Tag Archives: editing

How reading stuff I wrote as a kid has helped me break bad writing habits

I’ve been writing everything from non-fiction essays to poems since I could string a sentence together. I was a prolific writer as a kid: little me would scribble notes and the beginnings of many (many) novels on scraps of paper, napkins… anything I could get words onto.

A few years ago I convinced my Mum to whittle down her enormous box of my ramblings and I took away a small folder of some of the best* things I’d written. Reading them was very revealing, and it highlighted some of the bad writing habits I’d managed to nurture and grow over the years.

Seeing my bad habits in black and white really helped me squash them.

*Read: funniest

Bad planning.

CaterpillarPlanning is a really important part of the writing process. Knowing where you’re going with an article, story, report, book or poem helps you structure it properly, providing the best possible support for elegant, well thought-out writing. Skip the planning process and you risk your work caving in on itself.

The little version of me didn’t know this. Take my caterpillar “poem” for example. (Come on, it’s not really a poem, is it?) I had one side of A4, minus some pretty generous margins, to work with. I knew this; I’d drawn and decorated the margins myself. What I should have done was draft the “poem” somewhere else first, then work out if it needed to be shortened.

I didn’t do that.

What I did was this: I saw a glorious blank page and started filling it with whatever spilled out of my head. It was going (relatively) well until I saw the end of the box and panicked, shutting the whole thing down abruptly (see the next bad habit).

Reading my caterpillar story made me laugh, but it also put a spotlight on my problem. Of course, I’m not restricted to pencils and paper these days, and typing makes it much easier to play with words on a page. But I really had to force myself to focus on planning.

Now when I start working on something, I begin with a skeleton structure: a word or two to represent what each paragraph or section would contain. Having a skeleton helps me organise notes – I can cut and paste them into the relevant section – and then all I need to do is add flesh to the bones. Planning in this way means I know how many words I have to play with in each part of a piece of writing, and it means I don’t have to cut the work from the bottom.

Abrupt endings.

At the end of the bridgeAs you can see from my amazing caterpillar masterpiece, I had a big problem with endings. This was partly because I would get really excited about every book I was writing, only for my excitement to dissipate by mid-way through chapter two (confession: this still happens, I have countless partly written novels floating around). One of my biggest issues was finishing everything I wrote far too abruptly.

The ending of a piece of writing is really important. Sure, not everyone will make it to the end of an article, but those who do will remember the last few sentences they read better than the rest.

Again, little me didn’t know that. Take “At the end of the bridge” for example. Even the title suggests that something brilliant is awaiting the protagonist at the other side of the bridge. But when she gets there she is “amazed”. I don’t go into detail, despite there being plenty of space in which to do so.

“The girl that traveld [sic]” ends rather cryptically too: suddenly, in the final sentence, the girl can talk to the animals. Nothing like an unexplained revelation to end a story.

The girl that traveldOk, so I’m not that bad any more, but endings weren’t my strong point for years. Reading these stories, I was so disappointed when I reached the end that I realised how my readers must have felt in the past, albeit less obviously. I now include my endings in the planning process, making sure they reflect and build on the introductions, and leave the reader with something to think about.

Over-enthusiasm.

JohnI love exclamation marks! Really, I’m pretty sure you can find one in just about everything I’ve written. I tend to over-use them – and superlatives – in emails to this day, but it’s only because I write the way I speak. And I speak enthusiastically.

In the lovely (untitled) story about John, little me got over-enthusiastic without getting creative, and emboldened the word “very” a couple of times. Over the years, my vocabulary improved, and with it my enthusiasm became more colourful. Things were “really brilliant”, “totally awesome” and “completely amazing”. Add a sprinkling of exclamation marks and you get an out-of-breath reader.

In my head I was just excited and optimistic; on paper, I looked like a lunatic. Reading John’s story reminded me how important it is to check the tone of what I write. These days I write however I feel like it at the time, then make a point of checking for tone when I run back through what I’ve written. If I seem a bit nutty, I cut adjectives and exclamation marks.

Not editing.

Cats 1Actually, my over-enthusiasm was part of a bigger problem in my writing: I wasn’t editing my own work properly. This was probably the toughest habit I had to break.

Check out my treatment on “Cat’s”: a little intro, a song, a poem and a couple of cartoons. Cat’s what? Cat’s disappointed that I used several grocer’s apostrophe’s (that one was on purpose). Even as a kid, I knew how to punctuate and spell properly. Reading this it was obvious to me: I was being lazy.

Editing a piece of writing is almost as important as doing the writing in the first place; it can make the difference between an ok article riddled with mistakes and a compelling article that’s polished and professional.

Of course I want the latter, so now I make sure I factor editing rounds into my writing process. If it’s possible within the deadline, I schedule time to sleep on a piece of writing (figuratively speaking) so I can attack it with fresh eyes the next day. It’s definitely improved my work, and I’m happy to say those painful apostrophes don’t litter my writing any more.

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What terrible writing habits did you develop as a kid? How have you tackled them? Share your stories in the comments!

 

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A New Year’s resolution that will make a difference

Four easy ways to improve your writing and reap the benefits

It’s that time of year again – wrapping up 2014 and planning 2015. We’re thinking about priorities and coming up with new paths to the land of success, whether that’s a place with more clients, new customers or stronger relationships. Whatever your objectives, there’s one simple resolution you can make this year that will give you a better chance of reaching success in 2015:

Improve your writing.

Simple, right? And yet so many people and companies are failing to put in the effort year after year. Good writing and high quality copy is falling victim to our perpetual state of panic and lack of time – we’re just too busy. Too busy to notice, let alone invest in improving.

photoHere’s the problem: other people notice. They care. If your text is sloppy, your customers will assume that your service is sloppy. If there’s a mistake on your product, it looks lower quality. If your annual report is littered with typos, your funders will start to doubt their investment. And if your website is grammatically disastrous, your potential clients will go elsewhere.

So how can you avoid all this and make sure your text is top quality, even though you’ve got no time? Firstly, there’s no magic wand to make your copy flawless with no effort at all.* Let’s get real: you’ll have to work at this. It won’t take you hours, but you will need to invest a little bit of your time. That’s why now is the perfect moment to make a resolution: you’re making plans and setting goals for 2015, why not make this a priority?

There are a few simple tricks that will help improve your text, even if you don’t have that magic wand.

  1. Spell check

Aren’t those red squiggly lines annoying? NO I DIDN’T MEAN TO USE A ‘Z’! I’m right with you. But they’re extremely helpful, especially if you’re in a hurry. Sure, spell check often misses typos that are still words, but it’s really handy for a quick check, especially if you’re short of time. (And did you know you can switch it on in emails too? That could really help protect your professional reputation.)

  1. Get a text buddy

We never see our own mistakes. When you’ve written something, you’ve probably seen it dozens of times and can no longer see the wood for the trees. That’s totally normal, and it’s why every writer has an editor. If you don’t have that resource, why not get yourself a text buddy? Check out my tips on how to choose your buddy.

  1. Sleep on it

Everything looks different in the cold light of day. You might even see that mistake you overlooked last night. Sleep refreshes everything, and gives you the distance you need to be more objective about the quality of your work.

  1. Read it out loud

This is my favourite. So many long, grammatically incorrect sentences would be avoided if only people would read things out to themselves. It’s simple: literally read out the text with your voice. If there’s a mistake, you’ll hear it before you see it.

Now’s your chance to resolve to improve your writing – and your image – in 2015. Here’s to a beautifully written new year!

* Unless you wave one at an editor: http://www.telllucy.com


Why I don’t like red pen

My first assignment during my Master’s degree was an essay on the origin of science. As an academic subject, history isn’t as black and white as science, and, having come straight from a degree in genetics, I wasn’t used to that. When my essay came back from my tutor I could barely see my proudly (but naively) typed words beneath his red corrections. Like he’d bled all over the pages.

I want to be clear here: my first essay was a disaster. I deserved the comments, edits, questions. I deserved the lines and circles and slashes. It wasn’t a good essay. But I’ll always remember the effect that red writing had on me. My heart rate increased, my palms became sweaty, my vision blurred slightly. I was terrified.

Since then I’ve had cause to edit hundreds of pieces of other people’s work. My first tough experience has stayed with me; I always imaging how the other person feels when I comment on their work and make changes. It may be old fashioned, but I edit on paper when I have the chance. And I use this:

PinkPen

It’s pink. Pink reminds me of roses and sweets. Not of blood and hell. It makes my heart feel lighter, puts a spring in my step. (Ok, so I’m exaggerating slightly, but you get the idea.) I assume that other people have similar feelings to me, so this is my favourite editing pen. I also have green, purple and turquoise, which have a similar effect.

Red’s so harsh, so mean, so old-fashioned. Editing is a creative process, and I think the colour of the edits should be inspiring – it should induce ideas, not tears.