Two hot tips for picking up typos in your own work

I recently published a post with an embarrassing error: who’s instead of whose.  Gasp! How did I let this happen and how can I help you avoid doing the same?

Who knows how that pesky apostrophe slipped in there in the first place? Perhaps I’d used the contraction of ‘who is’ in an earlier draft and forgot to change it, or perhaps it was my over-eager apostrophe pinkie (I tell you, that pinkie has a mind of it’s its own). Either way, I should have picked it up before I published, but I didn’t because:

1. I broke the golden rule of self-editing and published it immediately after writing it.

When I read the post a day later, the error jumped off the page. But at the time of writing I was too close to see it. I was also impatient to get it posted and get on with the next thing. If it’s something important, always give yourself a little space before hitting send, submit or publish. This helps not only to pick up bloopers, but also to get a feel for whether the writing is communicating exactly what you want it to. I nearly always find little tweaks to improve my message when I return after a break.

2. I read it about a gazillion times to see if I liked the tone and flow, I even read it out aloud, but I didn’t actually PROOFREAD it.

Proofreading is a whole other style of reading.

You       need      to      look       closely      at     every     single      word.

Our brains are very good at joining words up without seeing all the letters. To stop your eye running ahead, try the proofreader’s trick of holding a ruler or piece of paper under the line you are reading, or pointing at each word with your pen. I guarantee that one slow and careful read using either of these techniques will pick up more errors than reading it over and over. (I have tested this with my proofreading students – about 80% pick up something they’d missed just reading it normally.)

So my tip of the day, give yourself time to come back to a piece to review it, and do one slow and careful proofread before publishing, sending or submitting.

And why the picture of the pool? Well lucky me, this is my local, and it’s often where I go for a few laps between finishing a job and submitting it.


You’ve written your first draft. Now what?

Woo hoo! You did it! The first thing to do is feel super smug and a wee bit proud (or should that be the other way round?) Either way, not everyone gets that far, but YOU HAVE.

Once the euphoria and the effects of the celebratory chocolate/champagne/insert-treat-of-choice binge have worn off, it’s time to plot the next step.

Unless you are some kind of genius magic writing-robot, your first draft will probably be overwritten and underdeveloped. The next step is to identify where it needs work. Here’s my recommendation.

  1. Wait at least a week before you look at it again. Preferably a few weeks. You are so close to it you won’t be able to see it properly without a break.
  1. Format your manuscript with generous margins and at least 1.5 spacing. Either print it out or save it in a format that can be annotated on a tablet (I use Goodnotes). If you don’t have a printer or a tablet, invest the $15 or so to print it at your local stationers, it’ll be worth it.
  1. Set aside a good chunk of time – at least one and a half hours – to start reading it. Chose a quiet comfortable place where you won’t be interrupted (bed, the library, the park). Turn off your phone and/or any notifications on your tablet. You need to have maximum focus to get as close to the first-read experience as possible.
  1. When you find bits that need work, circle them, make a note in the margin, then move on. If you get a brainwave, make a note and move on. Working like this will give you an overview of your book. It’s too easy to get lost in the detail when you are working on your computer; working on paper/tablet helps you see the big picture.
  1. Keep with this focussed reading pattern until you’re finished. Resist temptation to dive into the manuscript and fiddle. It’s not going to help. Trust your memory and your notes; they are going to help you decide what to do next once you’ve finished your appraisal.
  1. When you are finished reading, note down the jobs that need doing. For example, did you discover a subplot petered out half way through? Do you need to review your turning points? Are the stakes not high enough for your protagonist? Decide which of these you are going to tackle first.
  1. Congratulations, you are about to launch into your second draft. And you have a plan!

This is just one approach. What tips do you have for approaching the second draft?


Editors are not arbiters of taste

My reading tastes have changed over the years. I like to think it’s because I’m an adventurous reader constantly stretching my boundaries, but it’s more likely that I am easily swayed by marketing trends and literary fashion.

In the nineties I was crazy for expansive meandering literature, which was lucky since there was so much of it about – Jeanette Winterson, Isabelle Allende, Gabriel Garcia Marquez to name a few. I can’t be bothered with all that pondering now, I prefer my prose stripped back and economical, not in a super-dry Carveresque way, but a beautifully crafted style that tells just as much as I need to know.

Why am I telling you this? Because I have to be aware of my tastes and make sure I don’t impose them on the writers I work with. It’s also important that I have a good handle on the genre or style of their writing. I usually ask a writer what books they would like theirs to sit next in a bookshelf. If they name a book or author I don’t know, I’ll read at least a few chapters to get a feel for what they are aiming for, or are inspired by.

Editing is not about imposing tastes, it’s about helping the book fulfill its potential, and making sure it’s right for its readers. The editor is on your team.

Beware the dangling modifier

As an editor, I see dangling modifiers everywhere.

If you don’t know what that means, let’s break it down so you can get maximum word-nerd cred.

What is a modifier?

As an editor, I see dangling modifiers everywhere.

‘As an editor’ is the modifier. It’s modifying ‘I’ by giving some extra information.

And a dangling modifier?

As an editing teacher, my students love it when I explain dangling modifiers.

‘As an editing teacher’ is the modifier, but what is it modifying? The students? No. It’s ‘dangling’ because it’s not modifying anything.

Here’s another version that I see all the time.

Sitting down, the couch was really comfortable.

‘Sitting down’ is the modifier, but the couch didn’t sit down, so what’s ‘sitting down’ modifying?

How to correct:

There’s no one quick fix; it depends on each instance. Here are some options.

Cut the modifier if it’s not needed:
My editing students love it when I teach them about dangling modifiers.
(See how I slipped the information about their being editing students into the sentence so I could cut the information about my being an editing teacher?)

Add whatever’s being modified:
Sitting down, she found the couch really comfortable.

Think outside the box:
She sank into the comfortable couch.

And a correction for the dangling modifier in the picture? How about – Because you are a valued member, Vision Super is here to help.

There are also squinting and misplaced modifiers. Curious? Here’s a post I prepared earlier.


their being editing students OR them being editing students?

Technically ‘their’ is correct, as ‘being’ is a gerund (verb acting as a noun), but this kind of gerund construction is going out of fashion. ‘Them’ would be acceptable and easier on the ear, but I just can’t bring myself to do it given this is a mini grammar lesson and I’m supposed to be coming over all brainiac in that department. Am I being a stuck-in-the-mud?


This week I’m in love with … Katherine Brabon & Laurie Anderson

No matter whether the photographs were of carefree young faces or haggard
images taken by police, they all seemed to hold the weight of what was to come.
The perfect epitome of the fiction of time, all prior innocence lost…

Katherine Brabon, The Memory Artist

Like many great novels, The Memory Artist took a while to draw me in. As with Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, I can’t pinpoint the moment when I shifted from not being sure if I would finish it, to never wanting it to finish. Not only is the writing exquisite, but also its topic is timely as democracy in America seems to be reinventing itself into some form of democratic totalitarianism in which the government wants to control the ‘facts’.

Laurie Anderson’s wry meditations and observations of US culture are a neat fit. I’ve been binging on Big Science this week, which is as fresh and exciting as when I finally collected it from the record shop (after having it on order for about six weeks) in 1983.

This has always been my favourite, both thematically and musically. See what you think.

Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 tips for writing short story

I came across this sage advice when I was preparing for a story-coaching session with a short story writer who is a Kurt Vonnegut fan.

I think point 7 is my favourite, with 8 coming a close second.

The writing in the clip is a little blurry,  but there’s something so great about his droll tone that I felt compelled to share it. (With thanks to who ever it was that first gifted this to the internet.)


  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things–reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them–in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.