The best thing I ever did to improve my writing of fiction was to read other people’s works in progress. Weirdly, the worst thing I did was to learn another language.
I have a couple of other writer friends who send me their manuscripts, which are as tightly polished as they can make them. Likewise, I send out my works of perfection. We then comb through them picking out every single error, like an English teacher, while keeping an eye on plot, character development, and overall entertainment value of a hundred thousand words. Most friends who want to read some of your work won’t give much useful feedback, only “Yeah, I liked it,” or some flimsy answer like that. I’m not looking for compliments with my beta-readers, I’m looking for the flaws so I can crush them before I’m ready to publish the book. So to find another writer who picks apart your book the way you want them to is awesome.
Why is it so awesome? Because when you’re reading their manuscript you quickly become aware of their faults as a writer. You notice their clumsy metaphors, their repetition, the way that every single character cocks their head to one side when speaking. You’ll notice that most of the characters sound the same. You’ll know when you’re bored. At some point you’ll realise that your beta-reader is feeling the same sense of boredom with your work, and after a while you apply the same editing tricks you use on your friends’ manuscript for your own.
When you see a faulty metaphor in your own work, you’ll just delete it because you’ve seen how it makes your cringe when someone else tries it and fails. And, best of all, now you’re writing as though someone is actually going to read your book, and not just some far off fantasy where you’ll end up out-selling JK Rowling. The more you edit other people’s work, the more refined your own editing will become. Now, I’m by no means perfect, and I’ve been editing other people’s stories for eight years now, but I can see that I’ve improved, and they can see that I’ve improved.
It’s the one thing that helped me the most in tightening up my stories: editing someone else’s book.
So how did learning another language trip me up? I learned Spanish, and it jumbled my sense of grammar. I wrestle with the word ‘that’ a lot. In Spanish, que is used all the time. I am still surprised by all the times I see an unnecessary ‘that’ that appears in one of my everyday sentences, that I’m caught out and can’t remember if I should leave it in or take it out. I’m a native English speaker, and I learned it through osmosis, but I was formally trained in Spanish. I say ‘formally’ lightly, it’s not like I went to Julliard to study it. I simply listened to the teacher who said “Say it like this.”
I’m also easily swayed between the British and American sense of grammar and punctuation. The differences are minor until you notice something glaring. For example: “I need to go to hospital,” and “I need to go to the hospital.” “Metallica are coming to town,” and “Metallica is coming to town.” In both cases, the first sentence is British, and is 100% correct. The second sentence is American. Both times leaving me banging my head in frustration because I’m sure one is more correct than the other, but since I’m a British speller, it makes more sense to stick to Britishisms, except sometimes they are downright stupid! The word ‘manoeuvrability’ irks me to no end, because no one in their right mind would spell it like that!
It goes on. ‘Momentarily’ in British means ‘for a short time,’ whereas in America it means ‘soon.’ “The plane is landing for a short time,” and “the plane is landing soon,” both mean two very different things, so ‘momentarily’ is another amusing issue.
There are thousands of differences between the two tongues, and if you stick exclusively to one you won’t have a problem. But, if you mix the two up you’re going to fuck with a lot of people, and you’ll start to mis-read a lot of your own writing, over analyse it, and be left with a bizarre feeling that you really don’t know how to use the English language, despite trying to bend it into a career. It doesn’t look good if I have an American character, in America, using British understandings of words. It makes me look like I have no idea what I’m talking about (which, to be fair, is why I often write horror stories, because the protagonists can be easily confused with their lexicon).
All of that was made worse when I learned Spanish, because it fucked with my spelling and sense of grammar! I’m sure I was taught English grammar in school, or rather, I’m sure I was in the classroom when grammar was being taught, but I tuned out because I knew it already. I just picked it up from, you know, actually reading. There’s nothing quite as embarrassing as forgetting basic grammar in your own language, and I blame Spanish for that.