In this interview, Diane Alexander talks about how to proofread and revise a fiction manuscript.
Diane Alexander's extensive editorial experience includes work for Fulcrum, Henry Holt, and Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. She currently offers freelance proofreading and copy editing services for authors and publishers.
CWN: You’re involved in the production of over twelve books a year, so you must see authors making the same mistakes over and over. What are some of the most common language mistakes you see?
Diane Alexander: Clichés are your enemy, unless a character speaks them—we all use them when speaking—and if you want to portray a character as unimaginative or boring, by all means let him cliché away. If you’re writing and on a roll, and can only think of a cliché, use it so you can keep writing. Just mark it in bold, or red, or in brackets so that you’ll know to come back in the editing stage and think of a unique and brilliant description. Do the same thing when you can’t think of a particular word you want—mark it and go on. Which leads to...
Do not edit as you write; I can testify that doing this will cause writer’s block, loss of concentration, frustration, and finally, incurable insanity.
One of the most important things an author can do is to create new similes and metaphors. When I read these, I think, wow, I never would have thought to describe it that way—what an incredible writer. When a book is full of these little gems (along with a good plot and characterization) it will increase the reader’s enjoyment significantly.
Think hard about where your plot is going; often, plots fizzle out about three-quarters of the way through the book.
Use contractions, especially in dialog. Say the dialog out loud to hear how it sounds. Do not use contractions if your character is, say, Miss Prissypants from England, who would rather die than use a contraction. Do not use contractions if you or your character is trying to emphasize a point, i.e. “Do not touch my chocolate,” “I will not accept that,” “Running with scissors is not allowed.”
Avoid overuse of exclamation points!!! Never use more than one, and use them very, very sparingly. Exclamation points are often a lazy way of indicating emphasis; your text should do this.
Tense: watch out for mixing up past, future, and present tenses in the same scene or sentence.
Continuity: be aware of time and details. In one book, the female protagonist put on a pair of jeans and then ran through a field, and the author said her pantyhose got ripped up. Aaargh! Also, keep track of the time. If a character gets out of bed at 11:30 A.M., drives his car for three hours and arrives at 1:00 P.M., your reader will be confused—or even worse, will lose all respect for you.
CWN: Could you suggest some strategies fiction writers can use during the revision phase to improve their work on a language level?
Diane Alexander: When you’ve finished your first draft, walk away from the manuscript. Let it steep for a day or two while you go do something to get your mind off it.
Ask good friends or relatives to read your first draft, or even just a chapter or two. Make them promise to be honest with their comments. You: brace yourself for some criticism; as much as it stings, you need it.
Have fun with your vocabulary: authors get to make up words. A recent Time Magazine article by Joe Klein says politicians empretzel themselves when trying to wriggle out of previous statements. This is usually called flip-flopping but empretzel gives the reader an immediate, vivid image and is brand-new (so far).
You read a lot of books, right? While doing your first revision, read it as though you were a reader; pretend you didn’t write it. Does it flow? Are there awkward parts? How can it be improved?
CWN: Sometimes fiction writers intentionally "break" grammar and punctuation rules for artistic reasons. Could you talk about the differences between intentional versus unintentional rule-breaking?
Diane Alexander: A good copy editor should be able to tell if the author is intentionally using poor grammar and punctuation, whether in dialog or anywhere else in the book. The copy editor will query the author if the intention is unclear or if she just thinks it doesn’t work. An author has unlimited power over the words (unless it goes to a publishing house), and if she wants to write “I’m gonna” instead of “I am going to,” that’s her prerogative. This is especially important in dialog. When we speak, we constantly break grammar and pronunciation rules (even copy editors) because spoken English is much more relaxed than written English (usually). Make sure your characters sound like real people speaking.
Disregard most of what you were taught in 10th grade English; allow yourself freedom from old-fashioned rules. Yes, you can start a sentence with and, but, however, hopefully, or whatever word you like. You can use colloquialisms. You can use incomplete sentences. Or four-letter words. (Word is telling me that’s an incomplete sentence. You can also ignore Word’s spelling and grammar suggestions.)
CWN: Could you talk a little about authorial “voice?” How do you adapt your copy-editing to the individual style of an author?
Diane Alexander: The copy editor must get a sense of the author’s voice, or style, before beginning the edit; she should start by reading 10 or 20 pages to get a feel for it. It’s her job to maintain the author’s voice throughout the manuscript, regardless of how much editing she does. “Voice” is what makes an author unique; some authors write in a very matter-of-fact way, others are very lyrical. Hemingway is different than Faulkner; their distinct voices must be respected.
CWN: Do you have any other advice for writers who are in the process of revising a fiction manuscript?
Diane Alexander: Read The Subversive Copy Editor by Carol Fisher Saller, senior manuscript editor at the University of Chicago Press and editor of The Chicago Manual of Style Online’s Q&A. This book is brief, informative, and witty. A whole chapter is devoted to writers but the rest of the book sheds light on the mysterious world of copy editing, which I think all authors will enjoy and benefit from. (Yes, I ended a sentence with a preposition. I did it because I wanted to.)
There are approximately 73 billion resources—books, blogs, classes, workshops, articles—that will give you advice on how to edit your own work. I advise that you take what you want from them and discard the rest (true for this advice, also). Several years ago I was in a watercolor workshop and the instructor said, “I will tell you what I know about painting, but in the end it’s up to you to create what you like. It’s your paper.”
Write, create, have fun—it’s your paper.
For step-by-step help improving your fiction, sign up for our online course, Self-Critique for Fiction Writers.
If you liked this interview on how to proofread fiction, you might also enjoy our interview with Scott B. Rice about purple prose and other types of bad writing.
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