An American Editor

November 28, 2019

Thankful at Thanksgiving

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 11:12 am

By Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

Breaking our usual Monday-Wednesday-Friday structure to wish colleagues a happy Thanksgiving, even if you aren’t in the USA. I’m very thankful for the knowledge, friendship and colleagiality of everyone who subscribes and contributes to the An American Editor blog.

November 25, 2019

On the Basics — Techniques for effective headlines

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 10:15 am

By Ruth E. Thaler-Carter,

Owner, An American Editor

Several years ago, one of my freelance projects involved writing, editing and proofreading a company newsletter for a business that made printing presses. Not only was it fun to work on something about printing presses (even if it included articles about things like employee birthdays and bowling league scores!), it gave me a chance to use my high school and college French, because the company had offices in both the USA and French-speaking Canada.

The best part of the project, to my mild surprise, was writing headlines for articles, or rewriting headlines for articles submitted by employees. At some point during the couple of years of that project, my client said I wrote the best headlines he ever saw. A rewarding and appreciated compliment, but one that puzzled me a bit — it hadn’t occurred to me that headlines were that big a deal.

But they are. The headline, of course, is what grabs the reader and pulls them into the story. An image helps, but it’s the headline that makes someone actually start reading; that photo and caption might be all someone bothers with if the headline isn’t strong and engaging.

Headlines should be lively and attention-grabbing, relevant to their articles, and … The best headlines include strong verbs, although many publications use incomplete thoughts.

This topic came up during Gateway to Success, the 2019 Be a Better Freelancer® conference of Communication Central and NAIWE, and recurred to me when I found myself adding to a blog post headline while I was still writing the post. At the conference, we were remembering and chuckling over classic newspaper headlines like “Headless Corpse Found in Topless Bar.” For my blog post (watch for it in the next week or so), I started with “The healing power of work” and, after writing the first few paragraphs, added “… social media and — oh, yeah — the cat.” It can’t compete with some of the classics, but it’s better than my original version.

Why the changes?

The text inspired the changes as I was writing it. This might not be a factor in a hard or breaking news story, but for a feature or blog post where you have the luxury of time to expand and revise, something in the text that can often turn an accurate-but-routine headline into one that works much better.

Second, even I found the brief original version a little blah, and I wrote it. It also struck me as a bit confusing; I wasn’t writing about anything medical or psychological. It seemed to call out for a little more depth or detail.

I’m not very good at writing humor, but this was a case where a tangent in the article turned into a headline with a humorous twist, and I like to think the change caught the interest of more colleagues than the shorter version would have.

I often write my headlines before I start to write the article (and I always include a headline in anything I submit to a client). That goes against the tradition at many publications, especially newspapers, where the copy desk writes the headline after the reporter submits the article. I find that writing at least a draft headline helps me organize the story and find a focus for the lead/lede sentence. If I’m stuck on a headline, I might start writing anyhow, but that usually tells me I need to think about my main point and purpose for the story and reorganize my plans for what I want to write. And writing my own headlines reduces the likelihood of having one appear with a typo!

What works in headlines?

If I remember right from my one undergraduate journalism class and year of graduate work in journalism, a headline should be as short as possible to relay the heart of the story while still catching the reader’s attention. The longer the headline, the fewer people will probably read not only that element but the story it’s about. In today’s over-media-ed world, keeping a headline short and tight is more important than ever.

The ideal is to use the active voice, although that isn’t always possible. Another ideal is to use the same format throughout the publication (or post), although I’m seeing publications that don’t follow that guideline, even on the same page: full sentence vs. phrase, etc. Headlines don’t have to be full sentences, but they do have to be clear and easily understood.

Yet another ideal, and one I see violated a lot, is to use the same style for headlines throughout the article or post. In my book (so to speak), all headlines should be bold and sentence case. If the client’s style calls for title case, fine — all heds should be in title case. Recent newspaper pages have had heds in sentence, title and all-caps style all on the same page! I know consistency has been called the hobgoblin of small minds, but I think it should rule in many instances, and headlines are one of ’em.

Capital approaches

A classic headache in writing headlines is when to use caps. The decision to use title or sentence case is a style matter or publication choice. My personal preference is sentence case for headlines, because that emphasizes any names or other formal elements that do get capped, and it has a smooth visual flow. Title case also looks choppy and blocky to me. And I really dislike seeing prepositions capped, especially two- or three-character ones just because they start a new line of the headline.

My biggest peeve is one that goes against several of the standard style guides, which cap prepositions of four letters or more. I think we should be consistent based on parts of speech rather than number of letters in a world. That preference makes sentence case even more practical for headlines. And being consistent in how we style a part of speech is important to reducing reader confusion. Capping based on the function of the word is more logical than on the number of letters in one of those parts of speech; such inconsistency is a disservice to readers.

Do you write headlines? What is your preferred style or “voice” for them? Give us a heads up on your headline philosophy!

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter (www.writerruth.com) is an award-winning provider of editorial and publishing services for publications, independent authors, publishers, associations, nonprofits and companies worldwide, and the editor-in-chief and — as of 2019 — owner of An American Editor. She also hosts the annual Communication Central “Be a Better Freelancer”® conference for colleagues (www.communication-central.com), in 2019 co-hosted with the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (www.naiwe.com). She can be reached at Ruth@writerruth.com or Ruth.Thaler-Carter@AnAmericanEditor.com.

November 20, 2019

On the Basics — Staying productive during the holidays

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 3:17 pm

By Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

Owner, An American Editor

Related to the idea of my recent post (https://americaneditor.wordpress.com/2019/11/05/on-the-basics-making-the-most-of-the-pre-holiday-moment/) about making the most of any pre-holiday downtime is the companion concern of balancing work and family demands to stay productive (and sane) from mid-November through the end of the year. No matter what you celebrate, the holiday season imposes emotional and practical demands that make a lot of people just wish for it to be done and dusted … yesterday. But you can still produce the editorial work that must be done.

The first step is to check that you know exactly what is due when. Make sure you have some kind of list of current and upcoming deadlines, whether it’s handwritten, in Word, in Excel, in Google Docs … (don’t let anyone tell you how to keep track of assignments and deadlines; do and use whatever works for you). I have a combination of a tabbed Word document with assignment specifics on both my desktop and laptop computer, notes on a paper calendar that lives on my desk and has a companion copy in the sunroom where I use my laptop, and a daily to-do list in Word to help me stay focused on what I need to do when (and when I’ve billed and been paid!). Consider posting your deadlines in print in your workspace so you can get the satisfaction of checking things off as you finish them — and so your colleagues or family can see when you’ll be too busy to be interrupted or thrown off track with new requests, whether work-related or personal.

Take advantage of any slow time in November to do some December work early if you can. If it’s already starting to feel overwhelming, see if some projects can be pushed into January.

Learn to say no. If clients suddenly want you to churn out a ton of new work before the end of the year and you feel overburdened, find tactful ways to see if you can move some of their projects into the new year. If you’re a freelancer, see if you can share the work with a colleague; you might earn a little less money, but you also might be a lot more calm, collected and relaxed. If family and friends expect more than you can handle, be equally tactful, but firm, in saying no. We have to set our own boundaries, in both our professional and personal lives. That isn’t always easy, but it’s essential on so many levels.

If you can’t get out of doing new work or projects that can’t be moved to 2020, try getting up an hour earlier for a couple days a week to keep yourself on schedule. That’s often easier than staying up later than usual, at least for me; most of us are more fresh and energetic in the morning than late in the evening after several hours of work and family time. If you work in-house, consider going to the office on a couple of Saturdays when there will be far fewer phone calls, e-mail messages and colleagial interruptions to juggle with getting that work done.

Make another list to track your holiday or family commitments — travel plans, meal plans, gift planning. Use the next few weeks to get a head start on those elements whenever you can. In fact, doing some early holiday shopping and cooking can be a good break from a heavy work schedule (as long as it doesn’t interfere with those deadlines). I love to shop and much prefer going to the store over shopping online, but many people find it easier, faster and less distracting to do their holiday gift shopping online; again, do what works for you.

If these tasks feel as overwhelming as an overload of work demands, speak up! Kids and partners or spouses, siblings, even parents, can and should pitch in, but if you don’t ask for help, or just tell them what to help with, that won’t happen. Some of them may have been waiting for years to be more involved in holiday activities, but for whatever reason, haven’t felt as if they could take a more-active role. Let them know you want their help, and be vocal with appreciation when they provide it.

Let go of perfection. Remain meticulous in your work, of course, but don’t push yourself into high gear for meals, decorating, gifts, parties and outings that could be downsized and still be fun. Most of us don’t need more stuff; let relatives and friends know that you don’t want fancy or expensive presents this year, and don’t plan to give them. Hire someone to clean the house instead of doing it yourself. Take advantage of prepared foods for some of the holiday feasts, or do potlucks. Skip the lengthy annual letter and just do a card with a couple of photos — and send it electronically instead of by regular mail. Consider not traveling out of town and state for the big dates. A smaller gathering, or one at your place instead of elsewhere (with guests staying at B&Bs or nearby hotels rather than your house!), could be just the ticket for a better-quality holiday. If you don’t have family to spend the holidays with, use this year to meet a few neighbors and start a new tradition of some sort with them, or with local colleagues. And there’s always the satisfaction of volunteering on Thanksgiving — doing good while feeling good.

Staying productive through the holidays requires focus and discipline, but also a healthy dose of flexibility. Try not to get so locked into a 9-to-5 (or whatever hours you usually work) schedule that you miss out on holiday-related fun stuff. It’s good for our mental and physical health to play. To relax. To have a life other than work.

Whatever you celebrate, enjoy — and however much work you have to finish, best of luck!

Feel free to share your tips for balancing work and family expectations during the holiday season.

November 18, 2019

Are Authors and Editors “Imposters”?

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 10:25 am

By Carolyn Haley

The term “imposter syndrome” came to my attention when it began popping up in editorial and writing forums I follow. Since I didn’t understand what people were talking about, I looked up the definition. What I learned made me really wonder what people were talking about, because the “syndrome” struck me as much ado about nothing. Definitions of imposter syndrome range from simplistic to scientific, but all seem to amount to this: You feel like a fraud when you’ve accomplished something. It’s an emotional paradox that boils down to one word: insecurity.

This is nothing new in the arts. Insecurity, self-doubt, underconfidence, disconnect between inner and outer life, between expectations and results . . . who in the creative world has not experienced those feelings? They’ve simply acquired a new name — imposter syndrome — because today, so many more people than in decades past are trying to make a living, or achieve a goal, in realms that have no concrete definition of validity and success.

Doctors and lawyers and plumbers and pilots, along with many other professionals in diverse fields, must get certified or licensed before they can practice those trades, and they go through long, intense, and expensive training to earn their qualifications. As well, if they don’t maintain prescribed qualifications for their entire career, they can be barred from practice by an official body.

Artists, however — writers, painters, sculptors, musicians, dancers, actors, filmmakers, and the people who support them (such as editors on the literary side) — have no such criteria to meet. They may improve their opportunities through educational degrees and training, but such credentials are not required for them to be employed or successful in their fields. Compared to the licensed folks, artists just hurl themselves out into the world and strive for the best outcome, meanwhile being judged subjectively from every direction.

It’s enough to make anyone’s knees knock together. The artistic pathway is not mapped, or else has so many trails off into uncertainty that it’s nigh impossible to choose the right path to follow. There’s no official definition of capability or success. The rules of engagement with other parties are amorphous. Awards and honors come from other unlicensed people. The arts in general, and publishing in particular, lack an identifiable, reliable lodestar.

It’s enough to make anyone feel insecure!

How circumstances contribute

Insecurity tends to be worse if the circumstances of one’s life failed to lay a solid ego foundation. This can occur because of family, school, or workplace, or some combination of these. Children, then adults, with creative urges and vision, who mean well and try hard, might suffer negative consequences no matter what they do, getting pulled down regardless of their brains or talents or performance. When they persevere, or get lucky, and achieve recognition or monetary success, it’s hard for them to believe they did all the right things to deserve it. Instead of basking in the glow of achievement, they might sit around waiting for the other shoe to drop, feeling like an imposter.

I’ve never suffered this, because to me things are simple and obvious. If you write, you are a writer. If you edit, you are an editor. If you perform any kind of art or craft sincerely, you are an artist or a craftsperson. That’s all the validation required to be the real deal. No need to explain or apologize to anyone.

The important distinction — and this is what makes people feel wobbly — occurs at the next level. What makes a professional or successful artist or craftsperson instead of a hobbyist?

That, too, is simple: Somebody pays you for something you created, and/or is happy to have experienced your work. You meet their subjective standard successfully.

Of course, it doesn’t end there. To be an acknowledged professional over the long term, you have to attain a level of competence that’s recognized in your industry. This is a more-objective, but still nebulous, technical standard. In publishing, writers must achieve a certain writerly competence — on top of their great ideas — that makes their stories or premises compelling and coherent enough for other people to want to buy them, read them, and appreciate them. Editors have to attain a certain level of editorial competence so they can help the writers they work with move forward, rather than alienating them by demolishing their work or leaving them flapping in the breeze.

In either case, who decides what “competence” means?

Answer: a disparate group of people who do not have to be certified or licensed, either.

Succeeding through the paradoxes

This does not mean uncertified or unlicensed people don’t have skill and wisdom. In actuality, the more-experienced and more-knowledgeable people in publishing are well equipped to judge the competence of other authors and editors operating in the arena, and do a great job of cultivating them. The point is, editors, agents, publishers, and readers are no more required to have uniform, formal, technical qualifications for their roles than writers are. And now that we have the self-publishing option, some of these folks may get removed from the equation, making qualification as a writer or editor even fuzzier.

I’ve lived through these paradoxes and still managed to succeed as both a writer and an editor. My writings have been lauded and debased, through books published by three different tiers of publisher as well as self-published; and my articles and reviews have been placed anywhere from no-pay blogs to top-dollar national magazines. As an editor, I’ve worked with people at the bottom of the “slush pile,” authors cranking out popular novel after popular novel for Big 5 traditional publishers, and everything in between. My credentials for both channels fit different molds, and people evaluating them disagree on their merit. Yet I don’t consider myself an imposter; I’m a real editor, a real writer, getting stronger and better every day.

My self-image results from the fact my profession does not have licensure requirements. That frees me to measure by my own or others’ individual yardsticks, and opens the door to unlimited possibilities. I am constrained only by intangibles — luck, timing, effort, savviness, people’s tastes and educated (or not) opinions, marketplace demand, and the like. Although all these influence me, they do not define me as a person or limit my potential. Same is true for every indie editor and author today. We are only fakes if we try to fake-out others.

A pathway to confidence

The way out of feeling like an imposter is to find and believe in the pathway followed by successful authors and editors. The three steps are general, but I daresay they are followed by successful people in all unregulated occupations.

1) Action. The people who get anywhere go beyond the motions and don’t give up.

2) Belief in oneself. The people who succeed know that they have what it takes to eventually get where they want to go, and recognize that the outer world is not necessarily receptive to that fact. They assume they must overcome obstacles and set about doing so, perceiving obstacles as impersonal things and owning the responsibility for tackling them. They consider failure to be part of a process, not an absolute condition that reflects back on their worth.

3) Intellectual evaluation. The people who get where they want to go spend a lot of time thinking about it and informing themselves, looking for and asking for help, rather than wallowing in self-pity or pointing fingers. They also define what success means to them, not others, and keep perspective about where they are versus where they desire to be.

Nothing imposter-ish about that approach. Rather, it makes them human and authentic. “Real” writers and editors (or whatever occupation) can never be imposters as long as they pursue what they want, keep seeking education and mentoring, and focus on the most-realistic avenue for their personal growth. They are artists or craftspeople at different points on a long journey, where sometimes they get lucky, and sometimes their most excruciating effort gains nothing. Most of their experience falls between those extremes, and they go forward, sideways, backward, and forward again. Fall down, get back up, and carry on.

That’s life. That’s especially the arts, and double-especially the professional areas where licensure and certification don’t exist.

In sum, just because you don’t feel you deserve success doesn’t mean you’re an imposter. It only means that you haven’t found your way through a gnarly jungle of blurry definitions and subjective responses, and haven’t quite grasped what you’re doing in a relative realm.

Carolyn Haley is an award-winning novelist who lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 197, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at the New York Journal of Books, and has presented on editing fiction at the Communication Central conference.

November 5, 2019

On the Basics — Making the most of the pre-holiday moment

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 10:59 am

By Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

Owner, An American Editor

As I posted recently to my National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (NAIWE) blog, the few weeks from mid-October through late November are a form of calm before the storm for many of us. An American Editor subscribers who aren’t NAIWE members might benefit from these tips, which include a couple that occurred to me after that original post.

The holidays are coming up fast, and a lot of clients seem to slack off on work requests at this time of year, creating a false sense of relaxation for some of us and a feeling of “how will I make it financially through the end of the year?” panic for others. False because there’s often a sudden influx of work right before or even at those holidays — but we can’t assume that will happen. (And when it does, it creates its own sense of panic, but that’s a topic for my next post!)

The storm, of course, is the holiday season itself, with all the fun, stress and frantic activity it demands; there’s also the end of the year, with its requirements for wrapping up record-keeping and preparing for tax season early (ideally) in the new year. We have to balance family plans and expectations against client demands and deadlines, and all of that against the needs of our businesses, and that isn’t always easy.

Here are a few tips for making the most of downtime if you don’t have a lot of work in hand at the moment.

  • Get a head start on organizing tax records. If you’re flush, look for business-related expenses you can invest in before the end of this year to reduce your tax burden.
  • Review your recent income and expenses to see where you need to make improvements, and start working on a plan to generate more income in the new year: Plan on a rate increase, identify clients who aren’t worth keeping, look for new markets to explore, etc.
  • File stuff!
  • Update your résumé, website and promotional material.
  • Consider starting a blog, Instagram account, Twitter feed, etc.
  • Write a few blog posts or articles to build up a bank of material to publish over the next few weeks or months, so you have it ready to go when you’re mired in the holiday or end-of-year demands. (This is something I have to do myself!)
  • Learn a new skill or program that will benefit your writing or editing business, if you’re a freelancer, or your job security, if you work in-house.
  • Look for colleagues to follow online, especially those with blogs you can comment on, to both learn something new and build your online presence.
  • Plan your professional development activities for the new year — organizations to join or rejoin, conferences to attend, etc. — and start putting funds aside for such expenses (think of them as investments in your writing or editing career or business).
  • Review past published material to see what you can update and resell or repurpose.
  • Start writing that book!
  • On the home front, do some holiday gift-buying or — if you’re crafty — -making, and prepare some of those holiday treats and dishes ahead of time if they can be frozen.
  • Consider taking a refreshing few days totally “off” — a spa day, a weekend trip to somewhere fun, a family trip when the prices aren’t inflated by the holiday season.

If this time of year is when some of your clients do the panicking about packing a lot of last-minute work into November or December, consider yourself at least somewhat lucky — many colleagues would like to be in your position. Do as much holiday planning and purchasing as you go along as possible, and enjoy being well-employed!

How do you make the most of downtime, assuming you have any, whether now or at other times of the year?

Long-time freelance writer/editor Ruth E. Thaler-Carter is the Networking member of the NAIWE Board of Experts and owner of Communication Central, which partnered with NAIWE this year to present the 14th annual Be a Better Freelancer® conference. Her website is www.writerruth.com and she can be reached at Ruth@writerruth.com.

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