I started the walk before dawn, collecting clouds as I went. Wispy ones darted in and out of the red rock formations; others nestled in puddles after midnight rains. The pine needles had felted into heavy mats that softened the ground beneath my feet. They created soft nests for windfalls of storm-blown pine cones.
The prickly pear cactus were loaded with buds of gray-green fruit that would swell to magenta chalices in the fall, luring families of javelina to gorge on the ripe fruit. I might walk down the road then and see scatterings of red seedy scat.
The Pyracantha were loaded with caper-sized green berries that would turn red later in the year, a bonanza for urbanized deer who would jump five-foot fences to gorge on the orange-red berries.
In the pre-dawn hush, the birds weren’t feeding, just quietly murmuring in the trees like a group of dorm buddies waiting for breakfast. The flies would wait until full sun, but the mosquitoes were active. A red welt swelled on my wrist and I picked up the pace.
As the sun burned the morning air gold, a male cardinal swooped from a shaggy-bark juniper, its feathers a carmine red. In the scrub oak, a nearby rival acted serenely unimpressed.
Overhead, a phainopepla’s black-and-white wingtips flashed semaphore signals as it landed, bending the top needle-branch of a pinion pine.
The dog walkers hadn’t arrived yet, but one skinny marathon runner adjusted a knee brace and jogged painfully down the hill. I waved to early morning construction crews who were setting up for the day’s work. A scruffy bicyclist wearing a military green scrub cap, old T-shirt and cargo pants puffed heavily as he made the hill top. He gave me a grin of co-conspirators, out in these early hours.
I shared the morning with the animals. A calico cat jumped from a stone wall for a scritch behind one ear. A gray Kaibab squirrel gleaned sunflower seeds from the feeder almost too high above its reach. A cottontail rabbit elongated its hops into leaps as I grew closer.
I didn’t have to own anything to be a part of that glorious morning, and yet I felt immensely wealthy.
The whole world spread before me, free for the taking, when I slowed down and paid attention to the gifts the day offered.
We buzz through emails: delete, delete, save, delete.
We flip through social media: scroll, like, heart, share.
What does that do to proofreader skills? It’s a train wreck waiting to happen. Three minutes after your eBook goes live on Kindle you spot the first typo in the “Look Inside” feature. Ten minutes later you’ve gotten a one-star review: “Doesn’t this Bozo have a copy editor?”
To which your response may be, “Yes, but she’s out to lunch with Oprah’s chef and Jillian Michaels, the personal trainer.”
Welcome to the real world of self-editing.
But there are some ways you can train yourself to be a better proofreader.
First, recognize that we all make typing mistakes. There is a reason why the backspace, according to Microsoft, is the third most used key on the keyboard.
We make mistakes for a multitude of reasons: First, remember that in the course of writing several drafts of a full-length novel, you may put hundreds of thousands of words on the page. Some of these will be the wrong words.
Then there are brain-finger coordination problems: If you type-when-tired or worse, type-without-a-break, you’ll find “stutters” such as duplicate letters or duplicate words appearing.
And consider the mechanical issues such as sticky keys and cursors with a mind of their own, inserting your cut-and-paste in the middle of the wrong paragraph.
So when it comes to proofreading your work, don’t be insulted if there are a lot of errors. Accept that you’ll need to put out some effort to catch typos.
STRATEGIES THAT WORK
Luckily I’m a mystery writer, so I’ve got a lot of experience developing strategies to help me solve this particular “crime.”
Let me share a few strategies that I use.
1. Look for patterns of frequent typing errors
In order to change bad typing habits before they kick in, keep a small notebook at hand, and note when you backspace to correct an error. Look for patterns of errors: the kinds you are prone to make.
Or, turn off spell check for several pages, then recheck spelling with it on. What errors do you find? Those are the ones to be watchful for as you revise your drafts.
2. Trick your brain
One reason why mistakes jump out of a manuscript to a reader is that they are looking at them for the first time. Whereas to you, those sentences are old friends. You’ve seen them dozens of times!
So change what you are looking at. Use a different font, use double spacing of lines rather than single space. Transfer the manuscript to your Kindle reader and read it there. Print out a hard copy and proof it that way. It will be much easier on your eyes!
Try changing the music you’re listening to. I have one playlist for rough drafts, another for revisions, yet a third (a slow, Baroque one) for proofreading.
Change locations: if you always write at your desk with a favorite cup of tea, do your proofreading in a quiet library reading room.
3. Spell check is not always your friend
Let me give you two examples: first, the hyphen in a compound adjective such as “ten-cent price” may not be caught by spell check, as “ten” and “cent” are perfectly good words, correctly spelled.
Second, watch out for flagged duplicates such as “the the.” It’s nice that Word catches these for you, but if you really meant to type “in the,” deleting the first “the” without adding the “in” introduces an entirely new error.
4. Be aware of your reading speed
Surfing the internet? Warp speed! We typically spend about 59 seconds deciding whether a site is worthwhile, before making the decision to stay or leave.
Proofreading on the other hand is agonizingly slow. We aren’t worried about seeing the forest for the trees, we are down to the twigs on the branches. We are searching for the bug on the twig, the eyelash on the bug.
One way to slow down is to read backwards. Start at the end of your manuscript and read forward, one sentence at a time. I keep a favorite blue plastic ruler, just for this purpose. You’ll be surprised what you’ll catch.
5. Keep your keyboard clean
If you have pets, break out the vacuum occasionally to siphon the cat hair, dog slobber, and mouse lint out of your computer. Cleaner keyboards will cut down on sticky keys and stutters.
6. Watch your posture
I like to compose sitting in my easy chair with said cat under my elbow and my laptop at a rakish tilt. Guess what that does to wrist-on-pressure-pad inadvertent cursor jumps. I pay for my comfort when it comes to error counts!
7. Do macro-corrections
The key here is to look for mistakes, not the right words. For example, do a find-and-replace for double spaces after sentences, for quotation marks before a period or before a comma. Double commas or double periods are not uncommon when your revision takes out a word or switches the order of phrases within a sentence. The Word find-and-replace can spot these quickly for you.
If a character has the name Sandy, the first time you spell it “Sandi” mark the mistaken spelling down to do a quick find-and-replace on the mistaken spelling when you edit your manuscript.
8. Little words can be tricky
It’s not that we don’t know how to speak English. We do! The problem arises in multiple drafts when we change tense and don’t add that final “d,” or change nouns and miss transforming the “a” to an “an” or vice-versa.
Be especially vigilant for prepositions: they are so tiny that the brain sometimes skips right over them. For example, keep an eagle eye out for missing prepositions such as “to,” “of,’” or “in.”
Spell check can’t catch those missing words—that’s your job!
9. Set the timer
You do have a timer, right? Either Pomodoro on your computer or a hand model set way across the room so you have to get up to shut the darn thing off to give yourself a break when you are proofreading.
And once up, walk outside for five minutes, climb a flight of stairs, breathe deeply, or do a few toe-touches. The brain needs oxygen to focus.
While you are breaking, give your eyes a mini-rest as well. Focus into the distance, close them for a few moments, or dab in some eye drops.
10. Pay attention to headings and subheadings
Words look different when they are in all caps. A friend of mine got her book all the way to the proof stage at Amazon before she caught a spelling error on the book spine!
11. Use the text-to-speech feature of Word
You can find this feature by going to the help menu of Word for specific directions. I keep it handy on my tool bar where I can select about a page of the manuscript, click the icon, and this wonderful, calm, nonjudgmental male voice (I’ve christened mine “Bruce”) reads through my writing, word by word as I follow along, pen in hand.
12. Build in a reward
Proofreading is hard work. When you are done for the day, pamper yourself. Try a hot bath, a finger massage on your wrists, or soft music with a cold cloth over your eyes.
You’re darn well worth it, and your readers will thank you, too!
PS—Using the above techniques, when I proofread this post I spotted an extra word that didn’t belong, a missing Oxford comma, and six phrases that I wanted to change. Bruce caught a missing end-of-word “n” that I could have sworn I typed. 🙂
When I set out to write the Pegasus Quincy mystery series, I knew the first one, Death in Copper Town, had to take place in a mining town on the slopes of the Verde Valley. To make it realistic, I had to include the Ailanthus trees ubiquitous to that part of the Valley.
Apple trees in the old pioneer orchards make a surprise appearance in an upcoming Pegasus Quincy mystery, Silence in West Fork, to be published later this year.
Two trees on opposite ends of the Verde Valley bring together the spirit of the Verde Valley. One, the Ailantus altissima or Tree-of-heaven, populates the hilly streets of Jerome in the foothills of the Black Mountains to the south. The other, the humble apple tree, grows wild on the upper banks of Oak Creek Canyon to the north. Both have become a part of my life in Sedona.
First, the tree of heaven. If you travel up the mountain to Jerome in the spring, you’ll catch the “burned peanut butter” fragrance of golden blossoms. In the summer, the lacy green of the leaves frames the view across the Verde Valley like a Victorian lady’s parasol. Later in the fall, you’ll be surrounded by the crimson, sumac-like leaves drifting down to the worn limestone cobblestone streets of the old mining town.
The tree first became popular in eastern cities, because it was easy to grow and survived almost any kind of pollution. It became the title of Betty Smith’s book about family life in the tenements at the turn of the century, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
The air in the mining towns of the West was just as polluted. During the heydays of the copper mining, the smelter smog killed just about every living plant in Jerome. With the local pine and juniper decimated to shore up the mines, nothing remained to hold the soil and hillsides eroded. The town was endanger of slipping down into the Verde Valley below.
The “Tree of Heaven/Paradise Trees” that abound throughout the Upper Verde were part of a “re-greening” of the Verde Valley by Phelps Dodge when mining operations ceased in the 1950s.
Enter the ailanthus. It is an alien tree, first arriving in America from China in the 1700s. The tree is a survivor, thriving in the sulfur dioxide-infused soil of Jerome. It is also a selfish beastie, secreting a substance in its bark and leaves that, like the black walnut, inhibits growth of any other plants in the area. But the ailanthus likes the crumbling soil and arid conditions of Jerome, and it gives life-sheltering green to a town that was barren and dark after the mines left.
That being said, it’s not without drawbacks. According to Jeff Schalau, head of the master gardener’s program in the Verde Valley, “Most people start out liking the tree of heaven. It grows with little water, tolerates alkaline soils, and it creates shade. Most trees of heaven begin to produce seed at about 10 years of age. Male or female flowers are usually produced on separate trees.
“So, the after the 10 year honeymoon period, seedlings begin to come up everywhere. In addition, if the tree is damaged or cut down, then it begins to sprout from the roots. The tree of heaven also produces allelopathic chemicals that preclude other plants from successfully growing nearby.”
The second, the apple tree also came from China, arriving in America in the 1600s. It hitched a ride with the pioneers to Sedona a hundred years ago. Here it thrived on the banks of Oak Creek canyon in small orchards planted by early homesteaders. They would harvest the crops and trek wagon loads of apples up the steep canyon to Flagstaff to satisfy the hungry timberland workers living there.
Some years ago I helped my sister-in-law locate and map all of the old homesteads spread throughout the canyon. We found almost twenty old orchards, together with old trails once used by mountain lion and bear crossing the canyon.
The big predators are gone, but the trees remain. Many are on the outskirts of the tourist camp grounds: Manzanita, Pine Flats, Banjo Bill. You’ll see the cracked cement footings of an old cabin, some renegade lilac bushes, and these old craggy trees. If you look sharp you’ll spot them, interspersed in pine and fir stands near the water or tucked in at the edge of a penstamen-filled meadow.
Some have reverted to native stock, producing small sour apples, but others are loaded with green fruit, already ripening with a dusting of red. Come late September, they produce the best eating apples in the world, crisp and juicy, with a sweet snap as you bite into them.
Well almost the best. I think that distinction has to be the ones I stole from the neighbor’s orchard next door in the small South Dakota town where I grew up, a descendant of Scandinavian immigrants.
And in a way, these two trees, the apple and the ailanthus, are pioneers, too. They came from the other side of the earth and have adapted to surroundings very different from their native soils in China.
They are a legacy that makes the Verde Valley a very special place for all of us.