A Primer on Editing Your Own Writing

August 29, 2018

Some writers write everything down as it comes to them, then go back and rework and edit their work once they’ve got the first draft written. Other writers edit as they write because that’s how they capture ideas as they come to them.

Whichever way you write, here’s a primer on editing your own writing.

  • Read your opening and ask yourself if it’s interesting to the reader, if it grabs the reader enough to make the reader want to read on.
  • Go over each paragraph with the idea that you need to cut out 10 percent to improve that paragraph. You may be able to make the cut or you may not, but at least you tried to tighten up each paragraph.
  • Keep your reader in mind–always. When I taught writing for publication classes at the college, I asked my students, “Who do you write for–yourself? your reader? the person who decides whether or not to buy (or represent in case of an agent) your writing?” Ask yourself that same question as you go back through your writing and see if you were consistent in writing for your intended reader.
  • Be honest with yourself about the flow of your writing. Your piece should move smoothly and carry your reader along without jarring your reader.
  • Speak your written words out loud (especially dialogue) so you can determine if the words you’ve written are conversational and natural sounding when the reader hears them in his/her head.
  • Understand that self-editing isn’t about ego or impressing anyone. It’s about common sense and working toward writing something others want to read and maybe even recommend to others.

This little primer could be a good start for you to learn to self-edit. Have fun with it. Happy writing!

Improve Your Nonfiction Writing

May 1, 2018

Whether you write fiction, nonfiction, or both, settling for the first draft never produces your best writing. Consider trying some of these ideas to help you when your nonfiction article needs something, but you aren’t sure what.

  • Determine what you’re really writing about. I told my writing students they should get at least three different articles from whatever it is they were researching. For example, I interviewed a woman who owned an antiquarian bookstore. The three articles I sold from that interview were: (1) Her story as a business person, (2) what types of people bought antiquarian books, and (3) what to look for (condition, edition, etc.) when buying antiquarian books to start a collection.
  • Detach yourself from your writing and consider your reader. Get rid of long sentences, extra words, anything that’s unclear at first reading. Don’t make your reader work to try to figure out what you’re trying to say.
  • Hit the ground running. Your opening paragraph should grab your reader’s attention. You do that by writing in your own voice, creating vivid images, or bringing out an emotion within your reader.
  • Limit your focus. Each article should have a narrow focus or angle. Test your focus by summing up your article in one sentence or by writing a headline that grabs the reader’s (and editor’s) attention.
  • Organize using an outline. One of the most useful outline tools I learned in graduate school is mind mapping. It allows you to insert ideas into your outline without the structure of Roman numerals, numbers, and letters. Google “mind mapping” and consider using it as a tool for you.
  • Show, don’t tell. Yes, I know you’ve heard this before, but it’s worth keeping in mind when you write. Readers visualize images, not written words. Go through your article and highlight the generalities (which are harder to see) in one color and the specifics (which pop up fairly quickly) in another to see how well your writing creates visuals.
  • Remember to communicate with your reader. Writers love words, which is one reason we use so many of them. Readers, on the other hand, want information and how they can use it. Think communication when you write.
  • Describe the personality of your piece. Is it enthusiastic? Authoritative? Challenging? Inspiring? Entertaining? Humorous? OR Is it bland? Argumentative? Superficial? Infuriating? Horrifying? You get to decide which you want it to be.

You don’t have to use all of these ideas on everything you write, but consider which will help you improve your nonfiction writing, then try them. Happy writing!

What to Expect from an Editor

September 25, 2017

Many of the authors I worked with over my career told me how upset they were with me when first seeing my edits, but once they realized my job was to help them make their writing better and more clear for the reader, they understood that nothing I said was personal to them–it was about improving their relationship with their reader.

So, what exactly should you expect from your editor? Here are some tips to help you.

  • Look for an editor who maintains respect for your ability as a writer while directing revisions to your work.
  • Determine if your editor can see the big picture (your general topic) of what your article or book is about while paying attention to the details in your sentences.
  • Be clear yourself about why you’re writing your article or book. Ask yourself, “What is this about in general? What are the deeper themes I want to cover?” The point is you want some compelling reason for writing so your reader feels satisfied when done reading. Once you’re clear about the reason, keep your focus on it to avoid going off in other directions.
  • Be sensitive to the fact that you know what you’re trying to say, but unless you make that clear in your writing, you’re expecting your reader to read your mind. Editors are the link between writers and readers. Your editor should always have the reader in mind when working with you to make your writing more clear and concise.
  • Ask for clarification when you don’t understand your editor’s comment or suggestion.
  • Watch that your editor helps you with both copy editing and content editing. Content editing is about clarity, understanding, organization. Copy editing is about grammar, punctuation, spelling. You need your editor to provide both.
  • Remember that a good editor strives for balance between keeping your voice and style while ensuring your writing is clear and grammatically correct.

I told authors I worked with that they the only ones who can write what they write. No one else has their perspective of life based on their knowledge, experience, and observation.

My job as editor was to make sure they clearly communicate with their readers. My job as editor was not to change their voice into mine (which, unfortunately, sometimes editors try to do by rewording or reworking an author’s piece).

Your editor should challenge you to be clear and to rewrite in your own voice to achieve clarity for the reader. Happy writing!


Frequently Misused Words

August 9, 2013

Writers write in their own voices, but that doesn’t mean they should write like they talk. Oral communications can be fleeting, but words committed to the page can last for decades, if not centuries. Therefore, it’s important you watch for word usage errors in your writing that you might not watch for in your speaking. Here are some frequently misused words.

Affect/Effect–Affect means to alter. Effect as a noun means impression or result and as a verb means to cause.

Among/Between–Among is used when dealing with more than two. Between is used in connection with two things/people.

Continual/Continuous–Continual refers to action that occurs with pauses. Continuous refers to action that occurs without pauses.

Disinterested/Uninterested–Disinterested means showing no preference or prejudice (impartial). Uninterested means lacking interest (bored).

Eager/Anxious–To be eager is to be enthusiastic. To be anxious is to be worried due to apprehension.

Farther/Further–Farther refers to physical distance. Further refers to extent or degree.

Imply/Infer–To Imply means to throw out a suggestion or hint. To infer means to take a suggestion or hint.

Lay/Lie–Lay means to put or place. Lie means to rest or recline.

Less/Fewer–Less is used when talking about quantity. Fewer is used for things you can count. (My favorite example of misusing these words is the express checkout line in stores that post written signs saying “10 Items or less.” We have one store in our area that does have it correct, however, with signs that read, “10 items or fewer.”)

Stationary/Stationery–With an “a,” stationary means fixed or still. With an “e,” stationery means letter paper.

This list is by no means all inclusive, but it’s a good start to increase your awareness of word usage.

Happy writing!


Proofing for These Common Comma Errors

July 25, 2013

You’ve brainstormed your query, article, or chapter. You’ve written your first draft. You’ve re-read and tweaked your piece one more time. So, what’s left to do before deciding you’re ready to move on to something else? You’ve got to proofread your piece, looking for spelling, capitalization, and punctuation errors.

Here’s a list of common comma errors to look for.

  • In a sentence containing two complete thoughts separated by a conjunction, you need a comma before the conjunction. Examples of conjunctions to alert you to add a comma are but, or, yet, so, for, and. Sentence example: She thought his ideas were good, but she didn’t want to let him know that just yet.
  • Insert a comma after an introductory phrase. Example: In a sentence containing an introductory phrase, you need a comma at the end of the phrase.
  • When you have a series of three or more items, place a comma before the and preceding the last item. NOTE: This is a requirement for books, but not for periodicals. Example: The school supply list included pencils, pens, markers, crayons, and notebooks.
  • When you have a parenthetical expression in a sentence, set off that extra, unneeded information with commas on both sides of the expression. Example: Jon Smith, the person who normally assists us, didn’t come to work today.
  • Place a comma between consecutive adjectives when you don’t use and between them. Example: Mary couldn’t stand George’s loud, boisterous speaking.
  • Insert a comma after the year when writing a full date. Example: They were married on August 13, 2009, in Vegas. NOTE: When you write only the month and year, omit the comma. Example: They were married August 2009 in  Vegas.

Although this list is not all-inclusive, it gives you a quick primer on common comma errors to look for when you proofread your final version of your work.

Happy writing!

Do You Need a Development Editor?

May 10, 2013

Authors know what they want to say, but sometimes they’re so close to their writing that they don’t fill in the blanks as well as they think they do. If you’ve noticed that in your writing, you may want to consider working with a development editor. Here’s a primer for you.

  • A development editor figures out what works in your book and what doesn’t. Then he or she offers specific suggestions on how to correct the issue or fix the problem.
  • A development editor asks you about your agenda in writing the book, then questions you to discover whether or not that’s what’s getting in the way of the book’s purpose/flow.
  • A development editor offers a comprehensive critique of your book. This isn’t the same as content or copy editing, however. It’s an analytical critique of the book over all.
  • A development editor may do content or copy editing, but those are additional services and paid for separately.
  • A development editor provides a cost/price proposal and keeps you abreast of progress in terms of deadline and costs.

Why would you invest in a development editor? Once an agent or acquisitions editor rejects a book, there’s little hope of having an improved version considered. Thus, you’ll want your manuscript in the best shape possible before shopping it around.

How do you find a development editor? As with anything, word-of-mouth and referrals typically offer best results. You may get referrals from agents or other editors, and if you do, you’ll want to be sure they aren’t  in “associate” programs where one pays a fee or commission to the other for business sent.

How do you make your decision? Find out how the development editor works, how he or she proposes to go about the project, and what references he or she can provide. My experience with references is they’re always positive or they wouldn’t be offered to you.

Bottom line is not all authors write the same way ,and not all development editors work the same way. Do some homework, and find the one who works best with you.

Happy writing!

Back to Basics

April 24, 2013

Most writers write without giving much thought to basics. I’ve noticed a trend in the manuscripts I edit and in the assignments my college students turn in–knowledge of basic writing rules is lacking.

Here’s a refresher to check your own writing.

  • A sentence is a group of words that expresses a complete thought. It requires both a subject and a verb. A subject is a noun (person, place, or thing) and a verb shows what the subject is or does.
  • An incomplete sentence may contain a subject and a verb, but it is called a sentence fragment because it does not express a complete thought.
  • A run-on sentence is created when two or more complete thoughts are joined without punctuation. If you join the thoughts without a conjunction, the correct punctuation is a semi-colon. If you join them with a conjunction, the correct punctuation is a comma.
  • Words that modify a noun or pronoun must appear in close proximity to the noun or pronoun being modified.
  • Dangling modifiers confuse the reader. Example: Walking down the pathway, the agate caught his eye. This says the agate is doing walking. Corrected example: Walking down the pathway, he noticed the agate.
  • Misplaced modifiers obscure the modifier meaning from the reader. Example: She noticed the loose tile in the restaurant’s kitchen while conducting a safety inspection after hours. You can make the meaning of what she is doing more clear by rewriting the sentence this way:  While conducting a safety inspection after hours, she noticed the loose tile in the restaurant’s kitchen.
  • Pronoun/antecedent agreement has surfaced as a huge problem since we’ve become politically correct. Back in beginning of time (kidding), the masculine pronoun was standard. Today, to avoid offending anyone, the generic plural (they, them, their) gets used. The problem arises because a singular antecedent (that’s the noun the pronoun refers to) needs a singular pronoun. Example of what’s incorrect: The neighbor won’t keep their yard mowed.  Neighbor is singular. Their is plural. Those two disagree and that’s bad writing. The fix is easy. Make neighbor plural (neighbors) or change their to the. Look at your own writing and see if you can improve it with just a little more effort in the pronoun/antecedent agreement area.
  • Subject/verb agreement is another area that needs attention. Agreement refers to number. A singular subject needs a singular verb. A plural subject needs a plural verb. Be sure you don’t confuse the subject with its modifier, which can cause you to use the wrong verb. Example: The closet containing all the art supplies is locked. Closet is the subject and singular. Supplies is plural but is a modifier, so doesn’t impact the verb. Thus, use the singular verb is with the singular subject. NOTE: Collective nouns (these refer to a group acting as one unit such as family, committee, team, etc.) use a singular verb.

Hope this primer helps you get back to basics.

Happy writing!

Don’t Forget the Proofreading!

April 22, 2013

There’s hardly a topic more boring than proofreading, but you must proofread your stuff before you send it out to an agent (or, yes, to an editor).

So what is proofreading? It’s a mode of checking written work so that work is in its best form possible.

Proofreading benefits for you, the writer, are:

  • credibility
  • professional image
  • knowledge demonstration (of grammar, punctuation, spelling, capitalization, and format, genre, etc.)
  • stress reduction (you know you’re sending out a quality product, so you don’t have to stress over it–just move on to the next article or column or character, etc.)

Most writers would rather be creating than proofreading, so start by creating a positive proofreading environment with these steps.

  • Create a schedule that includes timelines, due dates, and reader (editor/agent/customer/etc.) expectations.
  • Figure out your best time (some are morning people, others night people, others afternoon), and block out proofreading time when you are most alert.
  • Eliminate distractions. Yes, you can turn off the phone, ignore email, or close your door and survive for an hour or so.
  • Focus on what you’re proofreading. That means you put away your other projects during proofreading.
  • Keep reference material within reach–if you only use online references such as dictionaries, grammar books, style books, etc., you must be disciplined to go back to proofreading once you’ve found the answer to your question online.
  • Work in comfort. If your chair isn’t the appropriate height or your lighting is inadequate, you won’t focus on proofreading until you get comfortable anyway, so why not start out that way?

Finally, here are some things you can do to get over proofreading monotony.

  • Change the time of day you proofread, but stay in your prime time (example: if your prime time is 6:00 am to 9:00 am, start at 7:00 one morning and 7:30 the next).
  • Eat lightly. Snacks can bolster your energy, but heavy meals can bog you down.
  • Change your work pace. If your goal is to proofread six pages every fifteen minutes, consider changing to three every ten minutes, then take a short break in between sessions.
  • If you’re backed up on proofreading, create criteria to help you prioritize. Could be deadline, could be payment rate, could be which project is shorter, could be which project you enjoy most. You decide how to give preference to your project(s), then use your criteria to keep proofreading moving.

Proofreading can be one of the most rewarding steps in your writing. Once you’re done proofreading, you’re ready to send your work out and move on to the next project. How fun is that!

Happy writing!


Editing is a Critical Part of the Writing Process

October 3, 2012

I attended two meetings and one seminar last week and one issue surfaced in each venue–today’s writing needs more editing. When pressed for more details, each person talked about the explosion of independent publishing created by technology and the deterioration of the quality of the end result. Most of the complaints centered around e-books, but independently published (aka self-published) print books were just as bad.

Here are some of the points raised in the discussions during last week’s meetings:

  • Simple punctuation errors such as where to place commas or periods with quotation marks (both go inside the quotation mark, by the way).
  • Simple punctuation errors such as whether or not to place a comma before the conjunction in a series (per the book industry standard, Chicago Manual of Style, a comma goes before the conjunction in a series).
  • Pronoun/antecedent disagreement (plural pronouns such as they or their with singular antecedents such as speaker). Example: When a speaker tells their audience a story, they should use more gestures. Edited version: Most speakers should use more gestures when telling stories to their audiences.
  • Overuse of trite expressions.
  • Overuse of favorite words or phrases.
  • Overuse of scare quotes. Scare quotes are the quotation marks put around words. These should be used judiciously and only when “scaring” a reader into seeing a word is used in unusual manner. Too many scare quotes become distracting.
  • Capitalization of job titles without a person’s name. Example: I couldn’t reach the Principal, so I called the Superintendent.
  • Using ellipsis to show a break or pause. The correct punctuation for that is a dash. Ellipsis shows omission, not pause. The one exception is that ellipsis is correctly used  in dialogue to show faltering speech.
  • Sometimes words are missing.

The take-away from the discussions is the writer’s credibility is compromised, if not dismissed, when he or she shows little regard for details before publishing.

One caution, however. Avoid asking people who love you (and everything you write) to help you with your editing. They simply won’t tell you where your writing lacks clarity or needs work, either because they don’t see it  themselves or they don’t want to risk hurting you.

Do yourself and your reader a favor and invest in hiring an editor before you independently publish your work. The perception of your credibility depends on it.

Does all of this mean your “baby” won’t have a birthmark? No. Writers are human. Editors are human. Humans make mistakes. It happens, even in the big publishing houses. All I’m suggesting is it’s worth doing a little extra editing for both you and your reader.

Happy writing!

Words That Are Commonly Confused

March 10, 2011

English is a tough language to master–even when  it’s your original language. The recent Arby’s ad campaign shows how words that are spelled similarly aren’t pronounced the same–Good Mood Food. We also can’t count on simple letters to help us–send some sugar (shouldn’t all words that start with s followed by a vowel have the “SSSSS” sound?).

Here’s a list of commonly confused words that I’ve seen in manuscripts I’ve edited.

  • Accept – Except. Accept is a verb that  means to receive. Except is generally used as a preposition. Examples: I accept your nomination.  Everyone is here except Susan.
  • All ready – already. All ready means everything or everyone  is ready. Already is an adverb modifying an adjective, verb, or another adverb. Examples: We took a poll and discovered we are all ready. He is already ten minutes late.
  • All together – altogether. All together means everyone is co-located. Altogether means completely. Examples: The team was all together at the quarterback’s wedding. You are altogether incorrect in your assumption.
  • Allusion – illusion. Allusion comes from the verb allude and means reference. Illusion means erroneous judgment. Examples: His blatant allusion to her error shows his true feelings about her. She thought she saw his car ahead of her, but it was an illusion.
  • Amount – number. Amount refers to quantity. Number refers to things counted. Examples: The amount of sugar in this cereal is shocking. I noted a number of errors in your calculations.
  • Fewer – less. Fewer is used when things can be counted. Use less for quantity. Examples: The express checkout line is for people buying fifteen items or fewer (note that less is incorrect grammar even if we see it every day in stores). The police report shows less crime than last year at this time.
  • Anxious – eager. Anxious is used when anxiety is involved. Eager is used when something is highly desirable. Examples: I was anxious when I saw my child get hit with the hockey puck. I am eager to start my new job.

This list is long enough for one post, so I’ll continue the list of commonly confused words in my next post.

Happy writing!