Matt Gemmell on Proofreading

"Always let the work sit for a while after it’s written."

It’s the best feeling when you’ve finally written the last word, added the final stop, shut the laptop, and walked away. You’ve created something new, turned the blank page into something meaningful. Time to celebrate.

Then it’s back to work. Only this time, you need a scalpel to curate the best and cut the rest. Kill your darlings, as Steven King advises.

But how? We learn how to write, practice structuring our thoughts throughout our education. Proofreading—refining text—is an art even harder to master. It’s far too easy to overlook the faults in our prose.

So I thought, perhaps, we could learn a bit from the best, with tips from writers about how they proofread their work. For this first interview, I’m incredibly excited to have developer-turned-novelist Matt Gemmell share his tips for proofreading on iPad.

Here's Matt on his writing and proofreading workflow:

What's your favorite thing you've written recently?

I’d probably have to say the new novel that came out just last week, Middleshade Road.

What's your standard writing workflow?

For novels, I work up ideas using a mind-mapping and outlining tool called MindNode, often taking several weeks. I’ll often have done some free association beforehand via scribbling on the iPad Pro. I work the ideas into an outline and take it into Ulysses, splitting it into chunks as approximate scenes. I write above/before the bullet points and delete them as I go, so that I always have the next one just below my cursor.

For shorter work, I tend to just dive in and see where it takes me. For example, I send out a free weekly mini-story via email, in my Once Upon A Time series.

What's your favorite way to proofread your work and spot things to change?

I find that you can’t effectively proofread in the same format as you write. I tend to flip the iPad to portrait orientation, bump up the point size, and take it to the couch in my office. I then scan through using the Apple Pencil to guide my eye, and do corrections via Scribble. I spot many more issues that way than when reading at my desk. I also have other people proofread for me, of course, once I’m sure I’ve got something presentable.

What do you do with the things you cut?

Large-scale cuts are comparatively rare — I try to avoid them by being diligent during the planning phase — but when necessary I copy the relevant scene to the Deleted Scenes folder I create in each project, and they stay there forever. Sometimes they’re useful in future. I’ve had scenes that I cut in one book being useful in another, even.

What's your ideal editing workflow?

Something like what I do with the iPad and Pencil right now, but even more like going through a text with a red pen. I’d like to be able to use editor’s marks in red digital ink, then have them added to my actual text so I can address them all at once. It would be simple and natural. I don’t like complex things like change-tracking and multi-user comments, unless unavoidable.

The main lesson though is to always let the work sit for a while after it’s written, before you start editing it. If you try to edit it straight away, you will make changes, but then you’ll make a different set of changes a few days or weeks later. Give it time, and give yourself time to move a little bit away from it, then take a look with fresh eyes. And always, always, get people besides yourself to check it too; the writer sees what they think they wrote, not what’s actually there.

→ Check out Matt Gemmell's books, and follow him on Twitter @mattgemmell.

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