An American Editor

July 31, 2019

It’s All About the Benjamins! EditTools’ Time Tracker (Part V)

By Richard Adin, Founder, An American Editor

In It’s All About the Benjamins! EditTools’ Time Tracker (Part I), I discussed the importance of collecting data; in Part II, I discussed Time Trackers’ Project Summary; in Part III, I discussed some of the key elements of the Create/Update Project dialog, and in Part IV, a project was created and data to evaluate how the new project was going were created. This final discussion (Part V) focuses on some of the other important features of Time Tracker.

Updating Information

Sometimes things change and we need to change the project information we originally entered. Time Tracker has two different types of information updating.

The first is updating the basic project information itself. To change the original project information, select the project name — not a subpart’s name — and click Update Project (#2), as in the image below.

Updating a project

Clicking Update Project opens the Create/Update Project form for the selected project (see below). Once that form is open, you can modify any of the data. For example, if the client contact information changes, you can replace the outdated information with the new information.

The Update Project form

If instead of updating the general project information, you want to modify already-recorded data (the project details), select the project line if the project has no subparts, or the subpart that you want to modify if the project has subparts, and click Update Details (#A below). Note: The selected project or subpart must have some already-recorded data or Update Details will not be accessible. For example, in the image below, contrast the subpart 01 Bumble Batch 1, which is selected, with the no-subpart project Visions in Freudian Therapy (green highlight). If Visions in Freudian Therapy was selected, Update Details would not be accessible because the project has no already-recorded data to modify.

Selecting the data to be modified

Clicking Update Details (#A above) opens the Update Record (below) where the data modifications are entered.

The Update Record form

The Update Record form shows all of the data entries that are part of the selected subpart (#B) (or project, if there are no subparts). The first entry line (“0 hours, 0 minutes, 0 pages”) was created when the subpart/project was created. That line should be left alone because modifying it will distort your data. The next two lines shown (#B) are the data from the two work sessions that were part of Batch 1 (see Part IV of this series). Because the second work session is selected for modification, the component parts of its data are shown in the modification area (#C).

You can either modify some or all of the data, or leave the information as is. To leave it as is, click Close. Otherwise, modify the data that need modification (see below) and click Update (#D) to make the modifications. In this example, two modifications are being made: the subpart name (“(Preliminary)” is added) and the page count (increased from 17 to 18, which changes the total page count for the batch from 22 to 23, and for the project from 53 to 54).

Modifying work session 2 data

Once Update (#D in above image) is clicked, the modifications are recorded and visible on the Project Summary (green highlight in image below).

  • Important: Compare the highlighted numbers for the Effective Hourly Rate (EHR) and Average Pages per Hour (APH) for the project, batch, Year-to-Date (YTD), and Lifetime shown here with the same numbers, before the modification, shown in the previous image of the Project Summary. It is worth noting the effect a one-page change, from 17 to 18 completed pages, has, especially on the EHR.

The modified data displayed on the Project Summary

Other Options: Removing/Reinstating Projects from/to the Project Summary

As time goes by, the number of projects will increase, which, if not removed from the Project Summary, will make it difficult to access current projects. Consequently, Time Tracker lets you remove completed projects from the Project Summary and save them. But removal from the Project Summary doesn’t mean the project dataset is lost.

Completed projects that have been removed from the Project Summary can be accessed using the History button (see image above).

To remove a completed project from the Project Summary, select the project, not a project subpart, to make the Remove From List button accessible. Then click Remove From List.

  • Caution: If a subpart is marked completed but there are still open subparts for the project, selecting the completed subpart and clicking Remove From List removes the entire project, not just the completed subpart. If that happens, go to the History and reinstate the project.

A removed project can be reinstated in the Project Summary via the History button. In addition, a completed project, once reinstated in the Project Summary, can be reopened via the Reopen button.

For more-detailed information about removing and reinstating projects, as well as reopening projects, see the Time Tracker Help file.

Other Options: Archives

Part IV of this essay series discussed Time Tracker’s autosave feature. However, there is another part of the autosave feature that was not discussed in Part IV: autosaving of the Time Tracker data.

Time Tracker’s Archive is a temporary backup of project data in the event that something happens while you are working on the project. (It is called “temporary” because only 10 datasets are saved; when the 11th save occurs, the oldest dataset is automatically deleted, leaving 10 available saved datasets. When a project is completed, the saved “temporary” datasets — up to 10 — remain available.

One other item to note: Unlike Word’s temporary files, these datasets do not use the .tmp extension. For more detailed information about Archive files, see the Time Tracker Help file. Should data become corrupted or lost from an unexpected event like a document crash, the Archive file can give you the data from the time of your last (up to 10) timing stop. Every time you stop Time Tracker, it creates an Archive file. The problem is that the archive is created only when you stop timing. Consequently, if you last stopped timing two hours ago and Word crashes, in addition to having lost some of your work, you will have lost the time calculation that occurred between the last stop and the crash.

The Archives, however, prevent a total loss of data and can tell you when the last stop occurred, so you can calculate how much time passed between the last stop and the crash event. To protect against total data loss, you can access up to the last 10 data saves; when the 11th save occurs, the oldest save is deleted.

For more-detailed information about the archiving feature, see the Time Tracker Help file.

A Final Word

Time Tracker is probably the most-valuable macro an editor can have and use. Truthfully, I wish I had it when I started my editing career 35 years ago. The data that Time Tracker tracks are the data I have tracked over those years, because for me, there was nothing more important than being sure I was making a profit.

I had a family to support, retirement to plan for, health insurance to buy, a mortgage to pay, children heading to college, insurances and taxes to pay, and the list goes on. It made no sense to work at something that couldn’t support me and my family, no matter how much I enjoyed my work and no matter how good I was at it. Family brings on more paramount concerns and obligations, making knowledge about how my business was doing essential.

Having been in other businesses before becoming an editor, I was aware that it is easy to be fooled into living paycheck to paycheck, just getting by, and not really earning a living wage. As the years passed and the editorial business changed (when I began, it was the publisher who directly hired you, not a low-priced, third-party, offshore company), the compensation battle became more difficult. As people lost jobs or couldn’t find work, more people offered editorial services (“I love to read and easily found spelling errors in XYZ book, so perhaps I should be an editor!”), so competition increased. All of this and more made keeping and interpreting data ever more important.

Properly used, Time Tracker will help you track how you are doing so you know whether you can continue as you are or need to find ways to become more productive and efficient so you can increase your Effective Hourly Rate (EHR). Time Tracker will help you prepare better bids based on past similar projects and determine whether current clients are desirable clients.

In addition, Time Tracker data, combined with knowing your required EHR (rEHR), will help you determine what to charge. For example, if your rEHR is $30 but your average EHR (i.e., over multiple projects — the YTD and Lifetime calculations) is $25, you know that you need to either increase your rate or find a way to be more efficient and productive so that the YTD and Lifetime EHRs exceed $30.

Finally, Time Tracker data can help you ascertain which method of setting a fee works best for you over multiple projects (see my AAE essay, “The Rule of Three”), as well as which types of projects (e.g., fiction or nonfiction, fantasy or romance, biography or medical, short or long documents) and services (e.g., copyediting, proofreading, developmental editing, indexing) generate the most work, income, and profit.

The complete and detailed Time Tracker Help file is available for download from wordsnSync.

Richard (Rich) Adin is the founder of the An American Editor blog, author of The Business of Editing, owner of wordsnSync, and creator/owner of EditTools.

July 5, 2019

Why Do You Edit?

By Daniel Heuman

When I present at editing conferences, I’ve started asking the audience one question: Why do you edit?

The answers I get back are amazing and diverse; for example:

  • I like helping people tell their stories.
  • I contribute to medical research and change lives.
  • It gives me a good work-life balance.
  • I make science happen.
  • I help people communicate.
  • I get paid to read books!

The one answer that I’ve never heard is “I like checking consistency of hyphenation.” Nobody has ever told me that their driving force, the reason that gets them out of bed in the morning, is “making sure abbreviations are defined when they are first used.” That’s why editors love PerfectIt. It makes the mechanical elements of editing faster and easier, so you can focus on what matters. And that’s why I’m excited to announce the details of PerfectIt 4, our first new edition for Windows users since 2015.

The Basics of PerfectIt

If you haven’t used PerfectIt, its core philosophy is that humans make the best editing decisions, and they always will. The role of software is to help people make those decisions faster. PerfectIt doesn’t know what’s right. Instead, it alerts you to points in the document that could be errors. It leaves every decision up to you.

Here are some of the errors that PerfectIt helps you find:

  • Inconsistent hyphenation (e.g., “email” in one place, but “e-mail” in another).
  • Abbreviations that haven’t been defined or have been used before they’re defined.
  • Capitalization inconsistency (e.g., “Government” or “government”).
  • Brackets and quotes left open.
  • Numbers in the middle of sentences (spelled out or in numerals).
  • Inconsistencies in list punctuation and capitalization.
  • Use of sentence case or title case in headings.
  • Different spellings of the same word (e.g., “adviser” or “advisor”).
  • Common typos that spellcheck won’t find (no more “line mangers” or “pubic consultations”).

You can also use PerfectIt to enforce house style rules. The program is customizable so you can build in your own preferences. That’s useful for both freelance and in-house editors. If you’re a freelancer, PerfectIt lets you build in a style sheet for each client so it’s easy to keep track of different preferences. For an in-house editor, PerfectIt helps you enforce your style manual. You can set up your team with PerfectIt and make sure everyone at your organization follows the style manual (at long last).

PerfectIt doesn’t do anything that you can’t do. You can find and correct every error described above manually. However, these errors are time-consuming to find and easy to miss — and checking them is not why you edit! Checking mechanical errors is necessary work, but every minute you can save on the mechanics is more time for substantive editing.

What’s New in PerfectIt 4

In PerfectIt 4, we concentrated on one thing: increasing that time saving. We did that in two ways: improving PerfectIt’s initial scan and changing the interface. You can see it here.

In the past, PerfectIt’s initial scan was when you could step away from the computer and treat yourself to a cup of coffee or check your social media. With PerfectIt 4, a scan that could take as long as 5 or 10 minutes is now over in seconds. Coffee and social media will have to wait!

The biggest change in the interface is that every location now has a separate fix button. That makes it easier to use the preview text to see context and make changes. The time saving is just a second or two for each fix. However, the effect is cumulative. If you save a second or two on each fix, that can be a minute or two on each document. When you add that up over the course of a year, it’s significant.

Time savings aren’t the only improvement. We’ve also made changes to PerfectIt’s styles. We’ve added support for GPO Style, and we’ve updated WHO Style, UN Style, EU Style and American Legal Style. In addition, you can now base a style on an existing style. So if you do legal editing, you can start with PerfectIt’s built-in American Legal Style and build your own preferences on top of that.

Do More of What You Love

We made saving time the focus of PerfectIt 4 because that’s what every professional needs. Time saved on mechanics is more time for substantive editing (or more time for family, hobbies, and things that have nothing to do with editing). Do something you love. Checking for consistency mistakes is an important part of the job, but it isn’t why you edit.

Daniel Heuman is the CEO and founder of Intelligent Editing. PerfectIt is available for a 14-day free trial or a $70 per year purchase at intelligentediting.com. You can purchase it for just $49 per year (30% discount) if you’re a member of one of these professional editing associations.

July 1, 2019

EditTools 9 with Time & Project Management Macros Is Now Available

By Richard Adin

It has taken nearly two years to create the newest release of EditTools, but EditTools 9 is now available (http://www.wordsnsync.com/download.php). New features in EditTools 9 include:

Time Tracker not only lets you keep track of the time you are spending on a project, but it also keeps data about your projects and calculates your Effective Hourly Rate (EHR) and Average Pages per Hour (APH) for the specific project, all projects worked on in the current year, and all projects over your career.

EditTools 9 requires a new license; your EditTools 8 registration number will not work with EditTools 9. There are two versions of EditTools 9: a full version for a first-time EditTools user and an upgrade version for registered users of EditTools 8. Unlike past upgrades, the upgrade is not free.

For details about how to upgrade from EditTools 8 to EditTools 9, see the information at “Download Upgrade to EditTools v9 from v8.”

Richard (Rich) Adin is the founder of the An American Editor blog, author of The Business of Editing, owner of wordsnsync, and creator/owner of EditTools.

June 19, 2019

How Not to Network

By Ælfwine Mischler

With spring weather comes conference season and plenty of conferences for indexers, editors, and communications professionals of all types. For those of us who are freelancers, conferences offer a chance to socialize in addition to learning more about our craft and networking that might eventually lead us to new work gigs, since people are more likely to recommend or offer work to someone they have met in person.

But conferences are expensive. While there are ways to reduce the costs, unless you are a fantastic trainer or speaker whose costs will be covered by the conference hosts, you will have to lay out a considerable amount of money for travel, hotel, meals, and conference registration. It’s one reason that so many of us interact with colleagues online rather than in person.

That expense is particularly difficult for those of us who are new to the field. With that in mind, friends of an indexing software developer who had been generous in helping indexers established a scholarship in his memory to help defray the costs of a conference for newer indexers. In 2019, they offered two scholarships to entrants who had completed some formal index training within the past five years and had registered and paid to attend one of the annual national conferences offered in the USA, UK, South Africa, or Canada. If there were more than two entrants, the winners would be chosen by a blind drawing. (Disclosure: I was one of the 2019 scholarship winners.)

This was a great opportunity for networking and professional development. Unfortunately, it also led to a level of bad networking behavior in social media. While this is only one instance of how not to network, and an unusual one at that, it might be instructive for colleagues.

It so happened that the other winner and I had both completed our training five years ago, so this was the last time we would be eligible for the scholarship. As soon as the winners were announced in one of the indexing e-mail groups, one person — whom I’ll refer to as I.M. Pistov — started to rage in the group. Pistov complained that the scholarship had unfairly gone to two established indexers and that this showed bias in the indexing organization. Pistov claimed to have experience in editing and writing, but having difficulty breaking into indexing. The organization was corrupt, this was a terrible field to go into, etc.

When some people tried to tell Pistov otherwise, he accused them of calling him a liar. At least one other person on the list said something about how entertaining Pistov’s behavior was. Others politely told Pistov to reconsider his marketing plan: Maybe he should concentrate on using his website, and he should consider how he speaks to clients — if it was anything like what he was demonstrating on the forum, he should reconsider being a freelancer in any area, not just indexing.

I stayed out of the fray until one of the administrators of the scholarship spoke up to reiterate the rules for the scholarship and to state that the indexing organization and the forum were not in any way affiliated with the scholarship. A few hours later, Pistov came back on the forum and apologized for his earlier behavior. At that point, I came into the discussion to say that I admired his courage in apologizing in public and to wish him well. One of the less-gracious posters from earlier in the day then apologized to Pistov, moving herself up a notch in my estimation.

This incident is an example of how not to network. It might not be as common as other kinds of rude behavior toward colleagues online, or something like asking colleagues to share their client lists, but it had the potential for Pistov to be known and remembered for anything but his professional skills and value as a colleague.

Nowadays, most of us do the majority of our networking in e-mail discussion lists, online groups, blogs, and similar outlets. We have to remember that our behavior in an online forum is just as important as our behavior in person. If you feel that you must publicly voice your disappointment with something related to your profession, at least do not accompany it with name-calling and unfounded accusations of bias or cheating. Better yet, vent your anger and disappointment in a Word file and delete it unused, so there is no risk of accidentally hitting the Send or Post button.

There are dozens, at the least, of associations and social media communities to participate in for networking purposes — but we all need to remember that our online behavior in these forums is also an important way to connect with colleagues. Over the years that I have been a member of the Copyediting List (CE-L) and various indexing e-groups, for instance, I have learned who the frequent posters are and what areas they specialize in, and I have also gleaned something of their personalities. One member seems to be very sensitive; I have to be careful how I word things directed to her. Another always gives such short, almost cryptic answers that I have to ask for clarification. I ask questions, but I also have learned to be of assistance to colleagues whenever possible, and to always use a polite, pleasant tone — it’s so easy for online communications to come across the wrong way.

It works both ways: Colleagues have contacted me both on- and off-list with questions in my area of expertise, and I have referred colleagues and been referred by colleagues for gigs. The ones who behave professionally are the ones who earn responses and referrals.

There are many more tips for networking online, some of which have already been discussed in this blog. See, for example,

Are Networking and Marketing Essential to an Editing Business?:

https://americaneditor.wordpress.com/2014/05/12/on-the-basics-are-networking-and-marketing-essential-to-an-editing-business/

Making the Best Use of Interaction with Colleagues:

https://americaneditor.wordpress.com/2018/02/28/on-the-basics-making-the-best-use-of-interaction-with-colleagues/

Have you had any difficult experiences in social media behavior? How have you handled such incidents?

April 12, 2019

On the Basics: Finding joy in what we do

By Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner, An American Editor

Decorating/cleaning maven Marie Kondo hit the headlines recently when she was (somewhat mis)quoted as saying that no home needs more than 30 books. Those of us in the editing/publishing profession may have consigned this pellet of her advice to the litter box (we probably all have that many style manuals, dictionaries, grammar books and related tools of our trade, and that’s before we even get to reading for pleasure!).

However, one aspect of Kondo’s advice or approach to cleaning and decorating that we can consider is to find joy in our work lives. For Kondo, anything that doesn’t “spark joy” when you pick it up and think about its role in your life should be discarded. Can we take a similar approach to writing, editing, proofreading and related projects?

Sure!

Projects or clients that don’t spark joy should be avoided or dismissed. Of course, we don’t always know that a project or client — or regular job — will spark the opposite of joy until we’re neck-deep in a difficult project, entangled with a challenging client, or fending off an unpleasant boss or co-worker, but keeping this philosophy in mind as we start new work relationships can be an important first step in sparking and maintaining joy in our work.

Finding joy

If our editorial work doesn’t spark joy, why are we doing it? Life is too short to invest a lot of energy and effort into doing work that we don’t enjoy. Of course, we all encounter projects that are difficult or boring, and clients who are … challenging to work with or for, but those should be the minority in your portfolio. There should be at least one project — ideally most, if not all, of them — that is a joy to do, both in terms of the work and the client. Most of us also have encountered workplaces that spark more fear, resentment, anger or depression than joy — such conditions might be why many of us become freelancers.

We can’t always afford to walk away from a job, whether it’s in-house or freelance, but there’s value in seeking to get joy from what we do, and in using the idea of sparking joy as a basis for whether to keep going or start looking for alternatives.

I find great joy in writing articles that clarify intricate topics, introduce readers to new ideas and people, expand my horizons of contacts and knowledge, and generate a payment that I find acceptable. I find joy in editing and proofreading material to make my clients look better (see https://americaneditor.wordpress.com/2015/01/26/on-the-basics-a-love-of-editing/ for details). Seeing my name on my work, whether it’s in print or online, also evokes joy; even after all my many years in business as a freelance writer/editor, there’s still something thrilling about such recognition and visibility. It always feels like the first time.

It also sparks joy when clients pay not only well but promptly (so I make it easy for them to do so by using resources like PayPal and direct deposit). Getting repeat projects from clients, especially when I don’t have to ask to be hired again, is another aspect of a freelancer’s life that creates joy (and sometimes relief).

Those are practical aspects, of course, especially for those of us who are freelancers rather than in-house workers. The more philosophical or even emotional aspect is the joy created by receiving thanks and compliments for my work. I’m pretty confident of my skills and my value to clients, but it always feels good to have that validated — so good that I keep every single compliment in a file and post many of them to my website as testimonials.

Those comments have another role in our lives: When a client, colleague or employer is being difficult, or a project is not generating any joy, glancing at some of those compliments can turn the tide from depressed to delighted.

Clients benefit from being generous with praise and appreciation, too; those who provide such feedback are the ones who go to the top of my list when someone needs work done in a rush.

Avoiding hassles

There’s certainly no joy in dealing with difficult clients or projects. We can adapt Kondo’s philosophy to our editorial work by heading off many hassles through good ol’ common sense. While many colleagues have managed without contracts for years, we can protect ourselves from problems by using contracts when working with new clients. A contract doesn’t have to be complicated; it can be a straightforward statement of what you will do, at what length (number of words for a writing assignment, number of pages for editing or proofreading — with a definition of “ page”!), when, etc. (For invaluable insights into contracts, get a copy of The Paper It’s Written On, by Dick Margulis and Karen Cather.)

Imagine the joy of having language in place to rely on if a client is late with sending their project to you but still expects you to complete it by the original deadline; adds more interviews or other topics to a writing assignment, or additional chapters (plus an index, glossary, appendix or three …) to an editing project; tries not to pay, or at best, pays very slowly and very late; wants to acknowledge your services even after rejecting most of your suggestions and edits …

Weeding out the weasels

As Kondo implies, it’s possible to weed out our clients much as we might weed out our wardrobes and homes (we won’t include bookcases here). Because I have much too much stuff, including outfits I’ll probably never wear again, I don’t let myself buy anything new unless I get rid of something old.

We can manage our editorial businesses similarly: If you’re feeling overwhelmed, bored, frustrated or annoyed by the demands that a low-paying client or unpleasant workplace makes on your time and/or energy, make the effort to find one that pays better, or at least treats you better. Then you can ditch whatever has been creating negativity and taking your attention away from opportunities that give you joy in your worklife.

What sparks joy in your editorial work? How do you find and keep that feeling if a project, client or regular job starts to suck the joy out of your life?

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

April 8, 2019

Storycraft for Novelists and Their Editors: Resources to Help Authors Get It Right

By Carolyn Haley

Most of the clients in my editing business are indie authors. The majority of them are “newbies” who have completed their first novels and are not sure what to do next.

Without exception, these authors have terrific story ideas. Almost without exception, their stories are weakly executed, and have a low chance for the commercial success the authors desire. My challenge is to figure out what editorial service to offer these writers so I can support both their goals and my business in a win-win arrangement.

Developmental editing is the obvious choice for weak manuscripts. However, it isn’t always the correct editorial service to propose. This might be because of author preference — they don’t want that service or can’t afford it — or because of mine: I’m not a great developmental editor and don’t enjoy that work. Because I am more of a mechanic than a concept person, my best skill is helping writers polish their completed novels through line or copy editing. When a developmental edit is appropriate but not a viable option, I propose a manuscript evaluation. That gives authors the constructive, broad-view feedback they want without my having to edit a manuscript that will probably be rewritten.

A manuscript evaluation is also significantly less expensive than a developmental edit, and therefore more accessible to more prospective clients. If all goes well, I usually get their revised — and much improved — novels back for line or copy editing.

With manuscript evaluations, I always include three book suggestions for authors to study while they’re awaiting my delivery. The combination of service plus resources helps guide their revisions and results in better works.

The big three

There are so many how-to-write guides out there, in print and electronic form, that reading any of them can help authors hone their skills in composition and storycraft. Rather than just tell a prospect “go do your homework,” though, I specify the books that have impressed me the most and that give, in my opinion, the best bang for the buck:

1) Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain

2) On Writing by Stephen King

3) Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card

Each book is worth reading on its own. As a set, they are mutually supportive and profoundly educational, especially for authors early in their novel-writing endeavors.

1) Techniques of the Selling Writer

This is a master class in a paperback. More so than any other how-to guide I’ve ever seen, Techniques breaks down storywriting into its most basic nuts and bolts, then shows how to assemble them into a compelling tale. Although first published in 1960s, when many novelists were learning their craft through writing short stories and selling them to a thriving magazine market, the techniques remain applicable to writing novels in today’s very different world. The skills are universal and timeless, and Swain makes them comprehensible.

Reading the entire book in one gulp can be overwhelming, though. This book is best considered a textbook, as it covers material on par with a college course. Indeed, Swain was a teacher, and he comes across as an enthusiastic and savvy professor who inspires his class. It’s definitely a volume to acquire for a home library. My own copy is defaced by highlighted passages, dog-eared pages, and embedded paper clips. I reread it every few years to keep the knowledge fresh in my mind.

Swain’s foundation concept is the motivation-reaction unit. It’s a creative interpretation of physics, in that something happens, then something happens in response to it, in a progressive chain (and then … and then … and then …).

The cause-effect relationship escalates through a story, driving character and plot, creating tension, and leading to resolution. Many writers, upon seeing a story parsed in motivation-reaction terms, have slapped themselves upside the head for failing to miss what suddenly becomes obvious. When they review their novels in this context, they find it easier to identify areas that aren’t working and understand how to fix them.

2) On Writing

Stephen King is one of the elite contemporary novelists who has become a household name. His advice, one would expect, is worth paying attention to for novelists with commercial ambitions. You don’t have to a horror writer like King to benefit from his insights.

I agree. On Writing is part memoir and part writing guide. To emphasize that point, it is subtitled A Memoir of the Craft. I recommend it as a counterbalance to Techniques of the Selling Writer. While Swain’s book is almost ruthlessly mechanical, King’s book is intensely personal. (Technical, nonetheless: He would zap me for using so many adverbs!)

It’s relaxing to read On Writing after Techniques, but at the same time, the former allows the lessons of the latter to sink in. The two combined illustrate how novel-writing is both an art and a craft, and underscore a crucial concept that artists in any medium need to learn: You must know the rules before you can break them.

King expands on this idea, saying, “Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”

This is important to understand if you are writing a novel (or advising the author of one). What I value most about King’s book is how he takes the tools itemized by Swain and puts them into a context most writers can relate to. He also subdues any intimidation that Swain’s how-to book might trigger and supports an author’s right — and need — to experiment, explore, tell the truth, be themself.

He doesn’t do this by dissing technical skills or commercial intentions. Rather, he helps writers understand and organize their toolkits as a means of telling their stories honestly and with passion, for optimal reader response.

King is exceptionally good at helping people distinguish between good advice and B.S. As part of this, he provides guidelines on whom to listen to, and when, which is critical for authors when they emerge from writing a draft to expose their work to readers, then honing their work for publication. Novel-writing is both an intellectual and emotional process, and King understands and describes this dual aspect beautifully. Newbie authors who feel insecure about themselves as artists can gain confidence about their chosen path while absorbing and using the skills they need to move forward as craftspeople and businesspeople.

The first time I read On Writing, I almost inhaled the whole book in one gasp. In later revisits, I skip King’s personal story and focus on his clinical advice. I strongly recommend that other writers do the same.

3) Characters & Viewpoint

Orson Scott Card, an icon in science fiction and fantasy, discusses stories as a whole in this book — even though the title suggests the content is limited to characters and viewpoints. The essence of his presentation is that all characters and viewpoints (along with plots, dialogues, settings, styles — everything about writing a novel) need a framework to define them, both for writing and for audience expectation.

“Forget about publishing genres for a moment,” he instructs, turning attention to “four basic factors that are present in every story, with varying degrees of emphasis. It is the balance among these factors that determines what sort of characterization a story must have, should have, or can have.”

He calls these factors the “M.I.C.E. quotient,” which stands for Milieu, Idea, Character, Event. This element is the book’s key takeaway, beyond its excellent analysis and advice about the title subjects.

A Milieu novel is about the world a story is set in, most commonly involving the protagonist leaving a familiar environment, entering a strange new one, then returning home after life-changing adventures. An Idea story covers a big concept, usually opening with a question and closing when the question is answered. A Character story is about what somebody goes through that transforms their life. An Event story covers something major that happens and how the character(s) deals with it.

Any novel can combine these elements, and most do. Defining the dominant M.I.C.E. characteristic helps authors set up and deliver upon what story promise readers expect them to fulfill. The broad strokes of M.I.C.E. lead to the fine points of genre categorization — a common area of confusion when authors try to market their books.

(Side note: Card covers the M.I.C.E. quotient in another book, How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. Both were written as contributor volumes to different Writer’s Digest fiction-writing series.)

Same points, different angles

All three of these reference books address the same points from different angles. The authors agree that successful novels engross readers in story while giving them truths they can understand and identify with. Specific techniques build suspense, draw character, and evoke time and place. Artistry isn’t magic; it needs skill to connect people and ideas. Put it all together right, and both writer and reader enjoy a mutual, yet individual, great experience.

For these reasons, I recommend that editors of fiction read the same books. Editors who themselves write novels can benefit from their author and editor perspectives; editors who don’t write fiction can gain a better idea of what their author clients go through, and how they are slanting, or might slant, their work.

Many other books address the myriad aspects of writing fiction, not to mention writing in general. Each one I’ve read has added to my knowledge and understanding, as both an editor and a writer. The trio recommended here packs a lot of helpful information into easy-to-read and easy-to-understand packages.

Most important on the business side, all of my clients who have studied these books have enjoyed huge leaps forward in their progress toward publication.

Let us know what books have been helpful to you in either guiding aspiring authors or enhancing your own writing craft.

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, 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 1977, 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.

March 18, 2019

Book Indexes: Multivolume Indexes

Ælfwine Mischler

Last year, I had the pleasure of indexing the third and final volume of a history of Egyptology while creating a combined index of volumes 1–3. (I confess that I have a bit of a soft spot for this book. Volume 1 was my first paid index — and a complicated text for a first-timer — and I was thrilled that the author included me in the acknowledgments.)

When I indexed volumes 1 and 2, the publisher had not thought of having a combined index in the last volume, so I did nothing out of the ordinary in indexing the first two books. When the publisher asked for a combined index, I asked colleagues for any tips or tricks, and they alerted me that it would be a lot more work than just merging the first two files into the third. They were not joking! (Fortunately, I was able to negotiate a higher per-page price.)

More Editing

The publisher gave me PDFs of the final indexes for volumes 1 and 2, and I compared these carefully with the indexes I had written. I wanted to see any changes the publisher had made and refresh my memory of both the subjects I had indexed and their organization.

In my indexing software (I use Sky Indexing), I made a copy of each volume’s index and entered the publisher’s edits, and then increased the locator numbers (a locator is a page or a range of pages) by 1000 in volume 1 and by 2000 in volume 2. Thus, for example, page 35 in volume 1 became 1035 and page 35 in volume 2 became 2035. I then merged these into a new file, in which I indexed volume 3. I changed the page numbers to the correct forms with volume numbers as a final step so I would not have to type 3: before every locator for the new items.

The real extra work came in creating and organizing subentries. Many entries in volumes 1 and 2 had only a few locators without subentries. When the indexes were combined, these entries had too many locators and I had to make subentries. This required going back into the PDFs for those volumes and rereading those pages.

Other entries in a single volume had subentries, but there were so many in the combined index that they became unwieldy. I reworded some subentries to combine them, but more often, I put the subentries into broad categories and split them into nested entries.

Two of the great names in Egyptology illustrate this editing process.

Howard Carter, who discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, had only five locators in the index of volume 1 (covering from antiquity to 1881), with no subentries. In volume 2 (covering from 1881–1941), he had 14 subentries. In volume 3, the discovery of Tutankhamun covered 40 pages in two chapters, and in the combined index, Carter was in two nested entries:

Sir Flinders Petrie also appeared in all three volumes. In the volume 1 index, he had seven locators with no subentries. (In volume 1, which covered a much longer span of time, the managing editor and I agreed to use longer strings of locators to save space.) In volume 2, there were 26 subentries for Petrie. In volume 3, the Petrie entry was nested to break the subentries into broad categories:

I made some other changes in the combined index. Many of the big names had a subentry “career” or “early career” or “legacy.” These were all force-sorted as the first subentry under the name. Volume 1 discussed many books. I reviewed these entries and removed some from the index that were mentioned with little or no discussion. This was relatively easy to do in the indexing software because I could group all the records that had italics in the main entry. If a book had only one locator, I reread the page in the PDF. Sometimes there was sufficient discussion to keep the title in the index. In addition to these smaller edits, I reorganized some of the large entries.

When I was finished with the editing, I changed the locator numbers to volume and correct page number — an easy task in the software.

This long, complicated index needed a final check. For this, I generated a page proof in numbered order. (This option may not be available in all indexing software.) I went through the page proof line by line. This allowed me to check that double-posted items were correct; for example, that 2:17–20 appeared in both “Petrie, Sir William Flinders, methods and techniques of: excavation” and “methods and techniques of archaeologists: of Petrie.”

With a Heads-up

In this situation, I did not know that a combined index would be required in the last volume of the series when I worked on the first two volumes. What if I had a heads-up on another project? What would I do differently in indexing the early volumes?

I would create subentries for anything that was likely to appear in the following volumes, even if it did not require subentries in the current volume. When I was finished editing the index with the extraneous subentries, I would suppress them in the current index, saving them for the later combined index.

This could be done in one of two ways. I could save the index with a different name, and then in the new one, consume the extraneous subentries, that is, remove the subentries but retain the locators, which my software can easily do. When I made the combined index, I would merge the file with the subentries into the new file.

Or I could duplicate each of the entries with extraneous subentries in one file, label them with a color code and filter them out, and then consume the subentries in the unfiltered records. To make the combined index, I would unfilter the records with subentries.

Either way, the combined index would still be more work than a single-volume index, and I would charge a higher rate. A combined index is more than the sum of its parts. Be aware of this if you are either of the parties negotiating for such an index.

Ælfwine Mischler is an American copyeditor and indexer in Cairo, Egypt, who has been the head copyeditor at a large Islamic website and a senior editor for an EFL textbook publisher. She often edits and indexes books on Islamic studies, Middle East studies, and Egyptology.

March 4, 2019

Lazy Writing, Part 2 — Something to Combat, but Sometimes Appreciate

By Carolyn Haley

For Part 1 of this article, go to https://americaneditor.wordpress.com/2019/02/15/thinking-fiction-lazy-writing-part-1-something-to-combat-but-sometimes-appreciate/

Extra padding

Sometimes lazy writing involves using more words than needed. Characters give a sigh or give a wink instead of just sighing or winking. They make their way somewhere instead of walking, driving, climbing, wending, etc. They have a feeling of dread about something instead of dreading it, or haven’t seen someone for a while instead of for hours, days, weeks, months, or years. Readers soon get tired of such lazy usage and yearn for some brevity and specificity.

The same effect occurs with over-creativity, by which I mean referring to a character in too many ways. Joe might be a short guy with black hair who is also a police officer in Chicago. As paragraphs about his action go by, he’s referred to as Joe, the short man, the black-haired fighter, the cop, and the Chicagoan. In trying to avoid repetition, the author ends up confusing the reader by introducing too many variables. This tends to happen in action novels, where a character is lightly sketched at first appearance and never developed to the point of being easily recognizable later. Such variability again makes the reader have to work hard to keep track of who’s who.

Loose ends

The most common lazy writing I encounter is false suspense, although this is a result less of laziness than ignorance. It usually occurs in a first novel, when the author doesn’t yet understand the difference between suspense that generates the “What happens next?” question and suspense that generates the “What’s going on?” question.

I recently challenged a client about why he kept starting new chapters in new places and times without telling us who was talking or where/when they were. That information came several paragraphs or even pages into the chapter. He said he liked dropping readers straight into the action. That’s fine if readers can follow the logic leap. If not, it’s a head-scratcher that is certain to leave readers impatient and confused.

Lazy writing occurs also in matters of verisimilitude. When writers get carried away with the excitement of their story and don’t later verify facts and logistics, it falls on the editor to burst their balloon by pointing out that a scene can’t happen the way it’s described.

Most such bloopers are easy fixes, such as adjusting the scene to account for moonlight (or lack of), or whether it’s possible to maneuver with bodies lying around underfoot, or how a specified gun type might behave, or accounting for vehicles left crashed in the middle of the road when the hero then zooms down said road unimpeded. Sometimes a technical blooper might require a major recast of scene or even storyline; but, thankfully for both writers and editors, bloopers usually are of the “duh” type, such as cigarettes lit but never put out (or smoked in 30 seconds or 30 minutes), or the consequences of a major wound (people who don’t bleed, or continue running around when they’ve had a lung shot out), and the like. Fixing those items doesn’t require revising the whole book.

The subjectivity factor

The laziest of lazy writing, in my passionate opinion, is the cliffhanger, be it the ending of a scene, a chapter, or an entire book. I acknowledge that this can be a matter of taste, and I struggle with determining whether that’s truly the case or if the story is hurting itself by using that device. How to respond to cliffhangers is, perhaps, the most difficult decision I must make as an editor. Do I let it go, or flag it as a criticism or item for discussion? As a recreational reader on my own time, cliffhangers inspire me to simply toss a book over my shoulder, but as a professional editor, I can’t do that.

Cliffhangers strike me as a cheap shot, as manipulative, as author intrusion into a story. They occur most often in series novels, used as an attempt to bribe readers into reading the next book. I consider cliffhanging a lazy technique because, as a reader, I want resolution. I am willing to keep turning pages if the author keeps the suspense and interest mounting, but I don’t need to be compelled to continue by force. I want closure of the individual volume’s story with promise of more to come, not major components left dangling to provoke me into reading the next book.

As with almost everything relating to writing and editing novels, subjectivity is a big factor. My job as an editor is to inform an author about any spot where other readers might bark their shins. It’s up to the author to decide whether those places are things they want to think about and change.

If the author chooses to let an issue stand, I’m fine with that. I care only that they make an informed choice. The marketplace will decide whether it’s the right choice. Most of us know that you can’t please everyone, and the author’s goal is to connect with the audience who wants to read their stuff. My job as an editor is to help them achieve that end.

The editor’s role

It’s a rare editor who doesn’t encounter lazy writing during their career. Those who work with indie authors, especially new ones, encounter it often. Tolerance for editing lazy writing should be considered when deciding what kind of editorial work to do for a living. That tolerance level also an important component of structuring contracts — defining exactly what the editor is going to do to the client’s manuscript is essential to a good working relationship.

If you have the heart and soul of a developmental editor, and you find clients willing to pay the cost, then you can dive into someone’s early work and help them avoid symptoms of lazy writing. This not only gives you job satisfaction, but also helps line and copy editors down the road, who might not be developmentally inclined and have a harder time sorting out the material, defining the boundaries of their work, and helping their clients.

Line and copy editors do sometimes have to deal with un-developmentally-edited texts, because their clients are unwilling or unable to pay for the higher level of edit that would catch and help the author fix instances of lazy writing. In all cases, no matter what level of editing is involved, editors have to define terms and expectations carefully in the work they propose to provide. Copy editors are generally limited to making comments and queries instead of rephrasing, and both editor and author might end up tearing their hair out if the “edited” manuscript is overloaded with changes and queries attacking the text when that’s not part of the agreed-upon scope of work. A client expecting the mechanical focus of copyediting might not be open to the heavy hits on their prose by an editor who recognizes lazy writing and tries to improve it, while a client expecting deep involvement in their prose might feel cheated if all they get are mechanical edits.

Appreciating the lazy …

Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate lazy writing. It forces me to concentrate on a story and think hard about the details, get engrossed in the characters, take the author seriously. Addressing the questions that lazy writing triggers and talking with the author about them brings out the best of our relationship, letting us blend the artistic and analytical elements that bring out the best of the work. Ultimately, we all — author, editor, and the story itself — end up more muscular and vibrant. How can that not result in a better book?

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, 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 1977, 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 New York Journal of Books, and has presented on editing fiction at the Communication Central conference.

February 20, 2019

Sticking to Your “Rate Principles” … Essential, but Not Always Easy

By Elaine R. Firestone, ELS

“Rate principles” is a term I coined for that point when you say, “This is my limit for how low I’ll go in my rates for a given type of work,” and mean it and follow it.

I’ve been a freelancer for over six years now (and a professional editor for much longer), so I’ve heard my share of horror stories from colleagues who received e-mails that just didn’t “smell” right, and I’m always vigilant when I receive e-mails from previously unknown sources inquiring about my services. I recently got an inquiry from someone who was most obviously legit, even without researching the potential client’s name and affiliation. She sent a long and incredibly detailed description of the journals she oversees, including their respective subjects, the audience of each one, and even the voice each strives to maintain. She also stated what she wants a copy-/substantive editor to do, as well as from where she got my name (my Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA) profile). That’s always good to know.

The next step was to respond if I was interested in the work, the areas in which I thought I could work most efficiently, and my rates for doing this type of work.

I didn’t respond right away. I wanted to think carefully about both whether I wanted to take on a new client at this time and — especially — the rate question. Because I have different clients who pay different rates (for various reasons not germane to this article), I was a bit torn about how to respond:

— Do I go with my lowest rate in hopes of getting the work?

— Do I go with my highest rate because I want to make as much as possible?

— Do I go with the middle-of-the-road rate to hedge my bets?

What should I do?

My thoughts went back and forth along a number of lines:
— If I go with the lowest rate, I’m definitely going to resent the work, both now and in the future.
— If I go with the highest rate, I doubt I will get the work at all.
— If I go with the middle-of-the-road rate … well … I still may resent the work over time, especially because learning their way of doing things won’t be easy, nor would learning the nuances of the new science area.

What did I do?

I started my response by thanking the client for the detail in her e-mail. I went on to reiterate, in a very short narrative, a few of my qualifications that made me an excellent fit for the work, citing things that she ideally already read in my EFA profile and website. (Doing this is an excellent strategy, by the way, because the client is reminded how great you and how impressive your qualifications are before reading the rate you’ll charge.) Finally, I said that yes, I was interested and thought the subject matter was fascinating (it never hurts to use a little flattery), and then gave my rate. Which rate, you ask? A rate that wasn’t quite my highest, but much higher than my middle-of-the-road one.

But why? Why did I do that? Why didn’t I quote a lower rate? Well, here are my reasons for not quoting a lower rate to help ensure — at some level — that I’d get the job:

  1. My time and expertise are worth money.
  2. There is no guarantee that — even at a low rate — I’d be chosen. Someone with an even lower rate could always undercut me.
  3. If I got the job, it would be fairly regular work, and I didn’t want to resent either the time I had to spend doing it or the work itself.
  4. My time and expertise are worth money.
  5. Once working for a low rate, I have found it’s often difficult to raise it any appreciable amount without losing the client. It sometimes takes years to do, and sometimes, it’s impossible. The rate I accepted from my lowest-paying client was to just get the work when I started out freelancing. That rate has never caught up to my higher rates, leading to, at times, resentment of the work. (See #1, above).
  6. I had more than enough other work at the moment, so the rate had to make it worth my while to juggle this with the work of another client.
  7. My time and expertise are worth money.

Notice that “My time and expertise are worth money” is repeated three times. It’s worth all of us repeating that phrase over and over again.

Some of you may be new editors, or maybe you’re seasoned professionals. Maybe you’re new to freelancing or maybe you’ve been freelancing for decades. Whatever stage of your career you are in, whether you’re just determining your rates, or if you’ve been “at it” awhile and you’re contemplating a rate hike, I highly recommend that you read Rich Adin’s column “A Continuing Frustration — The ‘Going Rate,’” where he talks about figuring out what your “effective hourly rate” is.

Whether I get this work or not, however, I feel like I’ve “won.” If I get the work at my stated rate, I gain a new client, at a good rate, in a potentially fascinating new-to-me science discipline, which in turn becomes résumé candy. If I don’t get the work, I still have my existing clients with more than enough work to keep me busy (but with my sanity intact), plus I can keep my self-respect because I didn’t compromise my rate principles.

Many of you don’t have the financial advantage of being able to turn down work just because it doesn’t pay well … you rationalize that any work is good work — which I understand, because I’ve been in that situation. Many of you don’t have rate principles to begin with (which we should all have, no matter what they might be), so you take anything offered even if you have some type of financial cushion as a fallback.

A number of colleagues have said over the years that if you lose a low-paying client, then you have time to market to higher-paying clients, but if you gain a low-paying client, you are probably doing the same amount of work as for a higher paying one, but without the benefits of a higher bank balance, along with less time to devote to seeking out the higher payers.

I urge everyone here to first determine your individual “effective rate,” then formulate your “rate principles,” and try to stick to them. Your self-respect, your happiness, and your bank balance will thank you for it.

Elaine R. Firestone, ELS, is an award-winning — and board-certified — scientific and technical editor and compositor specializing in the physical and agricultural sciences. After a 25+-year career editing for NASA, Elaine started ERF Editorial Consulting, where her motto is “‘ERF’ aren’t just my initials — it’s what you get: Edits. Results. Final product.”©

Editor’s note: Let us know how you approach setting and sticking to your rates.

February 15, 2019

Thinking Fiction: Lazy Writing, Part 1 — Something to Combat, but Sometimes Appreciate

By Carolyn Haley

Many of us write lazily when composing our letters, reports, and books. It’s easier to turn ideas into words when we’re relaxed and nothing inhibits the flow. Creative writing, especially, benefits from the author “letting ’er rip.” That liquid, unstriving state of mind best releases the emotions and imagery needed for a story, but to bring that story to fulfillment through publishing requires being balanced by a disciplined state of mind to finish the job.

Laziness in writing, therefore, has both a positive and negative aspect.

The positive aspect of laziness is a glowing, happy state, such as what accompanies a Sunday afternoon with no obligations, when one can kick back and enjoy a rare opportunity to read, walk, talk, travel, party, eat — whatever brings satisfaction, allowing one to be at ease. In positive laziness, thoughts can flow in an absence of tension. As it pertains to writing, a certain amount of psychic laziness brings inspiration, productivity, and joy.

The negative aspect of laziness is unwillingness to do what has to be done. There might be good reasons for it in someone’s personal situation, but laziness and the oft-resultant procrastination rarely combine into a happy outcome when writing a book that the author desires to publish.

Negative laziness in writing translates into “not enough thought or revision,” resulting in a work that’s put out into the world unpolished. In most cases, a lazily written book will not be acquired by an agent or editor (in traditional publishing). If a lazy novel is self-published, readers won’t buy it or finish it or recommend it to their friends. Worse, they will give it bad reviews.

It’s normal for an author to be unable to self-revise and eliminate the symptoms of negative lazy writing. Revising and polishing one’s work can be like looking in a mirror: You know what you’re going to see, and that image of yourself is imprinted in your mind, making it hard to see anything else. A similar self-blindness occurs in reading one’s own writing. It’s tremendously hard to view it through someone else’s eyes — which is why authors use beta readers and hire editors.

This essay, then, is aimed more at editors than writers, although both can benefit from knowing what symptoms to watch for.

Distinctions in laziness

In the novels I edit, positive laziness shows itself in zesty, imaginative plots and colorful characters, while negative laziness shows itself in flat characters and dull, redundant, and/or unclear prose.

This negative quality I dub “lazy prose” because it gives the impression of incompleteness, as if the sentences were written without planning or examination. That usually occurs in the first or second draft, when the author is still mapping out the story and perhaps struggling to flesh it out. At that point, there’s no negative laziness involved. But if no effort follows to refine the text, then I mentally flag the book as lazy.

There’s also a version of lazy prose that reflects egotism. Sometimes authors believe that all they have to do is type out their thoughts, and every reader will share their vision and understand all their characters’ motivations, actions, and emotions. Unfortunately, more often than not, the information a reader needs to enjoy this sharing and understanding isn’t in the manuscript.

Here are some examples of how lazy prose leaves a book unpolished.

Vague adjectives

The most common lazy word I see is large. I’m tempted to call that word the universal adjective because it crops up so often!

For instance: A large man enters a large building through a large door into a large room with a large fireplace. Or, a large army is led by a large man on a large horse wielding a large sword.

Okay, I exaggerate: I’ve never seen large used more than twice in one sentence, but I have seen it used 10 times in one chapter and several dozen times in one novel. It’s a perfectly good adjective, but when it becomes the author’s pet descriptor throughout a story, and I’m trying to form mental images as I follow the characters through their adventures, then the word’s inadequacy becomes apparent.

In the author’s mind, a large man might be a tall one, a fat one, or a big hairy one. In the reader’s mind, without any other information, it’s hard to visualize the person if all we’re given is large. Let’s say the author introduces a character as a menace to the protagonist, such as when a sleuth is confronted by an enforcer for the criminal he’s tracking down. Just saying the enforcer is large draws no picture, and the threat intended by this person’s appearance fails to impress.

Expanding the description to draw a more-precise picture requires adding words (e.g., built like a bull with no neck), which might be problematic in action stories or scenes where spareness keeps the pace moving. In such cases, a single adjective must serve. Just upticking large to beefy improves the image. A thesaurus adds options: stout, heavy, thickset, stocky, chunky, brawny, husky, burly, strapping, hulking, elephantine, herculean, humongous — at least 10 others.

Usually a brief elaboration, such as an enforcer built like a bull, or a door twice as tall as a man, will do the job. It can be argued that twice as tall as a man is just as vague as large, because man isn’t defined; however, most people have an idea of the general size of adult male humans, so describing something as twice that size has more meaning than just large.

One of my clients, in response to my requests to be more specific when he repeatedly used large, said he wanted to leave the reader free to visualize the person/place/thing in their own way. That’s a fair position, and in many genres an appropriate style. I share this author’s (and many others’) dislike of too much description and will always encourage lean prose over verbose prose. At the same time, I believe it’s possible to omit too much information and leave readers struggling to follow the story or understand the characters.

Mark Twain once said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is … the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”

I’ll second that, and add that one precise adjective can draw a sharper, more-evocative picture than a vague one like large.

Editor’s note: Part 2 will be posted on March 15.

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, 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 1977, 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 New York Journal of Books, and has presented on editing fiction at the Communication Central conference.

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