Definitions of Editing: Proofreading

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This post continues a short series defining basic terms about editing and editorial processes with a look at proofreading. Following copyediting (which in turns comes after structural editing), proofreading is the last check for quality control: checking for any remaining errors, as well as looking over the designed page as it will finally appear.

To return to the gardening analogy I used in the earlier posts, proofreading is like a final clean-up before the garden party: weeding, raking the gravel, deadheading, sweeping up.

Typesetting
Once the editor has a master copy (often called a fair copy) of the copyedited manuscript, it is ready for typesetting. An in-house production department usually liaises with the typesetter, though editors in smaller presses often work directly with typesetters. Sometimes editors do the typesetting themselves. Typesetting software such as InDesign has made all of this easier. All the same, I do think the expertise of a good typesetter cannot be beaten. (I speak from experience: InDesign is marvellous, but has a steep learning curve, and I’ve only really learned some of its most basic functions.)

In the olden days, of course, the typesetter had to rekey every word in a script. Nowadays, the typesetter will usually uses the final corrected text in digital format (which incorporates both copyedits and author’s changes, often already typed in by the copyeditor or desk editor), or otherwise will take the author’s unedited digital text along with the final copyedited hard copy and incorporate editorial changes themselves as part of typesetting. Typesetters are probably better equipped to carry out such corrections, for they are trained keyboard operators, and editors are not (editors are also incredibly neurotic about messing things up, and sometimes they are technophobes, and …).

In addition to processing corrections to the book, the typesetter works on its internal design. The design might be briefed, firmly or loosely, to a particular style by an editor, production manager, or designer, but the typesetter often takes charge of various design decisions, e.g., about typeface and page layout as well as other aspects of tidying up and organising the text, e.g., sorting out dashes and hyphens, indenting extracted text in the same style, and inserting artwork in the right places. For many illustrated books, design is a defining aspect of production that takes place alongside copyediting; many copyeditors in this field handle the design too.

Once upon a time typesetting was a mechanical procedure, but nowadays technology has automated various processes for inserting features such as the page numbers or the running heads (the headings on the top of every page, which are usually some combination of page numbers, author name and book title). Body text is usually run into a standard template.

Proofreading: The Basics
One of the primary purposes of proofreading is removing glaring mistakes that remain in the text: errors of spelling, punctuation, and grammar, inconsistencies of form, slips in continuity.

The proofreader looks not only for errors that slipped through the copy-edit, but seeks out any mistakes that might have been introduced at earlier stages too. For example, the introduction to a Penguin edition of War and Peace tells us that:

in her nightly copying of her husband’s output during the day the Countess misread words, mistook word order, even missed out whole phrases occurring between two identical words. Printers and proof readers succeeded no better, and the first (1868–9) Russian publication of War and Peace contained 1,885 errors which automatically reappeared in all subsequent editions during the following ninety-four years.

(Guess it serves Count Tolstoy right for not copying out his own words of genius, doesn’t it?!)

Other corrections deal with the display of the book. Some matters are routine, e.g., checking that headings and page numbers are correct (rarely a problem nowadays), inserting the final page numbers on to a contents list, and guaranteeing that facing pages have the same number of lines. Other matters require a modest but careful degree of judgement, e.g., a book on counselling for abuse survivors might try to avoid the unfortunate word break in the word therapist that would place the- on the end of one line and rapist on the start of the next. The overall appearance should also be checked, e.g., headings should not land at the bottom of a page, and any artwork needs to fall in the correct spot in the text and sit beside the right caption. Overly gappy or tight setting within body text can also be noted; in many cases the typesetter can rerun the text to make the word spacing more even.

If artwork is used, it will also need checking. For example, photos should be checked to see whether they have been wrongly inverted or flipped during design, or to ensure that any cropping has been done successfully.

Proofreading: Practical Matters
Proofreaders are usually freelancers who’re assigned jobs by in-house editors. The author is sent a set of proofs too, and this will be the last chance to make any changes. (This is not the time to rewrite the book, though! Any changes should be limited to corrections. Any final amendments to the text should really be made at the copyediting stage.)

Proofs are usually read as printed-out facsimiles of double-page spreads from inside the book. Proof pages (unlike manuscript pages) look like the very pages that will be read by readers, at least in print format.

Proofreaders are tasked on either reading against copy, cross-checking that none of the original text is missing or wrongly transcribed, or reading blind (without reference to the original text) for sense and any outstanding errors. If a manuscript was heavily copyedited, it is a good idea to have two proofreads, as there is a greater chance that errors will need removing.

Corrections are made in ink on the page proofs. The convention is to mark printer’s errors (made by the typesetter) in red ink and editorial corrections in blue, using proofreader’s marks (this goes back to the days when the cost of print corrections needed to be allocated to either printer/typesetter or publisher/author). Slightly different sets of marks are used  in the UK and in the US.

A proofreader’s squiggles and crosses might look like an alien alphabet to a newcomer, but they are soon grasped. I first learned them through checking over the work of other proofreaders when I was collating proofs, and when I started to proofread myself I simply referred to a chart of symbols as I needed. If in doubt, it is easy enough simply to cross out the word in the text and write the correction in the margin.

Extensive proof changes can be expensive and complicated. They might need checking by the author, which adds further time and work to proceedings, and they can lead to extra work for the typesetter, which has to be paid for. And every change introduces the possibility for yet another error to be introduced into the text.

But sometimes a proofreader cannot resist suggesting further stylistic changes to smooth out clunky phrasing or perk up stilted language, or to avoid confusions in ambiguous usage. An in-house editor might in fact brief a proofreader to look for such refinements to the text, particularly if a copyedit was demanding and there are concerns that there may still be room for improvement. Such alterations are not necessarily essential, so they might be flagged in pencil. Changes that would affect pagination should be avoided.

Collating And Revises
Any final judgement calls about changes in the proofs will be made during collating, when the author’s set of corrections are integrated into the master set, along with changes from a blind read, if an additional proofread was done. Collating is usually carried out in-house by an editor, though sometimes a proofreader will be sent the author’s set for adding any changes.

Collated proofs are returned to the typesetter, and even if they are lightly corrected a set of revised proofs or revises will be produced. These will be returned to the in-house editor for a final check that corrections from the first round of proofreading have been incorporated accurately. If paragraphs needed rerunning, an editor might also need to check ‘page creep’ to be sure that word spacing remains even and any new word breaks are acceptable. This is the last chance to eyeball the text for any outstanding mistakes before it is signed off as ready for printing, so it can be good to give the whole text one final scan.

The work of collating and checking revises is done with hard copies and any changes are transferred to the digital text by the typesetter, though in some contexts editors have access to the electronic files and make these changes themselves. I do think, however, that inputting corrections is best retained as a distinct stage in the workflow, rather than done while collating; spotting errors and keying in text are separate tasks that require slightly different types of concentration.

Proofreading Digital Formats
Print books are of course proofread as they will finally be read by readers; print publishing uses static text, with a publisher controlling exactly how the final text will look.

Ebooks are a different matter, using dynamic text, i.e., a reader can alter the typeface and typesize with a tap of the screen, so matters such as page layout and word breaks are not so much of a concern.

But other issues can arise in the reading of epub files. For example, automatic and manual indents for new paragraphs in word-processing software look the same on a printed page, but they use different types of underlying coding and it is not unknown for formatting of either type to be lost when the text is translated into its final format. Paragraph returns sometimes use different types of coding too.

I once read (for pleasure) a whole fantasy series in ebook form where indents and paragraphing were messed up, which was confusing in stretches of dialogue: was one speaker continuing, or were these the words of a new speaker? It seemed this text had not been proofread in a digital format.

Mistakes have been made, and lessons have been learned, and best practices are establishing themselves. Nowadays, publishers seem to proofread for print formats, and ensure that corrected files can be used to be produce the ebook too. On the whole this seems to be working.

The technology remains new, and it’s possible that digital formats will change again. The Kindle, for example, is a practical device, but it’s not going to win any awards for elegant typographic display. The iPad is a more attractive reading device, but its glassy screen makes it unsuitable for reading outdoors or under bright lights.

And digital technologies create a whole world of new opportunities for designing and enhancing text. There may come a time when publishers will be able to control the look of digital books more firmly, and when authors will write books that use their potential more purposefully.

For now, though, even if a text is only being published in ebook format I still think it is a good idea (and even essential) for text to be proofread as hard copy. The eye always catches things on a printed page that will be missed on screen, and it is valuable to introduce this subtle shift in perception into the process of reading for errors.

Errata
Of course, typos do slip through. Nothing is more terrifying to the good editor or proofreader than a review that says a book was ‘poorly edited’. The reviewer perhaps doesn’t know, however, how much rewriting was done, or how the original text was heavily edited.

And you cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

Editors and proofreaders are there to help, and a good editor, like a good doctor, will do no harm, but even the best will sometimes miss an error or two.

Which is why it always makes sense to introduce fresh pairs of eyes during every stage of production. If a commissioning editor briefs a desk editor that a writer’s punctuation needs attention, the desk editor will make sure that freelance copyeditors and proofreaders take special care to look for stray commas and run-on sentences. And different editors can look at different things at different stages: the bigger picture during structural editing, style and voice during copyediting, correcting obvious errors during proofreading.

But: be practical. If you are a writer, and you encounter errors in your own book, send a list to your publisher. Mistakes can be corrected in the next printing, and probably more easily for ebooks. It can in fact be a good idea to keep a file copy of the most recent printing that can be marked up with corrections as they are spotted by yourself or other readers.

And yes, it’s good to get your work proofread in professional contexts. You might even proof a manuscript of your own before sharing with beta readers; it can be helpful to introduce that process of cleaning up the text at different stages along the way.

On the whole, I don’t get my blog posts proofread; surely the more casual style of blogging can be forgiving of a typo or two, and besides I can simply go to WordPress and correct anything that’s wrong later on (ah, the instantly corrected beauty of the blog!). But I did get someone to proof these longer blog posts on editing for me; typos would be an irony not worth bearing.

If you are really neurotic about leaving typos (as I am about pressing Publish for this blog post!), it can be good to leave a day or two before proofing the final text, so that you have at least a little distance in your reading. You might also want to read the text aloud, as printers used to; a printer’s setter used to read a copy of the text to a partner, who’d correct any errors; sometimes the setter would even read the text backwards so that every word and punctuation mark could be scrutinised out of its natural context.

That being said: I occasionally hear agents and publishers tell (scold) writers to proofread their cover letters and submissions, and sometimes I even hear them say that the instant they encounter a typo they instantly reject the project. I imagine they’re being a bit hysterical. Of course, we all want to be spotlessly professional in how we present ourselves, and errors can create a sloppy impression. But writers tinker with words, and typos do slip in.

A letterpress printer once said at a Naropa summer school: typos make us human. I guess this is one context where we don’t want to be too human. But typos can at least be easily fixed; clotted syntax and leaden prose and boring characters cannot. Fretting over editing and proofreading could in fact cramp your style. A good agent or editor will (should) be forgiving of a typo if a voice is telling a story and your characters are grabbing our attention.

Concern yourself with telling your story, and don’t worry too much about typos. Proofreaders need jobs, after all.

Definitions of Editing: Copyediting

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This post continues this short series about different types of editing with a look at copyediting.

Copyediting takes place after structural editing and rewriting have finished and the commissioning editor has taken delivery of the author’s final draft. To return to the gardening analogy, copyediting is like garden maintenance: pruning, mowing the lawn, tidying up the flowerbeds. Maybe a shrub can be moved to a sunnier spot, but reorganisation usually isn’t too extensive. Copyediting is a form of spadework, turning over every word to be sure it’s fresh and alive – though of course, in practical terms, sometimes all that’s needed is a trowel and a hand fork, rather than a bulldozer.

The work involves a wide variety of tasks, depending on the needs of the book, and whether a light edit or a heavy edit is expected; the commissioning editor should give a clear brief to the copyeditor.

The Basic Tasks: Correcting And Standardising
A light edit will fix only obvious errors, and be little more than a proofread of the writing (see future post on proofreading); you sometimes see the terms mechanical editing and technical editing used to describe these sorts of tasks too.

Mistakes will be corrected. Some will be mechanical or technological errors – careless things that slip through our drafting: typos, missing words. Slips of the keyboard and word-processing mistakes arise because composition usually takes place on screen and we are continuously tinkering with our sentences and introducing errors in the process (you might spot a few here): incorrect verb agreements; the Cut & Paste that cuts too little or pastes over one word too many; an earlier Search & Replace of ‘-ise’ endings that has resulted in ‘advertize’ and ‘televize’. Many of us even write or revise on the hoof nowadays, editing documents kept in the Cloud, and we know how the autocorrect has a life all of its own … (Yes, I really did intend to say its there, Apple, not it’s. And I did not mean duck off.)

Other outright errors might need fixing in spelling, punctuation, and grammar, though such matters are rarely straightforward. As Steven Pinker has pointed out, many of the rules of grammar are open to interpretation. I prefer the idea of usage to grammar, and aim to follow a writer’s preferences. Though I do have a few bugbears: after I saw the light on the difference between that and which, there was no going back. But even so, there is no point in changing whiches to thats if it’s not really necessary.

The idea of consistency is perhaps an easier rule to follow. Certain forms will be standardised: hyphens, capitals, abbreviations, the use of italics, the treatment of numbers and dates, variations in spelling. Copyeditor, copy-editor, or copy editor? Even the experts can’t agree: all are right, and none are wrong (or should that be none is wrong … ?!). But on the whole we should choose one standard and avoid mixing forms within a document. Consistency is perhaps a golden rule in copyediting.

Publishers’ guidelines often make decision-making easier, with a house style imposed upon the text for these and other matters, e.g., Oxford commas, -ise/-ize endings, single/double quotation marks. In practice, house style is often loosely employed, though again internal consistency is usually expected.

Either British or US conventions in both spelling and punctuation will be followed more strictly. If a US author is being published in the UK, US style will be followed – and in practice US manuscripts are not likely to be copyedited in the UK anyway, as a UK publisher will simply take the copyedited, typeset and proofread text from the US. But for some reason – age of empire? – you sometimes see American publishers changing UK spellings and terms. I never forget finding Wite-Out in the American edition of a bestselling, prizewinning British author’s coming-of-age novel set in the Midlands; we use Tipp-Ex in the UK. Don’t American publishers trust their readers to have imaginations and contextual reasoning?

Beyond matters of form, copyediting also addresses aspects of content. Continuity errors, ambiguities, anachronisms, points of confusion, and biased expressions might be flagged. Sometimes these can be easily fixed, but sometimes they need to be queried with the author.

The copyeditor might do some fact-checking or at least flag points that might need confirming. The New Yorker famously has a whole department of fact-checkers, but verifying every nugget of information in a manuscript could take an impractically long time. On the whole, book publishers rely on their authors to be authorities in their fields, and there is only so much that a copyeditor can be expected to know. That being said, it’s not unusual for copyeditors to have their own niches (gardening; crime fiction), and if necessary publishers will send a manuscript out to specialist readers, just as writers might include experts among their beta readers (e.g., a medieval historian for that novel set during the Crusades).

Copyeditors might flag any permissions that need clearing, and also note possible legal problems (e.g., libel, plagiarism), but it’s not really their responsibility to find solutions to such matters, and any concerns should be addressed with a legal read by a lawyer, which is in fact often a condition of a publisher’s insurance protection. In practice, legal matters are rarely an issue, and they tend to be more important for works of nonfiction, but fiction is not exempt from the eye of the law; that disclaimer about all characters and events being fictitious and resemblances to persons living or dead being coincidental counts for little if someone can prove damages. Publishers and authors want to avoid the cost and inconvenience of lawsuits or settlements, but, as in many matters of the law, much is a matter of interpretation and risk.

In addition to such basic matters of handling content, a copyeditor is usually tasked on marking up the text for the designed page, e.g., organising and indicating levels of headings, indenting extracted text, flagging positions for inserting illustrations. Other aspects of cleaning up the text include, for example, making sure that chapter headings in the text match those on the contents page. Editing front and back matter could be a job in its own right for works of nonfiction that have detailed notes, bibliographies, and appendices.

Sometimes copyeditors working on screen are also asked to format text in some way, e.g., coding headings or styling them as bold, and making sure there is only one character space after the full stop at the end of a sentence. But in many ways this sort of technical work is best performed by a typesetter. Copyeditors are not always trained keyboard operators, and a typesetter can be faster and more accurate.

Going Further: Improving And Refining
Anything more than the minimum requirements of copyediting requires a degree of editorial judgement that goes beyond simply correcting mistakes. I often use the term line editing for this sort of work, as it reflects the fact that the editor goes over the writing line by line, not only checking the words but assessing how they fit into sentences and paragraphs and analysing how they can be improved. Other specific terms introduce nuances to the sort of editing that is required; substantive editing, sub-editing, content editing, stylistic editing, creative editing, micro editing, and language editing. They all amount to much the same thing.

Clunky syntax, repetitions, non sequiturs, irrelevancies, digressions, fluffy clauses, excessive detail, weighty explanations, distracting miscues, clichés: various stylistic infelicities are subjective matters, but a good copyeditor can trim, tweak, and recast sentences to improve on them.

Editorial changes can, if desired, go even further in the refinement of prose style. The passive voice can be made active. Emphasis can be created through rhythm and echo. Verb use can be tightened, and excessive adjectives or adverbs can be pruned. Long and unwieldy sentences heavy with subordinate clauses can be broken down into shorter, clearer sentences, or maybe lots of choppy, short sentences can be smoothed together into a longer, sinewy one. Word choices can be made more concrete and specific. And it’s not always about the words; even subtle things such as commas and paragraph breaks can make a difference to voice and pace.

And edits can go beyond syntax, too. Whole paragraphs of description might be cut to leave that line of dialogue that now conjures up a character more forcefully. Lengthy sequences of interior monologue can be focused into that strong central image that would otherwise be lost. Suggestions for clarification or expansion can be made.

Such smoothing of form and content, word by word, can not only enhance the coherence of writing, but also create mood and introduce energy. An author once thanked me for ‘tightening and brightening’ her text. I think tightening and brightening are excellent ways to think about this sort of editing.

Ideally, as edits get heavier, word choices are derived from the original text, even if, for example, nouns are recast as verbs. But sometimes more substantial rewriting does happen. It depends on what is expected, and goes back to the editor’s brief. ‘Good copy-editing is invisible: it aims to present the book the author would have written if he or she had had more time or experience – not, as some new copy-editors think, their own improved version,’ says Judith Butcher, author of the standard UK manual Copy-editing (Cambridge University Press enjoying the hyphen in that instance).

Deeper and more extensive editing for voice and style that extends into rewriting does, in fact, beg the question of how a commissioned manuscript is suitable for publication in the first place. A heavy edit or rewrite might be desired for various nonfiction writers who are not professional writers but have credentials in other areas (yoga teachers, business leaders), or perhaps they’re academics whose style is rather dense for a trade book and needs some untangling or lightening. Translations often need some assistance on their way into English. Sometimes it’s the content of a novel – the concept, the storytelling, the characters – that was compelling to a commissioning editor, and the pace and voice can be improved through copyediting.

At a certain point, of course, rewriting is so extensive that it is basically ghostwriting, which creates a whole other set of conditions for the creation of a book. Usually the ghostwriter or cowriter has a particular agreement with the author; sometimes the ghost is an experienced journalist, with skills in interviewing and drawing material out of a subject. And then the manuscript gets shaped and typed up – and this too will need copyediting and often structural editing too. In my experience some ghostwriters – like many journalists – need quite a lot of editing, perhaps reflecting the fact that they are used to having their copy rewritten by sub-editors.

How Copyediting Is Carried Out
Once upon a time, publishers employed full-time in-house copyeditors, but the work is now usually done by freelancers who can devote time to projects with fewer interruptions; this can be painstaking work, and it might take at least twenty or thirty hours (or more) to lightly copyedit even a short 200-page book.

In-house editors are more likely to manage other desk-based work involved in editorial production; different publishers use different job titles and job descriptions, but you might encounter a managing editor, a desk editor, or a production editor, and thus the terms editorial managementdesk editing, and production editing. What they do is basically project management. They line up suitable freelance copyeditors or proofreaders. They integrate an author’s responses to an edit into the final manuscript. They collate proofs, write cover copy, brief designers and illustrators, and carry out numerous detailed functions that ensure the best book is produced on time. Sometimes they work on structural edits, or even find time to copyedit. They’ll also deal with all sorts of other editorial and administrative activities: preparing costings, checking contracts, chasing royalty statements, reading submissions, liaising with marketing and publicity managers, and generally acting as an in-house sponsor and support for the author. Depending on the size and organisation of the publisher, certain editorial activities might be carried out by a commissioning editor, a desk editor, or an editorial assistant.

Manuscript editing is another term you come across, though it seems to be a loose definition. Sometimes it describes the work of a manuscript review or critique, which amounts to a structural overview. But I’ve also seen this used to describe all the work of handling a manuscript. I guess it’s useful to be clear about what is meant by people you’re working with.

Traditionally, copyediting was done on a hard copy of a manuscript; when I first started out in publishing, many books were still typed, and even those that were word-processed were printed out for editing and eventually rekeyed by the typesetter. Edits were made in pencil, in case anything needed erasing. Queries were noted on Post-its, or even written on slips of paper that were pinned (yes, with pins) to the manuscript (I guess pins were more secure than paperclips). A typed list of queries could be more practical though, especially if a manuscript was to be photocopied for showing to the author.

Eventually, technology caught up, and publishers were able to take authors’ text in electronic format, but careful protocols are needed for incorporating editorial changes to the text. Nowadays, Tracked Changes and Comments functions are frequently used for editing and querying on screen, though these are not always easy to handle; it can be wrist-numbing to go through a document Accepting or Rejecting changes one by one, and versions of documents sometimes get confused … To my mind, nothing really beats copyediting a master copy in hard format. Not least, I am sure the eye catches things on hard copy that it misses scrolling down a screen.

A copyeditor will also produce a style sheet, which confirms variants in usage that have been followed, e.g., that copyeditor is one word, that the king takes a lower-case k, and that words rather than figures are used for numbers up to one hundred. Preferred spellings will be listed too, e.g., judgement (rather than judgment), leaped (rather than leapt).

It is important for an author to see the copyedited manuscript, though I am surprised how often this seems not to happen. An author usually needs to answer a copyeditor’s queries, e.g., simple checks about the intention of ambiguous wording, or notes about inconsistencies that need resolving with fresh copy. But an author also needs to see that all of the copyeditor’s changes are acceptable. It is the author’s name on the cover, after all.

Subsequently all of the author’s responses will be incorporated into the manuscript (by either the freelance copyeditor or an in-house editor). This can involve follow-up for clarifications. After that, a master copy of the manuscript will be ready for typesetting, and then proofs will be proofread ( more on that in a future post).

Do Writers Need To Get Their Own Work Copyedited?
On the whole, the answer is No if you’re submitting to an agent or publisher, but Yes if you are self-publishing. If you are being published, your publisher should take care of this. I’ll address these matters in more detail in another post.

Go Set A Watchman: Questions For Writers (And Readers)

 SPOILERS.

So Harper Lee’s new novel is out!

Who’d have thought that?! I’ve always used To Kill A Mockingbird as an example of why writers shouldn’t pressure themselves with deadlines and rushing, or be overly concerned with outcomes. For the author of one of the most beloved books in the world only ever published that one book. And if that was good enough for her …

(And if only some other writers were more cautious about their output!)

But then this week all that changed. And the verdict is in …

 

1.
But I’m not going that way. Because: whose verdict?

Before it was even published, various hacks have tried to dig up a back story, piecing together fragments of a story about an old lady who never wanted this earlier manuscript published until the older sister who protected her legal affairs died … Rats were smelled, as was fishiness.

But I really doubt that the old lady who worries about the punctuation of the title of her book would really be deceived. (Old people are not necessarily stupid, you know?) And even if the old lady really was deceived: do we really care that an earlier draft has been published?

I avoided reading reviews until I finished reading the book. Some of the earlier ones seem a bit timid. Others are scathing, or bitchy, seeking out every (apparent) cliché or bit of (apparent) ineptitude, which feels to me nitpicky and somewhat pointless; we don’t need to suspend judgement entirely, but trawling over writing looking for problems in that way really takes the joy out of reading. Let’s leave that to the sadists. Clichés don’t always bother me, anyway.

I just want to say to such reviewers, to all readers in fact: This is Harper Lee. Just read the book. Just read it and savour every single word, because this is more than we ever knew we were getting.

As someone close to me said: ‘I don’t think reviews are relevant for some books. A review can be nothing other than “Here’s what *I* think”. It changes nothing in the world.’

Publishers might tell you that negative reviews will harm sales, and good reviews will promote sales, so reviews can change things in the world. But many books with bad reviews are loved by readers long after the death of their reviewers. And many well-reviewed books are soon forgotten. And some books just take off unexpectedly and capture the imagination and even become cultural phenomena: Harry Potter, Fifty Shades. Taste cannot be predicted.

And some reviews are just sanctimonious wank.

For what it’s worth, this review from We Love This Book seems to be the most balanced one I’ve read. I do find that new media and blogs often provide better books coverage than many of the traditional reviews and literary sections: more engaged, less stuffy, less posturing, more authentic.

So, question no. 1 for writers: Why do you read reviews and reviewers, and what value do you necessarily place on their opining?

[Inserted postscript, August 2015: I’ve since come across this excellent take on the book by Ursula Le Guin. Anne Rice was also praising it on Facebook. See, those old ladies know a thing or two.]

 

2.
Atticus is a racist! Nooooooo! Well, actually, I think it’s probably a bit more complicated than that. (And NO, saying that does NOT make me a racist.) So: Atticus is a man of his time and place, it turns out. The saintly Atticus of To Kill A Mockingbird gives that book a simpler moral clarity, whereas this version of Atticus is a member of a racist citizens’ council, something that was a fact of life in many small towns in the American South in the 1950s.

(I also enjoy a certain cruel mirth in reading all those stories of bourgeois parents who named their little boys Atticus. Here I frantically scrabble around to remember if any of my friends have little boys named Atticus. ‘Mummy, can I go to Hannibal’s for a play date?’ As a Wille, I’ve never approved of the way in which the chatterati often seem to give their children pretentious yet painful names.)

There are plenty of other conversations about the treatment of race in both books by now, and it’s becoming one of those subjects where I, as a white person, in the current climate feel uncomfortable about making public pronouncements. (If that feels cowardly, it is, but I’m not ashamed.)

But we are reading Go Set A Watchman at a time when race is a matter of great urgency in public life, especially in the United States. Maybe Harper Lee thinks that blacklivesmatter too.

We read Go Set A Watchman in the week that a woman who failed to signal when changing lanes on the way to an interview ended up dead in a jail cell in Texas (and if you really care about social justice, like our saintly Atticus Finch, you really must watch that video clip). We read Go Set A Watchman and realise that some things have changed little since the time that these books were set. We read Go Set A Watchman and we watch that video clip and we ask ourselves whether that took place in the South in the 1950s, or South Africa under the state of emergency. No, it was Texas last week.

Publication of this book certainly draws attention to certain unchanging facts of life in America. So question no. 2: What do you have to say about age-old political problems in your own writing?

 

3.
So: what is the book like? I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it a lot. It was like revisiting childhood friends (while they are still in their childhood, rather than acting out on Facebook). But I did find myself drifting at the end, I’m afraid. It does get clunky and didactic as Jean Louise, the grown-up Scout, digests the racism of her hometown when she returns on vacation from her new life in New York.

Jean Louise is something of a passive central character, who agonises on what she observes via reflection in close third-person point of view. Unlike some reviewers, I liked the way in which she responds to some of the conversations she hears around her, especially at a ‘Coffee’, an occasion where Southern ladies get together to discuss their husbands and the toilet training of their babies and other people’s marriages and the prospect of a ‘good nigger trial’. It’s rendered in something of a stream of consciousness, and it’s possible some readers have missed the point.

All the same, I finished the book a couple of days ago, and I thought I’d forgotten its ending, and then I looked back and realised the book fizzles out somewhat, lacking a significant dramatic resolution. It has big themes and internal musings, but they fail to crystallise in revealing action.

This points up for me, more than anything, how Go Set A Watchman overall lacks narrative and dramatic focus. It reminds me in that way of questions I frequently ask about a lot of early unpublished drafts I read in my work as a book doctor: What is at stake here? What do characters have to gain or lose in terms of both external action as well as their inner lives?

To Kill A Mockingbird by contrast has not only that trial but also and especially Boo Radley. Boo, who in the movie is hiding behind the door in one of the most terrifying screen moments of my life. No longer would I only be scared of things lurking under the bed; thereafter I’d be scared of things hiding behind the bedroom door, the door that had been left open with the landing light on because I didn’t like it closed and I didn’t like the dark.

All the same, Go Set A Watchman has a few other surprises, and other magical sequences. The most captivating are scenes with Scout, Jem, and Dill that call to mind some of those in To Kill A Mockingbird (though I’ve yet to do a direct comparison).

Go Set A Watchman is, certainly, a literary curiosity, in the vein of the scroll edition of On the Road or the published drafts of Howl and The Waste Land. But I think it’s more than that too – it’s a novel marked by plenty of accomplishment already, and it possesses real flashes of wit and saltiness. It has some of the hallmarks of a certain type of postwar American literature that perhaps feel missing in contemporary writing. And even if it has flaws and is apparently an unedited manuscript, it probably interested me far more than plenty of published and apparently flawless books that have been edited.

(‘Flawlessness is overrated.’ Discuss. Many of my favourite books have flaws.)

I’ve read a few commentaries suggesting that Harper Lee’s editor deserves some sort of honour for the way this manuscript was transformed into a great book, but I’ve not seen a paper trail about specific input from an editor, and I’d assume that any editorial conversation would have been followed by Harper Lee’s ongoing revision until she created the draft that became To Kill A Mockingbird. Let’s not forget: editors can be talented, but in the world of books writers are the talent.

Go Set A Watchman is for me, as a teacher and book doctor, an immensely useful textbook. Many beginning (and even experienced) writers seem to think that once a first draft has been planned and then written, editing requires a certain amount of pegging and tidying up, and then it’s plain sailing until you’re checking your Amazon rankings.

But in fact, especially for beginning writers, a first draft can actually be the planning. Terry Pratchett once said something along the lines that a first draft is just the writer telling herself the story.* Once a first (or early) draft is complete, the story is laid out beginning to end, and then the writer can decide how to tell that story: which emphasis to bring out, what to cut, what to expand, how to shift the tone, or vary the pace for narrative tension. The first draft can be more about the process of exploration and investigation, rather than grasping towards any particular outcome.

Go Set A Watchman amounts to one of those sorts of early drafts, perhaps. To Kill A Mockingbird is a seriously different novel: a different timeframe, a different period, a different spirit, a different point of view. And a key event from To Kill A Mockingbird has a very different outcome in Go Set A Watchman.

But both novels have the same setting, many of the same characters, much of the same wit and verve in its style, and it absolutely has the same concerns. It’s not hard to imagine a young writer taking a look at this early draft and thinking, What if I took this and did that with it … ? A focus would have been sought, and found.

Lesson no. 3: What things might lie within the rambles of your own early drafts, and how could you take them and form something else from them? It might not be radically different. But it could also be a wild departure into something that captures some initial spark and does something more compelling, or more heartfelt, or more entertaining, or more poetic, or more [insert adjective]. Either is possible.

 

Reviews. Race. Revision. Three R’s of Go Set A Watchman.

But lessons are chores. I first read To Kill A Mockingbird in the third year at school, in Miss Batham’s English class. I’d already read some Agatha Christies and having loved The Hobbit had attempted The Lord of the Rings, but this was the first time I really read an adult book with adult themes, and it left a profoundly strong impression on me, as subsequently would Huckleberry Finn, and My Family And Other Animals, and The War Of The Worlds

These lessons were not chores. Books such as these are rare events in our lives that capture our imaginations. Sequels, or allied publications, should be treasured for what they are. They should be left to work their magic, and enjoyed for what they are.

 

* If you have a direct quotation and source for Terry Pratchett on first drafts, please email me!

This Week: Lines and Holes

  This week:

* I read the excellent Kent Haruf’s Our Souls At Night as well as this profile on the Making Of A Writer. For some reason, I paused and wondered if Haruf might have been more widely known if he’d been a woman. Not that he wasn’t widely known, but his prose style really excels in a way that few others quite match, and for that he should be one of those writers who has been read by everyone who’s serious about writing themselves, and that is far from the case. Is it that his novels have modest and domestic settings, and it’s okay for women to write about those, but not so much for men? Such pigeonholing limits both men and women, and if we are to break out of that perhaps we need to recognise that men can and should write about the domestic just as much as women can and should write beyond it. Never mind, he took me to small towns in Colorado with some haunting images and sharp turns of phrase. Fantastic dialogue too – some of the best.

* Talking of pigeonholes, I read a thought-provoking piece about desegregating literature. It made me think about the lines that writers write across: lines of colour, lines of gender, lines of otherness. Also lines of responsibility in writing.

* Some of these (and other) points were addressed more specifically in this Guardian-hosted conversation about African writing.

* I also read a profile of Frank Herbert’s Dune.

* And took a look at David Foster Wallace.

* I chuckled to read how Twitter taunted EL James. I’ve yet to read a word of any of her books, so what do I know? But I cannot forget the fact that her lawyers got heavy on a parody, while her book is itself just a piece of clit-friggy fan fiction.

* I celebrated Olivia De Havilland’s 99th birthday!

* I was encouraged to read a piece on growing fruits and vegetables in schools. After the teaching of history, I cannot think of anything more valuable for children to learn than gardening. (Except perhaps a foreign language.) Horticulture should be on the national curriculum.

The event I’m sorry I missed: the Classic English Whippet Derby.

Food experiment of the week: I made ice cream for the first time. Lemon and saffron. Jury’s still out – it’s in the freezer, doing its freezing (and apparently without needing a stir, though I have done). And I made one half with Xylitol, to experiment with alternatives to sugar.

 

This Week: Plotting And Swearing

Rose and Pistachio cake

This week:

* I continued to read Patricia Highsmith’s Plotting And Writing Suspense Fiction, which is first-rate and should be of value to any fiction writer; just about any work of fiction needs to take into consideration pacing and suspense.

* I read Nina Stibbe’s Man At The Helm: ooooo, good. Funny yet dark, and I love her swearing. We must use all the words. (We must ditch the idea of offence.)

* I watched RuPaul in bed with Joan Rivers (again!) for further reinforcement in my belief in swearing; hear him describe his mother. (We must use all the words, etc.) (We miss you, Joan.)

* I despaired of trolls of various types. (We must learn from history, use all the words, ditch the idea of offence.) In reading discussions about Charlie Hebdo and Ron Silliman’s defence of Vanessa Place earlier this month, I found myself more passionately in favour of freedom of speech than I ever expected.

* I remember seeing Salman Rushdie speak in Boulder once. He said, ‘The right to be an asshole is part of the first amendment.’ To which I might add, thinking about conceptual writing: ‘The right to disappear up your own asshole is also part of the first amendment.’

* I contemplated the end of my Facebook holiday after reading this response from Mariella to a letter about the glossy self-editing of social media.

* I was horrified to hear how they’re teaching writing to kids in the schools! Maybe we should ditch the idea of a National Curriculum entirely, and teach kids in the manner of the school where Tilda Swinton sends hers.

* I read the #Charlestonsyllabus (though not all the books on it – yet …) and thought how history must be the most important subject to teach in schools (truths + critical thinking + writing + civics).

* I agreed that historical fiction doesn’t only have to be realist.

* I watched the pilot of The Man In The High Castle.

* I flew a rainbow flag instead of a Confederate one.

* With my American friends, I celebrated same-sex marriage finally being recognised across the USA. Not before time!

A good writing experiment: writing a syllabus for a cause of your own or a school of your own creation.

Garden inspiration of the week: pictures of this tiny but beautiful urban garden in Stoke Newington.

Earthly pleasure of the week: I followed a fantastic recipe for a yogurt and apricot loaf cake (I added half a grated Bramley apple, rose petals, chopped apricots soaked in rosewater, hazelnuts and pistachios, as well as cinnamon – and probably something else or two …). See pic above.