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How to Write Better - Learn to Self-Edit

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by Debbie Lustig (subscribe)
My work has been published in The Age, The Herald-Sun, The Australian, The Big Issue, Australian Birdlife, The Bark (USA), Eureka Street, Overland and The Australian Jewish News.
Published August 26th 2012
'That's all we have, finally, the words, and they had better be the right ones, with the punctuation in the right places' - Raymond Carver
OK, you can write. You've got something to say and a form you enjoy writing in, be it poetry, fiction or non-fiction. In the past, that would have meant jumping through the hoops of traditional publishing, where the slush piles are huge and even great writers' work is tossed out.

Don't believe it? Somebody once submitted a novel by Patrick White to a famous publisher – under another name. To its embarrassment, the publisher failed to recognise it and rejected the masterpiece.

OK. You're not Patrick White. Perhaps you wish to improve your written skills on a website like WeekendNotes. Perhaps you have the next Great Australian Novel you want to polish up to present to publishers. No one's going to copy-edit your work until a long way down the track, so it's up to you to present it as blemish-free as possible, with no errant apostrophes or misplaced modifiers. Make all your writing an opportunity to practice self-editing skills.

Books and manuals

So, what's an editor?

Editors add value to raw text; [they] transform information into knowledge. …Editorial skills…do not draw attention to themselves…therefore they are overlooked and undervalued. Editing is crucial to the effective presentation of information.

So says Janet McKenzie, Australia's doyenne of editing writers. Her book, The Editor's Companion (Cambridge University Press) is in its second edition. It contains everything you've ever wanted to know about editing but were afraid to ask: becoming an editor, the publication process, writing for the web and my favourites – 'Substance and structure' and 'Language'. It even contains copyediting, mark-up and proof correction exercises for the true swots.

What is 'voice' in writing? How do you write with pace and verve? How to write clearly and precisely? How to match your writing to your audience? McKenzie answers everything.

Chapters are clearly written and her wealth of experience in the industry shines through. This book is a must-have for all writers who want to edit their own work; it's a beacon in the darkness of an online world awash with poor prose.

Another must-have for aspiring writer/editors is a style guide. WeekendNotes has one you can - and should - read here. For more information and many more examples, have a quick look at your local daily newspaper.

Every one of them has been set out along a series of guidelines. For my own article, for example, I've decided to set out the names of discussed books in bold italics and cited books in plain italics (so long as I'm consistent, it doesn't really matter how I set out anything).

The Australian Government Style manual for authors, editors and printers is a style guide for the general market. Now in its 7th edition, it contains all the common conventions, rules and recommendations for everything from how to set out numbers to how (and where) to use capital letters.The ultimate value of style guides is they increase clarity and unify publications, making them easier to use for readers.

Another great book is comic travel writer Bill Bryson's personable Dictionary for Writers and Editors. The author of Down Under and A Short History of Nearly Everything here expounds on all manner of confounding words, such as 'cement' and 'concrete' (they're not the same thing). Here, also, why 'mitigate against' is always wrong; and wonderful lists of arcana like what's a fandango. Here, too, you'll discover the difference between 'infer' and 'imply' (the first means to deduce; the second, to suggest). If you love language or the history of English, or just Bill Bryson's charm, his learning sits lightly in this paperback, which is perfect to dip into.

EB White wrote the dark children's book Charlotte's Web. He was also responsible for revising a true classic of the English language, William Strunk's The Elements of Style (Longman), Fourth Edition.

Known as 'Strunk and White', this small booklet is a beautiful exposition on the art of clear writing, containing chapters on punctuation, principles of composition, 'words and expressions commonly misused' and an awe-inspiring 'approach to style'. The latter contains advice as brief as half a page on how to 'revise and rewrite', how to 'not overwrite' and how to avoid 'affecting a breezy manner'.

A Thesaurus Plenty of writers sound clever not because they are but because they own a thesaurus. These wonderful books reference dozens of words similar in meaning, helping you polish your writing by picking the most apt. Plenty of thesauruses exist online but there's not as much fun scrolling down a screen as there is flipping happily through a book like the Penguin Roget's Thesaurus. ALL secondhand bookshops sell thesauruses; if they don't, they're not worthy of the name.

The Holy Bible & William Shakespeare Some people say you can't attempt to write English prose without a working knowledge of the Old Testament and the complete works of Shakespeare. I wouldn't dare make such a claim.

]Grammar Girl is a terrific online resource founded by magazine and technical writer and editor, Mignon Fogarty. She podcasts free episodes (available from iTunes) about every language and usage issue you've ever struggled with - and more you didn't know were a struggle.

Her 'quick and dirty tips' episodes are little miracles of clear thinking and wit. Grammar Girl's website contains a vast archive of lessons in everything from 'Which Versus That', 'Dashes, Colons, and Commas' and the Top Ten Grammar Myths. She's a self-appointed 'friendly guide in the writing world' who can help anyone improve their written expression.
'I personally think we developed language because of our deep need to complain' - Lily Tomlin


My tips run to three: revise, revise, revise. I find writing in a Word document more conducive to proper composition than typing online, whether that's a blog, WeekendNotes or even a long email. Flipping between your draft and an online preview can be exhausting, and futile. You can't see how the words look, how they hang together, until you've put them into a document and let them rest there for a while.

A writer I know always prints out his drafts. After that, he proof-reads and edits in pen, makes the changes on screen then repeats the whole process, one or two times. (His first novel was released this year and it's been nominated for several awards.)

Using a word processing program, you can use a spellchecker but beware! No program will ever correct all your errors because spellcheckers don't understand usage. You might have written 'There pants were on fire' and spellcheck won't correct it, even though you have misspelled 'their'. Spellcheckers are, however, handy for picking up phrases in the passive voice. For example, 'Our meal was served by a friendly waiter'. This can be made more direct: 'A friendly waiter served our meal'.

Once you've finished a first draft, it's useful to leave your work for a day or at least a few hours. You'll be amazed how much better you can phrase things when you've had a rest from your piece.

If you know another writer, ask them to read your work. The best way to improve your writing is to seek constructive criticism. Some suburbs have writers' groups which you can access through your local library or an adult education organisation.

Another trick writers use is to read their work aloud. This helps with phrasing and rhythm. If your work sounds good, it probably is good.

Others might want to take the plunge and enrol in a tertiary course. Professional or creative writing courses are burgeoning in Australia, despite funding cutbacks in some states. Many older students have rediscovered an urge to write that was hitherto long dormant in diplomas of writing courses.

If you still need help, the best way to improve your writing – apart from getting a good editor – is to do it, every day. It's as simple as that.
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Your Comment
Wow, this is really comprehensive and has some great advice.
I find reading aloud picks up most (but not all!) of my mistakes.
by Shannon Meyerkort (score: 3|1794) 2516 days ago
Lots of useful tips here! Thanks
by Dave Walsh (score: 4|11214) 2515 days ago
Very cool article with some new tips and those I had long forgotten! I will surely be referring to your piece for the many writing months to come! Cheers.
by Stephanie Rae (score: 2|155) 2515 days ago
Thanks for your feedback.
by Debbie Lustig (score: 2|527) 2384 days ago
Great advice Debbie!
by Carly Ogborne (score: 3|4626) 2101 days ago
The Editor's Companion is very recent and I'm thinking of purchasing this book.
Thanks for this article.
by Michelle Coates (score: 2|529) 2384 days ago
My humble tip: If you have many pages to read aloud, set your word processor to do it for you while you get the housework done. I like to multitask!
by Michelle Coates (score: 2|529) 2384 days ago
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