Advice From An Editor

I attended a writer's workshop last Saturday night. (Clearly no rocking out in clubland for me anymore!)

The guest speaker was a successful editor for a well known publishing house. It was fascinating to have so many submission issues confirmed from, as it were, the horse's mouth.

I'll summarize here some of the most pertinent points she made.

First off, she said around 85% of all the manuscripts she received from budding authors were a waste of her time. They were clearly written by people who had never bothered to read guidelines, format correctly or even study basic punctuation, spelling and grammar.

This is a startling statistic. In essence, over 4 out of every 5 writers, in her words, deserve to be rejected simply because they don't bother to research the craft of writing before they start firing off their manuscripts.

Ironically, she said, this makes her job easier. Because, in order to save time, she never reads on if there are simple errors on page one. Why should she? If a writer can't get the first page error free, what hope is there that the writing will get any better?

Presentation is so very important.

Of the remaining 15%, the contenders for publication, the issues were more to do with story and style.

She confirmed to me that originality, though nice, was not often a consideration. Simply because the chances of a writer coming up with something original AND well written were so slim that it could never be a deciding factor.

What interested her most was 'voice' - the nebulous quality she said only the best writers seemed able to master. She said it was apparent that only after the writer fully understood the mechanics of writing (grammar especially) that the voice was able to come through with any degree of effectiveness.

Pet peeves included: the overuse of 'that' 'and' as well as 'had'. She said good writers should be able to spot their overuse and rearrange sentences to avoid relying on them. 

She didn't like what she called 'filters'. This was the use of words that distance a reader from the characters. Words like 'felt', 'thought', 'decided' and 'realized' - as well as vague qualifiers like 'very', 'almost', 'nearly', which were to be avoided (read, deleted.)

Also, the old chestnut, "Don't use adverbs," she said, "ever!"

She loathed the penchant of newbies to write long compound sentences where the subject becomes obscured - and the grammar becomes suspect at best. Keep the sentences short and easy to understand was her advice, unless you know exactly what you're doing (which 98% of us don't, she said.)

Most of her job - after reading manuscripts - was editing them for publication.

Her decisions over who to publish therefore were often based upon her assessment of how easy a writer was going to be to work with.

If the manuscript was full of stylistic errors (she reasoned from experience) then the writer was probably going to be difficult. She'd heard the, "It's not incorrect, it's my style" 
argument all too often - and yes, it generally only came from newbies. 

Contrary to myth, most professionals embrace alterations to their work. And compromise makes for a pleasant working relationship.

Towards the end of the workshop you could almost feel the exasperation of the writers. How were they ever going to be good enough for publication, one writer asked.

We were missing the point, she said.

Studying the craft of writing was something she expected writers to do - on an ongoing basis. She wanted well presented and well written manuscripts first, then she looked for good stories told with a strong voice.

Until she found them, she wanted writers to at least look as though they were writing to the very best of their ability.

"Don't be intimidated by what you don't know," she said, "but do study and research the rules of writing consistently."

To which she added, "It's the only way to improve - and maximize your chances of publication."

I agree, don't you?

Keep Writing!

Rob Parnell







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