Beauty and the tweets

Beauty and the tweets

It’s official: social media’s unfriendly. Unless …

Lee Dickinson, chief editor

By Lee Dickinson, chief editor

Social media’s a lot more ‘social’ if you’re beautiful.

I have proof. It’s not a scientific experiment, but my internet adventure reveals numbers which could have you taking Photoshop lessons. Unless you’re beautiful, that is, in which case you should drag yourself away from your mirror to sample what the rest of us have to endure.  

A picture’s worth a thousand words, someone once said. It was probably one of those beautiful people, in about 50-100BT (Before Twitter). Now, try 10,000 words. Or more.

Let me explain. Should be easy, that, because I’m an editor, so I like to think my words are crafted. There’s no slinging them on the page and waiting for the deluge of social media dross to bury their failings. No, call it deluded, but even in this age of instant and constant publication, I treat words as precious.

Imagine my horror, then, when my masterpieces bombed. They weren’t criticised, attacked as a mad man’s rantings. No, worse: they were ignored.

I obeyed the ‘rules’ of engaging content and even tried to defeat our millisecond attention spans by seizing the reader’s focus.

Punchy. Considered. Unread.

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I’m not taking it personally, any more than the authors of the crafted tweets and other messages I delete or ignore every day should be offended. It’s the deluge … We can no more read every tweet than we can stand under a waterfall and count the drops. 

Not offended, no, but I am interested in the platforms, their users and what makes them tick. I had a suspicion, so decided to test it. Could it be that beautiful people get more attention on ‘social’ media because they’re, well, beautiful?

Surely not? Wouldn’t that indicate a level of shallowness on social media its name belies? If the “social” part is taken to mean friendliness, looks wouldn’t matter. But …

My experiment involved two days of fake photo subterfuge on Twitter. I changed my header and profile pic to that of a random, attractive woman featured on a stock photo site. There she is, in the picture above. I’m not proud of myself for using her beauty that way, but it was a short test to prove a point. It seems to have done that, because here are the results:

Followers from eight months on Twitter: 195

Two days of being beautiful later: 341

That’s 146 new followers despite the same posts at the same times. Ugly me gained a follower every 1.23 days, but beautiful me got one drooling fan every 19 minutes and 49 seconds.

Shock findings? Physical beauty’s always been the catwalk seller and cinema filler. Will social media ever rise above that to instead appreciate the beauty of the words it relies on? Probably not.

I’ll keep crafting tweets and messages, hoping you’ll see the words behind my blokey mugshot. Perhaps you’ll like them and follow me, and I’ll return the nicety while reading other considered messages and showing my thanks. Now that’s what I call ‘social’.

This article’s writer, Lee Dickinson, is an advanced professional member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and chief editor at bookediting.co.uk. You can read his blog here.

© Lee Dickinson, 2022

Com-proofer?

Com-proofer?

Don’t believe the hype, as man battles machine

Lee Dickinson, chief editor

By Lee Dickinson, chief editor

Man versus machine. It’s the plot for some of Hollywood’s best blockbusters, and now online language checker Grammarly threatens to be a proofreader terminator.

If you believe the hype.

Millions do, according to figures from the program’s marketers. They trust it to do everything from “Increase Team Productivity” to “Write better sentences” and “Save Time”.

Wow. Who doesn’t want to save time? And if it helps write better sentences, I’m in.

I’m suspicious though, not least because all those claims are in a three-line web blurb. The one from a Google search. This one:

“Increase Your Team’s Productivity. Eliminate Errors, Add Clarity, And Save Time. Eliminate grammar errors. Easily improve any text. Fix punctuation errors. Write better sentences. Improve word choice. Services: Advanced Grammar Rules, Proofreader, Corrects Writing Mistakes.”

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So in arguably their most important marketing material, the first words you’ll see in a search engine, they have mistakes? Lots of them.

See how all the first letters of words up to the second “Eliminate” are capped up? After that they’re lower case except at the start of a sentence, before reverting to caps again for the parting shot of “Corrects Writing Mistakes”. Clearly, one mistake it doesn’t correct is inconsistency.

Repetition, neither, judging by the three uses of “Errors” (or “errors”) and two for “Eliminate”. The latter word also makes me doubtful it does “Improve word choice”, because that’s an awful, four-syllable mouthful. Good language simplifies. Using ‘removes’ or ‘amends’ would’ve done that without repeating “Fix” or “Corrects”. A good proofer changes that.

Anyone can make a mistake. Maybe the software is better than the flawed words promoting it? So I delved deeper.

Cards on the table here, because I’m a proofreader and editor. You’d no more expect me to think a computer can do my job than you’d expect a Paxo-carrying turkey to don a paper hat and cavort around your Christmas dinner table. But I’m a fan of automated language programs. Check the last point in my 10 Better Writing Tips. Spellcheckers are useful.

When you use one, though, know its limits. It’s a tool, not a cure, spotting some mistakes and missing many others. Sometimes it’ll even flag up perfect writing as wrong.

One thing it will never do is spot the worst type of howler. It will never go the ‘extra mile’ with the sort of fact and word checking done by top-level proofers.

To prove the point, I ran my last job through it. The client is a PhD-level student whose work reflects the fact English is his second language. For example, the vital, bolded-up second word of his dissertation was wrong, because he’d written ‘The Conception of (his subject)’. Reading the piece and cross-checking it the way Grammarly never can, it was clear he meant ‘concept’, because no-one was pregnant and none of his work covered the ‘forming or devising’ of anything.

The document continued like this, with sources’ names misspelt, ‘employment’ used instead of ‘unemployment’, missing words altering meanings, the wrong years applied to sources, and the International Monetary Fund labelled the ‘International Monterey Fund’. No problem; that’s why people use proofers.

How many of these major mistakes did I find in his 12,500-word submission? Twenty-one. Grammarly? Three. So that’s at least 18 howlers staying in a vital piece of coursework.

Others have checked Grammarly. A 2017 probe by language site Grammarist gauged its ability to spot everything from plagiarism to sentence structure. Of the 43 errors, Grammarly found 31.

Writing skills firm Emphasis concluded it’s “far from a substitute for the human eye”, with basic mistakes approved. The phrase “plain English” was challenged as “too generic” and “give your writing colour” rejected for “make your hand richness”.

Hundreds of customers have road-tested it. Trustpilot’s rating? Two stars out of five, or 3.2 out of 10. If you prefer sitejabber, that’s also two out of five. A total of 136 of the 206 reviews give it one star, and the comments are damning. Yes, angry customers are more likely to review than happy ones, but the level of spleen-venting is shocking. Check for yourself here or here.

The headline on one of those reviews concludes: “don’t believe the hype”.

I won’t. Nor will I entrust words to a computer which can never fully check them or appreciate the beauty of their subtleties.

This article’s writer, Lee Dickinson, is an advanced professional member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and chief editor at bookediting.co.uk. You can read his blog here.

© Lee Dickinson, 2022

If you’re planning your book, take note …

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If you’re planning your book, beware …

Have ‘pantser’ authors discovered the quickest way to become a writing genius?

Lee Dickinson, chief editor

By Lee Dickinson, chief editor

You should skim this blog. Don’t absorb the words, just get through them. Read them quickly even if you love to savour words, and if going back properly later, in total, takes you more time and ruins your enjoyment. 

But, you ask, can I read it the way I prefer? The way that works for me? With the same approach I adopt in the rest of my life, staying true to my personality?

No, because I’m a ‘pantser’, and there is no way but mine …

Every day, pantsers are out in social media force urging writers to bash out something, anything. They’re armed with images of sea sunrises, misty forests and, once, a gorilla? Writing for them seems to be more of a holiday romance than a relationship, so they’ve got ages to spend online with stock images. Quotes are their main cudgel, though, with Stephen King and Margaret Atwood their favourites.

Trot out a few examples like that and the case is apparently proven, especially if you don’t acknowledge those famous writers are the exceptions. I’ll tell you what the pantsers don’t: Stephen King is a one-in-a-billion writer; trying to ape his method will backfire. 

Books are complicated, rarely come together on the hoof, so why would writers not plan for that complexity? Where else would pantsers call for that to be ignored? Would they have paced the floor of the Sistine Chapel with a rollerbrush, yanking on the scaffolding and shouting: “Oy, Mick, get a bloody shift on”?

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There’s doubt over the truth of many pantsers’ claims anyway. The kudos of being able to slap it down and produce a masterpiece is alluring. That makes them geniuses, right?

Probably, but digging deeper might reveal something else. The accounts of writing binges producing literary classics need scrutiny because, for example, tales of a 12-week Jack Kerouac bender culminating in On The Road ignore the nine-year gap between his inspiration and the finished book. Kurt Vonnegut’s claims of one-session finished manuscripts are folklore, but his son Mark inherited his trunk and found it crammed with drafts, outlines and abandoned attempts.

That’s inconvenient when you’re an evangelical pantser; better to focus on myth and emotion. Type “pantser author” in your search engine and you’ll see. 

“I’m just too impatient to get writing,” crows one, as if impatience is a virtue that somehow proves her superior love of words. 

“It’s SOOO exciting,” coos another. 

“I wrote my book in a few weeks,” chimes someone else, “then spent years trying to fix it. Never again.” 

Such rewriting is a huge task, so what are the chances of it being completed by impatient pantsers craving excitement? That means a binned manuscript, which surely wasn’t the aim?

The main reason to challenge pantser recruitment is the end result. ‘Plots’ which would benefit from at least being scrawled on a bus ticket have instead been hurled out in the same disposable manner as their battered keyboards. ‘Characters’, especially villains, are cardboard instead of flesh. A developmental edit should highlight this and other problems, but your editor’s exactly that, not a magician.

I wrote my first novel as a pantser, and it was dreadful. Did I enjoy the writing process? Not when I later realised how bad it was, and that it should have been planned from the start. 

The pantser approach can only work if goals are realistic. Get it traditionally published? Without extensive rewriting, forget it. Treat writing as a thrill-seeking adventure then use the end result as a doorstop? Probably. Forget about the failure but become a pantser recruitment sergeant anyway? Definitely.

Panters hate planning – I get it. Speed is vital to them – OK. They love words so much they have to get them down instantly – lovely. I’ve heard. Repeatedly.

Just as they love to freefall, though, plotters enjoy pulling the planning ripcord and gliding to earth. 

It’s the way I work as an editor and proofreader, which demand a structured, careful approach. It extends to my writing. The method works for me, but it might not for you, so I’m not trying to recruit. Good luck finding your own writing way. That might even be as a pantser, if you’re a genius. Writing for excitement is attractive, but the adrenalin needs to be tempered with realism and honesty.

Please, pantsers, stop trying to recruit from the ranks of the plotters, who are unfit to behold your genius anyway. Or, if you can’t curb your zeal, admit you’ll bin your words or spend more time rewriting than you would have spent plotting.

© Lee Dickinson, 2022

This article’s writer, Lee Dickinson, is an advanced professional member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and chief editor at Bookediting.co.uk. You can read his blog here.

Spelling’s Don for

Spelling’s Don for

A president, a peach and the threat to our language

Lee Dickinson, chief editor

By Lee Dickinson, chief editor

Spelling looks doomed after the most powerful man in the world typed its death warrant.

For a man who relied on writing to spread the word during his term, former US President Donald Trump posted tweets that ignored its rules. Now, with a new presidential era, what’s his legacy to our language?

The most striking is a history of spelling errors that continued until his tenure’s end. In the final weeks, for example, the coronavirus was spelt “Caronavirus” and the Nobel Prize the “Noble”. He’d also confused it with the Pulitzer Prize. There were many more language-based mistakes and, according to Factba.se, 188 misspellings were tweeted from the @realDonaldTrump Twitter handle during his first three years in office alone.

Being the butt of jokes became a habit for a leader fond of slapping good grammar’s backside. Any thought he was used to the ribbing vanished amid a furious backlash to critics. Laugh it off? Er, no, according to leaks from his own side.

As the reaction to his gaffes made him so angry, the obvious answer was to have his words checked. You’d think there would have been plenty who could have helped in the whole of the White House? Or, somewhere in its learned corridors, a dictionary?

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Failing something like that, there would always be more blunders. Mr Trump’s track record made that certain through a history of howlers:

    • “unpresidented act” – such spelling from a president is unprecedented
    • “The possibility of lasting peach” – before visiting Israel, his language got a bit fruity
    • “No challenge is to great” – (my italics) except the challenge of finding that dictionary?
    • “Covfefe” – the twittersphere debated what this meant before it was removed after 20 minutes
    • “honered to serve you” – glad you’re honoured, Mr Trump. Or, as America prefers, ‘honored’
    • “John Huntsman to be Ambassador” – that’s Jon Huntsman
    • “councel” – he clearly struggles with ‘counsel’
    • “Thr coverage … gas been so false and angry” – hot air, no doubt, and two more errors
    • “tapp my phones” – you should never have a p p on the phone
    • “attaker” – ‘attacker’ was misspelt 20 times in one document
    • “Teresa May” – Theresa, even
    • “here by” and “hearby” – two attempts at this one, both getting ‘hereby’ wrong, and sandwiching a tweet about improving education.

Do we expect better from our leaders? Anyone can slip up, but so many mistakes showed language disdain that undermined a man who was charged with overseeing a superpower’s education system. A pupil gets help, but Mr Trump went it alone and erred.

It was a strange choice he’d never have made in a sphere like the law, where he’s surrounded by a phalanx of sharp suits. Language deserves at least as much respect as the law which relies on its precision, but the president seemed to hurl words through the same revolving door used to eject his White House staff.

Understandable, perhaps, given social media’s illusion of transience. Watch the news most days, though, and see the human cost of people spat out by its permanence. Mr Trump was never scribbling on an ether-based blackboard; he was carving a Mount Rushmore-type history.

It’s difficult to believe he here by/hearby occupied the same office as the man who oversaw the wording of the Bill of Rights, and harder still to reconcile his careless use of words with Pilgrim Fathers who lived by them. They knew their value and treasured them.

Millions of ‘likes’ for the former president’s error-strewn writing suggests a dimming respect for those values.

People aspire to be like presidents, and taking a lead from such carelessness is dangerous. That’s the former president’s legacy, along with a failure to realise the need to be almost as careful at his keyboard as with that big red button which could blow us all to everlasting peach.

© Lee Dickinson, 2020

This article’s writer, Lee Dickinson, is an advanced professional member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and chief editor at Bookediting.co.uk. You can read his blog here.

Perfect 10 editing

Some of the books edited by bookediting.co.uk are pictured here.

Perfect 10 editing

What to look for to ensure you get the best editing and proofreading

Lee Dickinson, chief editor

By Lee Dickinson, chief editor

Fixing writing mistakes is often plagued by errors. Proofreading. The epitome of written perfection. You’d think.

But the job of gaffe removal’s in danger when even the word ‘proofreading’ is abused. You’d be worried if you paid me to clean your home then found me dismantling your boiler. It’d be more troubling if the boiler wasn’t broken. That’s what some ‘proofreaders’ do. I know, because I’ve been called in to mend the wreckage from what was supposed to be copy editing. They’re distinct, and if that’s not explained, entrust your words instead to someone who knows the difference.  

There are at least nine other copy editor/proofreader essentials. Let’s start with that vital definition. Your copy editor or proofreader should:

1 – Know the difference between copy editing and proofreading

Copy editing includes all of proofreading’s spelling, grammar, punctuation and formatting corrections, but adds a deeper look at the likes of syntax (sentence structure). Great copy editing will make your writing organised and succinct. A proofreader will dust the front of the boiler and check the buttons all work after the copy editor’s had his spanners out. Proofreading can only be done after copy editing, because it involves reading ‘proofs’ which are the final part of the writing process. Making changes at this stage can be more complex because of things like layout considerations, so proofreading is, by necessity, less exhaustive. Copy editing costs more.

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2 – Know their stuff

Some ‘proofreaders’ do no more than run a spellchecker, and computer checkers fail you. Many of these ‘experts’ have howlers even in their advertising copy, which tends to appear on the likes of free social media platforms. If they’ve spent no time on something as basic as getting a website or a free LinkedIn profile, will they spend enough time fine-tuning your hard work? Some aren’t being dishonest, but think being able to read qualifies them for the job in the same way, presumably, holding a brush makes them Picasso? Like any professional, your copy editor or proofreader should have relevant experience.

3 – Print it out

Copy editors and proofreaders should confine their planet-saving acts to outside the office. Inside it, proper checking can only be done on paper. The eye works differently on screen to the printed page, which reveals much more.

4 – Proof, not read

You can ‘get lost in a good book’, and great proofreading vanishes if proofing becomes reading. When the brain’s absorbed in the writing, both eyes aren’t fixed on potential errors. For this reason, the editing and proofreading stage should be done separately. 

5 – Be respectful

Clients and editors can clash. I’ve stepped in when a relationship has soured and, on reading the previous editor’s margin comments, the reason’s obvious. A proofreader’s recent notes to an academic included the likes of: “This has come up a few times. Be careful.” It wasn’t even clear where the client needed to “Be careful”. He was paying the proofreader for that care, not to be scolded like a naughty child.

6 – Double-check

A great copy-editor presumes nothing. They’ll check even the basics, using more than one trusted source. It’s time-consuming, but an indicator of the sort of quality service which has saved many a writer from professional embarrassment.

7 – Be consistent

Correctness has to be paired with consistency. “Organisation” should never become “organization”, and vice versa, which calls for extra vigilance amid the use of American spellcheckers. Adopting a style book to implement at the outset will help. If your proofreader uses Oxford style, they should check your preference and be prepared to adapt to a US style such as AP. You’re in charge.

8 – Watch for tense changes

They’re sneaky. If typos are the smash-and-grab errors, tense changes are the opportunists. The only answer is to be vigilant, and this one’s top of my sentence-by-sentence checklist.

9 – Be a writer

You wouldn’t take driving lessons from someone who’s read about the process from a book but never changed gear. Please, don’t let non-writers edit your words.

10 – Use ‘fresh eyes’

Your eyes aren’t as alert as they were at the start of this 700-word blog. After 10,000 words, there’s even more danger of errors sneaking through the haze. Regular breaks help, but the key vigilance weapon is coming back to a project another day with eyes rested and watchful. Go on, let your copy-editor take a rest. That way, they’re more likely to score a perfect 10 

© Lee Dickinson, 2022

This article’s writer, Lee Dickinson, is an advanced professional member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and chief editor at Bookediting.co.uk. You can read his blog here.

10 Top Writing Tips

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10 Top Writing Tips

Quick, simple pointers to improve your writing

Lee Dickinson, chief editor

By Lee Dickinson chief editor

1 – Be succinct
The golden rule. Be clear and concise. That means fewer words, avoiding such howlers as “proceeds from the event amounted to the total of”. Yes, a ‘professional’ writer did pen that. It was changed to: “The concert raised”. Three words, not nine. Clear. Concise. Job done.

2 – Mimic speech
If I’m doing this properly, something amazing’s happening in your brain. There’s a voice. Hear it? That’s me. But I’m only there because these words mimic speech. Break that spell and the voice vanishes and you’re back to words on a screen. Keeping the speech illusion is an art these 10 tips will help you perfect. Great novelists mastered it. Do that too and your words will speak volumes.

3 – Use the right words
Sounds obvious, but careless words cause most bad writing. Your first version might be brilliant but, usually, there’s something better. Do those first words say what you mean or are they the easy option? Being brilliant’s not about getting it right first time – it’s about getting it right. D H Lawrence did at least seven drafts of The Rainbow, and you’ll probably have to rethink a few times to be a better writer.

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4 – Simplify
Read even quality publications long enough and you’ll find ‘utilise’ instead of ‘use’, ‘purchase’ where ‘buy’ should be, maybe even ‘commence’ for ‘start’. They add nothing to their simpler alternatives other than excess syllables. People don’t use them when they talk, so writing them breaks the illusion of speech. They also flout many of these other guidelines.

5 – End with a bang
If you knew a novel’s ending before the finish, would you read on? Sentences are similar. To keep your reader engaged, it’s usually best to place the line’s focus at the end.

6 – Say what you mean
That is, don’t say what you don’t mean, which says the same thing as the title above badly. If you’re not happy, you might be sad, thoughtful or angry. Say that, then. Readers prefer to know what you are, not one of the thousands of things you’re not. Anything starting with ‘un’ should be a red flag.

7 – Watch for repetition
I might have to use a word more than once, maybe twice, many times, repeatedly, but where possible the same word should be avoided. Some words present more of a challenge, but you don’t need clumsy alternatives to the likes of ‘school’ and ‘hospital’ if you use, say, ‘the royal infirmary’. If an acronym’s used, the likes of Great Ormond Street Hospital can become ‘GOSH’. There’s usually an alternative, even if it’s a rewrite.

8 – Cut adverbs
The only good thing about an adverb is they’re often obvious. Most end in ‘ly’ so, when you see that warning sign, ask if it’s needed and get (busily) chopping. If I’m chopping, I’m busy, so the adverb’s clutter. Using a stronger verb instead of an adverb doesn’t shout loudly, it screams. Adverbs are even worse when used to qualify powerful adjectives, when you’ll need to ask if they’re (absolutely) vital.

9 – Remove empty words
I’m currently writing a sentence in which some of the words that I’ve just used are unnecessary. That’s a clumsy structure to make a point, because I’d write: I’m writing a sentence that wastes words. That cuts 17 words to seven, partly by removing some of the main empty-word offenders, namely ‘that’, ‘currently’ and ‘just’. They’re examples of ‘fluff’ words that creep into writing but only detract from it.

10 – Don’t rely on a spellchecker
Use one, please, but expect it to miss howlers. In this lime, four examples, its nut goings too spots a singlet missed steak. It can’t tell a possessive from a plural, either, along with a host of other common grammatical errors. Spellcheckers are a useful tool, not a cure.

© Lee Dickinson, 2022

This article’s writer, Lee Dickinson, is an advanced professional member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and chief editor at bookediting.co.uk. You can read his blog here.

Racist language – not so black and white

Some of the books edited by bookediting.co.uk are pictured here.

Racist language – not so black and white

How to avoid being unintentionally offensive

Lee Dickinson, chief editor

By Lee Dickinson, chief editor

The racism debate is coming to a page near you.

If you write or edit anything, be aware the reflection and rage after George Floyd’s death isn’t confined to the streets. As the focus widened from anger at the authorities in the US to the likes of statues in the UK, social media was already alive with arguments about racist language. If you post on any social platform, write a blog or books, have a website, or write any company literature, you could be next in line for wrath.

Spooked by that? Please don’t be, because “spook” is one  example of a word now dubbed racist.

Such pitfalls make writing before you had to weigh every word seem like a picnic. Please don’t say that either, because “picnic” is another.

The list of provocative words is jaw-dropping, and I’ve included some below. There are too many for it to be exhaustive, however, and that’s the problem. How do you write these days without fear of offending?

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For me as an editor and writer, it’s an eye-opener. Language by its nature becomes as embedded as those controversial statues, so negotiating a safe path is like tip-toeing through a minefield. To focus my mind even more, I’m about to schedule the editing of a book about Rudolf Hess, Winston Churchill and the Nazis. Gulp.

For that novel, I’ll have to consider racism alongside historical accuracy, the author’s wishes and potential charges of “airbrushing” history. For simpler manuscripts, the best safeguards seem to be sensitivity and staying as updated as possible on potential problems.

Should you avoid or change the likes of “blackmail”, “black sheep”, “blacklist”, “black mark”, “blackball” or “black market”?

Psychotherapist Dee Watts-Jones1 said such “subtle racism” offends her. “The English language is in bed with racism,” she wrote. “Regardless of the intentions of the user of these expressions, such usage colludes with racism. With a term like black sheep, consider coming up with another term.”

It can’t hurt to look for non-offensive alternatives, can it? I find Watts-Jones’ suggestion of a replacement for “black sheep” obtrusive and unrealistic, because she suggests “one-down” sheep?

That won’t be making it into anything I edit but, depending on the context, something like “outcast” or “pariah” might. For “blackmail”, we might use something like “extortion”, for “black mark” could substitute “blemish”, replace “blacklist” with “boycott”, use “veto” for “blackball”, “illicit” for “black market”.

The context is important, but you get the idea. Editors change words constantly, so is it much of an extra effort to change a few more?

The examples above are obvious but, as promised, here’s some you might not know:  

  • Spook – Used as a racist slur historically, say race and identity reporting team Code Switch
  • Picnic – Debated by some, but widely reported to be associated with racist mobs and an abbreviated form of “pick one to lynch”
  • Hip hip hooray – A rallying cry, apparently, for 19th-century racists who rounded up Jews
  • Black – A raft of respected writers’ style guides have now reviewed and pronounced “Black”, not “black”, as correct when referring to a person, not a general colour
  • Uppity – Originally used in the US to refer to any slave who stood up to racism
  • Long time no see – Native Americans were mocked with this as a reference to their traditional greeting
  • Sold down the river – Another phrase related to the slave trade, which transported captives to cotton plantations via the Mississippi or Ohio rivers
  • No can do – An imitation of pidgin English originally used to mock Chinese immigrants
  • Scalp – According to one language watchdog, this should be avoided because of connotations of violence toward indigenous people.

A minefield indeed. And, to be ultra-careful, should we also avoid the likes of “thug”, “cannibal”, “vandal”, “hooligan” and “barbarian”? Have all these words evolved, becoming far removed from the original, removing any offence? To many, no.

As the words above show, it’s easy to transgress accidentally. But, if you stumble into ‘racism’ that way, it’s simple to consider the offence to others once it’s pointed out and fix it. For those helping to modernise our language by revealing such issues, it should also be easy to remember the offence is usually unintended. Only by calmly working together can we use words to heal wounds.

Other resources to help spot potentially racist language:

https://www.dictionary.com/e/s/offensive-words-hiding-plain-sight/#dark-past

http://www.macmillandictionaries.com/MED-Magazine/March2003/05-language-awareness-sensitivity-uk.htm

https://www.thoughtco.com/avoid-these-five-racial-terms-2834959

https://www.fastcompany.com/90239290/six-business-phrases-that-have-racist-origins

[1] Dee Watts-Jones, Confronting the Language of Subtle Racism (https://www.psychotherapynetworker.org/blog/details/
1318/confronting-the-language-of-subtle-racism
)

© Lee Dickinson, 2022

This article’s writer, Lee Dickinson, is an advanced professional member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and chief editor at Bookediting.co.uk. You can read his blog here.

19 fiction writing mistakes

Paper waste bin

The 19 Biggest Fiction Writer Mistakes

Avoiding these errors is the easiest way to improve your book

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Lee Dickinson, chief editor

By Lee Dickinson

Bookediting.co.uk chief editor

1. Giving readers what they want.

That anxiety when you read great fiction has been planted by a master manipulator. Clever writers toy with your emotions, keeping you reading. One way is by delaying resolutions. If you’ve set up a “Wow, what’s going to happen here?” moment, keep it simmering as long as possible. Readers will hate you, and love you.

2. Settling for imperfection.

Writing’s about getting it right, not getting it right first time. Your first effort won’t be perfect, and leaving it like that is the lazy option. This isn’t a slur on your writing talent; D H Lawrence did at least seven drafts of The Rainbow. His hard work produced a novel with none of the results of lazy writing: cliches, adverbs, poor imagery, waffle.

3. Showing off.

You’re probably a good writer – so good you need to show the world. Great. Keep that passion. But keep it tamed, because if your ‘brilliant writing’ takes over, your story will be ruined. Think of the best fiction you’ve read. What do you remember? Any verbose, flowery descriptions and sublime metaphors, or the crafted plot and compelling characters? Readers want stories, not egos. This is one of the biggest fiction writing mistakes by novice writers.

4. Telling.

“Jill’s attractive” or “Jack’s eyes bulged as Jill catwalked in”? You should show, not tell.

5. Bad plots.

Even the greatest would struggle to write well about a string of business meetings, including the motorways, lay-bys and service station menus on the way there, or a retired spinster with an aversion to baking. You couldn’t make it up, but they (sort of) did. It’s interesting to the writer, usually because it happened to them. Before committing months or years to your book, is the plot worth it?

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6. Bad characterisation.

Characters should have character. Readers might spend hours with them, but only if they’re not a one-dimensional plot device. Would you spend time with a cardboard cut-out? Make them human by giving them flaws, conflicts, a previous life. Focus on making your main character believable without stressing about likeability.

7. Bad grammar, spelling or punctuation.

A talented realism artist doesn’t slap paint around, and writers shouldn’t abuse words by ignoring the basics of their use. If you struggle here, get the best editor you can.

8. Static descriptions.

It’s a book, so there’s lots to include, but your reader will lose interest if you stop the story to ‘info dump’. Avoiding this is vital at your novel’s start. Weave the essential details into the action instead, preferably keeping at least one filmable element on every page.

9. Camera jerk.

“Jack drummed his fingers as the wind howled outside. He thought about Jill’s blonde hair as the clock struck.” The writer directs the reader’s ‘camera’ and, here, it’s being directed at the fingers, then outside to the wind, back to Jack and his thoughts, then to a clock. Don’t do that, because you’ll confuse the reader. Keep the ‘camera’ smooth.

10. Voids.

That ‘camera’ above can’t work if there’s nothing to film. Amateur writers can set chapters, even most of their books, in apparently featureless voids. Readers don’t need an inventory of interior decoration, but at least give them some broad brushstrokes showing where the action is.

11. Inconsistent view.

Who’s telling your story, and where are they? Does a God-like storyteller have access to the thoughts of many characters, or is your main character recounting events after they happen? The latter won’t have access to anyone’s thoughts but their own, or knowledge of events they haven’t witnessed, so you can only include them from another point of view.

12. Weak chapters.

Even entertaining or beautifully written chapters must move the story forward. Jack’s a funny main character, but he can’t enjoy a pub sesh with japester pal Bob while he should be saving the world. Pinpoint your weakest chapter and ditch it, reworking essential plot points. What’s your next weakest chapter?

13. Repetition.

A wise book editor explained this through bad maths: one plus one equals a half. Every repetition of the same point reduces its impact. Credit your reader with some intelligence, and save them time by making your one reference superb.

14. Lack of realism.

Hollywood gets away with this, but you won’t. Sprinting through a house? Driving through a bridge crash barrier with a Fiat Tipo? A previously quiet character having a chinwag which reveals essential plot points? You’re creating a new reality, so make it realistic.

15. Intrusion.

“Jill trudged up the sun-baked hill, surely proving a global warming theory now backed by thousands of eminent researchers.” Your views matter, but not in your story. The ‘voice’ of your storyteller should also be consistent; readers will be confused if a discreet narrator morphs into a shock jock.

16. Bad dialogue.

Speech in your novels should be punchy and important. Don’t, for example, have phone calls agreeing the details of a meet, including the range of behind-bar snacks. Silently arrange the meeting, briefly set the scene and focus characters on the main issue. You could make their exchange a tennis-like rally, with each trying to win the point. If their ‘answers’ raise more questions, even better.

17. False starts.

Most new writers start novels in the wrong place. They often introduce their main character and wait until that’s done before adding action or intrigue. Sometimes, a major event starts a novel, but we don’t know the main character it’s happening to, so the impact’s lost. For a gripping start, combine characterisation and action.

18. Wasting words.

It is the best policy when you are writing properly to simply use as few words as is humanly possible. Or: writers should love words, not waste them? That’s seven words instead of 20. Using fewer words makes them more potent.

19. Being passive.

You’ve made your characters interesting, right? Active? Do the same with your sentences. “The book was written by Jill” is better as “Jill wrote the book”. The change shifts the subject of the sentence from a book to Jill.

© Lee Dickinson, 2022

This article’s writer, Lee Dickinson, is an advanced professional member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and chief editor at Bookediting.co.uk. You can read his blog here.

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