Friday, June 8, 2018

Don't Do What Your English Teacher Told You To Do

If you want to be a published writer, you should ignore most of what your English teacher told you about creative writing. Don’t ignore the grammar though—that’s important! But some of the other things your English teacher told you would get you points on your beautifully crafted essay will ensure that you are never published.
Let me give you some examples of what I mean.
            English teachers love to see English idioms in an essay. The more you have, the more the points will pile up. But a publisher will cringe at each one. If your character comes late for the meeting and you write “better late than never” your English teacher will smile but a publisher will put your short story to the side. Butchers down the street who are “right as rain” and paragraphs that start with “to make a long story short” are not wanted in modern novels and short stories.
            Most publishers see the use of such idioms at lazy writing. They are clichés and all clichés should be avoided. The reason is because they are used so often they make the writing uninteresting. You want to produce fresh, interesting writing. Some commonly used phrases can be cliché too, examples include: blushing bride, bored stiff, cold shoulder, and let her hair down, just to mention a few.
Even entire plots can be cliché. If your protagonist goes on an incredible journey but the last line of you story is “…and then she woke up” you need to go back to the drawing board and come up with something original. In fantasy, if your protagonist is searching for a ring in a magical fairy land with a mean dragon, try to sit down and change a few parts of the plot to make it fresh.
Another thing to avoid is what I call “thesaurus writing”. In thesaurus writing simple words will not do. A thesaurus writer wants a long complicated or obscure word every single time. An English teacher might like that, but a publisher wants precision. I recently read a self-published novel and it was nearly impossible for any character in the book to walk. Students in the book “gaited up the stairs”, “danced through a crowd” and “quietly trooped.”.  If you want to be published by a literary magazine or by traditional publishers, you must work to get the correct word. If the correct word is walked— then use it. You don’t get points for finishing the words in the dictionary.
In that same novel, verbs were unable to move along in the narrative without the constant assistance of an adverb. Groundsmen were “fervently sweeping” and a receptionist “answered enthusiastically”. Adverbs weaken verbs, they don’t strengthen them. I am not a writer who bans adverbs, but I use them sparingly and, I hope, for effect.
English teachers want description; they want everything described in detail. I think if you’ve read a novel written in such a way you will realise how tiring it is. A writer slows down the story to describe something for a reason. When I teach writing workshops, I always talk about significant detail. If I go into detail describing a man who has walked into the room where my protagonist is, but then three pages later he disappears from the novel and we never meet him again, you as the reader will feel cheated. Why were you taken on this descriptive journey? The man did nothing and plays no role in the story.
But yet time and again I read passages from writers where every single thing in the room is described. It is weak writing not strong, no matter how many English teachers might disagree with me.
Significant detail, though, can make a story very special. When you choose carefully what to describe and you understand fully why you’re describing it, then the reader knows they are in assured, capable hands.
One last thing your English teacher did you no favour with is dialogue tags. Your characters do not need to exclaim, or proclaim or even blame. Your characters can say or ask.  And please never this, “I like that,” Clara smiled”. You can’t smile words. Clara said is good enough.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Need an Editor? Mafoko Manuscript Services is Here!

I’m always getting people asking me to edit their stories or manuscripts but I’m not an editor, I’m a writer. I was so relieved to get the news that no one needs to send me these requests anymore— now we have our very own, Botswana-based, editing service! Mafoko Manuscript Services which opened shop in August 2017. The business is the brainchild of Dr Mary Lederer and Dr Leloba Molema, who I interviewed below.

What made you think a service like yours was required?
We have worked on editorial boards for various journals and anthologies, and we have always noted the fact that a lot of people don’t seem to take care with their work—revising it, editing it for content consistency, presentation, grammar, etc.  We were also struck by the fact that often the creative voice is edited out in favour of homogeneity in some types of publications.  In addition, young writers often need guidance in finding their narrative voices and in letting small alterations to their English enhance the overall voice and quality of their work.  We decided that we would form an editing service in order to address some of these problems.  We would like to help people become more familiar with what is required to really edit something properly and with the process of preparing something for submission, but we also want to support local writing, most especially creative writing.
Finally, we were somewhat tired of people handing us huge reams of paper and asking us to “just have a look”.  Editing and evaluating are detailed, time-consuming jobs, and we decided it was time for us to start assigning our work a value.

What does the company do?
Depending on the subject matter, we can help with content editing and evaluation, which involves, obviously, the content of a manuscript.  We have experience working with writers on creative projects such as stories and poems, and of course we do copyediting (for grammar, style, etc.) and proofreading (the last stage before something is submitted).  We can also do ghost writing, translations, and small administrative things.

We are planning to hold editing workshops for a small fee …The first workshop won’t happen until the spring, but once we have scheduled it, we will post details on our Facebook page and on our website.  If anyone has any suggestions about what would be useful—for editing, not for writing—they can email us those suggestions.

So far how has the response been?
We have had a lot of enquiries, including from overseas, but many people here in Botswana seem to be a bit surprised by our rates.  Because we are based in Botswana, we can charge half of what editors and copyeditors in other places, including in South Africa, charge, so we think we are a bargain.  Overseas enquiries often come to us because the writer is intrigued by the prospect of having an English-language editor working from Botswana; others are attracted by our rates. 

What have the main sorts of projects been so far?
We have had a variety. Some people have sent us their academic papers.  We have edited a novel, a collection of short stories, and chapters from or entire theses and dissertations.  We have had one translating job.  Mary is currently proofreading a 400-page hagiography, and we have a book manuscript that we are copyediting. So we have had a variety of manuscripts on a variety of subjects.

Are your clients primarily individuals or have you started working with local (or even international) publishers?
So far, all of our clients except for one have been individuals.  We haven’t been approached by any publishers, but we expect that to take a bit more time.  Local publishers have told us that they are looking forward to not having to send things to South Africa for editing, but so few books are being published locally that we are not entirely surprised that our work comes from individuals.

How much do you charge?
We adhere to the international standard of 250 words/page and of charging by the hour. So copyediting runs about 3-5 pages/hour; proofreading, about 10+ pages/hour (depending on whether the document has been properly copyedited).  Copyediting costs about P200–250/hour, and proofreading P150/hour.  We ask for a 50% deposit before we begin work. We also offer a 20% discount to students. We can be reached at; our web address is or