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

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

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

Essential writing skills: handling the skill transition

There are no two ways about it. Writing is a learned skill, like any other. And like most skills it takes time to master – I’ve seen figures like a million words or 10,000 hours. On my own experience, that seems about right.

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…

That shouldn’t daunt hopeful authors. Writing is a learning process and there are points along that learning curve where the material’s going to be good enough. It just takes longer to produce.

The four main steps of writing are the usual ones – starting with ‘unconscious incompetence’. You don’t know what you don’t know, haven’t learned self-critique, and joyously plough in, making every writing mistake known to humanity but having a whale of a time doing it.

In the old days, that never used to see the light of day because the traditional publishing system provided a fairly high entry barrier.

These days, anybody can publish – and a lot do, creating what US author Chuck Wendig calls a ‘shit volcano’. (Gotta love the term).

But there’s much, much more to writing. Three more stages, in fact. And it comes with training and practise. The second-to-fourth stages are:

– ‘conscious incompetence’, where you realise how much there is to learn;

– ‘conscious competence’, where you’ve learned the stuff but have to think about it; and

– ‘unconscious competence’, where it’s become second nature and writing is part of your soul.

I think the second is probably the most challenging, because suddenly the writer realises how much there is to learn – and how difficult many of the techniques actually are. A writer has to have mastery of the words, of grammar, and of language; they need mastery of the field they’re writing about; and they need mastery of the form they’re writing in – be it fiction, non-fiction or whatever.

It’s daunting, and I think a lot of writers at the ‘conscious incompetence’ stage stress over it; they so want to write, they’ve pushed ahead and got this far – discovering  how hard it is, and they fear they’ll never learn or be good enough.

To which I say – don’t sweat it. There’s a LOT to learn, but it’ll happen! If you’ve got this far you’ll get the rest of the way, step-wise. The trick is to keep writing – but to do so in a meaningful way. My suggestion? Every time you sit down to write, try asking three questions:

  1. What can I learn from this that will make me write better? Is there something I need to practise?
  2.  Where can I discover more information about this aspect of writing?
  3. How can I apply that when writing?

These questions, incidentally, apply for all writers – not just those on the learning curve. As Hemingway put it, we are all apprentices in the craft. And once you have the answers, sit down and apply them. Write something that uses the lesson. Even if it’s then thrown away – this is practise, remember. Concert pianists don’t just sit down and chop out Beethoven piano sonatas. They spend hours, days, weeks, months and years practising. And writing’s the same.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Can you sell through social media? Not directly…

A while back I ran into a writer friend on the street, began chatting, and we ended up lamenting the complete disconnect between the popularity of our respective blogs and the number of books actually sold through them.

Wright_AuthorPhoto2014_LoIn a way it’s an idle expectation. I don’t blog specifically to sell things. I’ve put click-to-buy links up (hint, hint), but to me the blog is more a place where I can publish stuff that interests me (and hopefully you), such as my science posts – and, more to the point, engage in interesting discussions with the people I’ve made contact with through social media.

Still, I’d kind of hope there might be the odd click-through – you know, those large book covers on the right. No?

I’ve found it’s not just a matter of indifference. If I put up a post that directly promotes a book just published, my readership disappears. Those posts simply don’t attract many views by comparison with the others (especially the science ones).

It’s not just a ‘books’ thing. My sister teaches about making craft wools, mostly online. Her main business is in the US, where she regularly tours and lectures (Florida, in April). And she runs a good deal of social media to support it. Same deal. Direct promotions simply don’t work, and if you DO hard-sell, your readers go away.

The reason’s clear. People don’t go to social media to buy things. They go to be entertained, distracted, make contact with people – all free. What’s more, the defining nature of this media is a constant stream, like a radio or TV broadcast. That means content is transient. In fact it’s becoming more transient as time goes on. When I began blogging in 2010, my posts typically attracted a fair number of views for two or three days. Now the ‘novelty burst’ is down to 24 hours.

I suspect the reason for that is the spread of media. We have Facebook, Twitter, blogs, Pinterest, StumbleUpon (check it out if you haven’t already), Reddit, Google+ and a host of other services competing for our time. I’ve seen some scary figures about the actual time people spend on any one post, picture or thing – and the number actually browsed in any social media session. What that tells me is that attention spans are down.

As for using it to market? No. And yet, I suspect, most authors will have ready buyers for their books; and that highlights the real challenge for writers these days. Discovery. In that, blogging – and other social media – can help. But it won’t sell directly.

Have you had similar experiences with blogging and books? How do you see social media? I’d love to hear from you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015