Tuesday 16 January 2024

The best writing tip I’ve ever received


Writing is mainly re-writing, don’t they say?  Rejection after rejection, comments from people in my two critique groups and feedback form my creative writing tutors soon convinced me that one draft isn’t enough.     

In fact several drafts aren’t enough.

So I soon devised my own checklist and now I do around about fourteen edits of my longer works, looking at one aspect of them at a time.

For the penultimate edit I read my work out loud.

Reading work aloud has several benefits:

·         You notice typos, missing words and repeated words more easily because you are reading the text more slowly. You read what is actually there, rather than what you think should be. 

·         You become more aware of the length of sentences, paragraphs and chapters.

·         You establish the rhythm of the piece – or lack of it – and can decide more easily if and where it needs to change.

·         You can more easily check whether in any dialogue characters are actually speaking the way they would.

·         You can more easily spot an awkward turn of phrase or sentences that actually don’t make sense. In part this is again because you are reading the work more slowly.

In addition you can test whether you are showing rather than telling: do the actions described take roughly the same amount of time to read as they would to do?

Why the penultimate edit and not sooner or indeed not the final edit?

Basically you’ve done everything else now; you’ve checked the structure, you’ve established that there
are no plot holes, you’ve checked for cause and effect and consistency amongst your characters, you’ve removed clichés and purple prose and you’ve probably killed off a few darlings. Now it’s time to establish that the text still works. The final edit is about presentation.

Don’t be tempted to “do voices”.  You can add meaning that isn’t there in the words alone.  A member of my MA group was so good at reading out work she could make anything sound brilliant.  In the end that wasn’t really all that helpful.

This can be quite demanding when you’re editing a 100,000+ word novel. Never mind. The cat is generally up for it and you worry if she walks away.  It’s thirsty work, reading your text out loud. But the pauses for the odd gulp of water are also helpful. They give you the opportunity to consider how to fix anything that isn’t working.  I tend to use a stage whisper. That still works.

 A novelist friend of mine came to talk to my students about her work and to read from her recently published novel.  After a few seconds she paused. She was half way down the first page of the section she was reading. She laughed. “I’ve just realised,” she said. “I always tell my own students never to do that.”  This could of course have been partly because reading out loud is anyway a different process from reading in your head and texts may need to be slightly different for these two diverse purposes. It can be that the writer had moved on - we are all quite self-critical even after our work is published and has had good reviews, or it could be proof that we abandon rather than finish.  Later, though, she confessed to me. “That will teach me to not bother reading my work out loud. It’s really essential, isn’t it?”

It was my MA tutor who first gave me that tip and I can confirm that it has made the biggest difference to the quality of my writing. Thank goodness for that.            



Priscilla Bettis said...

I do this! Yes, it's very helpful. Sometimes if I think I'm too familiar with the story, I'll read it paragraph by paragraph from the end to the beginning. It keeps me from anticipating what's next and mis-reading.

Gillian Poucher said...

Thanks for that tip to read aloud. Not something I do, so will try it now I'm editing my fourth novel and at that stage of wanting to 'move on,' having edited several times already!