage, such as the difference between its and it’s, or there, their and they’re, etc. You don’t need an MFA to do it, but educate yourself. All the information you need is readily available online. If you want a fast, hard education, join an online critique site, such as Critique Circle. None of what I say below will do you any good if you don’t have the basic skills to write.

Finish the book, and then step away. After you’ve completed your book, put it away and forget about it. Don’t try to edit it, and don’t show it to anyone. Let it percolate for at least three weeks, but the longer, the better. Six weeks is a good number. After that, you’ll be able to look at it with fresh eyes. You’ll be surprised the errors that jump off the page and hit you like a bag of nickels.

I’ve read forum posts from “authors” who say they are finishing the last 10,000 words because they want to publish the book in a couple of weeks. No, no, and no. That means there will be no editing, either by the author or a professional, the author will not have done the things I’m discussing here, and the author has had no time away from the book. If you do that, you will end up with the piece of garbage that was the subject of the review I mentioned at the beginning. (i.e., you will be part of the problem)

After you’ve let it sit for a while, read it again. Errors of every kind that you missed before will pop you in the face. Not only typos, but holes in the plot, problems with the timeline, and so forth. Rewrite/edit it, and let it sit for another month, and repeat the process until you think it’s right. Then, and only then, will it be ready for “editing.”

Edit. What do I mean editing? It means everything from going through looking for typos, usage errors, grammar and spelling errors, etc., (line editing), to massaging the arrangement of chapters, sentence structure, and story structure. It all has to be done. The thing is, most readers will not be interested in story structure, at least consciously. They care about what happens (hopefully), and it has to be a good story, but they generally won’t know or care whether your first turning point was at 20% or 26%, unless it happens very late. But they will care about typos, and because the reviewer of the book that triggered this blog did not complain about structure and such, I focus on line editing. Problems related to line editing are painfully obvious from the first page, and are easily fixed.

How do you line edit? The ideal thing would be to send it off to a professional editor to have all the boogers worked out of it while you write your next masterpiece. But you may not have $1,200 laying around, so you have to do it yourself, with the help of your friends (see “Beta Readers” below), and some software.

Run it through at least one grammar checker. There are a number of grammar checkers in the world, some free, some not. I use Google Docs, OpenOffice Writer, and Grammarly. None of these are perfect, and all of them are often wrong, so be careful. They will, however, find tons of errors that you’d miss.

Grammarly is free, and can be used online or downloaded as an app. When I put in the hideous sample mentioned by the reviewer, it flagged the use of “visible,” when the correct word was “visibly.” It did not otherwise comment on the horrid nature of the sentence structure. It seems to be pretty good at finding missing or misused words. If you use the online version, you can check up to fifty pages at once. If you keep each section, your work will be preserved online.

Google Docs has a pretty good grammar checker, and it’s built in. If you have gmail, you have free access. Upload your entire manuscript, and it will highlight many spelling and grammar/word usage errors. The side benefit is that your document will be preserved online.

OpenOffice Writer, which is also free, has an extension called Language Tool, that runs in association with the spellchecker. It finds things Google Docs doesn’t (and vice versa).

Grammarly, Google Docs, and OpenOffice are useful helping you find punctuation and word usage errors, but they won’t find them all. They don’t help with the nature of the writing itself. That’s where Hemingway Editor comes in. It’s free online, or it can be downloaded as an app in Chrome. Hemingway tells you at what grade level your writing is (you don’t want it too high), where you’re using passive voice, and counts adverbs and adjectives. It also marks sentences that are hard to read.

After using these programs, and even after reading through it yourself, I assure you that it will still be riddled with errors. You have to do more.

Read the book out loud. Have the computer (or another person) read the story back to you as you follow along. Or you could read it out loud yourself. You’d be surprised at the things you’ll find just listening to it.

Use Beta Readers. Even after doing everything I mentioned above, there will be errors in the book. A lot fewer than there would have been, and a lot fewer than the poor author who paid $97 to get a bad review, but we are striving for perfection.

Once you have it as clean as you can make it, try to get people to read it. Don’t give it to anyone until it’s the best you can do, out of respect for the people and their time, as much as your own self-respect.

It is extremely difficult to get beta readers. I usually get several volunteers, but I’m lucky if one of them actually reads the book. And it has to be someone who reads a lot, has some concept of proper grammar, usage, etc., and someone who will be honest with you. I was lucky with my last novel, in that two people read it and made very helpful comments. One was quite thorough, and improved the book immensely.

One Last Go Round. You’ve done your editing and you’ve found a good beta reader, and you’ve corrected all the errors and incorporated all the changes you’re willing to make (everything the beta reader suggests may not be appropriate). Now what?

I suggest letting it rest for a few weeks, and then reading through it slowly, or have the computer read it to you. I hate to find even one typo or grammar problem in my books after they’ve been published. But I know that no matter what I do, there will be some, but I do everything I can to reduce them.

Conclusion. As a self-published author, you should strive to produce the best book you can. Strive for perfection, and you may achieve “pretty good.” I don’t mean that you should take ten years to produce a book, but neither can it be done in three months.

The takeaway is that you may have the most brilliant story idea in the world and be a master of structure, but if your work is riddled with errors, you will be dismissed as an idiot. Also, you can’t proof your own work. It’s a kind of law of the universe. I make some of the mistakes about which the reviewer complained, and I know the rules. For example, this evening I was running my newest novel through Grammarly and found an “it’s” when it should have been “its.” I know the difference, and I’ve read through the whole thing a couple of times and missed it. So, if you can’t get other people to help you, or you can’t afford to pay someone, you need to do everything you can to make sure your work is clean and professional. You owe to yourself, and you owe it to your readers.


*In this author’s defense, I don’t think a review site should take a fair amount of money for a review and then trash the book. In my experience, issues such as the reviewer had will be evident from page one.


**Unlikely, as people who publish stuff with the kind of errors this book contains don’t usually bother with niceties, such as story structure and character development.


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