Sunday, 10 February 2013

Get It Right

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.”

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