STP blog and editorial services

Hasn’t the blog been quiet…?

The good news is that it’s because I’ve been busy working for my new and regular clients. Use the Contact page if you’d like to get in touch about any proofreading or editing project.

Services are largely uninterrupted during the current pandemic crisis.

If there’s anything you’d like to see on the STP blog, feel free to let me know what your interests are. Would you like to understand more about the proofreading and editing process? Writing tips for fiction and non-fiction? Editorial comments on what’s happening in the literary world? Get in touch any time.

—db

Localis(z)ing Fiction – The Metal Gear Solid story

I recently wrote about translation and some of the challenges that comes with it.

It’s difficult to exactly describe the artistry required to truly localise a text. To characterise the skill and finesse of translation as an art isn’t just puffery – as described in this excellent account of the localisation of the classic video game Metal Gear Solid, featured on Polygon.com this week.

In this fascinating narrative, Jeremy Blaustein describes the “overwhelming job” of translating and localising the 1998 game, which is heavy in plot and dialogue. He writes, “The word “localization” barely existed in the business in 1997”:

I also knew that I couldn’t just jump into a translation without first getting a deep look into the world that [game creator Hideo Kojima] had been swimming in for years while conceiving Metal Gear Solid.

Metal Gear Solid 2

Konami Computer Entertainment Japan/Konami

Metal Gear Solid 1

Konami Computer Entertainment Japan/Konami

 

Interestingly, Blaustein relays his intent during the extended – and isolating – challenge of bringing the philosophical military espionage thriller to a Western audience. It was necessary not just to transpose Japanese words into English, but to convey the correct tone, the subtle characterisation, and even the relationship between characters:

[I tried] to look past the Japanese words to capture the essence of each conversation. I was desperately trying to keep the feeling that Kojima was himself trying to inspire in player.

[…] Translation is not a science; it is an art. One must take liberties with the text to capture the essence of the words, in an attempt to recreate the feeling of the original for a very different audience with a very different cultural background. That essence is found less in the words themselves than in the spaces between the words. It is a tone, an ever-present, unspoken attitude, and in this case it was a very confident tone. It is the mark of a single hand that often gives a work integrity and power, and I didn’t want to put my fingerprint on Metal Gear Solid. I wanted to imitate what I thought Kojima desired from the text.

I recommend reading the engaging full article on Polygon.com. There’s also an interesting take on the need for over-emphasised dialogue and voice acting in PlayStation One-era games in this article from Levelskip.

—DB

Tips – Writing Translations

Translation.jpg

What makes a good translation? As talented as my translator clients are, they still sometimes have questions about how they can improve.

So you’ve already read through your text to get a full understanding of its content and style. You’ve taken out your bi-lingual dictionary and style guide. Google is open on-screen, waiting to assist. And you’re ready to begin.

What can you keep in mind as you go about your translation task? Here are a few simple tips.

1. Read around the subject
If you’re lucky enough to have a regular client, you will develop an understanding of their main topics as you work with them. But when you are introduced to a new field it helps to read about the subject in books or online. This will help you to learn the terminology and understand your audience. Be sure to refer to reputable sources, and don’t assume their spelling or grammar is up to scratch – check for yourself.

2. Give yourself plenty of time
Your job is difficult enough without putting yourself under unnecessary time pressure. Sometimes it can’t be helped if you’re working to tight time constraints, but if you have the luxury of starting a few days earlier than your deadline, give yourself that flexibility. It will give you more time to read around the subject (point 1); to find that succinct, clearest word or phrase (points 4, 5 & 6); and to proofread your latest draft (point 8).

3. Take advantage of your client’s glossary
If your client has included a glossary with your project details, this will help you with terminology and phrasing. Of course, you won’t be given a glossary for every task, which is where reading around the subject will help you – especially your client’s website or previous publications.

4. Be consistent and clear with terminology
You might find that there four or five words you could use to refer to the same thing. That doesn’t mean you should use them all! Whereas some people preach that variety makes for a more interesting text, you could also risk losing your reader if they mistakenly think you’re talking about two or more different things. Maintain clarity in your text by using the same term or phrase every time.

5. Use clear nouns/pronouns
In the same way, it’s better to say “Harriet said” / “Harriet did” then ambiguously refer to “she”. You can always remove any unnecessary repetition later.

6. Keep sentences brief
Short sentences are very clear. They are harder to misinterpret. Longer sentences like this, full of sub-clauses or long lists of nouns, verbs or other terms, which may or may not cover more than one topic – such as your client’s approach to computer technology in addition to their human resource policy – may technically be grammatically correct, but they will strain the focus of your reader and leave more room for error or misunderstanding.

7. Translate meaning, not words
The website Anglocom says, “Be the reader’s advocate … make the effort to understand the content and purpose of your text, then translate it as simply as possible.” This is especially important when translating idioms, which rarely translate literally. You will have a deeper understanding of the meaning in your text if you read around the subject (point 1) and take advantage of your client’s glossary (point 2).

8. Run it through a free grammar checker
Microsoft Word, or a website like Grammarly, can give you a quick check on your spelling, punctuation and grammar. They are far from perfect and can’t be relied on, but they might help you catch some stray typos. It will get your text in better shape to pass to your editor, client or supervisor even if it’s not the final draft.

9. Add notes for your editor or client
If a sentence was particularly challenging, add a comment to your text to explain what you’re trying to say. This may be impractical if you’re writing back to your client (who expects flawless work), but if you work with a proofreader or editor then they may find this invaluable, and it may possibly avoid errors due to misinterpretation, and save you time on back-and-forth questions.

10. Learn about translation itself
Whenever you aren’t translating, do some reading about translation itself. Translatorthoughts is a specialised website that provides translators with tips and some very helpful tools, including techniques and a translator’s glossary of terms. The advice to writers is: when you’re not writing, read. The same applies to translators – the more reading you do of the language you’re translating into, the more you will improve your skills.

Is there any advice you’d like on translating? If you have a question or comment, let me know!

—db

Finding time to write

So, what’s new with you?

You get up, go to work, then have a shorter evening than you’d like before bed. Maybe you have to bundle the kids off to school in the morning and collect them later, cook for them and watch over them. Maybe you’re single and dating even though it’s dark and cold out. Maybe you have a beloved dog to walk or a house to clean or a relative to take care of. Maybe there’s just a lot of TV to catch up on.

How do you find time to write with all that going on?

As a proofreader and editor I work with students, translators, prose and poetry writers. When I’m fortunate enough to get return business, the gaps are often explained as being the result of simply being too busy, or not finding the time to write lately.

So what’s the solution?

You can’t make more time. You probably can’t stop doing one thing to make more room for writing, either (although if your problem is TV, sort it out. No TV is that good).

Lifestyles can be busy, especially when we make them busy. Are we so social because we hate to be alone? Do we succumb to all of that easy entertainment because we don’t want to have the space to think? Not only are these problems that should be sorted out, they’re also problems with a built-in solution for your writing woes: stop doing them for a while, and write about them instead, or at least the things that motivated you to do them. Take two weeks off and try.

When my life gets busy, my problem isn’t that I don’t have time to write, but that when I do have time I don’t feel like it. I’m not ready to think and work after all the thinking and working I do at my day job and then freelancing in the evening and at weekends. If I feel a moment of creative inspiration, I have to get home (or at least move from one room to another) and get set up. By the time I have a steaming cup of tea on my desk and the laptop is booted up, I’ve lost it. The inspiration is gone and I’m staring at a blinking cursor in an empty Word document.

A solution that works for my particular lifestyle is routine. One of my favourite writers, Haruki Murakami, has a famously rigid routine that he says not only makes him productive, but also brings him great joy. Murakami-san has the luxury of being successful enough to not need a day job, but a writing routine certainly helps the rest of us, too. Not the usual insipid “write 500 words a day, every day!” advice, but more allocate yourself a time slot amidst the chaos to write. It doesn’t even have to be daily. Just choose a particular time of the week (or day) that is set aside solely for writing. Not only will you find peace in the routine, but you might also even look forward to it. On days where your inspiration comes at other times, jump right in. Then, when your routine writing window arrives, you can rejoice in how you’re already two pages further into that thesis or novel you’re working on.

Personally, I try to get home from the office and immediately start writing. My brain isn’t yet fried, or numbed from a couple of hours of evening TV, and I’m still ‘on the go’ and energised. I’ll aim for 30-60, and if I’m inspired to write for longer then I will. Unfortunately that time is usually when I want to be whipping up a quick meal and stuffing my face, so there’s sometimes a compromise. In any case, I’m slowly making progress with my creative work as a result of choosing a routine instead of hoping for a break in the storm.

Give it a try and let me know what you think.

—db

 

What is line-editing, and do I need it?

The St. Paul's Editing Service - David Brookes

 

As part of my short series on editorial processes, I will be looking at proofreading, line-editing and copy-editing to give some insight onto the features that distinguish them from one another. Last month I looked at proofreading. This article covers a more substantive approach, line-editing.

What is line-editing?
Line-editing, unsurprisingly, works at the ‘line level’ of your text. Often confused with copy-editing (the subject of a future post), this is not a more intensive proofread, but a genuine deep edit that examines the detail of your writing to generally enhance your work. A line-editor will help with clumsy wording and sentence structure, improving your clarity and flow, and fact-checking. It could involve the moving, cutting or adding of whole paragraphs (or, if you really need it, chapters). This is generally what most laypeople think of as “editing”.

A deeper look
A proofreader looks for errors such as typos or obvious blunders. A copy-editor will work on things like grammar and consistency of language and regional spelling (i.e. UK or US English). A line-editor’s job usually comes before both of these things, and works hard to draw out the best from every line in your text. It could be considered “heavy editing” and, at the end of the process, you may be looking at a completely different piece of writing to the one you started with.

Rewording of sentences will help get rid of unnecessary passive voice, extensive adverbs (which Stephen King described as paving ‘the road to hell’) repeated words and phrases, tautology, cliché, overwriting, and mixed or broken metaphors and similes. There’s also an element of fact-checking and improving on the writer’s general voice and style.

Voice is something that I would prefer not to interfere with as an editor, but sometimes it’s necessary. Take a novel. If the writer’s personal voice is too strong, it can draw the reader out of the moment and spoil the illusion that all good fiction strives for. Charlotte Brontë is often lauded for breaking this illusion in Jayne Eyre (“Reader, I married him.”) and good editors have been undoing the damage she caused ever since! Voice should not be confused with style, which is (read “should be”) unique to every writer and carries an element of their voice within it.

Tone is also examined, to make sure that it’s appropriate. In an autobiography I would expect the writer’s voice, style and tone to naturally be perfectly appropriate, since it’s their story after all, but even here tone can distract or confuse the reader. It wouldn’t do to make jokes throughout the chapter of your heartbreaking divorce, for example, but the very nature of reliving such an upsetting episode could interfere with the writer’s sense of what’s appropriate for the scene. Likewise, a children’s picture book with a deadly serious tone probably wouldn’t go down so well (“I must protest, Sam-I-Am. I most sincerely would prefer not to eat your green eggs and ham.”).

I generally consider my job as a line-editor to scrub out anything that holds the text back and, if possible, also elevate the text to something closer to the writer’s original vision for their work, helping with vocabulary, sentence structure and imagery. I would also work (in the case of fiction) on characterisation, plotting and originality.

In terms of an ongoing editing process, I would expect line-editing to come first. Once the writer has written their first draft and given it a once- (or twice-) over and can no longer see how it can be improved, the line-editor gets a go. You could, potentially, end up with something completely different by the time they’ve finished, but it should be improved. The reason this would come before copy-editing is because there’s no use having a copy-editor scour your novel for problems with grammar, typos and other minute issues if the line-editor is going to cut that pointless dream sequence or rewrite all your dialogue afterwards.

Do I really need a line-editor?
How do I answer this?  YES … Probably.

If you’ve finished working on a blog post or some SEO content for a website, there’s a case for saying that deep editing is unlikely to be a major advantage. Generally your proofreader, if they’re feeling generous, will point out any glaring errors whilst correcting your typos.However, if English isn’t your first language or if you’re a new hand at writing, an editor will really help you to develop simply by showing you where you might be going wrong (ideally with some helpful annotations to justify their changes and suggestions).

If you’re writing an essay, you’d be better off with a copy-editor than a proofreader so that you can have your grammar examined (not all proofreaders consider grammar part of their purview), and a line-editor may be of use there too. Most substantive edits will be a mixture of line-editing and copy-editing anyway, so it’s important to talk with your editor to discuss exactly what you expect from the process. Many fiction writers, when looking for an editor, are seeking a line-editor who will work on their copy too.

The people who I know who have undergone a third-party editing process have always been very relieved that they did!

Finally…

grammar-meme-grammarly-alphabet-soup

…learn from your editor!

—db

 

What is proofreading, and do I need it?

The St. Paul's Literary Service - David Brookes

As part of a short series on editorial processes, I will be looking at proofreading, line-editing and copy-editing to give some insight onto the features that distinguish them from one another. To begin with the simplest, this week I’ll talk about proofreading.

What is proofreading?

Most writers already have a basic understanding of what proofreading entails. Once you have written the work, a proofreader will carefully examine your text for errors in spelling, punctuation and grammar. They might mark the errors for you to correct, or they may correct the errors themselves if they’re working with a digital copy.

Proofreaders don’t examine things like structure, or whether your paragraphs ‘flow’ when being read, or if they fit together smoothly. A simple way to remember a proofreader’s scope is to think in terms of sentences. The proofreader will generally work one sentence at a time, forgetting everything that comes before or after it. Are the words spelling correctly? Is the sentence correctly formed in grammatical terms? Is it properly punctuated? Is it formatted correctly and consistent with the rest of the document?

Beyond this, we have ventured into the realms of editing, not proofreading. However, a good proofreader should also look for consistency in your word use, regional spelling (consistently UK or US English, for example) and presentation. If you’re working towards a style guide, they will check that you have been consistent with this (note: check that it is so, not make it so).

When proofreading for clients, I personally go a little further and give a ‘semi-edit’. Most people find it very useful to know whether their sentences fit together properly (cohesion) and are easily understandable and readable (coherence and flow). Some, but not all, proofreaders will add comments justifying their changes or recommendations. At STP Editing, this is part of the service.

A deeper look

Assuming that your proofreader is working with a paper copy (such as a teacher marking your printed essay), you may get your paper back covered in mysterious annotations (usually in the notorious red ink). Whilst these glyphs are probably undecipherable to the average person, they are actually the useful language of the proofreader. Here are some examples:

https://fairfieldwriter.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/proofreading_symbols.jpg

How will proofreading help?

If you are writing an academic piece, such as an essay, dissertation or PhD proposal, then you will be assessed, in part, on your ability to write in your chosen language. It’s therefore essential to ensure that your paper is error-free.

Or perhaps you’re a budding author, itching to self publish your new story, novel or poetry collection on Amazon or a similar platform? Don’t even think about it until you’re confident that it’s totally error-free and is of a publishable standard. No writer wants bad reviews based on an unpolished manuscript (trust me!). A proofreader will be able to help you with this.

If you’re a business, the last thing you need in your marketing material – or worse, proposals or important reports – are simple typographical errors. Customers are less likely to engage with a business that they consider unprofessional, and a flier, website or menu riddled with errors in written English could be their first contact with your brand.

Do I really need a proofreader?

Maybe, maybe not. Even professional writers use proofreaders (or at least take full advantage of their publisher’s in-house editors), as no matter how many times you scour your own work for errors, there always seems to be a few more you missed the last time. It really does take a fresh pair of eyes to ensure that your work is completely without errors.

I hope no offense is taken when I say that not everybody is an expert in written English. As competent or enthusiastic as a person is, they might not necessarily be familiar with the changing landscape of English grammar or totally conversant with the finer points of syntax or punctuation. Not to mention that there may be issues that you don’t recognise as errors: incorrect capitalisation, mixed or broken metaphors, and incorrect spelling and punctuation are common. A word processor won’t necessarily know that you haven’t written what you meant to write.

Finally…

The St Paul's Literary Service - David Brookes

 

Hiring a Freelance Editor: Dos and Don’ts

David Brookes editor

If you’re thinking of hiring a professional proofreader or editor to look at your essay, thesis, fiction, CV or business report, then you aren’t the only one. This is extremely common practice across the world, and there are a lot of resources available to make this simple and easy for you.

There are several websites for hiring freelancers. Elance.com and Freelancer.com are two popular examples. As a freelance editor and ghostwriter, I prefer Freelancer.com for its ease of use and the quality of the projects that are available. Think of these sites as a kind of eBay for services. You, the employer, will post a project listing your requirements, budget and deadline, and freelancers will tender for the job. One of them might be me, so keep an eye out for the best!

David Brookes, freelance writer and editorLook at this guy! He looks so hardworking and honest. You’d trust him to babysit your kids!

When looking to hire a freelance proofreader or editor, there are some simple dos and don’ts that you should bear in mind:

DON’T:

  • Hire the cheapest freelancer. I hate to use adages, but “you get what you pay for” is true for editing and ghostwriting services too. The cheapest are often non-native speakers with poor skills, or actually agencies disguised as individuals. If someone seems like the best person for the job, this should be your priority, not the fee. Maybe it will be worth spending those few extra quid.
  • Expect a freelancer to sign a contract just because you asked. You might think an off-the-net non-disclosure agreement or ghostwriting contract is sound, but most freelancers aren’t lawyers and you probably aren’t either. If you feel a contract is necessary, work with your freelancer to write one that is as simple as possible that you can both accept – it’s still binding, with the added advantage that you both actually know what the hell you’re signing!
  • Disrespect the professional. Just because you’re hiring someone it doesn’t mean you can treat them like dirt. A lot of people subconsciously watch others for the ‘waiter rule‘, so behave like someone is watching (often there is: most freelance sites have a dispute and arbitration team). You will get better results by building rapport and acting sympathetically towards your freelancer’s other commitments and responsibilities. So be cool, guy.

DO:

  • Be clear with your requirements. My favourite employers are ones who tell me exactly what they expect from me. That way I can do a great  job for them first time without any complications or second attempts. It works out best for everybody that way, so don’t feel that you’re asking too much by spelling out your project requirements.
  • Choose your freelancer carefully – very carefully. There are a lot of freelancers out there. Some of them are underqualified, and some are downright shifty. If you’re writing in English, you will get better results hiring someone who’s native language is English. This may sound obvious, but there are a lot of people on freelancing sites, particular from India and Africa, who have convincing proposals and highly-rated reviews. However, I’ve spoken first hand with people who have paid for well-written proposals, and many reviews are from employers in their own countries who don’t necessarily realise they have received a substandard product. Be wary of profiles that don’t have an individual touch, such as a photo – a lot of ‘freelancers’ are actually agencies, where one person with decent English skills subcontracts to lesser-skilled workers in exchange for a commission. Chat to your freelancer before hiring them and be prepared to ask blunt questions.
  • Ask for testimonials and/or samples. One way of weeding out the dodgy freelancers is to ask for testimonials and samples of their editing work. These can be faked too, but if you’re really astute you will probably spot those that might be copied off the internet, or with annotations written in a style different to your freelancer’s manner of speaking. If you’re hiring via a site like Freelancer.com, check out the freelancer’s reviews in detail instead of just relying on the overall rating.
  • Have fun! Your editor is a person too, and however professional they behave they are just as likely as you to want a friendly chat and how-d’you-do if you both have the time. Especially when working on longer texts like theses or novels, you’ll be spending a lot of time talking to one another, so don’t be afraid to get to know your editor, build a rapport, and enjoy the process!

—db


 

David Brookes is a freelance editor in the UK. You can hire him via the Contact page or his profile on Freelancer.com.

Terminology: why cyborgs suck

Ghost in the Shell

Five years ago, after years of toil, I finally got my first novel published in paperback. Half Discovered Wings is not easy to define in terms of genre: it is ostensibly fantasy, in the broadest sense – it features monsters and supernatural/spiritual elements – but it is also science fiction, in that the post-apocalyptic world in which it is set has a history of high technology (sci-fi is a sub-category of fantasy in any case).

Prior to finally being accepted by a publisher, Libros International in 2009, the novel underwent six drafts and a title change. Characters were cut, scenes were removed or changed, even the dialogue was completely re-written for some characters. There are still many characters (possibly too many) and a good 142,000 words remaining, but since all of these characters are integral to each other’s stories, and since all those words are necessary to describe those characters and the world they inhabit, I realised that I could cut no longer. It then became merely a proofreading exercise.

Since I wrote the first draft in 2003, my literary ideology had changed, and each successive draft was what I hoped to be a significant improvement. I was developing as a writer and I wanted my novel to reflect my best efforts.

For the past few months I have been working to create another version of Half Discovered Wings, what I will optimistically call the definitive version, for ebook release. Revisiting this nostalgic reality has reminded me of another difficulty: that of terminology.

Science fiction runs the knife’s edge of being scientific enough to interest a certain kind of reader, using big ideas to either speculate or explain, whilst still being readable and enjoyable enough to sell copies. Fantasy does the same – take a look at the difference between The Hobbit (fun and readable) and The Silmarillion (Biblical syrup), for example. Many people have told me that they never got into The Lord of the Rings because there were too many unfamiliar names and words. Some readers shy away from sci-fi for the same reason – they would rather have a story instead of half a chapter describing how a faster-than-light drive works, or precisely how time travel is possible. Forget that: just get on with the story. And I sympathise.

There are several original terms of Half Discovered Wings, so many that my editor suggested I insert a glossary at the back of the book. I reluctantly agreed. What does it matter what the term ‘sanguilac’ means when the reader is being shown what these blood-sucking creatures are (a basic knowledge of Latin would help also)? Still, if even one reader finds it useful, why not? For the rest of you, please don’t feel patronised.

In Half Discovered Wings I also wrote a character nicknamed Caeles, which is Latin for ‘dwells in Heaven’. The irony is that he is far from angelic, embittered by over a century of grief and warfare. Caeles is a cybernetic organism, a cyborg, created to fight in the radioactively- and biologically-hazardous battlefields of a distant war. He is a relic from this world’s sci-fi past, and understandably he is treated with suspicion and fear by the relatively ignorant inhabitants of its present.

One piece of terminology I struggled with was ‘cyborg’. Talk about cheesy. The term is now 55 years old, coined in 1960 by some theoretically-minded scientists (aren’t all scientists theoretically-minded?). The earliest example in fiction that I could find was in the 1972 novel Cyborg by Martin Caiden, which was the inspiration for TV’s The Six Million Dollar Man and spin-off Bionic Woman. I’m sure that many writers are used to turning away from terms such as ‘cyborg’ and ‘android’, precisely because they’re retro, slightly naff terms.

But what are the modern alternatives? I recall reading a few books that created unique terms to describe their particular type of cyborg – I’m sure I’ve seen ‘Tek’, ‘Tech’ and ‘mechanoid’, for example, even though the latter is incorrect to describe anything with electronic components. I recall, years ago, wracking my brains for something like this to use. For a time I settled on the term ‘cybernetic’, utilising the term as a noun. This was vaguely original at least, but unwieldy. Having someone refer to a character as “a cybernetic” rings false, assuming the reader has a feel for the difference between a noun and an adjective. It doesn’t sound right.

I don’t know how long I spent trying to wrap my head around the difference between cybernetics and bionics, and the mess of similar terms, to make sure I was using the correct one. The individual definitions are clear, but how they might apply to, say, Luke Skywalker’s electro-mechanical hand in The Empire Strikes Back is not. Is the hand bionic? Cybernetic? Is Luke now technically a cyborg?

Let’s not go there.

I was surprised, and secretly pleased, to see the resurgence of ‘cyborg’ as a term in comics. This is a fine example of what all writers should be doing: using the simplest, clearest language to describe what you need to describe. There is no need to be fancy, there is no need to over-explain. If a character is half machine, just call him ‘a cyborg’. The reader knows exactly what you mean just by using that one word. Its simplicity is beautiful.

The image at the top of this page relates to the anime franchise Ghost in the Shell, a mind-blowing collection of manga, films and several TV series. The character in the picture, Motoko, is almost 100% machine, and usually referred to simply as a “cyborg” or “cybernetic human”. The Japanese have long been obsessed with the concept of melding man and machine. Having explored almost every avenue, in their wisdom they retain the simplest of descriptions.

I may change my mind during the course of this re-write of Half Discovered Wings. It’s been known to happen during my edits. But for now I’ll stick to my own rules: simplicity is best, conciseness is best.

Cyborg it is.

—db

[Half Discovered Wings is still available as paperback from Amazon here. Look out for Half Discovered Wings in ebook format soon!]

[P.S., artist of the picture above please step forward for credit!]

Got questions?

Questions

The website now has a handy-dandy FAQ section!

If you have any questions about the packages available from the St. Paul’s Literary Service, you can now look them up.

  • What level of editing service is provided?
  • How much will it cost?
  • How long will it take?
  • How are the changes shown?
  • Do you provide a sample?
  • Can you check my essay for plagiarism?
  • What sort of things do you ghostwrite?
  • Can you format my e-book for me?
  • Can you give me some tips for how to get published?
  • Do you have a translation service?
  • Do you give English lessons?
  • Can you help me pass my TEFL course?
  • What are your qualifications and experience?

If you still have questions, you can always use the Contact page to get in touch.

Happy seeking!

—db

How long should a novel be? (pt.1)

Photo by Joel Robison

Photo by Joel Robison

Whenever I meet other writers, one of the questions that often comes up is: “How long should my novel be?”  There are variations on the question, such as “How long is too long?” and “How short is too short?”  I’ve spent a lot of time trying to find some reliable answers to these questions myself, and decided to write up the results for the benefit of fellow authors.


Discussing novel lengths and word counts

It’s easiest to talk about the length of fiction in terms of word count, rather than pages.  The reason for this is simple: if you say your short story is twenty pages, I would say “What size font?  Double or single spaced?  What size are your margins?  Do you use a lot of snappy dialogue, or dense blocks of narrative?”  Compare a few pages of a sparse novel, such as James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces“, to a dense tome such as Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow“, and you’ll get the idea.

Every word processor has a function to count the words in your text, so don’t be afraid to use it!  Publishers will want to know how long your novel is in number of words; the same goes if you submit it to an editor or proofreader for that critical review before you submit for print or publication.


Determining your ideal word count

If you have an idea for a novel and you’re familiar with the genre, there’s an easy way to decide how long it should be.  Let’s say you’d like to write the next steamy romance bestseller along the lines of “Fifty Shades of Grey”.  Go to the Romance section of Waterstones or your local bookshop (if there are any left in your area) and pick up a few similar titles.  You’ll notice that, generally speaking, they’re all about the same thickness, and have similarly sized fonts within.  The reason for this is that the publishers have a very good idea of how long this kind of book should be, and stick to it.  If you want them to publish your novel, then you should stick to it too.

One way to guess a book’s word count is to count the number of pages (say 300) and times it by 250 (average number of words per page) to get the total word count (in this case, 75,000 words).

250 words is a good guess per page, but this depends on the font size.  If you want to get a more accurate calculation, open one of those Romance books (or a book from your chosen genre) and count how many words are in each of the first ten lines.  Work out an average, then times it by the number of lines on the page.  This will likely be between 200 and 260 words.  Then you can times it by the number of pages in the book.

Number of words on a full line
x
Number of lines on the page
x
Number of pages in the book


Word count of famous novels

As an illustration, here are some famous novels that will be easily to find in your local bookshop, with their word lengths (credit goes to this site):

  • 30,500 – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl (Children’s)
  • 36,000 – Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe – C. S. Lewis (Children’s)
  • 46,000 – Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury (Science fiction)
  • 47,000 – The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald (Literary drama)
  • 49,500 – Slaughterhouse-Five – Kurt Vonnegut (Science fiction)
  • 56,500 – As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner (Literary drama)
  • 60,000 – Lord of the Flies – William Golding (Literary drama)
  • 63,500 – Mrs. Dalloway – Virginia Wool (Literary drama)
  • 67,000 – Treasure Island – Robert Louis Stevenson (Adventure)
  • 67,500 – The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway (Wartime drama)
  • 73,500 – The Catcher in the Rye – J. D. Salinger (Coming of age)
  • 77,500 – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – J. K. Rowling (Children’s)
  • 78,500 – The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde (Literary drama)
  • 85,000 – The Unbearable Lightness of Being – Milan Kundera (Literary drama)
  • 89,000 – Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell (Science fiction)
  • 89,000 – Waiting – Ha Jin (Literary drama)
  • 100,000 – To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee (Drama)
  • 113,000 – The Golden Compass – Philip Pullman (Fantasy)
  • 119,500 – My Sisters Keeper – Jodi Picoult (Drama)
  • 123,500 – Atonement – Ian McEwan (Family saga)
  • 138,000 – 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea – Jules Verne (Fantasy)
  • 144,500 – One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Family saga)
  • 145,500 – Last of the Mohicans – James Fenimore Cooper (Historical drama)
  • 156,000 – Emma – Jane Austen (Romance)
  • 156,000 – Watership Down – Richard Adams (Adventure)
  • 183,500 – Great Expectations – Charles Dickens (Coming of age)
  • 184,000 – Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë (Romance)
  • 206,000 – Moby Dick – Herman Melville (Adventure)
  • 208,500 – Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie (Fantasy drama)
  • 211,500 – Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Drama)
  • 236,000 – A Prayer for Owen Meany – John Irving (Drama)
  • 257,000 – Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – J. K. Rowling (Children’s)
  • 418,000 – Gone with the Wind – Margaret Mitchell (Historical epic)
  • 455,000 – The Lord of the Rings (trilogy) – J. R. R. Tolkien (Epic fantasy)
  • 562,000 – Atlas Shrugged – Ayn Rand (Drama)
  • 587,000 – War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy (Drama)

So, should you emulate these great authors?  J. K. Rowling’s “Order of the Phoenix” was a whopping 257,000 words, so should you aim for this when writing your first fantasy book for children?  Hell, no.  Apart from the fact that dear J. K. really, really needed a good editor in the post-Azkaban years, she was also by then well established and immensely successful. She had free rein to do whatever she liked, much to the detriment of children’s fiction everywhere.

Also, books we now consider classics were often significantly longer back in the day than popular books now.  Why?  Because there was less competition; because they were often written and published in installments; and because being wordy and “literary” was what made one a “proper” writer and worthy of being read (although it should be noted that many authors now considered masters were thought of as trashy during their own time. Fortunately for E.L. James).


Average word count by genre

My personal recommendation when it comes to choosing your word count is to go on the standard for the genre.  Publishers follow these loose guidelines for a reason.  There are always exceptions, so take them with a pinch of salt, but they are a handy guide.  If you’re out by more than 10,000 words, then you should re-think your plot or give it a thorough editing.

  • Literary: 60 to 90,000 words
  • Young adult: 45 to 80,000 words
  • Romance: 85 to 100,000 words
  • Cozy mysteries: 65 to 90,000 words
  • Thrillers: 90 to 100,000 words
  • Popular & chick-lit: 80 to 100,000 words
  • Epic sci-fi & fantasy: 100 to 120,000 words
  • Modern sci-fi & fantasy: 80 to 100,000 words
  • Horror: 80 to 100,000 words
  • Western: 80 to 100,000 words

No doubt some people will disagree with some of these, so I encourage responses in the comments section!


For some final words, and advice for debut novelists, check this part 2 of this post here.  Thanks for reading!

—db