Editing – it can turn a bowl of old stodge into a real delicacy

By PHIL FITZPATRICK – 23 July 2014, Keith Jackson & Friends: PNG Attitude

SINCE becoming involved in the Crocodile Prize, and in particular the production of the annual anthology and the spinoff books that we’ve published under the Pukpuk Publishing imprint, I’ve had to learn a few skills that I wouldn’t ordinarily have bothered about.

One of these is layout and design and the other is editing, although I still don’t claim to be an expert in either field.

The former has been a matter of trial and error.  Publishing is now very much a digital affair and it is evolving with the technology at a rapid pace.

Being a bit of a Luddite probably hasn’t helped.  I grew up using a typewriter and sending off hardcopy manuscripts covered in white-out to publishers and letting them worry about all the production issues.  Now a publisher expects a print-ready manuscript in a digital format.

That said, I reckon that if I can manage to publish stuff using digital technology anyone half-smart can do the same thing.

But the issue of editing has been a different matter altogether.

Even though in my travels along life’s highway I managed to pick up a degree in literature, I was never much good at the technicalities of grammar.  I am what I like to think of as an intuitive writer.  That’s probably an excuse for laziness but, in simple terms, it means that if things look right and sound right I’m happy.

This attitude gets me into all sorts of trouble with the ‘spell check’ on my computer and I use the ‘ignore’ and ‘add to dictionary’ prompts frequently.

Through all this, it has slowly dawned on me that these functions on computers are the enemy of creative writing.  Sometimes I suspect they are some sort of global plot to make us all compliant and standardised writers.

This is not to say that I endorse bad grammar, spelling errors or poor expression.  Far from it. A fractured rendition of a word or a clumsy assemblage of clauses and phrases in a sentence makes me grind my teeth.

But there is more to editing than just grammar and spelling; there is also the matter of facts and probabilities.

Facts are relatively easy to deal with, either it’s right or wrong and if there is any doubt there is that wonderful thing called Wikipedia.  Pity about the spelling though, shouldn’t it be Wikipaedia?

Of course, there are facts and facts.  Sometimes facts are as fuzzy as common sense.  What seems like common sense to an extremist might not be common sense to the more sane among us.  Facts are equally subject to interpretation.

Sometimes it is possible to confuse facts with truth.  Sometimes facts actually get in the way of truth.  Sometimes a fact just depends upon the motive of the person expounding it.  If you don’t believe me try listening to a politician speak.

While all this might sound like esoteric nonsense, it is worth keeping in mind.  Sometimes it is best to deal in probabilities, which are inherently fuzzy.

In a recent, very well-written and highly entertaining piece set in thetaim bilong tumbuna, I came across references to cauliflowers and coffee beans.  Hmm, I thought, this young writer doesn’t realise that cauliflowers and coffee beans are not native to Papua New Guinea, how am I going to fix this?

Then I realised that what was going on and it made me feel very old.  Somehow, taim blo tumbuna has crept into the 1950s and 1960s.  I left the piece as it was and hobbled off to make a cup of tea and lie down.

A lot of grammar and spelling aberrations seem to be regional and Papua New Guinea is no exception.  Queenslanders and Papua New Guineans confuse ‘brought’ and ‘bought’.  The former is the past tense of ‘bring’ while the latter is the past tense of ‘buy’ but many banana-benders insist they have ‘brought’ something in the sense that they have purchased it.

Many Australians and Papua New Guineans confuse ‘advice’ and ‘advise’.  The former should be used in the sense of ‘counsel’ while the latter is used in the sense of giving someone useful information.  Interestingly, my spell-checker just told me to change ‘advise’ to ‘advice’!

At a more fundamental level it is surprising how many people in Papua New Guinea write ‘leaving’ when they mean ‘living’.  To ‘leave’ is to go away, to ‘live’ is to exist.  Others confuse ‘then’ and ‘than’.  ‘Then’ relates to time while ‘than’ is about difference; ‘better than’, ‘older than’ etcetera.

Then there are local usages of words that are sometimes confusing.  One that threw me for a moment was ‘besties’ until I worked out it is short for ‘best friends’. Such usage I have no problem with; they are just expressions that come and go.

The only thing you have to worry about when using words like this, especially if you are writing for a wide audience, is that your readers understand what you mean – and that may include readers in 100 years’ time.

Punctuation is another area that is fraught with potholes.

Some people love to sprinkle punctuation marks willy-nilly through what they write.  Commas are a favourite, along with lines of dots at the end of sentences and dashes in gay profusion in place of brackets. And long ranks of exclamation marks!!!!!

Some people abandon punctuation altogether and write metre long paragraphs or indulge in what is called ‘stream-of-consciousness’ writing. 

This is well and good; nothing wrong with experimentation.  What you have to realise, however, is that readers tend to get annoyed with this stuff and often abandon it as too hard.

There’s not much point in being trendy and arty if no one reads what you write.  Someone needs to explain this boring fact to the people who run creative writing courses.

One of the things I frequently come across is the incorrect placement of parentheses.  In reported speech you put the parentheses after the full stop or comma.  The people who really annoy me are those who chop and change in the one document, not only with the placement of parentheses but the style, using double ticks and then swapping to single ticks.  Some people confuse reported speech and thoughts.  The former require parentheses but the latter do not.

Then of course there are problems like where you put the question mark in a long sentence if only the first part forms the query.  The answer, of course, is at the end of the sentence because a question mark, like an exclamation mark, is used to end a sentence in place of a full stop.

And talking about full stops; what happens when you put an abbreviated word like ‘etc’ at the end of the sentence; do you add another dot or what?  Spell check will disallow it but it is wrong, two dots are correct. 

If it bugs you, why not do away with the abbreviation.  A lot of people don’t realise that etc. is short for etcetera; just like they don’t realise that OK is short for okay.

What about ‘which’ and ‘that’?  Despite what your spell check might tell you, ‘which’ goes with the singular and ‘that’ goes with the plural; ‘a group which …’, ‘that which …, ‘those that’ ….

All this might sound a bit pedantic in this age of change, instant gratification and the worship of convenience and, indeed, it is.  Some people enjoy being picky and pedantic.  Pedants help fill the regular opinion columns of newspapers, magazines and radio talk-back.

Perhaps the best advice is to stick with consistency.  If you are going to deliberately experiment with language in your writing then make sure you do it properly because when you don’t you will introduce bells and jangles that will sound like sour notes in an otherwise beautiful song or piece of music.

I could go on forever with all this picky stuff but the point that I’m trying to make is that everyone needs an editor, no matter how erudite or famous they might be.

In the digital age this is especially so because what you write can often end up as what gets printed.  If you self-publish, using something like Create Space, it is very tempting to also self-edit.

As someone who has gone down this road, I can tell you that it doesn’t work.

Instead, what happens, after going through your text several times, is that you develop what I call ‘editorial blindness’.  This is a malady that allows you to skim over the same error time and again without noticing it. 

It might be a simply misspelling, a grammatical blunder or even an error of fact.  Sometimes it is a glaring anomaly in your narrative.  Whatever it is, after a while you just don’t notice it.

Editing is especially important for writers whose first language isn’t English.  What tends to happen with many of these writers is that they bring the grammatical nuances of their first language to their English language work.  With Tok Pisin it’s not so pronounced but with Motu and Tok Ples it can become a problem.  A savvy editor can pick this up and will generally know what the writer means.

We are increasingly seeing publications in Papua New Guinea, from private individuals, businesses and government that are riddled with grammar and spelling errors.  Some of the more common errors can be blamed on the education sector – primary, secondary and tertiary.

It seems that poorly trained or indifferent teachers and lecturers are passing on their bad habits to their students and these are being widely perpetuated to the point of appearing normal.

I know that when I read a document full of grammar and spelling errors I tend to assume that the content is also faulty.  A good example is the two national daily newspapers.  Both are rife with errors and one automatically assumes that this slapdash approach will also be reflected in the quality of their reporting.  Viewed from the outside, this also reflects badly on the world’s view of Papua New Guinea.

Grammar and spelling are important, in whatever language you are writing, including Tok Pisin and Motu.  Believe it or not, it is closely associated with your credibility as a writer.  The way to ensure the highest standards is through effective editing.  But how does a struggling writer engage with a good editor when there seems to be very few competent editors around and those that are charge high fees?

And, of course, there are dangers using editors, especially untrained ones.  Being of the latter persuasion I know just how tempting it is to re-write an author’s work to make it ‘better’.  In many cases making it ‘better’ can destroy the writer’s unique style and neutralise the impact of their work.  Helping but not interfering is a fine art.

As noted above, professional editors are expensive, and, between you and me, a lot of them are failed writers or the products of creative writing courses.  Do you really need someone like that mucking around with your work anyway?

What do you do if they pinch your ideas?  Don’t laugh, it happens.  I once sent a children’s book to a publisher and they duly knocked it back.  No big deal, that happens all the time to most writers. 

A year later, however, and they published a dead-ringer by one of their in-house writers.  The legal advice I got said I’d be wasting my time taking them to court.

You can get friends to edit your work but sometimes that’s not such a good idea at all.  Friends are usually too nice to tell you that they really think what you have written is rubbish and full of mistakes and bad spelling.  You need an enemy to do that but who is going to give their work to an enemy to critique?

I’ve thought about this for a while and I’ve asked fellow writers what they do and what they think.  They all agree that it is a common problem without a ready solution.  If you haven’t got a highly literate and frank friend who is prepared to help you free of charge your options are severely limited.

The only way forward that I can see in Papua New Guinea is with organisations like the newly formed Simbu Writer’s Association.  I know that there are competent writers among the association’s ranks and that they have an avowed mission to help each other.  If this can be developed into something a bit more formal, even if it involves small fees, it can only be good.

In this digital age with a rapidly changing publishing scene I would envisage the SWA setting up an account with one of the free publishers, like Amazon’s Createspace, so that its members can not only edit each other’s work in house but also publish it too.

I think this is the way forward.  It doesn’t offer an immediate solution to the editing problem but given time it may mitigate the problem considerably.

Keith Jackson writes:

Here are my 10 big tips for Crocodile Prize writers….

1 – When you complete the first rough draft, read through it as if you were in the mind of another person, your mum maybe, and see if it makes sense.

2 – Keep rewriting until you believe you’ve got a good product. Then give it to a friend to read asking them if they can think of way it could be improved.

3 – Pay attention to structure. Does the poem or article or story develop in a clear and understandable way? With prose, a strong opening to entice the reader is always recommended. The first paragraphs should set the scene for the reader. The ending should wrap everything up adequately. What’s in between should keep the reader interested all the way.

4 – Do not go into unnecessary detail or bring in subject matter which is not relevant to the main thrust of your writing. You should have a clear idea of where you’re piece is heading and where you are in the journey.

5 – If, when you’re writing, you do not have a thorough understanding of what it really is you’re trying to say, you can assume your readers will be totally confused. Think some more about what it is you’re trying to say.

6 – Try not to mix past and present tense. What you start with, stick with.

7 – Always be thinking how could I say this better; what word would be best here; do I need so many adjectives; that’s a cliché, how can I write something fresh?

8 – Don’t over-write. Better two pages of sparkling prose than four pages of drudge.

9 – Don’t believe that the university essay you’re proud of will make a fine Crocodile Prize entry. It will read like a university essay and is unlikely to pass muster with the editor. Catch up with Phil Fitzpatrick’s essay on essayshere.

10 – If you haven’t yet read my Stuff you need to know about PNG Attitude, do so now. It contains some useful information about writing for publication. It’s here.


Published by Ples Singsing

Ples Singsing is envisioned to be a new platform for Papua Niuginian expressions of creativity, ingenuity and originality in art and culture. We deliberately highlight these two very broad themes as they can encompass the diverse subjects, from technology, medicine and architecture to linguistics, music, fishing, gardening et cetera. Papua Niuginian ways of thinking, living, believing, communicating, dying and so on can cover the gamut of academic, journalistic or opinionated writing and we believe that unless we give ourselves a platform to talk about and discuss these things in an open, free and non-exclusively academic space that they may remain the fodder for academics, journalists and other types of writers alone. New social media platforms have given every individual a personal space to share their feelings and ideas openly, sometimes without immediate censure. The Ples Singsing writer’s blog would like to provide another more structured platform for Papua Niuginian expressions in written, visual and audio formats while also providing some regulation of the type and content of materials to be shared publicly.

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