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

Writing inspirations – working within the limits and getting a result anyway

It was remarkably difficult to get this photo of sunset over Wellington, New Zealand. The camera I had wasn’t great for low-light shots, and was way too heavy for the tripod I was using, which meant it wobbled everywhere if I so much as breathed near it, let alone hit the shutter.

Sunset over Wellington from Petone beach.

Sunset over Wellington from Petone beach.

Still, I managed to get a photo that was reasonably illuminated and not too blurry – which I did by trying to work within the limits. And that, to me, is inspiring, because it’s something writers have to do all the time, if you think about it. And yet that doesn’t stop us. Does it? A thought to inspire.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Buy print edition from Fishpond

Buy from Fishpond

Click to buy from Fishpond.

Buy from Fishpond.

Click to buy from Fishpond

Buy from Fishpond

Writing inspirations – imagining life for settlers in days gone by

The first British settlers to reach the Wellington district in numbers landed on Petone Beach in February 1840, a place seen here in a photo I took before the place was socked in with the permanent rain we’ve had since Easter.

Petone beach, Wellington district.

Petone beach, Wellington district.

In 1840 the beach wasn’t where it is today; the land has been uplifted since by repeated earthquakes, and this specific scene would have been under water. The original beachline is off to the left, out of frame. But we can imagine the moment when the settlers spilled ashore from the colony ships, left to wade the last distance with their gear and equipment, their boxes and suitcases (and a piano) left stacked on the beach below the low-tide mark.

The swampy, rugged landscape they found was a far cry from what they had been promised when they agreed to one-way passage, half a world away. But they made the best of it anyway, and to me, that’s an inspiring thought.

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

So, on whose coat tails should writers hang?

One of the neat things about Wellington, New Zealand, is that every so often you find a statue of somebody important, and can pose next to it as if their importance might somehow reflect on to you.

Wright_Gandalf I found this one in Miramar, near Peter Jackson’s studios. It is possible that there may have been better or more influential fantasy writers during the mid-twentieth century than J R R Tolkien. But in my opinion, probably not. After all, it’s instantly obvious to any passer-by who’s being commemorated here. And there was, of course, but one thing to do…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Writing inspirations – posing answers to the questions left by an abandoned trailer

I have no idea what the story is with the trailer I spotted in a paddock near Martinborough. Why has it been left there? And the trail left by the tractor unit is clear enough. But why is it curved?

Trailer in paddock near Martinborough.

Trailer in paddock near Martinborough.

To me, scenes that leave me asking questions are inspiring – not least because my imagination can roam, finding those answers. Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Why naming places isn’t always a solemn historical moment

There’s an island in the middle of Wellington harbour, New Zealand, that, upon a time, used to be the quarantine station. It isn’t any more. Nobody lives there, which is kind of weird for a place less than 5 km from the capital, amidst a bustling district surrounding the harbour.

Somes/Matiu Island, Port Nicholson.

That dark silhouette is Somes/Matiu Island, Port Nicholson.

Maori called it Matiu island, but when the New Zealand Company arrived to settle in 1840 they dubbed it Somes Island, after Joseph Somes – one of the directors of the company. Other places in the district were named after people the company owed money to, including their bankers (‘Baring Head’) and Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington.

Not so much a solemn historical moment as a fit of grovelling in the face of creditors. And who says history isn’t interesting?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015