Sense and sensibility: or, the importance of being edited

Sense and sensibility: or, the importance of being edited

Language is a beautiful, shifting thing, but every tongue on the planet comes with rules you simply can’t break, and when you use  words the wrong way you can end up looking like a dummy. That dilutes your argument and undermines your message. After all, isn’t communicating something the whole point?


It can be a singular act of bravery to hand your precious written work to another person and ask them to tell you what’s wrong with it. The more you love it, the harder it feels – but unless you never want it read, it’s got to be done. One of the great lessons I learned from journalism is that editing is a good thing. Writing is work, and like all workers, writers get tired, and make mistakes, and have off days. Sometimes that additional pair of eyes can tweak your laborious metaphor and make it sing. Sometimes just a quick scan will save you from legal action. Sometimes a grumpy old subeditor will frown at you so grumpily that you will never misspell “manoeuvre” again.

Even when you don’t have an extra pair of eyes on hand, it’s worth taking a break – a day is good if you can stretch to it – and looking at your work again before you send it off. Here are a few places where it’s easy to trip up

But it’s art

Recently I was contacted by an old connection, asking me to consider digging out some writing from about 20 years ago, when I fancied myself a poet. It was a fairly excruciating experience, but since I have been tentatively stretching my creative muscles again, I found myself doodling the odd new verse. I started writing poetry about the time I stopped being a newspaper reporter and found I had to add things like adjectives. This time, with seven years’ newspaper editing under my belt, it was even worse.

Poet me: “The wind sets shifting borders.”

Editor me: “No it doesn’t. If they’re shifting they’re not set. If they’re set, they’re not shifting.”

Poet me: “But I like the alliteration!”

Editor me: “Well, it’s your poem. I mean, don’t let me stop you. It’s not like I pointed out that wind is made of air and therefore can’t create a border anyway. If you want to say “sets shifting” because you think it’s all poetical, then do carry on.”

Poet me: *side-eyes, grumbles, rewrites*

But it’s in the dictionary

I once hung out with a man who read dictionaries for fun. This led to  heated discussions about correct usage from time to time, followed by look-ups. But most people do not stash dictionaries all around their houses. Quite a few don’t even use the one that comes with their word processing packages. If they did, fewer embarrassments would arise. However, there can be drawbacks to uncritical use of that big book.

I did French at high school. Whenever I found out there was more than one French word for something, I’d pick whichever one I liked the look of best and use that. I was later to realise how dumb that approach was when I met people new to English who spoke of making their ablutions in the morning, or swooned over the beautiful stench of a perfume. When you speak a language really well, you understand subtleties of meaning, context and tone that are often lost on people who don’t. Which leads me to…

I thought I read it somewhere

I’ve been marking a lot of undergraduate university essays lately, and I’ve found that for all their grammatical errors, if there’s one set of students who seldom get basic meaning wrong, it’s the second language speakers. It was the same when I was editing newspapers – the second-language writers were frequently better than the local ones. Kiwis, bizarrely, are shockingly bad for using words they think mean one thing that actually mean something else – “portray” for exemplify, “enforce” for reinforce or support – just throwing any old preposition where one is needed, and for tripping up over homonyms (“chicken coup*”, “poured over journals”). We speak our own languages with great sophistication, but when we try to get sophisticated, we frequently fail.

I think I’ve worked out the reason. It’s because we don’t read all that much. Sure, we’re constantly online now, but we’re mostly skimming chatty blog posts, giggling at gifs or listening to audio. Most of us spend a lot less time with our noses in a book, and the breadth and depth of the things we read is vastly reduced on a day to day basis. When we come to write something, it seems that we try to emulate what we think we’ve read – but without that ongoing practice, our skills are unformed or rusty. Add to that the regular appearance in print of these errors, and it’s a vicious circle.

But Spellcheck, tho

One of these days I’m going to have to accept “loosing” weight to fit into some new “flaired” pants as legitimate usage, so common have these misspellings become. I’m hoping I am in my grave before that happens. Spellcheck does not speak English. Spellcheck does nothing more than pass over words it recognises, and highlight words that it doesn’t. This is why chickens stage coups, academics pour themselves onto pages and you never know which two/too/to is going to turn up. You should always, always run a spellcheck. But don’t expect it to catch those errors.

Of course, there’s another thing you can do after you’ve done all of this, and that’s find a beta reader, or hire an editor. Don’t fear that second set of eyes. It’s the difference between writing that’s loose, and writing that loses.



*Yes, I know coop and coup are not homonyms, but I’m guessing these error-makers didn’t prance about making fools of themselves using ill-chosen words in sixth form French, either.

Making an old skill new

Making an old skill new

Knitting Nana’s way has served me well – but trying Granny’s style is reconnecting me with the way it feels to learn  something from the ground up. As an unseasonably warm winter shifts into an unpredictable spring, I am taking comfort and inspiration from revisiting previous skills and passions, and making my old ways new.

My father used to laugh at what he called my “Kiwi knitting”. Mum’s mother – my nana – taught me, and all three of us would hold both needles in a loose fist and loop the wool round the left-hand needle in a motion Dad called “lassooing”. This was the normal mode of knitting as far as we were concerned. But for him, it was wildly flamboyant and uneconomical. He had grown up with the click of his mother’s needles in the dark at night, any light revealing that the only thing that seemed to move were her fingers.

My Irish grandmother was born in Donegal and learned to knit from infancy. By the time I met her, aged eleven, she had long since stopped doing it, her hands bent with arthritis, but her knitting skills were still legendary in our house. It was the 70s and handcrafts were the norm. Everyone’s mother could knit or crochet. Handmade jerseys and cardigans were still affordable options to mass-produced versions from the shops. They were probably cheaper.

Granny famously made everything for her family with her knitting needles, including socks. Traditional Aran designs were the norm. She never used a pattern. She usually used four needles and her work had no seams. We had a chance to test this story when she sent us some cardigans in the 70s (great big cream-coloured things with leather buttons) knitted by her and a friend. Just as we’d been told, Granny’s had no seams. Mum could not work out how she’d attached the sleeves.


I like to knit, though I don’t do it often – I get bored with plain knitting and can’t wear complex bulky patterns. But I often find myself breaking out needles and yarn at times of transition and stress. The feel of the wool and the needles, and the repetitive movements, are soothing. When I was made redundant in July this year, I fortunately managed to pick up a short-term contract right away, but the work was very different, and my working future remains a bit uncertain. It was no surprise, therefore, that I found myself wanting to knit over the winter. First I made a cushion (in Egyptian cotton – so gorgeous to work with), then a woollen throw, which is nearly finished. The pattern is simple, but has enough changes in it not to bore me. I pick it up and do a few rows on the bus or while watching TV. My mind drifts as I do it; I think about old school friends poking fun at their English mothers knitting with elbows tight by their sides, of the excitement of knitting with fashionable new yarns as a teen, of making baby clothes for family friends, of my late maternal aunt, who was a skilful and respected knitter in a “Kiwi” style. Memories of anything I’m watching get knitted into the fabric, too.

My dad is old and when we spend time together I often talk to him about his childhood. That, and the preponderance of tutorials on YouTube has sent me searching for Granny’s knitting style. It turns out there are a lot – but I think this is most likely to be the way she did it, based on Dad’s descriptions of her needles barely moving and being held high on the body. Periodically now I have tried to take up my needles this way. It’s hard. My knitting becomes slow and awkward. Usually I have to stop and return to my usual style, especially on a purl row. It’s too frustrating, relearning how to knit. But I think it’s good for my brain. Learning new things is something we can continue to do for life, even if it does become harder to learn quite so quickly as in the past.

When I first started knitting I used my left hand to throw the wool, confounding observers who dubbed what I was doing “Continental” (it wasn’t really). Over time I learned to use my right hand like everybody else. I can learn to hold my working needle like a pencil and tension my wool on my right hand, too. It just takes commitment.