Simple English ~ Nicola Prentis

Thoughts on ELT, English and whatever else comes into my head

What I’ve learnt from being edited

When I first started writing for publication with Time Out Istanbul (I suppose I’ve been writing something or other since childhood**) I was completely self edited. The Editor saw editing as just cutting off the intro paragraph if she needed more space on the page. I took that as a sure sign of my brilliant writing but it probably owed more to her age (22) and inexperience plus the fact she’d ended up Chief Editor by accident. It’s a really hard job so she was doing well just to get a monthly issue out.

Anyway, that might have led me to believe I was Hot Shit for a while. (I’ll have to dig out those issues and see how good I actually was. I’ll bet there are tons of tortuously long sentences but that that all important “voice” was fairly well established.) A couple of years of writing seriously has meant being edited seriously and, fortunately I’ve welcomed that as a learning opportunity rather than the beginning of an argument.


Here are some things I’ve learnt in the form of a quiz. Answers at the bottom of the page.

1 mum vs Mum

When do you spell mum, dad, grandma etc with a capital letter at the beginning?

2 Animals

Which of these animals is acceptable to an international audience?

Pig, cow or dog?

3 Prepositions (or not)

Which of these italicised prepositions words are not prepositions?

after you; to get carried away; He hopes to win


Then there are the storytelling lessons. There’s no quiz. Write a book and I’ll tell you if you’ve got it 🙂


The end line is as important as the first line of the book. My first and second graded reader both needed that line rewriting more than once.

At the risk of spoiling the ending of The Tomorrow Mirror (but why on Earth have you not already read it since it’s been out since February?!) here’s what I mean.

From the first draft:

   ‘I’m not going to look in the mirror again,’ said Ryan.

‘I’m going to break the mirror in my bedroom.’

‘I’m going to break my mirror too,’ said Ryan.

‘No lottery?’ asked Ryan.

‘No mirror and no lottery,’ said Jason.


‘I’m not going to look in the mirror again,’ said Ryan.

‘I’m going to break the mirror in my bedroom a thousand times.’

‘Or let’s put it in a bag in a dark place,’ said Ryan. ‘No lottery?’

‘No mirror and no lottery,’ said Jason.

Still trying:

Suddenly Ryan remembered. ‘Our bags are in school. The mirror’s in the fire!’

‘Perhaps that’s a good thing,’ Jason said.

‘No lottery?’

‘No lottery and no mirror,’ said Jason.

And finally to:

Ryan thought about his face. It hurt. Perhaps Jason was right. ‘I know about tomorrow,’ Ryan said. He looked back at the fire. ‘We’re not going to school.’

Admittedly, it might be hard to see why the last one is much better without reading the story (suffice to say the mirror that told the future was destroyed in the school fire). But it’s less explanatory, tighter and doesn’t end with the two wasted words “said Jason”.

It took me a long time to get it. But that keeps me going sometimes when I’m writing as I tend to think the best things I write are the ones that come first; that anything later is work not inspiration and will clunk all over the page. A kind of lazy preciousness – two faults I generally don’t possess – which you can only really get away with when you’re a mega famous author.


At least books only have one ending. They have far more chapters. Annoyingly, you apparently can’t use use chapters to give the reader a chance to nip to the loo or make a cup of tea. They all have to have a hook.

The Tomorrow Mirror only had three sections but that particular trap was laid seven more times in the second reader (out 2014) as I had to cope with ten chapters and the frequently recurring editorial demand for a hook.

Chapter 2, hookless:

What was so special? It was a really nice, expensive looking phone but that was all. She still couldn’t see anything amazing about it.


Their eyes moved from her hair to her bag and down to her shoes. It was like they saw something special too.

What was happening?

I hope I’ve learnt these two lessons especially as it looks like the next commission is going to be Choose Your Own Adventure style so more endings and hooks than ever.


1 It’s a capital letter when used in a sentence in place of the person’s name. e.g. “But Mum won’t let me,” complained Jane to her dad.

2 All these animals offend someone or other, in EFL at least. I see the pig thing, reluctantly, the cow thing even more reluctantly so, but dogs? Just because some people eat them? Lucky the Egyptians stopped worshipping cats and are now only potentially offended by pigs or that’d be another one off the list.

3  “Some of these are prepositions (after you), but the others are used as adverbs (go ahead, got carried away, go on). They are only prepositions if they are followed by an object.” Courtesy of my editor, Sheila Dignen.

I’m still mystified by this one although I’m ashamed of my inability to see the grammar light, and insistence on remaining cowering in the cave of ignorance. But what are we supposed to call these little words instead? They need a label as a part of speech surely? Everyone knows what I mean when I say preposition. What convoluted route should I take to avoid using the term now I’ve been enlightened?

—Small words that sometimes come after verbs and often denote location and place but not always as they can also be used after verbs to turn them into other verbs apart from “to” when it goes before a verb as then it is part of the infinitive. Catchy and should go down well with beginners.

** First work of any note – a story about a squirrel with two tails that was mocked by all until he found redemption as a cleaner who swept houses quicker than anyone else. Where is that story Mum?


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This entry was posted on September 2, 2013 by in Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , .
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