By Madhulika Liddle
By which I mean writing that doesn’t make an editor wince.
Let me provide the context to this. Every now and then, I am approached by a wannabe writer who wants me to have a look at their manuscript and give my feedback. Very rarely (and what a sad reflection this is on Indian Writing in English), I find something that is a delight to read, even in its unpolished, unedited form. More often than not, what I receive is riddled with errors. Grammatical errors, factual errors, errors of everything from casing to punctuation.
When I have suggested, as part of feedback, that the manuscript be subjected to a series of self-reviews and (this is something not many Indians seem to be keen on) that an editor be hired to clean up the manuscript, the usual reaction is, “But won’t my publishers do the editing?”
And my answer to that is, Of course they will. If they decide to take your manuscript in the sorry state it’s in (I word that rather more tactfully). Because editors in publishing houses are so snowed under with work, if they receive a manuscript that’s yelling, “You’ll have to do a lot of editing with me!”—no, unless the story is exceptionally compelling, they’re not going to take it on. What you’ll get is a reject note.
So, on to the list. Ten tips to make your writing easier for an editor to read and appreciate.
Read. The simplest and most basic of them all. Unless you read, you won’t know a good book from a bad one. These days, what with the Internet, it’s become a lot easier to find out which books are considered good. Not all of them will be good, not all of them will be to your liking, but as you read, you’ll imbibe lessons on what makes a book readable. Not just the story (if it is fiction or creative non-fiction), but the style of writing. The number of words used in a sentence. The words used. The words not used. I have never come across a really good writer who wasn’t also an avid reader.
Do not fall in love with your own writing. In 2003, I began working with NIIT as an instructional designer. As part of our training, one of the most important lessons we were taught was this: Do not fall in love with your own writing. It’s an easy trap to fall into: most of us wouldn’t be writing if we didn’t think we could write, so it’s obvious that the next step is to think we write so well that there aren’t any flaws in our writing.
Which, sadly, is a recipe for disaster. It makes for a frustrating relationship with your editor, because every edit cycle becomes a question of who will give way first. Eventually, unless your story is so compelling that a publisher is absolutely certain it’s bestseller or award material, your editor is going to give up. And chances are, they won’t want to work with you again.
Subject your work to self-edits. I typically edit anything I write at least thrice. That is for novels. For shorter works, like short stories, the number of self-edit parses can be anything from six to ten, occasionally more, before I’m satisfied that I can submit it. The fact is, every time I go back to my work, I find ways to polish it further.
My way of doing this is to finish writing my manuscript, set it aside for a while (if it’s a novel, even for a few months), and then return to it. The errors, the things that could be better, leap out at me when I look at it with fresh eyes. I use these parses to tighten up the writing, to eliminate unnecessary words, to shorten rambling descriptions, to bring further coherence into the writing—it may be all of these, it may be one. But no work of mine, not even a book review to be posted on Goodreads, ever gets published without my having read and re-read it a couple of times.
And now, some more specific tips.
Watch your punctuation. Nearly all punctuation marks—commas, periods (or full stops, call them what you will), hyphens, exclamation marks, apostrophes, colons, semi-colons, etc—are preceded by the previous character (without a space between the character and the punctuation), and are succeeded by a space before the next character.
Read that sentence again, and this one, for examples of what I mean.
Note, too, that that rule may not apply to some punctuation marks, such as m-dashes or n-dashes, which often come under a specific style guide followed by a publisher. Whatever style you adopt for these in your manuscript, make sure you follow them consistently throughout.
Another important note of caution: be very, very sparing with exclamation marks. Amateur writers seem to think exclamation marks help emphasize your point. They don’t. They just irritate the discerning reader. Exclamation marks are usually only appropriate in dialogue, and then too when judiciously used.
(Recommended: Lynne Truss’s brilliant book on punctuation, Eats, Shoots & Leaves—this one is worth reading if you want to make sure your punctuation doesn’t make an editor wince).
Be consistent. Not just in punctuation, but in other aspects of writing too, such as casing, spelling, voice and tense. I’ve seen too many pieces of writing start off with colour and honour and organise, and then veer away into color and honor and organize. I’ve seen people switch inexplicably from past tense to present to past again, all in the course of one paragraph. I’ve seen random capitalization (words, for no rhyme or reason, being written in title case), and so on on. This reeks of carelessness.
Go easy on the adverbs. Most good writers say you should keep adverbs completely out of your writing. I don’t agree; my contention is that adverbs have their place, even in good writing—but they must be used with extreme discretion. One in about eight or ten sentences is forgivable. Also, make sure you use the adverb in its correct sense: ‘Her face was luminously radiant’ is contrived and repetitive, because ‘luminous’ and ‘radiant’ mean pretty much the same thing.
Think twice before using words you’re unfamiliar with. A couple of years ago, a debutant writer sent me his book for review. It turned out to be a fairly predictable college campus story; what made it abysmal was the sheer ridiculousness of so many of the words he’d used. A party, for instance, was described variously as a corroboree and a wassail (both of which are very specific types of gathering; these words cannot be applied arbitrarily to any party, especially in a non-Australian setting). I guessed what this was: a case of somebody wanting to show off his vocabulary, and picking words out of a thesaurus to help him find synonyms. The result was a painful, often unintentionally hilarious book.
So, don’t use words that you aren’t familiar with. They may turn out to have connotations you are unaware of, or they may simply read wrong.
Use simple words. The author I mentioned in the previous point also made another major mistake when writing: he thought that using ‘complicated language’ would make his book better (he actually admitted this to me in a conversation after I’d published my review of his book). Nobody in his book ever ‘talked’; they ‘confabulated’. ‘Then’ was replaced by ‘anon’ (this book wasn’t a historical), and nobody ever ‘heard’ anything; they ‘discerned audibly’.
Simple language is nothing to be ashamed of; on the contrary, it makes a book far more readable than something filled with words you’ve culled out of a dictionary or a thesaurus. Try reading some of the world’s best writers (and no, I do not necessarily mean bestsellers), and you’ll see that their greatness lies not so much in using big, fancy words but in using simple words well.
Weed out repetitions. Most of us tend to have some stock phrases or pet words that we use again and again (mine, when I’m writing non-fiction, include obviously, of course, and for instance). A lot of writers also have a habit of trying to explain things further by using additional adjectives and adverbs (as an example: ‘frozen icicle’, which I came across in a recent manuscript sent to me for review. It just needs a little reflection to realize that an icicle is always frozen; if it’s melted, it’s not an icicle any more).
Get rid of repetitions; they put off readers.
Use spellcheck, efficiently. Everybody—or everybody who knows anything about writing and uses a word processor—emphasizes the importance of using spellcheck. Running a grammar and spelling check should be an essential part of work on a manuscript, but it must be done intelligently. For example, don’t arbitrarily accept all changes your spellchecker suggests: many of these do not cater to some writing styles, and they do not, of course, take into consideration a lot of non-English words. Make your task easier as you proceed by checking each change the spellcheck suggests, and then—if there are words you use often—adding them to your spellcheck dictionary. As an example, I have Muzaffar, baoli, haveli, and other words that occur frequently in my writing added to my spellcheck dictionary, so these don’t show up as errors when I run a spellcheck.
Naturally, this isn’t all, because submitting a clean, well-edited manuscript doesn’t guarantee that it will get published. Lots of other things matter—the story (and that can actually refer to non-fiction too; how well you put your point across); coherence, writing style, characterization, your ability to draw your reader in.
(This was originally posted on Madhulika Liddle’s blog here and has been reproduced with permission)
Madhulika Liddle is an award winning short story writer and novelist.