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A novel experience

A novel experience

Editing is an essential part of the writing process, and should be applied to all documents, from award entries to web copy. Sarah Webster recently edited a novel for the first time; a major project that revealed many of the snares that can trap even the best writers. In this blog, she lists some of the tricks employed by editors to improve any written content, be it a business pitch or that next big blockbuster.

“Editing a novel provided a fantastic learning experience – both for me and for Pete Wheldon, the book’s author.  Pete had researched the context of his story over a number of years; he came up with a cast of credible, engaging characters and he wove them into a plot that was pacey enough to keep readers intrigued right to the last page.

So, what could be left for a text editor to do, other than scatter a few semi-colons or correct the occasional typo? That was pretty much my assumption when I agreed to take on the task. This’ll be a doddle, I promised myself.

By the time I’d gone through the draft six or seven times, I’d changed my mind.   Pete’s scattergun approach to apostrophes proved to be the tip of a much deeper iceberg. The dialogue was rich and varied. He had introduced some fascinating ideas, giving the reader plenty to ponder. But there were times when I struggled to make sense of his more complex theories.  Pivotal moments in the plot sometimes arrived with no dramatic build-up. The phrasing was occasionally laboured and clunky, and I found myself doing a fair bit of cutting and pasting to make the content flow better.  

Starting out, I felt guilty wielding my red pen to another writer’s work, but then one day I heard a Radio 4 interview with Lane Green, Deputy Editor of the Books and Arts section of The Economist. Lane said that even the best writing will benefit from being edited.  And this essentially requires someone other than the writer to take an objective look at the text and make the necessary tweaks to ensure it will make sense to the reader. 

Here are a few examples of typical writing weaknesses that will prompt an editor to delete or rearrange content:

  • Over-long and over-complex sentences.  If the reader is forced to stop and go back to the beginning of the sentence, to unravel who exactly is doing what to whom – and why –  that sentence needs breaking-up into manageable chunks.  A few very short sentences (subject, verb, object, full stop) interspersed by the occasional long ones, make for a more comfortable flow. Charles Dickens was reputedly paid by the word, but the rest of us have no excuse for indulging in convoluted 80-word sentences.
  • Poor syntax.  Syntax is the order in which words and phrases are arranged in a sentence.  We have choice in how we structure our sentences and if we’re not careful, we can inadvertently produce ambiguous and even hilarious results. “If your baby won’t drink milk straight from the fridge, boil it” is a famous example of poor syntax. 
  • Clichés. All those expressions that were trendy for a while, but which have become stale through over-use.  Worn-out familiar props like: “at the end of the day” and “ignorance is bliss” will make your content look trite and lifeless. Such tired old phrases have no place in contemporary writing.
  • Needless repetition of information, as in: “…an annual value of £1 million a year.” Here you should use either “annual” or “a year”, but not both, since the one makes the other redundant.
  • Correct choice of words.  Did you know that “uninterested” and “disinterested” mean different things? As do “imply” and “infer”?  Misuse of words is widespread, and as the language evolves certain distinctions become blurred, but professional writers should follow the rules until the morphed meaning has entered into common usage.

But the greatest of all transgressions is … excess. Lane says that pretty much every piece of writing can be improved by being condensed by 10 per cent. That doesn’t mean chopping it off from the bottom. It’s about removing every word that isn’t essential to the sentence.  The best writing is clear and concise -with no unnecessary padding.

So, what about that novel?  Colston 33 is about a builder – Sam Wainwright – whose complacent life of undemanding jobs and visits to the pub, is shaken by a series of disturbing coincidences.  Rediscovering his lost love and forming an unlikely new friendship, trigger a chain of events that prompt Sam to question his identity and view his surroundings in a whole new light.

Sam unearths a number of anomalies in the biographies of 18th Century slaver, Edward Colston. He sets out to solve a puzzle that crosses the boundaries between physical and spiritual science. His research into esoteric knowledge connecting earth energies, sacred geometry and planetary alignments, reveals  information closely-guarded by secretive societies and powerful historical figures. Starting from the city of Bristol the plot follows lines across right across the world, linking locations as far removed as Nova Scotia and the Great Pyramid of Giza.

Intrigued?  You can order your own copy here.  And if you don’t find it a great  read, my editing skills will need further work. All feedback gratefully received!”