Editing, My point of view, Tips, Writing

Write the Novel — Fifth (and Final) Edit

This is it. We’re so close to finishing the  novel we can taste it. Remember that books are never finished, they are only abandoned at interesting places, and it’s time we abandon this one.

The fifth edit has only one task and one question

  • The Task: have a commercial printer print the updated copy and bind it. Sit down and read for enjoyment, as if this was a book we’d bought, been given, or checked out of the library.
  • The Question: Was this a good read?

The hardest thing at this point is to not tinker. Yes, tidy up any glaring errors, but resist the urge to tinker. We are finished with this book until we get it out there, find it a home, and talk to our new editor.

Do we have a publisher waiting for this manuscript?

  • If we do, contact the publisher. Are there any changes since the most recent guidelines were distributed? Do our final format changes to match the publisher’s requirements.
  • If we don’t have a publisher yet, find a recent standard formatting guide and stick to it. On the Style Sheet indicate which formatting guide was used as a reference.

Final Formatting

  • Make sure that the Style Sheet is complete and correct.
  • Make sure we have all needed permissions in writing.
  • Go over all supplemental material like dedication, introduction, acknowledgment, and synopsis one more time. Make sure our submission package is complete.
  • Format all material consistent with the publishers requirements or any other guide we are using.
  • Do a final grammar check. Pay attention to punctuation marks, especially commas, semi-colons and quotation marks. Here’s Nick Stockton’s recent WIRED blog that explains why our brain misses errors in material we’ve already looked at over and over and over. Unfortunately, it only tells us why it happens, not what to do about it. One step at a time.
  • Do a final spelling check.
  • Do a final word count.
  • Have a final hard copy commercially printed, single-side only for our archives
  • Copy the final, complete, and formatted draft to our back-up discs. Again make 3 discs, one to keep, one to have someone locally keep, and one to have someone who lives at least 500 miles way keep.


  • Write a cover letter.
  • Go looking for a publisher.

Archive all material

  • Go through all electronic and print material. Decide what can be deleted and what should be archived.
  • Cull unnecessary archival material.
  • If this is a series, determine what needs to be brought forward into the files for the next book.

This is a good place to take a vacation.

And, that’s what I’m doing. This concludes my 2014 series on Writing a Novel. Thanks for hanging in for the entire year. Next week, Tuesday, December 30, I’m taking a break. See you back for 2015 on Tuesday, January 6th for the start of a new topic. Still working on what that topic will be.

Happy New Year everyone.

Editing, My point of view, Nuts and bolts, Writing

Write the Novel – Fourth Edit – All Those Pesky Words

I’ve just finished writing a 88,000 word novel. There are probably an equal number of spaces and punctuation marks. That makes roughly 176,000 potential mistakes. One human brains simply cannot find that many mistakes. We need computer help.

Word Frequency

I write in Scrivener and, eventually, compile the entire book into Word. Scrivener does both a total word frequency count, and a word frequency count. Thanks to Astrid at Literature and Latte, who showed me how to do the frequency word count. The trick is to select all of the chapters in the book and wait for the total word count to finish. Then click on text stats, go down to the frequency word count and click on the triangle.

This is better than Word, which gives me a total count, but no word frequency. I’ve also looked at some word frequency applications, but they all appear to be done by small companies that I don’t know and am not particularly interested in risking a virus by downloading.

Start small

Small, common words — the, a, to, and, in, of, her, she, was, I, that, we, had, he, etc. — will show up tons of times in any book-length manuscript. How much is too much? Anything over 9%. Several years ago, my husband commented that the showed up an awful lot in my writing. Turned out to be over 15% of my total word count. That means for that 88,000 word manuscript, roughly 13,000 of those words would be the. Fortunately, I’ve gotten my the quotient way down. In the book I’ve just finished the appears 4,243 times. That 4.8% of the total word count.

Common Prepositions such as, above, after, as, at, by, for, in, of, on, onto, over, to toward, up, and others should be looked at as a group. Our use of an individual preposition may be under the 9% guideline, but taken together they may far exceed, usually because we are in love with preposition-rich sentences: After lunch, she stopped by the library in the park on Main Street as a way of introducing herself to Mary James. (7 prepositions in one sentence).

My combine preposition count for this latest book is 4,949 prepositions, or 5.6%, well below where I have to worry about it.

The Special Case of as

Give special attention to the preposition as. If it’s being used judiciously in similes (a comparison using as or like – Jake’s reaction made her as mad as a hornet), it’s probably okay. If it’s being used to indicates two actions happen at the same time — As I got out of the cab, I remembered why I didn’t trust Harold, it’s not okay. Try substituting whileWhile I got out of the cab, I remembered why I didn’t trust Harold. If while doesn’t make the sentence better, as it doesn’t here, rewrite the sentence.

Check ten overused words at a time

After getting through small words and prepositions, make a list of the next 10 most frequent words.  Scan the entire manuscript for one word at a time. Delete or rewrite as many as possible. Yes, this is tedious and it takes time. It’s also one of the most exciting and rewarding parts of novel writing. Like kneading bread dough, as we rework these overused words, we should feel our book tighten and hold its shape.

When searching one word at a time, whole words should be off. Instead use common roots for the search.

  • If we look for smile and have whole words on, the search will miss smiles, smiled, smiling and any other words that aren’t exactly smile.
  • If we look for smil (the root common to all of these words), and have whole words off, the machine will pick up all of the word forms. It may also pick up a few non-smile words, but that usually isn’t a hassle, unless one of our characters is named Smiley.

Words most often overused are

  • likely to add no additional information (yes, yeah, no, not)
  • equivocators (might, still, just, any, only, should, would, can, could, likely)
  • repeaters (Her eyes were blue in color replaced by Her eyes were blue because there’s nothing else blue can be but a color.)
  • pseudo-action verbs (make, thought, think, tell, told, turn, take, took, put, look, stood)
  • distancing words (Patricia wondered if she could trust Melvin puts Patricia between the reader and the action. Was Melvin trustworthy? is a much better way of phrasing the same thing. )

The author is the only one who can decide how many sets of 10 words are enough. At the point when we find ourselves making smaller and smaller edits, it’s time to move on to the fifth and final edit.

But before we go to the fifth edit, use the grammar checker. Use the spell checker. At least twice, all the way through the book.


Spelling differs from country to country. In my case, I’m a Canadian, likely writing for an American publisher. Do I use American or Canadian spelling? I’ve chosen to use American because spell checkers, for the most part, are made in America and are likely to be more accurate for their spelling, even if they happen to offer alternative dictionaries. If I happen to sell to a Canadian publisher who wants Canadian spelling used, at least I’m faced with only having to go back and edit a small amount of words. We need to mention in our Style Sheet which country’s spelling we used and why.

Should we add character, place, and business names to our dictionary? For me, it depends on how easy it is to add new words and to later remove them. The argument for adding them is that those names will be checked along with all the other words. The argument against adding them is that they will all carry over to future documents. Suppose I have a character named Carl Ramsy, so I add Ramsy to my dictionary. A few books down the line, I have a character named Stephanie Ramsey. My dictionary will want to substitute the Ramsy for Ramsey. This can get quite annoying. In any case, a list of all proper nouns — names, places, businesses, etc. should always be in the Style Sheet.

Be sure Allow Hyphenation is turned off when we start to work on the book. Hyphenated words drive proof-setters crazy. In fiction, no hyphens is the way to go.


Writing software usually includes a grammar checking. It really, really helps to remember that these programs are based on algorithms, not on absolute rules. Frequently, suggestions for changing sentences range from mildly annoying to outrageously funny (having a dark sense of humor helps). It has to be our human brains that says yes or no to the changes and know why we are saying yes or no.

That means learning grammar. I love books like Karen Elizabeth Gordon’s The Transitive Vampire (grammar) and The Well-Tempered Sentence (punctuation) and Lynne Truss’ Eats, Shoots & Leaves a whole lot better than, say, The Chicago Manual of Style. I have nothing against CMS, in fact, it provides a HUGE amount of help, which is the problem. Sometimes I need a quick reference. For those of us who might like to learn grammar in small bits, like one rule a day, I recommend Daily Writing Tips.

Where to start learning grammar?

How about by mastering the top 10 mistakes that writers make

  • Agreement (subjects and verbs, pronouns and antecedents)
  • Comma splices (place where semi-colon is the proper punctuation)
  • Misplaced/dangling modifiers
  • Passive voice
  • Possessive case
  • Pronoun reference
  • Punctuation using commas, semi-colons, or colons incorrectly
  • Sentence fragments
  • Word choice (wrong word(s) used)
  • Wordiness

Source: TheRobert Gillespie Academic Skills Centre Resources for English Language Learners

Next Tuesday, December 23, we conclude not only with the Fifth and Final Edit — The Fine Tooth Comb, but also a year’s worth of blogs on Writing the Novel. Thanks for staying with me for 52 weeks, all the way from the first blog on the Theme Statement.

Happy holidays.

Editing, My point of view, Nuts and bolts, Writing

Write the Novel — Third Edit — Last Chance to Remove Book Killers

Even if you’re going great guns, I doubt you’ve finished the second edit, which involves printing an entire copy and reading it all the way through, marking and making notes as you go.

So this week’s blog is about what to do when you have finished. What comes next — the third edit — is the last chance to get rid of book killers. Some book killers don’t show up until we have a chance to read the entire story, in sequence, in a concentrated time period; in other words, while we’re doing the second edit.

To do the next part, it helps to draw a bar graph. I’ve posted one on my web site. Feel free to print a copy and use it. Or make your own. The blank chart looks like this.

Third Edit Blank Chart

Third Edit Blank Chart

We each have to decide where our condition of enoughess falls. For me it’s always over 80%, up to 90% if I can get there. Books rarely meet 100% of our expectations, so we shouldn’t drive ourselves crazy trying to get there. It’s likely that at least one category will have a higher condition of enoughness, one a lower, and three fall somewhere in the middle. The chart above has a mechanical limitation because I could color in blanks in 10% increments. If you feel your goal is 83% or 92%, feel free to draw a line at those estimated values.

Go through questions a section at a time; for example, all the questions under Flow. Looking at the book as a whole, what percentage of the book met all of the criteria under Flow? Color that percentage with your first color; in my case, green. What remaining percentage absolutely, positively must be fixed? Color that with your second color; I use red. What remaining percentage, up to 100% would be nice if I could fix, but frankly, I think I’ve done that section as well as I’m going to on this book. Color that with your third color; my third color is yellow.

The one exception to the 100% rule is if there is a small bit of material that is highly important and must be fixed. That’s the case with my character Lorenzo in the chart below.

Repeat for each line in the chart. At the bottom of the chart, describe what absolutely has to be fixed. A completed chart might look like this.

What a completed chart looks like

What a completed chart looks like


  • Does each situation result in the point of view character(s) making a decision, which leads to consequences and a new situation?
  • Are there plot highs and lows throughout the book?
  • Do they come closer together and become higher/lower as the book’s end approaches?
  • If there is violence and/or sex, does it always advance the plot?
  • Did we feel impatient or antsy at any point? (All right, all ready, we know she missed her senior prom. Get over it.)
  • Are details absolutely consistent throughout the book?


  • Is each major character a rich, fully-developed human being, with likeable and unlikeable qualities?
  • Does each major character have clear goals, and motivations?
  • Is each character’s dialog unique enough that the reader can probably tell who’s speaking even without dialog tags?
  • Were there parts of the book where the villain’s world view made sense?
  • Were any physical actions or sensory inputs used too often? (I had one book where chills ran up or down everyone’s spine far too often.)


  • Was what we put our characters’ through worth it? Did they get enough bang for the cost they had to pay?
  • What plot element satisfied the story, but left the character unsatisfied? (She caught the killer, but by doing so she lost custody of her niece.)


  • Is the language lyrical? (Lyrical doesn’t necessarily mean nice or pretty. If we’re writing about a prostitute in downtown Boston, does the language convey what it’s like to live on the street, in winter, in Boston?)


  • How often did we mirror the characters’ emotions? (If the character was supposed to be afraid, were we afraid? If they were sad, were we sad? If they were furious, were we furious? If we maintained an emotional equilibrium all the way through, we haven’t written nearly close enough to the character’s bone.)
  • How often did we manage a characters’ emotional reaction that was unique, neither cliché, nor inappropriate?
  • By the time we finished the book, were we at least tired, and preferably emotionally exhausted?

A copy of changes we make should be attached to our Second Edit printed copy, just to keep everything up to date. Small changes can be noted directly on the page. Long changes, for example sorting out the problem of Lorenzo breaking parole, can be printed on separate pages and added. I like to tip in mine because it allows the new page to function like all the other pages and turn easily. Here’s how to tip in a page.

  • Fold the left edge of the new page under about 1/2 inch.
  • Snuggle the fold near the binding.
  • Either tape or glue the folded edge to the next page.

I’m posting the Fourth Edit — All Those Pesky Words Tuesday, December 16, and the fifth, and final edit — The Fine Tooth Comb — the week after on Tuesday, December 23. We’re all busy with the holidays, but that’s the nice thing about blogs. If you don’t get back until after New Years, those two blogs will be waiting for your return.

Have a wonderful holiday season.

Editing, My point of view, Writing

Write the Novel – Second Edit Pass – The Big One

Last week, I wrote about making a first editing pass to format our final manuscript. Now it’s time for the second edit, and it’s a big one.

Our brains process information differently from a page and from a computer screen. This edit is the place that, even if we’ve managed to be paperless so far, we need a written copy for editing. Mistakes we’ve missed on the computer screen are more likely to come to our attention on paper.

For editing, it is really, really helpful to have absolutely everything in one binding.  What I do is build two files. The first file contains the material that will not appear in the book, though it will be submitted to the editor. This file includes

  • Blurb: the book in 100 words.
  • Synopsis: a short summary of the book
  • Style sheet : Editors and typesetters can not read our minds. We must give them a guide book. Style sheets include correct spelling of character and place names, abbreviations, correct spellings of foreign words, places where a different font is used for emphasis, and specialized vocabulary, such as military, legal, or medical terms.
  • Permissions for use: if we’ve had to get permissions to use any material, include a copy of that permission in this file.

The second file is material that will appear in the book.

  • Cover page: Title; author information (and if writing under a pseudonym, that too); contact information; agent and contact information; if we have one.
  • Dedication
  • Acknowledgment: Who contributed to this book?
  • Introduction: Set the context for the book.
  • Manuscript, beginning with Chapter 1, page 1 and going to the end of the story
  • Background information
  • Glossary

Books almost always have a dedication and acknowledgement. Introductions, background information, and glossaries are sometimes included.  These last three are needed if a major plot element is likely to be unfamiliar to our general readers. Suppose we’ve written a book where cactus theft is a major plot device.

Introductions and background information may contain similar material, but with a different focus.

  • An introduction would contain my personal connection to the topic: the shock and sadness I felt when I came out of my house one morning, and realized that my neighbor’s 125-year old Saguaro cactus had been stolen.
  •  The background information would present facts, figures, history, etc. I wanted the reader to know about cactus theft; why it is such an ecological disaster; and what the reader can do to help. By combining this real life information into a background section, we avoid interrupting the story line so that characters can discuss this information for the benefit (or lack of it) for the reader.

Glossaries contain words that might not be familiar to the reader such as Cacti Horticulturist Specialist, Saguaro cactus, and the Cactus and Succulent Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Since I don’t have a high-volume printer, I put my two files on a thumb drive and have my local office supply store print them, and put them together with a coil binder. That way I’m sure no pages will go astray.

I use a black pen and a yellow highlighter. Some writers prefer multiple highlighters to differentiate different kinds of editing. That works as well. With pen and markers nearby, sit down and read the entire book, as we would a book we purchased or checked out of the library.

Marathon reading is not the way to go here. Try to take in no more than 20 to 25 pages in a session. For a 325-page book, this means we’ll need between 13 and 17 sessions. Yes, we can do two or three sessions in one day, but allow at least a couple of hours to pass between each session.

The Heart of this Edit

  • Does the story capture and hold our interest from page 1?
  • Does it flow smoothly?
  • Does tension build?
  • Are there timely and satisfying resolutions to the main plot and all sub-plots?
  • Does the material touch our hearts?
  • Do we find ourselves thinking about what we’ve read?
  • As we go from session to session, do we have to back track to remember what we read previously, or does our place in the story come naturally to us as we resume reading?

As we discover places where the answer to any of those questions is no, resist the urge to stop editing and do a rewrite. The purpose of this edit is to see the story as a whole.

As we read, here are some nitty-gritty details to check.

Chapter beginnings

  • Start by flipping through the pages, looking for the beginning of each chapter.
  • Are all of the chapters there?
  • Are they numbered sequentially, without gaps or duplications?
  • Is there a forced page break at the end of each chapter?
  • Does the Chapter heading start at the same place on the page?
  • Is each first paragraph in a chapter formatted consistently?

Header and footer

Unless my publisher requests something different, I put only the book’s name, right justified, in the same font as the rest of the manuscript, in the header. My reason is that contests will usually disqualify an entry if the writer’s name appears anywhere in the manuscript. By not including my name in the header, I remove the possibility this disqualifier slips in unnoticed. Later, if my publisher wants my name in the header, it’s simple to insert it.

The footer should contain a page number, centred, in the same font as the rest of the manuscript. The cover page isn’t usually numbered, but the rest of the pages are numbered sequentially. As I go through the manuscript, I check that there is a page number on each page. Gremlins happen.


Because we work piecemeal, it’s easy to lose continuity. Blue eyes become green eyes fifty pages later. James is in two places at the same time. Phyllis talks about being in college, and then later says she never went to college. Highlight, write margin notes, and keep going.

Proper names

Highlight the first time a character’s full name appears. Do the same for the first time any proper noun (places, company names, etc.) appears.

Missing research

Note any places we meant to check facts or verify something, and haven’t done that yet.

When we’ve finished the entire manuscript, go back to the computer. Make copies of the two files, and edit on the copies, using the highlighted manuscript as a guide to clean the manuscript.

  • Complete the research and change details if needed.
  • Correct chapter, header, and footer omissions or inconsistencies.
  • Iron out continuity issues.
  • Transfer all of the proper names to the Style Sheet.
  • Grammar check the entire manuscript.
  • Spell check the entire manuscript – twice.

Next week, on Tuesday, December 9th, The Third Editing Pass — our last chance to get rid of book killers. Hope to see you back.