Essential writing skills: what editors do, and why it’s essential

It’s possible these days for anybody who wants to publish to do so. Bung the book up on Amazon, and hey presto – you’re published. But it’s risky without proper editing. By editing, in this context, I mean ‘editing the finished manuscript’ – not the stuff an author does to go from Draft 1 to Draft 2, which is often also called ‘editing’.

Yes, this IS my typewriter. What's it doing on the Wellington Writers Walk? Er - introductions...

Yes, this IS my typewriter. What’s it doing on the Wellington Writers Walk? Er – introductions…

Self-edited books carry risks because familiarity literally breeds contempt. You can’t see you own mistakes. Even literal typos disappear from view after a while.

There are all sorts of techniques to get around that – reading backwards, for instance, word by word, looking for ‘literals’. Yet at the end of the day nothing beats a fresh pair of eyes. Especially a fresh pair of eyes belonging to an expert editor.

Editing, as a process for preparing a manuscript for publishing, breaks into two main tasks. They are quite specialist, and everyday authors are NOT, I repeat NOT, likely to have necessary skills. As I’ve mentioned before, I had occasional run-ins with proof-editors who have actually been authors, masquerading as editors.

Last year one guy tried to re-write my material to fit his concept of my book, as if he was a better expert in my subject than I was. He wasn’t (he did his re-write from a secondary text) and all he did was break my carefully prepared, researched and peer-reviewed material. The publisher refused my request to send the original MS to a competent proof-editor, with the result that I ended up putting, by my estimate, over 60 hours unplanned time into undoing the vandalism. Ouch.

Here’s how it should work:

  1. Proof-editing. This is done first. It’s the big structural stuff – making sure the correct overall frameworks are there, that things are introduced in the right order, and that the writing makes sense overall. It’s a specialist skill – authors are usually NOT good proof-editors – certainly not of their own stuff, and often not of others.
  2. Line-editing. This is the detail stuff – making sure that the grammar is right, that there are no literal typographical errors – that full stops are in the right place, that dashes are all the right lengths (hyphens, em- and en- dashes all have their places). It’s usually done more than once, and it’s always done last. It’s an exceptionally ‘trainspottery’ skill; those who do it need to have an absolute eye for details that are often invisible to others (like the visual difference between en- and em- dashes).

Publishers hire editors with these skills all the time –and often have in-house editors with those skills. It’s not cheap, but it’s essential.  The question, of course, is how far self-publishers should go on the same issue – bearing in mind the typical costs versus the likely returns from any book. More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Essential writing skills: when plain English isn’t – and how to write simply

It was Ernest Hemingway, I think, who once remarked that he didn’t need to use the ‘ten dollar’ words in order to write well. Too true. Plain is best when it comes to writing.

Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume...

Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume…

Hemingway didn’t mean that we must then reduce ‘plain English’ to an accounting exercise – you know, the attempt to reduce readability to numbers through ‘Gunning Fog’ tests, ‘Flesch Kincaid’ scores and so on.

Apart from anything else, it’s too easy to game them. String together a nonsense set of three-letter words in four or five-word sentences and guess what – these tests insist it’s the best possible sort of writing.

Except it isn’t.  But what can we expect when we try to reduce a complex social expression to numbers?

The reality is that clear writing has a lot less to do with short words and sentences than you may think. The reason, I suspect, that this has been conflated with ‘simple’ is because requiring that sort of structure stops inexpert writers from producing long and convoluted sentences.

Actually, it’s perfectly possible to write plainly and simply with long sentences, too. Hemingway did it – interspersing them with his short sentences.

The trick isn’t sentence length or even word length. It’s all to do with organisation. Writers wrestle with two things, mainly, when composing material: (a) the translation of an abstract concept into words; and (b) doing so in a linear fashion.

It’s the failure to do these things that usually leads to writing being convoluted. Mix in the point that writing is often required of people (let’s say in a corporate environment) who aren’t expert in it – though they are subject experts – and the result is often disastrously complex phrasing, as they wrestle with ideas that they just don’t have the writing chops to nail down.

My suggestion – which I think is handy for any writer, anyway – is to try this:

  1. Translate your thoughts. Get a blank sheet of paper and a pen. Jot down your ideas, anywhere on the paper, without putting them in any order. A word or two each, maybe a phrase. Then get another sheet of paper. Do the ideas seem to form an order or pattern? Copy them across, in that order. Revise any phrases along the way. Do they make sense? No? Repeat. Do NOT use software. It’s important to do this by hand, with the copying – it’s integral to making you THINK in a DIFFERENT WAY.
  1. Now expand your list of words and phrases – figure out how it translates into sentences and paragraphs. Re-word completely if necessary, that’s part of the process too. Does it make more sense than before? Is there a better way of phrasing it? Stick to the pen and paper for the minute.
  2. Now it’s time to type it into the word processor – once again, reviewing and revising as you go. In theory this should get your ideas in order. Now’s the time to re-word again, this time for style.

Does this approach work for you? How do you organise chaos into order when writing?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Can we sell books with suggestive gibberish?

The other day I tried to buy a little smackerel of something from a fast food joint. When I went to close the deal the fellow behind the counter suddenly said “Wuddawuddabopbopbop.” Hilarity ensued.

Me: I’m sorry, I didn’t get that.
Goon: WUDDAWUDDABOPBOPBOP.
Me: Sorry, still don’t get it. Can you repeat it slowly, not louder?
Goon: WUD – DA – WUD – DA … (etc).

It turned out he was trying to sell me an add-on. The speed of the patter, I suspect, was part of the technique to get an unsuspecting customer to buy a delicious handful of whole unboned chicken, lovingly dropped through an industrial macerator, chemically bleached, mechanically reconstituted into bite-sized chunks with artificial flavour, wrapped in sawdust and MSG before being deep-fried, left for half an hour to go lukewarm, then served up in a grease-stained cardboard cup.

ClickhereandbuymybooksOK?

ClickhereandbuymybooksOK?

That led me to wonder whether I couldn’t get bookstores to do the same for books. You know – somebody picks up the latest best-seller and ends up being on-sold a couple of other titles. The trick is mangling the request so the hapless book buyer doesn’t know what they’re ending up with – they think they’ll be getting two sequels to Fifty Shades of Grey whereas they’ve just bought a pile of books by that guy Wright (for selection, click on the titles in the right hand column of this blog).

And this is where you come in. Drop me a comment with your take on just how a bookstore attendant might mangle things so as to slip in one of my titles (that column on the right) – or one of your own. Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Essential writing skills: how to invisibly improve your writing

Over the past few weeks I’ve been looking through some of my older books, specifically to see what’s needed in order to prepare some of them for re-release. Out of which has come two thoughts. The first is, ‘wow, did I write that?’- where I’ve discovered something I have absolutely no recollection of researching. And the second – well, it’s ‘umm…did I write THAT?’

Wright_Typewriter2Actually, it’s more like ‘F—- me, did I put my name to THAT?’ I use that word a lot. But this is a G-rated blog.

It’s kind of ironic. At the time I was producing stuff that seemed just fine. My publishers thought so. So did the reviewers. But looking back now.

Uh – well, it’s still fine, it’s perfectly readable. But truth be told, I might do it differently today.

It was Ernest Hemingway who suggested that all writers are apprentices – even those who’ve become fully competent and made writing part of their soul. And he was right.

I’ve been a published author since 1976; I’ve actually published something over 2 million words in 500+ short stories, feature articles, over 50 books, academic papers and a wad of other stuff. I’ve worked professionally as an editor, as a publisher, and I know the business pretty well. And I still make a point, whenever I write, of asking myself whether I can do it better – and looking for ways, actively, of making that happen.  It’s important. We never stop learning.

Looking back at some of my older stuff, I guess that push has had due effect. It doesn’t make the older stuff bad. It just means I’d do it differently today – better, in my opinion, though maybe not in somebody else’s.

Which brings me to the point. All this happened invisibly, without any huge effort. Why? Because I kept asking those questions. I kept nibbling away at it, every time I sat down to write – incrementally, quietly, and with focus.

You can do that too – it applies at all stages of the writing journey, and is where part of the writers’ learning curve comes from. It’s also straight-forward – it means learning comes as part of the writing process itself, which always makes it more fun.

It produces, in short, invisible improvement. And that, I think, is perhaps the best sort.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Announcing ‘Western Front – The New Zealand Division 1916-18′

My book Western Front – The New Zealand Division 1916-18  is being re-released this week – precisely a decade on from its original print publication – by Intruder Books. With an all-new cover.

Wright_Western Front_450pxThis was an important book for me, the first of three I wrote exploring the psychology of warfare through the lens of the First World War and the New Zealand experience.

A century on, we usually imagine the First World War in terms of its Western Front – portrayed as a grey, muddy world of trenches, wire, machine guns, whizz-bangs, artillery, and senseless death.

It was all these things. But the real question is why. Did it really happen because foolish generals knew nothing better? That they hoped that the enemy might run out of machine gun bullets before they ran out of men?

Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth – certainly as far as the New Zealand experience was concerned. And exploding some of the myths is what Western Front – The New Zealand Division 1916-18 is really about.

Review comments about the original issue included:

“An immensely readable story”
– Denis Welch, New Zealand Listener, 7 May 2005.

“Readers of this excellent book will thank God and hope that such a war will never come again…”
– Des Bell, Northern Advocate, 30 May 2005.

“This is an excellent read, factual, often emotional and simply written. It should appeal to all New Zealanders”
– Graeme Cass, Hawke’s Bay Today, 2 July 2005.

Western Front – The New Zealand Division 1916-18 is the second in a series of releases by Intruder Books, initially featuring the military books I wrote between 1998 and 2007. The first, Kiwi Air Power, is also available. And there’s more to come.

You can buy your copy right now, direct on Kindle – click on the cover.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Anticipating the next trend in book cover styles

I recently dug out some of the military histories I wrote in the late 1990s-early 2000s, largely because Intruder Books are reissuing some of them and I wanted to check out the old cover designs. Not to use those covers again – the license isn’t available – but to remind myself how they looked, way back when, and just how far styles have changed.

I commissioned the artwork for the cover of my 1998 book on the RNZAF. I still have the original painting. That meant I also had license to use it on the cover.

I commissioned the base artwork for the cover of my 1998 book on the RNZAF, which Reed NZ’s designer used as the basis for this cover. I still have the original painting.

A lot of that change, I think, flows from the way new technology provokes new styles. Actually, that was happening even before software oozed into the process.

Wright - Kiwi Air Power 200 px

Same book – 2015 cover. Click to buy. Go on, you know you want to…

Way back, sci-fi book covers were bright yellow and plain, in which case they were published by Victor Gollancz. Or they were traditional for the day – a cover painting (sometimes full colour), usually by Ed Emshwiller, with often hand-lettered title at the top and the author’s name at the bottom. Just like every other book on the planet, except that the sci-fi featured a spaceship or googly monster or something.

Then, around the turn of the 1970s, a young British artist named Chris Foss cut loose with an airbrush and a new concept – multi-faceted, amazingly detailed fantasy spaceships floating on abstract clouds. And he set a trend. As in: Bam! A Trend! Three milliseconds after Foss’s artwork adorned the Panther editions of Asimov’s Foundation ‘trilogy’ (it was in the 1970s), every sci-fi book cover on the planet suddenly featured fantastic, multi-faceted, hugely detailed spaceships floating against billowing backgrounds.

This book of mine was pretty hard to structure - took a lot of re-working via the 'shuffle the pages' technique - to get a lot of social linear concepts into a single readable thread.

Superb, superb design

For me, the best cover ever designed for any of my books remains the one Penguin commissioned from an Auckland designer for Guns and Utu. Just awesome. (Want a copy? Email me.)

Today’s covers are all Photoshop layer blend and SFX effects, which I can usually spot from about half the distance of Jupiter (I began working professionally with Photoshop in 1988…) Every cover on Amazon has a sameness which I just know has been done with Photoshop layer blends in various flavours. Sigh…

I’m determined this over-use of glow won’t happen for the New Zealand Military series I wrote from 1997 to 2009, half a dozen titles of which are due to be re-released by Intruder Books over the next two years. Layer clipping paths? Sure. But not glow. We’ll see.

Meanwhile, the next release is coming up in time for ANZAC day. Western Front: The New Zealand Division 1916-18. A tenth anniversary reissue, in fact. Watch this space.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Essential writing skills: editing ain’t simple

Every so often I see something on social media that makes me blink a bit. Someone’s just ‘finished’ a novel – they’ve hit a word target – leaving just a spot of editing to do, and it’ll be out on Kindle in a couple of weeks.

Wright_Typewriter2I kind of go ‘auuuugh’ when I read something like that. Not least because long-experienced authors don’t usually measure results in terms of word count. Nor do they suffer under any illusions about the amount of work to be done on a manuscript after the first draft is done.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Word count is a tool. It’s a device for identifying the scale of a book – for getting its structure right. It’s a way editors commission work. And authors do need to provide work to the commissioned scale. But it isn’t an end-point. Or even much of a way point.

What’s more, editing is a huge process. HUGE. Not least because there are at least three different types. It’s important not to mix them up. First off is author editing, which is the stuff the author does to get their draft manuscript to the point where the publishing process can start. This includes:

  1. Working over that draft for general content, potentially re-writing slabs of it (see what I mean about the word count being meaningless, other than as a guide to scale).
  2. Working over that draft, possibly several times, for proofing – grammatical sense, literal typos and so forth.
  3. Only then is the MS ‘finished’ to the point where it can be sent to the publisher. Or, if the author’s self-pubbing, put through the publishing process.

After that comes the publisher editorial process, which divides into two blocks – proof editing and line editing:

  1. That process begins with proof editing. This involves an independent proof-editor reading the MS for general content – consistencies, structure and so forth. Yes, the author’s done this too; but familiarity breeds contempt, and an expert oversight from someone else is essential.
  2. The MS also goes through a separate ‘line editing’ proofing process – line by line, word by word – for grammatical content, for literal typographical errors and so forth, all micro-scale stuff. Usually this is done before it’s typeset, and then again afterwards – sometimes twice afterwards. Again, the independent ‘fresh eyes’ principle counts.
  3. Only then is it ready for publishing.

All this takes time and – because it ideally needs to involve independent oversight – money. It’s not easy or simple. But it is important to the publishing process, whether a book’s being produced by a mainstream publisher or self-pubbed.

Why? It’s a competitive world out there: quality assurance counts.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015