Call me crazy, but I find editing and critiquing creative writing quite fun and rather satisfying.
Work-shopping has been a big part of our Creative Writing MA. Before each workshop, we take home three sets (i.e. to workshop three people’s work) of 10-15 double-spaced pages of creative writing, which we mark-up and scribble all over in preparation for our discussions. I can take up to an hour going through one person’s work. We mark up the text, and write about a page of notes, talking about general suggestions and areas to look at. My notes usually look a little something like the example on the left.
Inkspill Critiques - the critiquing service I set up through my literary magazine – I deal with in a slightly different way. I use the comments feature on Word. I don’t use track changes, because I think editing and critiquing is always a discussion rather than a right-or-wrong situation, and it is always down to the author to make the final decisions. I use the comments feature to suggest changes, from grammatical to thematic, offering reasoning where I think it is needed, and I also offer a personal commentary to the work so that the writer can see a reader’s reaction. Along with the comments in the text, I write up a report of overall comments.
Editing for Myself
I go through two main stages with my own work. On screen, I clean up and re-write over and over until I’m happy with what I’ve got. Then I print it out and scribble up my notes, much like the ones in the first photo (the notes are usually event more dense!). I’m looking mainly at the micro at this stage: sentence structure, word usage, etc. But I’ll sometimes make a note of a major change I want to make – but then its back to the screen.
Creativity and craft are two vastly different things
A recent post over at Writers Unboxed got me thinking about why I like editing so much. I came up with this:
I love editing, because it is then that I can take my raw, half-formed crap and spruce it up into something beautiful. For me, that’s where the real craft of writing takes place. Creativity and craft are two vastly different things.
You can be creative. You can have raw talent, even. But crafting that creativity into something amazing is a whole different ball game. When you’re in the creative zone, frantically scribbling down your first draft, you aren’t thinking about grammar and sentence structure (except perhaps on an instinctive level). You aren’t thinking about plot structure and word choice (at least, not too hard). All that stuff is honed and refined during the editing stage.
It is only after editing that you have buffed your creativity into a beautiful piece of art.
I like that feeling. That’s why I like editing. That’s also why I like helping others edit. I want to help people reach that stage in their work.
If you’d like me to take a look at some of your creative work, I run a service called Inkspill Critiques.
Once you’ve completed various drafts and have made your writing the best it can be, you might consider seeking feedback. Feedback on your writing is important because…
- A writer is ‘too close’ to their own work. It becomes difficult to maintain an objective opinion after working so intimately with the writing.
- Agents and publishers are looking for polished work. It is a difficult and competitive time for publishing, so making your writing as best as it can be can only help improve its chances of being selected out of thousands of other submissions.
- A writer can learn from the feedback, improving their craft and avoiding pitfalls and mistakes in the future.
You can seek feedback in a variety of ways, but be cautious and sensible about the potential value of the feedback you receive.
Friends and Family – Though friends and family may be good sample readers, they may not have the knowledge or experience to offer you any substantial constructive feedback. Worse, they are bias readers. They probably won’t want to hurt your feelings and so will offer praise. If your writing isn’t objectively praise-worthy this can be quite damaging as it will discourage you from seeking further improvements.
Critique Groups – Whether online or in person, critique groups can vary dramatically in usefulness. Mostly, it comes down to who is in the group and how much they know. You may get a lot of variation in opinions (this isn’t a bad thing) but those opinions must be backed-up with credible evidence, and it is up to you which criticisms you take on board. The dynamics of a group may also have an effect. You may become friends (see above) or there may be personal conflicts within the group – these kinds of things can affect the quality of the feedback. However, critique groups are usually good places for writer camaraderie and morale – if you are able to handle giving and receiving negative feedback.
Editors and Critiquing Services – There are various professional services available to writers. For writers seeking traditional publishing, you might want to send your writing to a critiquing service or writing consultancy before you send it out to agents or publishers – you’d want your novel to be the best it can be to give it the best chance of being picked up. If you self-publish, it is mandatory that you have your manuscript copy edited, or proofread at the very least – you are responsible for the quality control of your novel. Research the editor or company to see what qualifies them to critique your work. Seek out feedback from previous clients – company websites often display testimonies, but a Google search might also be useful. Compare prices and stay within your budget. Most importantly, look closely at what the services have to offer and decide what would be most suitable for you.
You may want to use a variety of sources to obtain feedback, depending on your situation. A good writer is always striving to develop their craft, and there is no doubt that good feedback is invaluable.
Syntax changes everything. It’s not just about what we put in a sentence – the words we choose, the punctuation – but how we put that sentence together. A well-crafted sentence can make all the difference to a reader. It can convey the writer’s message more clearly, more effectively. Careful syntax is the difference between a messy, meandering piece of writing, and a crisp, powerful piece of writing.
This is something we discussed briefly last week in our creative writing class. It’s something that writers don’t (and shouldn’t) pay attention to in the first drafts of their writing. Though you may find a lot of your sentences are constructed efficiently first time around, this instinct for good syntax comes with practice and knowledge. It is definitely something a writer should think about when it comes to editing their work.
Things to think about:
Is this sentence clear in meaning?
Though you might want to use ambiguity as an effect, more often than not it appears in work by accident. Sometimes, when an idea is clear in your own head, you might not be able to recognise that it could be confusing for the reader. This is occasionally due to word choice (e.g. ‘The witch stared at him. He became petrified.’ – Does this mean she turned him to stone, or that he was frightened?). Other times, confusion arises due to incorrect or absent punctuation. The famous example that the panda ‘eats, shoots, and leaves’ comes to mind.
Is this sentence repetitious?
Have you said the same thing twice in your sentence, but in a different way? For example, ‘Jimmy was only a toddler, so he had to reach up to the table because he was so small.’ Here, ‘because he was so small’ is redundant, because we already know that from the use of the word ‘toddler’. We often over-write in this way in our first drafts, as we’re eager to purge the information. Yet when we read our work back, we can hopefully see where repetitious words and phrases can be cut, as we view the work from a reader’s perspective.
Does this sentence end on the right word?
We’re more aware of this device in poetry: using certain words at the end of lines or stanzas for impact. It’s the same for prose. For example, ‘In a rage, Mike threw the soap that he’d washed the blood from his hands with.’ Ending the sentence with the word ‘with’ creates no sense of impact. Instead, try: ‘Mike washed the blood from his hands, and threw the soap in a rage.’
Does this paragraph end with the right sentence?
Syntax is more than just looking at isolated sentences. You have to look at the writing as a whole, building it up piece by piece. Ending with emphasis doesn’t just apply to sentences, but also to paragraphs. A paragraph should contain one idea or encapsulate one part of the action. The sentences should build up this idea, beginning with its seed and finishing in a blossom. This is something we think about when writing academic work, but it also applies to fiction.
Is this sentence passive? Passivity in writing is dull. It suggests to the reader that the writer is unsure of themselves, and also gives the impression that the action is happening at arm’s length (although, this can sometimes be a deliberate device). The passive voice is initiated when an object becomes the focus of the sentence, instead of the force that is acting upon the object. For example ‘The cake was eaten by Sophie’ is passive, because ‘The cake was eaten’ becomes the main clause, excluding the greedy perpetrator from the action. ‘Sophie ate the cake’ is in the active voice, and is much more immediate. Nom.
Does this sentence create the effect I want?
There are many syntactical techniques a writer can use to invoke a response in the reader. For example. To create a sense of fear. Or foreboding. Or tension. The writer can use short, fragmented sentences. Or they could create long and winding sentences, with many sub-clauses, such as this sub-clause here, or the one before, in order to create a sense of confusion, or drawn-out pace, or similar. Or perhaps a comma here, and here, and here, creates a sense of rhythm. You get the idea. It’s a matter of making sure the syntax matches the idea behind the sentence.
Our tutor, Jo Shapcott, suggested that we all become more aware of syntax when we read. Studying published work in this way will hopefully make us more aware of syntax as writers.
A fellow student suggested copying out passages from books (purely as an exercise, of course), to really get a feel for the way an author writes. This would probably work best for people who learn by practice, rather than by theory.
A really useful little book that is full of tips on style, punctuation, grammar, and general ‘do’s and ‘don’t's of effective writing is The Elements of Style by Stunk & White. You can find a link to a free electronic copy to this book in the sidebar of my blog. (Scroll down to Writers’ Resources.)
What about you? Is syntax something you think about in your writing? Editing? What are your tips? How do you craft the perfect sentence?
As many of you will know, I belong to an online creative writing group over at www.crittersbar.com. About three years ago, the members started running a weekly challenge to write a story in no more than 200 words, inspired by a one-word prompt. The winner would then post and judge the next week’s contest. The challenge has been a big success, and continues to run. It’s a great way to nudge you into writing something if you’ve been a little lax, and there have been some great stories produced.
Last year, Skive Magazine‘s Matt Ward (one of our members) put together an anthology of stories from Critters Bar within 48 hours: Critters Bar Anthology 2009. Matt made a very smart looking publication, but because of the challenge of creating it within 48 hours, the copy wasn’t edited, and there was no submission process. It was a case of the writers having to submit their best work. On reflection, many people thought that for future projects it might be better to edit the content, as writers kept spotting mistakes they wish they had caught before the anthology was printed.Of course, this meant a lot more work.
There was a lot of talk about creating an anthology for the 200-word challenge, but we couldn’t reach a decision that everyone was happy with, so the idea was buried.
After finishing university, and after deciding that I wanted to crack the publishing industry, I thought it would be a good time to take on the project. I probably didn’t handle it the way everyone wanted, but I guess you can’t please everyone. I received a lot of support, which was great.
I decided that there should be a selection process in order to try and get the best content. However, I also decided that everyone who submitted to the project would be guaranteed at least one accepted story. After all, this was a non-profit community project that, on the most part, would serve as a nice souvenir to the members of the site.
Selecting stories was hard. I had wanted to get a small team together to help with the process, but I ran out of time to do this properly. Instead, I sought the opinion of one of the writers (Diete Nickens) if I was very unsure of something, which helped greatly. I didn’t want the project to be too biased towards my preferences.
I accepted roughly 75% of the content, and asked the writers to change a couple of little things in some of them.
The next step, after reading through everything myself, was to send the document off to my proofreaders, Kate Louise and Amy Roskilly, another two members of the site. They did a great job of spotting things I had missed.
Cover Design & Title
While they were doing this, I designed the front and back cover. I had the members brainstorm titles, and we voted for ‘Shot Glass Stories and Other Small Indulgences’. That gave me a good idea for the cover image. The back cover was harder to design; it seemed so simple, but was actually quite tricky!
While all this was going on, one of our other members, Rich Sampson, who had been away for a while due to becoming a dad for the second time, returned to the site. He posted some of his artwork, and I asked him to draw a few illustrations for the project. I let him choose the stories he wanted to illustrate, and he provided three great pictures for the project. By this point, I had realised that the project was very much catered towards adult readers!
During all this, I was trying to order the stories into a sequence that flowed well. I downloaded a Word template from Lulu to get the document size right, and started laying up the content. That was trickier than I thought it would be. Word is a little bit rubbish sometimes. I had to figure out things like section breaks, which I hadn’t had to use before.
Once all the files were ready, and I’d put the illustrations in, created the content list and the prelims etc, I tried uploading it all to Lulu.
I wasn’t looking forward to this part. I’d never used Lulu before, and I didn’t trust it one bit… Right away I ran into a problem. Even though I had downloaded the correct size Word document for the publication size I wanted, I was told that my document had been re-sized because it was wrong. Great. I had a peak, and it had mucked up the whole layout.
So I had to change the size of the product from ‘pocket size’ to ‘standard US trade’ size, as this required the minimal amount of change from the (seemingly) random sized document that Lulu gave me in the first place. That took an extra hour to format.
Next was the cover wizard. That took a long time to load, was quite fiddly, and I wasn’t given the option to design the spine (it might have been too thin).
Hard Copy Proof
I made it a private project so that I could order myself a hard copy to make sure everything looked okay. I was pleased that it only cost me about £2.60, but was then hit was a stupidly expensive postage and packaging charge of nearly £5. Sickening.
Despite the postal strike, here, the book arrived within a week. Right away I noticed a terrible typo on one of the title pages that I hadn’t spotted on screen! I also noticed a few spaces where there shouldn’t be spaces. I felt that I had been looking at this text for so long that I had become blind to it. A good argument why having more than one person look at your text before publication is essential.
I made the changes, uploaded the file again… I tried to choose the option for getting a free ISBN, but annoying Lulu only do this if you are in the US.
Then, because I made the file public, Lulu decided to add roughly another 50p onto the price for seemingly no reason. I made the item completely non-profit (I wanted to keep the cost down as much as possible and I didn’t like the idea of Lulu getting 25% of any profit anyway), and I opted for a free download to be available.
And now it’s live!
ORDER A COPY
You can get your copy for a very modest price of £3.10 (plus a nasty postage change, unfortunately – please write nasty letters to Lulu demanding this to be reduced) or you can download it for free, here:
It was definitely a learning experience for me. I learned that this sort of thing takes a lot more time and effort than I had first anticipated. And that it is essential that more than one (preferable more than two, three, four…) pair(s) of eyes looks at the copy before it goes to print.
Lastly, a BIG thank you to all those involved, and for all the support.
Everyone should at least go and download the free version as there are some great stories to be read