Summary: What does it take to write a successful manuscript, and how do you effectively work with an editor? We speak to Ann Harth to find out some of the most common (and easily fixed) mistakes that aspiring authors make.
Top Tips for Aspiring Authors from a Manuscript Editor
What is it like to work as a professional editor, and what are some of the most common mistakes made by aspiring authors?
Ann Harth is an author, freelance editor, ghostwriter, and she also tutors in writing and editing. Ann works as a technical editor but also edits fiction in many genres. She believes that some of the biggest mistakes made by new authors can be avoided. Often, she says, writers think that they are finished when they aren’t. Ann usually advises her clients to allow their work to rest for as long as possible.
“By this I mean put it away – in a drawer, under the bed or in the garage. Leave it alone for as long as possible. Start another project or try to focus on something else while your manuscript rests and your subconscious goes to work. Leave it for as long as possible – a few weeks or even months.”
Ann suggests that potential authors might uncover things they didn’t notice the first time around. “You will be looking at your work with a more objective eye and be able to spot inconsistencies and problems more clearly.”
Another problem Ann sees is that she feels many writers seem to write solely to publish, rather than for the joy of the writing itself. “Some of the richest, most powerful work I’ve ever read is sent to me by writers who simply want to write. They wouldn’t knock back a three book deal but it’s not their main aim. Your readers will care, not because you have chosen a popular topic, but because you care.”
The third aspect of a manuscript that Ann finds often needs attention is the development of characters. “Characters can make or break your book. If you can create a three-dimensional, believable character with strengths, weaknesses and interesting traits, you are halfway there, but your readers also need to be able to identify with your protagonist. They don’t have to agree with every move or thought, but it helps if they can recognise some aspect of the character in themselves.”
Writing skills, characterisation and structuring can be taught, but what personality traits make an outstanding editor? Ann rightly points out that this depends on the specialisation of each type of editor. When editing fiction, Ann tries to look for specifics like spelling and grammar but she also tries to take a more holistic approach to the manuscript, “so intuitiveness plays a big part,” she says.
When working as a technical editor, Ann replaces her gut feelings with “attention to detail and the determination to make sure that the document says exactly what it means.” Sensitivity is also a valuable asset, as more often than not, the author of a document will have spent a lot of time and energy on the project, and may be nervous about sharing it with a professional, so Ann makes the effort to point out strengths as well.
So what can an editor do for your writing? “I feel that an editor’s job is to enhance the author’s writing and help him to bring out his voice and his own unique writing style. An editor is there to help you make your work the best it can be. Suggestions can be helpful, but only if the editor can back them up with their reasons for making them. This is part of the never-ending learning process that is writing. If I’ve done my job well, my work is unnoticed.”
Having said that, there are a couple of things Ann mentions that an editor cannot do for your writing, including performing miracles and rewriting your book for you. Most writers and editors are talking about the shift to self-publishing now, and quality can be an issue, says Ann. “There are some well-written, powerful self-published books out there. There are others that are not. I would encourage anyone who has decided on the self-publishing route to make sure that you are offering only the best.”
Some tips she gives are to let your writing rest, then look at it again with a fresh eye. Ann also suggests joining a critique group, or hiring an editor or manuscript assessor to give you objective input. “Have patience and an eye for detail. Take your time so that you can be unconditionally proud of the book you release.”
There are hundreds of thousands of writers out there, most of whom would like to have their work published. It may sound obvious, but Ann suggests that the two most important things aspiring authors need to do is to read and to write!
“Read in all genres. Read with the eyes of a writer. Try to understand why certain aspects of a book work and others don’t. File this information away and try to apply it in your own writing. As well as learning from the work of other writers, reading helps you experience different styles. Write every day. Don’t wait for the muse or inspiration to strike.”
Ann believes that lack of inspiration should not be an issue for the aspiring writer. “It doesn’t matter what you write, just put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and write whatever comes into your mind. It may be gibberish, but if you keep practising you will catch a glimpse of a phrase or an idea that sparks your imagination. It may be tiny at first but with a little patience and some careful tending, you may be able to nurture that spark into a tiny flame that grows and grows until you find yourself with the beginnings of a book.”
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Yvette Maurice is a writer with over 12 years of media experience in the Australian radio industry. She blogs about social change, careers and new media. She currently works as Journalist in Residence at Open Colleges. When not working you’ll find her attempting elaborate recipes, running on a treadmill or reading memoirs and narrative non-fiction.