How becoming an editor transformed my approach to writing

When I started writing in 2009, I had only the vaguest idea of what an editor was. I self-published four novels, without any form of editorial assistance. It didn’t quite work out as I’d hoped, although it did represent the beginning of my journey towards becoming an editor and proofreader. And that journey has transformed my approach to writing. Here’s what happened.

I write science fiction and fantasy novels that are allegories of the human condition, based on my experience of Asperger’s Syndrome, and my personal worldview. I felt protective of my writing, and because I didn’t understand the value editing could offer me as a writer, I didn’t go down that path. I found it difficult to acknowledge that feedback would be of value, because then I’d have to accept that my stories weren’t perfect and that I’d have to rewrite or revise them, and I wasn’t confident I could do that well enough.

At the time, self-publishing was an exciting prospect, envisaging the achievement of actually getting your book ‘out there’. But I hadn’t done my research, so I didn’t know that the ‘preparing to publish’ process wasn’t just about formatting an ebook, meeting cover specifications, sending publishing information – and writing the darn novel in the first place!

So, what changed?

I fell into proofreading when I started helping writer friends by proofreading their stories, and proofreading articles for a local arts organisation. I found that writers welcomed constructive feedback, and this gave me a more positive view of editorial intervention in a writer’s work. I came across SfEP (now CIEP), and having discovered their training courses I decided to gain professional qualifications to ensure I really had what it took to work on texts. My interests took me from proofreading to copy-editing, and fiction editing in particular.

What next for my writing?

Having established myself as an editor, while still practising as a writer, I’ve been working on new writing projects of my own – mainly fantasy.  I haven’t perfected self-editing, but I’m more open to rewriting. I’ve learned the discipline of redrafting, and decided not to rush into the self-publishing process until my manuscript is ready. It’s been fun getting feedback from trusted readers, reflecting on how their comments can improve my work, and reshaping my story into a clearer vision of what I had originally intended. I can now see value in feedback from an experienced editorial professional. I’m learning to build that partnership, and I’m looking forward to discovering where the editorial process will take my writing.


Alex James
Author and Betterwrite Associate


How To Use Italics In Your Writing

We all know italics as the slanted style of writing used for different purposes in text. But are you aware of their full range of purposes? Knowing the difference between appropriate and inappropriate use of italics Can make a big difference to the quality of your work. It’s important to understand the different and specific uses for italics, and not use them indiscriminately.

One of the most common uses of italics is for emphasis. In any text a word may need to stand out in a certain way, for effect, or to emphasise a usage that diverges from the usual meaning. By applying italics to alter the appearance of a word, we’re able to achieve the desired effect. However, it’s important not to overuse italics for this purpose. Save it for those particular words that really need to stand out in the flow of your text. Examples of this emphatic usage are:

‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. I did post the letters.’

Despite the scepticism of the others, Steve was certain he had seen a ghostly figure.

In everyday communication we may use words or phrases from other languages, and in writing these borrowings should be styled using italics. This no longer applies once the word or phrase has been anglicised and is accepted as part of the English language. Café, for example, was not originally an English word, but has become part of the language and doesn’t now need italicising.

Italics are used for titles of works, such as:

  • books, plays and newspapers
  • film and TV series
  • CDs and albums
  • digital resources such as apps and video games
  • long poems
  • series of fictional works (but quotation marks are sometimes used for this purpose)
  • paintings and operas.

Though it’s a general convention to use italics for titles of created works, there are exceptions to watch out for. While the titles of music albums are italicised, song titles are not. Long poems require italics, but short poems do not.

Italics are required for ships’ names (but not the prefix, eg. HMS Hood), and stage directions in scripts for plays or films (most famously perhaps, Exit, pursued by a bear).

If you work in a scientific or technical area you need to know how italics are used in your particular discipline, when terms and titles are written formally. This is particularly so with academic references, bibliographies, and lists of publications. The standard editors’ reference books give full details for using italics, and the vigilant editor will consult them repeatedly to ensure that such style features are applied correctly. You may think you know without checking, but if you have the slightest doubt, look it up!

Matters of style, including the correct use of italics, can make a significant difference to the quality of your work and the presentation of your writing. At Betterwrite we aim to ensure that these features of written English are used appropriately and effectively, saving you precious time as a writer, and reassuring your readers that your work has been thoroughly and professionally edited.


Editor and Betterwrite Associate


Seven Elements a Developmental Editor Will Look for in Your Romance

A developmental editor of fiction will always look at the parameters which are essential to all fiction, regardless of whether you’re writing a stand-alone or a series, a novella or the follow-up to War and Peace. However, editing a romance is different from other fiction genres as there are rules a romance must adhere to. You can break those rules, but then you must decide whether your story is truly a romance, or whether it’s more appropriate to call it ‘literary’, or ‘women’s fiction’, or even ‘chick lit’. It’s your story, so you write it the way you choose, but if you’re wanting to appeal to the romance-reading public, and especially if you want to publish with a traditional romance publisher, you’ve got to be aware of the following seven aspects.

Does it have a Happy-Ever-After (HEA) ending?

An HEA is one of the two absolute requirements for a story to be a romance. Whether you’re writing a sweet romance, hot and steamy erotica, an urban, cowboy, billionaire prince, supernatural or sci-fi alien love-fest, it must have an HEA or, at least, a Happy-For-Now (HFN) ending. If it doesn’t, it’s not a romance!

Have you created two or more compelling protagonists?

The essential nature of a romance is that two (or more if it’s a ménage story) people (or creatures, not to offend sci-fi and supernatural writers) will fall in love against all odds. The odds being whatever prevents them from believing they can fall in love. Bear in mind that whatever they believe, the plot line will throw obstacles in their paths. The characters who will fall in love by the end of your story must be fleshed out thoroughly, and we must be able to see the relationship tangle through their eyes. While we don’t necessarily have to like the protagonists, we must be captivated by them. The reader must want to observe how they behave, otherwise they won’t read any further. Questions about your protagonists: is it evident that he/she is larger than life? Someone who can’t be held back? Someone who is very rich, or foreign, or alien in some way, or a shape-shifter, or a seeker of forbidden fruit? And so on. Is he/she someone the reader aspires to be like, or feel superior to, or wants to understand better? Whatever your protagonist is like, and whatever feelings or questions they arouse in the reader, they mustn’t be boring.

Have you hit all the romance beats?

A must-read for any romance author is Romancing the Beat: Story Structure for Romance Novels (Gwen Hayes: 2016). Gwen has broken down romance into twenty essential beats or aspects that a romance story must contain. The beats fit well into the typical three-act plot structure: Act I – set up and incitement; Act II – escalating obstacles and final crisis leading to despair; and Act III – the finale with the climax and resolution. Each act is further broken down into component parts, without which your romance will wallow in self-pity. Or in simpler terms: two people meet who can’t or won’t fall in love, but like each other; they’re forced together somehow, start getting to know each other, and then with successive events reassess themselves and their potential love partner/s – but just as they get the hang of falling in love, they’re thrown apart at the end of the second act in a manner that seems irreparable. In Act III they realise what they’ve lost. A huge and glorious effort is undertaken to prove their love to the other(s), and it’s reciprocated. The resolution is their HEA or HFN.

Is the switch from ‘I can’t/won’t fall in love’ to ‘I love you’ believable?

So you’ve given your book to a beta reader or two and they’ve told you, yes, they like the story, and yes, they accept your characterisation. But they just don’t believe that one or both the protagonists could turn around from their starting position (e.g. ‘never again’/‘no one could ever love me’/‘it’s biologically impossible between alien races/mortal enemies’) and they fall in love. That’s a problem. The story has to be believable within its context. As a developmental editor I would immediately analyse Act II, which should be roughly the middle half of your book (Acts I and III being the 25 per cent before and after). Act II is where you should be changing your protagonists’ perceptions about themselves and their potential love partner(s). There must be events within your plot that make the reassessment not only possible, but probable. Try to imagine what would make you change your mind, given the events of your plot. Dialogue alone is not sufficient; there must be physical acts or scenes where your protagonists can observe for themselves that their preconceptions don’t hold water.

Are your highs and lows extreme enough?

So now there’s the transition from the black moment or crisis at the end of Act II into the climax of Act III. But why does it happen? If the crisis is black enough to be apparently irreparable, why does  one protagonist (at least) decide to do the impossible and try to repair the rift? Incidentally, if the crisis isn’t irreparable, then it’s not a true crisis moment and needs to be made still darker.

The reason must lie in the love-building of Act II. The high points within the second act must be high enough and each one must be higher/better than the previous one, to build the tension. So much so that the protagonists will realise after the crisis that what they had was the best thing ever. If the highs and lows aren’t sufficiently extreme, the reader either won’t believe the turnaround in the protagonists’ perceptions, or they simply won’t care – and probably won’t even get to the third act.

Does your romance sub-genre plot work around the romance arc?

Few stories are just romance. There has to be a plot that’s external to the romance arc, to create the setting in which the romance can take place. This is the sub-genre, such as sweet boy/girl next door, the element of suspense, the supernatural, fetishism or BDSM, dystopian or fantasy worlds, the historical or the aspirational. Whatever the setting or the world you create, there must be an associated plot woven through the romance arc. Often the external plot arc and the romance arc coincide, but they don’t have to. Nevertheless, both the romance plot and the external plot need to be developed as complete arcs, with nothing left hanging unresolved, in mid-air.

If you write an epilogue, is it too trite?

And finally, the resolution or epilogue. A romance must have a happy ending, but to make your protagonists fascinating from the outset, they must have flaws. Just because they’ve overcome their self-imposed prohibitions against love doesn’t mean that they’ve become perfect. That would be boring, trite, and unbelievable for your reader. Your editor will look at the resolution to see whether your characters’ traits still shine through in the ending – but in a manner compatible with their future happiness together.

You need compelling protagonists, an HEA or HFN ending, all the romance beats including extreme highs and lows, a romance arc from ‘I can never love you’ to ‘I’ll always love you’, another arc that’s external to the romance plot, and a satisfying resolution.

But all these features of your romance must be authentic, so above all, and with every element of your story, you must have believability. Keep writing, and enjoy your creative process!


Kathy Swailes

Betterwrite Associate Editor


How to Write Dialogue: Ideas for New Fiction Writers

Imagine you’re in a bookshop, choosing a book for a holiday read. How do you react when you open a novel with little or no dialogue? From a writer’s point of view, realistic dialogue is tricky to write; for a reader, a novel without plausible conversations between characters is boring, or hard to read. How can you make sure the dialogue you write is engaging for your reader? Here are a few ideas for writing dialogue to keep your reader turning the pages.

Dialogue must advance the plot and create suspense

Dialogue keeps the story interesting for the reader, and advances the plot. When your characters are talking, they might be communicating good or bad news. Conflicting aims, or a hint about conflict to come, creates the tension that keeps the narrative driving forward.

You can make your dialogue intriguing when your characters answer indirectly or ignore questions, go off at tangents, change the subject, interrupt, and refuse to listen to each other. Here’s a fascinating extract from Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh:

‘What’s going on?’

‘Nothing. A lot. I’ll tell you some time.’

I dressed and called in for Sebastian, but found him still sitting as I had left him …

Dialogue provides information and reveals character

Dialogue is a good way of providing information for the reader without paragraphs of solid, heavy text. Information that’s crucial for the reader’s understanding of the story can be introduced seamlessly in dialogue. Here’s a scene using a mix of description and dialogue in Mark Haddon’s novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time:

The policeman squatted down beside me and said, ‘Would you like to tell me what’s going on here, young man?’

I sat up and said, ‘The dog is dead.’

‘I’d got that far,’ he said.

Aim to write dialogue to suit each character’s distinctive voice, illuminating their attitudes, beliefs and motivations. Characters must sound different to reflect their backgrounds and occupations. For example, you might use slang or dialect to indicate these differences – but be careful to use nonstandard English sparingly, or it may be difficult to read, or tiresome.

Remember that characters might speak differently to different people, unless they have poor social skills. A character may not approach a subject explicitly, but assertively direct the conversation the way they want it to go. In this conversation from the same book, Mark Haddon tells us more about the two characters:

I said, ‘I think someone killed the dog.’

‘How old are you?’ he asked.

I replied, ‘I am 15 years and 3 months and 2 days.’

‘And what, precisely, were you doing in the garden?’ he asked.

Breaking up the dialogue with action sets the conversation in context. People are usually doing something else when they’re talking – gesturing with their hand, reading a newspaper, watching television, reaching for a cup of coffee, taking a book from the shelf, opening a letter. Action and dialogue are brilliantly combined by Sally Rooney in an exchange between a mother and daughter in Conversations with Friends:

She likes Bobbi more than she likes me, she said.

But her husband likes you.

I shrugged and said I didn’t know. Then I licked my thumb and started scrubbing at a little fleck of dirt on my sneaker.

What to leave out of dialogue

Dialogue should be concise and brief. Avoid long-drawn-out speeches and aim at free-flowing speech, to keep the reader involved. You don’t need to describe everything that’s happening: rather let the reader use their imagination to join the dots.

It’s a good idea to leave out small talk, and don’t be too constrained by social conventions. Some may be necessary for your story, but keep information input to a minimum. We don’t need to know every cup of coffee a character has, or every time they say ‘hi’ or ‘goodbye’. Watch out for dialogue that comes across as obvious and dull: rewrite it to give your text life.

You can set aside some grammar rules when writing dialogue, because in real life we don’t always speak in the way we’d write – though this may depend on the character you’re writing: if someone is very particular, they may try to speak absolutely correctly. But they wouldn’t be normal!

However, don’t try to replicate normal speech in a completely realistic way. If you listen to real conversation, it’s very wordy, with verbal fillers, repetition, and half-sentences. No one wants to read all those ‘ums’ and ‘ers’ on the page. Instead, decide what’s important for the character to say, and your readers will fill in the gaps.

Use contractions – ‘you don’t say’ instead of ‘you do not say’ – unless it’s a pedantic character who normally speaks that way; then their speech can be a bit verbose, which you can use for comic effect. Here’s an example from the answering machine in the movie Reality Bites: ‘At the beep please leave your name, number and a brief justification for the ontological necessity of modern man’s existential dilemma and we’ll get back to you.’

Apart from deliberate pedantry, you can eschew contractions for the purpose of emphasis; you may make your character say ‘I did not steal the money’ because it’s a stronger statement than ‘I didn’t steal the money’ – the speaker is declaring their innocence. Just be careful not to overuse this method of word-pointing. Repeated use of full verb forms, where contractions would be used in real conversation, is a sign of amateurish writing.

When writing dialogue, don’t include information already known by characters, or by the reader. A wife, for example, would never say to her husband, ‘James, my brother, had to take Tabby, his cat, to the vet again.’ The husband already knows her brother’s name is James and he’s got a cat called Tabby. Avoid repeating conversations between characters. If necessary, refer briefly to the conversation and summarise what was said.

Despite the above advice, don’t be constrained by guidelines when writing dialogue. Rules can be broken when you’re producing fiction. Your aim is to make the dialogue seem natural and not contrived. After you’ve written what your characters say, put the text aside for a while. Later, read it aloud to check how it comes across. Assume you’re the character, and read their words aloud as if you were an actor.

Hopefully you’re now feeling more confident about writing dialogue, so don’t hesitate to send a chapter of your book to Betterwrite for a short sample edit and critique. We’ve got lots of experience, and we’ll help you improve your whole novel, and come up with a piece of work you’re proud of, and your readers will enjoy!


Jane Woodhead
Betterwrite Associate Editor


Is your manuscript ready to be submitted?
When you’re writing by yourself and doing your own revisions on a story, it can be really tricky to know when the project is ready to be submitted – whether that’s to literary agents, publishers, writing competitions, or a freelance editor. Here’s a useful checklist of things you might want to consider before hitting the send button too early!

How many rounds of self-editing have you done?
It’s really important to develop some self-editing skills as an author, regardless of your goals – editors, agents and publishers aren’t miracle workers after all, and the bulk of the work is going to fall to you. You need to be able to pinpoint places where your world-building is weak, identify characters that aren’t serving a purpose, and spot plot holes you’ve left dangling, or arcs that just aren’t working or adding to the story. I highly recommend the book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Brown and Dave King; it’ll help you develop your skills.

Have you had beta readers or critique partners take a look?
Once you’ve done some editing yourself, the next step is beta readers, critique partners, or writer friends! Gather as much feedback as you can, and decide what resonates with you and if there’s anything you’d like to change, based on those comments. Feedback from beta readers and critique partners won’t be as extensive as what you might get from a professional edit, but reactions from readers are an important part of the process, and can help you figure out tricky plot snags or character issues.

Have you considered a development edit before submission?
Many writers have their work rejected by a publisher or agent, then hire a professional editor to do a critique or a developmental edit to fix the perceived faults. But why not find a freelance editor before you submit? They can give you a more in-depth look at the problems in your manuscript from a professional standpoint, and help you find solutions. Publishers have huge slush piles, manuscripts are often dumped for minor reasons, and the nearer your manuscript is to a publishable state, the more likely it is to be accepted.

Have you let it sit, and come back to it with fresh eyes?
Have you ever looked at something you wrote a year ago, and spotted a whole tangle of problems you never noticed? We’ve all been there. Even just a few weeks’ distance from your project can help you see weaknesses you were blind to. Writing a book is such a close, intimate process, so the distance of time can be really helpful.

Is it formatted and presented correctly?
This is crucial if you’re entering a competition or submitting to agents/publishers! Don’t give them any excuse to turn you down, and if they’ve given you formatting requirements, follow them to the letter. Guidelines vary, but it’s a good idea to (i) use a standard font such as 12-point Times New Roman, (ii) include page numbers and a header with your name and the book’s title, and (iii) add a cover page with your contact details, your book title, and the word count.

Have you done a final check for awkward/clumsy wording and spelling mistakes?
Another important one if you’re submitting to agents or publishers (although not so essential if you’re hiring a freelance copy-editor). It can be helpful to print out your writing, as we often spot more mistakes on paper than we do on screen. Another useful tip would be to change the font, if you’re checking on screen.

With all these bases covered, you should be good to go ahead and submit your manuscript! And if you make a mistake, or realise you spelt your character’s name wrong on the fifth page, don’t despair. We’re all human, it happens to the best of us, and mistakes can always be corrected.

And keep writing. The important thing is that you’re putting your work out there, and constantly improving. Good luck!

Rachel Rowlands
Betterwrite Associate Editor


How to Rise From the Ashes After a Rejection

You’ve finally finished your novel, having self-edited, proofread, and polished it to perfection. You’ve spent as much time writing a synopsis as you did actually writing the novel. Your covering email took eons to draft, and now you’re ready to hit agents and publishers with your magnificent opus.

And the rejection emails come winging back. Not for us. Unsuitable for our lists. Better luck elsewhere. The market is extremely competitive. We’re not taking on new authors at present. We liked your work, but

So, what do you do now? Cry your eyes out? Crawl under the duvet and stay there for days? Delete the manuscript? Swear you’ll never write another word? Take it as a huge personal insult?

No! You shout ‘Next!’ And send it out again. Never, ever give up.

But before you hit send again, here are a few points to ponder. Did you carry out careful research before submitting your manuscript? Or did you just pick agents and publishers out of a hat? Most agents and publishers have their submission rules on their websites, and many – especially agents – only deal with certain genres of writing. If you haven't done your research and you’ve submitted the ms to the wrong people, then it’ll be rejected no matter how great it is.

Sometimes it’s really just a case of finding the right fit.

Have you ever had a rejection with a personal note added? This has potential, but I do not feel a true sense of place. Your writing is sparky, but your characterisation requires some development. I like this, but the word count is far too short. You must act on any feedback given you by agents or publishers: they’ve seen some potential in your manuscript, but they simply don’t have the resources to work with you. Consider a development edit and a copy-edit of your manuscript from professional editors who will do the following: highlight strengths and weaknesses in your writing; identify what works and what doesn’t work; point out inconsistencies or lack of clarity; show you where improvements can be made; and highlight where you really should wield the red pen.

Editors work with you and your manuscript. We help your writing to achieve what you want it to achieve. We help you to make it sparkle.

Do you know the story of Marlon James, Booker Prize Winner 2015 for A Brief History of Seven Killings? He wrote off his own writing career after receiving 78 rejections for his first novel. His last rejection said ‘Not for us.’ He deleted his manuscript, destroyed his computer, and then made all his friends dispose of their copies.

One of them didn’t.

On winning the Booker Prize 2015, Marlon said, ‘If you’re a writer, you have to believe in yourself. Because if you’re a writer, you’re going to come across that moment where you’re the only one who does.’

There are other such stories. Stephen King received dozens of rejections for Carrie before it was published – and made into a film! Beatrix Potter had so much trouble publishing The Tale of Peter Rabbit, she had to self-publish it. J.K. Rowling, writing both under her own name and as Robert Galbraith, was rejected by numerous publishers initially – I could go on.

Yes, there are hundreds of authors out there, all searching for that elusive publishing deal. But think about it this way: there are millions of readers out there too, looking for something new and exciting to read.

And maybe you are writing that new and exciting novel…

So, what are you going to do, next time you receive a rejection?

Remember, never give up!

Janie Brayshaw

Betterwrite Associate Editor


How to enhance the author–editor relationship through effective communication
Good author–editor communication is beneficial both to the manuscript and to the editorial experience, for both parties. The concept is the same as in daily life: clear communication leads to smoother and mutually beneficial relationships. The dynamic between the author and their editor is very much a relationship, and a rapport needs to be developed. So, with this in mind, what should an author look out for in a good editor?

One of the most important aspects of communication is sharing knowledge and information. An editor will not only provide language expertise and clarity of thought, but will also enable the author to write from a reader’s perspective. Authors aim to speak to readers through their written work, and editors ensure that the message is clear and will appeal to the intended audience. In their advisory role, editors share their knowledge with authors during the editorial process, and this is central to the author–editor relationship.

A starting point
Authors and editors don’t always see eye to eye. But a good editor won’t give up the moment there is disagreement (and authors shouldn’t see disagreement as a deal-breaker). A good editor will strive to find out what an author wants to achieve with their work, and will listen to the author’s point of view.

A starting point for the author is to ask for a sample edit. Most editors will edit an extract of 1000-2000 words that shows what approach they would take with the whole manuscript. The author can see what the term ‘copy-editing’ actually means when applied to their work. This is important because there are various terms used by editors and authors for the different levels of editing, in particular developmental editing, copy-editing and proofreading. A sample edit can help the author ensure that they will get the level of support they want from an editor, and that they like his/her approach.

Effective querying
Editors will raise queries about anything in the manuscript that might need input or clarification from the author. A good editor will do so as clearly as possible, respectfully, and with a positive and encouraging tone. The sample edit will give the author a good idea as to the editor’s style of querying. Ideally, an author should be able to see from the editor’s query:

  1. the issue raised by the editor with a section of text
  2. what the editor has done or suggested to amend the text, and perhaps why, and
  3. anything further the author needs to do to improve that section.

Barriers to effective communication
One barrier is language. English may not be the first language of the author, who may find it harder to use than a native English speaker does. A skilled and empathetic editor will show the author how to communicate clearly.

A second barrier is resistance to change from authors who may feel understandably possessive about their work after the time and effort they have invested in it.

Cultural issues may come into play, too. For example, in several East Asian countries, communication is largely indirect; politeness and avoidance of hurting feelings are key factors for communication in these cultures. In northern and western Europe, however, communication is often much more direct, sometimes to the point of being blunt.

In sum, achieving effective communication depends directly or indirectly on overcoming common obstacles to communication.

Why communicate effectively?
Through effective communication editors explain and confirm their changes to the text, and this provides authors with the opportunity to participate actively in the editing process. When both author and editor are involved with the editing process, the experience is more likely to be productive and mutually satisfying.

Effective author–editor communication breaks down barriers between authors and editors, creating a healthy relationship between them, fulfilling the author’s expectations and helping editors to meet their goal: doing a job that their client appreciates, and will gladly pay for.

Aalap Trivedi
Betterwrite Associate Editor


Using Fiction-writing Techniques to Craft a Memoir

Readers sometimes divide themselves into staunch fiction or non-fiction enthusiasts. But one thing we can agree on is that every reader wants a good book: writing that is satisfying, holds their attention, and keeps them reading – whether that’s a prize-winning novel, the latest presidential biography, or an inspirational memoir.
Does a successful memoir have to be written by a famous person?

The short answer is no.

Naturally, a famous name will attract a readership, so an unknown person will have to work harder to get sales, but plenty of memoirs do well despite the absence of a familiar face on the cover. Recent examples are The Salt Path by Raynor Winn, about a couple who lost everything and embarked on a life-changing 630-mile journey; and This is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay, a collection of diary entries from his time as a junior doctor.

Can a memoir be as compelling as a work of fiction?
Autobiography is usually the story of a whole life, but a memoir centres on one element or theme. If you’re writing your own biography, focus on one interesting aspect, or a specific time. Think of your life story as your plot.

Of course, where memoir deviates from fiction is in its truth – accuracy and authenticity are essential. This doesn’t mean that memoir writers lack imagination; conjuring up a vivid conversation from twenty years ago might call for creativity with the dialogue. This is all part of the craft.

Writing can be a scary prospect, but using advice given to budding novelists will help you to shape your memoir.

Plotting your story
Ask yourself why you feel compelled to write. Is it a confessional? What you experienced during an adventure? How you overcame a personal crisis? Your answers will inform your plot, structure and narrative.
Work out your chronology: a memoir doesn’t have to follow the timeline of your life but, as with fiction, the story must make sense. You might want to include a flashback to your childhood – just make sure it has a purpose in moving the narrative forward and that the transition is clear, so your readers can orient themselves. If you’re a new writer, starting with a straightforward timeline may help; you can amend this as the writing begins to flow, or when you edit.

Plan the beginning: potential readers may scan through the first few pages in the bookshop or use the ‘look inside’ feature on the internet; those opening paragraphs must hook them in. So, choose a vivid anecdote to start, something that reflects the theme or plot you’ve chosen, but avoid giving away the key to the story right at the beginning – you want them to read on!

Think about the middle: what’s the story? The arc of a fiction narrative tends to peak where there’s tension or conflict, the moment when we wonder what will happen next, how our protagonist will escape from prison, reach their destination, or achieve their heart’s desire. Scrutinise your manuscript with a writer’s eye. What will you emphasise, and what can drift into the background? Consider the pacing and the vocabulary you need to maintain your reader’s interest.

Consider the ending: readers are looking for a satisfying conclusion; it might be happy, it might be sad, but it mustn’t be disappointing. Even if you leave a few teasers to tempt them back to your next instalment, there should be a resolution, an answer to an earlier question, a battle won, or a challenge overcome. At all costs, avoid a cliffhanger – even in fiction, readers may be incensed if they’re left with a major unsolved plot point.

Have a compelling protagonist
The main protagonist is you! So, it should be easy to create a fully fleshed-out character. Be honest, and focus on your experience and emotional reactions. Aim to present the truth as you see it but avoid sounding showy or patronising. Of course, you can be funny, and wit is a definite selling point, but if your readers don’t like you, they may not read on. In one sense you’re the hero of your own story, but no one is perfect, so be open about your weaknesses and mistakes, allow people to empathise with you, and if there are other heroes in your life, let them shine through too.

Mastering point of view
Luckily you don’t need to wrestle with point of view. It’s your story, so you’ll be writing in the first person. Make use of this powerful tool to let us into your thoughts, feelings and motivations. Like a fiction writer, you should aim to ‘show’ not ‘tell’; avoid dry description by allowing us to see what you saw and feel what you felt. Tell us what you’ve learnt about yourself, about others, and about the world.

Create your setting
The setting encompasses both time and place. Small details will add colour to your work and help to engage your reader with the period you’re depicting – the music of that time, a brand of drink, or what you were wearing. Bring your location to life: effective descriptions aren’t just visual but include textures, smells and sounds. Even the weather can contribute to the mood. These specifics will illuminate the backdrop to your story.

Who are your readers?
A memoir which is destined for family and friends is a different proposition from one that seeks a wider audience. Your Uncle Jack’s antics at your birthday party might amuse your sister, but may be irrelevant if you’re targeting a broader range of readers! Keep your readership in mind as you write and edit your work.
Don’t forget that your memoir will include other real people. There isn’t room here to discuss the associated risks and challenges, but seek out good resources, and if you think something you write might be controversial, seek legal advice.

Polishing your writing
Typing ‘The End’ isn’t the final part of the process. Completing your first draft is a major achievement, but it will certainly need revisions if you want it to shine. Allow your work to ‘rest’ for a while before you read it again – whether it’s a week or a month is up to you – but aim to start with fresh eyes and imagine you’re seeing it for the first time. When it’s ready for a second opinion, seek someone who’s objective and ask them to give you detailed feedback. After further revisions you need to consider finding an experienced editor for your manuscript – especially if you’re going down the self-publishing route. Look for a package including a development edit and a copy-edit. That way, you’ll get the nitty-gritty errors corrected, and you’ll also know the basic structure of your book is sound.

Good Luck!

Jenny Warren
Betterwrite Associate Editor


Seven Changes Your Copy-editor May Make to Your Manuscript

You’ve finished at last! You’ve written your story: first, second, umpteen drafts and versions. Perhaps you’ve used a writing coach or a development editor; you’ve rewritten and self-edited until you can’t see straight. Now your book needs a buff and polish to ensure that readers don’t stop reading partway through because there are inconsistencies, or the language is too tangled.
Enter the copy-editor. They’re like someone who uses gentle fingers to untangle your hair after it’s been washed. Lovely! If you’re worried about the changes your editor will make to your manuscript, being more aware of the types of changes will set your mind at rest. And knowing why the editor makes their changes should turn your concern into appreciation.
1. Formatting
Aim at consistency of formatting: irregularities may cause problems when you try to publish, or self-publish. Your font, font size, tabs and headings need to be consistent throughout your manuscript. For example, don’t use a double line space to indicate a scene break: use a dinkus, a series of asterisks set between paragraphs. If you use a double line space, uploading your manuscript as an e-book will close up the space so you won’t have a break. Also, indent your paragraphs consistently: readers prefer a standard layout that makes their reading experience easier.
2. Consistency: your story, characters and locations
Consistency is essential in fiction writing. Your copy-editor will look for consistency and logic in your storyline and your settings. Grammar, spelling and dialogue layout must also remain uniform between scenes and chapters, unless changes are determined by the story. Common oversights that copy-editors look out for include the changing details of a character’s appearance (blue eyes turn into green ones) or spellings of their name (Phillips becomes Philips – or, worse, Kate becomes Jenny). Place names shouldn’t change, nor should the location (does northwest of Tinkerland becomes northeast?). Or relationships may alter, with a sister turning into a cousin or a niece.
Your language also needs to be consistent. Do you want to capitalise the name of your made-up race? Should first-born or hit-man be hyphenated, one word, or two? Such consistency issues can be ironed out by your copy-editor.
3. Coherency: does your plot hold water?
Coherency checks ensure that the timeline and sequence of events in the story remain consistent, practical and believable. The copy-editor will deal with a four-month pregnancy (miracle baby!), or a young man who dies in a car accident and subsequently meets his girlfriend’s parents: slightly implausible, unless the story is about the undead. Can your hero really battle the baddies and get back to base without anyone realising they were gone? Can your lead character have breakfast in Paris and be in Toronto for lunch?
A copy-editor will watch out for anachronisms, and not just in historical fiction. More obvious ones would include mobile phones being used more than 25 years ago, though more subtle errors can also creep in – Shakespeare famously describes sea journeys starting from landlocked cities, and he has clocks in ancient Rome years before they were invented.
4. Clarity: is your language clear and correct?
Copy-editors describe this as making your language flow, sing, or even dance. They try not to change the natural voice of the author, and they look for ways to improve the reading experience. Literary sing-song can be delightful when written well, but simple plain English is often just as effective. Why use three words when one works better? Are you repeating your words, phrases or sentences? Do you resort to ‘very’ to enhance an adjective? A spot or patch that’s very small could be tiny, minuscule, or minute.
Copy-editors will look for malapropisms – misuse of words that sound similar but have very different meanings (they danced the flamingo/flamenco); spoonerisms – mixing up initial letters (par cark); and tense-switching, even mid-sentence (He went for a walk in the country and sees a bull in the field.).
Sometimes it’s not that the wrong words are used, but rather that the sentence is ‘clunky’. It jolts the reader out of the story when they have to re-read it to understand what’s being said. The editor will recast the sentence to make the reading smoother and ensure it doesn’t mask the meaning. The overuse of descriptors may result in tautology: ‘The orphan boy had no parents.’ By simple yet judicious alteration of a few words here or there, the copy-editor can improve sentence flow.
5. Grammar, punctuation and dialogue
Many first-time authors expect their grammar, punctuation and spelling to be the only areas for change, so editors are often asked for ‘a quick proofread’. Though a proofreader will be looking for these sorts of errors, proofreading should be the last stage of the editorial process, catching those final few typos that have slipped through. A copy-editor will tackle grammar, spelling and punctuation issues as they edit, and also monitor the flow and clarity of the language.
6. Legal issues
The copy-editor will check for anything that might put you at risk of litigation. However, you choose what you write, and ultimately you are responsible for your words. If you simply write that your characters met at Starbucks for a chat before going shopping, you’re unlikely to have a problem. But if your character is terrorised by staff in the named coffee house, or gets food poisoning for the second time that month, you may get a lawyer’s letter. And a good copy-editor will be alert to copyright issues too.
7. Style sheet
Technically, a style sheet isn’t a change to your manuscript, but it’s an essential part of a copy-edit, and an invaluable companion to the text. Style sheets are created and updated to cover every aspect of the style of your manuscript, and should cover all the items discussed in this blog. The list will include all the characters in your novel, and relevant attributes such as their mode of speech and place of origin; and also places mentioned in your narrative. A style sheet is a map enabling you and your editor to chart a course throughout your text, and to maintain consistency in your writing.
I hope this sheds some light on the sort of changes a copy-editor will make to your manuscript, and the reasons for them. But if you’re ever in doubt, don’t be afraid to ask. Your editor is the partner who wants to work for you and with you, to make your text the best your complementary efforts can make it!

Katherine Swailes
Betterwrite Associate Editor


‘Carry each other’s burdens…’

Bob Gass (wonderful name for a preacher) writes:

Why does the Bible say ‘Carry each other’s burdens’? Because one person can only carry a burden so far on their own.

American novelist John Kennedy Toole quickly discovered that. As a young writer he worked alone, writing a novel in New Orleans. When it was finished he sent it to publisher after publisher, but they all turned him down. Overcome by rejection, he took his own life.

Some time after the funeral, his mother found a coffee-stained manuscript in the attic and took it to a professor at Louisiana State University who agreed to read it. Immediately he recognised its genius and recommended it to a major publisher. After its release, John Kennedy Toole’s novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, won a Pulitzer Prize and was heralded as one of the major novels of the twentieth century.

If only John Kennedy Toole had surrounded himself with friends who knew how to share his burden, encourage him when he faced rejection, and motivate him to keep going, his life would have turned out very differently.

So the word for you today is: “Find people who believe in you.” Encourage and support them, and welcome their support in return. Spend more time with those who sharpen you and make you better, and less time with those who drain your energy, time and talent. The truth is, friends who speak encouragement into your life are priceless. Their words are like ‘Apples of gold in settings of silver’ (Proverbs 25).
(UCB Word For Today, emphasis added.)

December-Post_Lamb-on-Mountain_webRob adds: It’s important for us as editors to not just correct writers’ work and help improve their writing, but to encourage them as writers.

I like it when a writer commends me for my editorial skill or hard work (maybe they didn’t notice my mistakes), and it’s nice to show off by putting author testimonials on our website.

But above all I treasure comments from writers who feel I have encouraged them in their writing. And writing isn’t easy. If we’re honest, isn’t editing actually easier than writing?

As editors, let’s keep encouraging writers, who put themselves on the line, and make themselves vulnerable with their words. One texted me (verbatim): ‘Oh my God, your comments mean so much – I was so scared you would tell me i was crap! Or just say nothing!’

I replied: ‘No, you’re a TALENTED WRITER, and you have WRITING ABILITY!’

This elicited the response:
‘I’m on the train. In my head I’m doing somersaults! Cartwheels! I feel so happy!’
Just correcting that writer’s grammar, spelling and punctuation wouldn’t make them feel ‘happy!’

So, writers, be encouraged.

And editors, encourage writers.