Essential writing skills: the importance of structure

The other day I sat down and wrote 5000 words to finish off a story due to the publisher.  I also deleted about 2000 – not the same words I’d written. I don’t call that editing. Author changes to their own work are an integral part of the writing process.

Wright_Typewriter2Net result was a gain of about 3000 words, but what counted wasn’t the word length, or even the words written. What counted was moulding the story into a shape I was happy with, which was approximately at the intended length – and which had the necessary structure, shape and character development.

To me that’s the essence of writing – all writing, fiction or non-fiction. Structure. Get that right, and everything else follows. In some ways it’s also not a mystery. Most forms of writing also come with an expected structure – one that works for them. An academic paper with its ‘I tell you three times’ structure – abstract, argument and conclusion – will be very different from a novel, which typically has a three-act form. Feature articles, built around the ‘inverted pyramid’, are different again.

It’s possible for a writer to break that structure and get away with it – but not often, and it demands an awful lot of experience and skill to get away with it. There are reasons why different forms of writing have specific structural shapes. More usually the skill is in honing the specifics of the structure to suit your particular purpose. For me the guidelines are straight-forward:

  1. Is the scale of component right? For instance, an introductory section shouldn’t be radically longer than an expository middle, a concluding section shouldn’t drag out. If it’s a novel, all elements have to be paced to hold reader interest. Has the scale got out of kilter during the writing process?
  2. Does each section achieve the intended purpose – introducing the topic or idea, exploring the variations on the idea or argument, and wrapping it up? If it’s a novel, each part of the structure has a specific purpose relative to character arc and plot. Does the plot fit that structure?
  3. When the piece is written, has the inevitable ‘good idea’ along the way derailed the structure? If so, some re-writing is in order.

You’ll gather from this that one of the pre-requisites to getting the structure right is to also have a plan. More on that soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015  

The real difference between editors and authors

I am often intrigued by the number of authors who, for various reasons, believe they can also be good editors – and market themselves as such.

Wright_Typewriter2Sometimes it works. More often it doesn’t. Several times, now, I’ve had manuscripts butchered during the publishing process by contract editors who, in fact, were obviously writers. One of them totally failed to ‘get’ what I was doing in one of my books and tried to totally re-write it, as if he were the author, sourcing his re-writes with stuff he’d pulled from a single other book, and sprinkling the MS with patronising comments along the way as if I were a novice in his field. (When I last looked, I had ten times the number of books published that this guy had managed, over a far longer period. Sigh…).

It happens, though. And my first port of call in such circumstance is to ask the publisher to find another editor and get the job done competently. Sometimes that happens.

The fact is that editing is a separate skill of its own, one that demands less creativity and more technical analysis than writing. Editors also have to be able to stand back and accept that the author’s voice is valid, even if it isn’t how the editor would necessarily express themselves. If the archetypes are to be believed, authors and editors are actually two different sorts of people:

1. The Archetypal Editor is…

– analytical thinking
– goal-focussed
– structured
– identifies boundaries
– word-focussed
– technical

2. The Archetypal Author is…

– visual/creative
– has original thoughts
– identifies boundaries in order to break them
– dreams
– relational/conceptual thinking

See what I mean? As I say, sometimes you’ll get an author who fills both categories. But not often. And that’s why authors really shouldn’t present themselves as editors – unless, of course, they have those ‘editorial’ analytical skills. And a red pen.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Essential writing skills: sharing the writing skill-base

Back in 2011 I wrote a photographic history of my home district, Hawke’s Bay – Historic Hawkes’ Bay and East Coast, which Bateman issued in case-bound edition with slip-jacket, a wonderful example of the art of book-making.

HB&EC Cover BigIt’s still on sale and I recently found has been joined by a book from a local writer who has used functionally the same title, subject matter, concept, format, size and price. None of these things breach copyright, and it’s possible the guy came up with them independently, but his book is so conceptually close to mine I can’t help thinking I am being flattered in a deeply sincere way. The only difference is that he’s appended his name to the title of his version, which I take to be an assertion of ownership.

Curiously, though the author calls himself ‘an Historian’ and ‘author’, I believe he is qualified as an accountant. I’m not aware of any qualification he has in my field. It’s kind of iniquitous. I can’t just announce I’m a chartered accountant and set up in business. I don’t have that qualification. History is one of the few fields where people can assign themselves the label and, it seems, personal possession of the territory.

The Masonic Hotel (1932) - early streamline moderne, with the former T&G Building (1936) behind.

Hawke’s Bay history. The Masonic Hotel (1932) – early streamline moderne, with the former T&G Building (1936) behind.

The phenomenon isn’t limited to this guy, of course; plenty of people decide to ‘become’ what they call ‘an Historian’, often on their enthusiasm or interest for their local area. The conceit is, I think, based on the popular notion that history isn’t a skill of its own. Anybody can do history – it’s just collecting fun facts, isn’t it? How hard can it be? The general phenomenon was analysed a few years ago by psychologists Peter Dunning and Justin Kruger, as the Dunning-Kruger effect. It boils down to the fact that if you don’t know anything about a field of endeavour, you can fool yourself into thinking it’s easy, because you know so little you don’t know what there is to know. Often the people doing it are qualified in an unrelated area and imagine that expertise makes them expert in all areas.

The thing is, the same is also true of writing. A few years ago my wife went to a day course on kids’ books, hosted by New Zealand’s top childrens’ author, and found herself surrounded by silver-haired retirees who had decided to ‘become’ writers of kids books. These would-be authors were apparently bombarding their teacher with questions about the contracts they expected to be offered by eagerly waiting publishers. ‘No no,’ the author apparently said. ‘You have to learn how to write first.’

Too true. The problem, though, with Amazon welcoming all and sundry to publish, is that all and sundry promptly do, never realising they don’t have the building blocks. Unconscious incompetence. We’ve all done it, of course, but until recently publishers acted as gate keepers. Enthusiastic but inexperienced writers were rebuffed, went away, and learned writing – a ten-thousand hour, million-word task that takes a hopeful author from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence, to conscious competence – and finally, nirvana – unconscious competence.

But now those gates have been ripped open and hurled down a nearby ravine, opening the way for what Chuck Wendig calls a ‘shit volcano’. This buries everybody in the noise, including the hopeful writers. And that’s a pity. You see, if they’ve got to the point where they’ve written a whole book – and then self-published – they want to write. And that should be nurtured. But, like history, writing is a learned skill, and learning to write isn’t an easy path. The more you know about it, the more you realise there is to know. As Hemingway said, we are all apprentices.

And for me, writing technique isn’t something that I feel I have to append my name to and assert is mine alone. It’s something to share. I’ve been in the business over thirty years – and I’m going to spread the skills.

Want to know more? Watch this space through 2015.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

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

Buy print edition from Fishpond

Buy from Fishpond

Click to buy from Fishpond.

Buy from Fishpond.

Click to buy from Fishpond

Buy from Fishpond

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

Buy print edition from Fishpond

Buy from Fishpond

Click to buy from Fishpond.

Buy from Fishpond.

Click to buy from Fishpond

Buy from Fishpond

Essential writing skills: editing as writing and why it’s important

One of the key things an author needs to understand about their manuscript is the point that editing is integral to the writing process. It can take just as long to edit a first draft as it does to assemble those words in the first place. Maybe longer.

Wright_Typewriter2That’s a daunting prospect, but it’s do-able. The key to it is critical evaluation and breaking the task into manageable layers – starting with the big picture and moving down to the detail. Here’s how:

  1. Get the big picture. Take your manuscript out of the metaphorical drawer. If you can, print it out so you can strew the sheets of paper on the floor. Look at it from the big-picture overview. Is the structure right? Does everything mesh together? Make notes if it doesn’t. Avoid the temptation to re-write the specific words just now.
  2. If the structure’s wrong, figure out how to adjust it and nominate the sections that need re-writing.
  3. Go back to the computer, make a copy of the file labelled ‘Draft 2’, and work on that. Make the structural adjustments and re-writes. This may well be time-consuming. Don’t worry too much about the wording – this is still first draft territory. Print it out again and review. Rinse and repeat until you’re satisfied.
  4. Now it’s time to think about the wording. Start going through the wording in detail, initially from the viewpoint of the broader purpose of your argument or content. Does the wording work? Have you conveyed the intent? Are their ambiguities? This part of the process can be done with a printout and pen-and-ink, which often highlights things you don’t see on screen. Make sure your word-length stays tight to the intended quantity – as I’ve mentioned many times before, word-length is not an end-goal, it’s a tool. For authors, it enables authors to keep the structure of their work under control; and for publishers it’s a budgeting tool, because word-length quantifies production costs.
  5. Finally, it’s time to get down to the micro-detail of the wording – the fidelity of it. This demands another read through in which you go through the material with a close focus, looking for specific wording – making sure there are no extraneous or ambiguous phrases, keeping the styling tight to what you intend.
  6. Now stick the manuscript in a metaphorical drawer again. Leave it there for a few days before bringing it out, printing the material, and reading it carefully – word by word – on paper. Make notes or amendments in pen and ink. This change to a different medium is very important because it forces a different way of thinking and a different view on the material. You’ll be surprised what you find. Only then should you implement on the computer.
  7. If necessary, repeat the above steps until you’re satisfied.  Then – and only then – will the material be ready to submit for publication.

This process won’t necessarily work for every author – and you have to do what works for you – but the key principles are having time and space to let your thoughts breathe – to keep returning to the material with reasonably fresh eyes – and to change the medium from screen to paper as a device for improving that ‘freshness’. The steps I’ve noted here also break the task down from largest to smallest components. This is akin to hacking out the rough shape of a statue, then working on the details, and finishing off with a careful polish.

All of this is time-consuming, and all of it will involve more writing and composition. But that’s not the only part of the editorial process. Not by a long way. More soon.

Copyright ©Matthew Wright 2014

Buy print edition from Fishpond

Buy from Fishpond

Click to buy from Fishpond.

Buy from Fishpond.

Click to buy from Fishpond

Buy from Fishpond

Essential writing skills: fixing that first draft

There’s a lot of truth in the old adage that a bad first draft is better than no first draft. The annual National November Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) contest is, essentially, geared to produce them.

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…

I posted earlier on ways of preparing that bad first draft so it’s properly structured – so it has the right foundations. The words may not be right, but the basic form will be. First step after that, as I’ve mentioned, is to chuck the thing in a drawer for a month.

What then? The trick is to understand how editing words. There’s a notion – certainly among beginning authors – that ‘writing’ is the part where you’re assembling the words for the first time, and ‘editing’ is a quick polish afterwards, whereupon the work’s ready to publish. I’ve actually seen tweets from authors announcing they’ve ‘finished’ their book and after a quick edit, it’s going to be published in a week or so.

But that’s how it’s done…Right?

Actually, wrong. A first draft manuscript is way, way off being submitted to an agent or publisher, still less self-pubbed. Editing is as much work as the original composition, and it’s an essential part of the whole writing process. It’s also, separately, a part of the publishing process; and neither part is quick, easy or – unfortunately – cheap to accomplish.

First, there’s the editing needed to finish the manuscript – to get what you’re writing into its final form. This involves a good deal of re-wording and perhaps re-structuring, depending on how you set that first draft up in the first place. Trust me – this will take as long as writing that first draft did, maybe longer. And if it doesn’t, you have to ask yourself why.

Second, there’s the sort of editing done by publishers, which itself breaks down into several phases – proof-editing and various flavours of line editing. It’s also time-consuming, and there are no short cuts. If you are self-pubbing, you’ll have to do it (actually, for reasons I’ll explain, pay somebody else to). The phrase is ‘quality assurance’.

What does all this entail? Over the next few posts I’ll be outlining all of this in detail. Watch this space.

Copyright ©Matthew Wright 2014

Buy print edition from Fishpond

Buy from Fishpond

Click to buy from Fishpond.

Buy from Fishpond.

Click to buy from Fishpond

Buy from Fishpond