The Benefit of Experience

Last week, a friend sent me a poem she’d written about a recent bereavement, asking for some suggestions. I immediately agreed. I copied the piece into Microsoft Word and switched on Tracked Changes, then looked through the piece line by line.

The first thing I did was check whether she’d followed generally accepted conventions, such as placing a lowercase letter where the start of a line isn’t a new sentence, and making sure a significant word ends each line.

When you read poetry a lot, you begin to build up a template in your head of what you like and don’t like, and what looks ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. So aside from the conventions outlined above, I considered how the piece sounded overall, and omitted or added words accordingly.

I made it clear than anything I wrote was merely a suggestion and could be ignored if she felt it didn’t work. Indeed, the poem was great to begin with, but someone else could easily come along and make different suggestions in accordance with their experience.

I don’t know yet whether this friend took my suggestions on board, but if she does, I believe it would improve the piece.


Years In The Making; Weeks In The Tweaking

It’s sometimes the case that an idea exists in the mind of a writer years before it’s published, or sometimes long before it’s even committed to paper.

Larry Cohen, for instance, pitched his screenplay Phone Booth to Alfred Hitchcock three decades before it was made, but neither of them could think of a reason to keep the main character in the booth. Jilly Cooper lost the original manuscript for Riders in 1970, and it took until 1985 before the novel was finally published.

One of my own pieces took around 15 years to write. When I was in high school, I had a fragment that was supposed to be set to music:

Have I known you too long?
Are we too far gone
as just friends?

But I could do nothing with the fragment. I hadn’t begun writing poetry or even short stories at that point, and I didn’t pursue my interest in playing music.

It wasn’t until 2013 that I revisited the fragment, just when I was beginning to feel confident to call myself a poet. With help from online friends, I shaped it into its current form and it appeared on The Purple Spotlights EP in 2016.

I didn’t mean to write a companion piece. Over the last few months, I’d thought of another fragment I’d initially been unable to use, though I knew it would make a good refrain:

Let’s shag each other senseless.

The catalyst for the companion piece was when I found out something surprising about a couple of friends, which put me into a strange mood and then became entangled with the fragment above. The next day, I was due to take a train journey of 5½ hours each way, and I’d have access to pencils and paper, so I had the means, the motive and the opportunity.

On the trip, I remembered that Tied Up was about platonic friendship, and that the poem I was writing would be about a couple who couldn’t go back to being that way. The first draft was completed in around 24 hours; I named it Tied Down.

Some pieces feel finished once they’re on paper. By contrast, I pulled out this one every day and simply looked at it, trying to make sense of my own words, perhaps because it isn’t a sentiment I normally express in my work. Sometimes I’d score something out; sometimes I’d shuffle around the words.

It currently sits at 67 lines, longer than what I usually write. I haven’t modified it for around a week now, but I’ll probably come back to it in a month and see what changes need to be made.



In With the Old

Over the last week, I’ve been revising two pieces of prose.

The first piece was a 1500-word short story about a female soldier returning home after conscription into an unnamed war. I first wrote this in 2013, but I’ve periodically returned to it, most recently to submit it to a publisher who might appreciate the sentiment.

File:Colouring pencils.jpg

The second is an overhaul of the piece I wrote for my Masters dissertation in 2016. I subsequently turned it into a one-woman play, but the last revision didn’t reach the 60-minute mark. Over the weekend, I’ve been lengthening the script by unpacking and exploring some of the plot points that the original doesn’t address. In two weeks’ time, I have the opportunity to have an extract read by an actor at a new playwriting evening.

When I read back over those two pieces, there were no major problems, but I could find a number of minor ones. Perhaps I’d used a clause too many in the sentence; perhaps a vital piece of information could be shown rather than told.

Whatever the problem, I’ve enjoyed fixing them. I feel the two pieces are better overall now. I keep all my drafts, so I was able to look back at previous versions and I can see that my writing has improved over the years. It’s entirely possible that I’ll revisit these pieces in the future with more experience and be able to improve them in ways I can’t imagine right now.

A Structured Story

I’ve written several novels, all of which remain unfinished and unpublished. In 2011, I drafted my second one, about a man who takes part in a challenge to win millions of pounds. Since then, I’ve periodically revisited the manuscript, but it never quite shaped it into a form I like.

The most recent attempt was over the bank holiday weekend. I sat down and fitted the key events into a structure that resembles a Hollywood screenplay. There are five major turning points that occur at set intervals during the narrative.

Hollywood Sign
Hollywood Sign (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On the face of it, this sounds rather restricting, but for the first time in a long while, I’m actually excited about the project.

One stumbling block was a scene where the main character is taken to another country and left to find his way back to the UK. Having the structure to follow helped transform this rather long and dull trek into a series of shorter journeys, each part ending in a cliffhanger and raising the stakes a little higher.

Every so often, you’ll hear a novel or a film described as ‘formulaic’. This is usually caused by the writer making the structure too obvious. The turning points ought to be invisible to the casual reader or viewer, but they will be there, shaping the story into a form that audiences subconsciously expect.

Edditing Other Peoples Piece’s

A couple of friends have recently asked me to look over pieces they’ve written. At one time, it would have been difficult for me to do this as I didn’t like to give negative feedback. Having received honest critiques of my own work, I now feel comfortable about identifying areas of improvement in others’ work and making suggestions for improvement.

Firstly, I received an 11-line poem. Among other suggestions: I could see that each line began with a capital letter even in run-on sentences, which is unconventional in modern poetry; I swapped around a couple of clauses to create a stronger image; and I broke up the poem into three stanzas instead of one. These suggestions are partly personal preferences, but they’re informed by reading a lot of poetry and considering what works well and not so well.

Editing film at the Lubin film studio in Philadelphia, 1914. A reel hard job.
Editing film at the Lubin film studio in Philadelphia, 1914. A reel difficult job.

The other piece I looked over was an application for a university course, and I had help from a friend who has experience in this field. In this instance, I didn’t know all the specialist terminology or concepts, but there were aspects common to most writing styles that I could point out: using shorter paragraphs to create more negative space, which is easier on the eye; thoroughly checking spelling and grammar, for which I suggested reading the piece out loud while alone; and moving a certain project nearer the top of the application as it stood out among the others.

Ultimately, the writer has the final call on how to present their own piece. As such, I made it clear that the corrections were merely suggestions.

There is always a risk that the other party will react badly or become disheartened, particularly if you don’t know each other very well. It’s impossible to police another person’s feelings, but there are ways to make an unfavourable outcome feel less harsh. A classic is the Bad News Sandwich: a positive greeting, the negative result, a positive next step. Here’s a rejection e-mail I received last year:

Thank you for entering the August 50 Word Fiction Competition.

Unfortunately, your story was not selected as the winner this month. It was another very busy month and very difficult decision for our judges.

If you’d like to enter again, we’d love to see your words.

So when I close that message, I don’t think What an arrogant bunch, I think, I’ll up my game for September.

Your Weekly Writing Update by Grammarly

A few weeks ago, I started a subscription to Grammarly.  As I sometimes churn out my writing work quickly, especially blog posts, it’s a useful tool to pick up any spelling or grammar errors that creep in.

There’s already a proprietary checker in Microsoft Word, and it’s possible to download browser extensions that perform a similar function. But Grammarly software is consistent in Word, in your browser, and anywhere else you type on your computer. It doesn’t, however, seem to be available for mobile devices.

Every week, I’m sent a summary of how well or badly I’ve performed in my spelling and grammar. Here are selected stats from 06 February to 12 February.

  • You wrote more words than 96% of Grammarly users did.
  • You were more accurate than 82% of Grammarly users.
  • You have a larger vocabulary than 97% of Grammarly users.

So far, I feel like a latter-day Shakespeare. However, it’s not all happy news:

Top 3 grammar mistakes

1. Missing comma in compound sentence: 44 mistakes.
2. Incorrect use of comma: 15 mistakes
3. Missing comma(s) with interrupter: 10 mistakes

Grammarly and I can’t seem to come to an agreement on this issue.

Sometimes it allows the use of the Oxford comma in a list, but sometimes I’m told to take it out. Similarly, I’m often shouted at for placing a comma before and in a sentence, but it’s occasionally required to stay in.

I’ve also discovered a problem with the verb form in the following sentence:

  • The audience here tends to be corporations.

I’m advised this isn’t correct:


So I duly drop the final letter to make the verb agree with the plural subject corporations. Then I’m told:


Now the verb form is incorrect because it doesn’t agree with the singular audience. And so we go around in a loop. There is a facility to add custom spellings or to ignore a suggestion, but no way to let the software learn your writing style or to flag up false positives.

Ultimately, the writer has to determine whether the words that are written, or the way in which they’re written, are suitable for the intended purpose. Grammarly is a tool that uses algorithms to apply the conventional rules of English; it’s not a textbook that must be followed precisely.

How to Fix a Broken Piece

I think all writers have pieces that, for some reason, don’t have maximum impact or aren’t coming together in the way we want. In this entry, I have some suggestions for these pieces based on my own experience.

In 2013, I was given homework from a writing group to pen a story inspired by lines from a poem. As it wasn’t coming together, I spent the afternoon in the library writing until it made some sort of sense. I eventually created a flash fiction piece that became my first published story.

A couple of years later, I was working on a poem for performance at an upcoming gig. When it wouldn’t come out in a way I liked, I went for a walk in the cold. By the time I returned home, all the elements began to settle into a list poem. The finished product gained a positive reaction on its début, and has done on each reading since.

Broken mirror
Broken mirror (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Which brings me to my most recent difficulty. This was another list poem, in response to a friend’s work, that wouldn’t flow no matter the order in which the lines were arranged. I ended up writing each line on a separate slip of paper and drawing them out of a bag like raffle tickets. That method helped to identify which lines felt out of place and could be removed, then the remaining fragments naturally joined together.

The most recent poem hasn’t been heard by an audience yet, as I think it needs to be left aside for a while. I’ll revisit the piece in the future with fresh eyes and decide whether I still like it as it stands. And time is one of the best ways to fix non-urgent work.

In  2014, I came home from the aftorementioned writing group having been unable to think of a story from the prompts given. I was so annoyed with myself that I typed up my frustrations in short sentences with plenty of negative space between the paragraphs, then closed the document. Thinking it would be embarrassing, as it was never intended to be seen by others, I didn’t reopen the file until earlier this year.

I was jolly surprised to find that it might actually work as a poem, and I’m also more inclined to figuratively bleed onto the page than I was two years ago. So it might yet be seen before an audience.