What makes a book, film, poem, painting, or song a 'classic'? I'm talking about that intangible something that makes a work of art something that generation after generation goes back to. In my view, the answer lies in the endless interpretability of its theme, which is an aspect of writing craft often overlooked.
'So, what's it about then?'
We lovers of books with spine can't wait to tell someone else about what we're reading. In a nutshell, we have two ways of describing a book: by plot or theme. Let's take a book I read recently, The Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler:
The thematic description of The Parable is, of course, MY reading of the book; it may not have been what Butler intended. Each reader (and each generation) brings their own perspective and life experience to a book (or any work of art) because interpretation is not about taking meaning out; it's about putting meaning in.
But if every reader brings their own interpretation to the table, should a writer even bother being intentional about a theme? IMO, yes. A theme adds depth and cohesion to a narrative. Theme is like a spice that infuses the book; you may not be able to identify the spice, but it adds a memorable flavour to the writing that will linger with the reader.
What Makes a Good Theme?
Too often I see a theme described in concepts so huge that they lose all meaning: love, loss, identity, courage, and so on. I believe that a great theme is simultaneously universal and personal.
Take the film of the Wizard of Oz as an example. A classic, I think we can all agree. As a classic film, it can be viewed through many critical lenses (Feminist, Marxist, Queer, etc.), each bringing its own interpretation of theme. But there is also a clear, intentional theme: There's no place like home. This theme is both general (everyone would agree) but also specific (we agree based on our own experience of 'home').
'There's no place like home' is what I call a 'thesis' theme because it wants you, the viewer, to agree that 'home' is the best place for you. The plot of the film is formulated to prove the thesis, adopting a definite stance. One sees this kind of theme often in kids' films that attempt to impart a moral lesson, as well as the many early Hollywood movies that border on propaganda.
The more interesting theme is what I call a 'conundrum' theme. At the centre of the narrative is a moral dilemma that the protagonist is dealing with, a dilemma that the reader is also invited to explore. If Wizard had been less didactic, the theme might have been: 'What if you had to choose between leading a small, black-and-white life in the bosom of your family, OR live a large, adventurous, technicolourful life with your dearest friends?'
If you are a writer struggling to identify your theme, start with your protagonist. Identify what their 'journey' is and think about all the conundrums that arise from that. Pick just one that interests you most and develop it through the narrative as you revise your manuscript. You don't have to be heavy handed! But with a little intentionality, you can create a story that both entertains your readers AND challenges them to think about themselves and/or the world ... now that's a book with spine!
Like millions of Britons during lockdown, I’ve been doing all sorts to my house. This means that the person I have spent more time with than even my own family this past year is my handyman (“indispensable” is more accurate than “handy”). During one of his visits, it occurred to me that my job as editor is not so different from his: we are both fixers. We look at what’s broken and mend it; we find the holes and fill them; we create neatness from mess; we take something “meh” and make it “wow”. We are, in short, both in the business of making something better.
One difference is how some clients respond. My handyman’s clients are always happy to see him (they called him in, after all) and always pleased with results: the door is no longer hanging off its hinges, the flowerbeds are neat and tidy, the gutters are no longer leaking. Nobody ever says to him, “How dare you show up here and fix my busted toilet? I like the puddle on the floor!”
Sadly, on occasion, my interventions are not so welcome. The clients most prone to defensiveness are those who have been assigned to me by their publisher. They often think their property is perfect and are insulted when they see the number of edits needed. In my case, though, clients are free to reject fixes as they see fit. I’m never offended by this, of course. It’s the house they built, and if they want it to be shoddy and unsaleable, that’s their prerogative … I just ensure my name isn’t on it.
I really ought to be better at DIY. I rely too heavily on my handyman for home improvements when I’m sure there are some things I could do myself, if I could be bothered to read a few manuals or watch a few YouTube tutorials. The same is true of writers when it comes to DIY editing. Too many do very little manuscript revision, or cut corners, because self-editing requires an eye for detail, the right tools and stamina: all things that make the process less appealing than the initial act of creative writing.
And make no mistake: DIY editing is a laborious process. Ideally, it comprises the following stages:
Each of these steps needs at least one blog post, and I’ll get around to it! But if you cannot wait that long, I’ll be explaining the entire editing process from soup to nuts (focusing on DIY editing) in a workshop hosted by writing coach Beverley Ward in mid-May. Information will soon be posted on her website; I hope you’ll join us.
My old bathroom was an eyesore: the colour was cold, the suite was ugly, and whoever grouted the tiles clearly did so drunk or blindfolded, maybe both. I kept the old toilet, the sink faucet and the layout because you shouldn’t throw out the baby with the old bath. But after a thorough revision, the bathroom is more spacious, more functional, and more pleasing with its rich green paint, clean lines and shiny chrome fittings: a space that’s now pleasurable to be in.
The fact that this renovation required the skills of a professional doesn’t devalue the outcome: our DIY skills will only take us so far. I don’t need to spell out the editing analogy here, really, but let me be clear: even after all your self-editing, your manuscripts will always need a final professional touch. However, whomever you hire will not be overwhelmed by the scale of the job; rather, they’ll only have to tighten a few screws, sand a few rough edges and patch a few holes to make your manuscript something you’re proud to show off.
Speaking of which, I'll end here with the before and after shots! Happy editing, folks.
As an editor, I get deep joy from weeding out errors and helping writers elevate their prose. What I enjoy less is the techy bit, which isn't about what's on the page but how it's presented. I know most of you understand that, judging by the state of some manuscripts I get! But, if you present a chaotic manuscript, your editor will not only curse you, they will likely charge you for time spent reformatting, especially if they charge by the hour.
So, if you intend to share your work with an editor, agent, or publisher, use this bare-minimum checklist.
1. Use black, size 12 Times New Roman font throughout. I know it's dull, but if you're worried that the font will make your book boring, you might have bigger problems than you realize! Select the entire text and then click on the TNR font; this will ensure any rogue fonts are banished. Don't forget the footnotes!
2. Do NOT indent the first paragraph of each chapter, after a subhead, or after a list.
3. Indent all other paragraphs to 1cm. NEVER use tabs or the spacebar for indentation!!!! (The overuse of exclamation points is justified here). To properly indent, highlight all of your text and then find the paragraph spacing menu on the HOME menu of Word (indicated with red arrow). In the drop-down menu, click "line spacing options", which will bring up this box below. Choose the "first line" option and set the size to 1cm (or go with the default of 1.27cm).
5. Use double or 1.5 line spacing (see above box) so it's easier to read.
6. NEVER use more than one paragraph break to separate paragraphs. If you want a slight gap between paragraphs, set the paragraph spacing to 6 or 8 pt (see box above). N.B. Gaps between paragraphs are not common in fiction or creative nonfiction.
7. Use single spaces after each sentence. Many people were taught to double space, but that's no longer necessary (in fact, it's actively frowned upon). To easily fix every double space, go to "Replace" on the HOME menu of Word (see pic). Click to bring up the box below.
In the top long box, press the spacebar twice, and in the bottom box, press it once. Then click "Replace All".
8. Run the basic Word Editor programme for spelling and grammar errors. Of course!
9. Use heading styles if your chapters have several subheads (common in nonfiction). If you know how to use heading styles in Word, hurrah! If not, at the very least, use your font to indicate a style for each level. For example, font 20 for chapter titles and font 16 for main headings. Your editor will then apply the heading styles and use them to create a table of contents.
10. One document only! Don't expect your reader/editor to piece it together themselves!
These first few weeks of the year are a time when everyone gets down to goal-setting. Being a long way from perfection, my list of New Year Resolutions is usually lengthy, and I always set myself up for failure. So, this year I’m keeping it simple when it comes to creative resolutions, and between January and June, my creative goals are simply twofold:
Any additional creative output will be a bonus. Come June, I’ll set more goals for the second half of the year.
If you are reading this as a writer, I expect you’ve completed a similar goal-setting exercise. But do you have any resolutions that will help you become better at self-editing? If you’re not sure where to start, here are a few practical resolutions you could adopt.
1. Keep on writing. Never review anything you’ve written until you have finished an entire first draft, be it a short story or a novel/memoir. Do not succumb to the temptation to redraft anything before you’ve arrived at what you believe to be the end point. Draft one is for your eyes only, so never be embarrassed about what you’ve written. It’ll be rough ‘n unready, but it will be complete. You cannot begin to sculpt your masterpiece until all the clay is on the wheel.
2. Practise abstinence. Put your first draft away for a minimum of ONE MONTH and try not to even think about it. In the meantime, try focusing your creative energy on something else (start writing another story, learn the ukulele, paint by numbers) until it’s time to review the project again. Without some distance from the work, self-editing will be severely hampered.
3. Think big. Don’t sweat the small stuff as you work on improving your first draft. It’s not worth tinkering with the finer points of punctuation/grammar and word choice if you need to rewrite or reorganise an entire chunk of your story. Focus instead on the big picture of narrative structure, character arc, theme, tone, setting and so on. Only when you’ve got to your final draft can the finessing begin.
While you’re practising resolutions 1 to 3, you could also expand your editing knowledge and skills by:
4. Reading Sin & Syntax: How to Craft Wicked Good Prose by Constance Hale. The book not only covers grammatical ground rules, it will also help you (among many other things) to:
5. Listening to The Editing Podcast, from fiction editor/proofreader Louise Harnby and nonfiction editor Denise Crowle. Though aimed primarily at editors, writers stand to gain key insights into how the editing process works and how writers can avoid certain editorial pitfalls. Well worth a listen. Find the podcast at www.louiseharnbyproofreader.com.
Good luck, writer! You got this.
When you're writing for fun or catharsis, self-editing will often take your writing as far as it needs to go. But if you're a writer with an eye on publishing, working with a professional copy editor can improve your publishing prospects, providing you are fully open to the process. Working with a professional editor (either one you hire or one assigned to you by the publisher) can be a stressful situation for many writers who are accustomed to flying solo, but with the right mindset, you'll enjoy a rewarding collaboration. Here are five ways to enter the process.
Mindset 1: It's as good as I can make it ... but it ain't perfect.
You'd be surprised how often I see manuscripts that have "author fatigue" written all over them, and it's clear the author has said, "Oh, that'll do." Only seek an editor when you have self-edited the heck out of your manuscript and are satisfied that you can take it no further. Copy editors love to work with manuscripts they can take from good to great, rather than manuscripts they can turn from okay to good (or from bad to readable!). However, don't hand it over with the assumption it's flawless ... because you WILL get a shock when the edited manuscript is returned. Expect there to be edits a plenty, and remember that even Hemingway needed an editor.
Mindset 2: It's great to collaborate!
As a writer, the page is your stage ... but even a one-woman show needs a crew! Think of your editor as the guy/gal in the lighting booth who's there to ensure you're looking your best. It is not in your editor's interest to steal the limelight or make you look bad, so enjoy the rare moment of creative partnership. Keep in mind that every editor is as unique as every writer, but hopefully your styles complement each other. If you continue to collaborate, the symbiosis will become stronger and the editing process will become easier.
Mindset 3: It's not about me.
The copy editor’s only objective is to make the reading of your manuscript as easy and pleasurable as possible. As tough as it seems (especially if you're paying), the editor's first loyalty is to the reader, not you! Edits are not criticisms, so try not take it personally.
Mindset 4: Every edit is a learning opportunity.
You are always free to disagree with the editor and reject any edit, but it’s often beneficial to understand the editor’s choices or recommendations. You will also learn a lot by studying the grammar, punctuation, and usage edits, which will improve your writing craft going forward.
Mindset 5: Professional editing is an investment.
Unless it's offered as part of a publishing agreement, professional editing will cost you hard-earned cash. That reality is especially harsh because writers themselves so rarely see financial rewards for their efforts. But if you feel you must hire an editor, think of the expenditure as an investment in your development as a writer, not only in terms of craft skills but also in terms of experience with professional editing, which agents and publishers appreciate. A professional edit is also an investment in your book, increasing its chances of being picked up by an agent/publisher or a reader. Hopefully, with great editing, you will see a return on your investment down the line!
One of my professional aims is to enable writers to become better self-editors so that the manuscripts they present for copyediting are as good as they can possibly be. Part of this mission involves demystifying the professional editing process, so here is the skinny on what a professional copy editor does to take a manuscript from so-so to SO GOOD!
The 5 C's of Copyediting
Lorna Partington Walsh, Wordsmith