I wanted to quickly list the books that I have on my shelves that I have found (variously) helpful in improving my writing skills but thought I’d also write a bit about my beliefs for revising work.
Knowing and clearly understanding what the different types of revision are is a first step and this bit isn’t really easy. A lot of people think editing is checking for spelling mistakes etc. From structural editing to checking voice and POV shifts, to making sure through-lines are intact and cohere, interrogating character motivations and what is logical and ‘right’ in the world of the novel, pace, chapter arcs and whole narrative arcs, right down to proofing for typos, there are lots of different ‘levels’ of things that need to be done. They can be done as several ‘sweeps through’ a manuscript looking for the specific category of problem, or some might be done as a person writes. It’s hard to edit your own work; we are too close to what we write to see it as another would but it is something that can be learned and you can train yourself to ‘swap hats’ and manage the task with discipline.
Learning more about grammar is important too. I did a subject in editing & sub-editing at RMIT in 1998, and my teacher was Ted Cowham, referred to in this Crikey article as ‘a grumpy… copy-taster with the world’s largest steel spike’. I remember him as impressive, exacting and really nice; he gave me a book at the end of the course, inscribed with his best wishes. I learned a lot about editing and subbing in that class, and after it was asked by another student (who was working as editor at Pacific Publications) whether I’d be interested in some part-time sub-editing work. I said yes. Of course. While working there, I met another woman, younger than me, who also was subbing I think. She told me about the RMIT Professional Writing & Editing course and said that it was a really good course but very hard to get into. Well, I applied and I got in and did the first year (Short story writing with Ania Walwicz and Professional writing with Malcolm King? I’m not sure of the name…)
So awareness was an important step. But before that, I’d done a certificate course in teaching English as a foreign language, the prestigious Cambridge RSA program, and it was there that I learned the most about English grammar so that I could teach it. Knowing how to teach it meant that I could also use those skills in my self-editing, twenty years or more later.
So these are tangible skills but what about attitude? You have to want to make your work better, and know that editing it will help to achieve that. If you don’t believe that editing is essential, then having the skills to edit are useless without the psychological distance you have to create to actually do it.
Some people pay for a manuscript assessment. I did (and it was too early I now realise). I think the answer is a mix (if you can afford it) of paid assessment (carefully chosen, mine was great but the ms was uncooked), voluntary readers and self-editing.
Practical English Usage – Michael Swan
The Australian Government Style Manual, for authors, editors and printers – AGPS
The Complete Plain Words – Sir Ernest Gowers
Fowler’s Modern English Usage – Revised by Sir Ernest Gowers
The Elements of Style – Strunk & White
These ones more for context about language, change and usage. Fascinating if you care about language and care about using it well.
Troublesome Words – Bill Bryson
Words and Rules – Steven Pinker
Weasel Words – Don Watson
Death Sentence – Don Watson
Another really important thing is to read heaps and read widely. Read the stuff that you enjoy reading, that you think is good (to see how it’s done) and read the bad stuff too, or the stuff you think is flawed (to see the how ‘not to do it’ aspects). Reading something that doesn’t work (for you) is an opportunity to analyse why. This building of awareness and critical skills can only be good for our own writing.
Some good references for this type of approach, sort of literary analysis skill-building:
Faulks on Fiction – Great British Characters and the Secret Life of The Novel – Sebastian Faulks
The Naive and Sentimental Novelist – Orhan Pamuk
And some old ones on literary theory:
Aspects of the Novel, The Timeless Classic on Novel Writing – EM Forster (heavy going, I haven’t read it all)
The Theory of the Novel, A historico-philosophical essay on the forms of great epic literature – Georg Lukács (likewise, pretty serious, turgid stuff)
Finally, the explicit ‘how-tos’ which are the ones starter writers should ahem start with. These are the publications that show specific examples (often) and clearly set out how to write better. If I could recommend the one to start with, and above and beyond the others above and below, it would be Stephen King’s ON WRITING. He says it all really, and says it well. It’s accessible prose and regardless of whether he is a genre writer or not (he is) and whether you like genre or not (I don’t), it is incredibly helpful. Before you poo-poo King, remember he’s also written some gorgeous short stories and novellas that weren’t horror. Here’s a story about how he’s perceived as a horror writer only [found at Neil Gaiman’s blog.]
King is speaking in interview with Gaiman:
I was down here in the supermarket, and this old woman comes around the corner this old woman – obviously one of the kind of women who says whatever is on her brain. She said, ‘I know who you are, you are the horror writer. I don’t read anything that you do, but I respect your right to do it. I just like things more genuine, like that Shawshank Redemption.’ And I said, ‘I wrote that’. And she said, ‘No you didn’t’. And she walked off and went on her way.
Other specific and instructional ‘how-to’ books:
Dear Writer – Carmel Bird (Bird is working on a revised edition of this.)
The Little Red Writing Book – Mark Tredinnick
Writing Fiction – Garry Disher
Books that are more talking about doing it well (or badly) rather than explaining how to do it:
How Fiction Works – James Wood (I found this one brilliant)
Bird by Bird – Anne Lamott (this is fantastic too, more of a memoir of reading and writing)
Tasting Life Twice – Ramona Koval’s series of interviews with authors is terrific and show insight into process and form.
Good luck, next will be post # 3 on reviewing. Happy writing weekend.