Tag Archives: editing

What the Client Wants, the Client Gets

It should be a truism that you always give the client what he or she wants, but sometimes it’s extra-difficult. Not to say that clients are picky, but, well, let’s just say that clients are picky.

Although sometimes vendors can be, too. As a case in point, I remember a magazine that I worked on that needed an illustration of a slice of pizza. Not a difficult thing to draw, and there are reference materials everywhere if one suddenly does not remember what pizza looks like. And we would have taken any kind of pizza – supreme, pepperoni, veggie, ham and pineapple, spinach and feta, double anchovies – whatever.

But the illustrator we often worked with came back a few days later, no illustration in portfolio, and informed us that he couldn’t do the assignment because he was a vegan, or some brand of vegetarian that would have nothing to do with milk products, and couldn’t bring himself to draw cheese.

We were miffed. First, that he hadn’t told us sooner about his cheese-drawing aversion. There were any number of professional illustrators in the area who had no such qualms. Second, because we weren’t asking him to eat pizza or buy pizza or something else that might reasonably have caused him qualms by supporting the pizza industry. Just a simple black-line drawing of a slice of pizza. You couldn’t even see the cheese, really. You just knew it was there. But apparently even that was too much for him. But we knew what we wanted. We wanted cheese on our pizza.

Sometimes you do have to wrestle with your conscience to fulfill certain jobs. I edited for a religious client for many years, whose religion I did not espouse. I came to terms with it. As far as I could see, I didn’t have to believe the beliefs I was writing about; I just had to respect them, understand them, and make them intelligible and appealing to the readers. Whatever else I believe, I believe that religious publishing companies should not restrict themselves to only like-minded believers in their hiring. And yes, I wrote for them too, on non-doctrinal topics like charity and more official ones like prayer services.

Many freelance writers and editors and even the occasional illustrator must make these decisions – whether what the client wants is something you feel comfortable giving. In general, my advice is to suck it up and do what the client wants.

To use a trivial example, I stand firmly behind the Oxford comma, but if my client’s style guide doesn’t, out it goes, no matter how much it pains me. In those cases, the style guide wins. And the client.

Writing for children can be the most difficult assignment of all. Clients who assign writing that will go into textbooks are the worst. They specify not just story length, but also reading levels (there are programs that calculate this in any number of systems – use whichever your client likes),  grammatical forms (e.g., dental preterites), and even phonics examples (two words per paragraph with diphthongs, for example). Then try to make the writing creative and engaging.

One set of children’s stories I worked on was a doozy. Instead of word count, the client wanted 15,000 characters-plus-spaces (a measure I had never heard of, but fortunately Microsoft Word has). Then there were nine separate characters, each of whom had to play a role in every story. There were other requirements, too. An abstract. Pull-out quotes. Illustration descriptions. Not to mention specific topics. And a schedule that required a story every five days. And I did it all, thankful for the work.

I have blogged about writing children’s stories before (https://wp.me/p4e9wS-cD). One of the things I said was:

I believe that requiring writers to abide by rigid rules makes it less likely that the story will be appealing. And if the story isn’t appealing, I believe it is less likely that the children who read it (or are supposed to read it) will get anything from it.

But that’s not my call. It’s the client’s.

You and Your Manuscript: Struggle and Success

Suppose you are a freelance writer or want to become one (and I suppose you are or do because you’re reading this).  Here are a few tips and tricks on how to make your manuscript more publishable.

First, as anyone will tell you, read the publication. And that means more than just the How to Submit page and the rates they pay. If you have a touching story about how your darling Muffin passed away, don’t send it to every magazine with the word “cat” in the title. Cat Fancy, for example, is about registered breeds of show cats. You’d be better off sending it someplace like I Love Cats, which pays very little but will give you a byline to wave in the next editor’s face. Likewise, if you have an article on how to select a vet or home remedies for ear mites, don’t send it to a publication that already has a monthly column that is written by a vet.

Write down any ideas. Despite what you think now or how good it is, you will not remember it later. Keep the bad ideas too. Later they may turn into good ideas – for a different market, say, or a different novel. Make a file called “Works in Progress.” Write ideas on sticky notes. Whatever. Then, when you hit a dry spell (which you will), look them over. Maybe they won’t look quite as stupid as they did at first.

Have a schedule. I don’t mean a Stephen King-10,000-words-a-day schedule. Or even 1000 words, necessarily. The idea is to establish a rhythm. I post my blogs on Sundays, for example, so I like to start on Wednesday by choosing a topic; Thursday and Friday to write; Saturday to proof, tag, and illustrate; and Sunday to proof and post. Yes, proof twice, at least.

Don’t be a slave to a schedule. I’m writing this on a Friday, which isn’t ideal according to my wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey schedule. Just leave enough leeway in it that if something important comes up, you can shuffle a bit. For example, I often choose my illustration on Thursday or Friday, instead of Saturday. If you think you’ll have your novel done by Labor Day, figure Christmas, or maybe even Easter. Unless a publisher has given you a deadline.

Illustrations aren’t absolutely necessary – except when they are. Some publishers like The Mighty and Medium want you to submit a photo with your story. Others don’t. And when they say photo, they mean a professional one, not one of your Aunt Sally at a family picnic (unless yours is a true crime book and your Aunt Sally is a serial killer). So cough up a few bucks and get a royalty-free image from Fotolia or Adobe or a free one from Creative Commons. And know the difference between landscape (horizontal) and portrait (vertical).

A title is part of your writing too. Even when the editors change it (and they probably will). A title should make your readers want to read. “A Dreary Day”  is not a good title. “How to Survive a Dreary Day” is better.

Have more than one project. If you just can’t face your blog, start a mystery novel. If you can’t even look at your mystery novel one more day, write a children’s story. Then come back to your old project with a fresh brain.

Pick a point to move on. Even though people will tell you how many times some famous novel was rejected, you don’t have to keep on with something that’s not working. Pick a certain amount of time that feels reasonable to you – the end of the year, two years, whatever – and then move on to something else. Or rewrite the piece entirely – first person instead of third person, or vice versa, for instance.

These bits of advice will stand you in good stead whether you are writing a novel, a magazine article, a poem, an autobiography. Maybe not a play or a movie script. I don’t have any experience with those. But for prose and fiction. most of these rules (well, more like guidelines, really) will apply. Unless you’re Stephen King. But I doubt that he reads my blog.

 

Looking for Work Is a Job Itself

It’s not that I’m unemployed. It is, rather, that I’m underemployed, as the saying goes.

It’s not like I haven’t been here before. When my husband and I first married, we paid for our wedding reception food with food stamps (think of that what you will). A peaceful Saturday morning was standing in line together at the unemployment office. (This was way back when you had to show up in person.)

Since then I have lost the ability to work full time, or in an office. Or even in a burger joint where I’d be required to stand all day. My skill set is solidly in the field of writing and editing, and those I can do from home, on my own computer and schedule. In my pajamas.

A freelancer’s life is iffy at best, though, and recently I’ve experienced a downturn in clients. The economy is to blame, I suppose. Or the recent eclipse. Or Mercury being in retrograde, for all I know. I am looking for new clients and more work from my old ones. I am looking for other sorts of telecommuting jobs, and even part-time outside work that seems to be within my modest-at-this-point physical and mental capabilities.

I pursue these avenues every day.

(This process is hindered by the fact that all the job search engines are lousy. When I say I am a writer, I get leads for technical aerospace writing and service writers for car repair shops. When I say I’m an editor, I get invitations to become a driver for Uber. True story.)

I did get a small gig writing a children’s story, with the possibility of writing four more if I’m picked out of the pack. That would be good, and would at least pay the cable and the electric so I can keep writing.

And while I’m searching for more possibilities? When the days stretch out with nothing happening and the sofa calls my name?

I blog. I work on my mystery novel. I house-sit. And I take surveys.

Admittedly, none of these pursuits brings in mortgage-payment-sized money. The surveys bring in a couple of dollars a day, which is pitiful, but helped with a getaway my husband and I booked before the finances went belly-up.

(My husband is still working, but his wages alone aren’t enough to pay all the bills. We need both of us, a situation familiar to millions of people in the U.S.)

And we’ve instituted cutbacks. We typically spend way too much on food and now must revisit our newly married days, when we subsisted on mac-n-cheese and tomato sandwiches. It’ll be good for us, I tell myself. We could both stand to lose some weight.

I’ve applied for some of the most unlikely jobs as well as the more likely ones. I’ve even applied to write for Cosmo, for God’s sake! And writing greeting cards, which I once swore I would never do.

Security is nowhere in sight.

Working at home is great. Looking for work from home is not. But at least I don’t have to go buy a suit for interviews. It would take months of surveys to raise enough money for that.

 

Grammar Rules I’ve Given Up

For my entire life, I’ve been known as a Grammar Nazi. The Punctuation Czar. Now, not so much. I’ve written about that before: http://wp.me/p4e9wS-6z

In that post I said:

I used to take delight in knowing all the rules and enforcing them ruthlessly. Gradually I have gotten away from that practice. I felt it was impolite to go around correcting people unless they had asked for my help. I still corrected my family because – hey – it was mentally painful to be around people who misused “hopefully” or split infinitives. Or who mispronounced “nuclear” or “foliage,” for that matter.

Gradually, I changed. Here are some of the rules I am no longer an enforcement officer for.

Split infinitives

I admit that my desire to throw this rule overboard was influenced by my hope that I might find a way to approve of the phrase “to boldly go.” (Okay. I was a grammar geek, but the other kind as well.) Then, one day, I found my “out.” The rule was not only wrong; it was stupid.

The old bugaboo about not splitting an infinitive, to which I was passionately devoted, has its source in the fact that in Latin it is impossible to split an infinitive. Latin infinitives are all one word. It makes no sense to transfer that rule to English.

I breathed much easier the next time I watched Star Trek.

Impact 

I hate the use of “impact” except as a way of referring to one thing crashing into another thing – an asteroid into a planet, for example. I still much prefer that to its metaphorical usage, in which it means “has an effect on.” There’s already a perfectly good word for that – “affect.”

My co-workers, however, ridiculed me mercilessly on this one. They showed me examples of “impact” used to mean “affect” in other pieces of writing. They counted the number of times I made the change. They never let up.

And eventually I caved. It still sounds awful to me, but I have given up defending the usage. I have not, however, given up the rule that “affect” is a verb and “effect” is a noun 99% of the time, with the one percent being so seldom used as to be negligible.

Not starting sentences with “and” or “but”

Or “so.” Or “or,” for that matter. I know that conjunctions don’t belong at the beginning of sentences in Standard (Formal) Written English. But what I write is usually informal, colloquial English. If I followed the aforementioned rule, that last sentence would have had to have been, “What I write, however, is usually informal.” I use “however” enough as it is. And phrases like “would have had to have been.” (I suppose since I am writing informally here, I should have written “would have had to be,” but there you are, it’s hard to break these habits after so many years.)

There are some grammar and punctuation rules that I have not given up, however.

The semicolon

Noted author David Gerrold recently declared the semicolon obsolete and ugly. I disagree, and not just because I have one tattooed on my left wrist (http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-9G). To me, the semicolon is both elegant and useful; it implies a connection between two independent clauses. In that sentence, the semicolon means that the semicolon, by implying a connection between the two halves of the sentence, is therefore both elegant and useful. If I had said, “The semicolon is both elegant and useful. It implies a connection between two independent clauses,” those would have been true, simple statements. But they would not have emphasized the connection between the function of the semicolon and its beauty and elegance.

Okay. I’ll shut up about the semicolon now. David Gerrold and I will just have to agree to disagree.

The Oxford comma

First, let me say that one of my main clients does not use the Oxford (or “serial”) comma in the pieces I must edit, and it chips away at my soul each time I have to remove one. The lack of an Oxford comma can make a sentence both confusing and laughable. You’d get book dedications like this: To my parents, my English teacher and Barack Obama. Without the Oxford comma (the one that should go after “teacher”), everything after “parents,” becomes an appositive – equivalent to what came before. In other words, sans Oxford comma, the author is saying that her English teacher and Barack Obama are her parents. All that hilarity and confusion can be avoided with a simple comma.

The subjunctive mood

Don’t get me started on the subjunctive mood. No, I mean really don’t. We’ll be here all day.

Freelance Editing vs. Freelance Writing

I am a freelance writer.

I  am also a freelance editor.

Most people have to pick one or the other, but it is possible to combine both – although usually not on the same project. There are distinct differences in the skills required, the clients you take on, and the likelihood of finding work.

Let’s take that last point first.

How do you find work?

Most magazines, ezines, publishing companies, and editorial services companies have editors on staff. They hire freelance editors only when a big project comes along and they can’t handle the volume of work in-house. Then they usually turn to a stable of proven, reliable freelance editors. So it’s important to get your resumé and sample work out there and on file with them.

It also helps to network with other freelance editors. You may think they’re your competitors, but they can be your best sources of work. I’ve gotten many jobs because an editor friend of mine has said to a client, “No, I can’t take on that project now, but I can recommend Janet. I’ve worked with her before and she has experience.”

If you don’t have a recommendation – and sometimes even if you do – you may have to take an editing test. The best question you can ask before beginning is, “Who is the audience for this piece?”

How do you get paid?

Many magazines, ezines, and other outlets use freelance writers. Some use nothing but freelance writers. Not all of them pay, however. Those that rely primarily on blog posts are the least likely to pay. You can hold out for paying jobs, but the pool of possibilities will be correspondingly smaller.

Freelance editors, on the other hand, almost always get paid for their services, at least if they are firm enough to insist on it, even among friends. It probably isn’t necessary to charge for 15 minutes of work reading over liner notes for a new CD, but for substantial work like a doctoral dissertation, friendship doesn’t stretch that far.

Pay for freelance editors is usually by the project, by the hour, or by the page. The client gets to decide which.

What skills do you need?

Of course you need strong skills in grammar, punctuation, and all the other fiddly bits you learned in English class. But those skills alone make you a freelance proofreader or copy editor. A freelance editor needs more.

A freelance editor needs to be able to see the flow of a piece of writing and to see the holes. For example, does the piece have a strong introduction and conclusion? Is an assertion backed up with evidence or reasoning? Is some material repeated? If you’re looking at a piece of academic writing, is proper footnote procedure followed? If the author uses quotations, are they properly introduced and cited?

Remember that question about who the audience for the piece is? The freelance editor should keep in mind that audience and make sure the writing is appropriate for people at that level. (There are lexile checkers that can tell you if you are writing at a ninth-grade level or a grad-school level.) Is the tone of the piece right for the publication or purpose? Is it supposed to be friendly? Informative? Persuasive? Does every part of the writing support that tone?

The secret to being a freelance editor is finding a couple of regular clients who rely on you for a certain amount of work per time period (week, month, quarter). Then look for other one-time jobs to fill in the gaps. Using this formula, you can make a pretty good living. Of course there are ups and downs, as with any freelance work – editor, writer, illustrator – but for those with the skills and desire, jobs in freelance editing can be enjoyable, stimulating, and a good use of your time and talents.

 

The Basics of Editing On-Screen

Most of the writers I know do their writing on-screen. Naturally, that means they also do their editing on-screen.

Editing on-screen is, admittedly, not as much fun as editing on paper, when we got to use colored pencils and make arcane hieroglyphic marks that the uninitiated couldn’t translate.

But these days, it’s necessary. Whether you’re editing your own writing (see http://wp.me/p4e9wS-rS) or someone else’s, it needs work. It’s a mistake to take the first outpourings of your brain and slap them up on WordPress or LiveJournal. Even if you’re a fantastic writer with brilliant thoughts, there are many glitches possible between your mind and what you offer to the public.

I write mostly in WordPress and Microsoft Word and edit mostly in Word or PowerPoint. But whatever the platform, there are certain similarities. Here are some techniques that will make your on-screen editing easier and more accurate.

Editing Ergonomics. This may sound obvious, but with wide-screen monitors taking over America’s desktops, perhaps it needs to be said: Center the page you’re editing directly in your line of sight. And remember to blink so your eyes don’t dry out. You already do that, don’t you? Find a type size that’s comfortable for you (175–200% enlargement is about right for my feeble eyes).

Periods and Spaces. Forget all the arguments. The standard for anything that is to be read on-screen is one space after a period. Period. Many writers don’t know this, and even those who do may lapse into their old typewriter ways and automatically, robotically, put in two spaces.

Fortunately, there is a cure – Find and Replace. All you have to do is ask the computer to find two spaces and replace them with one. Ask it to replace all the double spaces it finds in one go. Then save (for heaven’s sake!). Voilà! Your manuscript is now up to date in the format accepted by online publications.

Use Your Tools. Word processors these days have built-in tools that check your spelling, your grammar, your word count, and sometimes even your lexile. (Why is lexile important? It’s a readability score that indicates whether you’re writing at, say, a fifth-grade reading level or a seventh-grade level or a twelfth-grade one. A ninth-grade level is usually acceptable for a general audience.) Add-on tools also exist, such as Grammarly, which checks your writing on the fly and suggests what you might have meant or how you should have punctuated it.

Don’t Trust Your Tools. For most problems, you can, but sometimes you know better than the computer what you mean to say. For example, my computer flagged “lexile” and wanted to know if I meant “exile” or “flexible.” (I didn’t.) There are thousands of autocorrect memes floating around out there that show just how funny or horrible the results can be. Nor will spelling/grammar checkers catch everything. I just typed “Thre” for “There” and the program didn’t flag it.

Remember Your Low-Tech Editing Habits. Read over your finished piece slowly, or, better still, aloud. Put it away for a few hours at least, or preferably a day, and reread it. Slowly. Concentrate on a paragraph at a time, then go back and read the whole piece straight through. Double-check the spelling of names and places, another thing spelling checkers may overlook. (Although I just wrote a piece using the name “Semelweis” and the checker suggested “Semmelweis,” which was indeed correct.)

Have Someone Else Read Your Piece. You may be writing all alone in your Fortress of Solitude, but there’s a world of people out there who may be glad to look over your work before you release it into the wild. (Also some who won’t, so you may want to set up an arrangement with a trusted friend or a writer’s group.) Shoot the piece off by email and get replies the same way, or using those handy electronic Post-It Notes or comment features.

As time passes, fewer and fewer people will have those old typewriter and pen-and-paper habits. Even those born writing on-screen can use a few reminders, though. But on-screen or off, remember that there is still no substitute for a pair of human eyes and a human brain. Blaming errors on the technology is a cop-out – you’re the writer; you are responsible for the finished product.

Should You Self-Edit?

In a word, “Yes!”
That’s not to say that you won’t need a professional (or at least semi-pro) editor at some point in the writing process. But in order to get your manuscript – anything from a blog post to a novel – ready for a wider audience, you need to give it a good edit.

Proofreading. Of course you’re giving your manuscript a good proofreading. Aren’t you? Proofing is the stage when you catch errors of spelling, punctuation, typos, and some simple grammar flaws (such as subject-verb agreement). Anything more complicated than that is copy editing.

You may or may not be able to do copy editing yourself, although it’s always worthwhile to give it a try. Flaws to look for in copy editing are sentences that are too long or all the same length, too much passive voice, parallel constructions, and misplaced modifiers. If you don’t know what those are, you definitely need to have your manuscript vetted by someone who does. And don’t trust the “grammar checker” built into your word processor. There will be times when you want to use the passive voice, for example, and your grammar checker may tell you to change all of them.

Nonfiction. Whether you’re writing an article, a memoir, or an essay, take a close look at your first and last paragraphs. One good technique is to ask yourself whether you really need that first paragraph. Try reading the piece without it. Sometimes the second paragraph is more vivid or personal or relevant.

The last paragraph should do something, not just dribble off. It can reinforce (not restate) the first paragraph, ask a question, suggest an answer, sum up, or leave your readers with a final thought. Whatever you do, don’t end your piece with “Time will tell.”

Fiction. Fiction can be trickier than nonfiction in some ways. You have to take all the regular steps of self-editing and more besides. One of the best ways to discover where a story may be dragging or missing essential information is to read it aloud. (Actually, reading nonfiction aloud is not a bad idea either. If a sentence is difficult to say, it will likely be difficult for your audience to read.)

It may be best for you to have another person read your work aloud while you take notes on a separate copy. Then you can go back and fix them later. Trying to do this solo can divert your attention from the overall flow of the piece as you start and stop to make notes or corrections.

Longer works. Say you’re writing a book. You’ve self-edited every chapter using the above suggestions. Now you’re faced with the challenge of editing the whole darn thing. Pay particular attention to the breaks between chapters. Especially in fiction, the reader needs a reason to continue reading. That doesn’t mean you need a cliffhanger in every chapter, but it does mean that some question, action, motivation, plot point, or dilemma should remain unresolved, or at least suggested. If the action has reached a point for a logical pause, hint at what is going to happen next.

If your book is nonfiction, it helps to give readers “way-finders” that suggest how the next chapter is related to the one or ones that have gone before. If you have given some thought to the order in which you present information, this shouldn’t be too difficult. Re-ordering the chapters may be necessary, though.

Congratulations! You have now finished your first draft and produced a second. If you are writing a blog post, article, essay, or other short piece, you may be done. In fact, you may have produced a third or even fourth draft, depending on the length and needs of your manuscript. It’s very difficult to perform all the self-editing techniques in a single pass. The general rule is content edit first, then copy edit, and finally proofread.

Professional editing. Self-editing may be sufficient if what you are writing is a blog post, essay, or other short, less formal piece. But what if you have written a book? In that case, a professional edit is advisable.

Make no mistake: If it is going to be published, your manuscript will be reviewed, judged, and perhaps altered by at least one editor. (For books, the editor may suggest edits and you can then play a game of chess by email as you work out the details.)

But should you hire a professional editor to examine your manuscript before you submit it to an agent or publisher? It’s a really good idea.

For a blog post or short article, you may be able to find among your friends an English major or experienced blogger who will give your manuscript at least a quick once-over. For longer works, you will likely need a professional. And you will have to pay this person (by the page or by the project) to give your work a thorough, comprehensive edit. Since you’re going to be dealing with a professional and spending money, you may want to check the editor’s references first.

If you self-edit, you can argue with yourself all you want over details and potential fixes. If you’ve hired a professional, don’t argue. Just say, “Thank you” and pay the fee. Then decide which of the suggested edits you want to implement. Think carefully. You hired this editor for a reason. If you are too attached to your original manuscript and your immortal, golden prose, you might as well have not bothered and saved yourself the fee.

Ideally, a combination of self-editing and professional editing will produce the best, most marketable manuscript possible. But if you decide to go it alone, don’t skimp on the self-editing. Build time in your writing schedule for a thorough, objective look at what you’ve written. You will produce a better manuscript and be more likely to meet your publishing goals, whether you are looking for increased readership for your blog or an actual published book in your hands.

Muse Blues

Where do you get your ideas?

It’s a question most writers have heard. And struggled to answer.

Those of us with blogs or columns get our ideas from daily life – family, news, travel, and what’s going on in the world around us. For example, I’ve written about ratatouille, possums, education, books, toilets, advertising, bipolar disorder, ghost towns, grocery shopping, and feminism, to name a few. Subject-specific blogs get their ideas from (duh!) the subject matter – recipes, medical conditions, politics, or whatever.

But sometimes the muse eludes us. It’s not writer’s block, exactly. That’s when you know what you’re writing about, maybe have even made a start at it, but hit a blank wall. This is the blank sheet of paper phenomenon, or Creative processthese days, blank screen. It gapes. It mocks. It snickers. It yawns. You rack your brain for amusing anecdotes, clever observations, strong opinions – anything at all worth writing about.

We’ve all been there.

But what can we do about it?

First of all, do not ask any friends or relatives, “What should I write about?” Ninety-nine times out of hundred you will get either “I dunno” or something exceedingly lame. That’s why you’re a writer and they’re not. Don’t ask a writer friend either. You don’t want to take an idea that she or he might want to use later.

Look at pictures. These can be snapshots of yourself, nature photos in National Geographic, or other sources. I belong to a photo service that I use to find the illustrations that accompany my blogs. Sometimes I browse through them and see if something strikes me. Mystery writer Sue Grafton even goes to secondhand shops and buys old photos from other people’s abandoned shoeboxes. It worked for Ransom Riggs, too.

Go somewhere. Really, you’ve looked at all the stuff in your house a million times and it’s just not speaking to you any more. Walks in nature often work for Thoreau-types. People-watching in malls and cafés (and, frankly, eavesdropping) can work too. Go to your basement or attic and see if that stirs memories as well as dust.

Read. Read a novel. Read the newspaper. Read your Facebook newsfeed. Someone else’s thoughts can trigger your own. Agree, disagree, explain, apply something to your own situation or town or friends. Read your old blog posts. Maybe you’ve changed your opinion, found a better recipe, or seen a follow-up news story. “Bathroom books” full of trivia and weird facts are good for topics to explore further.

Do research. This is for the truly desperate. You’ve spent all that time staring at a blank screen, and there’s not much left before your actual or self-imposed deadline (if you have one). Treat your topic like you would a research paper in high school or college. How many for-profit prisons are there in the U.S.? Are we the only country that has them? What about the time an elephant was electrocuted? What was up with that? How many raisins are in a box of Raisin Bran? Calculate the size of a “scoop.” (Okay, that was a dumb idea, but you get the gist.)

Google writing prompts can be fun too. Simply enter your name and a verb in the search box and see what Google suggests. One that I got was “Janet has a secret daughter.” Topic: If I did have a secret daughter, what would I want her to know about me? Other prompts: Janet shoulda known better. Janet is a party pooper. Janet loves jewelry. I could write 650 words on any of those.

If you’re getting down to your deadline and nothing else has worked, there are two more solutions. One is to ask one of your blogging buddies to do a guest post. The guest doesn’t even have to write something new for the occasion – an old post from his or her blog will be new to your readers. Then later, you may be able to return the favor and write a guest post, expanding your readership.

The other last-ditch option is to re-post something you wrote when you were first starting out. Maybe you had 50 readers then and 600 now. That means that most of them won’t have seen the piece. And some of them hold up quite well, or will with just a few tweaks.

And once you’ve chased down your muse and found something to write, don’t let her get away again. Write down good titles or one-line drafts. Save the URLs of interesting news stories. Keep digging in that attic, or whatever worked for you this time. Or try a different suggestion.

If all else fails, take Hemingway’s advice: Write drunk. Edit sober.

A Story From the Art

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Usually you think of a writer writing and then an artist creating illustrations or a piece of art for the cover – one on every page, if it’s a children’s picture book. And usually that’s the way it goes.

But every once in a while the natural order of things goes awry. Every now and then, a writer must take a piece of art and shape a story to fit it.

Once it happened to me, when I was writing and editing reading passages for children’s textbooks. The tasks assigned were annoying enough – stories that were required to have certain numbers of parts of speech or phonological items, with restricted vocabulary and very specific reading levels.

Then one day we were given an already existing children’s story, one that had seven or eight illustrations that had been drawn specifically to go with the text. We were told to select four or five of those pictures and write completely new text to go with them. We could rearrange the pictures – put them in a different order – and we could choose which ones to use or eliminate. But that was the assignment: Take the pictures and then write the story. If it seems totally backward to you, it did to us as well. Of course the stories still had to have certain lexical  components, be entertaining, and provide a message or lesson for the readers.

I remember the set of pictures I was given. The illustrations showed a young girl in a tropical setting, at one point with her sitting on a throne. In my story, the little girl claimed that she could speak to animals. No one believed her and she was thrown in jail for lying.

The little girl really could speak to animals, however, and she called upon jungle friends to rescue her. The people who had jailed her discovered that she really had this unusual ability all along. They apologized profusely and threw a big party for her and she sat in the seat of honor.

It was a particularly difficult story to write. The pictures did not lend themselves to any story other than the obvious one about a jungle princess and her animal-filled realm. It was even harder to think of a tale that would convey a message.

What I tried to show in my story was that just because something had never been done, that didn’t mean it was impossible. And if someone made a claim, it was better to test the claim than merely assume the person was lying. I thought the idea of speaking to animals and having the animals rescue the little girl would also appeal to children.

One thing that is particularly frustrating about writing for textbooks and  other sorts of publications is that one never knows what happens to the fruits of one’s labor (at least until the internet, with number of views and “like” buttons and comments fields). Was the story accepted by the higher-up textbook folks? Did it get changed in the editing process? Did they even like what I had done with the illustrations? Did it make it into print? Most of all, I wondered whether any children read my story, perhaps enjoyed it, or understood what I was trying to say. To this day, I have no clue.

Writing in those circumstances is like dropping your work down a well. You never hear the splash, or even know if there is a bottom to the well.

I like to think that somewhere, some child liked my little stories, whether or not they learned about diphthongs or consonant clusters from them.

I also wonder about the illustrations. Did they get passed along to yet another writer who had to invent yet another story to go with them? If they did, I would certainly like to have seen what they came up with. It was an interesting exercise. But did it result in something educational or entertaining or even interesting?

Personally, I believe that children’s books should be written first and illustrated later. I also believe that requiring writers to abide by rigid rules makes it less likely that the story will be appealing. And if the story isn’t appealing, I believe it is less likely that the children who read it (or are supposed to read it) will get anything from it.

To me that’s not the way children’s literature should be written. But then textbooks aren’t really literature, are they?

Writing Advice From an Editor

Want to know more about the writing and editing process? I’ve been a writer and an editor for most of my life. Of the two, editing is easier – looking at a piece of writing and seeing what it needs, rather than producing something worthwhile from scratch.

I’ve learned a lot about editing from other editors, but I’ve also learned a lot about writing from them. Here is some advice, primarily about writing for magazines, which is where I spent most of my career.

Every piece of writing needs editing. Without exception. There is nothing that cannot be improved. I don’t care if you’re Hemingway (who said, “Write drunk. Edit sober.”). Many times pieces of writing don’t get the editing they need, whether because the editor is too lazy or the writer is too famous. I cringed when I heard that an unedited version of Stephen King’s The Stand was going to be released. The original version was seriously overwritten and needed a good editing. I gave up reading King after that. Every piece of published writing gets edited. Or should, anyway.

There are different kinds of editing. Many people think that editing is all about putting the commas in the right place. They’re right, but they’re also wrong. Editing comprises several levels: acquisitions editing (choosing or commissioning pieces of writing for publication); content editing (preparing a piece of writing for publication, including additions and deletions, errors of fact or grammar, and more); copy editing (correcting grammar and punctuation errors and making suggestions regarding style). What most people think of as editing is either proofreading or copy editing. Of course, at a small magazine, an editor may perform more than one of these functions.

There are many reasons a piece of writing gets changed. Not all of them imply that the writing is bad. The editor is not your enemy. Sometimes editing makes a good piece of writing better – or more in line with what the publication needs. A piece can be edited because it’s too long or too short for the space allotted. Cuts may be a word or two here and there, or entire paragraphs.

Work with your editor. If he or she requests revisions, it’s best not to argue. Magazine editors won’t have the time for much back-and-forth. A request for revisions means the editor trusts you enough to fix your own work. Most of the time the editor just goes ahead and makes the changes. If you’re difficult about revising, you likely won’t be asked back.

The first and last paragraphs of a piece of writing often need the most editing. Too many writers write “In the beginning” first paragraphs that start too far in the background. The first paragraph should answer the question, “Why should I read this article?” The last paragraph should tie back to the first paragraph, ask a relevant question, or do anything but say, “Time will tell.”

Your own work is the most difficult to edit. It’s hard to gain enough distance from your own writing to analyze it. One thing you can try is to put the piece away for a day or two, or at the very least a few hours. Work on something else, preferably something entirely different. Then come back to the first piece with a clear mind and more perspective. You could also try reading your writing aloud. If a sentence is difficult to say, if it rambles, or if you lose the thread of it, it probably needs shortening or rewriting.

Don’t spend too long trying to fix a stubborn sentence. Make it into two shorter sentences, or reframe the thought and write it a different way. There’s always more than one way to express a thought. You can express a thought in many ways. Thoughts are adaptable to many grammatical forms. If a sentence doesn’t work, find some other way to say it. Your first attempt at a sentence doesn’t have to be your last. Stay open to alternate modes of expression. Your sentences aren’t chiseled in granite.

(See what I did there?)

Editing is a process. If you edit your own work, you may want to make more than one editing pass. The first time, read for meaning. The second time, read for grammar and style. Then read for punctuation. If you try to do all of them at once, you’re sure to miss something – especially if you’ve already found an error on a page.

Do not trust spelling or grammar checkers. A spell checker can’t tell whether you meant “form” or “from” and accepts either as a valid word. You may have used a sentence fragment on purpose, to achieve a particular effect. That’s why you need a human editor as well as a machine.

Love them or hate them, editors are not going to go away. They are the gatekeepers of published writing and, at their best, they are resources to help you make your writing more effective, more correct – and more publishable.