Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Finding Mistakes in a Haystack of Words

In the process of revising a manuscript I went through a list of commonly confused words, searching for each one in my manuscript to verify that I had used the word correctly. I skipped a few, such as to and too, simply because there are too many of them. And some of the words didn’t appear in my manuscript at all. Overall, it was a helpful activity because even though it didn’t find that many mistakes, it did find some that I could’ve easily overlooked while reading through the manuscript. And since Word 2010 lists each word it finds along with some of the context, it doesn’t take that long to move through the list. There were about a hundred words or so and I managed to get through the list is a few hours.

My most frequently confused words are where and were. It isn’t that I don’t know the difference, but I think it is a case of a lazy finger. I found a number of occurrences where I had used the word were when I should’ve used where or vice versa. Consider the statement, “He wanted to know where you where.” It is obviously wrong, but why doesn’t the grammar checker pick it up? Maybe it doesn’t matter why it doesn’t pick it up, but it doesn’t and that means that we have to check it manually.

The where/were pair is one that I particularly wanted to check, even though it meant checking about 275 individual sentences. It is that particular pairing that my mother mentioned having seen in one of my books. She saw it as a minor problem, but it made me sick. I knew there were problems, but I wondered, if she had noticed that problem, how big the iceberg under it was. In a way, I suppose it is good that I found so many instances of confusion in my manuscript for that pair. It would seem that the where/were mistake is the one that is most likely to slip through in my writing. There may not be a large iceberg under the surface. Where/were may be the iceberg.

Of course, there are other potential mistakes that I’m still trying to find an easy way to find. The brute force method is always to read through the manuscript and hope you spot them. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work. I occasionally spot where I’ve interchanged words like it and if or me and my. The ones I really hate are when I interchange he and she. It is unlikely that the grammar checker will ever be very accurate at checking for that one. It has no way of knowing which we mean. I suppose we could always use the person’s name and then go back later to substitute the correct personal pronoun, but I think that would hinder the creative process. The process of searching for each occurrence and verifying correctness is quite daunting. We can expect to find 2,500 occurrences of he or she in a manuscript and that doesn’t count things like his and her. With that many occurrences, searching the manuscript gives us no better results and reading line by line and hoping we spot the mistakes.

Some time ago, I asked Rachelle Gardner how to spot these types of mistakes. As some of you know, before Rachelle took up agenting, she was an editor. Her answer was to hire a good editor. I kind of took that to mean she didn’t have a good answer either. And the thing is that some people are just better at spotting those things than others, but authors can’t afford to hire editors. Some do, but it’s not a good business decision. On top of that, what I’ve seen from editors is that many of them will edit the first several pages and spot edit the rest. They’ll point out a problem and say, “This occurs in multiple places, so it needs to be corrected in the rest of the manuscript.” But, they don’t actually mark the rest of the occurrences. That would be useless with problems like these.

What can I say? I’m still trying to improve my editing process. I think I’m getting better with each book and some of the features in Word 2010 are a great help, but I’m a long way from thinking I’ll every have a book that doesn’t have a few mistakes.