Wednesday, 27 August 2014

How to Use Reader Feedback to Improve Your Writing

by Carla Douglas and Corina Koch MacLeod
@CarlaJDouglas  @CKmacleodwriter
This post originally appeared on May 28, 2014 at The Book Designer.

Self-pubs: Your readers are trying to tell you something. Here’s how to get the most from what they’re saying.

I know I need to edit my book, but I don’t know where to begin. — Indie Author


Step 1: Start with the Reader


We hear this comment frequently from self-publishing authors. Completing a book-length work is exhausting, and the last thing you want to hear when you finish your first draft is that you need to start again, this time with revisions.

You might not realize it, but the place to begin is right in front of you — it’s the reader you’ve had in mind since you began your first draft. That reader is talking to you, and if you can figure out exactly what he’s saying, he can act as your guide in the revision, or self-editing, process.

As Hugh Howey says, “Indie authors are maniacally focused on the reader … Indie authors are doing well because they know it’s all about the reader…. It’s the reader, stupid.”

So start with the reader — the reader can direct you to the problem spots in your work, if only you’ll listen. Not only that, but careful attention to what the reader is telling you can help you improve your writing.

Where do you find readers? Well, there are your beta readers, and there are reviewers. Both are giving you feedback about your work. If you’re about to publish a book, you’ll have beta reader comments to work from. If you’ve published a book already, then you might also have reviews to scour for information.

Finally, if you haven’t previously published a book and you don’t have beta readers yet for your current work, don’t despair. You can read others’ reviews … and learn from their mistakes!

The point is, the information is out there. But you need to learn how to use it.

Step 2: Do Things in the Right Order

The Editing Continuum


In her book, The Indie Author’s Guide to Book Editing, Sarah Kolb-Williams points out that the order of things matters. A big-picture edit, for example, needs to happen before a word-level edit. In other words, when you’re at the beginning of the editing process, typos should be the least of your concerns.

We said something similar in a previous post: order matters, and as you begin the editing process, you’ll save yourself time and endless frustration if you keep this order in mind:

Big-picture —> Paragraph level —> Sentence level —> Word level

If it helps, try thinking of the editing continuum as something similar to the order of operations in arithmetic. If you perform addition and subtraction before addressing division and multiplication, you’ll end up with a meaningless jumble. Similarly, if you attend to spelling and punctuation or dialogue and characterization before you’ve resolved issues in the plot, your results will be disappointing at best.  

Recap:

1. Focus on the reader and what he says he likes about a book—and pay special attention to what he doesn’t like.

2. Order matters (see above). Don’t even think about correcting typos until you’ve got your big-picture and paragraph level ducks in a row.

Keeping these two items in mind will position you to use valuable reader feedback to your best advantage.

Step 3: Use Reviews to Improve Your Writing

Interpreting Reviews


At last, you’re ready to apply feedback to your manuscript. This is the hard part. You know where to find feedback and you know the order of revisions. We can hear you asking, “What now?”

When beta readers, readers, reviewers and editors—editors are readers, too!—offer constructive feedback, what are they actually telling you, and how can you use that information to improve your writing?

It’s possible to read what reviewers say and figure out what kind of attention your manuscript needs. Situating your manuscript on the editing continuum will also help you to determine the order in which to address things.

We searched through reviews on Amazon for examples of constructive feedback. Readers won’t necessarily tell you that you need to focus your attention on in a big-picture edit, for example, but they may suggest it. The table below interprets examples of reader feedback, so that you can see how you might identify what you need to improve on.

Once you know what readers are telling you, you can do something about it. The Google search engine is your friend, here. There is lots of great information about the craft of writing fiction on the internet. In the right column of the table, we’ve suggested some search terms you can use to find information that will help you.



*Note: As we searched the Amazon reviews for examples of the four levels of editing, we encountered surprisingly few references to typos and spelling errors. This wasn’t the case even a year ago, when comments about careless proofreading were frequent. As we’ve said before, the landscape is changing—self-publishing authors are listening, and they’re taking measures to produce professional, polished books.

How to Use this Information


You’ve received some great reader feedback, or you’ve found reviews of others’ work that might also apply to yours. And, after identifying the trouble spots in your writing, you’ve found relevant resources to help you sort things out in your manuscript.

You’re on your way.

But making revisions is slow and difficult work—don’t try to rush things. Acknowledge that your book will take time to develop, and your attention to detail now will pay off later. Keep in mind, too, that integrating all this information is complex, and it may take more than one try to get it right.

Tackle items one item at a time in an order that makes sense—straighten out the plot and fill in the holes, for example, then address pacing. Through experience and practice you’ll learn that you can’t achieve the pace that will keep a reader engaged unless you dismantle all the infodumps standing in the way.

Yes, there’s a lot to learn and it’s hard work, but if you listen to what readers are telling you, you’ll become more aware of your writing strengths and weaknesses, and ultimately, you’ll also become a better writer.

Image by Found Animals Foundation

Related Links

How to Improve Your Writing With Macros: Tips for Beginners
3 Ways to Pare Down Your Prose
5 Things Editors Know About Readers
How to Get Helpful Feedback from Beta Readers

Thursday, 21 August 2014

8 Proofreading Tools for Beta Readers

FeedbackBy C.K. MacLeod
@CKmacleodwriter

This post originally appeared on August 14, 2014, at Tech Tools for Writers.

Many self-publishing authors use beta readers to get feedback on a book before publication. You don't have to work on paper; you can use a computer or a tablet to "mark up" or make notes on an author's manuscript. Below is a list of tools for beta readers. An author may send you a manuscript in a variety of formats, so I've included options for several file formats.

File Formats

Sometimes it will make sense to convert the author's file to another format. Many of the proofreading tools below will read PDFs. You can save an .rtf, .doc, or .docx file as a PDF with Microsoft Word or WPS Writer (free). If you have a stylus for your tablet, you may be able to mark up text like you would on paper. This table will tell you which tool will read which file format. I summarize the features of the tools below.  

Tablet Apps

Adobe Reader (free)

  • Reads PDF files
  • Available for Android and iOS
  • In-text highlights, strikethroughs, and comments
  • Drawing tools for mark-up
  • Works well with a stylus
  • Search function, so you can search all instances of an error

iAnnotate

  • Reads PDF files
  • Available for Android (free) and iOS ($9.99)
  • In-text highlights, strikethroughs and comments
  • Drawing tools for mark-up
  • Works well with a stylus

WPS Writer (free)

  • Part of the WPS Office suite
  • Available for Android and iOS tablets and phones
  • Reads .doc and .docx files
  • Track changes
  • Comments
  • Find and replace
  • Voice search
  • Syncs with desktop version so you can alternately work on a computer and a tablet

Computer Apps

WPS Writer (free and paid)

  • Part of the WPS Office suite
  • Reads .doc, .docx and .rtf files
  • Track changes
  • Comments
  • Robust find and replace
  • Wildcards
  • Pro version can run proofreading macros
  • Syncs with the tablet app version so you can alternately work on a computer and a tablet

Adobe Reader XI (free)

  • Reads PDFs
  • Used by professional proofreaders
  • Drawing tools for mark-up
  • Allows you to load PDF stamps into the software (see below), so you can mark a variety of proofreading errors with symbols instead of with comments
  • In-text highlights, strikethroughs and comments
  • Robust search function
  • Read-aloud feature so you can listen for mistakes that your eyes might miss

PDF XChange Viewer (free)

  • Reads PDFs
  • Used by professional proofreaders
  • Drawing tools for mark-up
  • Allows you to load PDF stamps into the software
  • In-text highlights, strikethroughs and comments
  • Robust search function

Adobe Digital Editions

  • Reads epubs
  • Use ADE if the book has already been professionally formatted for e-readers
  • It's not possible to mark up in ADE, but you can copy sections of text into a word processor and mark up the changes there—procedure explained by Rob at 52 Novels

Kindle E-ink Readers and Apps

  • Reads mobi files
  • Use this method if the book has already been professionally formatted for Kindle e-readers and apps
  • Highlights
  • Notes
  • A bit clunky—see How to Proofread on a Kindle for the procedure

App or Desktop Version?

Computer software tends to have more robust search functions than tablet apps, but it can take a while to figure out how to use the drawing tools to mark up the text with a mouse. Proofreading stamps are a shorthand for proofreading errors, and tend to make the proofreading process faster. Use them if the author knows what they mean (or provide the author with a glossary of symbols, if you like). Note: As far as I know, stamps tend to only work in the desktop versions of proofreading software.


Proofreading stamps
My stamp library; blue stamps by Adrienne Montgomerie

If you want to imitate the pros, you can import* proofreading stamps into your proofreading software or design your own. Louise Harnby of the Proofreading Parlour offers a collection of British proofreading stamps for free, and you can find American proofreading stamps on the Wiley Publishing website. Do you have a favourite proofreading tool not listed here? Tell us about it in the comments below.

*To learn how to import proofreading stamps into Adobe Reader XI or design your own, see this video by Adrienne Montgomerie.

Image by Alan Levine

Related Posts
How to Proofread Your Book Like a Pro, Part 1
How to Proofread Like a Pro, Part 2: Checking Your Formatting
How to Proofread on a Kindle
How to Check Your Ebook Using Kindle Previewer

Thursday, 14 August 2014

How to Turn Your Print Book into a Digital File

by Carla Douglas
@CarlaJDouglas
My grandmother's typewriter: an Underwood Noiseless Portable

OCR—not your grandmother’s typewriter!

A few weeks ago I suggested that you could turn your essays, stories and other documents—stuff you might have lying around in a drawer—into ebooks. You also may have unpublished or previously published books, now out of print, that you want to self-publish as ebooks (be certain you own the rights).

You can do this yourself, but first you need to get this material into a digital format. One way is to re-key the text manually (not really an option if you have a book-length work) or you can use optical character recognition (OCR) software, which converts a scanned document into a digital file.

There are many OCR programs available, ranging in price from free to fairly costly. I chose OCRonline to experiment with. It’s web-based, and your first 5 page conversions are free. After that, they’re 4 cents per page. Simply open an account and log in, then follow the instructions.

1. Scan your document and save it as a pdf. The photo at the top of the page? That’s my grandmother’s typewriter. She was a prolific correspondent, and I’m currently digitizing a collection of her letters. Here’s a snippet of one, dated March 13th, 1944:


Tip: Be sure to scan all pages into a single document, or you’ll be stuck (as I was) with multiple separate files that have to be compiled later.

2. Upload your scanned file.  Browse >> Upload



3. Convert your scanned file to MS Word .doc (no .docx option) >>Process



4. Retrieve your converted file at the link provided.
Here’s what my converted snippet looks like:


That’s it! As you can see, the Word file is littered with debris and some ugly bits, but you’re well on your way to having an editable, searchable file, suitable for formatting as an ebook. So go ahead—open your drawer...

Next: File cleanup.

Photo by Carla Douglas


Related Posts

A Quick Guide to Writing Short—Part 1: Fiction
A Quick Guide to Writing Short—Part 2: Nonfiction
Why Editors Use Word—Authors Can Harness Word's Powers, Too!
Scan, OCR and Restore BackList Books, by JW Manus

Thursday, 7 August 2014

3 Ways to Pare Down Your Prose

 by Corina Koch MacLeod
@CKmacleodwriter

Ebooks are wonderful because you don't have to write them to a prescribed length—you can stop writing when your story is done. This isn't true for every kind of writing, though. If you're writing a magazine or journal article, you may find that your writing needs to fit within certain space restrictions.

Recently, a PhD student came to us at Beyond Paper with this very challenge. She needed to pare down her prose. If you're writing nonfiction—particularly academic nonfiction—here are three editor's tricks for reducing your word count:

1. Omit needless words and phrases.

Authors often use phrases such as "due to the fact that" or "in order to" like condiments (hey, we all do it). Often, your meaning won't change if you trim these phrases. For example, "in order to" can become "to." Refer to this article by Christina Thompson for a list of the worst offenders and some solutions for fixing them.

Authors also pepper their prose with filler words. If you use Microsoft Word or WPS Writer (free), you can run the NeedlessWords macro from Tech Tools for Writers on your writing, and the macro will highlight potentially unnecessary words. This 20-Minute Macro Course will have you up and running with Macros in no time, and this macros for beginners post by Carla Douglas offers suggestions for what to do with those highlighted words. You can try the lyWords macro to delete unnecessary adverbs, too.

If you haven't pared down your prose significantly by now, read on...

2. Decide if figures and tables are essential.

Our PhD student discovered that some academic journals will count each figure (diagram) as 250 words. It's tempting to add figures because they're like pictures, in that they're tiny oases in the expansive desert of unbroken text. However, if you're writing to a word count, or you have file size limitations (and you will with ebooks, too), resist decorating your prose with images and figures. If the reader can understand your meaning without a figure, leave it out. If the figure is essential to the text's meaning, and it adds new information or clarifies a concept, keep it. Use images judiciously, and be sure that you have a good reason to include them.

Here's another tip...

While writing a first draft, I often insert placeholders for images I think I'll need. For example:

[Insert image of porcupine walking a tightrope here.]

Later, when I've inserted the image, I sometimes find that my explanation preceding the image can be pared down as the image, in many ways, speaks for itself. Images, with the addition of well-chosen captions, often bring their own meaning to the reading experience, so don't be afraid to trim the lead-in text.

3. Insert a hyperlink.

Does the figure or table live somewhere online? If the figure is a nice-to-have instead of a need-to-have, consider adding a hyperlink in place of the figure. Only do this with nonessential figures, though. You don't want readers going off-text or off-book in search of an image, figure, or table that is necessary for understanding the text.

There are many more ways to pare down text, but these three ways will have your manuscript looking trim in no time.

Image by Zechariah Judy


Related Posts
How to Improve Your Writing with Macros: Tips for Beginners

Thursday, 31 July 2014

How to Improve Your Writing with Macros—Tips for Beginners

by Carla Douglas
@CarlaJDouglas
Paring down your prose is immensely satisfying—it makes images and turns of phrase come alive, and it helps clarify your meaning, too.

Finding ways to trim what you’ve written is drudgery, but macros can help you by automating part of this process. In her post a couple of weeks ago, Corina mentioned three macros that are especially helpful to writers: NeedlessWords, TellingWords, and -ly Words.

Get a snapshot of your writing habits

These macros locate and highlight potential offenders—words that clutter your writing and cloud your meaning. They’re easy to use and can be adapted and tweaked to suit your task. I love them because they provide a rudimentary data visualization of your personal writing ticks: they show (don’t tell!) you exactly where your bad habits reside.

Give them a try—if you need  help adding a macro to Word, you’ll find it here. To run a macro in Word, you’ll find instructions here. If you have 20 minutes to spare, this free 20-minute macro course will have you up and running with macros in no time.

What to do with highlighted text

So, you’ve run the macro and all the possible culprits are magically revealed on the screen before you. What’s next?

The macros have done their part—now you have to apply your own sweat. You need to look at the highlighted words and assess them, one by one. Here’s a preview of what your decision-making process might look like for the three macros I’ve mentioned.

NeedlessWords

Needless words are the words you can eliminate without changing your meaning. Words like that, which, to, in order, really, very, barely—in short, many prepositions, adverbs and adjectives—that stand in the way of what you’re trying to say.


Which words are needless?

In this sample text, you can easily see which words could go and which need to stay. I need to keep begin but can do without then, almost, just and just. (Who knew that I just love the word just?) These words cause drag in the writing: they qualify, delay and postpone the point I’m trying to make.

The other highlighted words need to stay to make the sentences they’re in grammatical. The macro can’t identify what part of speech a word is acting as—that’s your job.

-ly Words

The -ly words can be a pox on your dialogue: “He said sadly,” “she replied enthusiastically,” “they chirped boisterously.” And when you’re trying to bang out a quick first draft, these adverbs appear fast and furious, both in your dialogue and in straight narrative. Here are two sample passages with some -ly words highlighted:


Adverbs are almost always optional, as are those in this short passage. They’re not strictly needed, but they might function in ways that aren’t obvious—by adding texture to the narrative voice, for example.

The -ly words in the sample below, however, should be zapped. Adding adverbs to dialogue tags almost always results in flat, inanimate speech.


TellingWords

Telling words are different than needless words and -ly words—they provide a broader diagnosis. A cluster of these words is a symptom that you might be doing a lot of telling, and eliminating them one by one won’t solve your problem. Here’s an example:


Telling words appear most often in narrative passages, in which writers are trying to fill in story gaps or provide background information. The telling words macro can act as a red flag: if you see too many telling words, ask yourself if the narrative has become boring or flat. And if it has? This could be a good place to switch to dialogue.

What stage of writing is best for using a macro?

Most writers actively suppress their inner editor during a draft, and plenty of writing advice also recommends writing a first draft quickly and paying little attention to details like word choice. Writing macros come in handy at the end of this stage, and point to areas that will need more attention.

You can also run a writing macro when you’ve completed two or three chapters, to point out some of your writing habits. And they’re also useful in later stages, if you’re trying to reduce your word count. In other words, run them any time you want an objective snapshot of your style and habits.

Finally, many of the words targeted by these macros are needed, but maybe they are not needed as often as you think! Rhythm, pacing, tone, voice—these aspects of your writing make it distinctive and interesting, and you don’t want to strip that away for the sake of efficiency. And whether a word should be excised also depends on your audience, subject, genre and purpose.

Macros won’t fix your writing. That’s up to you. What they will do is point out what you should be thinking about—they’ll help you switch off autopilot, and that’s an enormous first step.

Image by ProAdventure

Related Posts