How to find a literary agent

Some of the books edited by bookediting.co.uk are pictured here.

How to Find a Literary Agent

Everything you need to know to attract an industry expert
who can get you the best book deal.

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By Lee Dickinson

Bookediting.co.uk chief editor

They could be your best publishing ally, so it’s vital to know how to find a literary agent if you’re targeting traditional publishing. While self-publishing lets you control everything, that takes lots of time, will probably cause frustration, present a near-vertical learning curve, stop you writing and keep doors locked that an industry insider can unpick. You’ll pay them commission, but that means they’re invested in your success, motivating them to use booktuber, reviewer and literary periodical contacts to get advance copies into the most influential hands. You can’t buy that.

Such expertise means good agents are picky, so you’ll need to know how to find a literary agent through great preparation to make you a must-have client.

First, define your novel and ‘brand’. It sounds complex, but simply being clear on things like book category, genre, originality, tone and concepts will help an agent know instantly if you’re a good fit. So, what do they need to know?

Is your novel in the mainstream, genre or literary category? Mainstream fiction is mostly what’s likely to sell, with an easy transition to film being one factor, so emphasise this if you think you’ve written a potential screen hit. Genre fiction means ticking many trope boxes common to the likes of action–adventure, fantasy or new adult. Literary fiction often has character-led plots, emphasising writing style and exploring issues.

Knowing your genre is crucial too. In the same way you’ll lean toward some types of music or film, book lovers have favourites, and it’s important to recognise that by signposting your book’s type. Write your own novel without the need to slavishly follow genre norms, but at least know what they are, using them as a guide to where your book sits. The more genre ‘rules’ followed, the better the chances of finding an agent, but don’t shoehorn your manuscript into the wrong section. If you straddle genres and are unsure – like many authors – pick your ‘alpha’ genre. There might be a subgenre that helps here, with all the main classifications having them. Choose the one you’ve most closely followed, knowing you’re unlikely to tick all boxes.

Those empty boxes can be an advantage, showing originality. Your novel should fit into a genre while also defying some conventions and inverting cliches, shouting about its uniqueness above the whip-crack of slavish, predictable writing. Flag up the distinct place you sit within your genre to stand out.

Writing fiction too? The videos below will help with characterisation, dialogue, plotting and writing inspiration. The control on the right sets them to your full screen size.

Be clear on themes and tone. They’re linked, with serious subjects needing a harmonious tone, but limit the themes; too many means you won’t do them justice. Tell the agent your major themes and how they’re reflected in the book.

Now your novel’s defined, you’ve finished the first steps on how to find a literary agent, and your brand is next. It might seem like an odd word to use about yourself but, yes, you have a brand. It’s what makes you unique, and it lets agents know if you’ll work well together.

So, what are they looking for? Agents typically sign writers who are consistent in their genre and style, wanting to know you’ve written, say, a mystery or a thriller and plan to produce more. It’s easier to get signed and secure a contract if you’re thinking about future novels.

Author imaginations are rarely restrained when thinking about book success, so you’re probably eyeing a global bestseller. That suggests starting internationally in your agent search, but while it’s great to think in worldwide terms, begin in the UK if you’re based here. There’s likely to be a surprising number of agents near you. Check their suitability carefully, because even if they do offer to represent you, they might not be the best choice. Before committing, be sure they represent authors in your genre and have the contacts to get you published.

After an initial UK search has bagged an agent and led to publication, you might then be ready to search abroad if, say, your local agent doesn’t work internationally.

Finding a literary agent and getting a book deal can be confusing amid images of fame and fortune, the dream of working full-time as a writer and telling that boss what you really think. But, before those thoughts take over, be sure to read any contract carefully. There’s likely to be much legalese in publisher or agent contracts, so if you’re unsure about anything, get it legally checked.

Understanding the contract is crucial, because dreams can turn sour. If a publisher wants to buy the rights to the series rather than the novel, for example, you might want to light that celebratory cigar. Your agent could even light it for you, delighted at their highest-paying series contract. You buy more cigars with the advance, which is bigger than usual because it’s for the first two novels.

Your first novel is published and you can focus on writing the second. But, when the sales figures are in, there are no royalties left for you. You may not even be legally entitled to them until the second book is out and sells enough copies to cover the advance, which was for two novels. You have to live off the initial advance for the next few years. It might even be time to grovel to that former boss. Your writing suffers. The third book – which you need to finish to receive the next advance – is taking forever. The publisher owns the rights to your series, so they sack you and use a ghostwriter to finish your book. It sounds like fiction, but it’s a potential reality, with precedents. It could all have been prevented, though, by a proper look at the paperwork.

Before being able to check a contract, you’ll have to draw up a pool of potential agents. Make sure your novel’s in the best possible shape, with the help of a book editor and, with the book editing finished, you’re ready for that agent search. Your book editor might even have some suggestions. Think first of your genre, targeting agents working for authors in your category. Look also for experience, but not at all costs; there’s a ‘sweet spot’ here between a track record of success, having great contacts and enough time to devote to you. A new, hungry agent without all this could be better for you, with more time and a greater motivation to achieve the success that will reflect well on their fledgling agency.

If you find all the important factors in an agent and are signed on, think of it as improving your chances of success rather than guaranteeing it.

Before sending a query letter, do your research. Look at the authors the literary agent works with and read their books, noting similarities with your own. Who are the publishers, and are you interested in working with them? Is the author’s agent still in place? Long-term collaboration can show the agent’s expertise. Review the publisher’s marketing. Which books on their website are popular? Which ones aren’t? How much work goes into the covers and book details? You can change agent if there are failings in any of these aspects, but proper research is likely to prevent that need.

With your properly researched list, it’s time to approach agents, choosing a formal or personalised approach. It’s difficult to recommend one over the other, so assess everything possible about the agency, looking at the likes of their website to get a feel for them. Your book’s style is another factor, with a strong writing ‘voice’ likely to jar with an overly formal query letter.

If you go formal, the letter’s opening paragraph should provide a synopsis, word count, genre, category, topics, and whether it’s the first of a planned series. With a thank you and best wishes, end there.

A personalised letter is more challenging, but you now have the information to engage the agent after doing the research outlined above. You might, for example, mention an acknowledgement quotation from one of the authors they’ve worked with. That means crafting several tailored letters, but the extra effort might make the difference. The outline section of your personalised letter can stay the same as the formal one. Make sure to also include details of the protagonist’s obstacles, the decisions they make, their internal conflict and how they change by the book’s end. Remember, agents are busy, so keep everything as succinct as possible.

Your letter should fall between a synopsis and a blurb. A blurb will include lots of hooks to draw in readers but be less informative; a synopsis presents the action and events without any hooks. Striking the right balance between the two will ensure you’ve written the best possible query letter.

If all this has persuaded you to go take the independent route, factor in the huge amount of work needed to self-publish well, with a massive marketing and publicity effort if sales are your goal. Learning how to find a literary agent can remove many of those hassles, providing a valuable buffer between you and the publisher and ensuring you get the best possible book deal.

Extra tips:

The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, querytracker.net, duotrope and PublishersMarketplace.com are superb resources to begin your search.

Avoid agents charging more than 15 per cent.

Be mindful of your agent’s workload. You’ll have questions, but don’t expect instant replies. They’re working with other clients too, and often those are the published authors paying their bills.

Don’t worry about the size of the agency, as this isn’t proportional to their quality or the size of your deal.

© Lee Dickinson, Bookediting.co.uk, 2024

This article’s writer, Lee Dickinson, is an advanced professional member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and chief editor at Bookediting.co.uk. You can read his blog here.

How to publish on Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing

Some of the books edited by bookediting.co.uk are pictured here.

How to Publish on Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing

An 11-step guide to accessing the huge author and reader platform

bookediting.co.uk logo
Lee Dickinson, chief editor

By Lee Dickinson

Bookediting.co.uk chief editor

The self-publishing boom continues, with more than 1.5 million authors worldwide choosing an independent book release every year and Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) taking a huge slice of that.

Given its ease of use, that’s understandable, but self-publishing’s still daunting, so a simple book editor’s guide on how to publish on Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing is vital.

I’ll outline the steps to releasing your ebook or paperback free on the massive platform, which offers many advantages to traditional book publishing: it’s much easier to access than the traditional route, removes months of waiting for acceptance or rejection, and instantly plugs authors into the world’s largest audience of potential readers.

1. Create an account with KDP.

You’ll need your bank account information, including IBAN and BIC/SWIFT and, depending on if you’re publishing as an individual or as a company, your Unique Tax Reference (UTR), National Insurance number, or corporate tax number.

Enter your usual Amazon login information or make a new account. You can publish under a pen name and have a different author name than your KDP account name; it has no impact on your Amazon account.

You can alter your book, within limits, even after it’s been published, whether it’s a paperback or ebook. Learn more on Amazon’s Update Your Book Details page.

UK-based authors could reclaim the full 30 per cent by inputting their National Insurance number, personal UTR, or company tax reference. Tax agreements change, so be sure to check before publishing.

This is not the same as possible taxes on royalties. It’s important to let HMRC know that you don’t sell books; instead, Amazon sells the books and pays the necessary taxes on sales. Only your royalties can be taxed.

2. KDP Select?

Your book will be accessible via Kindle Unlimited and the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library if you decide to join. Visit the Amazon KDP Select page to learn more.

3. KDP’s Tools

KDP walks authors through a number of processes, providing thorough instructions. Take your time and remember, if you make a mistake, it’s free to start again.

4. Enter Your Book’s Title

Neither the title nor the optional subtitle can exceed 200 characters. If it’s a part of a series, omit the name or number of the series in the title field.

Writing fiction too? The videos below will help with characterisation, dialogue, plotting and writing inspiration. The control on the right sets them to your full screen size.

5. Extra Steps for Books in a Series

A series, according to Amazon Kindle, is a group of related books. Leave this blank if it’s a standalone work. The series field should not contain either the series number or the book’s title. For instance, the series area would be filled out with “The Mortal Instruments”. The series number is entered as a single digit, not as “book 5” or “volume 5 of 8”, for example, but simply “5”.

A benefit for Kindle authors and readers is the ability to buy every book in a series with a single click from a Series Collection Page. It is your responsibility as the author to check that the sequence numbers are accurate and the series name has been recorded consistently throughout all books. Keep this in mind because, for instance, “Mortal Instruments” is distinct from “The Mortal Instruments”.

A Series Collection Page can only contain publications made available through KDP. Readers will not be able to see the Collection Page if an author makes one book unavailable, but they will still be able to buy the remaining available books separately.

The precise series name and number must also appear in your book in at least one of the following locations: the book cover, interior (Look Inside), product description (metadata), editorial reviews, your official website, or Goodreads. For instance, any of the places above may include the phrase “This is the third book in The Mortal Instruments series”.

Novellas, prequels, and short stories are not permitted on these pages.

Control the Series Collection Page from Bookshelf>Create New Title or for existing titles eBook Actions>Edit eBook Details. Amazon ask for you to contact them with the list of ASINs for books in a Series Collection Page.

6. Your Book Description

To draw readers, a book description must be well written and intriguing. Consider this description to be the text or blurb on the back of a book since it needs to be succinct, potent, absorbing and revealing.

Look at the Amazon Book Description page for help. If your description is longer than a simple paragraph, it gives help on writing HTML.

So, if your book description contains text that is bold, italicised, or has bullet points, or if you want to separate more than one paragraph, for example, you will need to write your text in a HTML convertor, then copy and paste into the Amazon KDP description box (otherwise, it will merge into one paragraph).

You can use the free Amazon Book Description Generator from Kindlepreneur.com to generate your content and/or alter your description.

Use keywords as naturally as possible in your description to prevent it reading like a list of search terms, as Google will use them to determine where your book ranks. When you upload for publication, you can select up to seven keywords, and Amazon will prioritise the description, subtitle and keywords you selected for ranking.

7. Choose Categories and Keywords

Amazon’s categories, which include sections for historical fiction, romance, thrillers, and children’s publications, are used to filter where books are put.

After publishing, you can request ten more categories from the thousands of options on Amazon. When you first self-publish, you choose two BISAC (Book Industry Standards and Communications) categories appropriate to your work.

As a result, you can be featured in more specialised categories, giving new books a better chance to rank well and when readers conduct searches. Consider what your viewers are looking for to best use this aspect.

8. Format Your Book

This is possibly the most nerve-jangling aspect of how to publish on Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing. But, if you resolve to take your time and stick to a few simple rules, it’s simple enough.

Your book editor might get your manuscript KDP-ready, if you ask, making the process even easier. Among the book editing services here, I can make your Microsoft Word document ready for KDP formatting.  

To format your text, you can use the Kindle Create tool. It changes text to make it ready for upload. The majority of authors already have their manuscript in Microsoft Word format (doc or docx), which KDP demands. But for image-heavy books, such as cookbooks, travel guides and children’s books, a PDF format is preferable.

Tips:

Modify the ‘normal’ style and apply it to all text for consistent formatting.

Kindle doesn’t recognise tabs, so you need to indent paragraphs. To modify normal style to meet KDP requirements, in the home tab, right-click on normal style and choose modify. Choose format and paragraph.

Choose indentation and special to First Line 0.2 inches or 5mm. Under spacing, set before and after to 0 and line spacing to single.

When everything is formatted to normal style, chapter titles should be formatted to Heading 1.

‘Front and back matter’ refers to the text and pages on the outside and inside of the cover jacket. These typically include book title, author name, dedication, bibliography, notes about the author, acknowledgements, etc. Most, except for the book title and copyright page, are optional.

Add page breaks, if it’s important for you to control the breaks. Each new chapter begins on a new page, but that’s not vital for ebooks. Place the cursor where you want a page break and select insert and page break.

Insert hyperlinks if you plan to link to other websites. Go to insert and links, then choose hyperlinks. Copy and paste the full URL into the dialogue box and save.

Create a table of contents by clicking on the thumbnail of your first chapter and choosing insert>table of contents.

Format chapters to create a large drop capital at the front of each. Place your cursor next to the first paragraph of your first chapter and click Chapter First Paragraph. Repeat for all chapters.

Finally, add any images by choosing insert image and upload. They must be 300 DPI (dots per inch) and at least 100 pixels on the longest side. Amazon’s comprehensive guide on How to Format Images is a great resource to help you.

9. Create Your Cover

You can commission a book cover from a professional cover designer or, if you’re watching the pennies, there are excellent free options. Be aware, though, that anyone else is free to use the same design.

The KDP Cover Maker template allows authors to start from scratch using the program’s DIY features.

It’s worth spending some time on your cover or, if it’s at all possible, biting the expense bullet of employing a designer, as your cover and blurb are critical to potential sales success.

10. Preview and Upload

You can preview your book before publication once you are satisfied with the format and cover. Choose Kindle Previewer if you are formatting in Microsoft Word. Click the Preview button if you are using a template in Kindle Create. Both options display how your book will appear on different devices.

Your Word document, PDF or template from your Bookshelf should be uploaded.

11. How to Publish a Paperback Version

Hardcover versions are now possible alongside KDP’s paperback option. Only when someone buys a paperback of your book is it printed, so there is no stock in warehouses requiring storage fees.

Given that the deal with KDP is non-exclusive, you retain your copyright. Up to 60 per cent of the list price, less printing costs, is paid out in royalties.

An ISBN (International Standard Book Number), which is required for printed books, is available from the International ISBN Agency.

An ISBN is not needed for Amazon Kindle ebooks. You can use a free KDP ISBN to publish when using KDP. The free ISBN can only be used on KDP, not with another publisher.

Make a formatted physical copy of your manuscript using the Kindle Create feature. For PC and Mac users, there are different guidelines and templates. 

The format requirements for printed books are much more strict than for ebooks. Before starting, be prepared to spend some time researching your options for size, trim, and spine width.

See the size information for paperbacks on Amazon. The Paperback Manuscript Templates has options at the right size for your book.

Kindle will automatically add a barcode to the back cover if you don’t upload your own, and there’s no option to move it or edit it.

The printed area’s edge is referred to as ‘bleed’. Pages can bleed on purpose. If yours does, you must upload your manuscript in PDF format rather than Word.

Any images must be 300 DPI minimum.

Further file requirements are stated in KDP’s manuscript guide and include things like embedding all fonts and images in the native file before submitting, flattening transparent objects and layers, avoiding metadata, and not using crop marks or annotations.

Common mistakes include too many blank pages, missing barcodes and the wrong pagination.

What to Expect After Publishing Your Book

You can view clear monthly royalty statements and up-to-date, real-time sales data through your KDP account. That contrasts with, typically, three to six months from traditional publishers.

Are There Any Drawbacks to Publishing on Amazon?

High street booksellers seem hesitant to carry books so easily available online, so you might have to accept your book will never appear on the shelves of your local Waterstones or WHSmith.

But knowing how to publish on Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing, possibly with the help of a book editor, creates a new world of opportunity. It gives you access to Kindle’s free PR and formatting tools, making it easier than ever to release your labour of love to a huge, book-hungry audience.

Self-publishing has transformed many a manuscript – once condemned by traditional publishers to dusty-drawer obscurity – into bold protagonists freed to seek literary success.

© Lee Dickinson, Bookediting.co.uk, 2023

This article’s writer, Lee Dickinson, is an advanced professional member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and chief editor at Bookediting.co.uk. You can read his blog here.

How to write a book blurb

Some of the books edited by bookediting.co.uk are pictured here.

How to write a book blurb

(including bestseller examples and 12 top tips)

bookediting.co.uk logo
Lee Dickinson, chief editor

By Lee Dickinson

Bookediting.co.uk chief editor

Your book blurb, title and cover are the most vital factors in its sales success.

I’d love to pound the keyboard with conviction about book editing being your priority but, truthfully, if selling is your focus, it’s not as important as learning how to write a book blurb. Sure, a skilled book editor will help make your hard work sparkle, but even superb book editing is unlikely to entice readers beyond a mediocre cover or lifeless blurb.

Unfortunately, most authors don’t know how to write a book blurb, demoting it to an afterthought then labouring over words that should tease without summarising or revealing the ending. Their writing ‘yips’ aren’t helped if their authorly imaginations conjure pictures of bookshop-browsing, net-surfing potential readers. No pressure …

That might be why I regularly write blurbs for authors, who are happy for a book editor’s informed, experienced, more objective take. Killing your darlings is seldom more painful than when facing such a brutal, pivotal word count, so helping with this can be even more appreciated than the book editing.

But if you’re confident about writing your own, here are my tips on how to write a book blurb that will give you an edge in a fierce self-publishing arena.

First, what is a blurb?

It’s a short outline of the story or content that triggers the reader’s imagination, capturing their attention and piquing their interest. Online, it’s often used as the description when selling e-books on the likes of Amazon and promoting on sites such as Goodreads.

A book blurb can also be used for background information, such as when giving descriptions on writing blogs and forums, interviews with local papers, and when sending copies to reviewers. A blurb typically appears on the back cover of paperbacks or the inner flap of hardbacks, giving details of the author, plot or content.

It’s also vital to know what a book blurb is not, because it shouldn’t be confused with a synopsis, which is a more comprehensive summary with a focus on the plot, characters and story arc.

Writing fiction too? The videos below will help with characterisation, dialogue, plotting and writing inspiration. The control on the right sets them to your full screen size.

How many words should a blurb have?

Most book blurbs are from 100 to 200 words, with an average between 150 and 200 for mainstream authors. They’re often divided into three or four paragraphs, making them easy for readers to skim while gleaning enough information to rouse their interest.

How to write a fiction blurb:

Entice readers without revealing details of who, what, how, when and why. It sounds difficult, but here’s some ‘HELP’:

Hook: start with a gripping sentence that leaves readers wanting more.

Enlighten: create a fascinating summary of the story.

Language: use a tone and style that suits your audience, with potent words that captivate and intrigue.

Parting shot: end with a cliffhanger, question or create enough intrigue that readers want to know the whole story.

A fiction blurb should create emotional investment in the journey and your characters, compelling readers to join their adventure.

How to write a non-fiction blurb:

Focus on the questions your book answers and how you’ll motivate and teach. Stress the benefits of reading your book and succinctly illustrate its main messages.

How to write a memoir or autobiography blurb:

‘HATS’ off to you if you nail the blurb in this popular, growing genre:

Humility: be humble about yourself.

Avoid: don’t make it an author bio, which is for the front of your book or author profile web pages.

Third person: use this, rather than first person (she, her, he, him – not I).

Supply: give necessary, relevant information only.

How should I structure my blurb?

There are four main points to include:

1. Introduce the main character.

2. Outline the primary conflict.

3. Describe what’s at stake.

4. Use dynamic words that elicit emotion and stimulate visual imagery. These can also form the basis for keywords when classifying your book on self-publishing platforms.

Bestseller blurb examples:

The Heart of the Matter, Graham Greene

People are wary of Scobie, disturbed by his scrupulous honesty. A police officer serving in a war-torn West African state, he is immune to bribery [1]. But when he falls in love, Scobie is forced into a betrayal [2] of everything that he has ever believed in,[3] with shattering [4] results.

The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell

Run away, one drowsy summer’s afternoon, with Holly Sykes: wayward teenager, broken-hearted rebel [1] and unwitting pawn in a titanic, hidden conflict.[2]

Over six decades, the consequences of a moment’s impulse unfold, drawing an ordinary woman into a world far beyond her imagining. And as life in the near future turns perilous,[4] the pledge she made to a stranger may become the key to her family’s survival [3]…

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel

‘Lock Cromwell in a deep dungeon in the morning,’ says Thomas More, ‘and when you come back that night he’ll be sitting on a plush cushion eating larks’ tongues, and all the gaolers will owe him money.’[1]

England, the 1520s. Henry VIII is on the throne, but has no heir. Cardinal Wolsey is his chief advisor, charged with securing the divorce [3] the pope refuses to grant.[2] Into this atmosphere of distrust and need comes Thomas Cromwell, first as Wolsey’s clerk, and later his successor.

Cromwell is a wholly original man: the son of a brutal blacksmith, a political genius, a briber, a charmer, a bully, a man with a delicate and deadly expertise in manipulating people and events. Ruthless [4] in pursuit of his own interests, he is as ambitious in his wider politics as he is for himself. His reforming agenda is carried out in the grip of a self-interested parliament and a king who fluctuates between romantic passions and murderous rages.

Blue Moon, Lee Child

It’s a random universe, but once in a blue moon things turn out just right. In a nameless city, two rival criminal gangs are competing for control. But they hadn’t counted on Jack Reacher arriving on their patch.[2] Reacher is trained to notice things.[1]

He’s on a Greyhound bus, watching an elderly man sleeping in his seat, with a fat envelope of cash hanging out of his pocket. Another passenger is watching too … hoping to get rich quick.

As the mugger makes his move, Reacher steps in.

The old man is grateful, yet he turns down Reacher’s offer to help him home. He’s vulnerable, scared, and clearly in big, big trouble.[3] What hold could the gangs have on the old guy? Will Reacher be in time to stop bad things happening? The odds are better with Reacher involved. That’s for damn sure.

 

Notice the numbers aren’t always sequential in the examples above, and in the case of Lee Child, all four aren’t included, although you could argue “damn” has a dynamic, action-alerting effect. Still, the blurb ticks most of the boxes and, like the rest here, helped the authors toward bestseller status. Doing a similarly great job on your book blurb will give you the best chance of joining them. 

Outline: 12 top blurb tips that will help you sell:

1. Remember that a book blurb is not a summary of your manuscript; it’s meant to intrigue and attract potential readers.

2. Aim for 150 words, staying between 100 and 200, in three to four paragraphs.

3. Invest time in your first sentence – if readers aren’t hooked by it, it won’t matter how good the rest of the blurb is.

4. Use short sentences and separate paragraphs.

5. Know your target audience, using language that resonates with them.

6. Treat your book like a product and think about how to promote it to potential buyers. Use taglines, hooks and calls to action to make the blurb more compelling.

7. Include as many five-star reviews as possible.

8. Don’t give away the ending or any plot twists.

9. Make sure the blurb is true to your genre.

10. Write in the third person.

11. Avoid clichés (especially in your blurb, but this is good advice for all writing).

12. Make it so impactful and engaging that potential readers must buy your book.

© Lee Dickinson, Bookediting.co.uk, 2023

This article’s writer, Lee Dickinson, is an advanced professional member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and chief editor at Bookediting.co.uk. You can read his blog here.

How to use Track Changes

Some of the books edited by bookediting.co.uk are pictured here.

How to use Track Changes

A simple guide to one of Microsoft Word’s most vital functions

bookediting.co.uk logo
Lee Dickinson, chief editor

By Lee Dickinson

Bookediting.co.uk chief editor

Learning how to use Track Changes in Microsoft Word is scary for novice users, so here’s the simplest guide on the net with all you need to know.

If you’re working with an editor, their changes will only be shown with this function turned on, so you’ll need basic knowledge. Thankfully, it’s fairly easy to use. Once on, it’s easily tweaked to your own preferences.

So, where is Track Changes? At the top of the document, on the ‘ribbon’, you’ll see a row of ‘tabs’ starting with ‘File’ on the left. Word has had many redesigns over the decades but, whatever your version, the ‘Review’ tab you need is toward the right of the row of tab options.

Microsoft Word Review tab

Press that and you’ll see, in the buttons below the tabs, the beast of which we speak, about halfway along the ribbon.

Microsoft Word's Track Changes button

The Track Changes button doesn’t have to be selected to show editing changes. If it is on, your changes will be tracked in the same way as your book editor’s, but in a different colour until you save the document, when the colours will match. So, if you don’t want your changes to be tracked, possibly causing confusion over who’s made the change, turn Track Changes off. If you have a later version of Word, the button has a top and bottom half, with the lower option giving the choice of turning the function off for you, for everyone, or locking the tracking.

To see changes, to the right of the Track Changes button are two ‘Markup’ dropdown menus, with the top one offering ‘All’, ‘Simple’ and ‘No’ options. Word defaults to ‘All Markup’, so you’ll see every insertion, deletion and formatting change.

With ‘Simple Markup’, margin comments alone will show and,
you guessed it, ‘No Markup’ shows no markup. These are great options when you simply want to read the text without the distracting marks.

The dropdown’s ‘Original’ option puts the text in its pre-editing state, but please note that it doesn’t delete the Track Changes, which return with ‘All Markup’.

Track Changes markup button

In the middle dropdown menu (don’t worry about the bottom one), ‘Show Markup’ options are for insertions and deletions, plus formatting. You’ll want the first option with a tick next to it, but switching formatting markup off can be a great option to avoid margin clutter.

Accepting or rejecting changes is simple. To the right of the markup dropdowns are the ‘Accept’ and ‘Reject’ buttons. With ‘All Markup’ on, Word will move to the next change after each press. If you choose the wrong option, simply press the Control key and ‘Z’.

Track Changes accept and reject buttons

I mention Ctrl+Z (this works on many different programs, and can be a lifesaver) because, in a book editing document with hundreds or even thousands of changes, you’re likely to fall into a clicking stupor.

To combat that, you can make bulk changes by highlighting sections of text (left mouse click and drag) and using the same buttons to approve or reject every edit in the selection.

If you’re super confident in your book editor, or just want to avoid a trance, you can ‘Accept All Changes’ in the document. In modern versions of Word, this option is on the lower half of the ‘Accept’ button, below the tick. The ‘Reject’ option has the same bulk choices in reverse.

Track Changes accept all

Straight after using either option, save a version in a new name, so you can refer back to the previous Track Changes version. Don’t use Ctrl+S to save here; go to the ‘File’ tab in the ribbon, then select ‘Save As’.

That’s everything you need to know about how to use Track
Changes. Try it and you’ll see the red scrawl, at first daunting and reminiscent of primary school humblings, is perfect for collaboration and better writing.

© Lee Dickinson, Bookediting.co.uk, 2023

This article’s writer, Lee Dickinson, is an advanced professional member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and chief editor at Bookediting.co.uk. You can read his blog here.

How to write succinctly

Some of the books edited by bookediting.co.uk are pictured here.

How to Write Succinctly

Nine quicks tips to improve your writing brevity and clarity

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Lee Dickinson, chief editor

By Lee Dickinson

Bookediting.co.uk chief editor

Writing succinctly is one of the best ways to improve your words.

Most editors facing a gun-at-head demand for one polished-prose golden rule would pick it because, among the many ways to refine writing, enhanced brevity and clarity have the most impact.

That’s great news, because it’s a game-changer that’s also habit-forming and fairly simple to master. Below, I have nine easy tips to help you do that.

Oddly, research for this blog revealed the need for simple advice. For a subject all about being brief and clear, many articles on how to write succinctly instead confuse.

One “Masterclass”, for example, states: “Amateur  writers tend to fear shorter sentences, erroneously believing they’re inherently less sophisticated.”

In a piece on writing succinctly, it’s surprising to find a syllable-busting line with “erroneously”, “inherently” and “sophisticated”.

Using the nine steps, it could become: Amateur writers often shun short sentences for being too simple.

The rewrite reduces 13 words and 32 syllables to 10 words and 17 syllables. Those sorts of figures transform writing, especially books, reducing their word count and even making them more attractive to cost-conscious publishers.   

Writing fiction too? The videos below will help with characterisation, dialogue, plotting and writing inspiration. The control on the right sets them to your full screen size.

Another article advises: “Don’t be shy about naming them again and again, it’s less boring to reread ‘MacNeice’ or ‘the Senator’ or ‘the mycelium of pine mushrooms’ than having to re-read sentences to check what ‘he’ or ‘it’ might be referring to.”

Naming them “again and again” will hurt the succinctness the article’s promoting and, in any nearby use of the subject or object, it’s not clear why there would be any confusion.

Also, please be wary of advice from sources with the likes of comma splices (“… naming them again and again, it’s less boring to read …”) and variant spellings in the same sentence (“reread” and “re-read”). 

Elsewhere, the refrain to limit sentences to 20 words or fewer is so rigid it leaves little room for the gold dust of an author’s ‘voice’. Skilled book editors strive to preserve voice, and sentence lengths are part of that. Authors should vary them as part of good writing practice, but that can only be curbed by such a severe upper word count. Several of the sentences above are more than 20 words, but they’re still succinct.

Sure, lean toward short sentences for simplicity, but don’t get caught up in a numbers game likely to stifle voice and sap creativity.

When experts in book editing add to the confusion on how to write succinctly, the need for clarity is even more acute. So, let’s get to those nine tips:

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1 Avoid ‘fluff’ words

They creep in, so the only cure is caution. In that sentence, my fingers wanted to add “just” before “creep in”, but it’s one of the main culprits. Some writers add it before crucial points, but one of its meanings is “only”, so it can seem to oppose what it precedes and, when used with strong adjectives, it dilutes, so is just plain bad. Among the other main offenders are: that, actually, currently, literally, virtually, entirely, completely, obviously, suddenly, absolutely, really, simply, very, now, rather, both, quite, then, in fact.

Awkward phrases include: in order to, different kinds, a bit, sort of, vitally important, reason why, join together, each and every, end result, free gift, general consensus, mass exodus.  

2 Choose shorter words

Some of the best writers make this look easy, but they’ve worked at it. It becomes a mindset, helping writers edit as they work, using ‘start’ and ‘buy’ instead of ‘commence’ and ‘purchase’, thinking first about smooth reading. The bestseller A Man Called Ove is a superb current example, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn excels in his writing’s humble beauty. The authors have weighed every word, asking: is there a simpler option?

3 Fix poor or missing punctuation

Like great sports referees, the best punctuation should quietly control. Heavy-handed comma use is the main culprit. Semicolons can be worse, because they’re often used wrongly and confuse most readers. While some don’t see it as a succinctness issue, bad punctuation harms brevity by slowing readers. If in doubt, go for a light touch and omit the punctuation. Always read your writing back carefully and, if you stumble, look first for heavy or absent punctuation. If you struggle with punctuation, as many writers do, find the best editor you can.

4 Remove jargon

This is another ‘creeper’. It’s tempting to sound clever, but the writer’s king is clarity. My own job of book editing is awash with jargon, but it’s jarring for authors to read editor reports of ‘in medias res’ openings, ‘TPO emphatic’ and ‘FP embedded’, so they must be explained. Doing so will add to the word count, but succinctness is also about being clear.

5 Delete clichés

Being so familiar, our brains reach for clichés lazily so, as with fluff, use caution. In speech they’re less obvious, but writing needs more care. It’s not ‘thinking outside the box’ to write the likes of ‘in the nick of time’ or ‘a whole new can of worms’. If it sounds reassuringly familiar, ditch it.

6 Don’t emphasise

The great book editor Sol Stein summed this up neatly: one plus one equals a half. Every repetition of an idea weakens it. Trust your reader and your writing to make the point once. For passionate writers this can be the hardest advice, because they often struggle to swap zeal for the restraint of focused, succinct writing. A skilled editor is a fine ally here. One-shot point-making is a great habit, because it forces the focus on quality.

7 Be brutal

Do the words earn their place, or are they padding to reach a word count? An honest second pair of eyes is priceless here. It’s a similar tip to not emphasising, but distinct; this isn’t about the point’s repetition, but its wider value.

8 Use contractions

The likes of ‘don’t’, ‘can’t’ and ‘won’t’ sound more natural and save words. Most skilled writers are adept at mimicking speech, removing readers from the page through an illusion of talking one-to-one. Contractions suit that magic spell. Some warn against them, and it’s wise to consider your audience but, away from academic and formal writing, they’re the best option.

9 Choose the ‘active voice’

‘The sentence was rewritten by the book editor’ is eight words and passive. Swapping subject and object gives us six active words: ‘The book editor rewrote the sentence.’ The active voice is usually best, save for some academic, legal, professional and formal texts.

 

These simple tips belie the saying on how to write succinctly used since at least the 17th century: “I would have written something shorter, but I didn’t have time.”

Yes, it’s a skill, but not complex. The dating of that saying shows the battle for brevity has been fought for centuries, proving it’s a fight worth winning.

© Lee Dickinson, Bookediting.co.uk, 2023

This article’s writer, Lee Dickinson, is an advanced professional member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and chief editor at Bookediting.co.uk. You can read his blog here.

How to write a memoir

Eight vital tips on how to write a great memoir

How to Write a Memoir – The Eight-Step Guide

Quick tips to bring any life story alive

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Lee Dickinson, chief editor

By Lee Dickinson

Bookediting.co.uk chief editor

Nothing deserves great writing more than a life.

The memoir genre is booming and, in the self-publishing arena especially, has brought refreshing variety while highlighting a key point: they must be superbly written. It sounds obvious, but stick with me for the details on how to write a memoir, because there are eight main ways to lift them from dull to inspiring.

That inspiration is just one of the prizes on offer, because memoir offers the most amazing books also able to enlighten, guide, motivate, move and even befriend us. 

Superb fiction transports and toys with us, but even the best gives brief escapism within the confines of a fake world. However crafted the characters, world-building and plot, we know it’s all feigned. 

But, long after fiction’s clapperboard and “Cut!”, memoir keeps rolling on real life.

Writing fiction too? The videos below will help with characterisation, dialogue, plotting and writing inspiration. The control on the right sets them to your full screen size.

The best writers know people are fascinated by people, and there’s nothing more interesting than our shared humanity, even if it’s a drive-by gawp at a car crash of an existence.

That means, whether it’s the snapshot of a memoir or the full life of an autobiography/biography, they’re often more memorable than fiction. I mean, it actually happened, to a fellow, beating-heart human, on our shared planet, and they’ve invited us in, to see the sugar and shambles. 

It’s a privilege to share their lives, whether they’re chronicling a family history or trying to write a bestseller, and it’s important, when working with the writer during editing, to remember their motivations vary.

Some manuscripts owe their birth to the belief summed up by the saying: “Everyone has a book inside them.” When wonderfully written, they do, but memoirs often miss the mark in the same way that saying does. It’s attributed to Christopher Hitchens, but the author and journalist’s full quote reveals it’s been hijacked. 

“Everyone has a book inside them,” he did say, adding, “which is exactly where it should, I think, in most cases, remain.”

Perhaps he’d seen some of the self-published memoirs I read, randomly, to research this article. Too many prove his point so, in showing you how to write a memoir properly, I’ve narrowed their failings to eight main issues:

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1. Write a life, not a list

Births, marriages, deaths, relationships, break-ups and the like are pivotal, but many memoirs ignore their emotional nature. One of my research memoirs, in a shopping list-type entry, has: “I divorced Lucy in 2009.”

They were married for twelve years and, apparently, loved each other, but, with a haste to shame even a quickie divorce, she’s gone in four words and a numeral.

Those words spurn a great chance to place readers in the action, sharing the author’s emotions.

I’m dramatising below to make a point, but we’d share the author’s divorce trauma more with something like: 

Lucy was cooking my favourite, a chilli, and the beef fat rippled my nose as I eased the front door shut and trudged to the kitchen with that envelope. 

She fluttered a tea towel like a doomed matador at the smoke alarm, but I recall no beeps, just the thud of my heart as she turned, lips softening to that smile, pausing her perfumed kiss, seeing the white paper, the lawyer’s stamp, and her mouth falling to a silent howl.

“Lucy, I’m so, so sorry, but …”

Cheesy, but at least that list entry lives. 

2. Edit life

Aunty Doris might be offended if she’s not included but, hey, she’ll get over it. Equally, not all events are worth including. One research memoir retold the trip to a meeting, including a service station stop. Memoirs offer the perfect chance to do something we’d love to be able to do in reality – edit our lives. 

3. Use fiction techniques

The likes of showing instead of telling can be great in non-fiction too; techniques from one genre can complement another. In point 1, above, for example, senses have been evoked, and short clause lengths have been used to mimic emotion. Writing a memoir, like fiction, is a chance to be creative. If it doesn’t work, a great editor will say so, and it can always be changed.

4. Be open and honest

Nothing seduces readers more than honesty. Warts-and-all openness lifts memoir to oxygen-sucking heights. If it’s uncomfortable to share it, it’s likely to fascinate the reader. Telling all is what I meant, above, by the genre’s ability to “befriend”, because it’s the sharing of the most intimate secrets in a way we’d normally tell no one or only our closest confidantes. 

5. Set your goals

Is it a family history book, intended bestseller or something else? This should shape the way the book’s written. A family history book, for example, wouldn’t need to evoke emotion or use fiction techniques, although they would bring the pages to life. There’s a growing memoir/autobiography movement among family members who want to leave a written record of their lives, perhaps inspired by TV genealogy shows. A book is already more personal than the lifeless public records in those programmes, but the tips here will bring it alive.    

6. Begin with your best

Starting with the earliest memories and working through chronologically is logical, but it’s insipid. Unless a celebrity’s the focus, it’s unlikely to produce a bestseller, when more creativity is needed. Some of the best autobiographies start with the most dramatic, memorable or life-shaping events, which creates natural curiosity about the life that led to them.

7. Theme tune

The best memoirs don’t only share lives: they can change them. Is there a theme, a lesson, to pass on, learnt the hard way? Could it show the power of forgiveness, love, hard work, or reveal a life-altering concept? Can that be shaped from scattered wisdom into a unified, climactic opus with an earworm melody?

8. Personal growth

This is another element from fiction, where protagonists should show change. How is the writer now different? What can they pass on? Life transforms us all physically and mentally, and that melody from above is likely to be part of a whole album. There’ll be bum notes and belters, but they’re singalongs from the lives readers love.

© Lee Dickinson, 2023

This article’s writer, Lee Dickinson, is an advanced professional member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and chief editor at Bookediting.co.uk. You can read his blog here.

Avoid this capital offence

Some of the books edited by bookediting.co.uk are pictured here.

How to avoid this capital offence

A quick, simple guide to using capital letters correctly

Lee Dickinson, chief editor

By Lee Dickinson chief editor

This blog is Important.

But, if you’re like me, that random capital letter on “Important” means, no matter how vital the writing is, I’m unlikely to read it.

Errant capitalisation is one of the main ways a good writer can make themselves look bad. There are so many more mistakes that have the same effect but, with arbitrary capping, the nature of the error makes it Stand Out.

The problem, usually, is the random nature of the approach, as if the writer can’t decide so has flicked a coin. Sometimes, it’s even worse because the coin appears to have been flicked repeatedly for the same words. Haphazard capitals are bad enough, but you’re giving readers/employers/examiners/literary agents one more reason to sigh or stop reading if you pair them with inconsistency.

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Most of us have been hesitant over capitals, but there are some simple guidelines to help remove most of the doubt. Along with the ones many know—such as capital letters for proper nouns (which means an organization, thing, place or person), brand names, days, months and at the start of sentences—common practice is to also use them for:

  • ethnic groups and nationalities
  • historical periods
  • languages
  • the names of festivals or holidays
  • I, the pronoun
  • Roman numerals
  • the first word of direct-quotation sentences

Almost as important as what’s covered by those rules is what’s not. Emphasis isn’t there, for example, so capitals should never be used to Underline Perceived Importance.

Titles are often wrongly given capital letters, seemingly out of respect or to prevent offence. That’s sensible if your egotistical, trigger-happy boss likes being called the ‘Managing Director’ but, otherwise, the likes of queen of England and prime minister should only take a leading capital if they’re being used as a name, before a name or in forms of address. So you might have said to Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, ‘You were the prime minister, but your title still only gets a capital letter if it comes before your name or if I’m addressing you, Prime Minister.’

Despite being important, Disraeli’s government would also be lower case, along with the university where he was rector, unless it’s being used as a proper noun so given its full title: the University of Glasgow.

The subjects at the university, such as neuroscience, would also be lower case.

Seasons, points of the compass, elements, animals, the sun and moon (but not planets), medical conditions, plants and the national anthem should also be downcased.

Advice can vary on capitalization if you’re using a style guide, so it’s best to check and, above all, be consistent.

© Lee Dickinson, 2022

This article’s writer, Lee Dickinson, is an advanced professional member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and chief editor at bookediting.co.uk. You can read his blog here.

War of words

Lee Dickinson, chief editor

By Lee Dickinson, chief editor

Sharing a language has never been so divisive.

Social media grammar police are being forced alongside followers of a new form of words they’re programmed to hate.

It’s like internet ‘kettling’; a cross-section confined by shared use of a platform and an anger stoked by proximity. Fiction writers have a phrase for such close-quarters conflict – the crucible. Whatever you call it, it’s an explosive melting pot.

You can see the result every rant-filled day on the web, where hell has no fury like a word nerd scorned. Grammar pedants would normally be the sort of bespectacled, elbow-patched foe worthy only of pity, but invade their word-based territory and watch a screaming, downhill charge of revenge. They feel threatened. A lifetime’s learning could be wasted. They’re correcting to defend centuries of tradition. 

Part of me’s with these keypad warriors as they try to protect our precious language, but I join their ranks rarely. Watching their skirmishes from the peaceful slopes of caution is safer and saves time, but I urge them on with a feeling of guilt. “You should be down there, fighting with them,” part of me screams. 

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Such restraint as the keyboard-to-keyboard combat rages is partly down to our amazing language and its flexibility. Its ‘rules’ are often guidelines. Controversial for a copywriter and proofreader, that, but authorities such as Fowler and his Dictionary of Modern English Usage confirm it. Read any page of that pedants’ bible and see how our words have gone beyond evolving and into the realms of transformation. Start with its front page, if you like, and the title with that ‘Modern’. If the English language was static, the word would be surplus. 

There are some hard-and-fasts, but the pace of our vocabulary’s evolution makes following the developments confusing. When ‘change’ itself is changing, surely we have to at least try to adapt? The alternative is to peddle an alien concept to people almost literally speaking another language, and that’s as doomed to failure as the grammar police adopting textspeak.

Some things never change, though. One of them has been agreed on for centuries like those controversial ‘rules’ of grammar. It’s one thing even the nerds and their enemies unite on: no-one likes a smart-arse.

There are plenty of those on the internet, with ‘Grammar Police’ on Twitter one of the best examples. Read any of the 13,500 tweets and you’ll soon get the belittling flavour. The description says it all: “I correct grammar because it p***es people off”. Yes, that’s their goal in life …

For other purists with helpful, informative aims, the approach must be more considered. Social media has cheapened language, made it disposable in an age when everyone’s their own editor. Mistakes are inevitable, and seizing on them from any source smacks of gloating.

We must choose our targets. For people in positions of power, their mistakes can set a trend we have a duty to challenge.

Former US President Donald Trump’s error-strewn tweets were a prime example. Coming from someone in charge of a superpower’s education system, such mistakes threaten our language. Challenging them stems from the same love of words as the ‘grammar Nazis’, but you’ll have to prise my keyboard from my cold, dead hands before I join them.

© Lee Dickinson, 2022

This article’s writer, Lee Dickinson, is an advanced professional member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and chief editor at Bookediting.co.uk. You can read his blog here.

Glitz and grammar

Glitz and Grammar

The red carpet treatment as proofreading gets sexy

Lee Dickinson, chief editor

By Lee Dickinson, chief editor

Giving apostrophe abuse the red carpet treatment is a headline-grabbing act worthy of an Oscar.

Step forward wonky-fringed actress Emma Watson at the 90th Academy Awards, into a supernova of popping flashlights. She could’ve used a great proofreading service to avoid her “Times Up” tattoo ‘blunder’, which would’ve changed it to the grammatically correct ‘Time’s Up’. So near yet so far, Emma. Those pesky apostrophes, eh?  

But wouldn’t proper punctuation have ruined things? Weren’t those flashlights and the media focus on her ‘gaffe’ the aim?

Her reaction suggests not. The Harry Potter star, 27, tweeted: “Fake tattoo proofreading position available. Experience with apostrophes a must.”

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Nice but niche work, that. Pre-Oscar tattoo reading’s not on the Word Wise list of services, but only because it’s so specialised.

I suspect Emma wouldn’t have employed a proofreader anyway. They’re often nerdy – and that’s not Hollywood cool. Dictionaries feature rarely in the glamorous world of film, when they’re confined to bookshelf cameos and obscured by stars like Emma.

Rightly so. Grammar’s not sexy like the Brit actress in her sparkling Oscars neckpiece and velvet dress. It was an appearance summed up by one glitterati expert when he said she’d “taken Hollywood by storm”. The A-lister even managed to boost her column inches with a wobbly fringe that had some speculating on who’d hacked their way across her English rose forehead. Maybe it was her tattooist or, more likely, her publicist?

It all combined to make the Hermione Granger actress the most talked about celebrity at the annual gossfest. The fringe, dress and diamonds played their part, for sure, but paled in comparison with that dodgy tattoo.

The cynical might suggest it was a clever move. Grammar’s rarely if ever featured on the red carpet, but mistakes have had a starring role for years in everything from stage plunges to ‘wardrobe malfunctions’ and Warren Beatty’s 2017 wrong envelope. Maybe this year was simply the turn of words to star, before a 2020 return to more traditional howlers?

After the headline-grabbing success of the claimed lacked of proofreading, time’s up for stunts which fail. The bar’s been set high by an absent apostrophe, which even prodded the anti-grammar movement into action. They claimed Emma’s forearm was correct. The hashtag for anti-sexual abuse group Time’s Up has no apostrophe, they argued, before retreating to a social media world where centuries of language convention is trumped by a naming protocol which stops the use of apostrophes anyway.

It got us debating, and surely that’s the point? It’s fabulous publicity for a movement which will only benefit from a spotlight on its great work.

Emma Watson, who studied at Oxford, is clever enough to realise that, and caring enough to do something about it. For someone with a degree in English, though, the game’s up on the dumb act.

© Lee Dickinson, 2022

This article’s writer, Lee Dickinson, is an advanced professional member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and chief editor at bookediting.co.uk. You can read his blog here.

Exposing the editing myth

Exposing the Editing Myth

The secret most editors would rather you didn’t know

Lee Dickinson, chief editor

By Lee Dickinson, chief editor

This is the hardest blog I’ve had to write. It pulls back the curtain on the hidden world of editing and reveals at least one mistake behind its facade of perfection.

That’s right – editors make errors. Behind that grammar, spelling and punctuation finger-wagger is a human who messes up, but hides it well. That was brought home to me recently when, for the first time, a client told me I’d made a mistake.

Gutted. Reading the polite email and that word “mistake” before seeing its extent was like hearing your name on the loudspeaker in a packed stadium. “Intestines, meet shoes.”

But then, hope. Perhaps the client had made the mistake, had misunderstood a suggested change, and my world remained apparently perfect? No. A check revealed the client was right, and the proofreading he’d paid for had failed him.

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It was a small mistake. “World” was used instead of “word”. The sentence still made sense, partly explaining why it hadn’t been spotted, but the meaning was altered. No excuses.

What now? Its status as my first reported mistake, in two years as a freelance editor, meant there was no protocol to rely on. I checked the rest of the document, noting the absence of any more mistakes, and the 169 corrections and queries in the 7,000 words. I was reassured the rest of the work was thorough, so approached the client with confidence mixed with deference.

The response started something like this:

“Dear (client’s name). Grovelling apology. Not acceptable. So sorry. Reduction on price of next job, if you’re happy to use me after this. Honestly, I’m sorry.”

But it didn’t end there. I placed the mistake in the context of human fallibility and the standard of the rest of the job. A one-character gaffe among more than 30,000 indicated a professional approach. I explained the surpassing of the widely touted figure in the profession that an acceptable error-spotting rate is 95 per cent. I pointed to the quality of previous jobs good enough to make him a repeat customer, and asked if he could find more mistakes, indicating the sort of shoddy work which would justify a refund. He couldn’t.

Why am I telling you about the error, exposing the facade? Like all mistakes, it’s been valuable. Embracing the saying, I’ve learnt from it. The back-page position of the error was critical, revealing a flaw and pinpointing its cause. The thousands of words analysed before getting to the final page had taken their toll, I realised. Brains soon tire, and regular breaks to keep the eyes fresh are vital. I’ve even blogged about the importance of staying alert but, hey, intentions and actions can differ in the heat of a busy schedule. Trust me, though, those editors who boast of the all-nighters they’ve done for clients have failed them.

The need to take breaks has been underlined to me, and I’ve also adopted a new policy on the order of editing. The back page is a crucial one to get right because of its position, and even more so on pamphlets. Now, instead of working from front to back and risking having tired eyes for those even-more-critical last words, I edit the back page immediately after the front.

So, the mistake has been a learning process which will improve my work. A positive from a negative. One of the things I’ve learnt is that perfection is a mirage. Reading a major publisher’s book recently showed even the biggest are far from flawless. Accept 95 per cent, though? Yes, perfection’s unrealistic, but it’s still the only goal worth striving for.

© Lee Dickinson, 2022

This article’s writer, Lee Dickinson, is an advanced professional member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and chief editor at Bookediting.co.uk. You can read his blog here.

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