The Impotance of Editting

The editing process can be harrowing and to a writer it can feel like every movement of the Red Pen is a cut against your own heart. However, Blake Morrison makes an astute observation:

Editing might be a bloody trade.
But knives aren’t the exclusive property of butchers.
Surgeons use them too.

Editing can be a bloody trade indeed. Tears can be shed and the lives of commas lost, but there is an art to editing. A good editor is a surgeon – they remove the problems with a skilful slice, leave the arteries intact and ensure vital organs remain functioning and, in the best case scenario, function better when the editing is done.

There are many articles and suggestions around the importance of  editing your work and how to do this. What I am offering here is a very simplified version of editing presented in two parts.

1.       The Bare Essentials

Revise punctuation. Check your use of commas and semicolons, and all the other little darlings that might make inappropriate appearances or startling disappearances – if in doubt, look up the correct use online (there are ample resources) or ask someone.

Check your spelling. Don’t be lazy when it comes to re-reading your work to check for spelling and don’t rely on spellcheck. You’re about to ask people to take the time to read your work – if you can’t be bothered doing it to check for basic errors, why do you expect others to do it for pleasure?

Double-check your paragraphs. The general rule for paragraphs is to start a new paragraph for a new topic or change in event, and to start a new paragraph when a new person speaks. Contemporary writing gives us a bit more lenience when it comes to new paragraphs and sometimes single sentences can be their own paragraph. Don’t overdo it and do ensure your new paragraphs are deserving of the new line.

2.       Essential Style

Regardless of how well you’ve used apostrophes of possession, if your writing style is inconsistent or the content lacks quality, no amount of grammatical revision will save you. Ask yourself the following questions:

What makes my story interesting? Is it the unusual plot or fascinating characters? How might you revise it to make it compelling?

Does it make sense? Are the plot and characters plausible?

Are my characters solid? Can they exist outside of the story? Would they survive in the ‘real world’ or are they lacking in core components that make them human?

Does my writing flow? Are there missing explanations or have you over-complicated simple events?

Throughout all of this, I encourage you give your work to others to read, too. They will pick up on errors you didn’t notice and ask questions that help you re-examine your work with a fresh perspective. As writers, our work is never really finished, simply abandoned (as observed by Leonardo da Vinci). By carefully editing your work, you can at least be sure it has been abandoned with the best chances possible.

This post originally appeared on Budding Writers League and can be viewed here.

A Notebook and a Pen

I love notebooks. I collect notebooks. I fill notebooks up with scribblings and lists and doodles and thoughts and all kinds of different things. I am never without a notebook and a pen – and if I am, I usually end up buying both “just in case”. As a result, I have pens and notebooks everywhere – a lot of the boxes I packed before coming to Singapore contained notebooks filled with writing over the many years since my constant need to have a notebook and not just a slip of paper was realised.

It was while wandering through a bookstore recently that I marvelled at the selection of notebooks now available. From the humble notepad and the ever-practical exercise book, to beautifully bound journals and decorated covers that are works of art in their own right, there’s a plethora of gathered paper in which one can write.

While I am a fan of writing in Moleskines (I like the quality of the paper and the simplicity in their design), I am constantly amazed by the beautiful notebooks that I can fill up with my very own words. I bought a few notebooks on this particular day and the excitement of turning to the first blank page a few days later was fortunately shared with someone who appreciated my little giggle and gleeful flourish of the pen.

I used to write little stories and tidbits in notebooks all the time – on the train, in between classes, sitting at the bus stop, biding time until a typically late person would arrive … Notebooks and writing journals were once integral to my develop as a writer. Somewhere along the way, however, my writing journal – once more important than remembering my house keys or my wallet – vanished not only from my handbag but also from existence.

Perhaps, as a writer, it is blasphemous to say such things, but as much as I still need my notebooks and I still crave a blank sheet of paper, it is my laptop I now crave when a story idea rushes at me while sitting on the bus.

It is in notebooks that I journal (I’ve tried keeping a digital journal but it just doesn’t work for me) and it is on blank paper that I prefer to write letters. Yes, handwritten letters. Old school, I know. While my letters are sent to my Grandparents, it is through my journals and my letters that I find I am most honest, most open, most … me. So why is it that, when it comes to writing (which I find to be so deeply personal), I prefer screen over paper?

I write very quickly, but I type even faster. And there’s something easy about being able to scroll back and delete and cut and paste and format as I write – it appeals to my inner perfectionist. I can simultaneously write and research – if I can’t remember a detail or a name or a word, I can look it up straight away! There is always a notebook and pen in my handbag, but I find that I write down ideas and plot outlines rather than whole chapters. I like to keep the big stuff for when I’m sitting at my desk with my laptop and keyboard – preferably around 2am with a cup of coffee or glass of red wine.

Rather than keep a journal full of scribblings and reflections on my process, I have used this blog as something of a substitute – I keep inspiration here, write about writing, and generally let my writing goals be known. And yet … something is missing. When I think of times when I’ve written something really good and times when I’ve spent energy and effort on writing that feels whole and complete, a writing journal has been involved.

Have you ever kept a writing journal? How have you found a writing journal supports your work (or doesn’t)?

So, as much as it makes me nervous, I’m realising that my laptop simply isn’t enough. I want more from my writing experience – and so I’m bringing back the writing journal. I better go and buy some more notebooks …

Giving Constructive Criticism

Being a writer is terribly difficult because, for many of us, our writing is deeply personal. We put our own time and energy into what we write, and that time and energy is often accompanied by a part of ourselves. The idea of giving our work to someone only to have it criticised can be terribly demoralising, thus while it is important to understand how to receive constructive criticism, it is also important to understand how to give constructive criticism.

What is Constructive Criticism?

Constructive criticism is not criticism for the sake of pointing out faults and flaws, nor is it criticism for the sake of being negative about something. Constructive criticism is defined as:

“criticism kindly meant that has a goal of improving some area of another person’s life or work”

 – Wise Geek

Note the use of the word ‘kindly’ and the phrase ‘goal of improving’. Constructive criticism is not about being mean and this is something that both the giver and receiver of constructive criticism should keep in mind. Keeping in mind it has a ‘goal of improving’, constructive criticism should be a positive experience for everyone involved. It is not about shredding a creative piece apart, but about constructing it with strong foundations to make it strong and worthy of its place in the literary skyline.

How do you give constructive criticism?

Rather than offering brusque, negative comments like “I didn’t like it” or “it was pretty crappy so I couldn’t read past the first paragraph”, constructive criticism asks you to be constructive in your criticism. Explain why you did not like it, or what it was that made the work ‘crappy’ in your opinion. Don’t be afraid of saying something ‘negative’ about the creative piece – after all, if it’s constructive, it’s not negative, just remember: the goal is to improve the work.

The easiest way to give constructive criticism is to explain your opinion. Explain to the writer exactly what it is you did and didn’t like about the work. Give your opinion (I dis/liked it), then your reason (because … ), and then point out a particular example (in the paragraph when you described … ).

Use the sentence starters what worked well for me and what would work better for me (if the writer was to re-write the piece) to help articulate constructive criticism.

Compare the following:

The beginning was boring.

or

What would work better for me would be less description in the opening paragraph; I wanted to get to the action sooner.

If you are more confident about giving feedback, go into more detail about what did and didn’t work for you in the piece. If the writer has specifically asked for feedback on certain aspects of their work, be sure to focus on those areas. Alternately, you might ask yourself the following questions in order to provide quality constructive criticism:

What was interesting about the piece?
Did you find the setting plausible? Was the writing compelling? If there was nothing interesting about the piece, question yourself as to why you found it boring or uninteresting: Is the genre different to what you normally read? Did you struggle to believe the world that was constructed in the story? Was the writing too descriptive or not descriptive enough?

Could I relate to the characters?
This is a vital part to any piece of writing and if you cannot relate to the characters then the writer needs to know. If you can relate to the characters, explain why you feel like you could be friends with them. If you cannot relate to the characters, explain why you would prefer not to get stuck sitting next to them at a dinner party. What qualities do the characters have that make you like/dislike them?

Who would I recommend this piece to?
A big part of the reading process is being able to recommend a book to your friends – and if you can’t think of anyone to recommend the creative piece to, then the writer needs to know why. It’s also very helpful for the writer to know if they’ve appealed to their target audience. If you’re more comfortable recommending a creative piece to your eight year old cousin than to your sixteen year old best friend, explain to the writer why this is so. Why are you making such a recommendation? What makes you think the piece would be more enjoyed by a boy than a girl? Why do you think the plot is more appealing to a teenager than to an adult?

Why would I keep reading this piece?
Is it well-written? Do you care about what happens to the characters? Ask yourself the question after every paragraph – unless you’re so absorbed in the plot and characters that you cannot think beyond what will happen next!

Constructive criticism is feedback that will improve the creative piece. If your feedback is not constructive and does not have this underlying intention to better the creative work, then your feedback is not constructive criticism but mere criticism – and no one likes a critic.

This month I am facilitating a workshop Critique vs Criticism, presented by Budding Writers League. If you’re in Singapore and interested in learning more about giving quality constructive criticism, sign up for a seat and come on by!

This post originally appeared on Budding Writers League and can be viewed here.

Book Review: ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ by Rebecca Skloot


Book Title: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Author: Rebecca Skloot

Genre: Non-fiction (science/biography)

Summary: Henrietta Lacks has made possibly the biggest contribution to medical science ever, yet little is known about who she is, where she came from, or how her cells came to be integral in the polio vaccine and cancer research (among many, many, many other scientific advancements and experiments). The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks delves into the history behind HeLa cells and the life of Henrietta Lacks, and of her family who were ignorant of Henrietta’s role in modern science for decades after her death.

Favourite Scene: This is a non-fiction book with narrative elements detailing Henrietta’s life and Skloot’s experiences piecing it all together. My favourite ‘scene’ is Skloot’s description of Deborah and Zakariyya visiting Dr Christoph Lengauer (with Skloot) and seeing – for the first time – their mother’s cells.

Favourite Character: This is a non-fiction book so the characters are real! I do admire Deborah immensely – her passion and her determination are amazing and Skloot does a fabulous job in sharing her experiences and interactions with this amazing, “larger than life” woman.

Review:  The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is extremely well-written. I am far from a science-y person and have never heard of HeLa cells or anything like it, so for the book to be captivating and interesting to me is really something. Skloot explains things really well – she doesn’t ‘talk down’ but she also doesn’t assume extensive scientific knowledge of her audience. I was expecting it to be a little difficult to understand but it was so easy to follow – a great testament to Skloot’s style of writing and explanations. I found The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks to be fascinating, intriguing, and thoroughly enjoyable. It actually made me want to study science so I could understand more! Highly recommended – even for the non-science-y people out there!