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Why we don’t ask our authors to ‘write down’

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It’s been a while since we wrote about our ‘language edit’ process; the second, specialised edit that aims to identify and remove potential barriers to comprehension for individuals who struggle with print due to a processing deficit, language issues or a lack of reading experience.

Recently we’ve been asked about the process by various folk for differing reasons and so have rounded up some of the answers we’ve given to offer an insight, we hope, into how it works.

Second-guessing

The first, and most important point, is that we ask our authors to write as they normally would for the age-group. We really don’t want any ‘writing down’. Our edit attends in the main to syntax and is really quite subtle. The last thing we want is an author to have reined in his or her language, because in our experience that results in some reining in of imagination too. Language suited to a younger child tends to emerge, along with content suited to them, too.

As proof that no ‘writing down’ is required, a few of our books have had past lives in other imprints; Meg Rosoff’s Moose Baby was once a Puffin title called Vamoose!, for example. We worked on the text in our normal manner; in the normal manner Meg agreed most of the edit, queried some sections and we settled on a final version that saw not one sentence of the original cut. And it’s anything but an ‘easy’ book; in Julia Eccleshare’s words it’s ‘a brilliantly observed fable tak[ing] on snobbery, prejudice, motherhood and our current obsession with perfect, high-achieving children.’

“Our aim is to marry tweaks that may help make a text more accessible with that oft-cited and ill-defined quality in fiction, ‘the author’s voice.'”

Another key reason we prefer authors not to second-guess the language edit and try to ‘write accessible’ in the first place is that our definition of ‘accessible’ has a lot of flexibility built in. There simply aren’t hard-and-fast rules. Our aim is to marry tweaks that may help make a text more accessible with that oft-cited and ill-defined quality in fiction, ‘the author’s voice.’ We also know that research proves that struggling readers’ reading ability improves the further they get into a text and so we edit openings harder and do much less as the text progresses.

We do ask for a shorter book, and generally we prefer a linear plot. That’s not a hard-and-fast rule either, though, and we often work with authors to find ways to signpost flashbacks or other non-linear structures so that these don’t trip up less experienced readers.

What we do do

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From Cornelia Funke’s The Monster from the Blue Planet

In the language edit process we look at the vocabulary and structures the author uses and consider how these might appear to an inexperienced reader. It’s common, for example, for writers to invert the normal ‘subject-verb’ order of English in speech tags. Instead of writing, ‘”hello,” John said’, we write ‘”hello,” said John.”

Where things may get tricky is where a non-speech verb is substituted in and the tag is part of a longer and more complex whole. ‘”It’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” beamed Chris, grabbing Anne’s hand’, for example. We might tweak to ‘”It’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” Chris beamed, and he grabbed Anne’s hand.’ Not hugely different, but less demanding of the reader’s processing skills.

Why we don’t issue word-lists

‘Young readers… surprised [Patience] by having no issue at all with the word ‘paranoia’. “We’re all dyslexic,” they told her, “trust us, we know all about paranoia. We all have paranoid parents at home.”‘

We are in the fiction business, not the business of teaching children to read. We don’t, therefore, issue word-lists. What we do is not informed by the idea that every reader will have to ‘decode’ every single word (i.e. sound it out in their heads) and so we don’t insist that every single word should be as regular as possible. Our founder Patience Thomson has a funny story about an early Barrington Stoke language edit, in which young readers helping identifying issues surprised her by having no issue at all with the word ‘paranoia’. “We’re all dyslexic,” they told her, “trust us, we know all about paranoia. We all have paranoid parents at home.”

You can read more about our language edit process here and here.

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