Have you ever read a review that was so riddled with misspelled words, grammatical errors, or nonsensical phrases that you began to keep a mental tally of the gaffes instead of following the author’s argument? I have. And while it would be easy to make light of such reviews, I feel compassion for the writer. I’ve made more than my share of mistakes online, from misspelling an author’s name to penning a sentence so tortured that, in hindsight, I wasn’t even certain what I meant. The majority of these mistakes can be chalked up to one thing: failing to edit my work carefully. Deadlines, job pressures, and personal commitments can make it easy to neglect editing, but failing to do so can compromise your authority as a writer and a critic, and anger creators who want to see their work treated respectfully; it isn’t pretty to be called on the carpet for writing a negative review that’s as problematic as the book under consideration. (Believe me, I’ve seen it happen. In a word: aaawwwwwwwkward.)
Below, I’ve outlined the steps involved in editing a review. These suggestions reflect the many years I’ve spent honing my own writing as a student, a teacher, an editor, a writer, and a Gal Friday with proofreading chops. This outline is not intended to be a one-size-fits-all proscription for catching mistakes, but a tool to help writers develop their own process for assessing and improving their work. Have an online resource that you think would be helpful for writers? Let me know in the comments and I’ll update the post to include your suggestion.
How Do I Edit My Stuff?
Most writers equate editing with checking their work for cosmetic problems—typos, extra carriage returns, and so forth. And while it’s true that proofreading is an important step in the editorial process, it’s generally the final one. The first—and most difficult—stages require you to scrutinize your prose for clarity, consistency, and economy (namely, can you say something in 10 words instead of 15 or 20?). Here’s a rough outline of the steps entailed in editing an essay or story:
Step One: Set the draft aside for one or two days.
There may be times when this simply isn’t possible, but allowing yourself time between drafting and editing will improve your chances of spotting problems.
Step Two: Read the review out loud, asking yourself the following questions:
Do the sentences flow smoothly? Circle or highlight any sentence that sounds choppy or awkward—the grammar may need correction, the word order may need adjustment, or the sentence may need to be shortened.
Do you use the same words or phrases too often? Circle or highlight those passages, then grab a thesaurus and search for alternatives.
Do you needlessly repeat information or opinions? There’s a fine line between elaborating a point and belaboring it; if you’ve described a book as “exciting,” “pulse-pounding,” and “thrilling” all in the span of a single sentence, you’ve said the same thing three times.
Step Three: Make your first round of corrections, then re-read with an eye towards structural issues. Ask yourself the following questions:
Does my review flow seamlessly from point to point? Look for awkward phrases, abrupt transitions, and weak topic sentences.
Have I achieved an appropriate balance between summary and critique? Generally speaking, reviews should be no more than 50% summary. If in doubt, trim any information that may be viewed as a spoiler, or is not addressed in your subsequent critique of the manga.
Have I substantiated my critique with evidence from the volume(s) I’m reviewing? If you describe a book as “dull” or “irritating,” be sure to explain why you feel that way: is it the dialogue? A particular character? The obvious plot twists?
Does the overall tone of my review match my opinion of the book? If you enjoyed a book, that should be evident from your word choice; the same is true for books that you didn’t like. If you’re ambivalent about a title, it’s OK to say so in the opening or closing of your review.
The Discard File
One of the main reasons we have difficulty editing is that we become attached to a favorite sentence or paragraph. Having crafted something that we like, we’re reluctant to delete it no matter how clumsy or inappropriate it may be in context. I have a remedy for deletion anxiety: cut and paste the offending passage into a separate file. That way, you can retrieve a sentence that, on second judgment, seems useful to your argument. Or you can do the eco-friendly thing and recycle a great turn of phrase in a future article. My own discard file has been a terrific resource for overcoming writer’s block, improving a weak review, and preserving kick-ass sentences that amused me but might never see the light of day.
Allow at least a few hours (if not longer) before you begin proofreading, or you’re bound to miss mistakes. I find it helpful to read the document backwards—the strangeness of the experience forces me to look at the prose more carefully, though the technique might not work for everyone.
I have a simple checklist of things to look for when I proofread:
- Extra spaces or carriage returns
- Spelling errors, typos (e.g. extra or missing letters)
- Subject-verb agreement (e.g. “They is” instead of “They are”), switching tense
- Its vs. it’s, which vs. that
- Punctuation and capitalization errors
- Missing words (e.g. forgetting an article, “In this volume, the family gets dog.”)
Two other things on my radar screen are parallelism problems and passive constructions. Most writers don’t realize that when they make a list of items, all of the items of the list need to be structured/phrased in the same manner, e.g. “Among the things she owned were a broken TV, a rotary phone, and a cracked mirror.” Note that all of the items in this list are expressed as article-adjective-noun. The same rule applies to sentences using participles and verbs, e.g. “He enjoys many activities, from playing golf and swimming to gardening and walking the dog.”
One of my other pet peeves as a writer is the kind of vagueness that goes hand-in-hand with passive constructions. Phrases such as “Urasawa is widely acknowledged as a genius” do more harm than good, as they leave your reader to wonder, Who says Urasawa is a genius? His critics? His mother? A better strategy is to rephrase these sentences in the active voice: “Urasawa’s fellow manga artists revere him as a genius.” There are, of course, plenty of times when the passive voice is a perfectly acceptable choice, especially in academic writing, but if it’s possible to identify an agent, do so. Your writing will sound more authoritative.
The final thing to keep in mind when proofreading: be consistent. If you give the name of one city as “Austin, TX,” all the cities in your essay should be formatted that way (as opposed to “Boston, Mass.” or “Yonkers, New York”). If you decide to hyphenate Asian-American, then all occurrences of that word should be hyphenated. And so forth. There are several excellent style manuals on the market (such as The Chicago Manual of Style and The MLA Handbook) that provide the nitty-gritty on hyphenation, capitalization, italicization, etc. Don’t want to shell out the clams for a bound copy? Many universities have posted Cliff Notes versions of these venerable style guides; one that I find useful in a pinch is The OWL (Online Writing Lab) at Purdue.
When Deadlines Loom…
Pressed for time? At a minimum, run the SpellCheck function on your computer, but monitor it carefully—the SpellChecker can add mistakes to your work, especially if you use funky foreign words like fujoshi or gensaku-sha. If these are words you anticipate using in future documents, add them to your SpellChecker’s memory to avoid comically awful substitutions. I’m less enthusiastic about Microsoft Word’s GrammarCheck function. While it seldom misses glaring errors (e.g. “You is my woman”), it may gloss over deeper structural problems or flag a sentence that is, in fact, grammatically acceptable. Use sparingly.
Putting Advice Into Practice
Suppose you’re writing a review of a new series, Dogball D. You’re both bored by and frustrated with the first volume, as the characters’ mannerisms and physical appearance remind you of characters from Dragonball Z. At the same time, however, you recognize that the similarity is intentional. The challenge: how to express that idea effectively.
Version 1: The main problem with Dogball D is that the characters are boring and unoriginal and just like the characters in Dragonball Z. That’s understandable, since Yuki Yamamoto wrote her story for a magazine that was competing directly with the magazine in which Dragonball Z was a big hit for many years before Dogball D came out.
Version 2: Dogball D‘s biggest problem is the characters: they’re pale imitations of the Dragonball Z gang. The similarity is understandable, since Yuki Yamamoto’s story runs in Young Mister, a direct competitor of the magazine in which Dragonball Z was serialized.
In the second version, I’ve compressed the idea of “boring” “unoriginal” characters into a single, more forcefully stated comparison between Dogball D and Dragonball Z. I’ve eliminated several prepositional phrases (e.g. “for a magazine”) and conjunctions, and dropped the phrase “before Dogball D came out,” as the contrast in tenses (“runs” versus “was serialized”) implies that Dragonball Z preceded Dogball D — an impression confirmed by the initial statement that the Dogball D cast is a “pale imitation” of Dragonball Z‘s famous characters. You can only imitate existing models!
Here’s another before-and-after comparison, this one culled from my own writing. The first paragraph comes from my review of Chica Umino’s Honey and Clover; the second comes from the revised version now currently visible on the front page. Changes are highlighted in red:
Original: If you’ve spent any time around an art school or conservatory, you’ve met students like the Honey and Clover gang, a chatty bunch who are eager to share and compare influences, discuss their romantic lives in intimate detail, and wax poetic about their latest enthusiasms. In Honey and Clover, that garrulity reflects the characters’ deep-rooted need for community, both a boundary-drawing exercise — this is what I stand for — and an invitation to join the group. As characters grow closer to each other, however, they often find conversation inadequate to the task of bridging the remaining distance between them, a motif that Chica Umino uses throughout volume eight.
Revised: If you’ve spent any time around an art school or conservatory, you’ve met students like the Honey and Clover gang, a chatty bunch who are eager to share and compare influences, discuss their romantic lives in intimate detail, and wax poetic about their latest enthusiasms. In Honey and Clover, that chattiness reflects the characters’ deep-rooted need to define who they are and how they fit in with their peers. As characters discover common ground, however, they often find conversation inadequate to the task of bridging the remaining distance between them, a motif that Chica Umino uses throughout volume eight.
I decided to revise the paragraph because I found it wordy and, frankly, a little pretentious: “garrulity”? “Boundary-drawing exercise”? The emptiness of those words became even more apparent when contrasted with the review that immediately followed it, as my take on Mixed Vegetables was snappier and easier to follow. So I rolled up my sleeves and made several small but crucial changes by finding five-dollar substitutes for the fifteen-dollar words and eliminating the parenthetical remark from the second sentence. The result: a clearer statement of the same idea.
I’ve learned as much from my errors as I have from my successes, as they remind me just how difficult writing really is. The more I practice drafting and editing my own work, however, the better the final product tends to be. Confronting my own shortcomings keeps me humble, but it also keeps me invested in improving, too — each review presents an opportunity to refine my skills a little more, and a chance to reflect on what constitutes good writing.
30 thoughts on “On Criticism: Why Editing Matters”
Michelle Smith says:
This is very useful, Kate. Thanks! Some of this stuff I think I kind of do instinctively, but you’ve written it out very clearly. I think I might make this post required reading for the PCS crew! 🙂
Katherine Dacey says:
Thanks, Michelle! Most of the experienced writers I know do some or all of these things automatically, but I found it a helpful exercise to write the steps down; it clarified my thinking about how I approach revisions.
Yes, every day! As a lead editor for the website I also write for, I see these errors constantly. Many of the things you mention I already do myself, but it took me several years to develop the thought process on my own. If I’d had a guide like this it might have gone much quicker. It does take a good deal of concentration and thoughtfulness to write with these sorts of things in mind, so when people are rushed, they forget all about the basic rules.
I did develop a style guide for our website, which contains our site standard formatting rules (and notes about things like consistency), which has been helpful. But it doesn’t contain any grammar rules (with a couple exceptions), so that I talk about individually with each writer, or send out an email to everyone with basic tips. I use the Chicago Manual of Style (which I own in all its enormous, bright orange glory), but cater it to our site’s specific needs.
For myself, I reread my posts several times before they go live. I usually end up tweaking things here or there each time. It took me quite a while (for another site I wrote for several years ago, and on my own personal review blog) to go from “this is how a fan girl writes” to “this is how a professional writes.” Once I realized what I was doing – like my two-part, five-page review of the second Xenosaga video game – I reigned myself in and began learning how to condense my thoughts, but still get them across. It’s a difficult thing to explain to someone; for me, I just sort of realized “Oh man, I’m writing like crap; who cares about this shit?” And ever since I’ve been streamlining my style. Unfortunately I am unsure how to get this across to others, especially in a polite manner (I’m generally fairly blunt).
They all have different writing styles, and so some of it is learning to balance their personality with proper writing; this is something I’m still learning as both a writer and an editor.
Thanks for this! It’s a good reminder. 🙂
Katherine Dacey says:
And thank you for mentioning style sheets, Kris — those are an indispensable tool for any team of writers working on the same book, website, or journal. I’ve developed a few, and they’re great for making sure you do things the same way every time. They’re also helpful for defining a house style (e.g. breezy, journalistic, academic).
Your point about streamlining your style resonates with me as well. There are definitely critics who can pull off a chatty, digressive review, but I’m not one of them. (That’s when phrases like “boundary setting exercise” creep into my writing, generally to its detriment.) I have a tendency to name-drop, refer to favorite books and movies, or insert smarty-pants asides. I’ve learned the hard way that keeping things simple works a lot better for me.
BTW, I loved your review of Itazura na Kiss at Girl G33k — it’s a great piece of writing! I’m not one for ditzy female leads, either, but I was also won over by Kotoko’s fundamental decency and strength of character (if not her, um, raging intellect).
Vampt Vo says:
Great tips, Kate.
Your tip about getting rid of favorite sentences is probably one of the best ones in the whole list. Amateur writers really have a lot of trouble letting go of what they’ve already written, which makes improving the article difficult. (And makes my job as an editor truly unenviable — I once had to let somebody go over just such an argument.) I believe that the phrase, “Kill your little darlings,” often applied to artists, is very appropriate for writers stuck with a phrase that they really like. Sometimes you’ve just gotta let it go.
I also heard a very interesting tip from Joystiq’s Christ Grant. He says that he writes an article, deletes everything but the last paragraph, then uses that as his introductory paragraph and starts over. Now that doesn’t always work, but I have tried a similar strategy with reviews that I completed but was immediately dissatisfied with. I find that it helps a lot, since when you get to the end, you have figured out what you were trying to say all along, so the second time through comes much more naturally.
Erica Friedman says:
Great article Kate. Of course I immediately added it to my summation of the whole “you’re doing it wrong” series. lol
In all seriousness, I’m making an effort to include Bloggers like you and all the many, many folks I respect more on Okazu. It raises the level of discourse, the level of critical thinking and damn, it’s a lot of fun!
Hungry for Yuri? Have some Okazu!
Katherine Dacey says:
@Erica: Thanks for the linkage! More and more Okazu readers have been clicking their way to The Manga Critic, thanks to your kind words.
And for anyone who missed Erica’s succinct list of blogging do’s and dont’s, here’s a direct link: http://okazu.blogspot.com/2010/01/hows-whats-whys-and-why-nots-of-manga.html. Erica also provides numerous links to other great think-pieces on criticism, blogging, and comics journalism, so go and read!
@Vampt Vo: I can’t remember who originally taught me the discard file trick, but it’s been a life-saver, especially with my doctoral dissertation. I find it much easier to part with a nicely crafted but utterly irrelevant idea if I can preserve it for posterity!
Chris Grant’s suggestion is an intriguing one — I’ll have to give it a try the next time I’m desperately unhappy with something I’ve written. (Naturally, I’ll have my discard file open and ready to receive the trimmings.) Thanks for sharing it, and for adding another editor’s perspective to the conversation!
On Grant: It seems that his particular tactic works with his own particular style of writing. I can’t see that it would work as well for someone whose brain works differently when they’re plotting out an article. But the idea that you write up a piece, then essentially delete it all and start over, isn’t a bad one. Such a tactic wouldn’t work for me, because I have an awful memory. I rarely plan something out in advance; I’ll start with a basic concept, and then I just write as my brain thinks stuff up. Then I go back and prune it. If I deleted it all and started over, I’d never remember the things I had said. Of course if he ends all of his articles with a summary of all the points he made (which I haven’t done since I wrote my last college paper), that makes it much easier.
Thank you for your comment on my Itazura review!
Katherine Dacey says:
That’s a good point, Kris — not everyone writes in a linear fashion. My process varies considerably with the length of the essay I’m writing. I tend to be very haphazard when writing short pieces and quite meticulous when writing longer pieces. Even when I’m being careful and drafting an outline, however, my thought process can be very chaotic, and I almost never begin with the introduction and systematically work my way to the conclusion.
The nice thing about images is being able to flip it and see mistakes pop out right away. Too bad that doesn’t work so well with text.
I liked this; are you planning to do more articles on criticism?
Katherine Dacey says:
Thanks, Jade! Yes, I plan to write more essays in this vein, though I haven’t thought about how frequently. I wanted to use this essay as a trial balloon to gauge interest in the topic.
When I’m writing an essay or paper (academic basically), I start with my introduction, and then I just start writing…and write and write…. The problem is, by the time I get to the end, my thought process has churned so wildly that I often end up with a completely different point at the end of the piece, than what I was writing about to begin with. I would flow from idea to idea, and my paper would be continuously changing. It was a horrible method, actually. 🙂 It was sort of like I was arguing with my own mind the entire time.
I also happened to be horrible at conclusions; I didn’t really know when to stop, or how.
Martin Gray says:
Wonderful piece, Katherine, I love the Discard File idea. I was putting together some nonsense last night and realised a phrase I loved wouldn’t fit. Finally, out it went. And now I’ve forgotten it. Bah. Vampt Vo’s ‘kill your little darlings’ came to mind then; from now on, I’ll stick the buggers in a wordy Limbo.
Having started out as a reporter, imminent deadlines meant I never got into first and second drafts. Stories tended to be ‘off the top of my head’ stuff, written in the knowledge I had the backstop of a good sub editor (copy editor in the US, I think). Solo blogging, though, means I don’t have the luxury. Hopefully, years of journalism have wired my head to sort things out into some kind of coherence as I go along . .. really, though, I just tell myself that what I’ve wound up with is what I planned all along.
For my comics blog (non-Manga, DC and Marvel, mainly), I usually make a note or two as I’m reading, but too much of this makes the experience artificial – I should be reading for pleasure, not review purposes. Sometimes, if I can’t think of a way in, I start at par 2, and add the intro later. I also read and revise a few times before publishing, like Kris. It’s all a bit chaotic, but it works for me.
Mind, I only really do reviews of the week’s new comics. What I lack in style and sense – a lot, no doubt – I hopefully make up for in timeliness and opinion. If anyone ever reads my ramblings, feel free to pull me up on rubbish!
@Kris, what’s a conclusion? 😉
Again though, nice work, Katherine.
Katherine Dacey says:
Thanks for the feedback, Martin! While I relish the freedom to post what I want, when I want, I often wish I had a good editor covering my back. It would have saved me some embarrassment, that’s for sure!
By the way, I just checked out your blog and enjoyed the latest crop of reviews on the home page. But “Too Dangerous for a Girl”? If I’ve survived the experience of reading MPD Psycho or Berserk, I’m ready for whatever DC, Marvel, and friends can dish out! Bring it on, I say! 😉
Martin Gray says:
Hee, sorry, that disgraceful line from an early Sixties Legion of Super-Heroes strip has just stuck with me down the years – fancy saying that to the Legion’s first female leader! Alternative suggestions welcome.
Now, where would an ignoramus begin with manga?
Katherine Dacey says:
Actually, I kind of like the blog title — it’s very cheeky!
As for your manga question, a lot depends on what you like to read. If you’re a sci-fi guy, I’d highly recommend Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto and 20th Century Boys. Both are twisty, complicated, lots of fun, and beautifully illustrated, as is Urasawa’s Monster, a political thriller that reads like a cross between The Fugitive and The Boys from Brazil. If you like historical drama, Kazuo Koike’s Lone Wolf and Cub is a pulpy, violent samurai story that’s incredibly engrossing (in an over-the-top way). And if you’re a horror buff, Parasyte is a must. Any other readers have suggestions?
Did you know that Stan Lee was collaborating with a manga artist on a series called Ultimo? I just got a review copy yesterday. If you’re curious, send me an email with your address and I’ll send it to you when I’m done writing my review. I’d be curious to get a superhero fan’s take on it.
Martin Gray says:
Thanks so much. I’ve heard of LW&C, but read only Frank Miller’s Ronin, which I believe was some kind of homage. The rest sound intriguing.
Thanks for the offer, I’ll send my email over on my break. Hard at it here in Edinburgh . . . 🙂
In the sci fi vein, I’d suggest Eden, Akira, Neon Genesis Evangelion, the Phoenix series…Ghost in the Shell is OK, but everything is hinged on 99% technobabble.
For some unique light-hearted horror, Kurosagi Corpse Delivery is great; definite appeal for Bruce Campbell fans. Slasher-horror fans should get a lot of mileage out MPD Psycho from the same author as well.
Also, Samurai Executioner goes well with Lone Wolf and Cub in that historical vein.
Martin Gray says:
Cheers Jade, it’s about time I tried some of this stuff.
I write and edit for a comic book review site, and it’s not too dangerous for me! 🙂 I end up reading about all kinds of comic books, though I personally read very few (Captain America, New Avengers, Wonder Woman, RASL, and the occasional mini-series, like Mass Effect: Redemption). I write mostly about manga over there, which is a mostly new and foreign (no pun meant there) thing to many of our writers. They’re learning a lot about all sorts of strange things from me, as I am learning much about American comic history, characters, stories and various things. We’ve got one or two older industry guys who write for us (one of them is an excellent artist who has also worked for Wizards of the Coast); one of them writes a column about old fanzines, which is full of all sorts of interesting information.
Oy, I’m sorry Katherine; I think I just plugged myself in your comments section.
Anyway, some of them are still a little rough as writers, and I’m working with them, slowly refining their styles. I’ve considered pointing them to this column. You have said some of these things far better than I probably could.
Katherine Dacey says:
Happy to be a soapbox — no apologies needed!
All great tips. Thanks for this post! Definitely filing it for future perusal.
“Do you use the same words or phrases too often? Circle or highlight those passages, then grab a thesaurus and search for alternatives.”
Some people may find a useful visual helper for this in Wordle. For example, here’s an image I made for someone to illustrate his overuse of the word “really” in his Patlabor movie review. Perhaps less useful for pros, but it may still provide some interesting feedback that’s not otherwise obvious.
Linda, how does that work exactly?
I discovered a feature called “Track Changes” in Microsoft Word. I found (for people who are able to use it), that if I copy their posts into Word, turn that feature on, and then edit it that way…. The program will show each and every change I make, and I can also make notes on why I made a change, or make a note to ask them to reconsider the phrasing of a sentence, or whatever. Then I can send that to my writers, and they can see exactly where the problems are, the changes I made, and why I made them. They seem to find it very helpful.
Go to the site; enter your text or URL; see the picture and tweak it if you like; profit. Needs Java, though.
Most people use Wordle to get the pretty pictures, but it can double as a visual word/phrase frequency analyzer. There may well be better tools for that sort of thing, of course.
Martin Gray says:
Cheers Kat, another good-looking website for me to check out – and I get to compare my Brave and Bold #31 review with your chum Andrew’s!
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