Zena Shapter on readability, writing and consulting with others

One of the most energetic identities on the Sydney writing scene is the fabulous Zena Shapter

Zena Shapter

I see her all over the place, including at an ill-fated event of my own which saw my entire audience evacuated onto a city street. I am always interested to hear what Zena has to say about writing, so I asked her to send me a post about something she's been thinking about lately. So it's over to Zena:
 Thanks for letting me visit your blog again, Walter – I love chatting with readers and writers online! As a reader myself, I’m always interested in the insights that come with authors’ blogs. As a writer, I’m often after tips and advice. So today I thought I’d chat about one of the biggest mistakes I think an author can make…

You see, the other day, I was chatting with a neighbour about my plans for the day – which involved going through some beta reader comments – and she was surprised to discover there were so many steps involved in getting a book ready for publication. We ended up having quite a long chat about it. She just thought that (a) you write a book, then (b) you publish it. Not so!

Publishing is a highly competitive industry and writers set themselves up for failure if they send out substandard writing - it won’t sell, and publishers/agents won’t be interested in presenting that writing to larger audiences. So writers have to be 100% certain that their writing is ready to be published. It has to be perfect! How do they do this? Well, they check their story in terms of:

•    Readability – it has to have a good plot/subject, engaging characters, and a detailed setting
•    Writing Skill – no info-dumping, it has to be well-edited with a correct structure and polished style
•    An Absence of Flaws – perfect grammar, punctuation, etc
•    Audience Reaction – no false suspense please, but keep readers guessing!
•    Marketability – it’s great if it’s a page-turner with a fresh voice

There’s so much to know and check – it’s no wonder my neighbour was surprised! And she’s not the only one…

As the founder and leader of a writers’ group, I often meet writers who think that just because they’ve spent the last three years writing a book, it must be ready – it must because they’ve invested all that time in writing it. But time doesn’t necessarily translate into readiness. A writer may believe they’ve checked their book for all of the above elements, but inexperience clouds their judgment. They think their story is ready, but it’s not! So please new writers – check your work for each of the above elements and, if you’re not sure how to do that, take a writing course that will show you how.

Even once you’re certain you’ve nailed it, you should still consult with writing others before sending your work out. Most writers use check-points such as:

•    Hiring an editor, consulting with a mentors, or using a manuscript assessment agency
•    taking a creative writing course
•    arranging beta readers (writer-friends who exchange books for feedback)
•    joining a writers’ group

Editors, mentors and manuscript assessment agencies can be costly, but from them writers get tailored feedback on their writing. Creative writing courses are skills investments – if you’re going to build a house, you need to make sure you have all the right tools for the job! With beta readers, a writer needs to be able to trust their fellow writers’ advice, which is why I recommend new writers meet such readers at writers' groups and assess their skills as a writer first.

Experience of course comes into play too. Once you’ve been writing for a while, sending your writing out to readers and having success, you come to know when a piece of writing is more-or-less ready.

Still, a writer would be crazy to send their book out to publishers or self-publish without first using a couple of check-points. I always use a number of check-points so I can be 100% sure – which is what I was doing when I bumped into my neighbour the other day. I’d never leave something so important to chance. Writers who skip some of the above steps and send their writing out before it’s ready make the biggest mistake of them all.

Getting your book ready for readers can sometimes take a bit of time, but then – doesn’t anything worthwhile?

Zena Shapter and her latest publication

If you’d like help getting your own writing ready for publication, Zena runs regular workshops for writers irrespective of age or experience, as well as mentorships. Her next writing workshop is her ‘Writing Safari: The Big Five’ on Saturday 23 November in Sydney. It focuses on skills-building for plot, characters, setting, style and self-editing. For more information, click here.

Zena Shapter is a British-Australian author who has won six national writing competitions (all blind judging), is published in various print and online anthologies and magazines, has written some novels and is represented by literary agent Alex Adsett. She also blogs, here.


Rob Porteous said…
Sage advice, Zena! After taking so long to produce a major work like a novel, it is almost impossible (unless you're very experienced or improbably gifted) to be able to distance yourself enough to effectively self-edit. A second pair of eyes (or several pairs!) will likely provide indispensable feedback. Thanks for reminding us that even though writing is a solitary pursuit, often "it takes a whole village" to help a book achieve its potential!
Cheers, Rob
Zena Shapter said…
Hi Rob!
Indeed it does take a village!
Still, you'd be surprised how often I hear new writers say: 'nah, I don't need anyone else to look at it, I've read it through twice now and am pretty happy with the way it is."

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