Friday, October 6, 2017

The Final Read-through, by Susan Oleksiw

When I begin writing a new novel or short story I feel a suppressed excitement, anticipating the pleasure of watching the story and characters unfold on the page. This sensation soon fades because I’m lost in writing scene after scene, struggling over the right expression, and discovering aspects of the characters I hadn’t expected.

After the first draft is done, I begin rewriting and editing. This is the real work—sometimes a slash and burn experience, and sometimes a line by line redo of something I thought was almost half way finished. I do five or six, sometimes more, drafts. I compose on the computer, but I print out each draft, working on hard copy. Yes, that’s a lot of paper. But I see on paper things I don’t see on the screen. And then comes the final read-through.

I know I’ve reached the last stage when my rewriting of a draft means more tinkering than improving. I don’t discover a missing scene, find two characters who should be combined into one, or change my mind about the villain—or the victim. But this does not mean all is well. Sometimes I find that after focusing intently on each brick and door frame and window pane I’ve messed up the design of the total structure. Perhaps this can be easily fixed, perhaps not. But whatever the state, it means more work. This is not the final read-through.

The final read-through is challenging in a different way. During this last step I am looking for problems but I should not find any. This is when I change a word or two—as a matter of personal preference rather than correcting an error—ponder the occasional comma I might remove or add, and check to make sure I haven’t changed a character’s name or eye color halfway through. I expect the manuscript to be polished and the reading to be fluid and consistent.

This sounds like a wonderful stage to reach, and it is. But there is a danger, and that is that by not finding anything to slow me down, I will begin to read faster and faster, too fast to pick up on little slips—to for too, effect for affect, a misspelling of a character’s last name, and the like. This stage is not copyediting—that should have been done in the previous reading.

It’s hard to read slowly when most of us have been trained to read rapidly, perhaps even to speed read. But some years ago, when I was a free-lance editor, I learned a trick that has served me well. We do not read each letter in every word. Instead, we read by the shapes of words, and the faster we read, the more likely we are to read by the shape of the top of the line of letters and then words. Indeed, if you block out the lower half of the letters on a line, most of us can read the line just as clearly.

When I feel my eyes lifting from the line and skimming across the tops of words, I stop reading and turn back a page. Awareness follows action, so I make the safe assumption that I began reading by the shape of words earlier than when I first noticed it. This practice ensures I’ll read slowly enough to stay centered in the story, aware of the entire sentence, and catch any goofs or errors so obvious that my mind wants to correct them automatically.

I do the same with short fiction, but I also read short stories aloud. If I’m unsure of a particular chapter in a novel, I’ll read that aloud also. In some cases I’ve read all the individual chapters of a novel aloud but not necessarily in sequence or all at one sitting.

As proofreaders know, you can’t hurry a careful, attentive reading without missing something. The goal is to make the manuscript as error-free as possible. The natural rate of error for human endeavors is 2 percent (a librarian told me that). That would be 1,640 errors (typos, usually, but also spacing and the like) in an 82,000 word manuscript. Almost every writer I know would be appalled at that figure. Which tells me that most of us have figured out how to see what the brain doesn’t want to see, and fix more than is expected of us as human beings. Perhaps that’s why we’re writers.

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Jacqueline Seewald said...

Your method of proof-reading is very professional. It's also good advice for other writers. I always seem to find something that I missed myself. Careful reading is so important.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Thanks, Jacquie. Sometimes I think the final read-through is the hardest part. It requires a different kind of discipling.

Anonymous said...

". . . proofreading" doesn't have a hyphen in either American or British English. ". . . discipling" is a typo. I mention these not to be snarky, but to try to emphasize the importance of the final read-through. In forums like this, we commit goofs like these all the time--I know I do--and we often don't bother to correct them even if we see them in this loosey-goosey setting. In manuscripts' final pre-submission revisions, though, these things, or more accurately their absence, signify professional-grade writing. Thanks for the post.

Dan Persinger

Susan Oleksiw said...

Thanks for the careful reading, Dan.

Terry Odell said...

I discovered a way for Word to read the manuscript aloud which gives the dual benefit of hearing the work and bypassing the "reading too fast" issue, as well as the "seeing what you expect" after so many times through the manuscript. They've improved the voice so it's not so robotic, and the computer doesn't miss anything.

Debra H. Goldstein said...

Good points! Somehow I think my error rate is closer to what the librarians predict .....

Susan Oleksiw said...

Thanks for the suggestion, Terry. I've thought about using a read-aloud program and worry that my mind will wander. I don't enjoy audiobooks for that reason, but I'll look into the Word program. It sounds doable.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Debra, I take comfort in knowing that we're all probably batting better than the average player. 2 percent sounds low, until you see the number.

Carole Price said...

Excellent blog. I also prefer reading from a paper than my computer screen. Better to capture emotions of the character right off the page.

Mary F. Schoenecker Writes said...

You are very,very thorough,Susan. A very helpful blog.

Brenda Buchanan said...

Thoughtful post, as ever. Thank you, Susan. I'm at this stage with my current mss, and will heed your words.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Thank you, Carole and Mary and Brenda. I'm glad to know my posts are useful. I'm never sure, so I appreciate your comments.

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