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

Writers – one-trick ponies or polymaths?

I have never accepted the notion that authors are supposed to only be expert in whatever their last book happened to be about, as if they are one-trick ponies. The issue was highlighted for me when I fielded a question from a journalist about my science book Living On Shaky Ground. I was known as a historian, so how had I been able to understand the physics?

It's a self-portrait, in a deco hubcab. No really...

It’s a self-portrait, in a deco hubcab. No really…

The reality is that the sciences, physics particularly, have been so much a part of me that the issue never arose – the real question is how somebody who’d started in the sciences became a historian. And when I look at the unprovoked malice with which strangers in New Zealand’s historical academia have welcomed my contribution to their territory, I often wonder myself. But I digress.

In any case, I am, first and foremost, a writer. For me writing is about looking at some of the questions of human reality. That path leads into every aspect of human endeavour.

The supposition that ‘experts’ can only know about the narrow field in which they work follows the Western notion that people are only capable of achievement in one field. This is true of the academy, where it’s embedded to the point that personal validation is usually entwined with status in a narrowly defined topic, such as twentieth century military history. I’ve even seen that used as worth-denial within disciplines – one historian bagging another for being, allegedly, ‘outside’ a very tiny field of alleged speciality.

All this is an outcome of the way that Western intellectual pursuits, particularly, have been compartmentalised. But it’s classic false-premise, because it presupposes that somebody cannot be expert in more than one area; or if they are, their expertise is somehow ‘inferior’ to that of those who limit themselves to a single field or topic.

Actually, I remember a radio interview I did in which the interviewer was wondering how I, having been brought up in New Zealand’s North Island, could possibly know enough about the South Island to write a book about its history – I think he had the notion that ‘history’ was all about collecting funny local stories that you happened to know because you’d been brought up with them. I had to explain that it’s a profession and the research principles apply to any topic, irrespective of where I happened to have been brought up.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was - you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian'.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was – you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian’.

That’s true for much more than just regional history in New Zealand. The thing is that true writers have to be curious about everything. Writing demands being able to intellectually synthesise, to get an overview of subject.

I think becoming expert in more than one area – and familiar with a very broad swathe of things – offers huge advantages. It is where creativity comes from – big-picture thinking. Too often, especially in specialist academia, studies focus on close detail and miss the wood for the trees.

To my mind, expertise backed by a very wide general understanding is a better sort of expertise, because it is given context. Getting there demands several things. It demands a restless curiosity. It demands an ability to understand more than surface detail and to perceive the shapes and patterns that drive the wider world. It also demands abstraction. So in answer to ‘generalist or expert’, the actual answer, then, is ‘both’. The word for all this, I think, is ‘polymath’. Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Summer writing inspirations – a rainbow umbrella in sun

A summer writing inspiration – blue skies, bright sunshine and a rainbow umbrella for New Year 2015.

Summer sun on New Year 2015.

Summer sun on New Year 2015.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

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Summer writing inspirations – beach textures in grey

Colour can affect mood in profound  ways. The sombre tones I found on this Hawke’s Bay beach and in the rising ground behind, marching off through the haze into the distance, seem as inspiring as the sapphire skies and topaz sea of the day before.

Layers of grey one hazy day on a shingle beach in New Zealand...

Layers of grey one hazy day on a shingle beach in New Zealand…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

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Summer writing inspirations – a slice of California in the South Pacific

It’s summer in New Zealand (at last) and I thought I’d run a short series of summer writing inspiration posts. Today’s is the Marewa shopping centre in Napier, New Zealand, one summery evening.

Marewa shopping centre in the early evening light.

Marewa shopping centre in the early evening light.

This was the city’s first suburban shopping centre, serving Marewa – Napier’s ‘art deco Hollywood’ suburb, built from the late 1930s on land uplifted by a disastrous earthquake of 1931. It tells a story of the dreams of those who built it, looking for inspiration to the magic of the movies and the world of Hollywood, far away on the other side of the Pacific. Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: finding the right words to write

Styling gives the characteristic ‘tone’ to a piece of work –  expression to the ‘voice’ of the author It’s a vital writing skill. And, as we’ve been seeing in the recent posts about editing, it’s also something that comes towards the end of the writing process, once the structure is sorted out.

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…

Things to think about when styling include:

  1. Choice of words. You need a reasonably varied vocabulary. This doesn’t mean delving into a thesaurus to find the most unusual words you can; ordinary words work quite well. Sometimes, repetitive use of the same word is actually appropriate, because of the alliterative effect. I use that one myself at times, though I’ve had trouble periodically getting that past editors. Once I was told that a word shouldn’t be repeated more than once in any three paragraphs, which to me seemed silly. Word choice is particularly crucial for conveying subtle nuance and meaning. Word choice is important; and so is clarity.
  2. Rhythms. Writing has a rhythm, like music. It’s defined by the intersection between choice of words and the phrasing. The rhythms are most obvious in poetry – but even plain prose has to have it. And like music, that rhythm needs to be interesting. This is one of the ways in which you can keep reader interest going.
  3. Devices. I’m talking similes (something is like something else), metaphors (something IS something else), alliteration (repeated use of the same sonority) and a careful selection of broken grammatical rules (DO start occasional sentences with a conjunction). All of these have their place, and not just in poetry, though they need to be carefully applied. A paragraph with half a dozen metaphors or similes in it becomes difficult to read.
  4. Word count. As we’ve seen in previous posts, word count is not a goal of itself. It’s a tool for determining structure and for defining the overall size of the work – something that publishers and editors rely upon to guide their costings. Working over the first draft to re-style it, by nature, will change the word count – and while there are some fairly good tolerances, the onus remains on the writer to stay around the intended limit, not just of the work as a whole but also of each individual section. Failing to do so will affect both the carefully planned structure and the publishing costs.

There is, of course, a vast gulf between my outlining what’s needed – and actually doing it. But styling, like all writing skills, is something that comes with practise and the only real way to master it is to roll up your sleeves, pick up the word processor, and get down and dirty with the wording.

Copyright ©Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: the principle of editorial fresh eyes

In the last week I’ve been exploring how to turn your first draft – the piece of writing that comes out of the end of NaNoWriMo, for instance – into a finished work. The principles, of course, are the same for any draft – and for any form of writing, fiction or non-fiction.

Wright_AuthorPhoto2014_LoLast time we saw how that first draft can be turned into a ‘second draft’, and then into a ‘final’ by degrees – a process that involves repeated iterations at ever-smaller scale.

This gets the book to the point where a publisher can look at it. But the editorial road doesn’t end there – not by a long way.

Preparing a book for publishing involves a lot more editing. This falls into two main categories: proof-editing and line-editing. The latter is done more than once. Publishers have whole teams of people and contractors lined up to do it. The whole revolves around the principle of ‘fresh eyes’.

What’s that? It sounds better than ‘familiarity breeds contempt’, but it’s the same thing. As author, you cannot – by the nature of the beast – see your own inconsistencies and mistakes. Sticking the manuscript in a drawer helps; you come back to it fresh and things will pop up. But in others ways – no. And this is no indictment of competence, or admission of sloppiness. Far from it. It’s the way that the human mind works. You see what you have trained yourself to see, not what is actually there.

An independent editor will spot things, in short, that you can’t – everything from idiosyncratic spelling that you’ve managed to accidentally program your spell-check to miss, through to the fact that you’ve spelt someone’s name three different ways in three different places. And it might be that this person’s name was, indeed, meant to be spelt differently. I’ve got a book being published early next year where that’s precisely the case. But the proof-editor wouldn’t be doing their job if they didn’t point it out.

If you’re self-publishing, the onus is on you to find an editorial team to do the same thing. Team? Did I say ‘team’? I did. And there are reasons for that – again, flowing from the ‘fresh eye’ principle. The problem, of course, is paying for it out of the likely commercial returns on whatever it is you’re publishing.

Needless to say, there are processes and structure to the way the editorial process works, too. More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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