Editing — my tools and techniques

edit manuscriptIn the first of my previous blogs on editing, I looked at the lessons that I had learnt a long time ago from the world of business book publishing. In the second blog I looked at what I had to learn more recently to adapt to publishing fiction.

In this blog I want to look at the editing tools and techniques I use. It is not meant to be a comprehensive review of all the software tools available. It is my personal choice of what works for me.

I retired from the accounting profession in March 2011 and decided to write my first novel. One of my first decisions was to buy an Apple MacBook, and the application Scrivener that I had heard so many good things about. I wasn’t disappointed. The software is amazing. After using Microsoft’s Word for over two decades I had finally found my ideal writing tool for writing books. I published my first novel, Collision, in October 2012; my second Alien Hothouse in November 2015; and my third AndroDigm Park 2067 in April 2018.

There are many powerful utilities in Scrivener, but for me the most awesome is that you write in scenes and can move the scenes about by dragging and dropping them. And as each scene has it’s own summary card you can easily switch presentation to a cork board mode, or outline mode and see your story set out in a visual way. For planning purposes, you can map out the major scenes of the story to see the cards across your screen. And when you have completed your first draft you can export a scene list to a spreadsheet file for further analysis of the scenes. This is invaluable when trying to carry out a development edit. It gives you a scene list and the key actions, features and turning points of the story.

It follows that my next important tool is a spreadsheet. I have a great love for the power of Microsoft’s Excel (as most accountants do!). But these days I can accomplish most of the scene analysis I need to do using Apple’s Numbers.  By visualising the story in a columnar way, you can see all the important elements of the story set out.

Now for detailed editing. I perform all detailed editing in Scrivener, so the in-built  spellchecker is the starting point for any edit. However, spellcheckers don’t pick up all errors such homonyms (eg to, too, two) which may be spelt correctly but used in the wrong context. And they don’t pick up a host or errors such as poor grammar, inconsistent use of  hyphenation, capitalisation, punctuation marks and poor style. There are programs that can help the writer identify these issues. The major ones are ProWritingaid, AutoCrit, and Grammarly, but there are many more. Some of these applications have free on-line versions with limited functionality (e.g. ProWritingAid, EditMinion, Grammarly, Ginger and Hemingway).

My preference is the premium version  of ProWriting Aid. Like many of the systems it has a version that works by uploading files onto the internet. But I prefer the standalone version that works with Scrivener. To me, the ability to edit Scrivener files directly gives the system the edge over other applications as I don’t need to convert files back and forth.

Edit software will never replace the need for a professional editor. But such software can help the writer to identify potential problems, inconsistencies and poor style. But not all suggestions generated from this type of software will be appropriate. It is up to the writer to determine how they deal with them.

However much you use these software aids there is a still need to carry out the most detailed review of the text as objectively as you can. This is best achieved by leaving the manuscript for a period of time before undergoing this review. It can also help to use different reading mediums: screen, paper and audio (getting the software to read to you). And by changing fonts and page sizes.

You will also need a good dictionary and style manual for reference. I personally use the Oxford English Dictionary and New Oxford Style Manual for reference, as I write British English rather than American English. But I have at least another ten books on grammar and editing to refer to where necessary.

Editing is an intensive process. It is difficult to look for all types of problems in one pass-through of the text. A different approach is to focus on different types of problems  in each pass-through. For example, the final pass might just look at punctuation problems. As explained in the quote from CJ Webb in the first of these articles.

Edit your manuscript until your fingers bleed and you have memorized every last word. Then when you are certain you are on the verge of insanity… edit one more time.

If you want to be writer, you need to be able to edit. Successful writers are all re-writers.

Authors’ software

As a newbie author, I’m always on the lookout for new software that might make the task of writing easier. I have always wondered if there was that killer application lurking out there that would make life simpler, if only I could just find it. Other newbie authors might be thinking the same way. Therefore I thought it would be helpful to run-down of the software that I find useful. It’s not necessarily the best, but it’s what works for me.

Firstly, it is important not to forget that many great authors in the last century managed to publish their great works of fiction without much more than pen, ink and paper. The most important ingredient is therefore, and will always be, that piece of software between your two ears. But it would be silly not to recognise the power of personal computers, laptops, pads and even phones to make life easier.

The most obvious application is of course the word processor, and I have seen quite a few during the course of my business career. Today Microsoft Word clearly dominates the business market and has become virtually a de facto standard both in the business and publishing worlds. I have used it for over two decades and it is still my word processor of choice for general word-processing , spellchecking and editing. But it is not what I use for drafting or publishing fiction.

For most of my business career I was a Windows user. When I retired two years ago, I was looking for something new to do and I took a look at the Apple Mac. I had also heard great things about an application called Scrivener that then ran only on the Mac (A version is now available on Windows, but lacks some of the functionality of its Mac counterpart). I purchased a MacBookPro and Scrivener and started to write. I used Scrivener to write and publish my first book ‘Collision – a Sci-Fi Romance’. Scrivener is an amazing piece of software, so much more than a word processor that it’s difficult to describe. It allows you to write scenes and chapters in any order you like, move them about without cutting and pasting; and you can visualise the structure in either an outline format or as cards on a corkboard. And you can review your notes while writing on a split screen. It also allows you to compile your manuscript into a variety of formats including DOC, RTF, EPUB and Amazon’s MOBI and more. For an excellent review of the software see http://www.thecreativepenn.com/2012/02/04/scrivener/ or go to Literature and Latte’s site at http://literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php

The other software I tend to use is a mixture of tools some of which run on the Mac others are Windows. For outlining before I start a project I tend to use OmniOutliner. This is a simple outliner for the Mac, which I use to map out the scene structure. It’s quick and efficient. You can also export files from to Scrivener into OmniOutliner and import OmniOuliner reports into Scrivener.

When I am developing ideas I sometimes use mind maps. There are many free applications available on the Internet. The one I used recently was MindMeister, which does pretty much everything I need. More recently, I have used the beta version of Scapple from Literature and Latte. It’s not really a mind map, but an application that mimics a large whiteboard. It’s great for putting down ideas in free-form as though you were using a big whiteboard. When it appears in the Apple Store I will be one of the first to buy it.

I use Microsoft Excel for analysing scene structure and all kinds of analysis. This might seem strange for an author, but for someone that has used spread sheets in the business world for over two decades it is the most obvious software for me to use. I’m simply used to it. If you don’t already have Excel, for other reasons, then I would suggest a simpler spreadsheet would suffice. There are many available on the internet, some of which are open source and free.

For general note taking, I find Microsoft’s OneNote is the best for jotting down ideas and thoughts. I’ve looked at Mac note taking software, but haven’t yet found anything quite as powerful as OneNote. However, for project specific notes, outlines, character sketches and the like I put directly into one of my Scrivener folders for access when I am writing.

There are also a variety of software products that claim to provide authors with a framework or structure for novel building. Some are very structured – a kind of novel building by numbers. This type of software doesn’t interest me. Others like StoryWeaver, Novel Writer and Contour have some merit as structured learning tools, but have limited value to me personally. The remainder seem to duplicate some of the functionality of Scrivener. The one exception I came across was StorybookPro. This is a story boarding application that has some useful visual features for viewing the different strands of a plot and for tracking the time line. I found its Book Summary and Character List reports useful. In my case I exported the reports as RTF files and imported them into a Scrivener folder for access for when I am writing.

Lastly, there are lots of software products that are aimed at helping the author with the editing, and grammar checking process . Most of this software seems to me to be over-hyped and expensive and the ones I’ve looked at didn’t provide any noticeable improvement over Microsoft Word’s own spellchecker and grammar checker, which I already use. Personally, I think it is impossible to produce a grammar checker that is totally reliable, because of the complexity of English grammar. Accordingly this type of software will always produce ‘false-positives’ to confuse the author. A writer needs to have a good grasp of grammar. And if he/she doesn’t then they’re in the wrong business.

There is one exception I would make to editing software and that is software that analyses word count and over-used words in your work. I use a software product called MasterEdit (Windows) which is simple and efficient and inexpensive. And if you’re interesting in analysing your writing style you might like to look at the free online sites http://prowritingaid.com/free-editing-software.aspx and http://editminion.com/

You might have noticed that I haven’t mentioned any software relating to social media. This is because when it comes to social media I am a bit of dinosaur. For example, I only use my cell phone for telephoning and I have never sent a text in my life. But perhaps I’ll summon up the courage to dip into the social media in the near future. I never thought I would blog; and here I am.

That’s it. This was never intended to be a comprehensive review of all the software available to an author; only a list of those software products that work for me. If anyone out there believes, there is a killer-application that I have missed please let me know.