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.

Patricia Highsmith: Take A Nap

After coming across this piece in the Guardian, I’m reading the excellent Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction by Patricia Highsmith. I’ve been highlighting many choice quotes in my kindle, and so far this is perhaps one of the most helpful – and original – bits of writing advice:

But at times I am so tense and tired after dealing with red tape, I feel like taking a nap for fifteen minutes. A nap clears the head wonderfully, besides giving fresh energy. I realize that about half the people in the world cannot nap without feeling logy afterward, but for those who can, a nap is a time-saver, not a time-waster. In my twenties, I had to do my own writing in the evenings, as my days were taken up with jobs or hack work. I got into the habit of napping around six, or of being able to if I wished, and of bathing and changing my clothes. This gave me an illusion of two days in one and made me as fresh for the evening, under the circumstances, as I could possibly be. Problems in writing can come unknotted in a miraculous way after a nap. I go to sleep with the problem, and wake up with the answer.

I like that. I like most anything connected with sleep. I also like this book very much indeed. It should be of use to any writer, and not just writers of suspense.

Definitions Of Editing: Structural Editing


It’s useful for any writer to understand different editorial terms. They can bring clarity to what your writing needs or is ready for at any stage of creating a book.

The definitions of editing I describe in this series of posts are not hard and fast descriptions. Not all of the tasks they explain are necessary to every book that’s written, and sometimes these processes are merged or in some way going on simultaneously. These terms can be used interchangeably, or in different ways by different editors or in different fields or territories. If in doubt, ask for clarification.

I tend to see editorial production as three broad stages: structural editing; copyediting; and proofreading. In this post I’m looking at structural editing, which, using my gardening analogy, is like redesigning and landscaping your garden.

Structural editing refers to the editorial work that deals with aspects of the bigger picture of a manuscript, addressing matters of content, organisation, and pacing. Does it take too long to get to the essence of the story, in which case should we cut all the background in the first two chapters and open with that scene from the middle of Chapter Three? Do key revelations in the plot create the most effective narrative tension: might they need staggering throughout rather than being loaded into a big reveal at the end? Is the conclusion sufficiently rewarding, or is it too rushed, or overly protracted? Are characters’ motivations clear? Are settings distinct enough? Could some slow-moving sections be tightened or cut, and might other scenes warrant expansion?

Structural editing often also takes account of the telling of the story. Is the voice persuasive? Does the point of view do justice to the outcome, or could it be deployed in a way that commands greater dramatic tension? Is present tense really serving this story well? Might extended sequences of dialogue be more effectively summarised in reported speech?

Sometimes structural editing is done by professional editors, who’ll actually carry out the work of cutting and pasting and even rewriting the text, knowing that it can be shown to the author for approval and for dealing with any queries. Sometimes (often, for many freelancers …) structural editing is combined with line editing and copyediting, particularly when the publisher is in a rush (often, for many freelancers …).

(And long gone seem those days of publishers’ ‘rush rates’, it seems, in which case maybe freelancers should set the rates themselves.)

Structural editing is the term you tend to hear describing the primary stages of editing in a publishing house, and this work usually takes place when a first or at least an early draft has been completed; the fundamental elements of the book will have been decided upon and bedded down, even if there is still some shaping and tweaking to bring out a desired emphasis.

Other terms introduce slightly different shades of meaning, and perhaps subtly different tasks for writer or editor.

Developmental editing often covers some of the ground of a structural edit (cutting, expanding, clarifying motivation, changing point of view, and so on). But it can also refer to types of editorial work that occur even before structural editing is needed, specifically at the conception of a book and frequently with particular markets or contexts in mind. Broadly speaking, writers who’re serious about publishing can be helped in directing their energies; writers determined to write and publish a vampire novel might need thoughtful input about the sort of vampire fiction that might succeed in a popular but still saturated market, or at least get supportive advice from an agent or literary consultant about what is strong or fresh within their writing, and also where they might gain from doing further work, or experimenting with a new approach, or developing topical themes.

The term developmental editing is often used in educational and scholarly publishing, where, for example, acquisition editors might be actively developing content for new textbooks, taking into consideration particular specialisms within fields of studies or even curricula.

It’s not a term that you encounter often in trade publishing houses, but then this is not always the sort of work that nowadays takes place between first novelists and editors at publishing companies: usually an editor buying a first novel today is pretty much committed to the story idea as well as its style and execution; there might be some structural editing, but if a book needed serious attention to voice or character in the first place, an editor might not take it on, as it could be something of a risk to commission a novel whose final execution remains uncertain. And editors need to be able to get their marketing colleagues on board, and there are lots of books out there, and editors can afford to be fussy, and they don’t have the hours in the day to invest in this sort of time-consuming work.

Developmental editing can often come with subsequent novels though, by which time editorial relationships have a surer footing and a publisher has a long-term commitment to a writer that justifies going back and forth, bouncing around story ideas and thinking about other aspects of the creation of a book and planning a writer’s career.

Developmental editing often takes place between writers and literary agents, as agents are nowadays frequently the professionals who’re working on what might, in other industries, be called talent scouting, nurturing creative professionals towards completing and then publishing a book.

Developmental editing is also relevant to much of the work that goes on within and around what might be called the creative writing industry: manuscript critiques from literary consultancies, meetings with professionals at writers’ conferences, writing courses at universities or within commercial organisations. It also borders on a lot of the activity that can take place in writing groups or among beta readers. In all of these instances, feedback is usually given on writing that is at an early stage of drafting, and in the knowledge that a project could change significantly.

I find developmental editing the most apt description for much of the work I do as a book doctor or writing teacher in fiction and general nonfiction – helping writers sift through their narrative content to work out the best focus or direction for a story and the best way to tell it. Sometimes I might even be helping a writer figure out where to place the work in terms of genre: does a writer want to develop this autobiographical content as a memoir, and if so might it gain from a briefer timeframe that creates a more intense story? Or does it make sense to allow for the more imaginative spin of fiction, which can often free a writer to be truthful in other ways?

Though developmental editing often deals with aspects of the concept or bigger picture, an editor or book doctor sometimes goes into more detailed or granular aspects of writing too. Sometimes I find myself helping a writer who wishes to develop a stronger voice – for example, highlighting the use of verbs in sentences in a sample of writing as a means of illustrating ways to achieve a tighter prose style, or suggesting other ways that syntax could be made tauter, or more pointed, or more moody. Performed more extensively, in a comprehensive edit of a whole manuscript, this would amount to what I call line editing (to be discussed in another post), but in my role as a tutor rather than an editor I like the idea that a few sample edits can model what writers could do themselves with their own words, so that they learn to hone their voices as they take books through different drafts. In many ways, developmental editing has much in common with teaching and coaching.

A further difference between developmental and structural editing is that with developmental editing a writer might solicit feedback on a partial draft rather than the whole book, getting the voice and tone right in the opening chapters, for example, before launching ahead into the rest.

Developmental Editing, a guide by Scott Norton that is published by the University of Chicago Press (one of the leading publishers of books on publishing), offers this clarification, which recaps some of the above:

For our purposes, developmental editing denotes significant structuring or restructuring of a manuscript’s discourse. The [developmental editor’s] role can manifest in a number of ways. Some ‘big picture’ editors provide broad direction by helping the author to form a vision for the book, then coaching the author chapter by chapter to ensure that the vision is successfully executed. Others get their hands dirty with the prose itself, suggesting rewrites at the chapter, section, paragraph, and sentence levels. This hands-on approach is sometimes called substantive editing or line editing.

From this perspective, stylistic intervention alone is not ‘developmental’. To be sure, there are cases in which a manuscript’s organization is sound but the tone so pervasively wrong that virtually every sentence must be recast. Severe as these problems of tone may be, they can usually be handled by a high-powered copyeditor—and those that can’t are beyond the reach of editing, requiring instead the hand of a ghostwriter or coauthor.

I’ll talk about line editing, substantive editing and copyediting in a future post.

Content editing is a related term. I tend to think of this as focusing on the internal logic of a work, and it often involves many of the tasks in developmental and structural editing, as well as more detailed aspects that usually come up in line editing or copyediting, such as fact-checking, flagging inconsistencies, or smoothing out the pace. Basically, content editing spans both the bigger picture of a structural edit as well as more detailed work. You often encounter this term in the editing of nonfiction.

Macro editing is a useful idea too. I borrow it from Susan Bell’s The Artful Edit, a fantastic book on revising and self-editing, and I think it is a good way to describe the work writers do themselves, particularly at early stages of drafting. Bell relates it to aspects of the bigger picture of a manuscript: intention; character; structure; foreshadowing; theme; and continuity of tone.

With any of these types of editing, it’s hoped that the process is dynamic and engaged for all parties involved. If you’re a writer, the most important developmental and structural editing is probably that that you do yourself during stages of drafting, revising, and self-editing, of course. But perhaps you can be clear about what you want from an editorial relationship: go in with your eyes open, and also be ready for feedback that can improve your work or even take it in a new direction. Ask a book doctor for a critique that focuses on developmental editing, tell beta readers you’re working on a macro edit, know what to expect from a structural edit from a publisher – or be sure to have taken yourself through some of these stages before self-publishing.

(And definitely, if you’re self-publishing, don’t neglect copyediting – more on that next time, and proofreading after that.)

And a reminder: I’ll be discussing these and related matters in a Writers’ Workshop Literary Salon held at Waterstones Piccadilly on 31 July 2015: Self-Editing: Revising Your Words. Debi Alper and I will be holding specific sessions on revising and prose style, and in breakout sessions we’ll also work through some examples of editing.

Definitions of Editing: Key Terms


All writers need to understand editing.

Editing can involve many different types of editorial activity, from straightforward matters such as correcting spelling or making usage consistent, to subtle matters such as smoothing out the voice, to broader tasks such as changing the setting of a novel or streamlining an unwieldy cast of characters or cutting a chapter or adding a prologue. Specific types of book can demand other types of editorial work too, such as commissioning photographs or artwork to sit beside the text; this can be particularly important for works of nonfiction.

In a series of forthcoming posts I’m going to share some of my own working definitions. To make a start, I’m digging through various manuals and textbooks as well as recollections of my own experience, collating terms that describe different types of editorial work, and I’m finding that this list keeps getting longer … And then various terms can describe subtly different things, or even have different senses in different contexts or for different people. It’s worth clarifying what they mean.

I post the growing list below. It starts with editing that addresses the bigger picture, then moves down to forms of editing that pay attention to more detailed and refined aspects of writing, and then it adds sundry other terms as well. If you’ve anything to add, including other terms, please do so in a comment below.

In the beginning, of course, editors are involved in acquisition and commissioning, though for these purposes I’m singling them out as, let’s say, commercial processes rather than editorial ones – not that editing isn’t commercial … but I’m focusing on specifically editorial tasks in creating rather than buying a book here.

Subsequent editorial activities can be roughly divided between three main stages of editing: structural editing, copyediting, and proofreading.

To use analogies from gardening, structural editing would be the equivalent of redesigning your garden, perhaps redoing its hard landscaping, for example, replacing tired flowerbeds with raised beds, as well planting some trees and shrubs as focal points. Copyediting would be like routine garden maintenance, which might involve some straightforward pruning and clipping, and a bit of tidying of the borders here and there, and also mowing the lawn, and maybe repotting a container or two. And proofreading would be a final clear-up: weeding, and power-washing the paving, and storing the tools in the shed at the end of the day so that all the work that’s been done is invisible.

Terms loosely associated with structural editing also include:

macro editing
developmental editing
content editing

Terms and activities related to copyediting that I’ve encountered also include:

micro editing
line editing
manuscript editing
stylistic editing
mechanical editing
language editing
technical editing

The manuscript is usually next sent for typesetting, and after that it will need proofreading, and related to that:

collating proofs
checking revised proofs
proofing (I’m adding this as a related term here – explanations to come)

It’s worth understanding other terms that define specific editorial roles or stages in book production. They include:

project editing
editorial production
desk editing
product development (eek! that sounds so wrong, but I saw it used in a popular textbook about publishing) (‘popular textbook about publishing’ does sound like something of an oxymoron, doesn’t it?!) (but eek! let’s not forget that publishing is a business, or rather than publishing, like all of us, resides within a global economy of supply and demand, ker-ching)

And we can also think about the nature and degree of editing, e.g.:

editing on screen vs editing hard copy
light editing, heavy editing

And then there are other functions allied to editing, e.g.:

picture research
clearing permissions
legal read
specialist editing
ghost writing

These are not hard and fast categories. Substantive editing, for example, can be seen as a task of structural editing, but in practice it is often done during copyediting. And proofing is something that can be done at every stage; a writer will probably proof a draft before sharing it with a beta reader, even before it’s sent to an agent or editor, and long before it’s proofread in a formal sense.

In future posts over the next couple of months, I’ll look at some of these different types of editorial activity (and maybe some others) in ways that I hope will be useful for writers: shedding light on what happens to your book in a publishing house; suggesting work we can do in our own revising and self-editing; and presenting ideas that self-publishers can build into their own work flow.

I’ll also touch on some of these matters in a Writers’ Workshop Literary Salon held at Waterstones Piccadilly on 31 July 2015: Self-Editing: Revising Your Words. Debi Alper and I will be holding specific sessions on revising and prose style, and in breakout sessions we’ll also work through some examples of editing.