A Reader's Guide to Writing
1 Feb 2005
David Haviland, one of the agency's readers, offers his ten point plan for better submissions.
I'm a freelance reader and editor, which means I see a lot of proposals and drafts of every kind of writing, from personal finance guides to radio plays, submitted by authors ranging from anxious novices to embittered veterans.
This gives me a rather unusual perspective on the process of writing, which will hopefully allow me to provide some useful insights in this, my ten point plan for better submissions:Avoid anything that looks academic
One of the reasons teachers are miserable is that essays are unreadable. Most consist of a string of unrelated references, quotations and facts, designed simply to show that the student is somewhat familiar with the subject. Commercial writing, on the other hand, ought to be entertaining and informative. It should assume that the reader knows nothing about the subject. It should tell the story in a fresh, dramatic style, and it should contain no quotations, references or footnotes, except those which provide the most concise or entertaining way to illustrate a point.Don't oversell
Too many proposals claim to offer one thing, and then fail to deliver. If your story isn't really told through the eyes of twenty contrasting characters, then there's no point claiming that it is. If your novel isn't really an epic romance, perhaps it has a more parochial charm? Whatever your proposal is, it's bound to have merits of its own, so simply find the most compelling way of selling those.Ask ‘What is it for?'
Established genres tend to have clearly-defined conventions, which usually exist because they effectively achieve the thing that the audience wants. Quirky ideas like romantic comedies where the couple never meet, or detective stories with no clues, tend to fail because the writer hasn't been rigorous in asking the most basic question: what is this thing actually for? This question applies just as well to non-fiction: often writers seem to have spent months researching a story, but then fail to give the readers all the thrilling, shocking details.Read it out loud
Most problems with sense and grammar will become immediately apparent if you simply try to read a sentence out loud. If you have to start again, or take a breath, the sentence is probably too confusing or too long. Similarly, reading out loud ought to make it clear which links in an argument are missing. Does the second statement flow logically and naturally from the first?Become an expert in Microsoft Word
It may sound boring and geeky, but learning about Word, or whichever word processing programme you use, will make your life much easier. It's surprising how many proposals are submitted with spelling errors, double spaces, erroneous punctuation, or page breaks in the wrong place. Half an hour spent learning some simple tools will make any submission look far more professional.Take time so the recipient doesn't have to
It's a good idea to try and make your publisher or editor's life as easy as possible, as they will then be most receptive to the strengths of your submission. This means putting the proposal together as one convenient file, with page numbers, so the reader knows what order the sections fall in, and that nothing is missing. Also, take some time to learn about the person you are submitting to, using resources like The Writer's Handbook and www.everyonewhosanyone.com. This way, your approach will avoid looking like a blanket submission, even if it is.Assume your book will be a popular hit
Not everyone can sell a million copies, but taking care to keep your writing as accessible as possible will certainly improve your chances. This means explaining any detail that the man on the street might not understand at first glance. It means avoiding fancy jargon and obscure words, including archaic English and foreign languages. It also means having an ear for simple, lucid writing, in which sense and flow are prized as highly as grammatical perfection.Be tough on yourself
Anything in your book which you think could be a problem, probably is, and your book will benefit from a tough, intolerant approach. If a claim feels slightly overblown, then tone it down. If you think a scene might be unintentionally funny, then change it. When writing non-fiction, try to avoid describing your personal views, or how you went about researching the book; be tough on yourself, and assume the reader is probably more interested in the story itself than in you.Reread your work
It's amazing how many submissions are sent with obvious spelling and grammar mistakes, which the writer would have immediately picked up if they'd only taken the time to reread their work. Writing is a difficult and lonely business, and it's natural that once something is finished, writers are keen to send it out, and get some feedback. However, most proposals would benefit enormously from sitting on a shelf for a week or two, and then being read fresh, with a careful eye for detail.Tell a story
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, tell a story! People only read for fun, so it's important to make your work as entertaining as possible. Whether you write fiction, science, history, or anything else, your work will benefit considerably from learning a few effective storytelling techniques. Try ending a chapter with a cliffhanger, or introducing a prop which doesn't get used until many pages later. If your character gets ambushed in some way, why not create suspense by forewarning the reader?
Whatever genre you write in, readers, editors and publishers will all be captivated if you can tell your story in an engaging and dramatic way, with plenty of insights and surprises. Good luck, I look forward to reading your work.