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

Writing inspirations – walking on the stones of years

Rugged beaches are amazingly inspiring places. The sea brings chaos to the stones, artfully displaying them in ways that almost look crafted, then layers them with the detritus of distant places. It leaves us wondering about where that debris came from, and how it ended up just there before your feet.

Beach stones, Makara, New Zealand.

Beach stones, Makara, New Zealand.

I think that’s pretty inspiring for any writer. And does anybody know what I am getting at with the title of this post?

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 – the wonder of Packard

When I think of classic American art deco cars it’s hard to go past the Packard Six. It was stylish, well-engineered, and set the look for the age. Think it looks a bit like a Morrie Thou? Well, that’s no coincidence.

A 1935 Packard Six, immaculately restored, Napier, New Zealand.

A 1935 Packard Six, immaculately restored, Napier, New Zealand. Sir Alec Issigonis styled the Morris Minor after its descendant, the 1941 Packard Clipper.

I spotted this one during the annual ‘art deco’ weekend in Napier, New Zealand. And it got me thinking. That celebration is light-hearted, owing more to Hollywood fantasy images of the 1930s than the reality of the day. But wouldn’t it have been just wonderful if the 1930s had really been like that! 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

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

Writing inspirations – little house I used to live in

I used to live in one of the houses in this photo, on the south edge of Karori Park in Wellington, New Zealand. I won’t say which – it’s thirty years since I was there and I have no idea who lives there now. But I remember the place, and I remember being able to look out on the park while I tapped out my thesis on my mechanical typewriter, and Madonna got into the groove on the stereo.

Little house I used to live in...

Little house I used to live in…

The ‘Young Ones’ were still showing on New Zealand TV. And, on the other side of the park, Katherine Mansfield’s childhood home still stood. Actually, it’s still there now.

I’d already written my first books, as part of what amounted to an internship with the New Zealand Forest Service. But I had no idea where that might lead. Or whether I might ever really write professionally, though even then, that was what I wanted to do.

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 – the art of the radiator cap

Who’d have ever imagined that an Italian car company might produce radiator caps in the shape of a rearing elephant? Well, Bugatti did. Here’s the one adorning their 1930 Bugatti T-46.

1930 Bugatti T-46 radiator cap.

1930 Bugatti T-46 radiator cap.

It’s an amazing piece of 1930s sculpture by any measure – and here it is, as part of a vehicle. Of course, there’s no question that cars – and 1930s cars especially – were wonderful examples of industrial art. And I think that it’s in discoveries such as this that writers can find inspiration, if they know where to look for it.

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

Aviation dreams: the P-51 Mustang comes alive

The other week the pilot of a P-51 Mustang fired up its Rolls Royce Merlin – all 27 litres of classic engine – right next to me. Moments like these don’t come around very often.

P-51 Mustang at Napier airport, February 2015.

P-51 Mustang at Napier airport, February 2015. Note the blade motion.

That sound is one of the classics of the piston-engined world. And it has to be experienced, up close and personal, to be really understood.

This particular Mustang is owned by Jetfighter Ltd, based in Auckland, and I photographed it at Napier airport. The Royal New Zealand Air Force received 30 just after the end of the Second World War, part of a batch of 370. The order never eventuated and in 1951 the 30 P-51’s were deployed instead with the Territorial Air Force, where they remained in service until the middle of the decade.

And if you want to learn more about the RNZAF and its Mustangs – well, the story’s in my book Kiwi Air Power, available from Amazon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015