Roslyn Petelin, author, How Writing Works

I agree with those who say that a book needs to be worth re-reading to be worth reading in the first place ...

It’s a bit nerve-wracking as a writer when you come in contact with someone who edits for a living. You can’t help but fight the compulsion to go over everything you’ve ever written with a fine-tooth comb. For Roslyn Petelin her joy for the written word extends far beyond seeking out grammatical errors. As an associate professor at the School of Communication and Arts at the University of Queensland, Roslyn has made educating aspiring writers her vocation – helping them improve their understanding of the intricacies inherent in writing, editing and publishing. Roslyn has just put forth a compendium on everything from sentence structure and grammar to how to write for social media called How Writing Works. Anyone that considers themselves an accomplished wordsmith should consider having a copy in their bookshelf, but before you rush to brush up on your skills have a read of our chat with Roslyn herself.

When did you first discover that you had a knack for the written word and all its intricacies?
In primary school at the age of 10 when I learnt English grammar and Latin and Greek roots, prefixes, and suffixes. Does that sound too 19th century? I started editing the school magazine in Grade 6 and have been writing and editing ever since.

Your book How Writing Works is hitting shelves on October 26. How will this book help readers improve their writing?
If readers absorb and apply the problem-solving strategies for reading, writing, and editing that I present and get feedback from an experienced writer, their writing will improve exponentially. 

What does the book include that isn’t commonly found in writing and grammar resources?
The book caters for writers in a wide range of genres across a wide range of arenas. Writers in academic, creative, journalistic, and workplace settings will find much to inspire them, including many rich internet resources that I list through the book. 

It’s very interesting that you tackle social media in How Writing Works, as many people are saying social media and instant messaging are leading to the degradation of grammar and writing. Is there a right way to write for social media?
Yes, there is, but it’s not all that different from how writing in other media works. Writing still needs to be clear, coherent, direct, simple (but not simplistic), that is, considerate of a (visualised) reader. 

What are some of the most common grammar mistakes people make?
Where do I start? I have a list of around 80 potential errors in writing in the final chapter of the book. Key mistakes for me are incorrect pronouns (‘They invited he and I to dinner’ instead of ‘They invited him and me to dinner’), incorrect prepositions (‘different to you and me’ instead of ‘different from you and me’), and misplaced modifiers (‘I only have eyes for you’ instead of ‘I have eyes for you only’ OR ‘Only I have eyes for you’ OR ‘I have eyes only for you’).

Be honest, do you ever catch yourself making a few cheeky errors?
Sure. In getting words on the screen or on the page in a first draft I do make mistakes. However, if I follow my own advice to spend four times longer on editing then writing, I can catch most of them. The editing that was done on How Writing Works by Clara Finlay after I submitted the manuscript was monumental.

As a lover of writing, can you share with us writers who are always a joy to read (and re-read)?
I agree with those who say that a book needs to be worth re-reading to be worth reading in the first place. I could name dozens of writers whom I regularly re-read with joy: P.G.Wodehouse, Clive James, Madeleine St John, James Salter, Dorothy L. Sayers, Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Powell, C.P. Snow, Alan Bradley, and Virginia Woolf; I could go on and on.

What is your favourite word?
Ineffable.

What is your least favourite word?
Utilise. 

Do you have one key writing tip you can share with all the budding wordsmiths out there?
Read lots and write lots — to find out what you’re thinking. 

The Weekend Edition is all about finding inspiration in many aspects of life – what are you currently finding inspiring?
As I near the end of semester at The University of Queensland, where I am an Associate Professor in Writing, my spirits are uplifted by the wit and energy of my students in a course that I teach called Writing about the Arts. This week they had to present a pitch for an arts column to the editor of an arts magazine. Their oral presentations were dazzling and I’m looking forward to reading their columns for further inspiration.

How Writing Works by Roslyn Petelin is available now through Allen & Unwin Books

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