Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Writer Wednesday: Minimizing Mistakes

Vicki Essex joins The Pink Heart Society for Writer Wednesday. Her topic: Minimizing Mistakes—A How-To from a Harlequin Proofreader and Author

As writers, we naturally think we’re pretty good at spelling, grammar and punctuation. So when we see a mistake in a published book, it jumps off the page and slaps us in the face.

Having walked both sides as a proofreader at Harlequin Enterprises and an author, I know how easily mistakes slip through. And I don’t mean just typos or missing commas; I mean big things, like changing eye color, continuity and timelines, heck, even names of main characters.

In the throes of writer’s passion, and in the grueling editing process that follows, it’s easy to forget about things like what a character was wearing three pages ago. Your job is to tell the story, after all, not worry about whether your hero’s eyes are blue or green. (They can be both, right?)

Of course, it does matter: because someone notices when you’re wrong.

So, what’s a writer to do? How do you minimize errors?

Here are a few tips.

1. Make up a character list. Every time you introduce a new character, place or proper noun (company names, restaurants, fictional towns, etc.) write it down and stick to that spelling and case. There’s nothing more frustrating for a proofreader than seeing Philip Gunterson spelled Phillip Gunderson or Filip Gunteron later on in the book.

2. List out your main characters’ vital stats. Many authors use character profiles to outline their characters’ every attribute, and while I don’t necessarily want to write down every last detail, keeping certain things straight can save you gray hairs later. For your hero and heroine, make sure you know their age, birthday, eye color, hair color, height, weight, birthplace, where they went to school and whatever other details you think will pop up more than once. If your book is part of a series, keep all those profiles together to form your series bible. Reoccurring characters should also have vital stats.

3. Make a calendar of events. Use a calendar in either a spreadsheet or a word processing template to list out four-week months so you can show day-to-day, week-to-week the major events in your plot. That way, if you resort to writing something like “Last week,” or “Ten days ago,” you’ll know exactly when something happened. If your timeline is in hours or days rather than weeks, months or years, do the same thing. All this will give you a sense of how long characters have to mull over things, as well. Time is tension, so it’s important to keep track of it.

4. Use a map. If your setting is fictional, draw a map and mark where all your important venues are. If you’re using a real place, refer to an updated map and do the same. Use Google Maps or some other travel program to ensure your drive times and routes are accurate, as well. Because there’s always that one reader who will read an incorrect statement and say, “Wait a minute, Main Street doesn’t go east-west…” Google Street View is another handy tool to use to verify geography.

5. Use spell check. You can’t always trust it, but it will catch a lot of surface errors that are easy to miss with the human eye.

6. Get fresh eyes. Fresh eyes are worth their weight in gold. A critique partner or beta reader will point out weird words, mixed metaphors, odd phrasing and spelling errors you may have passed over dozens of times. If no one will look your work over, give yourself a week off from then go back and read your manuscript chapter by chapter backward, starting with your last chapter. This will keep you focused on each word and sentence rather than the flow of the story.

While you’ll want polish your manuscript to a high gloss before you send it out, don’t despair over a single typo you miss and resend based on that. One typo shouldn’t send your manuscript to the reject pile. A dozen or a hundred of them, however…well, let’s just say at that point, you might want to consider hiring a professional.

Vicki Essex is a proofreader (which is different from an editor and a copy editor) at Harlequin Enterprises by day and a romance author by other parts of the day. Her debut novel, Her Son’s Hero, will be on shelves in July from Harlequin Superromance.

Unacceptable. Fiona MacAvery works very hard to help her son find nonviolent ways to protect himself from the bullying he can't seem to avoid. She's never believed in violence. Then along comes mixed martial arts champ Dominic Payette, and that's who her son turns to for guidance?

Dom clearly has a heart under all those…gorgeous…muscles, but there are shadows, too. He's fighting his way back toward a champion belt after putting an opponent in a coma. Fiona admires his dedication. She even admits that he's shown her son how to be more confident. But act on this attraction between them? There's no way she's letting her guard down!


  1. Hi Vicki, these are great tips.

    When I worked at a newspaper we were told "you can't proofread what you wrote". Your eyes will see what they expect to see, so you really do need fresh eyes to read it.

    Congratulations on your debut novel.

  2. Brilliant advice. I will keep these tips, I love them. Thanks Vicki.