As Taylor Mali illustrates so eloquently in the above video, writers should stop relying on spell check to edit their writing for them and start learning how to revise.
One of the best books on the market for self-editing is by Renni Browne and Dave King: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print. If you are a self-publishing novelist, get a copy of it post haste! Spelling and grammar checking software can only do so much, and they often cause more problems than they correct. Here are five reasons every writer must learn to edit and revise their work.
1. Malapropisms – Mali uses them exquisitely in his poem, but many times students will use them in their essays or short stories and create comic effect without intention. For example: “I’ve always been thin. When I was a girl I had infantile paraphernalia.” or “I severed his juggler vein.” Shakespeare’s Dogberry from Much Ado About Nothing used malapropisms constantly, but that was intended for a laugh. Don’t be an accidental Dogberry. Spell check will not catch a word that is spelled correctly but used incorrectly.
2. The “Two’s” the “Theirs” and the “Losers” – Spell checker will see words like too/two, there/their/they’re and loose/lose and move on. Most of the time the grammar checker (in my experience) will pass over them as well. Make sure you know what form of the word is correct for usage in your sentences. These usage errors are embarrassing to say the least.
3. Limited Grammar Rules – The grammar checkers of most writing programs will not be able to contain every grammar rule in the English language. They are mostly good for finding run-on sentences, fragments, passive voice and comma splices. Many of the other problems such as dangling modifiers or usage errors will not be found. Another part of this point is that not all novelists have an English degree. You may not remember all the rules, and it is perfectly fine to seek out a professional to edit your text. Even if the pro is a good friend, offer to pay them. I have a friend who is a plumber and he is called upon to help me with my plumbing projects I can’t do myself, but I would never ask him to do anything without offering to pay for it.
4. Don’t Lose Your Voice – Machines are not yet capable of giving suggestions about stylistic choices a writer makes. They cannot comment on voice, help with finding a universal theme or help with the flow of dialogue. You need to have other people examine your writing and also you need to be doing the hard work of revising your sentences with a trusty red pen (or cooler colors like purple or green if you like). When they invent a program that can edit like a real live editor, I suppose I will be in the line for soup downtown.
5. Rethinking – If there is one thing revision will do for a writer it is to help them rethink bad ideas. I have had several great ideas that fell apart once I read through the five chapters I wrote. I felt good writing them, but then at second and third glance, they didn’t look that great anymore. It’s perfectly normal to rethink something. I have listened to several budding writers in my career, all with “awesome” ideas for novels they wanted to write. It always sounded very good in their head, but once they told me they became very self-conscious and re-thought it. The germ of the idea is usually very interesting, but the way some of them tell the story or the narrative choice they make or the character development usually needs much work. I have lost count of how many of my ideas have ended up in the ash can over the years.
The point is not to be lazy with the editing. One revision does not a novel make. I spent almost three months revising The Transgression Box and it still had type-os and other errors I would like to have changed. Revising a novel takes nearly as much time as it takes to write one. If you want to write a novel that is free of most errors, then you had better get ready to do some hard work.