The Good Editor

typewriter-584696_640 Every writer needs a good editor. There are no exceptions. Typing away at the computer may be a solitary adventure, but bringing a well-rounded story to readers is a collaborative effort with a lot of players on the team. One of the most necessary players is a good editor. This is so much more than catching a typo or fixing a sentence that ends in a preposition or realizing you meant effect and not affect. It’s more than knowing what AP Style or Chicago Style is and when to use what, where.

Keely Boeving, a freelance editor who has worked with me on one of my novels, said, “I consider myself an advocate for the reader. My goal is not to change a writer’s style or intent, but rather to draw it out—to help them say what they truly want to say in a way that resonates with readers. Translating what a writer conceives in their creative mind into words on a page can be tricky, and an external observer—an editor—can help facilitate the translation in order to help writers achieve their intent.”

A good editor gets you and can see where the story is going without the need to add in their own two cents’ worth. The really good ones are part fan who write notes about the parts they really like, part brave hero who can tell a writer they need to take out that beloved chapter, and part mind reader who can ask just the right question about that part you thought was clear.

Taking the time and investing the money in an editor can help you get an agent or a publisher to read past that first page. Not taking that step may mean a lot of rejections for a good story that just needed a little more work.

Some tips when looking for the right editor:

  1. Gather information. Ask for the editor’s background and do they specialize in your type of work. Ask them for names/emails of writers they’ve worked with before. Write a short email to the writers asking them about their experience. See if the editor has ever worked with your genre. Keely worked in New York for over four years and is now a part of the WordServe family, as well as working as a freelance editor.
  2. Be clear about your expectations. Talk about cost and when payment is expected. Be true to your budget and keep searching if someone is out of your price range. Talk about your timeline and whether the fee includes second or third rounds of edits. If you have a deadline that can’t be missed, say so up front and take no for an answer if you hear ‘maybe’.
  3. Talk about how you expect to receive the edits. Some editors and some writers still use the printed page. I prefer Track Changes and comments but I still run into people who don’t and prefer mailing that manuscript back and forth.
  4. When you get the edits back, read over them briefly and put the manuscript down. Go find something fun to do and let it go for a day. On my initial read there’s always one or two things that I don’t agree with at all… until the next day. Often, those are the changes that fixed something that would have tripped up a lot of readers but was pretty easy to fix. Don’t let that become the reason you don’t sell a work.
  5. Take what you like and be willing to leave the rest. There will be moments when a suggested edit changes the intention of a scene or the voice of a character. Have some confidence in your idea and know when to say no. Reason it out with the editor, as well. It could also be that the setup isn’t fully there but with some tweaking, your story gets stronger. If you don’t feel like you’re being heard, you have the wrong editor.

One last thing. Celebrate every part of the journey as a writer, including this one. You took an idea from your mind and put it down on paper. That’s a big accomplishment. Now on to the next step.

Google Docs: A Helpful Tool for Writers Who Want to Collaborate

woman on laptop

Years ago Ethan Pope and I wrote a book together called There’s No Place Like Home (Broadman & Holman). Thanks to email, the phone, and a fax machine, we were able to communicate pretty well back them. But not nearly as well as Karen Jordan and I recently did as we worked together on a book proposal. Our collaboration was so much easier because of Google Docs!

What is Google Docs? It’s a free online word processor available to anyone who has a gmail account (which you can get for free). Like most word processing programs, it makes it possible for you to change the appearance of a document: the size of the text, spacing of lines, paragraph styles, headings, etc.

It also allows you to write, edit, and collaborate with others at the same time. And you can upload a Word document and then convert it to a Google document that can be edited by multiple people from different locations.

Levels of Editing Permission

When you want to share your Google Doc, you can grant three different levels of editing permissions:

  • Can edit: This is the default for sharing with specific people. It allows them to make changes and share the file with others.
  • Can comment: Allows others to view and comment on a file, but they cannot make any changes.
  • Can only view: Gives permission for someone to open a file but not to change it or comment.

The sharing settings can be changed anytime.

Other helpful Google Doc features

Another neat feature of Google Docs is that it allows you to see your revision history. If needed, you can restore a document to a previous version. When you are satisfied with your Google Doc, you can download it in another format such as Microsoft Word, pdf, plain text, etc. And, you can even publish it to the web.

If you would like to email your documents to other people, you can do that, too. And if all of this isn’t enough, you can put Google Docs in your Android or iPhone.

I consider myself to be a novice when it comes to Google Docs, but using it was invaluable to Karen and me! Those wanting to try it out could learn much more about it by visiting Google’s “getting started guide” and the Google Docs blog.

Also, you may want to watch this free webinar given to teachers about how to use Google Drive and Google Docs. I watched it and thought it was helpful.

Yes, a lot has changed in the world of technology in the last decade. One wonderful tool for writers who want to work together is Google docs!

If you have been using Google docs, what tips and suggestions do you have for writers who want to collaborate?

When There is No Erasing

In my world of too many words — written words, spoken words, printed words, listened words — I need places where there is silence.

Usually I find a Place of No Words in creation as I take to the trails among cactus and creosote with my dog, Mollie, pulling on the leash in anticipation of the next adventure.

The other Place of No Words that I have found is an art museum.

Sometimes I find God there in the standing still.

While in Nashville recently, I went to The First Center for the Visual Arts. When I first entered, I found the silence oppressive. The museum had so many rules about photography and sketching only with a pencil and no shoulder bags, that I wanted to escape… escape to my world of familiar words filling up the spaces.

But I resisted, and stepped forward into the first of four galleries.

The gallery, Ink, Silk and Gold, was interesting, but I only heard facts when I viewed the display. History. I did not linger.

My ear was not yet tuned to the unheard.

I entered the next gallery.

The boldness of Shinigue Smith’s work in the Wonder and Rainbows Gallery, shouted from the walls as she combined paint with textiles and other mediums. As a teen she experimented with graffiti, an interest that eventually turned to Japanese calligraphy. I could see elements of both in her colorful paintings and sculptures.

Forever Strong by S. Smith. Compliments of Google since no photos were allowed.

Forever Strong by S. Smith. Compliments of Google since no photos were allowed.

“In both, you can’t back up,” Smith said in an interview, “You must have a confident hand when you put your brush to the surface. There is no erasing.” 

No erasing.

I liked the thought. I am in a season of editing and rewriting. 

Editing a manuscript. Rewriting life goals and purposes.

What would it be like to put a confident hand to the surface without the paralyzing thought of erasing? What if I didn’t hesitate, but stepped forward without the fear of getting it perfect and simply chose a color and painted boldly?

Where could my words take me?

Where could yours?

Dreams Between Blades

Dreams Between Blades

What are you drawing today?

 

 

Editing: Pay Now or Pay Later

IMG_0234It happens every time. OK, nearly every time.

I unwrap the book-size package and am soon holding the dream-come-true from one of our Beachside Writers workshop students: the memoir that they’ve worked on for years, finally out.

I’m so proud of them. And, a few pages into it, so wishing they had found an editor — or four. Because as I read along, I am suddenly jolted by by an extra word.     Or by four spaces after a period instead of one. Or by a writers’ negligence in putting an apostrophe in the wrong place.

You get the idea.

If you’re going to invest the time, energy and money into a book, be willing to invest in a good editor.

Even then, your book will still have errors. All of my twenty books have had errors. Anytime flawed human beings have their manuscripts edited by flawed human beings, imperfection is assured. Still, discipline yourself, humble yourself and bring in others to create the cleanest book you can.

Why doesn’t that happen?

  •  By the time you get to the final edit of a book, you’re so physically tired and mentally drained that any goals of perfection fell by the wayside three meltdowns ago.
  •  Your eyes are so focused on the finish line — I just want this thing done! — that you miss the barriers right in front of you. Editing/fact-checking a book is the literary equivalent of running track and field’s steeplechase event: in your deepest fatigue, you still have to jump barriers — and splash into a water pit — lap after lap.
  •  You can’t afford—or aren’t willing to pay for—an editor.
  •  You can’t find such an editor.
  •  You subconsciously know an editor will find lots of errors and you can’t take the humiliation.

I get it. This is not the fun part. But here are some solutions:

  •  Go into it with your eyes open, understanding that when you’re done with a second or third draft, you’re not nearly done. I remember building a kitchen add-on, my first project of this caliber. When I had the space all framed in, I famously said, “Almost done now!” A contractor friend politely pointed out that I wasn’t even half done. Trim work takes way longer than you think.
  •  Edit and fact-check along the way so there’s less to do at the end. It takes discipline, I know. But every weed you don’t pluck by hand in April is a field of weeds you need to take a gas-powered string trimmer to come August. Put another way: better to floss regularly than think you can go at it diligently the night before your cleaning appointment — and fool your dentist.
  •  When setting up long-range deadlines for the book, leave ample time for editing your manuscript yourself and bringing in others to help. Yes, that’s others, as in more than one. I’ve had up to six people read my manuscripts before I send them to the publisher. My reasoning? Pay now or pay later. I’d rather be humiliated midway through the process in front of a few people than embarrassed at the end in front of thousands.
  •  Hire a professional editor if possible. If not, seek out friends and acquaintances who you think will do a good job. They needn’t be writers themselves, though, of course, that’s a plus. But, for my needs, they need to be “detail” people who know language, play well with others and, amid their surgical incisions, put on an occasional happy face to remind me I’m not a total loser.
  •  To find an editor, start talking to people. Editors are hard to find; it’s not like ordering a pizza. But if you just start talking, texting and e-mailing people, you’ll find someone.
  •  Be willing to spend some money. I’m always amazed at the number of writers who cringe at the idea of paying someone to edit their manuscript. And yet they’d pay someone to mow their lawn, clean their gutters or change the oil in their car. I generally pay someone $100 to $500, depending on the project. I also have friends who refuse to accept money, and who wind up with gift certificates or a dinner out instead. But to not expect to pay someone is to undervalue the worth of your project — and their time.
  •  Consider going the print-on-demand route. I call it “grace personified.” You have chance after chance to be forgiven the errors of your ways, in that you can can make fix after fix once the book is initially released.

You’ll never produce a perfect book. And that’s OK. We’re imperfect people. But at least put in the effort — and perhaps money — to try.

Sharing Insights Through Stories

I first learned the value of stories in sharing insights through public speaking. A fascinating story can captivate an audience, build rapport, illustrate an important point, and make the speaker’s message memorable. In writing, an appropriate story can keep a nonfiction book from becoming dull, and teach truths about life in a work of fiction. So, what makes a good story?

Opened magic book with magic light

1. Vivid and Sufficient Details

In reading along with my daughters several children’s books awarded the Newbery Medal, I found myself transported to a different time and place by the skillful writing of the authors. In these books, the authors provided enough details to help the reader enter into the world described in the book. In describing a food foreign to most American readers, one author provided such vivid descriptions of the taste and smell that I felt as though I, too, was sitting down for dinner next to the characters in the story. In any story, too many extraneous details can cause the impatient reader to start skimming the page to the next section. These award-winning books had the proper balance of information and brevity.

2. Relevance

For a nonfiction writer seeking to illustrate a certain point with a story, relevance is vital. To illustrate the author’s message, the characters and plot must be relevant to the theme of the book, the intended audience, and the point to be made. In writing my nonfiction book, Questioning Your Doubts: A Harvard PhD Explores Challenges to Faith, I learned to edit out parts of a story that slowed down the reading of a passage without further elucidating the concept I was illustrating. In fiction, story lines that do not further the plot may be interesting, but they may also confuse the reader and become a distraction that takes away from the flow of the book.

3. A Story Arc

All stories, even short illustrations contained within one paragraph, need to have a story arc. We need to meet the character or characters in their everyday setting. Next, we learn of an event that brings a challenge to these characters and starts off the story. Then we must see the character(s) grow, learn something new, overcome a hardship, resolve a conflict, or make a difficult decision. Finally, we need a sense of closure as the changed character(s) resume everyday life in a new set of circumstances, perhaps a bit wiser for the experience.

Knowing what elements to include within each section of the story arc is an art. Timing makes the difference between a forgettable story and one that drives home the author’s message. Sometimes I find that reading a passage aloud can help me identify which words can be deleted and what sentences should be smoothed. Feedback from beta readers also can be useful for determining if a story succeeds in illustrating your point.

As a reader, I remember the insights I glean from stories more than those presented through statistics, lists of information, and persuasive language. When writing, I include stories for my readers to make it easier for them to process the insights I hope to share with them.

What do you think makes a good story?

Winning Writing Contests

I’ve both entered and judged several writing contests over the last four years. Not only that, but have been asked to review a myriad of early manuscripts for newer writers.

award-152042_1280Most recently, I entered the Blurb to Book contest sponsored by Love Inspired. I’m happy to report that I made it to Round Two (Go Team LIS!) What I thought was interesting about this particular contest is that the sponsoring editors sent out an e-mail to all the participants before they released the round two results that outlined several reasons why you may not have progressed in the contest.

I found this information highly valuable and also found it to be consistent with entries and early manuscripts I’ve judged/read that didn’t fair too well. So, I thought this list would be interesting to you because it speaks to universal problems among writers. The LI editors should receive credit for these items and I’ll be expanding on their list with thoughts of my own.

1. No strong hook. For this contest, we had to write a blurb (something akin to back cover copy) and were limited to only one hundred words. You realize very quickly how few words that really is. But this comment of the blurb or hook not being strong enough can be carried over into other things. Your cover letter didn’t have enough punch. Each word has to be powerful. A short blurb like this is easy enough for other people to read and critique.

2. Too much back story in the first page. This is so common I almost gave the editors a standing ovation when I read it. This is a very common mishap in writing. In round one of this contest, we submitted the blurb as noted above and just the first page of a first chapter. That’s it. Imagine how strikingly engaging this first page must be! My professional writing opinion is that it takes authors time to “warm up” to their stories and this is a lot of what’s happening in those first pages. It’s really character profiling. My suggestion is to look at page five of your first chapter. The first event that happens is really the start of your story. Back story can be dropped in as the story progresses.

3. Not following the guidelines. Every time you submit something as a writer, there’s likely a document that covers the submission process–whether it be for an agent, an editor or a contest. Read them. Double check them. Even if your writing is fabulous, if you haven’t “followed the rules” you can be kicked out of the contest just for formatting issues. Seriously, don’t let the wrong font drop you from a contest. You also cannot “break the rules” in the sense that if a publisher says a character cannot do such and such–they really mean it. If you don’t like the guidelines of that particular publisher–don’t write for them.

4. No conflict. Every story, regardless of genre, must have tension/conflict. It’s why we read story. Readers don’t want to read about happy people in happy places where nothing ever happens. Even the sweetest romance story has conflict. James Scott Bell has a whole book about it called Conflict and Suspense. Check it out.

5. Telling rather than showing. A common issue for writers. I’ve written a blog post on showing versus telling here that will better illustrate this point.

6. Confusing. Have another writer read your entry. If it’s not clear to a reader, clean it up regardless of how you feel about the passage.

7. Writing . . . not quite there. As the editors said in their e-mail– everyone has to start somewhere. Writing is a craft that must be learned and honed. Did you know just learning a craft takes 6-10 years? Think about musicians, dancers, or painters. Did they succeed at their first attempt? I think people don’t give learning the craft of writing enough credit in the sense that because we know English and can craft a sentence since grade school– we should be able to write a great novel the first time out of the gate.

Have you ever watched The Voice? We can all sing, right? Of course, some better than others. But if you listen to the mentors work with these young singers, you’ll hear them talk a lot about practice, about craft, about emotion in singing. “Come back next year when you practice these things.” You know what? The singers that take this to heart do practice, they do come back, and often times they do better the next time around.

So… keep writing! Keep entering those contests regardless of the result. Take the information from the judges as a learning opportunity to grow.

Have you ever entered a writing contest?

Writing With Style

All writers want to write with style. However, your publisher thinks of style less in terms of crafting words with fashion and flair and more in terms of communicating with good grammar and consistency. iStock_000003403361MediumHere are a few resources you will need as you polish your prose for publication:

1. Manual of Style:
A manual of style (MOS or MoS) is a comprehensive guide to editorial style and publishing practices. These thick books cover industry-wide or profession-wide guidelines for writing. If you are writing a book for general readership, you probably need to follow The Chicago Manual of Style. For both UK and US usage, you can turn to the New Oxford Style Manual.

If you are writing articles for newspapers or magazines, you may need The Associated Press Stylebook. If you are writing for a scientific or medical audience, you will need to use the AMA Manual of Style. Other academic fields and professions have specific manuals of style. I keep several manuals of style handy on a bookshelf near my writing desk. All of these reference books provide guidelines for grammar, citing sources and use of terms specific to that writing style. They also help you better understand the publishing process and the final layout you can expect for the piece you are writing.

2. Publisher’s Style Guide

The publishing house for your book may have its own style guide that serves as a supplement to an industry-wide manual of style. InterVarsity Press, the publisher of my book, Questioning Your Doubts: A Harvard PhD Explores Challenges to Faith, provided me with an editorial style guide that addressed how they format parts of a book and answered specific questions about grammar, punctuation, word usage and appropriate choice of abbreviations. Remember that your publisher’s style guide can overrule a more general manual of style, so always follow your publisher’s editorial direction.

3. Style Sheet

While writing a book or an article, you might find that certain words or phrases could be spelled, capitalized, punctuated, abbreviated or used in more than one way. To keep your writing consistent, create a style sheet that tracks your own or your editor’s rules for these words and phrases. This style sheet will take precedence over the more general publisher’s style guide and the industry-wide manual of style. Make a simple template with two columns: one that lists each word or rule and one that defines the style. Fill in the template as you write or receive comments from your editor.

A style sheet also can help you achieve consistency across a series of articles for the same magazine or for each book in a trilogy. It can save you time when editing your final draft by eliminating the need to look up a given rule in a larger reference work or trying to locate a particular email from your editor. With style sheets, guides and manuals helping you handle the mechanics of writing, you will have creative energy left over for the fun part of writing, such as choosing great literary devices and playing with the rhythm of a sentence. Within the constraints of proper style, your own writing voice will emerge.

Which resources have you found most helpful for keeping your writing in style?