Editing in a writers’ group setting

From Scott:

For the next blog in our series on quality control, I’d like to discuss editing in a group setting. Writers’ groups offer a major advantage over an editing process where you, the author, are the only person who reviews your work. In this post, I will cover some of the more useful techniques that help a writer ensure a finished product is the best it can be. Whether you intend to submit your work to a publisher or an agent, or to release it on your own as a self-published ebook, editing is one of the most crucial phases of the writing process. A good editing process can take a decent book and make it great; a bad editing process can make a great book fall flat. Adding the proper group setting to your editing process will make the finished product that much better.

One effective means of editing your work is to join a writers’ group. Rick and I belong to an office at Zoetrope.com, where members submit a chapter of their work for review by other members. Critiques are offered on many fronts, including grammar, spelling, word usage, content, and character development. Having a reader look over your work will find errors you never knew you made. The problem arises from the fact that when you read your own work, your brain sees what you intended to write, not what you actually wrote. A different person won’t have that bias.

Another advantage of this process is that certain passages in your work may make perfect sense to you, being the author, but it might be confusing or unrealistic to the reader. When this is pointed out to you, often a simple correction will fix the problem. In my own books, I frequently end up splitting the main characters into two or more groups. On occasion, I will accidentally take a character from group number one and use him in group number two’s setting. No matter how many times I look it over, I might not catch it. But the readers in our office will.

If you join one of these groups, make sure you join the right group. Writers’ groups tend to run the full spectrum. On one end, you have the cheerleaders. They will do nothing but sing your praises, no matter what you post. This may be great for your ego, but it does nothing to help your writing. On the other end, you have people who live to offer nothing but harsh criticism. Not only can this lower your motivation to write, but you may be making changes for the worse. Find a group you are comfortable with, one that offers both support and helpful criticism. Don’t take that criticism personally. In a good group, the reviewers are trying to help your writing, not insult you.

Once you’ve joined, and you start posting, please remember this crucial bit of information: writers’ groups are there to help your editing process, not replace it. Rick and I have, on occasion, had to suggest to members that before they post their work in our office, they review their work first. When you post a rough draft that you have not reviewed yourself, not even once, in all likelihood it will be full of errors. Your fellow writers will begin to get irritated when you constantly post chapters, week after week, full of the same mistakes you made the week before. Another drawback to not reviewing your work first is that it will force your reviewers to focus on these simple mistakes, rather than offering a critique of your work as a whole. Remember, a strong group can offer suggestions in many areas, but their help is limited when everything you post is riddled with punctuation problems.

My technique for preparing my work to be posted is fairly simple. I take a completed chapter and read through it a few times. I want to make certain the grammar and punctuation are as solid as I can make them, so my reviewers can focus on other areas. When I think it’s ready to be posted, I let it sit for a few hours, or even for a day, before I read through it one more time. For some reason, once you’ve missed a mistake, it gets more difficult to find it each time you read through it. Another helpful technique is to read it out loud. When you verbalize your writing, you use a different area of the brain than when you read silently. You will be surprised at how many times you miss an error, but catch it the first time you read it aloud.

And don’t depend upon good ol’ Microsoft Word to catch your mistakes. I’ve found that the squiggly green, red, and blue lines can be helpful tools, but they can also make mistakes. MS Word gets confused in certain areas of grammar and may tell you something is wrong when it really isn’t. The choice between “that” and “which” is a great example. If you are uncertain, check the Chicago Manual of Style. Homonyms can also confuse MS Word at times. If you use the wrong homonym, MS Word usually underlines it in green, but not always. Or you may misspell a word, but your misspelling forms another word altogether. Sometimes, Word will underline this in blue (with MS Word 2007 or newer), but often it will miss it completely. MS Word is a helpful tool, but don’t let it be the only tool in your arsenal.

In a good critique group, a typical chapter should receive several reviews. I’ve found that there is a broad range of suggestions offered. Certain mistakes I’ve made will be mentioned by many reviewers, while others may be caught by only one. And I’ve taken many a helpful suggestion and used it to better round out my characters’ personalities. But just because someone has suggested something, don’t think that you have to act on it. This is your work. In the end, you want it in your voice. You make the final decisions on how something is worded, or how a certain character reacts to a given situation.

Once you have posted in a writers’ group, you are ready for the next step. Part of the agreement for belonging to a group is that, in exchange for the free suggestions on improving your chapter, you must now turn around and do the same for others. At first, this task may seem daunting. When I began editing other people’s work in our office, I was unsure about how to proceed. I didn’t want to come out and slam people’s efforts, but at the same time I wanted to offer helpful advice. I started out small–just concentrated mainly on grammar and spelling issues. Once I became comfortable with that, I moved on to other areas. Now I believe I offer a full range of suggestions. I try to spot problems with conflicting characterizations. In the case of science fiction and fantasy, I look for places where the writer has violated the rules he established earlier in the book. I look for areas that would make a reader step out of the story and say, “No way would that happen.” And I realize that the author has the final say, that my suggestions are just that: suggestions.

Writers’ groups have a lot to offer. Regardless of what you intend to do with your book when you have finished, it needs editing. And editing something on your own just isn’t as effective as having other people help out. Get out there and find a group. Whether it’s something local where you actually gather with the other writers, or something online, where you post your writing in a virtual office, a group can be a critical step in your editing process.


NOTE: In the next two or three posts, we’ll continue to focus on the quality control issues. Rick will also be doing a review of some of the software grammar checkers and editing programs out there.

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