A review of The Frugal Editor: Put your best book forward to avoid humiliation and ensure success by Carolyn Howard-Johnson

Contrary to popular misconception, publishers will rarely take on a work that is in obvious need of editing (and to a publisher, every typo is obvious), so authors really need to be capable editors of their own work. Writing guru Carolyn Howard-Johnson approaches the thorny topic of editing in her usual light-hearted and easy to read fashion.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The Frugal Editor: Put your best book forward to avoid humiliation and ensure success
by Carolyn Howard-Johnson
Red Engine Press
# ISBN-10: 0978515870, # ISBN-13: 978-0978515874, 208 pages, Oct 2007

Ah, editing. To the unpublished writer editing may seem like the last unimportant afterthought in the creation of your masterpiece. Those of us who have moved through the ring of fire between “completion” and “final edit” know that this couldn’t be further from the truth. While editing might be the point at which you leave your muse behind and begin wielding the knife, the different between an unedited manuscript and a professionally edited one is the difference between good work and bad work. It’s that simple. Contrary to popular misconception, publishers will rarely take on a work that is in obvious need of editing (and to a publisher, every typo is obvious), so authors really need to be capable editors of their own work. Writing guru Carolyn Howard-Johnson approaches the thorny topic of editing in her usual light-hearted and easy to read fashion. Howard-Johnson’s style may be as warm as a good friend looking over your shoulder, but she doesn’t hesitate to speak honestly and sharply about the perils of refusing to edit. She is also very clear that what she refers to as “editing” is only the final step in the bigger task of “revision,” a critical task that this book doesn’t attempt to tackle. If you’ve revised until you can’t revise anymore, then you are ready to open this book, and clean up your final mess of a masterpiece into something ready for submission; something which won’t get pipped at the post because it is full of easily fixed mistakes.

The book contains simple suggestions which bear repeating such as always correcting at least once in hardcopy, making sure that pronoun case matches its antecedent, removing conjunctions starting sentences, leftover doubles from cut and paste or avoiding the use of Thein your title. There are also some more innovative suggestions such as the best way to use MS Word’s tracking tool, using the find and replace to strengthen your writing, assessing adverbial placement, reducing gerunds and dangling participles, eliminating superfluous words like “has” and “was,” and a terrific chapter on dealing with weak adverbs:

Your search for adverbs can yield metaphors or similes, the kind of associations that allow you to find and insert little flecks of solid gold into your copy. In the example we used before, “He ran quickly,” you determine that the adverb is redundant. Running, by its nature is quick, but you want more. Ask yourself, “quickly as what?” This kind of edit can open doors for better imagery — help give your reader a visual or other sensory experience. It can also suggest possibilities for humor — something that may well be welcomed by agents or publishers skimming query letters or dull proposals.(31)

There are chapters on using apostrophes, on correct hyphenation and the use of prefixes, punctuation dialogue, fixing extra spaces, choosing an effective external editor (someone you pay for), doing a final galley edit including some formatting issues you wouldn’t know unless you’ve been through a full book publication, creating a good impression while mailing, and a list of common mistakes. The book also provides a sample of a good cover letter, query letter, and a good bibliography. While the overall focus of the book is on correct grammar and improving your copy, this is not a grammar book. Instead, it is solely focused on polishing your final draft to make your work as good, and error free as possible. These are excellent suggestions and relatively easy to follow. Doing so however can dramatically change your work, making your meaning clearer and your prose more compelling.

Some of the simpler information is contained in sidebars, so you can ignore them if you are ‘in the know’ about things like the best way to use your spell-check, when to use quotation marks or italics for titles, where to place your adverbs, creating your own custom dictionary in Word, testing for passives, misuse of quotation marks, or (and this was something I never knew Word had, and it’s pretty cool) using the Readability Statistics feature. As you can see, the book is a lot less useful for those who write in MS Word (which is most of us) than it would be for others, but most word processors have similar features and it would

As is her wont, Carolyn Howard-Johnson has created a practical guide to editing your work which you’ll want to keep handy and refer to every time you finish a piece of work, whether it be a query letter, a simple pitch, or a full novel. Use her system step by step, and you will very likely find your work changing from an attractive lump of coal to a polished diamond editors won’t be able to refuse.

About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of Sleep Before EveningThe Art of Assessment, and Quark Soup.

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