Editing by the Author

I used to believe that the only editing I, as an author, had to do was to scan each piece of text five times: check for typos, punctuation, spelling, and was it saying what I wanted to say

  1. When I had finished a sentence
  2. When I had finished a paragraph
  3. When I had finished writing for the day – usually 2-3 pages
  4. Re-read the entire chapter
  5. Re-read the entire novel

At the end of step five, I would turn the completed text over to a professional editor who would spot additional typos, spelling and punctuation errors, and who might also raise some questions about characters or events.

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But with my latest novel, I find that these five steps are not enough.  After completing the final chapter and before step five, I have found it necessary to review each chapter, from the beginning, in detail, again.  Why is this necessary?  When I finished the last chapter, I had some concerns about what I had written before:

  • Was each character developed consistently, and in keeping with his/her role in the story?  For example, the credibility of one character depends on the reader believing that he has a high level of curiosity.  Was this curiosity trait well enough developed?
  • Was the setting described so that it was both clear and credible without being be-labored?  This was important because the entire novel (except for part of one chapter) is set in the Middle East, and all the characters speak Arabic as their mother tongue.  Would a Western reader lose sight of the setting, and therefore miss the cultural dimension of the story?
  • Were the events in the novel supportive of the themes – the messages – which I’m trying to convey?  I have to check both the events and the characters’ reactions to them to be sure that what was happening wasn’t superfluous and was leaving the reader with the right impression.

The way I am going about this chapter-by-chapter review is to begin with a critical re-read.  I’ve made mental notes to add a paragraph here to include a piece of history about a character, or to change an event so that it contributes more effectively to the message.  As I read, I find typos, and language that is too ordinary, or does not leave a clear unique impression.  I find unnecessary phrases and pieces of dialogue. I also find mistakes.  For example, in chapter 2, a peripheral character has three children, but in chapter twelve she has two.  I’ll go through each chapter at least three times before I have taken care of all the big issues and the little ‘niggles’ I’ve found.  As I re-read and re-write, I’m constantly asking: does this feel like the Middle East?  This detailed  review has to be done with all pride of authorship set aside.  I have to pretend that I am a very senior, experienced editor working with a red pencil on the work of a talented young author.  It is a time-consuming process, and it can take two or three days to complete a twelve page (single-spaced) chapter.  But it is also challenging, mostly enjoyable and ultimately satisfying.

Review: Classical Arabic Philosophy

I bought this book as a resource. My latest novel has, as its principle character, a professor of philosophy at a prestigious Egyptian university. I wanted to be able to refer to actual teachings of classical Arabic philosophy in his interactions with students and to use some of the philosophical discussions to help make some of the conclusions in the novel. In these two respects, the book was an excellent resource. I could have the professor discuss the teachings of a particular ancient philosopher with a student, quoting the philosopher by name, dates of birth and death, place of origin, philosophical interests, and exactly what he had written. I could also use what a philosopher had written to establish a point I wanted to make in the novel.

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The book has a useful index of key words, both in English and Arabic. The text, however is largely in English. It also has, for the serious reader, clarifying footnotes, and an extensive bibliography. The preface will acquaint the reader with the methodology used by the authors in the selection and translation of the material. The introduction gives the background of the classical Arabic philosophy, which is – to a large extent – derived from Greek, particularly Aristolean, philosophy. What I found of particular interest was that the first prominent Arabic philosophers appeared barely two hundred years after the founding of Islam in 622 AD – well before their Western counterparts. While Greek philosophy provided a foundation, there were philosophical debates within Islam which also provided grist for the mill.

The book includes translations of selected, verbatum writings of a dozen philosophers who lived between the 9th and 13th centuries AD. Subjects of discussion for the Arabic philosophers included physics (motion, force, change, etc.); metaphysics (being, knowing, identity, time and space); theology (God, the soul, eternity). The language used by the Arabic philosophers can be quite turgid and difficult to follow. I suspect this was more the convention of the era than a fault in the translation. Also, the use of logical conventions, which appeared in the West later, were not available at the time to structure a clear proof of a theory.

This is not a book that one would want to read for pleasure unless one were a practicing philosopher. It could serve as a text book in the teaching of philosophy. And it is an excellent reference work.

11 Smart Tips for Brilliant Writing

This article appears on the Copyblogger website and was written by Dean Rieck.  He is “Copywriter and Consultant for Direct Mail and Direct Marketing”

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Dean Rieck

I agree with much of what he says about “brilliant writing”, but not all.  Perhaps our divergences are mostly about differences in perspective: advertising copywriter vs author.  His blog says:

“Here are 11 ways you can start sounding brilliant:

1. Have something to say

This makes writing easier and faster. When you have nothing to say, you are forced to write sentences that sound meaningful but deliver nothing. Read widely. Take notes. Choose your subjects wisely. Then share your information with readers.

2. Be specific

Consider two sentences:

  • I grow lots of flowers in my back yard
  • I grow 34 varieties of flowers in my back yard, including pink coneflowers, purple asters, yellow daylilies, Shasta daisies, and climbing clematis

Which is more interesting? Which helps you see my back yard?

3. Choose simple words

Write use instead of utilize, near instead of close proximity, help instead of facilitate, for instead of in the amount of, start instead of commence.  Use longer words only if your meaning is so specific no other words will do.

4. Write short sentences

You should keep sentences short for the same reason you keep paragraphs short: they’re easier to read and understand.  Each sentence should have one simple thought. More than that creates complexity and invites confusion.

5. Use the active voice

In English, readers prefer the SVO sentence sequence: Subject, Verb, Object. This is the active voice.

For example:

Passive sentences bore people.

When you reverse the active sequence, you have the OVS or passive sequence: Object, Verb, Subject.

For example:

People are bored by passive sentences.

You can’t always use the active voice, but most writers should use it more often.

6. Keep paragraphs short

Look at any newspaper and notice the short paragraphs.  That’s done to make reading easier, because our brains take in information better when it’s broken into small chunks.  In academic writing, each paragraph develops one idea and often includes many sentences. But in casual, everyday writing, the style is less formal and paragraphs may be as short as a single sentence or even a single word.

7. Eliminate fluff words

Qualifying words, such as very, little, and rather, add nothing to your meaning and suck the life out of your sentences.

For example:

It is very important to basically avoid fluff words because they are rather empty and sometimes a little distracting.

Mark Twain suggested that you should “Substitute damn every time you’re inclined to write very; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

8. Don’t ramble

Rambling is a big problem for many writers. Not as big as some other problems, such as affordable health insurance or the Middle East, which has been a problem for many decades because of disputes over territory. Speaking of which, the word “territory” has an interesting word origin from terra, meaning earth.

But the point is, don’t ramble.

9. Don’t be redundant or repeat yourself

Also, don’t keep writing the same thing over and over and over. In other words, say something once rather than several times. Because when you repeat yourself or keep writing the same thing, your readers go to sleep.

10. Don’t over write

This is a symptom of having too little to say or too much ego.  Put your reader first. Put yourself in the background. Focus on the message.

11. Edit ruthlessly

Shorten, delete, and rewrite anything that does not add to the meaning. It’s okay to write in a casual style, but don’t inject extra words without good reason.  To make this easier, break your writing into three steps: 1) Write the entire text. 2) Set your text aside for a few hours or days. 3) Return to your text fresh and edit.

None of us can ever be perfect writers, and no one expects us to be. However, we can all improve our style and sound smarter by following these tips and writing naturally.”

 

I agree with 1, 2, 7, 8, 9, 10, and 11.

3. Choose simple words:

Use of simple words is probably fine for advertising where clarity and conciseness are essential.  But when writing fiction, and when one is trying to paint a complex picture of fact, feelings and suppositions, simple words are rarely fully effective.  Maybe an unlikely combination of two or three special words is necessary to convey the mixture of fact and feelings.

4. Write short sentences:

Here again, punchiness isn’t necessarily what we want.  Short sentences can lack lyricism or intellectual interest.  They can be boring if repeated.  Use of some longer sentences can keep the reader interested.

5. Use the active voice:

OK, but switch now and then to keep the reader alert.

6. Keep paragraphs short:

I believe that paragraphs should be used as a clue to the reader that the action is changing: different time, different setting, different characters.  There is no other reason to break up the text other than that a paragraph longer than one page can make it feel to the reader that the reading is becoming laborious!

Imitation Is Much More Than Flattery

An article with this title appears in the December issue of The Florida Writer.  It is written by Barbara Baig who is  writer and veteran writing teacher.  The article begins: “The word imitation makes many aspiring writers nervous.  If they have spent any time in the academic world, then the word imitation will probably remind them of plagiarism, a crime punishable (when discovered) by lowered grades or even expulsion.  Everywhere in the writing world – especially in blogs – beginning writers are advised that their work, their story, their writing voice must be unique, entirely their own.  For some this message reverberates so loudly that they refuse even to read other writers, for fear of being denounced as “imitative”.

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Barbara Baig

At first, I thought this would be an article differentiating between imitation and plagiarism, but this was not the case.  Ms Baig suggests to aspiring writers that they should collect, analyze and practice small bits of writing that capture their admiration.  She says, “Imitation comes into its own when we use it, not to produce a finished piece of work, but to learn and develop skills.  The writers we love give us models of the kind of writing we’d like to be able to do.  Many aspiring writers read their favourites, sigh and say to themselves, I wish I could write like that!

“Say, for instance, that you love the kinds of words your favourite writer uses.  You can pull some of these words out into a notebook and examine them.  Are they concrete, sensory words? What sense or senses are they speaking to?  Do you like some combination of sounds in a word or group of words?  Take note of what you think is good about these words, then practice collecting some just like them.

“Now select some of these words and put them into sentences.  These sentences will be somewhat imitative of the originals, true, but it doesn’t matter because they are just practice sentences.   The practice is training your mind to choose certain kinds of words, to tune it to particular qualities or sounds that please you. . . . The sentences you write then will not be imitative, but they will be of higher quality than those you might have written previously, because practice has educated your writer’s mind and ear to new possibilities.

“The same thing is true for sentences.”  (And the article goes on from there.)

I think this is pretty good advice, though a little labourious, and if one focuses on one particular writer, the result may be more like imitation than a unique voice.

With rare exceptions, I try not to read two works by the same writer, preferring to sample the enormous world of talent that’s out there.  As I’ve said before, I don’t necessarily read only popular works with good reviews.  Obscure works with good reviews can be quite interesting, and even if I conclude that the reviewer was overly generous, I will, hopefully, have identified some places where the writer fell down.

When I’m writing, I’ve learned to set an alarm bell to ring when I produce an ordinary, bland piece of text.  That piece has to be re-written so that it is both interesting and carries – in a unique way, if possible – the exact message I want the reader to understand.  You won’t be surprised to hear that I make frequent use of my thesaurus.  Sometimes a slightly unfamiliar word, in combination with others, in a particular context, conveys perfectly the sense that I want.

When I read, I try to keep my ‘writer’s antennae’ active: how real is that dialogue?  can I imagine, readily, the description of that place?  does the character seem unique?  is that piece of text really necessary?  how is this moving things forward?  And so on.