Category Archives: editing

Editor’s Column: 3 Books Every Writer Should Read

As someone who loves words and can bore others to death talking about the cadence of a well-crafted sentence, I enjoy reading and learning more about writing. On those days when I want to bemoan that in a world full of self-proclaimed best-sellers, self-published novels and books that could have used the careful eye of an editor, these books remind me that I’m not alone or weird for caring.

Whether you want to be a better journalist, blogger or novelist, these three books are sure to help you improve.

1. The Elements of Style

Written by William Strunk Jr., an English professor at Cornell, and E.B. White, the author of Charlotte’s Web, this brief book is a quick read with a lot to say. When I was working as an editor , I tried to read it once a year. It’s not a prescriptive style manual, per se, like the Associated Press Stylebook, but it offers plenty of style of advice. What The Elements of Style does best though, is to challenge the writer to seek a clear, concise writing style that packs the most punch. Get rid of useless words or phrases that just add fluff to the story. Use active voice. And most of all, The Elements of Style is the genesis of the phrase I often find myself repeating to the students who work for me, “You have to first know the rules in order to break them.”

2. On Writing Well

Like The Elements of Style, I used to read William Zinsser’s classic was a book I tried to read or at least skim on a regular basis. It’s an easy read and offers plenty of straightforward advice and tangible tips for becoming a better writer. If you want to write nonfiction of any kind, this is a book you need to read. Learn to sharpen your sentences and edit yourself. Writing like any other craft is a process. It’s about getting the story out, then getting rid of all the extra you added in that wasn’t actually part of the story. On Writing Well will help you to realized that writing effortless, flowing prose often isn’t an effortless, flowing process. Take the time to learn more about the craft so you can tell your stories better.

3. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Some writerly types I greatly admire first recommended this book to me at a conference several years ago. When I ran across a copy in a used bookstore a few years ago, I picked it up. I added it to my reading list and soon found myself at a time in my professional life when I had little time or energy for reading anything that was not work-related. So, On Writing sat on my shelf, languishing away until I picked it up a couple of weeks ago and dug in. First of all, Stephen King is funny. Second of all, he has a ton of good things to offer about writing. Part memoir, part handbook, On Writing is all about the experiences that shaped King as a writer, as well as the habits and practices he has found to be beneficial. He’s full of good advice (turn off the TV and avoid adverbs), but maybe my favorite piece of advice is that good writers have to read a lot and write a lot. Yep, and amen. I’m in the middle of the book now and expect to offer a full review here in a few weeks, but I can already tell it’s one I’ll be recommending for years to come.



I don’t think that means what you think it means

Today, I opened Facebook to discover this gem:

In the immortal words of The Princess Bride, “I do not think that word means what you think it means.”

I can picture the scene: It’s deadline. The copy editor passes the article along to another editor or whomever is supposed to write the headline (sometimes, it’s a different person from the writer), and he/she knows there’s a word for someone who can use both hands equally well. . . . but what is it? It starts with an A. Amphibious. Yes, that’s it.

But, no. It isn’t. It’s ambidextrous—and it’s used in the second paragraph of the article.

So, editors, this is why your job matters. Words mean something, convey something. Let’s use the right ones!

Some say that the “mistake” was a pun recalling Charles Shackleford making the same mistake. Even if that’s true, most journalists know you don’t make jokes that most readers won’t get in a headline.

Read more about this headline here.

Tips for Writers

274793_typewriter_2Earlier this week, I read this article about Ernest Hemingway’s writing tips. While my relationship with Papa is long, storied, and not exactly positive (I’ve never really been a fan and reading The Paris Wife made me hate him as a person, but I want to read A Moveable Feast. . . See, if I were trying to talk about mine and Hem’s relationship on Facebook, I’d be forced to pick “it’s complicated”),  I actually really enjoyed this article. Except for the part that nailed me right between the eyes, because while I call myself a writer, not much actual writing has been accomplished this year.

So, let’s take a look at Hemingway’s tips—with a little discussion from me (as an editor).

1. Write and speak with authority.
OK, Hemingway was dead-on with this one. As an editor and a reader, I don’t want to read articles that are passive and full of mealy-mouthed phrases and words like “maybe” or “it might be possible.” If you’re writing on a topic, you need to consider yourself the expert and write like it. People are reading your article to know what to do about that subject matter in their lives, whether it’s buying shampoo, picking out eye shadow, or working through grief. If you can’t write with authority on the topic, you probably shouldn’t be writing about it.

2. Avoid adverbs.
I get where Papa was coming from here, but I don’t think I hate adverbs as much as he did. I think sometimes a well-placed adverb adds to the description and feel of the story. But I do whole-heartedly agree with this section of that writing rule: Don’t describe the verb, use a more descriptive one.

Too often in writing, we spend all our time adding in words to describe what’s happening. We say people talked softly or walked slowly or ate quickly. Think about how much more descriptive (and how much more fulfilling the mental picture you paint for your reader is) when you write whispered, meandered, or gobbled instead.

3. Don’t write for “the reader.”
I think the idea here was that when you sit down to write, don’t think about who’s going to read it, what would be most palatable to them, what they like, or how you can make them like you and your writing more. And I agree with that. But I also think that after that really bad first draft (see Ann Lamott’s Bird by Bird), you do need to sit down and read through your honest, no-holds-barred piece and read it like an editor. You need to think about “the reader” then and you need to think about the parts of the article that might be problematic for your editor. If it’s important and a hill you’re willing to die on, by all means, keep every bit of it in there. But if it’s not important and you’ve pulled in something controversial just to be controversial, you should probably think again. You should never avoid a controversial subject because you think people are going to disagree with you—especially if it’s a controversial topic that the world needs to hear the capital-T truth about—but you shouldn’t sit down to write with the intent to be controversial or anger people either.

4. Have a set writing schedule.
This one I agree with whole-heartedly. If you want to be good at anything, you have to spend time practicing it. If God has given you talent in writing, you still have to hone that craft and be a good steward of that talent. And, as a writer, this is an area in which I consistently fail. Life gets busy. I read words all day long and write my own stuff and rewrite others’ as part of my job. It’s easy for me to tell myself it’s OK to take a break and skip that time I’ve set I’d spend writing. And I have about four barely started writing projects to show for it. So, if you’re a writer, take this piece of advice to heart. Set a specific time each day and spend it writing. Don’t answer calls, watch TV, look at Twitter or Facebook. Just write. It doesn’t even matter if it’s good; it just matters that at the end of that time, you put some words onto paper.

5. Leave stuff out.
If you’ve read Hemingway, you know he was a big fan of this one. You don’t have to tell your reader everything. You don’t have to explain every minute detail or answer every question. The best stories are those that invite questions or cause us to want to know more. I’m currently re-reading Daphne DuMarier’s novel Jamaica Inn. At the end of that novel, the heroine, Mary Yellan, hops on a wagon beside horse thief Jem Meryln and rides off to the future. I’ve spent a lot of time wondering what happened after that. Did they get married? Was it a happy life or a hard one? Did Jem stay reformed from his dishonest ways? That’s a good story. Sometimes, writers, it’s OK to not explain away every detail. Just make sure you cover the big ones and don’t leave a big plot hole or important information out.

An editor’s tips to writers

This morning, as I was perusing a copy of Folio Magazine while I made my coffee in the office Keurig, I came across an article called “The 10 Dumbest Things I’ve Heard This Year” by J.C. Suares.

Folio is a magazine for magazine management and insiders. It’s the magazine for the people who make magazines. The article focused on things Suares had heard editor types say about magazines, things like “Cryptic headlines drive sales” and “Make them work” or something I rail against often: “The cover image does not have to connect to anything inside the magazine.” (Yes, it does!)

Thankfully, as an editor, I hadn’t said any of the things Suares listed. (But I’m sure I’ve thought or said some other equally dumb things.)

But the article got me thinking about some of the things an editor wishes a freelance writer wouldn’t do, say or think.

1. “I’ll just let you clean it up.”
Unfortunately, some writers think that because we have a staff (small as it may be—we run a monthly magazine with 4 people on the team and only 3 of those work on the day-to-day operations) that they can be lax on grammar, spellcheck, and providing information about their sources. Um, no. No, you can’t. As an editor, when I get a submission from a writer, I want it to be the best work that writer could do on the piece. I want it to be spellchecked and follow the basics of grammar. If they’ve quoted people and cited books, our production editor wants to see those quotes from the books and to be able to check the sources. Easily. Meaning you send us a PDF or copy of those things. Because here’s the deal: yes, we’re going to check the grammar and run spellcheck again. Yes, we do have a staff. But we don’t have a lot of time and we’re paying you to write because as a freelance writer, you should know what you’re doing. It’s unprofessional to turn in a submission full of typos and bad grammar and sources we can’t validate. It’s a good way NOT to get asked to write again.

2. “You really don’t pay enough.”
OK, it doesn’t make me angry when writers tell me this. Not at all. Because it’s true. And it’s something I try to point out often to the people who allocate how much money I can spend on manuscript acquisition. But it doesn’t help if a writer continually points it out to me—because in the current organization at my workplace, there’s not much I can do about it.

3. “I’m totally going to be late on this assignment, so I’m just going to go incognito and not respond to calls or emails.”
As an editor, this is when I really do get angry. If you and I have entered a contract for a piece and it’s past the due date and I’m calling you or emailing you and asking where the story is, it means it’s important. Maybe something has happened in your life and you just cannot finish the story. Maybe you’ve dropped the ball completely and are embarrassed. Here’s the deal: it really doesn’t matter what’s going on. I just need to know something. Anything. I’m usually not going to get angry with a writer who is going to be late as long as he or she has kept me informed along the way. Ask my writers; rarely if ever do I refuse an extension request. I understand that life happens. But it’s not professional to deal with the problem by ignoring it (and ignoring your editor). If I’m calling you, it means I’m at deadline. And if you don’t talk to me and never tell me what happened. . . well, let’s just say you’re  blackballed from writing for me.

4. “I hate editors.”
I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone tell this to me—and I hope my writers don’t think it. But I know that many writers simply assume that there’s an adversarial relationship between the writer and the editor. There doesn’t have to be. If I change something in your article or ask you to rework it, it’s not because I think your work is necessarily bad or that you’re stupid; I don’t. It’s because my job is to make your story the best it could be and I want it to speak to the audience of my magazine.

5. “Those who can’t write, edit.”
Actually, I wrote a line very similar to that in a fiction story I’ve worked on off and on for the last few years. And while some people truly think this, I hope it’s not the case, at least on my part. I love to write. I love good writing. I like to stretch my creativity and write articles sometimes. But here’s a hard truth I came to a few years ago: I’m a better editor than I am a writer. I love looking at the big picture of the magazine and how the articles are all the pieces that tell that big-picture story. I like to think of editing as being handed a diamond in the rough or a dirty bunch of jewels. It’s my job to look at what you’ve handed me, see the beautiful parts, make those even better, then shine them up for the world to see. It’s my job to focus, hone, and tighten your work. It’s my job to make sure that your piece fits within the overall message, tone, and purpose of the magazine I edit. You’re looking at one piece of the magazine and thinking I’ve thrown water on your creativity; I’m concerned with the whole and making sure all the pieces are telling a cohesive story. So while I still love to write and hope that I write well, the truth is, editing is what I’m better at and more passionate about. I didn’t get in to it because I couldn’t string a sentence together; I got into it because I loved it.