Grammar & Line Editing

In my last post on writing, I suggested that there might be at least six different things that might constitute ‘great writing’. In the next few posts, I’ll be putting each of these areas under the spotlight and looking at how an editor can help with each aspect of a book.

So let’s shine an interrogatory light on Great Writing #1: a wonderful prose style.

Personally, I’m a great admirer of a well-turned sentence. I love books which make me stop every now and again and re-read a sentence or a paragraph just because it’s so beautifully put.

But not all readers want language to intrude between them and the plot which is why most books are written in a more transparent style. (Transparent in that it doesn’t intrude itsef between the reader and the story.) But transparency is hard; at least as hard as thinking up arresting metaphors. And, of course, the prose style has to fit the book. Thrillers are rarely full of poetic prose, and romance novels tend to require a quite different turn of phrase from science fiction and fantasy.

But, however good you are with words, most people understand that a lucid, fluent prose style won’t get you published on its own. The ability to write polished, grammatically correct English is to the published novelist what the ability to dribble, tackle, pass and head the ball is to the professional footballer: a given. And as the footballer has to help their team score goals, an author has to tell a good story.

What most people don’t realise is that the converse is also true: without a basic ability to express yourself fluently and grammatically, you won’t get published.

I promised that, in future posts, I’d be busting some publishing myths. So here’s bust #1: the urban writing myth states that, if the plot of your novel is good enough, a publisher will employ an editor tidy up the grammar. Unfortunately, that’s simply not true. In the current publishing climate, where margins are tight and getting tighter, no publisher will take on a book which needs a lot of work. Editing is an expensive business and publishers make sure they have to pay for as little of it as possible.

(The only exception to this is if the book happens to have been written by a celebrity. Celebrity names sell. A lot. Which means that it’s in the publisher’s financial interest to invest editors’ time in making a rough and ready manuscript into a nicely readable book.)

So, what should you do if you think you’ve got a strong idea at the heart of your plot, good characters who engage your readers, and the pace to keep them reading, but you aren’t sure whether your prose style matches up?

There are several options:

1. Ask somebody competent and objective to read it. This might be somebody who teaches English, somebody who reads a great deal and who knows good prose when they see it, or a professional in the publishing industry if you’re lucky enough to know one. Asking your friends and family to comment on your writing isn’t an effective way of getting an honest opinon: how ever objective they say they’ll be in reality they won’t want to hurt your feelings. You need to be brave and get an objective view.

2. Get hold of a good, clear grammar book and work your way through it. One excellent example is ‘My Grammar And I (or should that be me?)’ by Caroline Taggart and J.A. Wines. The title raises an excellent point – do you know when you should use I and when you should use me? If not, a book like this would be a good investment.

3. Join a writing group whose members read and comment on each other’s work. Many published writers have gone down this route very effectively, but it’s not for everyone. I’ve never been part of a writers’ group because I just can’t bear to show my work to anybody or even discuss it while I’m in the process of writing. But many writers find this an invaluable way of getting objective feedback as they write. And, in commenting on other people’s writing, you can sometimes get an insight you’re your own besetting sins.

4. Employ an editor. Correcting grammar and syntax is a part of what’s known as line editing – literally going through a book line by line and picking up every single error, whether grammatical, factual or simple inconsistency. (Your main character started off with blue eyes and suddenly he has green ones, or, as I managed once, your character is apparently living through a thirty-six hour day.) Line editing is usually done after the structural aspects of the book are dealt with, but it’s no less important.

The reason that publishers don’t take manuscripts which are poorly written at the prose level is that line editing takes a lot of time and is, therefore, expensive. For instance, when I’m working through my own books, line by line, looking for the kind of errors mentioned above and changing the wording of sentences so that they read better, I get through about 10 000 words a day, sometimes fewer.

A grammar book is a lot cheaper.

So, if you’d like to discuss any of the first three options with the other as-yet-unpublished writers who follow this page, do comment and get a debate going below. Feel free to offer to read each other’s work and comment. We all need friends in the writing world and I’m lucky to have two sources of writerly support – one composed of authors who were published under the same PanMac schemes as I was back in the ’noughties, and the other drawn from Crime Cymru writers.

And if you’d like to discuss the fourth option, please feel free to get in touch either via Facebook Messenger or using the contact page on my website. I’m currently putting together details of a sample edit package: a submission of the first 3 chapters, or 10 000 words of your book for detailed comment. As well as line editing, this would include some aspects of development editing – of which more next time – so that you would be able see how much work remains to be done on your book before submission. You would then be in a position to decide whether this is something you feel you can do by yourself (cheap but hard work) or whether you need more help (quick but expensive). If you’d like more details of that sample package, just let me know g.

Next time: what is development editing?

Meanwhile, happy reading and writing!

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