Sunday, August 27, 2017

Precious About Your Art

Zoë Sharp

Next year, 2018, will be an anniversary year for me. I will have been earning my living as a writer for thirty years.

Hundreds of thousands of published words of nonfiction, and close to two million published in novel and short story form. Not a bad achievement. (Although perhaps the biggest achievement of all is not having had a ‘proper’ job since 1988.)

While I can’t take myself seriously at all, I do take my work very seriously indeed. When someone asked me only yesterday what I had planned for the day, my reply was “scribbling.” I tend to treat panels at events and festivals as stand-up comedy, on the grounds that most people want to be entertained as they’re educated.

I learned years ago, while writing nonfiction for magazines, not to be precious about it. If a sub editor wants to get your copy into a set amount of space around the pictures, then they’ll lop off your carefully thought-out closing paragraph without a second thought, and the first time you’ll know about it is when you see it appear in print.

Writing fiction tends to be different. Because it’s your story that you’re telling, the way you tell it—the voice you use—tends to be a lot more important. Moving the commas around, let alone changing the words, can have a real effect on the tone of the piece.

Fortunately, It’s rare that fiction gets mucked about with. Not without giving the author a chance to comment and accept or reject the changes, anyway. And over the last few years the only time I’ve been asked to write nonfiction has been for publications or blogs that deal with writing or writers, so they don’t tend to edit your work just for the sake of it.

But I was asked recently to write a short piece for a club newsletter about my experiences of taking the Advanced Driving Test. I did so, and submitted the piece with a request for the editor to get back to me if they wanted any alterations making.

I confess that I assumed the only reason they might need to edit it might be for length, as I hadn’t been given a brief about word-count. When I didn’t hear anything, I didn’t give it any further thought.

Until the newsletter came out.

I was surprised to see that my piece had suddenly sprouted exclamation marks, and appeared to make less sense than I remembered. When I went back to my original file, I discovered the editor had rearranged sentences within my paragraphs, and occasionally removed paragraph breaks altogether, for no apparent reason. The piece still seems to be the same length as before, but it looks terrible, reads badly … and worst of all it has my name on it.

Now, I know this is only a small-circulation club newsletter, but that’s not the point. I dislike doing things badly, and dislike even more being made to appear to have done things badly when that wasn’t the case.

Imagine if you’re a keen gardener who plants up your neighbours’ garden only to have them replant weeds instead of roses, and then tell everyone you were responsible.

I should imagine everyone has been through this experience, in one form or another, but hearing about a few right now would make me feel so much better about it …

This week’s Word of the Week is alibi, from the Latin for ‘elsewhere’. It has been used from the 17th century to mean an assertion by a person that they were elsewhere, although in the last century it has also been used (some maintain, incorrectly) to mean an excuse.


  1. Due to dyslexia, I'm particularly prone to spelling mistakes. I can read over the same text trying to spot the usual culprits, starring instead of staring, and totally miss them. Thankfully, most other people never confuse loose with lose, but not the young sir who got in touch via email and requested a short piece. I cringed all day when it was published, warts and all.

  2. I think you should arrange for Charlie to pay a visit to a certain person at a certain club newsletter.

    On second thought, nah. Instead let's just say that your thirty years before the mast(head) is not just being celebrated by the fireworks photo topping your post, but by the happy coincidence that with today's article you're putting MURDER IS EVERYWHERE over the 3,000,000 page views mark!

    YAY, Zoë!

  3. I think my worst experience was with an academic paper for an anthology that had four editors who gave separate comments and did not read one another's suggestions so offering conflicting advice to expand a section as 'crucial' and delete it as 'superfluous'. I've not been able to bring myself to look at the published version of what I wrote.

  4. Ick. Putting aside whether their actions were right or wrong, they were just WRONG. I don't care who you are, unless the writer is doing work for hire, you just do NOT edit their work without approval from the writer. If you do, you're just WRONG.

    As for ALIBI, I always thought it was from Arabian, not Latin, for the story that Ali Baba told after stealing from the thieves... or is that where babballing came from? I'm so easily confused and misled... (I think I need a copyeditor)

  5. Oh Zoe, do I have a tale about this. I proposed my last nonfiction book--Monster Boss, figuring that if I could get an agent for it, he/she would read my novel and that might get it published. That part worked. But once Monster Boss was sold and I submitted it, the publisher's copyeditor took over. She decided that my breezy style was not "businesslike." She rewrote every sentence in the stye she preferred. Herewith one example: At the end of my chapter "You vs Monster Boss," I wrote "Set your goal. Pick a path. And get moving." She changed my nine words in three sentences to a 61 word sentence that began, "Once one has decided upon one's objective, one must consider alternative modes of approach..." It is lunch here time as I type this. I am getting nauseous just thinking about it.

    I rejected her changes. In the case of the example above, hers did not get included in the final volume. But neither did mine. UGH!