Something is better than nothing – a writing motto

When I’m well and into the swing of a project, I can happily churn out at least 3K per day and usually 4.5-6K at the end. With editing, 10 pages is a minimum.

But sometimes the words or edits just won’t come. Either I’m under the weather, or my brain is solving a problem, or I just don’t quite know how to get from where I am to the next plot point, or I’ve got some paperwork to sort (noooooooo! not the paperwork!!!!!!!! It’s worse than the writing!!!!!!!).

For whatever reason, sometimes I just can’t settle into a rhythm of work and it’s more than just an issue of getting started (if it’s that, do a writing sprint or make a pact with an author friend). Sometimes it’s a bigger problem and I’m stuck in a rut for days on end. When that happens, I keep myself going with a motto that really goes against the grain for me:

Something is better than nothing.

It’s not a motto to let myself off being lazy – I’m a ‘progress, progress, be productive, make progress’ person. Instead, it’s a motto to comfort myself when I can’t work and it’s not a fixable problem. Right now, for instance, I’m struggling to get anything done because I’ve had suspected Covid-19 since March 2nd and, though I’m getting longer spells between cycles of the fever-cough-exhaustion, it’s obviously not done with me yet. Even so, I’ve managed to edit one book and put a fresh polish-edit coat of paint on two others. I did this by telling myself – all day, every day – that

Something is better than nothing.

Some days I did a single sentence. A few days I didn’t even manage that. If I didn’t, I tried to read at least one high-quality piece about writing or books or screenwriting or history or art… something to feed my knowledge and imagination. And then I tried again to do at least one sentence. And if I managed that, then I tried for a paragraph, a page, until I couldn’t do any more. Sometimes that added up to very little, but even a sentence is a something instead of a nothing.

Some days things went well and I did a real chunk of work and of course that helped a lot – though it was extra dismal to plunge from a day like that into ‘I put a sentence in. Then I took it out. Then I spotted a typo in the next sentence. Now I’m done, brain dead, gone, bye, I’m a zombie now and zombies don’t write/edit’.

Still, slowly but surely all the somethings added up. Not half as quickly as I wanted, but they got me there. And though I’m a sprinter, not a marathon runner/writer/what-have-you, I’m also a professional and I know that when something’s not working I need to put a new tool in my toolbox to help me fix the problem and keep me ticking on towards my goals – I can’t just sit there and wait for it all to get easier (word to the wise: ain’t happening).

Something is better than nothing‘ is a great tool. Just remember, it’s there for when you really can’t – not as an emotional sop for when you can but won’t.



Garden path with steps and flowers

Bogged down at the beginning?

In books, as in essays, the beginning is sometimes the last thing you write – or at least the last thing you work on before finishing.

It’s not just that the beginning is, in some ways, the most important bit – if people don’t read on, it doesn’t matter how good the rest is; it’s also that you can’t write a good beginning until you know exactly what it’s the starting point for. No matter how carefully you plan, you never know exactly what will end up on the page and what, therefore, your beginning needs to offer your readers.

It’s easy to write a functional beginning. Surely, it’s just about the story starting in roughly the right place with the right people present, some interesting questions and Things Happening? Nope. Sorry. It’s not that simple.

The first thing to do is acknowledge that faint sense of unease about your beginning. It’s going to need work: a lot of work. Most beginnings do. But it’s equally important to acknowledge that until almost everything else is done, there’s only so far you’ll get with it, no matter how hard you try. And you should try: beginnings get better inch by inch, rarely all at once. That said, the main thing is to know that you will have to come back to it at the end. That’s when, if the rest of the book is ready, you’ll be able to fix the start.

New Book sold on the basis of a synopsis and give-or-take 50 pages. They weren’t terribly good pages. Oh, don’t get me wrong, there was some good writing and it was all very functional, but it wasn’t right. This weekend is when I need to fix it. The rest of the book feels happy. I am content and relaxed about it (to the extent I am ever relaxed about anything to do with writing). But the beginning is still bugging me. As it should, because it is just not right.

Though last night I started to really make inroads into fixing it. I worked on the first 3824 words. There are now 3304 words. In other words, 12 pages have become 10. Hopefully, I’ll get down to 8 or 9 but we’ll see.

The main thing I knew was wrong about the beginning was that it was slow. It wasn’t obviously slow – plenty of interesting, fairly important things happen to the main character internally and externally, and lots of questions are raised. But still it dragged. Even I wasn’t in a rush to read on when editing. This is a Very Bad Sign: writers ignore it at their peril.

I was also worried about the fact that one of the three characters we meet at the start will disappear and never reappear. There’s an important reason for his presence at the beginning of the book, but how much time do we want to spend with him? Isn’t it better to do what we need to but efficiently? Yes! Fewer pages with The Nobody!

What else? The writing. I knew it was clunky and had to grit my teeth to submit it: knowing your writing is clunky isn’t the same as fixing it and I know my own writing process enough to understand that no amount of time or effort (there had been a LOT of both) was going to get it further… until the rest of the book was done and heavily edited. I know why it’s clunky now, or at least I’m getting there with this understanding.

Point #1: At the beginning, when there is no book, clarity means spelling things out. There are no ‘next pages’ where little hints and questions get explained: there is no development so that the implicit may become explicit. There was far, far too much I’d said on the page that I didn’t need to with an entire book to come to do just that. Don’t be obviou: you only need to be reasonably clear about some things at the beginning. Other things can become obvious over time and do not need to be spelt out on page one event if they are very important.

Point #2: Don’t say things twice. At the beginning of the book, things are happening for the first time. It’s easy to worry that readers won’t see that they’re important unless you repeat yourself. There is a whole book to do that in – gradually and over time. As you edit, cut the repetition in the beginning. It is slowing you down and making your writing clunky and it is just Entirely Unnecessary.

Point #3: Don’t draw attention to things that don’t matter, unless they’re purposefully there as red herrings (or, as I prefer to call them, wanton fish – a lovely post-anaesthetic semantic leap into the absurd). My Nobody character is there to be a nobody. My beginning must make this clear then not dwell on it or him, otherwise I’m muddying the waters in ways that are unhelpful and boring.

Point #4: Is this absolutely necessary? Beginnings should contain only that which falls firmly into the ‘Yes’ category. Sometimes beauty and interest can make things necessary, but they must be very beautiful and/or interesting indeed for this to be the case.

Point #5: Beginnings are like an orchestra warming up. Every element must tune up to come into harmony with all the others. It’s a necessay part of the process of finding the voice not just of the characters but of the book: its particularly rhythmns, sounds, the little threads of language that will make it tight at the level of song. Once the rest of the book is singing, you can go back to the beginning and tune it all up properly so that it does too. Books shouldn’t start softly, with little mumbles of nervousness: they should belt from page one. Not belt in every sense, but in the lanuage sense – absolutely. You can only accomplish this when you have a whole book behind you to work with. That is the ‘score’ for your song: all the ornaments, the developments, the themes. How can you write a stonking beginning unless it references those things, perhaps slyly and shyly, but references them all the same?

So that’s where I am. New Book is almost done, though there is still work to come. But I have a good feeling about that. If only I can sort out this slow, clunky, out-of-tune beginning…

White and black butterfly

Are we there yet?

Where were we? I’m having real trouble keeping track of when now is and when it should be. I seem to keep ending up somewhere in the middle. But I suppose that’s better than believing we’re in September (and late September at that), as everyone else seems to think (and I thought I was having bad when-am-I? issues).

Anyway, today is a day in July. Um… Early July. Say the 4th of July, because that’s meant to be a good day for Americans (and part Americans presumably get a pretty good day too). Anyway, it’s the 4th or the 5th or the early-something-th of July and I’ve got a lovely email waiting in my in-box…

Rebecca has reviewed the revised manuscript and… she likes it! She’s happy with the changes!

I scan frantically through her notes to see how much there is still to do…

Change a few words here and there, mainly where words are repeated within the same sentence or in neighbouring ones. I never have any trouble spotting these when I’m editing for other people, but I can NEVER see my own work clearly in this regard.

Hm… here’s a line of dialogue to change. Oh, and one other. This I can cope with! If only it’s just this level of stuff that’s left now…

What’s this? Something to clarify. This I can do! (In about 10 minutes, what’s more.)

Ooooops. Typo!

Ah… The answer to one of my questions… To footnote or not to footnote: that was, indeed, the question…. And now it is answered. (Not to footnote – use your Author’s Note at the end.)

A word that doesn’t work in this line of dialogue.  Another in that. Fair enough.

This new line in the revised manuscript needs some further work: not clear enough. Hm… How can I say it better?

Ah, a nice little slip of logic there: people are seeing things with their  eyes closed. Which would be fine if this were a fantasy novel, but not quite so great in a psychological thriller… Probably they need their eyes open for this.

Oh, and here is a nice little bit of unattributed dialogue. Now who does it belong to? Probably worth specifying since I hate it when other writers aren’t clear (one of my little quibbles with Hilary Mantel’s wonderful Wolf Hall – curious minds want to know, so authors should beware of withholding).

To italicise or not to italicise this one word? Who cares? Whatever way Rebecca likes it is fine with me: she’s the one who has enough distance from the book to see these little things clearly. It’s not like dropping the italics on this single word is going to make a blind bit of difference to anyone’s enjoyment of the book.

Excellent! My character has just skipped out in the middle of the school day for no apparent reason. Or at least that’s the unintended implication. Better make it clear that the chat with the headmistress happens right at the end of the day so she can poddle off afterwards without it being strange that no storm ensues.

Lands instead of alights? I really like alights. Please, please can I keep it?

The American in me is fighting to get out. Run for cover! Garbage invasion! Where’s some good British rubbish when you need it?

Look out! The Inner American is taking charge. Beware the frightful parking lot! Save our car parks!

Ah… This is interesting. A three word phrase that might just give the game away two pages too early. It gets so hard to tell after a while from the ‘inside’ of the book. This is exactly why brilliant editors are needed to tell you (as the writer) how to strike the right balance in terms of giving readers enough information… but not too much.

And there we have it… A few hours worth of work and the book will be done… I hope. Cross fingers!

(BTW, I know the photo has nothing to do with the post but I just really like it… It’s a happy post. It’s a happy sort of a photo. Will that do as a connection?)

So that was my experience of second-stage revisions with my publisher… Is it about par for the course, beyond Rebecca being especially lovely and brilliant? Any horror stories out there?

Peacock butterfly

A critical year: market factors and manuscripts

So, picking right up where I left off, the biggest change my publisher wanted to see in the manuscript concerned my protagonist’s age. The suggestion: to make Evie 14 instead of 13 pushing 14. My reaction: no problem.

Rebecca’s reasoning was that, given the themes of the book and the way it’s written, it’s most likely to appeal to the YA and adult markets. Making Evie 14 as opposed to 13 pushes the book more firmly into the YA market rather than the Children’s market – where it wouldn’t belong at all – as, at 14 going on 15, Evie herself falls broadly into the YA category. Rebecca felt that this little change – an age increase of somewhere between 6 and 12 months for my protagonist – would make a big impact on how easy to the book would be to market. I completely agree with her rationale.

But sometimes market factors push a book in a direction that the author doesn’t want to go. Deciding what to do then is a real conundrum. Thankfully, I didn’t have any such reservations about changing Evie’s age. For me, it was a purely technical issue and didn’t alter anything important about the story. My reasoning went like this…

At age 14, Evie is starting her two-year GCSE courses, but she isn’t facing any major life events like doing her GCSE exams or A-Levels… She is still well over a year away from 16, the age of sexual consent in the UK. She’s three years from 17, the age at which one can learn to drive. She’s four years away form 18, the age of majority: the age at which she will legally become an adult. It’s important to the story that Evie isn’t about to face any of these major changes. She’s still firmly a ‘child’ in the legal sense and she isn’t facing any of the usual big issues and decisions of the mid to late teenage years. All the decisions and problems Evie has to deal with are unique to her: none of her peers are coping with the same things.

In terms of Evie’s individual situation, she starts the book in hospital after thorasic surgery and so misses the start of the new school year. If this were her GCSE exam year, that would have major implications… but ones I’m not interested in dealing with in The Bone Dragon. So making her 15 would have put a stumbling block in her path that would have changed the plot and shifted the nature of the conflict in ways I didn’t want, so I would have been very leery of making her two years older. But missing a few weeks at the start of Year 10 doesn’t represent a major issue. While catching up is a bit of a challenge, it isn’t one that takes over the whole book. And that’s important because I want the challenges Evie deals with to fall outside the realm of any of the things her peers are facing.

The change of age did necessitate a few other changes, but they were ones I was perfectly comfortable with. As Rebecca quite rightly pointed out, 14 and 15 year olds are generally fairly interested in dating and kissing (at the very least): more so than the 13 year olds in the original manuscript. They are also more prone (at least according to stereotypes) to rebellion against authority figures and moodiness.

I’m actually a big fan of stereotypes and cliches. I think they’re very powerful things that writers are foolish not to use. The key here is to actively use them, not just to use them by accident – which amounts to being used by them.

Anyway, bringing in those ‘teenage years’ cliches actually opened up opportunities to develop Evie’s character and show how she is unusual, even when she is, for instance, having a fit of the sullens.

So, changes made, the manuscript went back to Faber and I crossed my fingers that they’d like it – not only because I wanted them to be happy with it (as I was, and so didn’t really want to make many further changes), but also because I wanted them to feel I was a good person to work with: someone who appreciated quality feedback and had the craft to know how to revise a manuscript effectively.

old terracotta curved titles

Revisions, Revisions…

My wonderful publishing editor, Rebecca Lee, started working with me on revising the manuscript before we’d even signed the contract. This isn’t unusual in the publishing world, apparently: a deal is a deal, but contracts take a while to negotiate and no one wants to wait around dotting Ts on the legal stuff rather than the book itself.

I wasn’t sure what to expect at this stage and awaited the return of my manuscript in terror of what The Red Pen of Doom might have in store for me…

Actually, as with Claire’s comments, I was delighted with my feedback. And, again, the key factor was that no one was trying to change the book, only to improve it: to help me achieve what I was driving towards anyway.

For instance, I already had a sneaking suspicion that one of the smaller elements wasn’t coming across clearly but I wasn’t entirely sure what readers might find most perplexing. Rebecca knew exactly what I needed to do: clarify the geography of Evie’s home. That wasn’t a problem – I haven’t drawn a floor-plan of the house, but I could if someone asked me to. So bringing that knowledge out – the odd phrase here and there – was a simple fix to a thorny problem.

Another key issue related to language… I come from a family that’s part British, part Italian and part American. Critically, for the book, although Evie is English some of the phrases she used in the draft manuscript turned out to be American. Who knew? Well, I didn’t, but Rebecca did… and I was very happy to be able to ditch my accidental Americanisms in favour of phrases that were in character for Evie.

I’d already done my best to avoid mentioning brands and also current ‘big hit’ movies etc. as these things can date a book very quickly, so Rebecca was pleased on that front.

A trickier issue was one of vocabulary. Given that the book is going to be marketed as YA/cross-over, Rebecca wanted me to consider whether some of the words I used (she picked out the key examples) were too complex. I considered very carefully in each case and spent time poring over my thesaurus to see if there were other words that worked as well in the relevant contexts. Sometimes there were, in which case I changed the original word: why use a long word when a short one will do just as well? Well, lots of academics (and some writers) spend their whole careers doing just that (and not an awful lot else), but I don’t see the point. Complexity should be saved for the things that really are complex, rather than wasted on those that can, in skilled hands, be simple.

However, in some cases I’d chosen a word because of its nuances and associations… When that was the case, I didn’t change the manuscript. I may not believe in making things complicated when they don’t have to be, but that doesn’t mean I’m in favour of ‘dumbing down’. If someone doesn’t know a word, they can look it up – and that’s no bad thing to be encouraging for YA readers or, indeed, adult readers who might like an opportunity to expand their vocabulary. I wrote The Bone Dragon for all people over a certain age – not specifically for the YA category – so I didn’t want to make changes to the book that I felt would render it less appealing to adult readers… or, indeed, YA readers looking for something a little more challenging.

As it turned out, there were about 10 words that Rebecca felt would be challenging for the YA market: that seemed to be a really good number of ‘difficult’ words to leave in. So I did.

… More on market factors and their influence on the manuscript in my next post.

If you’re reading and have experience of editors or agents giving you market advice about how to change your manuscript, I’d be really interested to hear about it. Did you feel the advice was helpful? Did you feel it conflicted with your creative aims?

path to ruined barn and red poppy field

Last orders?

So, the re-revised book went back to my wonderful agent on March 3rd… and I am waiting nervously for the thumbs up or thumbs down. It’s now March 5th, just in case you’re feeling a bit confused and suspect it might be July, and there is a new email from Claire in my inbox.

I scan it quickly. Few little changes. Then we can start submitting… Track Changes document attached…

The changes require me to replace one sentence I cut in the last edit, and to remove three ‘ands’ in the first scene. I blink at the computer screen and then rush off to fret over the ‘ands’.

It’s my opening page, I want to wail. I like my ‘ands’! I hear them when I read the manuscript…

But I completely see where Claire is coming from when she says that I may have worked on this page so much it’s not quite as natural as the rest and the ‘ands’ seem a bit contrived.

There’s one ‘and’ I really like… But I can keep that for my version. It’s an ‘and’ after all, and I’m too close to the manuscript – and especially that page – to put my stamp on those three tiny conjunctions being critical. Now is the time to trust my wonderful agent, who has given me so many brilliant, insightful comments – all of which are directed towards helping me get the book I want to write down on the page. This is exactly the time to sit back and say ‘Claire’s the expert. She’s proven she really gets my writing and my book. She can see far more clearly at this point than I can.’ If you can’t trust your agent with these things, then you’ve probably got the wrong agent.

So I put back the sentence, I cut the ‘ands’ and the book goes back to Claire on the afternoon of March 5th.

A few hours later, Claire emails me with the list of publishers it’s gone out to.

It’s a terrifying list. Wonderful, but terrifying. Claire seem confident, but I am a nervous wreck.

I do my best not to think about it and, instead, set to work on my next book.

double spiral staircase

Here we go again…

So, Claire liked the revised manuscript… but we weren’t quite there yet.

Most of the new comments were about specific, individual lines or bits of scenes… But she had one large outstanding comment about the pacing in the second quarter of the book. The difficulty was that she felt that some scenes were too long – but they were ones that we both agreed were really well written.

It’s very hard to cut material – or even cut it down – when there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it line-to-line. But, even if everything in a scene is good, if it isn’t doing the book as a whole any favours it has to go… or, at very least, it has to get shorter. It’s a real wrench doing that sort of editing; it’s hard enough to cut words when you know they aren’t right, but cutting ones that, in themselves, are…

I have two little tricks for making it easier. First, I always save a new file every day so that the ‘old’ version of what I’ve written is never lost or deleted: the work, and all the effort behind it, is there should I ever decide it could be of use. Second, I keep a running file of ‘cuts’. Out come individual words, little phrases, clauses, entire sentences, paragraphs, scenes and even complete chapters… But they come out of the manuscript and find a new home in the cuts file, where I have them to use elsewhere should I ever need or want to. I rarely go back to these files, but that’s not the point. The point is to feel that I’m not ‘wasting good’: I’m not throwing away effort, let alone work that is worth something.

So, pinning Claire’s comments to my monitor, I set up a new cuts file and went back to the manuscript and was even more ruthless than before. ‘What does this word/phrase/sentence add?’ I asked myself. And, even more importantly, ‘Could someone else have written this line?’

I tried to cut the purely descriptive material in my ‘slow’ scenes down to 200 words or less. It wasn’t always possible, but it was a useful rule of thumb to work towards; 200 words is less than a page – hard for a reader to get bored in that time or feel that the pace really has dropped, but beyond that…

The other thing I did was look at my book outline (a screenplay-type scene-by-scene structure) and consider the order of my scenes. ‘Does this really have to come before that?’ I asked myself. ‘How many scenes from other subplots can I insert between the ones that are part of the ‘slower’ part of the story?’

Simply swapping a few scenes around made a huge difference. Changing the rhythm of the story, and widening the weave between the different story-threads, was enough to fix the pacing in a number of places… And with some strict but not too harsh cuts, it was enough…

Or at least I hoped it was: off went the book to the ever-patient Claire once again…

Before I get to what she thought, does anyone have any good tips to share about making difficult editing easier? How do you cope with cutting the bits you love when they don’t serve your book as a whole?

bridge over river with reflection in the water

Acting on feedback

So, in yesterday’s post, I talked about the fact that my agent thought I should cut a character from my draft manuscript.

Claire was spot on in her reasoning about why the character was problematic, but I didn’t feel that her suggestion for how to solve the problem worked for me.

And therein lies one of the trickiest elements of writing: listening to feedback and accepting good advice while, at the same time, maintaining your integrity as an author.

When you don’t want to take a comment, it can be really hard to know whether you’re being resistant purely because you’re attached to the book as is, or because making the required changes feels like too much work, or just because you don’t like criticism (or the way it’s delivered). Similarly, how do you tell if you’re just making changes to please your agent/publisher when, actually, they improverish your work?

There’s no easy answer, but being honest with yourself about what’s really going on in your head is a good start.

Anyway, when it came to Claire’s really excellent points about my problem character, I applied one of my key rules of thumb for dealing with feedback. First, I tried not to think about it for 48 hours and then I sat down with the book and thought about how I would change the book page by page to accommodate Claire’s suggestions… But I just couldn’t get it to work: the blow-by-blow stuff about ‘she did this’ and ‘he said that’ etc. wouldn’t come together. It all felt and sounded wrong, contrived. The characters I had created just wouldn’t cooperate in the scenarios the change required me to put them in.

So I went and sat in the bath. I do that when I’m stuck. Somehow being soggy helps me to solve problems – go figure.

By the time the water was cold, I had a game plan that took all of Claire’s fanatastic thoughts about why the character was problematic and made them work my way, with my characters, in my book. In other words, I took the substance of what she had said but, as the author, I also accepted responsibility for figuring out what to do to fix the problems she had identified for me.

And that is one of my other major rules of thumb for dealing with feedback. Often people make really good points, but what they suggest in terms of changing the book may well be out of step with your intentions and/or aesthetic. So take the substance of the comment – there’s something wrong with X – and figure out how to fix it your way.

In the end, I replaced an existing minor character with my problem character: this allowed me to change the role the problem character played in the protagonist’s life so that she was part of a much narrower world. This, in turn, meant that the problem character interacted with all the other main characters instead of just some of them, tightening the narrative and the plot.

The change worked because there were a lot of similarities between the two characters, not just in terms of the roles they fulfilled for Evie (my protagonist) but in terms of personality.  However, as there were some aspects of the minor character that I wanted to keep, the resulting ‘composite’ character was a true combination of the two. Although many of the changes were surprisingly small and subtle, I had to edit all the composite character’s dialogue very carefully to reflect not just her new composite personality but the change in her relationship with Evie.

Once I had it all worked out (and had checked that it actually worked on the page), I wrote to Claire to explain my plans, but I was still on tenterhooks to see whether she would like the result and feel it addressed the issues… and she did! Happy days!

Even so, when Claire read the manuscript again there was a second little set of edits to undertake…  But that’s the subject of my next post.

In the meantime, I’d be really interested to hear about any ‘rules of thumb’ for dealing effectively with feedback that other writers (or editors!) use. How do you decide what feedback to accept and what to reject?

Technical Mastery: editing quality non-fiction

There’s something wonderful about editing a really good piece of work. With sub-standard pieces, ‘editing’ often comes closer to ‘rewriting’. Anyone who has been editing for a while will have come across pieces that can’t even be rewritten: there’s so much red that you slowly realise you’ve been writing the piece from scratch, keeping in the odd definite article and the occasional noun.

But when you get something wonderful to work on the process is energising and collaborative. Instead of writing twenty comments per page about what is lacking, what is unclear, what is illogical, you can ask questions and point out alternatives: you can engage with the writer as a colleague and partner. With good work, you remain an editor and get credit for an editorial contribution. When what you’re editing is a gigantic mess, you end up being a co-author, or even the primary author… but you don’t get any credit. This isn’t just frustrating: it brings some serious ethical issues into play. But that’s a discussion for another day.

So what does an editor do with a really good piece of work? I’m currently editing a fantastic PhD thesis. The examples below are drawn from this project, though I’ve changed the nature of the argument so that I can discuss the editorial issues while ensuring that the writer isn’t identifiable.

The above excerpt from AAAA is mirrored in the claim of BBBB that…

Coming directly under a block-quote, much of this clause is redundant. Why not ‘AAAA’s argument is mirrored in’ or even ‘This is mirrored in’? Why waste words pointing out the obvious: that the subject of discussion is the preceding quotation?

The other thing to consider is whether there is a good reason to use the passive voice here. Actually, there’s a good reason not to. You’ve just presented quotation A: why then say that this reflects quotation B? Surely that indicates that B is the primary quotation – in which case why not quote from B to begin with?

Instead of a 13-word clause in the passive voice that implies a somewhat dubious logical relationship between two key sources, why not use ‘This mirrors BBBB’s claim that’. This leaves you with 5 words in the active voice and a clear, logical relationship between the two sources.

The ways in which multiple, contradictory versions of this event are described will be explored.

This statement of the first chapter’s objective is problematic. Why use the passive voice? This is what the writer is going to do… or does the writer intend to indicate that she’s going to try to do this but isn’t sure she will succeed? Not a very encouraging start.

Be bold when laying out your objectives: say “This is what I’m going to do.” It’s for the reader to judge whether you’ve succeeded, but you can at least set out with conviction and determination.

Instead of ‘The chapter will explore’ – active voice but future tense – why not just ‘The chapter explores’? It’s best to use the present tense: the chapter has been written, so why go for the more tentative ‘will explore’ (as in ‘it will do this once it’s written’)?

AAAA and BBBB are critics, as well as authors, and this is the focus of the literary criticism in which they appear.

Beware pronouns. What is the focus here? What is “this”? Is “this” the fact that AAAA and BBBB have created two very different types of text or the fact that they are authors? It’s probably the former, but why not just say that? A lot of writers – of fiction and non-fiction – seem to have a fear of specifying: they seem to think it’s clunky to keep naming names. But pronouns are actually a huge headache for readers: the reader has to keep reminding him/herself what the pronoun represents.

Plus think about the psychology of what’s going on (this is more a point about fiction). Think about parents giving interviews about missing children. They keep saying the child’s name. Names help to make people real to us. Why not use the same principles in your writing to make your characters present to your readers?

Don’t go too far the other way and write ‘Richard went to the park. Richard fed the ducks. Richard went home and there Richard made a sandwich’. Instead, try something like ‘Richard went to the park. He fed the ducks and then went home. At home, Richard made a sandwich’. As a rule of thumb, don’t have more than two pronouns in a row: after two pronouns in a row, use the character’s name. Note, however, that this is a rule of thumb for he/she/it/this, etc., not for I/we/you… And only applies when there’s one person in the frame. Names are critical when the same pronoun could refer to more than one character.

This rule is a good one to follow for non-fiction as well. If you’re writing an essay, it’s much better to be specific: it helps keep your argument tight and clear. Better to err on the side of specifying more often than is needed than to use too many pronouns and risk confusing your reader (or, worse yet, your marker if you’re a student!).

This issue becomes significant when authors engage with the portrayals of different forms of Britishness.

Why “the” portrayals? Is the author talking about very specific portrayals or the portrayals created by a few specific authors? The use of “when authors” implies that a general view is being taken, so the writer is probably seeking to make a general point. The implied mis-match of specificity creates a sense of logical inconsistency, rendering the argument far less tight and persuasive.

Two books which make substantial use of these sources are…

The clause should either read ‘Two books, which make substantial use of these sources are’ or ‘Two books that make substantial use of these sources are’. This is because ‘which’ marks a clause as non-restrictive, while ‘that’ marks a clause as restrictive. This isn’t just a fancy, futz-y technical difference: it’s actually quite important in terms of the logic of what you’re saying. The ‘which’ version of the clause indicates that the two books in question just happen to use “these sources” but the fact that they do isn’t particularly important: it’s an extra bit of interesting but non-essential info. The ‘that’ version of the clause indicates that the two books are identified by the fact they use “these sources”.

It’s very unlikely that the author would want to use the ‘which’ version. I’m pretty sure the author wants to emphasise that these books rely specifically on “these sources”. If so, the clause must be restrictive, so the ‘that’ version must be used.

The line between “factual” and “fictional” literature, which is usually thought so distinct…

There should be single quotation marks around the words ‘factual’ and ‘fictional’. Save double quotation marks for actual quotations (NB: quote is a verb, quotation is a noun) and for dialogue. Single quotation marks are used when you’re simply trying to mark a particular word out: for example, to question its usual meaning (as here). Also note that ‘which’ is used correctly here as the clause after the comma is non-restrictive.

It doesn’t matter whether you use the terms restrictive/non-restrictive, but it is important to understand that, in this instance, good grammar can actually tighten the logic of your argument, while bad grammar can introduce a degree of logical inconsistency and weaken it. In other words, it doesn’t matter if you recognise this as a restrictive/non-restrictive issue but it does matter whether you made the right choice between ‘that’ and ‘which’. The same is true for all the other little, finicky things explored here: it doesn’t matter if you know all the technical terms, but mastering the technical aspects of good writing does matter. After all, who doesn’t want to get their point across as clearly as possible?

But even more than that, it’s important to understand how these little technical things can help you communicate more effectively, whether you’re trying to make a tight, persuasive argument or draw the reader into a fictional world. It’s amazing how much can be accomplished by getting these little details right. If your grammar is ‘good enough’, you can build a solid, basic structure: if it’s superb, you can create a unique skeleton to flesh out with wonderful phrases and spot-on adjectives. With true mastery, you can make technical choices that convey your unique voice as writer, adding a new layer to what is unique and interesting in your work. Above all, if you’ve got technical mastery, you can wield grammar as a tool, rather than having it control you: this opens up a world of different options and choices, freeing you  to focus on the higher level (and far more interesting) issue of content rather than the basics of form.


Where to start with polishing your writing

Three good places to start but not to finish: Strunk and White’s Elements of Style ; http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/search.php; and http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~wricntr/resources.html.

Like the three resources above, this strange-looking site is a good place to start if you’re going to be teaching writing: http://www.uefap.com/writing/writfram.htm.

Three good resources for once you’ve got a handle on the basics: The Penguin Guide to English Punctuation; The Penguin the Guide to Plain English; and The Penguin Dictionary of English Grammar.

An excellent ‘home study’ guide that’s also a really good reference and ‘brush up’ tool: Trevor Horwood’s Freelance Proofreading and Copy-editing.

Never underestimate the value of thesaurus. Roget’s is online here

Although not very professional, both of these sites have some pretty good resources: http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/index.htm; and http://www.grammarbook.com/punctuation/semicolons.asp.

Finally, for Harvard-style referencing: http://libweb.anglia.ac.uk/referencing/harvard.htm?harvard_id=53#53.