Six Tips for Aspiring Writers
First, let’s be clear what this list is based on. My three years of writing fiction have produced one novel and a dozen short stories – highly enjoyable and illuminating, but hardly enough to qualify me to hand out advice. However, in non-fiction (books on English as a Foreign Language), I have spent 30 years writing, commissioning, editing, publishing, and distributing. It is chiefly the experience of those years that I pass on here.
- Get the appearance right.
I can hear the howls of indignation. “What? Number One? Do you realise how long I spent writing this book, you jumped-up blogger-booby? Are you suggesting appearance matters more than content?”
I’m suggesting that, if you don’t get the appearance right, an editor won’t even get to the content. You’ll be rejected outright as unprofessional.
(1) Get the front cover designed professionally.
(2) Write in paragraphs of manageable size.
(3) Don’t cram too much on a page – leave white space.
- Learn to self-edit.
You have a fertile imagination, brimming over with ideas for stories, but you’re not good at grammar, punctuation, spelling, or sentence construction. Is that you? You’re not alone. Plenty of creative people lack these skills, but they are skills you can learn. Stick with it: it takes time. If you want to be taken seriously, you have to turn out polished manuscripts that are not cluttered with errors.
Apart from lack of the above-mentioned skills, the biggest problem for an editor is long-windedness. It is the classic symptom of an inability to self-edit. I was once editor and co-author for a book with four authors, one of whom wrote articles three times as long as the rest of us. Eighty per cent of my time on that book was spent cutting two thirds of his work. I still stick pins in his effigy.
Rigorous self-editing is the indispensable precursor to editing by an outsider.
- Use beta readers.
A beta reader is someone who agrees to read your book at an early stage – probably after the first draft – with a view to offering you help and constructive criticism. Exactly what form that help takes varies according to who you ask, but the main point is that you should get outside opinions long before you think of going into print. This point is so important that I am devoting a separate blog to it.
- Use an editor and a proofreader.
Yes, this comes in addition to point 2: it’s both – and, not either – or. After self-editing, pass your work to an editor. Don’t skimp on this. However brilliant you think your work is, it will contain typos, weaknesses, inconsistencies, poorly-expressed ideas. Your beta readers will not pick up on all of these. A professional editor will point out many problems that would not occur to you.
There are many levels of copy-editing. If you are confident about your grammatical and plot-honing skills, a light edit may be enough. If not, you’ll need a deep edit. Professional copy-editors offer services on different levels, and you’ll pay accordingly.
Proofreading is the last stage of checking before your book goes into print. If you can do it yourself, fine. Many people think they can but can’t. I recently read a book by a friend who had self-edited but avoided the expense of an outside editor or proofreader. I stopped counting the errors/typos after I’d reached seventy.
- Think short.
Considering writing a 500-page epic? Don’t. Split it into two books of 250 pages. There are four reasons for this:
(a) Unless you’re well known, traditional publishers won’t risk publishing such a long book.
(b) Shorter books make more sense. They’re cheaper, and readers like series.
(c) Readers’ attention span is shortening. Novellas of 20,000 – 50,000 words (80 – 180 pages) are popular on Kindle.
(d) Whether or not you’re mailing books yourself, big means heavy – and heavy means expensive. Postage costs per book often outweigh printing costs. It’s your readers who get hammered with shipping costs. Don’t put them off.
- Advice: seek it, then sift it.
Beta readers and editors will be the main people offering you advice, but you will probably gather opinions from others, e.g. people you’ve sounded out for ideas but who haven’t read the book. Listen carefully to what everyone says, but don’t act on advice immediately. Give it time to ferment – at least two or three weeks. Then you’ll have a better idea of which pieces of advice to accept. I will have more to say about this on my upcoming blog on beta readers.
I make no apology for slanting this article towards beta readers and editing. Googling “editing services” brings up hundreds of hits, but here are a few tried-and-tested services you might like to contact first: