As a somewhat compulsive reviewer – with lots & lots of reviews at Amazon.com – I read (or at least start reading) several books every week. For me, it’s relaxing and I enjoy writing reviews.
But now, perhaps in “physician, heal thyself” mode, I need to talk about the quality of writing in some books I download to my Kindle reader.
See, in my book about fast nonfiction, I said that content was more important than being finicky about editing and proofreading.
The success of many of my own books – that were published despite being first drafts – proved that my readers want facts.
The more data and trivia I can provide, especially while the topic is trending, the better.
That’s still true. But now, competition can be steeper. I need to revise and update my “write fast books” book. Above all, I need to recommend taking an extra day or two to fix the most glaring problems.
While I’m editing that book, the following advice may help fast nonfiction authors. It goes double if you’re publishing fiction.
No excuse for terrible grammar or typos
If your readers see errors in the “look inside” part of your book, they won’t buy or borrow it.
If they get halfway through the book and put it down because the typos or grammar glitches are too annoying, you’ll get one-star reviews.
Spend a little extra time fixing the worst problems that leap off the pages of your book.
Most word processors, including free ones like OpenOffice and LibreOffice, include spellcheckers (and sometimes grammar checkers) that catch far more mistakes than they used to, even two or three years ago.
For free editing, the Hemingway Editor (formerly called “the Hemingway app”) was one of the first free, online editing tools. It’ll highlight the text that really needs improvement. (It will also highlight a few things that are fine, as-is, unless you’re writing a dissertation for your Literature or English degree.)
Note: The free, online version can require a lot of tedious cut-and-paste, and it doesn’t seem as precise as the paid/desktop version that I own… but rarely use, now.
Then there’s Grammarly. I’ve used it and liked it. They have a free version. It can be good enough for most writing projects. Add it to Chrome and then write in Google Docs, and it’ll identify your worst writing blunders. It’s more finicky – but also more helpful – than Hemingway Editor.
About a year ago, I started using (and absolutely love) ProWritingAid. Like Hemingway Editor, ProWritingAid offers a free, online version.
For me, it’s the next best thing to hiring an editor. And, since I use their Premium edition, it interacts with Scrivener.
Their customer support is personal, and run by the team that created the software. They respond quickly.
So, ProWritingAid is easily my top recommendation. I can choose how finicky I want to be. If I’m rushing through a topical nonfiction book, I can decide what kinds of grammar errors I want to fix… and skip the rest.
In other words, I don’t fix everything they flag as bad grammar. Don’t feel as if you have to, either.
It saves me time. It helps me polish my work. I love it. Try the free, online version and see if it works well for you, too.
Ghostwriters can be great… or terrible
Sometimes, I read a book and, within the first few pages, realize it was outsourced. The grammar is awful. The sentences make little sense. Only the gist of the topic (or scene) is there, and even that is difficult to discern.
That’s how I know the author actually hired someone at Fiverr.com or a super-low bidder at Upwork.com, or at a similar site.
Next, the person they hired may hire someone cheaper, or even use Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, which is ridiculously inexpensive… and the middleman (the one you thought you hired) pockets the difference.
Finally, the author/publisher received the book, and thought it was ready to publish.
Maybe the publisher was rushed. Maybe he or she has reading challenges. Or maybe the person’s first language isn’t English.
Whatever the reason, he or she hasn’t a clue how bad the book is.
That’s tragic when it’s fiction and the plot seems fun, but I just can’t get past the awful writing.
From this point on, most of this is for fiction writers. Nonfiction authors should skim this for the points that affect their books, too.
The plot matters… a lot
Make sure you’re starting with a good plot.
If readers don’t care about your characters and what happens to them, or your plot doesn’t hit the right notes, the writing doesn’t matter.
I recommend Save the Cat! Writes a Novel. If you can buy only one book about writing fiction, that’s probably the best one to get. And, in my opinion, it’s most useful as a printed book. (As I’m writing this, it’s less expensive in print than in Kindle, too.)
What to expect from ghostwriters
Many people have jumped on the “hire a cheap ghostwriter and get rich with fiction” bandwagon.
Umm… that can work, but don’t count on it.
Let’s say you had an idea for a book. You (or someone you hired) crafted a great plot with engaging characters.
Then, you hired someone to write a novella, around 25,000 words. Now, you’re not sure if the book is ready to publish.
In ghostwriting, price matters.
- If you’ve paid them less than $200, expect a rather rough first draft. It’s not a ready-to-publish, finished manuscript. (Exception: when the ghostwriter is fantastic, but just starting with a site like Upwork.com. He or she may offer super-low prices, just to build a resume and get great reviews.)
- If you’ve paid over $1,000 for that novella, the book should need little or no work before publishing.
Between those extremes, anything is possible.
Is it good enough?
Here are different ways to decide if (and when) your book is ready to be published.
- Read the book carefully, yourself.
- Have a friend (or beta reader) look at it, too.
- Run it through ProWritingAid or other editing software, to see how many problems it flags.
Then fix what’s broken… at least the worst things. (Hire someone if you can’t do the line-editing yourself.)
Also, authors I know (in real life) rave about the book, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. I trust those authors’ recommendations, so I bought a copy of that book. I may even read (and use) it, someday. But, to be honest, all I’m using is ProWritingAid.
But how does your book sound?
Here’s one of the best editing tools I’ve stumbled onto, after I’ve run my books through ProWritingAid: Read Aloud. It’s a text-to-speech addition for your Chrome browser.
And it’s free.
I’ve tried several text-to-speech tools, and Read Aloud has been the most glitch-free of the bunch.
Basically, I sit at my desk – with my manuscript open – and have Read Aloud read it.
Note for Scrivener authors: I’ve tried a few options, and like pasting the text into Google Docs, for Read Aloud to read while I have Scrivener open. Then, I fix problems as I hear or notice them. There’s probably an easier way – and I’ll update this post when I find one – but, for now, this works for me.
Hearing my book read has been one of the best ways for me to recognize when a sentence reads awkwardly. Or when a scene needs to be restructured or totally rewritten.
But this bears repeating: Use editing software before – and possibly a second time, after – you use Read Aloud. Don’t waste your time listening to a book that will need a major rewrite, anyway.
When you struggle with English
Back when I edited books at Harvard and M.I.T., one of my clients was a challenge. His writing was terrible.
Oh, English was his first language, but he usually spoke in partial sentences. (I’d say, “How are you doing?” He’d reply, “Working too hard. As usual. Yourself?”)
Most days, he worked in a lab by himself. He didn’t need to speak with many people. (He was like Sheldon in Big Bang Theory.)
He was a noted scientist, and – no doubt – a genius. But rewriting his books and papers… wow. That was a struggle, every time.
He wasn’t my only client. Most were visiting professors from other countries. They spoke enough English to take courses, and sometimes teach them.
There was no way they could write books and papers, in English, without the help of a line-editor.
I’d edit the work and give it back to the professor, to be sure I had conveyed the right concepts. Then, she or he would sit down with me, and we’d talk about it.
I’d fix what I’d misunderstood. They’d ask how to express certain ideas, and take notes. And then I’d edit the resulting work, one more time.
Often, I was just the first editor. The publishing house would take my work and edit it even further.
If you struggle with English, it can be essential to hire an English-speaking editor. (You can find some at sites like Upwork.com, but be sure to check reviews and references. Or ask your friends who write/publish books.)
My experience as a “fast book” author
I won’t pretend I’m a great writer. Research is where I shine, but that seems to be enough to offset my writing skills.
Competition has increased in the marketplace. I’m editing and revising all of my books. What was “good enough” even two or three years ago… that bar was far too low to remain competitive now.
Keep that in mind when someone talks about outsourcing your way to a fortune, and uses his or her older books as proof.