How do you read?

Reading a book seems a straightforward thing. Be it on a page, an e-reader, on your phone, even listening to an audio recording, we’re all in the author’s hands, following the same path on this journey. Interactive multi-media books might be coming, but they’ve not taken hold of us yet.

But I’ve recently been struck by the differences in how we carry out this simple act, how we engage with this experience. Readers have favourite ways to read. And like the Sydney Morning Herald journalist who recently wrote about her book addiction, it might be an experience so intense that it takes over your life.

Making space and time

Me? I’ve learnt to slow down. I read for the beauty of language, the clever construction of words as they create meaning and bring forth worlds.

I like to read uninterrupted—by kids, partner, fellow commuters, schedules. While I appreciate Danny Katz’s observation that the toilet provides just such a space, a numb bum takes away from the pleasure somewhat…

I won’t read until I have dedicated time to wholly engage, and in a comfortable spot. During the day, a Protestant work ethic kicks in and I feel I should be doing something else, but after dinner is perfect—on the couch, with good light and a glass of wine. Bedtime is good. Holidays and plane trips are good.

I won’t read on public transport because it’s just too bitty. Too fraught with having to engage with other people, or watch out for my stop. I worked for a man once who would read on the train to work, then along the footpath, and in the lift, only closing the book when he reached his office.

But me? I like to hold a finger in my page—or look up from an e-reader—and drift off into my own thoughts; I love the freedom of having nothing to keep pace with, nothing to miss if I wander away for a moment. And I love to reread a sentence over again, just to take in its wonder (and which is why I’m not remotely interested in audio books).

Respect!

I won’t read into the night when tiredness swamps comprehension and I find I am rereading a line three times. And I’ll stop when I start skating through, only reading for plot. Writing, good writing, is the hardest thing. When authors put their soul into each word, each sentence, to skim is to do them a disservice. That said, sometimes you just have to find out!

To share, and with whom…?

For me, reading is a solitary thing, an intensely private pastime. I’ve never wanted to join a book club. That kind of parallel reading, and sharing, leaves me cold. My own response to the author, what I take away, feels like my journey alone; other people’s responses are theirs.

But sometimes, of fellow readers, I will ask—‘What are you reading?’ It’s a shared understanding that one is always reading. I’ll ask because my kind of book club is between two only so when I find a reading soulmate, I ask. Like catching sunlight falling across a room, it won’t be there for long. A reader always moves on.

The sense of an ending

Do you pause between books? I recently read Adrian McKinty’s Sean Duffy series straight through (thank you, digital age). But series aside, when I’m between books, I’m in one world and not ready to move into another. I’m a bit antsy in those few days, a bit disconsolate.

But there’s always another. I can turn to my bookshelf that holds just those I’ve not read yet. And it’s hard to resist the lure of an e-book, always available, just one click… (I’ve heard that Amazon patented that technology and can see why).

My own reading addiction ended with a mid-career change that took a second Master’s degree, and a steep drop in income. I became a professional editor when I realised that I cared more about the words in the documents than I did about the policy, or the politics.

When I have a fresh manuscript to get on with, I couldn’t be happier.

How do you read?

 

Dymphna Cusack

Such a joy to discover a new/old writer! I am now reading everything by Dymphna Cusack (1902–1981) whose writing life was brilliantly recreated by Marilla North (Yarn Spinners, UQP 2001) at a recent Jessie Street National Women’s Library Lunch Hour Talk.

Cusack infused her literature with her passion for social justice. Women’s rights to control their bodies and their destinies was a recurring theme. Writing about poverty and power, she illuminated women’s lives in Australian society, their places taken, their freedoms ceded. Though now fifty years old, her satire and commentary on class, power and privilege remains fiercely observant and intelligent.

In The Bloody Traffic, Cusack took on the arms industry and her play, Pacific Paradise protested nuclear weapons. Though she was a well-known and popular writer internationally, Cusack had been hurt by her own country’s lack of recognition. Perhaps it is not hard to see why. She was a thorn in the side of many bastions of power.

 

If you haven’t yet read Cusack, start with Come in Spinner, co-authored with Florence James. The sheer pace of its plot, driven by a host of compelling characters, was a revelation. I recommend it highly.

For anyone who knows Newcastle, like I do, there is another reason I was intrigued. Dymphna Cusack lived in that port city for several years, literally around the corner from where my parents live today. Her books describe the parks and beaches I remember from holidays with my grandparents and she recreates them vividly.

Seeing the whole city spread out below him, he was filled with a sense of exaltation: the harbour sparkling between the winding shores of the estuary, its waters streaked with the purplish line of the river, the twin arms of Nobbys and Stockton enclosing it like the pincers of a giant crab; the huddle of buildings along the water-front; the scatter of suburbs, thinning out between coast and timbered heights; the innumerable factory chimneys, and, towering above them all, sign and seal of Newcastle’s existence, the smoke-stacks of Southern Steel and Broken Hill Proprietary under their perpetual silver-black clouds.” (Southern Steel (1953)

 

Adrian McKinty and James Lee Burke

Over the last weeks, I’ve been reading Irish-Australian writer Adrian McKinty’s Sean Duffy series and am entranced by the acuity of his observations; the blinking humanity revealed when the lights go up. The feeling was similar over ten years ago when I first read James Lee Burke. With more than twenty so far in his Robicheaux series, Burke’s lyrical prose continues to distil what it is to be human—the flaws and vanities, petty obsessions and manifestations of love. In these writers’ hands, crime lies where the fragile membrane between coping and not breaks; where a civilisation’s codes of behaviour constructed and defended to protect both the weak and the powerful are breached. Crime is in the cracks. But that’s how the light gets in, too.

It is a seductive paradox. Both Dave Robicheaux and Sean Duffy embody the complexity of a life as the individual wrestles with themselves and their place in the world. McKinty and Burke are both skilled in revealing the overlap, the imprecision in the reckoning of good and bad. Robicheaux and Duffy are both burdened by a sense of responsibility that they find overwhelming at times. Both break sometimes and lash out. They know they’ve lost it but containing the accumulated rage and frustration becomes impossible. If they see themselves as some force for good, standing between the players and the victims, it is not hubris but rather a weary reckoning that they might have held off the chaos for just another day.

With an intelligence that precludes more than a nod to conformity, neither holds protocols in high regard. Working in rule-bound bureaucracies that snuff out distinguishing behaviour, no matter what it yields, this can be risky. Both serve petty masters: Dave Robicheaux as a sheriff’s deputy in New Iberia parish, Louisiana and Sean Duffy as a detective inspector at Carrick Police Station, Northern Ireland. The local station, the parish office is their domain, for better or worse. The FBI (Fart, Barf and Itch) and MI5 are staffed by political operatives whose chief concern is fallout for stakeholders in the bigger picture. Where they collide, Robicheaux and Duffy are warned off: their cases mere distraction, resolution neither here nor there. Pity about the dead, the preyed upon. Though both men know they are worth more, they despise the kowtowing, the mediocrity, the concessions that are requisite for promotion.

Robicheaux’s eternal struggle is with corrupt power and the damage wrought by blinkered excess and privilege. Whether they be mobsters, or corporates, or old money, these interchangeable rich, white folk exploit and discard Louisiana’s Cajun, black and Catholic minorities. Burke writes of the fruit pickers, the wheat harvesters, and the unrepentant IWW unionists who try to organise them and who are crucified for their efforts. McKinty’s Duffy is a Catholic, serving in the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the police force with the highest mortality rate of any in the Western world. In a prod world, being a Catholic peeler is a death sentence. Yet he stays.

‘Maybe I’m not a great detective, maybe I’m not even a good detective, but I am fucking persistent. And I am going to find out how Ek did it and I’m going to bring the bastard down for it. The UK government might not like it, the Irish government might not like it, but if I can make a case, the RUC will support me…Cops everywhere love nicking villains’. (Rain Dogs, 2015).

While Burke’s novels have few markers linking events to their time, McKinty’s 1980s Northern Ireland evokes my teens in a different British outpost: I remember the Falk Off t-shirts, the miners’ strike on the BBC World Service, the Royal Family being so modern with the redheaded commoner, and the music: ‘The driver had on Radio 1, which was giving us Kylie Minogue’’ ‘I Should Be So Lucky’. Within a few seconds Miss Minogue’s sunny Antipodean vocals and the chirpy lyrics had brought out my dark, misanthropic side…’

History is a restive participant in both series. Reminders of slavery’s dehumanising effects are throughout Burke’s Louisiana—that slaves dug and fired the clay bricks of a plantation home, the rage and madness of their descendants whose lives are blighted by alcoholism and violence. In Ireland in 1985, the riots, roadblocks, burning buses, fires mark just another day in the sectarian war (McKinty, Gun Street Girl, 2015). The bitterness of this centuries-old dispute has dug so deep, there is no turning. When the Anglo–Irish Agreement is struck, the extremists go to town: “‘In a normal country this bold attempt to seize the middle ground would be met with polite agreement by all sides of the political divide… ‘But not here’” (Rain Dogs, 2015). Less poetic than Burke, McKinty’s writing is bleakly funny.

Black humour to go with Duffy’s black jeans and DMs.

That other signpost, the environment, is rendered with extraordinary deftness by both writers. The rain, the snow, fog and wind are more than mere weather—they become characters. Half-frozen Atlantic rainlashes Ireland’s citizens with apocalyptic fury. It is ‘cold cleansing,’ ‘elemental’, ‘a biblical scourge’. Louisiana’s sky sheds fat drops, the heat intense then ‘suddenly cool and thick with the sulphurous smell of ozone.’ The ground barely contains the rising, swelling mass; the waters of the Atchafalaya Basin and its marshes and swamps encroach on the towns; the dead are buried above ground in stone vaults to not be washed away. The transience of humanity, when all’s said and done.

But Dave Robicheaux believes in love, in redemption, a time ‘where we would witness once again the unfinished story of ourselves.’ (Cadillac Jukebox, 1996). Sean Duffy is less optimistic. ‘I thought I could make a difference… Ten years ago … Now I realise that one man can do very little.’ On riot duty, the ‘weens’ throw stones and half-bricks but Duffy anticipates the day when they are making Molotov cocktails and petrol bombs. Still, his very presence, albeit reluctant and dour, is hopeful. What else is there?

‘Crime writing’ is never about the crime. Not the good stuff anyway. There is such a thing as society (sorry, Margaret Thatcher) and though broken, it is not beyond repair. Read McKinty and Burke for the elegance of their prose and the light that filters through the cracks.

First published in Newtown Review of Books

Accidental Aid Worker by Sue Liu

2004 was a terrible year for humanity. I remember the Beslen school massacre—children shot in the back by Chechen guerillas as they escaped. And just as it was about to end, the Boxing Day Tsunami hit southern Asia. This was to become a pivotal moment in author Sue Liu’s life. Accidental Aid Worker is her story of how wanting to help a community became life-changing. It is also an exploration of the complexities of aid, both moral and logistical.

On a trip to Sri Lanka in 2004, Liu is taken with the enthusiasm and spirit of her tour guide, Bruno, a Tamil. His local tour company aims to empower people, especially women, who live and work in the tea plantations. ‘His vision is to create a society where young people have access and opportunity for education, regardless of caste, class, religion and ethnicity – with a particular mission to assist the children of poor plantation workers.’ She promises to stay in touch.

Then the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami hits. In its reach, its horror, the devastation is beyond belief. We see images of bodies lined up on beaches, faces bloated past identification; a woman holding her dead baby, shaking with grief. Liu gives us the numbers. ‘Indonesia’s death toll is in excess of 130,000, the missing in the vicinity of 37,000 and displaced at half a million people, Sri Lanka reports over 35,000 dead, 21,400 injured and 516,000 now homeless.’

Her affection for Bruno and the people of Sri Lanka galvanises her into organising an aid shipment: the Sri Lanka Appeal for Bruno. When she sends an email to her friends and family, she finds she has tapped into a vast outpouring of support from people desperate to help. Liu’s organising prowess is extraordinary. Single-handedly, she manages information on her website and through emails, she posts lists and guidelines for what is most needed, organises collections, sorts rigorously, accepts cash donations (gratefully, in the knowledge that shipping costs have to be covered) and is beset with fears the whole time that she will be getting something wrong.

She packs 75 boxes: tents, tarpaulins, wash basins, shoes, thongs, new and used clothing, toys, school stationery, toiletries, babies’ needs, and other essential items such as batteries, candles, rope, tools and laundry supplies. They go into a shipping container and she entrusts Sri Lankan logistics to sort it out at the other end.

While her intention was to bypass the big NGOs and deal directly with individuals, politics interferes. People want to know why her aid is for the Tamil regions. Is she supporting terrorism? Finding out who to trust, and who trusts her becomes fraught. The whispering in her head is relentless: ‘Are you just another well-intentioned ‘do-gooder’ taking risks, working outside the structure and making problems for the sanctioned and approved organisations?’ When she is moved to buy fans for children in desperately hot orphanages, she is asked by a local priest, ‘Why are you here and what do you want from Sri Lankan people?’ It is a question that stumps her.

Liu asks us to think about the conundrum of aid and its impact on the local economy: in one sense, it is a flood of ‘free stuff.’ ‘Would it be better to give money so that local traders can provide the goods?’ She doesn’t have an answer. The graft and corruption of developing economies makes administering cash difficult but she has her own heart-breaking discovery when her boxes eventually arrive. Is one person, operating independently, more agile than a large bureaucracy? Or is the security provided by the big NGOs necessary, in the end?

Liu doesn’t shy away from other hard questions—there is never enough aid. From her position on the ground, from following up and going into the crisis zones, she can see desperately poor and vulnerable people everywhere but her aid was intended for displaced coastal communities. How do we justify giving to one community over another?

And she asks us to think about travel and tourism. How do we travel about the world, respectfully? The curious phenomenon of visiting another country, another culture, to see and do things differently could be seen as an open and innocent experience, or one that is voyeuristic, even parasitic. ‘It is certainly hard to gauge the times you should listen to your gut and heed the warnings of your paranoia, or surrender to chance and opportunity. That’s what travel is supposed to teach you, how to hone your instincts to make better judgement calls but it doesn’t always work that way.’

For her provocative questioning alone, Accidental Aid Worker is worth reading but Liu also lays bare her thoughts on the big issues of love, family, friendship, grief and her own mental health. Its forays into the joys, or otherwise, of living in share housing, travel, self-employment and dealing with mid-life lighten the read.

Liu donates to community projects a percentage of each book sold and, as we approach another anniversary of the boxing day tsunami, think about copies for Christmas presents this year.

Sue Liu (2015), Accidental Aid Worker, Zulu Communications Pty Ltd, Rozelle

 

 

Self-publishing 101

Do you have a story?

Today, I went to a full day workshop to hear from two insider heavyweights about the ins and outs of self-publishing. Sue Liu and Anna Maguire are experts in their fields. Sue is a successful self-published author of Accidental Aid Worker. Anna Maguire, Digireado, is a veteran of the book publishing industry.

Wow. If your head is still in that airy-fairy place of one day ‘your book’ will ‘just happen’, these two experts will set you straight. To make it in self-publishing, to move beyond the 100 copies you thrust upon friends and family, to make it real, you have to work hard.

Don’t give up on those dreams which will keep you warm in the dark times, but don’t be deluded either.

Finding your voice

Sue’s background is in marketing and she wanted participants to hone in on what they were doing, and why. With so many books hitting the market every single day, you need a good reason to be writing another one. What is your passion? What have you got to say? And to whom? Sue asked us to set out our dreams, ideas and notions of our ‘book’. What is our journey? Engaging and self-deprecating, she told us her story with lots of laughs.

Sue’s memoir tells the story of her catapulting into aid work after the 2004 tsunami which devastated southeast Asia, including the Sri Lankan community that she had become close to in her travels. Starting with a ‘small’ fundraising appeal, she eventually had to manage boxes upon boxes, shipping, corruption, border security and a myriad other issues, ending with more trips back and forth to see it through. Her observations of the foreign aid industry and first-hand perspective into the conundrum that is philanthropy—what can be freely given, when is it ever enough, and the dangers of it being hijacked by another’s agenda—is an ongoing learning experience and all part of her journey.

Who are you?

She gave us tools to build a profile. You, the writer. A writer’s profile is elemental to their being able to sell their books. And do you want sales? Hell, yes. Sales means readership, and why you are writing.

I have heard from others in the industry, Joel Naoum at Critical Mass for one, that successful self-published authors are those who see it as their small business. In other words, immediate success is unlikely to fall into your lap. Dreams of being on Oprah will likely remain dreams. But, as she said, don’t let that stop you!  While you might not make a lot of money, if you have a story, and want to get it out there, there are tried and tested routes to making it happen.

… and how to make it happen!

Anna took the second part of the day to talk us through the ins and outs of making your book real. She told us about the different paths to publication, budgets, ISBNs, the value of editing, design, ebook creation and distribution, and through to crowdfunding for writers.

These are the things that you will need. While she freely acknowledged that it can be daunting, it’s important to get your head around the fact that it’s a process. Anna gives you the tools and know-how to tick off each box. You can do this!

A changed world for writers, and readers

I love the way publishing has been turned on its head. It’s exciting that we have so many more voices out there and so much choice. But this whole DIY shebang can be a bit of a poisoned chalice. It is not as simple at hitting a few buttons on a self-publishing site.

For instance, Anna made the salient point that you don’t need an editor if your book has no words.  Don’t let yours be the one with the typos and plot holes.

I have worked with writers who had thought, well, they’ve written plenty in previous occupations—they can write a book. The truth is that you can’t edit your own work. Self-published authors who skimp on editing live to regret it.

Take the time to learn how to produce a quality book that you will be proud of. To find out where their next workshop will be, contact Sue at Accidental Aid Worker, and her Facebook page, Accidental Aid Worker – by Sue Liu. Sue also runs mentoring sessions in smaller groups. Contact Anna Maguire at Digireado, or on Facebook.

 

 

If you’re at the next stage, I’ve love to work with  you. Contact me here, or at jessica@yourseconddraft for an evaluation of your manuscript, or an editing assessment.

Women Writing Women

Rose Scott Women Writers’ Festival

I spent a recent Saturday at the Symposium of the 2017  Rose Scott Women Writers’ Festival,  an annual event run by the Women’s Club in Sydney. Its theme this year was Women Writing Women.  An intimate festival, held in beautiful rooms overlooking Hyde Park, its limited numbers allow for easy mingling between writers and readers. This year, it drew such well-known writers as Delia Falconer, Tegan Bennet Daylight and poet Kate Middleton, launching her most recent collection, Passage (Giramondo, 2017).

Helen Garner – a polarising force

Dr Bernadette Brennan started the day with her fascinating biography, A writing life, Helen Garner and her work (Text 2017). On discovering that there had been no in-depth study of Garner’s oeuvre, despite a writing career spanning over forty years, Brennan changed her mind about doing a ‘bit of a saunter’ through the ideas Garner generated, and gave herself up to rigorous biography. Given complete access to the notes, letters and journals that Garner had produced over this time, she found it a revelation. Amongst the papers was 25 years of correspondence between Garner and her early publisher Hilary McPhee, of McPhee Gribble.

Bernadette talked fluently and engagingly about the polarising nature of much of Garner’s work – is she a champion of women’s voices, or the opposite? Is she a fiction, or non-fiction writer? Brennan brought out the importance of Garner’s taking on taboo topics such as menstruation, childlessness, bodies and sexuality, and the shame and guilt they can engender. Whatever side of the debate a reader falls on, Brennan’s book is an overdue tribute to the importance of Garner’s contribution to Australian literature.

Writing real women and inventing fictional ones

The day included panel discussions on writing real women, and writing fictional women. Dr Karen Lamb brought us some pearls from Thea Astley’s life in her biography, Thea Astley: Inventing her own weather (UQP 2015), another writer whose contribution to Australian letters had not received due recognition. Who would have known that she watched The Bold And The Beautiful every day, or her particular genius for ‘one-way intimacy’?

On fiction writing, Tegan Bennet Daylight drew us into the creation of her characters – fragments, pieces of herself and others are broken off and, fertile, these will grow in a new setting. Laughter followed her observation that though she would never lift an entire real person to place in her writing, this rule may be forsaken if it’s ‘really good – there’s a wobble in every writer’s moral character!’ Her new book, Six bedrooms (Random House 2015), is a collection of short stories, revisiting teen years – that scorched period where, once passed, we slam the door behind us. She asks, can children escape their backgrounds?

The writer’s lonely life? Not necessarily!

The support of women within the writing community for each other was beautifully illustrated by Lisa Gorton and Kate Middleton’s friendship. When they feel their work is ‘unpublishable’, when the self-doubt rears, they often turn to each other. Gorton’s new novel, The life of houses (Giramondo 2015), takes familiar places and hidden spaces and muses on the powerful relationships between what is seen and unseen, known, or possessed.

The day ended with a glorious reading from members of the Rose Scott Festival committee of parts of Alana Valentine’s play, Letters to Lindy which recently ended a season at the Seymour Centre, Sydney. Alana introduced the reading with a funny and moving account of working with Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton. It was Lindy’s sense of humour which relieved the hurt and pain, the ‘transmitted trauma’, that came in writing it. Lindy still receives over 1000 letters each year, most regretful of things they had once believed. Valentine ended with the observation that theatre is a communal act. In bringing communities together in a public space, allowing for reflection both individually and in relation to each other, it is greater than the sum of its parts. These shared experiences can be used to foster growth and social change.

The Rose Scott Women Writers’ Festival is now formally partnered with the Jessie Street National Women’s Library, where I volunteer in writing and editing its quarterly Newsletter. I look forward to attending many future Festivals.

 

Improve your writing — 6 steps to better outcomes

Anybody can improve their writing. Good writing is a combination of mechanics and artistry and it can be learnt.

This short course provides some fundamental steps that can improve your writing dramatically. From short notes and emails to long proposals or submissions, you can learn how to get better outcomes with written communication. The six steps are:

  1. Generating
  2. Organising
  3. Drafting
  4. Revising
  5. Editing
  6. Proofreading

Note these steps down somewhere you will be able to see them and mentally tick off each one as you go.

#1 Generating

Generating is drawing together the material you need to write your document. It is both a brain dump and a research exercise.

It is an essential part of getting started. There is a relationship between clear thinking and clear writing. In generating your material, you are beginning the process of clarifying your thoughts about your document.

And starting from nothing is hard! Staring at a blank screen, cursor blinking, is enough to put anyone off. Suddenly you realise you need a cup of tea, or you remembered you were going to check your bank statement, or tweet something. Maybe that email you’ve been waiting for has arrived. It’s easy to submit to procrastination without your notes and materials around you.

I like to do certain things to keep me on track. You might like to try these or find other methods that work best for you.

Locate your resources

I start by finding all the documents that I already have that I will be drawing on. They may not all be relevant, but it is good to start with more rather than fewer resources. I either print these out, or have onscreen, arranged so I can see relevant sections.  On your hard copies, highlight relevant sections for quick reference.

Then do the research you need. What are you missing? Identify gaps.

Make notes

Thinking about the three questions above, start to make notes. I like to make these on a new Word document onscreen, but you can use paper. Write down words, phrases, points to remember. Write everything down, even if you think it is unimportant.

There are no wrong thoughts here. Everything that surfaces is useful. Remember that it is much easier to craft what you are trying to say once you realise what it is that you don’t want to say.

Underline or bold words that you see as the most important—these are the key concepts and will help you organise your notes.

Brainstorm

As part of generating, do a few brainstorms. Take a clean piece of paper and write down an answer to each of the questions above (purpose, audience, tone) in the centre of the page. Around this central idea, write down anything that comes to mind. These are your supporting ideas and they will also have off-shoots.

For instance, if you are writing a submission seeking a favourable response from a government department, you may write: ‘satisfy outstanding questions,’ and then around that, you may note the gaps, inconsistencies, problems that you need to address. Refer back to your marked-up resources to jog your memory.

Draw on your resources

Go back to your notes, and start to flesh them out with supporting material. I like to copy and paste sections of supporting documents under relevant headings. Build examples and case studies here which add colour to your argument.

Then, when writing, instead of having to return to the whole source document, I use these excerpts when I want to expand on an argument or draw on an example.

If you are using resources written by other people, and want to quote directly or use large sections of their work, remember to note the URL, their name and publication details at the beginning. Attribution is vital and it is much easier to do this now than hunt around later for a source document.

Now you have a set of notes, you are ready to begin organising. This is the second process step.

#2 Organising

Organising your notes is when you begin to sharpen your thoughts. As writers, we need to be able to answer these questions about the text:

  1. What is this document’s purpose?
  2. Who is the audience?
  3. What is the right language and tone?

When you are clear on these points, you will be ready to draft some powerful words. So, to take the first question.

1. What is the purpose of this document? 

Is it to advocate a position? Inform? Instruct? Warn? Whatever its purpose, there are a few things to get right.

  • Set the scene for the reader. Explain the background and provide some context. This helps their understanding. Once you have that, your ability to drive your point home increases.
  • Make it clear early on what, if anything, you expect the reader to do. If you are inviting a response, repeat your invitation at least twice – at the beginning and at the end.
  • If that response is necessary within a defined time, make the timeline crystal clear. School notes have to be some of the worst performers here—pulled out from the bottom of a school bag, the first thing any parent wants to know is, When is it due? Put it upfront!

The main idea

Looking at your notes, jot down the main idea, the key element.

Once you have done this,  roughly group together your other thoughts and notes according to topic. What belongs together? Group these supporting ideas under loose headings. These are not sequential, but overlapping. Go back and forth, adding and moving the pieces around. It is like a jigsaw puzzle.

Once you can see the content more clearly, check for things that you might have forgotten. What else could you add?

Prioritise

Allocate a priority, a ranking, to each of the supporting ideas. Now you have an ordered list from your notes which will form the structure of your draft. What you have now is a system.

2. Who is the audience? 

When you start thinking about your reader, you are conducting an audience analysis. This is a key part of communicating.  It’s all about the reader. Keep this front and centre while organising your notes.

Think about these questions?

  1. Who are they?
  2. What do they need?
  3. Where will they be reading?
  4. How will they be reading?
  5. What is the attention span of your audience?
  6. What is its technical knowledge?
  7. Where are they getting their information from now?
  8. What do they need to know (to do their job)?

Are they going to be a reluctant reader? Are they reading for fun, to find something out, or to be able to do something?

3. What language and tone is right for the audience and purpose?

Finally, once you understand your audience, you will be able to adjust the tone and language to be suitable. You are the best judge of this but it’s a good idea to run it past a colleague or friend if you have any doubts. We get too close to our subject matter sometimes and forget how it may appear to fresh eyes.

Now you’re ready to draft!

#3 Drafting

 Shapeshifting ideas

We don’t know what we’re going to say until we write it down. One minute, in our heads, it all seems so clear. Then we try to capture it.

Drafting is when you put your thoughts into words—on paper or on the screen—and you start to see them clearly. This is the beginning of communicating in writing, not the end.

Some martial arts discipline

In my sport, taekwondo, you learn basic techniques as a white belt and apply them throughout the curriculum. These techniques are the foundation of a strong, disciplined practice and will take you to black belt.

Similarly, a sentence, a paragraph and a story (be it creative fiction or corporate proposal) share a basic structure: they have a beginning, a middle and an end. They each start something, carry it along and hand it over.

  • A sentence is one complete thought. It takes an idea and sets up what is to follow.
  • A paragraph is one complete topic. It introduces the main idea with an opening sentence, follows up with some supporting detail and then leads into the next topic/paragraph.
  • A story is a complex narrative, setting the scene with an introduction, following with a body of linking concepts, and bringing it together in the conclusion.

 Where to begin?

You’ve done some hard work already. You know your document’s purpose, audience and the right language and tone to use. You’ve organised your thoughts into logical sub-sections.

Now start at any point. Refer to your brainstorm notes and prioritised lists. Make some headings and write a few sentences. What’s next? Under another heading, write another few sentences. How does this whole thing start? Write that down.

Don’t worry about perfectly articulated concepts in this,  your first draft. In truth, they won’t exist until you’ve run through a few versions.

Don’t make your reader work too hard!

Communicating simply and clearly is not treating your readers like idiots. It’s not talking down to them and it doesn’t diminish your expertise.

Your reader will need they need their energy to understand the topic. If they struggle to understand your writing, you will have lost them.

  1. Short sentences – Use a mix of short and longer sentences, keeping most short (under 15 words). Experiment with breaking up a longer sentence into two or three short ones. See how easy it is to follow now.
  2. Active voice – Use the active voice, which clearly defines who is doing what using fewer words and with less scope for ambiguity. Compare:
  • Active – The technician followed the directions.
  • Passive – The directions were followed (by the technician). Too often, the important bit, the technician, is dropped off the end.

Cut the jargon – Minimise jargon and leave it out altogether when communicating with a general audience. Use any technical terminology consistently.

Explain terms, if necessary, or use common, everyday words.

Define all acronyms the first time they appear in the document (and use rarely).

Keep it simple – Keep your language simple. Research has shown that people who use complicated language, when simple words will do, actually appear less intelligent.

Remember, you want this to be read, to be understood. If using technical terms, ensure they match the audience. What is the level of knowledge assumed?

Next step — revising.

#4 Revising

I can see clearly now (the rain has gone)….

Revising is the process of finessing your draft. You will also see anything you don’t want to say, which is just as important as what you do.

Some tips for effective revising:

  1. Never delete while you’re still working on it. Cutting back is much easier than adding more content. Instead of deleting first drafts, make new versions, clearly named. You can trash them later.
  2. Spare words – create a new blank document just called ‘Words for xxx‘ and put in all the words that you have cut out. I often look over it if I’m getting stuck.
  3. Colour by numbers – Print out your document. Give each paragraph (each main idea) a number and then work through the document. Allocate each sentence or cluster of sentences the paragraph number where it fits best. This is often a surprising way to make new connections with existing material.
  4. Look for linkage – Look at the final sentence in each paragraph and see if it links to the first sentence in the next.

Revising is where you lay down a path for your reader. Unless you’re writing a thriller, allow them to see what lies ahead.

You are leading them towards a destination—your conclusion. The clearer the path, the quicker the journey.

Now you are ready to edit, the fifth step to clear writing.

#5 Editing

Once you have drafted and revised, it’s time to edit, and then to proofread. These are distinct tasks and vital to your document’s impact. Make sure you leave enough time to do these properly.

Although you will be editing throughout your writing and revising processes, there will come a point when you feel your document is pretty close to where it needs to be. Now, draw a line in the sand and stop revising. Take off your writer’s hat and put on your editor’s hat. Put yourself into the shoes of a new reader. Try to read it with fresh eye

Structural editing

Editing begins with a structural assessment. As the author, you will have done much of this in your revising process. You will have examined it for flow, comprehension and consistency and tried to remove ambiguous language and jargon.

As a new reader, does it flow together and make sense? Will they understand your conclusion? Will they agree with it?

Take this opportunity to clarify your meaning. Make final adjustments to paragraph order or opening sentences to bring out the document’s purpose and to eliminate any remaining clunky phrasing or repetition.

Identify where sense or meaning is obscured. Consistency in writing, especially business or operational writing, is essential. Check for consistent terminology of names and pronouns.

Scan every paragraph to see how many times you have said the same thing in different ways. This can detract from your message. Repetition is fine at the end of a point, to conclude and emphasise, but try to use the same language.

Copy editing

Once you have finished with the meaning, look at your document line by line and find and fix all the grammar, sentence construction, spelling and word use errors. Remember there may be some that your spellchecker will not pick up. Autocorrect technology is just an aide. Human error demands that rigorous, intelligent eyes scan printed copy. We’ve all seen examples of just how error-ridden a document can be, yet escape any robotic correction.

At the copy editing stage, format tables of contents, insert page numbers if you haven’t yet, and check consistency of your headings and subheadings. Apply captions to tables and figures throughout. Check references and citations. Ensure hyperlinks are working.

And finally, proofreading.

#6 Proofreading

Proofreading is a final quality check. If you need to make further changes to language or structure, you are not at the proofreading stage yet. Make sure you give yourself time to proofread separately.

When proofreading, stop looking for meaning. You are only looking for errors. Read each word distinctly and separately. This is difficult. Our brains are configured to take in strands of about six words at a time and make sense of them. This chunking of meaning is useful for comprehension but works against our ability to find errors in individual words.

I like to proofread on paper using a ruler under each line, but when I proof on-screen, I highlight one line at a time.

Close your door, put on headphones, do whatever you need to do to get into the right headspace. Finding errors after you have given a document the all-clear is a painful experience—and we’ve all been there.

Six steps to improve your writing!

These six steps will take your writing from basic, confused or error-ridden to a more sophisticated level. The ability to write well is within your capabilities.

Contact me for more writing advice at Your Second Draft and find me on Facebook, Linkedin and Twitter.

 

 

No Crazy Lady here—Rosie Waterland’s clear-eyed reckoning of her life

In Every Lie I’ve Ever Told (2017), Rosie Waterland tells stories from her ruptured childhood, first laid bare in her 2016 memoir The Anti-Cool Girl, interlacing them with intelligent, wickedly funny observations about being a woman today.

As the daughter of addicts, Waterland was neglected and abused; she went to 17 schools, lived with violence, and was hospitalised in a psychiatric ward. Where The Anti-Cool Girlis the story of her survival, this book marks a maturity that comes with self-knowledge. Waterland learns from her experiences and, in recounting her shortcomings and flaws, she asks us to think about ours. Her examination of grief, trauma, sex and relationships is evidence of a woman who does not flinch from introspection. Every lieis also the story of her love for her best friend, Tony, whose sudden death brought home to her sanity’s wafer-thin fragility.

 She opens each chapter with a lie she has told herself and others over the years and weaves serious discussion amongst her self-deprecating stories. I haven’t had bad sex since I promised I wouldn’t put up with it asks, ‘Has porn broken the brains of men?’ Her story about going to bed with a 21 year old who is shocked by her pubic hair should be required reading for millennials. In a follow up, she invites the reader into the bizarre and humiliating experience of laser hair removal.

It’s uncomfortable enough to have to get naked from the waist down, lie down on a table and spread your legs as far as they will go. But it’s even worse when you do that and the heavily made-up technician looks directly into your snatch and lets out a big, unimpressed sigh. “This is going to be difficult, she says, wincing now….”

Yet, she muses, the counter-argument is that ‘waxing your pubes is a powerful example of the autonomy you have over your body.’ How can women today work out who they are with so many contradictory messages?

Waterland struggled with eating disorders in her twenties. In her chapter on body image and thatFacebook photo, she asks again, Why is what we look like more important that what we do? But there isn’t time to think about answers in today’s 24 hour media-blitzed world. While her nude selfie caused a media frenzy, her accompanying considered examination of society’s skewed obsession with women’s bodies was all but ignored. It’s not new, but I’m so glad she’s asking these questions again, and to a new readership.

Just don’t be too fat, too skinny, too sexy, too prudish, too aggressive, too passive. Be a role model for all other women but be modest enough to never think you’re a role model. Have it all, but also admit that it’s impossible to have it all.

As a former writer for Mamamia, she used to be part of that world, ‘the Fast-Food Opinion machine’ but having taking a step back, she is now struck by the sheer volume of meaningless drivel, aka ‘content’, that it generates. She asks us to think about its harm— the cruelty of labelling people, of defining a complex life with a tag.

Waterland is acutely aware that her own change in attitude has come only after she has been personally hurt.

(I know – how narcissistic to only realise the error of my ways after I was the subject of media scrutiny. Scrutiny that I had participated in countless times. But I got there in the end, at least? I’m ashamed to say that’s the best I’ve got: I did get there in the end…)

After Tony’s death, she told people that she was ‘okay’, but she was drowning, not waving. Her subsequent breakdown and suicide attempt brought home the biggest lie of all—that her ‘mental-illness story was one of past recovery, not current struggle.’

 ‘Recovered’ means it’s over, I’m good now, I can talk about this because it’s only in my past. That girl was a crazy lady. This girl is fine. I’m okay.

Her acknowledgement of her vulnerability is a powerful contribution, both for those living with depression and anxiety and those caring for them. I read her book at the same time as Alain de Botton’s The Course of Love (Hamish Hamilton, 2016) where he discusses the human predilection towards delusion: we in the Western Anglophone world would do well to learn more about our character traits, our insanities which are deeply embedded in our psyches. Rosie Waterland’s clear-eyed reckoning of her life meets his challenge head-on. ‘Let’s all embrace failure. Let’s all accept that we can only be perfect at being imperfect. That’s about as close to ourselves as we’re ever going to get.’

Rosie Waterland (2017), Every Lie I’ve Ever Told, HarperCollins Publishers, Sydney.

First published in the Newtown Review of Books. And Rosie, a Newtown resident of old, liked it too.  Read more on her Facebook page.

 

 

 

Anything is possible, Elizabeth Strout

Elizabeth Strout, winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Olive Kitteridge, is an author of piercing insight. Many a religious and philosophical tome has been written on moral righteousness but in her slim books, Strout’s characters show us how to live a good life. They embody love and forgiveness.

Anything is Possible is a companion set of stories to her novel My Name is Lucy Barton (2016). The nine stories in this collection centre around an ensemble of residents in the small rural towns of Illinois, outside Chicago. Lucy had grown up there, in desperate poverty. She manages to get to college and then to New York where she becomes a writer. She has just released her memoir and her home town is confronted by an awakened sensibility. Some have read the memoir, others shun it, as they shunned Lucy, but its existence affects everyone.

Each story is defined by a complex life, a private pain, as Strout’s characters search for some way to cope with past hurts – some bury their history, some live in isolation and can no longer recognise an offer of help, others run away, or return home. As their lives intersect through the collection, sometimes in the foreground, sometimes as a backstory, the reader learns more about them.

Strout is interested in why people do the things they do, showing the complexity of human relationship – the pleasure and the harm:
Patty had tremendous sympathy for Angelina … But she wanted to say right now: Listen to this! Lucy Barton’s mother was awful to her, and her father – oh dear God, her father … But Lucy loved them … We’re all just a mess, Angelina, trying as hard as we can, we love imperfectly, Angelina, but it’s okay.

A woman’s private mocking of her host shows the pain of an unfulfilled life; a bed-and-breakfast proprietor who refuses to be bullied spits in the jam of an abusive customer; a janitor shows kindness in allowing a girl to stay behind in the warm classroom. The disparity between the fishbowl of the small town and the anonymity of the city is illustrated when a visiting festival director is billeted with a local couple – her claustrophobia and feeling of exposure in their home is palpable as the reader sees the smallness of their lives.

While those who have got away to the cities are understood to have ‘escaped’, Strout’s quiet recounting of routine tasks by those who have stayed shows the meaning in an ordinary life. Despite the snide remarks, bullying, and social exclusion, her ensemble of characters demonstrates how tiny acts of human kindness can change lives. A teacher who is openly scorned by a student overcomes her own pain to see the child’s greater hurt and helps her, laying a foundation for greater good. And when a woman who participates in her husband’s sexual perversion is confronted by a victim, Strout allows for her self-awareness showing that liberation can come through the courage of forgiveness: Almost always it’s a surprise, the passing of permission to enter a place once seen as eternally closed. And this is how it was for a stunned Linda, who stood that day in that convenience store with the sun falling over packages of corn chips and heard those words of compassion – undeserved …

Courage is also present in characters resolutely doing something they know to be right, but which is hard — embracing a man, recognising his humanity, when he has been shunned by all others.

The beauty of Strout’s writing is one reason to read and reread these stories ‘… and he did not know what he would do … the minnow darting through the stream of his anxiety …’

If you need another reason, Strout’s ability to confront us with the harm and sadness of poverty and mental illness, but without despair, is a marvel. She asks, Why do we do good? And her answer is a message of hope – because it leads to love. In the final story, Abel understands: ‘… perfect knowledge: Anything was possible for anyone.’
Elizabeth Strout Anything is Possible Viking 2017 HB 280pp $29.99

First published in the Newtown Review of Books, 17 August 2017.