Sense Checking a Story

A professor once told that I didn’t really need a spell checker. What I needed was a sense checker.

I write very fast when I am really cooking. I can knock of 2,000 words of a story in an hour. I don’t stop to fix anything; I just type on. As a result, my text is full of problems. I leave out words or even whole phrases and don’t notice. I have an idea and halfway through the sentence I get another idea and the front half of the sentence doesn’t match the second half. I like to run sentences on with lots of if, ands and buts.

My editing process is usually a spell check. I then go and make shorter paragraphs, delete anything in parentheses (I like parentheses). I then break sentences up into short declarative sentences and remove the syllogisms that pervade my prose.

Still, I get lost in new ideas and leave out words or combine different thoughts into one sentence. There are always areas in my text that don’t make sense. I can’t see these errors because I wrote them. This is a common issue in programming. Programmers can’t see their own bugs. They wrote the code and it made sense at the time so they see the sense that they remember, not the actual code. They see what the code is supposed to do, not the actual logic.

I have trouble in that my ideas about the narrative masks the actual words. I am skimming fast and my mind jumps to conclusions and doesn’t see the errors.

There are a few things you can do to find the sense errors in a story.

First, I use Microsoft Words Grammar checker. I have turned ALL of the settings in Word on, except for checking for the first person (which I use occasionally) and Comma Required before last item on list, which I consider an error (even though some editors require it).

I try to fix everything that Word detects, but I think that it is overly sensitive to passive voice. I fix the overtly convoluted passive voice instances that it detects, but leave some that might require structures that come out even worse than the passive voice.

I then use my own Weasel Words Detector, Adverb Detector, and Banned Words Detector. I try to delete all these words. The weasel words keep creeping in, even in the revisions.

I also use the online grammar checker at The Word spell checker is better than theirs, but their grammar checker does a good job of detecting broken sentences. It finds things that MS Word misses. It detects lots of things that aren’t errors, though. I tried Grammatica, but it was a limited use program, kept freezing or looping, and was not worth paying for.

Next, I change the font on my story and read it again. Sometimes moving the words around due to a different style and size font makes the errors jump right out at me.

If I have time, I sub-vocalize the story – that is, I move my lips. I long ago learned to read fast by placing a pencil in my mouth and not vocalizing. I want to do the exact opposite. I want to read slow, subvocalizing every word to see how it sounds in my head. It takes about a half hour to read 5,000 words this way and I don’t like doing it.

Last, if I have a story that I think might be better than average, I ask another person to read it. Some friends are better than others at this. Erica, my wife, is very good, but she is a busy person. My friend John is a good editor, but he tries to rewrite the story. I had a few other friends who proofed my stories for a while, but stopped doing it. It is a lot of work.

If you are lucky, there will be very few errors left by the time you submit the stories to an editor. The best editors will let you know if they find any problems so that you can fix them.

Unfortunately, most editors are afraid to establish any kind of dialog with writers. Editors have to reject lots of stories and some writers are even crazier then me and send abusive email back to the them. Editors don’t want to argue when they reject a story, but a crazy person thinks that they can still prove a point when they are totally in the wrong, somehow getting the editor to change their mind. A crazy writer is a scary thing. Telling an editor that you have a gun and you know where they live will not help you sell your story.