Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Tuesday 1 May 2012

A Note on Editing

I’m a great believer that writing can be roughly divided into two disciplines, and, in my experience almost all writers are better at one discipline than the other. Once in a while, a writer emerges who is strong in both disciplines, but I consider it very rare. 
The two disciplines are, in my mind anyway: 1 - Coming up with ideas and plotting stories, and 2 - Writing beautiful sentences, structured into amazing chapters, and formed into wonderful works of prose.
When I have to choose, and, sometimes, we all have to choose, I go with style over plot every time. I’m content with a satisfying read that appears to take me nowhere. The daughter’s definition of Literary Fiction is a story about nothing that finally stops, and I take her point, but, given the choice between this kind of fiction, and a technically terrible writer with a decent plot, I’ll take the writing.
Some people think this makes me a snob. To those people, I say, 'Fine, I’m a snob, so sue me.' So far, no one has tried.
The problem is that I’m old-school, and that writers that are considered great technicians by others often fall short for me. It’s a terrible shame, and, to some extent, it’s what takes me back to older fiction, not necessarily ‘The Classics’, (although almost everything written before 1985 that’s still in print seems to be labelled this way), but stuff produced by writers who take a more formal approach.
I think I was particularly lucky to be the last generation that learned anything about grammar, and I was certainly among the last to be expected to learn any Latin at all, which invariably expands a writer’s vocabulary, and therefore makes the writing rather more nuanced. I’m not going to claim to be a great technician, when it comes to writing, but I certainly feel as if I recognise great writing when it crosses my path. Sadly, it crosses my path all too rarely.
I don’t entirely blame writers, of course. I see no reason why someone with sound ideas and a willingness to write shouldn’t have a crack at it. I do, however, wish that those people had access to great editors, the best of whom know how to seamlessly impose an elegance on otherwise dodgy prose, and make the writer look much better than he might otherwise.
Sadly, the art appears to be disappearing fast, possibly forever, and if you don’t believe me, this is what Anthony Horowitz had to say on the subject: 
“The process [of editing] wasn’t helped by my editor cheerfully suggesting that I change the voice from the third person (he) to the first (I). Bizarrely, she believed this could be achieved by using the find/replace button on my computer when of course it would mean totally rewriting the whole bloody thing. As a result, I’m no longer speaking to her.” 
 (from the Sunday Telegraph, 29-04-12)
I, for one, can’t say that I blame him.


  1. I think there probably are far more writers with wonderful prose skills, but they aren't getting published. The market seems strongly biased towards plot and storytelling. I've read some heartbreakingly good writing on my MA, but know that some of it won't ever be seen in print.

    I love story, but there is no excuse for bad writing. I will give up on a book within a few pages if the writing is bad, no matter how compelling the blurb.

  2. I think I'd class myself as a book snob too. I'd far rather read enchanting writing than a 'good story'. I can rarely stick with a good story that is badly written.

    This is the first of your posts I have read. I shall poke through for some more now.

  3. I'm with you on the benefits of learning grammar. Not necessarily in a dry 'terminology' focused way, but in helping children to break writing down into component parts and put them together again in a playful way. It reaps dividends in learning foreign languages too. It's the 'code' needed to enable language to be built into beautiful, clever and useful things.
    There has recently been a survey which has shown that taught grammar improves writing skills by about 20-30% (particularly so for the more able pupil). I hope someone somewhere important manages to read it.
    (By the way, for my money I think Kate Atkinson combines plot and writing in a very satisfying way.)

  4. I'm 15, and I completely agree, and an example of good plot and technical skill could be Bernard Cornwell, just putting that out there? :)