This past month Double Dragon Publishing generously allowed me to correct an italics formatting problem that came up in The Martian Marauders. I’d noticed that on the Kindle format, as well as on the paperback version, some paragraphs that are entirely italicized (for instance, a paragraph of a character’s thoughts) rendered as normal (not italicized) text. On the EPUB and PDF versions of the book, though, the same paragraphs come out properly italicized. When I read the paperback edition, the problem didn’t really slow me down or confuse me–but I did want those italicized paragraphs showing properly, as they do convey information about who is thinking what. I know the new frontier of e-publishing is always going to keep throwing new problems at us, but even if perfection is impossible, I want the quality of the final product to be as high as possible.
I finally discovered that an italicized paragraph mark in the Word file was the problem. (You can see the final paragraph mark by clicking the ¶ show/hide icon.) Somehow that final italic paragraph mark told the Kindle and paperback format files to render the entire paragraph as normal text! So the solution was simply to search and replace all paragraph marks (^p) in italic format with ^p NOT italic. After I ran the above changes on Jack Commer’s manuscript, the italicized paragraphs came out perfectly in Kindle and paperback, so I asked publisher Deron Douglas if I could send him a corrected MS. of The Martian Marauders that would fix the italics problem along with a few annoying typos I and others had found. My wife and I reread the book again before sending the corrected copy and I was chagrined to discover even more errors, most of which were pretty minor but still rankled me. (If the villain’s name is Sam Hergs, the possessive is not Herg’s!)
After all this effort the novel is much improved, but this editing experience has made me want to intensify my proofing efforts so that these problems don’t arise in the first place. While it’s obvious that total perfection is a dream, I guess in the back of my mind I’ve always had these assumptions:
- The manuscript I initially send off is without errors.
- Yes, and even if I know that’s not really true, every error that might possibly be lurking in there will be caught by the editor/editors.
- Yes, and even if I know that’s not really true, I’ll catch any final errors on my last look over the MS.
- In corollary to the above, it is simply not possible that any edits anyone makes during this time will generate any more errors!
- And so the final published MS. will be entirely without blemish.
Now I understand that none of these is true. How something like “I means they’rewimps” could have survived so many proofings into publication is beyond me, but it evidently must happen! Reality is reality! (Although the running together of adjacent italic and regular words is a strange–though thankfully rare–artifact of EPUB/Kindle processes I haven’t figured out yet.)
So I need to approach the editing process in a new way. Publishers with scads of copyeditors may have a small army proofing the product, yet an error may slip through nonetheless. (I did find one typo in the massive fourth Caro LBJ book–and I was surprised to see it–but there’s no fast way I could ever go back and find it again.) But with e-publishing more and more of the responsibility is put back on the author. Double Dragon is outstanding in its use of professional editors, but even then, that’s 60,000-100,000 words and several thousand more punctuation marks to make sure are perfect, and nobody’s perfect.
So I suggest some new guidelines for myself:
- If you’re going to make any assumptions at all, assume that there will always be errors to ferret out. And that the whole point of finding errors is not to prove you’re perfect, or to castigate yourself for having made them in the first place, but to eliminate (if possible) anything in your MS. that causes the reader’s attention to break out from the story into: “Well, there’s another stupid screw-up!” I’ve struggled through some mindlessly error-prone eBooks and at some point I definitely do give up on “the story” and I start wondering if the author ever bothered to proof his/her work.
- Before returning a manuscript file to my editor, make a draft EPUB of it and read it on the Nook. (Check out the various EPUB conversion programs out there.) Make a Kindle format file and review that as well. Seeing the book in its final e-form is a good idea, not only to catch errors that arise in EPUB or Kindle format, but also to see the work in the same format a reader does, i.e., not the Word document you’re used to. The very unfamiliarity of the new environment helps you spot errors better.
- I don’t think it’s true that the errors we miss are because the particular passage is long and deadening and we just fly though it, assuming it’s perfect. I’ve seen typos in many pithy, high-energy pieces of dialog as well–and I stare in disbelief at the typo I’ve held onto through several drafts, through several months or years. So I don’t think you can formulate any rule that says look for long paragraphs or look for slow-moving places that probably should be cut out of your novel anyway. Errors can happen anywhere. In fact, it could be argued that errors may happen in your favorite spots where the energy is unusually high and you just flash through the paragraph because you feel it’s so good. What this all means is that you need to be vigilant on every paragraph.
- We all know that spell check works only up to a point. I already search for common errors that do pass, like “form” for “from,” as well as typical misspellings and words unique to the given novel–like the “Martina marauders.” I have lots of checklists, but in the end you can’t rely on them. And global search and replace must always be done carefully; you might think twice about changing every instance of “form” to “from,” but I’ve personally messed up entire manuscripts by not thinking through the consequences of what I’ve just asked the computer to perform. (One clue is when Word tells you it just made 94,567 replacements!)
- This gets into the fact that while editing you can introduce more errors. The common one, the main one I face, is when I rewrite a sentence but inadvertently leave a word or phrase I’d intended to cut–and the sentence passes spell check. Or I cut a word necessary to the sentence. Example from the first version of The Martian Marauders: “I’d hate to the one rousing those six guys awake tomorrow.” It’s pretty easy to blast through that one and fail to notice the missing “be.” Solution when editing: get into the habit of rereading the entire paragraph you just edited one more time–slowly. What I’ve apparently been doing is latching onto the passage to be corrected, jumping into its sentences and hacking away at them, then leaping out to the next paragraph to be revised–and assuming my changes are all correct when I don’t see any squiggly red Word lines.
- Engage more readers before publication. One of the main reasons you have anyone else proof your work is that your familiarity with it works against you. You always think you know what the whole paragraph says, and may skip through it without focusing. On the other hand, a new reader may be getting so engrossed in the story (hopefully!) that he or she may exit “proofing mode” at some point and miss an error. So: as many proofreaders as possible. (Even if that costs you a sale down the line!)
- What it all comes down to is cultivating a slower, more vigilant way of rereading your MS. If you assume there are always errors to be found, you’re more likely to find them. Excuses about poor Internet/email/texting concentration and bad word processing/typing skills aren’t relevant here. The point is to get your act together in service of your ideal reader.
copyright 2012 by Michael D. Smith