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Monthly Archives: July 2020

Elegant English: Polishing your skills

It is with good reason that the French call modern languages ‘les langues vivantes’, or ‘living languages’. Languages are kept alive through usage and they change, evolve, grow or decline, depending on how widely and frequently they are spoken. Each individual speaker needs to practise the language regularly in order to improve or remain fluent otherwise, like a body without exercise, the brain’s linguistic ‘fitness’ will fade over time. With that in mind, how can we, as writers, keep our written language skills in good condition?

First of all, reading is essential. Reading helps to familiarise us with the language, and the more we do it, the deeper its patterns and subtleties become imprinted on our subconscious memory. If we want our knowledge of the language to be of the highest possible quality, though, it is also important to read plenty of good quality writing. Traditionally published books, magazines and newspapers are best for this purpose, as they are more likely to have been thoroughly edited and checked for errors before publication, whereas the language used on social media and the internet in general, although useful to a certain extent, will vary greatly in quality. Reading too much unedited material with lots of mistakes may have a detrimental effect on our own command of the language, normalising errors so that we are less likely to spot them.

At the risk of stating the obvious, reading should go hand-in-hand with writing. Any writer who wants to improvise their writing skills should practise by…. writing. Regularly. Having picked up good examples of language usage through reading, the mental and physical process of writing consolidates everything you have learned, making it your own. That way, using the language becomes increasingly natural and hopefully easier, as the more you do it the less you will have to keep stopping to think and question yourself.

As I have already mentioned in ‘Another Pair of Eyes’, feedback from another person can be a valuable learning tool. If someone else is able to look at your work and highlight any errors, the number of mistakes made should gradually reduce over time. Additionally, any comments about things you have done well will encourage you to do more of the same, so that you build up your arsenal of really good things you can do. Formal feedback, from a language tutor or editor, for example, will give a more thorough and methodical guide to help steer you in the direction of sure and steady improvement. Informal input from friends, relatives and the reading community can also be helpful, so make the most of opportunities to let others read what you have written.

There is a vast range of resources that can help writers to polish their work, and the list is constantly growing. Perhaps, though, the most basic requirement is a good dictionary and a reliable guide to grammar and usage. For UK English, I would personally recommend the Oxford English Dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, and the Oxford Style Manual, but there are many other worthwhile references available both in print and online. On the internet, writers’ groups can be a good place to turn for support, and there is an endless supply of advice and information out there for writers. However, always approach online sources with caution and beware of marketing traps, scams and unhelpful advice which are just as freely available.

Although this is the tenth and final instalment of ‘Elegant English’, it is most certainly not the end. Watch this space for more news, information and advice coming very soon, and in the meantime, enjoy your writing!Elegant English lettering copy

 

Elegant English: Another pair of eyes

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Another pair of eyes is an essential tool for writers of any language background. Regardless of whether an author is writing in his or her native language, the old saying that ‘you can’t see the wood for trees’ is often very apt. An overconfident writer may be adamant that he has checked the text thoroughly himself and he is convinced that it contains no errors, while a more timid author may be hesitant to ask another person to take the trouble to read her work. From personal experience, even though I check my work several times in different ways before submission, sometimes the occasional small mistake still seems to slip through the net. It is as if they hide when they see my eyes coming, no matter how carefully I read. A wayward comma, or a mistake the spellchecker missed because it is listed in its memory as an acceptable word, such as ‘of’ when I meant ‘off’ or ‘tat’ which was supposed to be ‘that’, occasionally manage to pass under the radar without being detected.

Because we get used to our own most common errors, our brains don’t always notice them. However, the things we spot most easily vary from one person to another, so this problem is easily solved by asking someone else to take a look at our work. There are various categories of people we could ask for help, depending on the desired outcome. These include:

  • A friend or relation
  • A stranger willing to help for non-monetary payment
  • A paid beta-reader
  • A professional editor or proofreader
  • A native speaker

Each of these groups have different services to offer, so who we decide to approach will depend on the type of text and its intended purpose. A letter or story for a personal blog, for example, will certainly benefit from some degree of checking, but it may not be necessary to spend a lot of money on this process. A novel that is intended for publication and sale to the public, either through a publisher or via self-publishing channels, will probably fare better if it has been thoroughly reviewed by several people from a variety of backgrounds first. So, let us take a look at what each of these groups can offer.

Friends and relatives may well be the first port of call for most of us. Usually, they will be willing to do the work for free, or perhaps for some kind of favour in return. For the most part, they will do it because they like us, they care about us, and they want to help us succeed. This group will probably be quite happy to point out the occasional spelling mistake or errors in continuity, but they may find it more difficult to tell us that they didn’t like something, or that large parts of the text need substantial revising. Because they are nice, they may be reluctant to tell us the harsh truth, or they may simply be biased and think it is great, just because it is a part of you.

At that point, we must turn to strangers for the next level of feedback. The very fact that they do not know us means that their response will be more subjective. There are plenty of people out there willing to read books for no monetary payment. On the internet, for example, try looking in online writers’ groups for advice. The people there may be happy to help you out in return for free copies of books or, if they are a writer as well, you could offer to reciprocate by reading their book and giving them some kind of review. However, the degree of feedback this group is able to offer varies immensely, according to each person’s education, experience, and personal and cultural background.

A paid beta-reader will fulfil a similar function to the previous category, but for financial payment instead of favours. There are numerous sites on the internet where people offer this kind of service, from Goodreads and work-for-hire sites e.g. Fiverr, to personal websites and social media pages. Being an unregulated market, the prices and services on offer will vary immensely, so do proceed with care and take all possible precautions before entering into a contract and handing over any money. Beta-readers are generally people who enjoy reading, and many will specify the particular genres they prefer to work with. They will probably give you an honest report on what they thought about the book, which may be a useful guide to how readers might react to the book, but beta readers are not usually qualified professionals and unlikely to provide thorough and methodical feedback about every aspect of the style and language.

At this point, professional editors and proofreaders step in. Although this service will cost more, it will help you to ensure that your manuscript is the very best it can be in readiness for submission to a publisher or for self-publishing. Editing and proofreading, it must be noted, are not the same thing, and, if possible, it is advisable to have your work checked by at least one of each. Editing is more in-depth and time-consuming, and as a result it will have a higher price tag. Even within this category, there are different levels of service, such as copy-editing and developmental editing. A developmental edit will examine your book as a whole, checking its overall structure, setting, characterisation, plot and pace, and providing a report outlining any recommended major revisions. A copy-editor, meanwhile, will look more closely at the text, systematically checking features such as style, points of view, dialogue, consistency, use of language, etc., usually inserting comments and recommendations directly into the text.

Proofreading, on the other hand, is a final check before submission. During the editing process, it is possible that smaller errors may have be overlooked, or even introduced whilst adding, deleting and amending. A proofreader’s task, therefore, is to give the text one last tidy-up to eliminate any of these and, if the editor has done a good job, the proofreading stage should be relatively straightforward and less time-consuming.

Like beta-readers, editors and proofreaders are very easy to find on the internet, but aim to find someone reliable and highly-skilled who will provide good value for money. Look out for membership of professional bodies (such as CIEP in the UK), academic qualifications, past experience, etc. Personal recommendations from other writers can be very helpful here, too. Many editors will offer to edit a short extract free of charge, or at a reduced rate, as a sample of their work, which can be a useful way of seeing who that editor works and whether they are a good fit for you.

For anyone writing in a language that is not their native or main language, it is always a good idea to have your writing checked by a native speaker, especially if it is intended for publication. Even if the spelling and grammar are accurate, a native speaker can highlight anything which might sound slightly awkward or ‘foreign’, helping you to give your writing a more natural flow, and making it more pleasant and compelling to read. Native speakers, though, are not necessarily a separate category, as they can also be friends, beta-readers, editors or proof-readers as well.

In short, the more people who look at your work before submission, the better. Every person will look at it with a different pair of eyes, from their own relative angle and point of view, each one adding an extra layer of polish to the final draft. The publishing market is huge and highly competitive, and an under-prepared manuscript will have the odds stacked against it from the outset. The more eyes that have looked at it and helped to revise it before it is released into the world, the more likely it is to be taken seriously by publishers and/or readers.

Elegant English lettering copy