Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Editing: Does it REALLY matter??

A little double dipping here, I've also posted this on the AKRWA Blog for this week.

Spell checkers and other editing things.

Love them or hate them, they are helpful and useful tools. In fact, I recommend every writer have Spell Check turned on at all times. In MSWord, that little red line will help you catch misspellings immediately. Then there's the blue line to alert you to the wrong spelling, or possibly the wrong word—also a useful tool. The green grammar lines? Those I tend to ignore since fiction writing takes some liberties with proper English.


Yeah, you knew that was coming. However. These built-in tools in super-smart word processing programs do not take the place of the human eye and, I hope, human intelligence.

After the program has done its best to help is when a really sharp-eyed editor or beta reader comes in. Someone who can catch the things your MSWord program and tired eyes won’t. There, their, and they’re all sound the same with very different meanings. She’s and she’d are very easy to mix up with the “s” and “d” keys being side by side. I see loose and lose mixed up more times than I care to mention. Your program won’t flag any of the above as misspelled.

Same with roll and role. “He acted out his roll with finesse and skill.” Does this mean he knew how to play a bit of bread? (Ha! Word just tried to correct the word for me. I set it straight.) I suppose it could mean he did a perfect job of rolling down the hill, across the floor, into bed… but in the context of the story, this was not the meaning.

I recently found this sentence in a published book: “He drew in a shaky breath, tried to recall if this was how he felt about her first kiss as a green lad of fourteen.” One word. Just one word is out of place here and makes the sentence ludicrous. Yet to a spell checker program everything is just hunky dory. Had that been the only instance of an error, I probably would have blown it off. Sadly, it was one of at least half a dozen errors that leaped off the page and threw me out of an otherwise entertaining story.

Of course, I’ve seen the spell checker do harm by trying to correct a word here and there. A badly spelled word can be switched in the blink of an eye. Back in the day when I edited technical reports for scientists, I caught one trying to marinate a laser. He’d tried to type “maintain” but mangled it so badly MSWord changed the word to “marinate.” I learned to read his reports very closely.

The key here is editing. Careful, thoughtful, intelligent human editing. A good edit will catch these little goofs that can cause an author’s intelligence and education to be called into question. Yes, typos will at some point escape everyone. It happens. I’ve seen it in NYT bestseller books. If there are no more than two per novel, those are easily shrugged off. More than that? Well, that’s where credibility begins to be called into question.

Years ago, two or three at least, I was reading a book released by my then publisher (the book was not mine, thankfully) and was horrified to see that consistently throughout the book, barely (Merriam Webster Definition of BARELY 1: in a meager manner : plainly 2: scarcely, hardly) was consistently replaced with barley. (BARLEY: a cereal grass.)

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