The Legless fighter pilot, Douglas Bader, is credited with coining the phrase, “Get it right, old boy, otherwise don’t bother.” He was talking about flying, of course, but I figure the same maxim applies to writing. That’s one of the reasons I welcome as much editing and critical scrutiny of my manuscripts as possible. I don’t claim to get it right on a first or even a second draft, that would be arrogant, but I do claim to spend a lot of time trying to “get it right.”
I have read the advice of writers who caution against too much editing, and I fully understand where they come from. There is a real risk of losing the crisp spontaneity that is usually inherent in a first draft. But I tend to weight up that risk against the other risk: that of getting something painfully wrong. It happens, even to the most successful of writers. I recently re-read a top-selling novel I thoroughly enjoyed thirty years ago. This time I found myself muttering, “He’s got that hopelessly wrong,” and it spoiled my enjoyment of the book this time around. In a more recent novel by a well-regarded writer with a major publishing house I was surprised to read that Aldermaston and County Louth are both in Northern Ireland. They are not. A year or so ago I threw away a Dan Brown novel because I figure a millionaire writer can afford to hire proof-readers able to spot glaring errors. It’s not only errors of fact that tend to stand out. More and more these days I find that errors of grammar and poor sentence construction can creep in and spoil the enjoyment of a book.
All of which explains why I get welcome the value of belonging to a weekly class where there is an opportunity to test out salient parts of a novel before they are cast in stone. I make a note of whatever the critics say and go home to mull over every single point. I usually find that eighty per cent of them are valid criticisms or suggestions and I make changes as a result. And it happens before any paying reader gets to see the text and mutters, “He got that wrong.”