Tagged: Book Doctor

Getting Published Day 2016


Yesterday I book doctored at the Writers’ Workshop Getting Published Day at Regents College. It was a lot of fun. I met some really lovely people and read samples from some interesting works-in-progress. One in particular was very exciting for me: witty, intelligent, and a strong story concept. My enthusiasm had no bounds! (Though the said writer does now have the challenge of writing the second-best opening line in English literature.) I hope the rest of the manuscript is as strong as the opening chapter and synopsis, and I also hope others will soon feel the same. At this point, the prospect of getting published comes down to taste, and finding people who share your vision (agent, editor, readers).

And before taste dictates, it’s usually important to get the craft right. Things that came up in the book doctor surgeries included: bringing more of an edge into the narrative style; deciding what should be revealed when within a story; building the pacing and narrative tension around key moments within the story; the importance of setting; establishing mood; sharpening the prose style. I found myself asking various writers: what are you giving a reader? A good question for any writer who wants to be published (hope it doesn’t prompt an existential crisis).

I also led an hour-long workshop on prose style: Style Brings Substance. There’s never enough time to say all that could be said on such subjects. So it was a brisk romp.

I discussed how I break down my thinking about any piece of writing in terms of: its context; its narrative content (including its dramatic situation); its narrative style (including its structure); and most important of all its prose style, because that is where writing is ultimately experienced – and judged.

I feel that the natural speaking voice is usually the best foundation for our writing, even if it sometimes needs adapting or embellishing. Mood is important in creating intimacy with the reader, and creating an impression relies on our use of style, moment by moment in a piece of writing. I suggested that style is as much about what we leave out of a piece of writing, and what we leave to the reader’s imagination, as what we explain.

Much is a matter of taste, again, but much too can be improved through a strong grasp of the craft, and I stressed the importance of understanding how the different parts of speech work. A few simple pointers:

* Verbs bring energy to a sentence, so aim to be energy-efficient. In fiction, sentences are often most effective when a strong and simple verb of action is used as the main verb of a sentence. A sentence such as ‘He realised he could easily identify at least seven enemy soldiers rapidly running in his direction’ has less force than ‘Half a dozen enemy soldiers were running at him’ or even ‘Half a dozen enemy soldiers ran at him’ – the realising and the easily being able to identify don’t add much, really, do they? They just get in the way. We often simply don’t need realise or remember or sense verbs (e.g., see, hear). Auxiliary verbs (e.g., can, must) can often be lost too.

(And while we were at it, we cleaned up that weirdly precise ‘at least seven’ – we usually want specificity, but I don’t think it works here.)

* Nouns serve as anchors, grounding the writing – which sometimes is necessary, and sometimes is not.

* Interrogate the need for every adjective and adverb in your writing. As Ursula Le Guin says: ‘Adjectives and adverbs are rich and good and fattening. The main thing is not to overindulge … The bakery shop of English is rich beyond belief, and narrative prose, particularly if it’s going a long distance, needs more muscle than fat.’

* Even prepositions have their moments, e.g., at in ‘Half a dozen soldiers were running at him’.

* Dependent clauses create, um, dependence within a sentence, and sometimes it makes sense to connect clauses in a simpler manner that creates self-contained action, e.g., by breaking the sentence down into separate sentences, or by using the simple conjunction ‘and’ between recast clauses. So (with a few other tweaks for tartness and economy): ‘When he glanced quickly over the top of the freestanding plexiglass partition of his cubicle, he realised he could easily identify at least seven enemy soldiers rapidly running in his direction’ could be improved as ‘He shot a glance over the partition. Half a dozen soldiers were running at him’. The edited version feels much less cluttered.

* It is usually good to let the idea or action within a sentence unfold chronologically.

* Think of the paragraph as a unit of thought or action.

We considered the use of parts of speech as we listened to the opening of Kent Haruf’s fantastic novel Our Souls At Night, whose plain style is beguiling. Here is a writer, I stressed, who gets out of his own way and lets a story simply tell itself.

Revision exercise: Take a piece of your own writing and reduce it to only those nouns it contains. Then the verbs. Then the adjectives, and then do the same for other parts of speech. (This reminds me of an article on reducing books to their marks of punctuation.) What does this tell you about the way in which words are working in your writing? Do you spot any words/habits that might need changing?

I also shared a couple of pages of the intense reading experience that is Garth Greenwell’s novel What Belongs To Me, (am very excited to see him read tomorrow). This book includes one section that is a 41-page paragraph – a stylistic choice that certainly pays off. As I also stressed: we don’t run marathons without lots of training! But it’s fun to try. And how about another writing experiment?

Revision exercise: Knock every paragraph break out of a piece of writing. How might what remains read differently? Does the new version suggest any changes? Then without referring back, add paragraph breaks back in.

I heartily recommended Constance Hale’s Sin and Syntax to anyone who wants a refresher on grammar and usage. And here is a clear explanation of parts of speech from the Purdue Online Writing Lab.

I also link lots of useful things for writers on this page: Resources.

Reading recommendations I made yesterday included: Ursula Le Guin’s Steering the Craft; Stephen King’s On Writing; Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey; and Ronald Tobias’s 20 Master Plots. I also suggested that people writing in that area take a look at Emma Darwin’s Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction from the Teach Yourself series, which comes out this week (I’ve not read it yet, but if it’s by Emma it must be excellent). In addition I recommended the Writers’ Workshop own online self-editing course, run by Debi Alper and Emma Darwin.

My fellow book doctor Shelley Harris also signed my copy of her book Vigilante – out this week in paperback.

Only sad note of the day: losing my lovely linen scarf on the way home 🙁 so in memory of that one of the great poems from one of the great poets: ‘One Art’ by Elizabeth Bishop.

Thanks again to the Writers’ Workshop for asking me. Their events are always the best – meeting old friends, and making new ones, all of us joined in our love of writing and books. Stories shared, secrets revealed, dreams inspired – and sometimes set on the road to success. I always come away thinking how writers and book folk are the most interesting people, and the best fun.

A great day all round. I really love my job!

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.