An American Editor

January 24, 2022

On the Basics: The Future of Editing

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 9:58 am

© Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

Colleagues both in-house and freelance may have reason to worry about the future of editing, in large part because of social media posts and groups claiming that editing is unnecessary and editors are ripping off authors who don’t need their services. Contributing to our angst is the consolidation of publishing outlets, mostly in newspapers; apparent trend among publishers to cut way back on editing and proofreading; and proliferation of low-budget entities that claim to provide editing services but have not real skills or training in our art.

It does seem scary. But it isn’t the end of the world as we know it. There are still people who aspire to be skilled editors, and there are still clients who value skilled editing.

I talked about this in a presentation for the Colorado chapter of the Editorial Freelancers Association recently, and it turned into this post.

For those who say that the editing and proofreading of today’s books is at an all-time low, by the way, I say “Maybe not.” I read a lot of books published in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, and trust me: lots of errors! Of course, publishers in those days didn’t have spellcheck or grammar-checking computer programs to help their authors, copyeditors and proofreaders catch egregious errors — but many of us would say the editors and proofreaders of that era were better than many practicing our art today.

In writing, editing and proofing since high school, I’ve seen a lot of changes. I’ve written articles on a manual typewriter, a very basic electric one and one that could do macros before progressing to using computers to write, edit, proofread and do layout/production; I’ve edited or proofed manuscripts that were written on typewriters, stencils (AB Dick mimeograph machines), typesetting machines and computers — both PC and Apple/Mac. I’ve gone from using dictionaries and encyclopedias for reference resources to using the Internet and all its wonders — and issues — along with various software programs to enhance accuracy and consistency. I’ve worked with clip art and LetraSet stick-on lettering, proportion wheels, grease pencils, Rubylith and rule tape, so I love using InDesign and Quark for layout and production.

I’ve proofed laid-out projects in bluelines, so I enjoy proofing PDFs and the ease and reduced expense of adapting, correcting and updating documents in today’s computer programs and systems.

It’s been fun to see how typewritten résumés have become easily adaptable Word documents and PDFs, sent in moments by e-mail. And physical portfolios evolving into websites. And newspaper ads for editing jobs become e-mail lists, website areas, LinkedIn and other online elements, job-site platforms, etc.

It’s been fascinating to see these changes over the years; it’s a perspective that, of course, no one new to editing now might be aware of or appreciate.

What else has changed? Editing and proofreading on paper, now done in Word with Track Changes or Google Docs with Suggesting mode; slides as transparencies now created in PowerPoint and similar programs; bluelines as PDFs; print dictionaries, encyclopedias and style guides now available online, with Q&A functions and immediate, real-time updates and changes; teamwork and collaboration through Zoom and various online platforms …  

Our work has gotten easier and more efficient in many ways, although the demands on and expectations of editors has increased as well. We also often have to defend our training and skills against online programs that claim to do the work of checking or fixing grammar, spelling, usage and other aspects of the editing process — not all technology is a good thing, or at least, the human factor can’t be removed from the process, no matter what people say — and against platforms that offer supposed editing at bargain-basement rates. 

Many aspects have remained the same: the importance of basic skills in grammar, punctuation, spelling, usage, attention to detail, being organized (for myself and my projects or clients).

There are fewer traditional in-house publishing jobs and outlets today — but new opportunities for editors. Self-publishing is expanding at every turn, and those independent authors need us; often more than they realize. It can be a challenge to make someone understand our value, but once an author recognizes that reality, the result can be a wonderful collaboration and relationship that lasts beyond a first book or other project.

The online environment is a boon in many ways. One is that short articles in publications can become longer, in-depth treatments at website and in blogs. Corrections and updates can be made in moments as needed. We can check for plagiarism far more quickly and easily than in the past. And we can work almost anywhere — at home, in coffee shops, on the road, wherever.

I firmly believe that editing is here to stay, and editors will remain needed and relied upon. What do you think?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter (www.writerruth.com) is the owner and editor-in-chief of An American Editor and an award-winning creator of editorial and publishing services for publications, independent authors, publishers, associations, nonprofits and companies worldwide. She created the annual Communication Central “Be a Better Freelancer”® conference for colleagues in 2006, now cosponsored by the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (www.naiwe.com) and An American Editor. She can be contacted at Ruth.Thaler-Carter@AnAmericanEditor.com or Ruth@writerruth.com.

© An American Editor. Content may not be recirculated, republished or otherwise used without both the prior permission of the publisher and full credit to the author of a given post and the An American Editor blog, including a live link to the post being referenced. Thank you for respecting our rights to and ownership of our work.

January 1, 2022

Were Hamlet an editor

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 4:38 pm

By Geoffrey Hart

Dear Colleagues, a hearty chuckle and thank you to the ever-brilliant Geoff Hart for this delightful ditty as a way to start what we hope will be a much better year in 2022. — Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner, An American Editor

To stet, or not to stet, that is the question.

Whether ’tis nobler in the draft to condemn

The slings and arrows of outrageous grammar.

Or to take Word against a sea of typos,

And by spellchecking end them.

To let dangling participles lie, to sleep

Yet more; and by sleep, to say we end

The heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks

Editors are heir to? ‘Tis a redaction

Devoutly to be wished. To let lie, to sleep,

To sleep, perchance to revise later;

Aye, there’s the rub,

For in that sleep of reason, what infelicities may come,

When we’ve shuffled off this manuscript,

Must give us pause. There’s the respect

That makes Calamity of so long an MS:

For who would bear the publisher’s whips and scorns,

The authors wronged, the proud wordsmith’s contumely,

The pangs of despised advice, the proofing delayed,

The insolence of authors, and the spurns

That patient merit of th’unworthy takes,

When we ourselves might their quietus make

With a bared Sharpie? Who would this burden bear,

To grunt and sweat beneath a weary edit,

But that the dread of something after publication,

The undiscovered typo, from whose bane

No editor returns, puzzles the will,

And makes us rather bear those infelicities we have,

Than fly to others that we know not of?

Thus proofreading doth make cowards of us all,

And thus the native hue of a monitor’s greater resolution

Is sicklied o’er, with the pale cast of Word

And enterprises of great pitch and moment

With this regard their currents turn awry

And lose the name of perfection. Soft you now,

The fair Webster? Nymph, in thy etymologies

Be all my sins remember’d.

Geoff Hart (he/him) works as a scientific editor, specializing in helping scientists who have English as their second language publish their research. He also writes fiction in his spare time, and has sold 43 stories thus far. Visit him online at <www.geoff-hart.com>.

December 11, 2021

Creating truly effective outlines

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 3:47 pm

By Geoff Hart, Contributing Author

Previously published at NAIWE website (www.naiwe.com) as Hart, G. 2021. Creating truly effective outlines.

Editor’s note: This is a revised and expanded version of an April 2008 presentation that the author presented for STC Milwaukee. Although intended for editors who do substantive editing, it offers useful guidance for writers who need to outline before they begin writing.

One thing I discovered early in my editing career was that few writers learned how to create truly effective outlines. Sure, everyone learned to list the section titles in a plausible order or adopt a pre-existing order, such as starting with the executive summary and ending with the appendices. But the problem with this approach is that it does little or nothing to make the writing process efficient and often ends up wasting the writer’s time when it turns out that a lot of revision is required.

Helping writers stay on course is where we editors enter the picture: Through developmental editing, we help writers focus their efforts right from the start so they can write faster and more effectively. If we do our job well, we won’t have to shuffle chunks of the document around late in the revision process because most of the text will already be in the correct place. We won’t have to point out major omissions because there should be none.

We’ll be able to focus on the clarity of the language.

A good outline is like an architectural blueprint: It tells you where every part fits and its relationships with the other parts. It goes far beyond merely saying “a room goes here”; it provides specific details of what kind of room and how that room relates to all the other rooms. Writing without a strong outline is like trying to build a house, but without knowing how many rooms, their functions, their spatial relationships, or their sizes. You’ll end up with a building at the end of the process, but it might be an office building. Even if you end up with a house, it’s not going to be a very comfortable or livable home.

When I first gave the presentation on which this article is based, I designed it for technical writers, most of whom were documenting computer software and hardware, or working for technology companies. Hereafter, I’ll refer to that type of manuscript as documentation. But the approach I’ll describe can be used for many other types of writing, including education (e.g., teaching a subject such as chemistry), creative nonfiction, and fiction. I’ve retained the documentation content because the examples will be familiar to most readers, who grapple daily with their computers and related software. But I’ll expand the method to include fiction so if you don’t edit manuscripts from a technology-related field, you’ll see how the same basic approach works in a very different genre and, mutatis mutandis, across a range of genres.

Note: If you hang out with fiction authors, you’ll eventually be asked whether you’re an outliner or a pantser. In this context, pantser comes from “by the seat of your pants” and refers to authors who prefer to let their stories evolve organically rather than strapping them to the rack while they torture them into shape. Pantsing works very well for some writers, but tends to work best for someone who has a clear idea of what they hope to achieve with their story. The best pantsers seem to have some kind of subconscious overall outline that guides their work.

Although I’ll focus on the role of editing in this article, the advice also works very well for writers. The main difference is that instead of working with an editor, you may be self-editing long before someone else has a chance to edit your manuscript.

Why outline?

an The whole point of an outline is to help you define all the components that a manuscript requires and the most effective way to assemble them. The ideal process is for author to sit down (in person or otherwise) with their editor to discuss the outline and ensure that it’s effective before beginning to write. While authors are learning to outline, it may be more productive creating their outlines interactively with their editors. At my previous employer, this collaborative outlining was a key component of our report-production process (Hart 2006a, 2011a). This approach proved to be far more efficient then letting authors submit a finished manuscript and leaving me to infer the manuscript’s outline.

There are several criteria for a great outline:

  • It provides a precise blueprint for the writing.
  • It focuses work during the writing and revision stages.
  • It reduces rework. As the carpenters say, “plan and measure twice, cut once!”
  • It permits flexibility when the inevitable revisions arise.

For documentation, effective outlines:

  • Organize the content around user goals and the tasks they must perform to reach those goals. These tasks form task clusters. For example, creating a page layout in desktop publishing software requires an understanding of the task cluster that includes defining the page size, margins, gutters, and paragraph characteristics (spacing before and after, margins, line spacing, widows, and orphans).
  • Comprehensively list all product features that support these goals, grouped logically by task cluster. This is often called an inventory.
  • Rely on architectures that make the form and content of each topic consistent with all other topics of the same type (e.g., multi-step procedures).
  • Concisely summarize what you’ll write. That is, each part of an outline is specific, not general; it describes what you’re going to write in enough detail that it is distinct from all other topics of that type.

Fiction is more diverse and thus, more difficult to standardize. Nonetheless, the equivalents to a documentation outline might be:

  • For each section or chapter, define the character’s goals, your goals for the character, and how to reconcile the two.
  • List all the constraints and opportunities created by previous decisions (whether by the character or by yourself). List the actions or happenings required to lead into future chapters.
  • Define any recurring patterns you’ll use for a given type of chapter. For example, one type of chapter may begin with a challenge created by the cliffhanger in the previous chapter, continue with the rising action until the character or characters are forced to act, then conclude with a denouement that gives the characters time to catch their breath before you create yet another cliffhanger. Harrison Demchick (2021) provides some good insights into this process.

Before you can start creating an outline that achieves these goals, it helps to understand the differences among inventories, architectures, and outlines.

Inventories, architectures, and outlines

Let’s start by defining some key terms. An outline is not an inventory. An inventory only defines what topics you’ll include, although it should be comprehensive. An outline is not an architecture. An architecture summarizes the categories of information you’ll include in each topic (for documentation) or each chapter (for fiction) and the relationships among them. An outline uses an inventory to list all the topics you’ll include in the manuscript, and an architecture to summarize the relationships among the topics and their components. For documentation, the outline defines what must appear in each topic (inventory) in what order (architecture).

It’s also helpful to specify what should not appear. For fiction, an outline defines all the key events that will occur between the start and end of the story, the decisions characters make that are caused by or lead to these events, the consequences of those decisions for subsequent chapters, and how the characters change in response to those consequences. However, the outline must also state what you’ll write about each topic or in each chapter. (The details will come later, once you begin writing.)

Note for technical writers: An architecture functions much like a document type definition (DTD) or schema in XML or SGML authoring.

Sound simple? Sort of. Most writers and many editors forget two key things when they plan an outline. First and foremost, we must remember the audience’s needs. Understanding those needs will help us develop a user-centered document structure that focuses on the reader. Second, for writing that occurs in an institutional context, we need to obtain approval from all stakeholders — anyone who will have a chance to reject a manuscript or send us back to the drawing board for revision. Gaining approval for the overall plan of attack before you begin writing greatly reduces the frequency of unpleasant surprises late in the review and revision cycle. In fiction, the equivalent to the management and expert review of a document is the review of a pitch (story proposal) by your agent or by a publisher’s acquisition editor. This is rarely required for short fiction, but is often essential for long-form fiction such as novels.

Understand audience needs and gain stakeholder approval

The role of your audience is easiest to understand for documentation: The users of a product read documentation to find solutions to a problem. Thus, outlines must support finding solutions and solving problems. Product-centered documentation, which is organized around the product’s features, only describes the product features and forces users to sort through a potentially long list to find the features that might conceivably solve their problem; that is, it forces them to infer how to combine those features to achieve their goal. The more complex the product being documented, the larger and less fair the burden this places on the product’s user. Sure, it’s easier for the writer. But as Richard Brinsley Sheridan noted in 1772, “you write with ease, to shew your breeding; but easy writing’s vile hard reading.”

In contrast, user-centered documentation focuses on the user’s goals, and groups descriptions of the product’s features to help the user attain those goals. The difference is night and day. In product-centered documentation, you might as well just list the product’s features in alphabetical order, since you’re not attempting to present them in an order that supports the user’s goals. But in user-centered documentation, it’s necessary to carefully consider how your audience plans to use the product. That use will define the sequence of tasks as well as the sequence within each task. For example, a plausible sequence for desktop publishing software would be to define the characteristics of the pages that will hold the paragraphs, define the characteristics of the paragraph types that will hold the words (e.g., headings vs. body text), and then define the typographic characteristics that will shape the sentences and words in each paragraph.

Note: Reference manuals can be product-centered because their purpose is to define how each feature works — for an audience that already knows what features they need to use. For some types of documentation, such as dictionaries (or glossaries) and encyclopedias, this structure may be a good choice.

Fiction readers have more abstract needs. They are reading to be entertained, so their needs don’t relate to tasks. The editor’s challenge then becomes how to understand the literary tools the author will use to present a character’s progress through the story. For example, the plot might lead a character to a crisis point where the character’s choices are constrained by some past event. They might confront a large and hideous spider in the bedroom and be forced to kill it, defenestrate it, or deport it, but to do so, they must overcome their arachnophobia. One approach would be to describe the event that triggered that fear, then move forward through many chapters to the present spider-induced crisis. This spider is the horror equivalent of Chekhov’s gun: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.”

Alternatively, you could end a section or chapter with the character’s gasp of horror, use a flashback to reveal why the spider represents a problem, and then return to the present to see how our heroic character overcomes this past trauma — or fails to do so. In this case, the outline would clarify that the new words actually appeared in the past. To use the term I defined previously, the architecture for flashback chapters states that chapters must begin with a few words to clarify that the timing of events changed: “Nearly half a century ago, when Geoff was a child, a spider bit him. He did not acquire superpowers, but he did learn to fear spiders.”

In terms of the audience’s prior knowledge, writing fiction in different genres allows writers to make certain assumptions about what their readers understand. In science fiction, we can discuss starships without defining what one is, whereas in fantasy, we can discuss dragons without a definition. Neither term would be appropriate in detective fiction without adding a few words to explain the meaning. When, as editor, we feel those audience assumptions won’t be met, it’s our job to point out the problem and suggest ways the author can provide the missing knowledge and where those ways fit within the outline.

How to identify user needs

There are many ways to identify user needs. First, and most common, if we lack access to or familiarity with the readers of our manuscripts, we can work by inference — that is, we must imagine ourselves in the reader’s role and pay attention to our thoughts when we/they confront a task. This way of stepping into the reader’s shoes is often described using the term persona, which means a description of the person that’s so vivid we can easily answer the question “What is Geoff thinking and what would he do in this situation?” Making our audience real deepens our understanding of who they are and what their needs are. It also builds empathy and motivates us to care enough about their needs that we try to meet them. For any given product, there may be multiple personas, and each one’s needs must be accounted for. (To learn more about personas, see Hart (2006b, 2011b,c).)

The “five W’s” approach used by journalists is another way to learn about our audience. It, too, relies on inference. In this approach, we ask who will use the product, why they are using it (goals), when and where the use occurs (context), and what they must do to accomplish those goals within that context and under the constraints it imposes. Each of these affects the contents and sequence of an outline. (To learn more about this approach, see Hart (1996, 2002, 2011b,c).)

In addition, we can consult existing references such as computer magazines, “for dummies” books, and the like. The types of help resources that readers buy and read reveal the problems they face, and the range of solutions chosen by other writers. Better publishers have the resources to understand their audiences and design books that sell many copies because of how well they meet their audience’s needs. Such books, therefore, represent a good resource for learning about the needs of those groups of readers.

A third approach, and possibly the optimal one, is to actually talk to the audience and learn how they use the product being documented. Rather than inferring their needs, we can come right out and ask them. The most sophisticated form of this approach, which requires some training, is called contextual inquiry, which is the fancy way of saying direct observation of workers in the context in which they work. In essence, it means that you watch real users using your product in a real workplace to learn what they must accomplish and how they think about that task. This approach lets you build a sophisticated persona for each type of user and design a documentation structure (an outline!) that meets their distinct needs. Contextual inquiry isn’t always possible, since it can require visits to the audience’s workplace or bringing them to you so you can study their behavior in your own test facilities. Fortunately, there are less expensive and more accessible options. Most products now have online discussion forums where you can see the kinds of questions people ask, learn how they think about problems, and learn which solutions are most effective. (If no such forum exists, create one!)

A fourth approach involves reports from other people who work directly with the audience, such as technicians who fix malfunctioning products, corporate trainers, and a company’s technical support staff. All of these people can tell you about the problems that users face and solutions that have been proven effective in the real world.

Once we know these needs, we can revise our outline to account for them. For example, if we know that all users of our desktop publishing software are graphic artists, we don’t need to explain page layout and typography, though we may need to clarify where these tasks are addressed by the software (e.g., menu, toolbar, and palette locations). In contrast, if the users are office workers who have no formal design training, we’ll need to explain more about why certain features should be used (e.g., typography) and how.

In fiction, we can learn most of what we need to know about user needs from reading extensively in the author’s chosen genre. This provides basic familiarity with the terminology used by most authors , the most common plot structures, and the types of expectations that must be met. You can find out how fiction readers read easily enough, but rather than contextual inquiry, attend writers’ workshops where writers learn the tools of their trade or conventions where fans of a particular literary genre gather to discuss their favorite and least-favorite stories. Online reviews, such as those at Amazon or Goodreads, also provide insights. For work where others have done the research for you, consult respected writers’ guides and read reviews by skilled and insightful reviewers to learn what they look for. However, be aware that reviewers take a very different approach to reading than people who read solely for pleasure.

Gain approval from all stakeholders

For documentation, peer review is essential because there’s no other easy way to ensure that you’ve gotten the details right, but many companies rely on peer review because they aren’t willing to hire an editor. Unfortunately, this kind of review is generally insufficient because more people than the product’s designers and the writer’s manager must approve the final documentation. Discovering that you’ve failed to produce a product that satisfies the stakeholders only when you reach the end of a long writing, review, and revision process can be disastrous.

The solution is surprisingly simple: Identify all stakeholders who can approve or reject your work before you begin to produce the outline that will guide your writing. These people include the technical experts, who will review your manuscripts for correctness and completeness; the product’s manager; the writers’ manager, who will review the manuscripts to ensure that they meet corporate standards; training and technical support staff, who will confirm that the manuscript supports their needs; marketing, who will ensure that their needs to evangelize a product are met; lawyers, who ensure that the manuscripts meet legal standards and requirements; and, potentially, managers who run all the way up the corporate hierarchy to a director or vice president. If you’re lucky, the approval chain has far fewer links and ends with a middle manager, but in small companies, the approval chain may run right to the top of the organization chart.

Each of these stakeholders should critique and approve your outline before you invest considerable time doing the actual writing. Problems such as omission of details you think are unnecessary but that they consider important must be identified so the outline can be revised to meet their criteria. Where needs are contradictory, negotiation will be required to solve the contradiction. I’ve used this approach to drastically reduce the time required for approval of documentation (Hart 2006a, 2011a). Surprises are still possible, but there will be far fewer of them if everyone strongly supports your blueprint right from the start. And the surprises will usually be far less serious and easier to fix.

In fiction, there are fewer stakeholders. There’s generally no complex corporate hierarchy, except when you’re writing for a big publisher. Then, you’ll need to pitch your outline to an acquisitions editor and they’ll deal with the publisher on your behalf. However, for both novels and shorter work, many authors enlist a group of beta readers to review the writing before it goes to an acquisitions editor. Note that although the list of stakeholders is shorter, that doesn’t mean the approval process will be simpler. Creative people tend to have strong opinions about how fiction should be written, and it can be tricky finding compromises between an author’s vision and what the publisher will accept. As in most other forms of editing, one of your roles as editor will be to act as the author’s advocate and defend their approach.

Comprehensively list what you’ll need

For product documentation, create an inventory of all the information you’ll need to include.

  • For software, list all menu names and all items provided under each menu; all toolbars or palettes and the associated tool icons; and all items in the dialog boxes accessed via these menus, toolbars, and icons.
  • For hardware, list all control panels, all physical switches, all buttons, all slots and tabs, and anything else the user may need to manipulate to operate the device. For the hardware’s software components, list the same things described in the previous bullet point.
  • For both software and hardware, list all physical things (tools) and metaphysical things (software, knowledge of concepts) required to support a reader’s use of the product.

You can now group the items in your inventory by allocating them among the tasks they support. If something is essential to the completion of more than one task, repeat that information for each task instead of asking readers to hunt through the documentation to find that information. This is easiest if you use a writing tool that supports single-sourcing (i.e., creating a chunk of information once, then reusing that chunk wherever it’s needed). For each task within a task cluster, refer to the architecture I described earlier in this article to figure out how to assemble everything.

If you’re assisting a fiction writer, this part of the editing process resembles the task of creating a story bible. Story bibles contain all the facts that mustn’t change over the course of the story, such as a character’s eye color and handedness, and things that should change, such as their knowledge and thought patterns. For example, a story bible might contain the following.

  • Characters: their physical and emotional characteristics.
  • Psychology: how the characters think and how that changes in response to the story’s events.
  • Physical locations: characteristics such as geography, climate, and the relationships they imply (e.g., distances between places). This will shape things like travel between cities and movement within cities.
  • Possessions: the things the characters carry and things they need to acquire (e.g., appropriate clothing, food if they will make a long journey). These must be obtained at some point before the possessions are used, which can define the order of events. That spider on the wall in Act One can’t simply materialize out of thin air in Act Two.
  • Histories: both the surrounding societal context (how the story’s society has gotten to where it currently is) and each character’s own history, particularly with respect to defining moments in both society and the character.
  • Chronology: when things happen.

Among the items in this list, outlining relates most strongly to the chronology, since you must define sequences of events based both on the needs of the plot and on dependencies. For example, in The Lord of the Rings, Frodo can’t throw the One Ring into the cracks of doom before he has the ring, and even once he has the ring, he can’t do his job before he arrives in Mordor. The sequence must therefore be “get the ring, travel to Mordor, throw the ring into the fire.” Note how this is more specific than “get possession, go somewhere to use it, use it.”

How your word processor can help you reorganize the outline

Now that you know what has to be included in the outline, you can start shuffling it into a logical and effective order. Your word processor can help, since it’s easy to cut and paste sections to move them into new positions. Some software offers additional useful tricks for rearranging an outline quickly and easily. For example, in Microsoft Word:

  • View —> Outline: Word’s Outline view mode lets you see the whole structure at a glance and easily move topics (and their associated subtopics) around. Better still, it lets you expand and collapse the whole outline and subsets of the outline, such as a specific section or chapter, and move small chunks or entire sections to new locations.
  • View —> Document Map: Word’s Document Map view opens a panel to the left of the document window that displays the manuscript’s headings as clickable hyperlinks. The main document window on the right can then be set to the Outline view mode. This way, you can move quickly between parts of the manuscript by clicking the hyperlinks. 

Provide architectures that help ensure consistency

Documentation should be centered on the goals of a product’s users. Those goals often fall into categories that define a consistent, effective architecture. For example:

  • Conceptual topics should define the problem, describe the context in which it arises, provide any necessary context (e.g., the basic principles of page layout for an audience of amateurs), and propose solutions and alternatives.
  • Reference topics should name the tool, explain where to find it (in menus, toolbars, palettes, or dialog boxes), define all options for that tool, and provide examples of correct and incorrect uses of the tool and its options.
  • Definition topics should define a word or phrase, explain incorrect uses, and provide examples of (in)correct uses; the topic should also provide cross-references to synonyms and antonyms to help readers learn to use the terminology correctly.

Fiction is less likely to benefit from or require a formal architecture. However, there are cases where having an architecture is very helpful while writing (Demchick 2021). Consider, for example, a novel in which the narrator begins in media res (i.e., right in the middle of the plot). In each chapter, the novel moves forward from that initial point, but each chapter could begin with a concise scene that digs back into the past to provide an explanation or deeper context for what’s about to happen in the current chapter. Part of the outline will then be based on an architecture in which the outline for each chapter states that there will be a context-establishing flashback, then explicitly states what the key point in that flashback is and how it provides context for the rest of the chapter. (For an example of how this works, see my novel Jester.)

Consider another example, with a different order. If you’re writing something that will be serialized, such as episodes in a TV series or a monthly graphic novel about a group of characters, you need to know where each installment ends and the implications for the next installment. This may be a classical structure such as having each installment end with a cliffhanger and (except for the first installment) begin with a solution to the previous chapter’s cliffhanger. This is particularly useful if you’re working as part of a group of writers, with all of the installments for a season being written in parallel. Each author needs to know, in some detail, where they’re coming from and where they’re going.

Dependencies and consequences of revision

It’s rare to create a successful outline for anything complex in a single step. Most outlines require at least one revision (for manuscripts with a simple and familiar structure), and many require repeated revision as you get iteratively closer to something that works. That’s just part of the game, and I like to describe outlining as being equivalent to carpentry: Good carpenters measure twice (at least)before they cut a piece of wood because once the cut has been made, you can’t undo it. Writing seems easier, because there’s no physical piece of wood that can be destroyed by an injudicious cut. But just as carpenters sometimes have to make an unplanned excursion to the lumber depot to replace a key piece of wood they damaged, writers can waste considerable time on undoing a poorly chosen structure for their manuscript.

The easiest way to check an outline is to walk through it one step at a time and pay attention to where you stumble. Wherever you stumble, revise that step to clarify how to correctly take that step. This is why cooking recipes list the ingredients before the steps of the recipe: If you don’t have all the ingredients you need, it’s better to discover this before you’ve mixed all the other ingredients. Similarly, pay attention to where you get stranded. If you find yourself in a dead end, you need to retrace your steps to the turning point that led you there and more clearly indicate that you should have taken a different turn.

These specific examples reveal the broader topic of dependencies: A dependency exists whenever you need some information or some thing before you can perform a step in a procedure, learn a new concept, or (in fiction) move to the next phase of the plot. For a software procedure, you need to know where the relevant tools are hidden before you can perform any steps using those tools. Thus, rather than assuming that everyone knows the tool location, tell them; even if that information exists elsewhere in the documentation; why make them go looking for it? For learning a concept, ensure that you clearly communicate the basics first; it’s hard to teach the concept of logarithms to a student who doesn’t already understand the concept of exponents. For fiction, your protagonist must meet their allies and gain their trust before they can work with those allies to defeat their antagonist. Frodo can’t throw the One Ring into the cracks of doom before he has the ring or before he travels to Mordor.

To identify dependencies, ask a simple question: what must I know before I can understand the current chunk of information? Then add that required information to the outline before the action that requires that information. To support such efforts, you could create a table with the steps in a procedure in the first column and the dependencies in the second column. Then add information or reorganize the table’s order until all the dependencies are resolved.

This becomes complex for fiction, particularly when there are many characters. For example, if you’re outlining a novel, it’s important to know when a character first appears in the story, when they meet other key characters, when they gain a required possession, and when they use that possession. Creating a timeline helps make that sequence more concrete. If you find you work well with visual aids, find graphics that can stand in for each character and their equipment. Print out the graphics, then cut them out from their background. Move the characters down the timeline, then drag the items on or off the line as you move. When you reach for something the character must use and it’s not already present, go back a few steps until you find a way to add it.

Your outline must also account for consequences. After each step in a procedure is complete or some key action in a plot has occurred, something changes and you must describe that change, describe the situation that results from that change, and understand the constraints that situation imposes on subsequent actions and where the change leads. In documentation, the consequences of copying a chunk of text means that the clipboard is now loaded with the text, the text is now available for pasting, and you can paste the text as often as you like until you replace it with new copied text. In fiction, the antagonist’s master plan may have begun, and the protagonist must deal with the resulting cascade of events, one at a time, until they’re resolved. There may be points where the character can intervene to divert or stop that cascade — or there may not be. Both alternatives need to be spelled out in the outline.

What the outline actually looks like

Okay, so that’s the theory. What does this look like in practice? Let’s start by considering the outline for the topics in a programmer’s guide, stripped down to focus on a few key points. Consider an excerpt from our first example of a bad outline.

—————————————

Programming guide topics:

  • FUBAR function
  • LAWSUIT function
  • CURSE DEVELOPER function

—————————————

The problem here is obvious: This only lists the content, without defining the relationships between commands (their temporal or other sequence), the structure of the explanation of each command (the architecture), or how the commands relate to user goals. Thus, it’s an inventory, not an outline. Let’s consider a more highly developed but still bad example for the same programmer’s guide.

—————————————

Programming guide topic template:

  • command name
  • summary of its purpose
  • syntax, including all options and switches
  • several examples (both good and bad)
  • cross-references to other relevant commands

—————————————

Here, the problem is more subtle: The “template” is identical for all commands and fails to distinguish between any two commands. Thus, it’s an architecture, not an outline. It’s still useful, but needs to be made specific before it is successful. Now let’s consider a good example of how this would be accomplished for one command from the inventory.

—————————————

FUBAR function:

  • FUBAR lets programmers define how and how often the program will foul up a user’s data.
  • Syntax: FUBAR [% of data] [frequency]
    Switch 1 defines the amount of corrupted data; switch 2 defines the interval between corruptions.
  • FUBAR must occur before CURSE DEVELOPER, which is optionally followed by LAWSUIT.
  • [Detailed examples to follow once parameters for the two switches are finalized]
  • See also: debugging, recovering lost data [anything else to add?]

—————————————

This example illustrates both the architecture for all subsequent commands in the guide, and how the architecture is implemented for one function, in a way that distinguishes this function from all other functions. An additional bonus is that this topic is almost completely documented at this point. Details must be added, particularly with respect to the reminder in square brackets, and the inventory and architecture must still be approved, but if this is all you could give to the users of the product, they probably wouldn’t complain too loudly. If nothing else, they’d probably stop at the CURSE DEVELOPER function and not proceed to LAWSUIT.

Now let’s consider fiction, using an example most readers will be familiar with: the various films in the Avengers movie franchise. Let’s start with a bad example.

—————————————

  • Scene: Tony Stark bantering with Steve Rogers
  • Exchange of banter (one or two verbal attacks)
  • Discussion of a serious matter
  • Parting banter before scene ends

—————————————

Again, the problem is that this probably isn’t much different from all the other scenes, and it provides no details that distinguish it from those other scenes. It’s all inventory and is therefore only a rudimentary outline. Now let’s consider a slightly more advanced but still unacceptable outline.

—————————————

  • Scene: Tony and Steve meet for the first time.
  • Tony attacks Steve; Steve replies with his own attack.
  • Nick Fury brings the talk back to the serious matter at hand.
  • Tony attacks Steve about the serious matter; Steve counterattacks about the serious matter.
  • Scene ends.

—————————————

Better, but the same description could still be applied to pretty much any scene, not just the first meeting of these characters. Moreover, we have no idea what the serious issue is or why our two heroes are sparring verbally over it. Now let’s look at a better version of this outline.

—————————————

  • Scene: Tony and Steve meet for the first time.
  • Tony, jealous of Steve’s bulging muscles, suggests that Steve is all muscle, no brains.
  • Steve points out that he doesn’t need a billion-dollar mechanical suit to be a hero.
  • Nick Fury interrupts, pointing out that both muscles and brains will be required to defeat Loki.
  • Steve points out that it’s a good thing he’s got a brain. Tony responds that his suit’s muscles kind of make Steve redundant, but that Steve wouldn’t be a captain if he didn’t have at least a rudimentary brain, and that it’s good to have backup.
  • Scene ends.

—————————————

Still fairly primitive, and we’ve got a lot of work to do to move some of the details from implicit to explicit and actually write the dialog. But we at least see a sketch of the problem (they will need to learn to respect each other), the context (Loki is a threat to everyone), the challenge (they’ll need to learn how to work together), and the solution (they recognize, even if somewhat reluctantly, that each has a strength that will come in useful).

Then, theory meets reality …

Of course, reality sometimes disrupts our best-laid plans. For our poor documentation writer, the problem lies in the chaotic nature of product development, which is never as predictable and smooth as anyone would like. For our poor fiction writer, the muse doesn’t always come when called, and sometimes the muse points out that we’ve actually been writing the wrong story and need to take a big step back and reconsider the real story. (This happened to me in my novel Chords, in which I realized that I’d omitted one crucial character from the alternation of chapters and that without her perspective, the story was very ordinary.)

This kind of problem means both writers and their editors have to be flexible and willing to start over when necessary. Documentation outlines often have to change as the product being documented changes, and stories often change as you gain insights into the characters and realize that they don’t necessarily want to follow your plans; the best characters have desires of their own that conflict with your plans. This is part of the nature of writing, and you have to learn to accept it and find ways to cope. For documentation, maintaining close ties with the development team alerts you to product changes that will have consequences for your outline. For fiction, a strong outline that groups and sequences the key events in the story ensures that you haven’t missed any points and understand the dependencies well enough that you won’t forget them when you revise the outline.

What about hypertexts?

Most of the manuscripts we write or deal with as editors are linear, which is to say that the reader begins in a clear starting location and proceeds to a clear destination. The scale of that linearity may apply to the manuscript as a whole, as in the case of Ikea assembly instructions or a novel, or to individual chapters, as in the case of an encyclopedia article or software manual. (Un)fortunately, modern writers have a broader set of options, including nonlinear hypertexts.

Hypertext is the technical term for documents that don’t necessarily follow a linear course. For example, with Web sites and online help, readers may dip into the body of information for very different purposes, ranging from obtaining an overview of what information is available (i.e., orientation) to finding a specific topic (i.e., problem-solving). Outlining becomes much more difficult, since the order of the information and how it is accessed is no longer linear. In such cases, it may not be possible to outline the overall text as if it were a single manuscript. Instead, it becomes necessary to develop two or more outlines, such as one for orientation and another for solving problems (i.e., task clusters).

For a product’s user manual, the first outline might present the complete list of topics (an inventory), grouped into logical categories such as “page layout,” “print publishing,” and “EPUB creation.” A second level of an outline might be created for each of these categories, with the architecture for each category showing how individual product features function, how they can be combined to design a page, how to produce a PDF file you can send to a printer, or how to produce an accessible and properly formatted e-book.

Fiction is less likely to follow a hypertext structure, since stories tend to follow a linear pattern, apart from occasional diversions such as flashbacks. Thus, the first outline might be based on dependencies; that is, the outline would list what events must happen before it is possible for other events to happen. A second level of an outline might then be the chapters and plot points for each chapter, which would generally take the form of conventional linear indexes within each chapter. Those chapters can then be shuffled for dramatic effect, as long as the dependencies are identified and accounted for.

Advantages of my approach

The approach I’ve described has several advantages:

  • Careful planning greatly reduces last-minute changes demanded by stakeholders. In some cases, the approval of some stakeholders may no longer be required because they’ve already given it right from the start and trust the other stakeholders to do the remaining work well.
  • The outline provides a decent minimalist user manual if you can’t complete every topic. For fiction, it makes for a nice elevator speech if you’re trying to pitch your story to an editor.
  • The approach is modular: You can add to the outline, delete sections, or move sections around as the product changes or the plot and characters evolve.
  • The outline will be complete if you inventoried everything you need to write about.
  • The outline will be consistent: Architectures ensure that all required information is present for every topic.
  • It’s user- or reader-centered.

A second meaning of “outline” is a line that surrounds the outer edges of some object, eliminating all the details so only a vague shape is visible. That’s not the kind of outline that helps authors write, nor is it the kind of outline we as editors want to help them create. An effective outline does most of the hard work of developing a manuscript’s skeleton and muscles before refining the details.

References

Demchik, H. 2021. How to improve story structure for a better novel.

Hart, G.J. 1996. The five W’s: an old tool for the new task of audience analysis. Technical Communication 43(2):139–145.

Hart, G. 2002. The five W’s of online help for tech writers. http://techwhirl.com/columns/the-five-ws-of-online-help/.

Hart, G. 2006a. Designing an effective review process. Intercom July/August 2006:18–21.

Hart, G. 2006b. Personas and the technical communicator. Usability Interface 12(2), October 2006. www.stcsig.org/usability/newsletter/0610-personas.html>

Hart, G. 2011a. Uprooting entrenched technical communication processes: process improvement using the kaizen method. http://techwhirl.com/articles/technical-communication-process-improvement-kaizen-method/.

Hart, G. 2011b. Personas and the five W’s: developing content that meets reader needs, pt. 1. What’s a persona? http://techwhirl.com/articles/personas-and-the-five-ws-developing-content-that-meets-reader-needs-pt-1/.

Hart, G. 2011c. Personas and the five W’s: developing content that meets reader needs, pt. 2. Applying the five W’s.http://techwhirl.com/articles/personas-and-the-five-ws-developing-content-that-meets-reader-needs-pt-2/.

September 10, 2021

On the Basics: Rethinking language usages

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 11:36 am

© Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

© An American Editor. Content may not be recirculated, republished or otherwise used without both the prior permission of the publisher and full credit to the author of a given post and the An American Editor blog, including a live link to the post being referenced. Thank you for respecting our rights to and ownership of our work.

For years, I’ve been urging aspiring freelancers to budget for health insurance even if they’re young and fit because “you never know when you might step off the curb and get hit by a bus.” I never meant it flippantly, although it might have come across that way. Today I learned that a valued colleague has died in just such a horrible way. I don’t think I can ever use that language again.

When I mentioned this in a Facebook group for editors, several colleagues brought up other usages that we might all want to rethink, or think about carefully before using. We’re in an era of increasing awareness of language (and behavior) that can be seen as insulting, insensitive, racist, sexist, exclusive and otherwise damaging — that can trigger trauma on all kinds of levels. These instances may be less so, but still can create trauma at worst and discomfort at best. We probably can’t always avoid upsetting someone, no matter how carefully we choose our words, but we can aim to avoid clichés or our own frequent phrases that might be painful for others to see or hear. 

Personal perspectives

Probably like many of us, I’ve had my own experiences with incidents that make me more careful about how I describe events, possibilities and even people. I broke a leg after tripping — over something I never even saw — on a casual walk (as opposed to a challenging hike or climb) and falling the wrong way. I dislocated an elbow and tore up ligaments and tendons in falling off a stage prop as I backed up to take photos at an event. Both experiences make me careful about how I refer to other people’s accidents, such as not calling anyone (including myself) a klutz or clumsy, or trivializing an injury or event.

When I was in grad school, I was walking to class one day when I realized that someone might be about to jump off a pedestrian bridge over a major intersection, and I tried to get him to stop and talk to me. He jumped anyhow and died of his injuries. Ever since, I’ve been super-sensitive to any references to suicide in general and jumping off a bridge in particular.

Language to assess before using

As colleagues said in response to my Facebook post: “We never know what might bring up negative emotions for someone else” and “‘Know better do better’ applies to our lived experiences and unfolding improved awareness of language …”

With that in mind, wording or imagery to think about carefully before using would be:

• Hit by a train, streetcar, bus, car

• “I feel like I’ve been hit by a Mack truck” to describe feeling sick

“Drink the Kool-Aid” to refer to company culture (because hundreds of followers of cult leader Jim Jones actually drank poisoned Kool-Aid at his order, and died.)

• Putting a gun to your head

• To die for

• Jump off a bridge

• A verbal or writing tic

• The worst thing to do/that can happen; There’s nothing worse than … (because so many times, the rest of the sentence refers to something that really isn’t that bad, especially when compared to something like the death of a loved one)

This kind of sensitivity can also can come into play if you’re trying to convince friends, family or colleagues to have a will, business insurance, medical directive and other end-of-life plans, power of attorney, easily found emergency contact information, etc., or at least as a reminder that we all should have those documents and provisions in place, regardless of whether we’re in business or work for someone. Illness and accidents can happen to anyone. It’s important to try to be prepared, on our own behalf and on behalf of those whom we love, live with, and work for or with, because we really don’t know what could happen from one day to the next.

Workarounds that work

Colleagues suggested a couple of clever ways to avoid using phrases like “hit by a bus/truck/train”: “‘In case I get hit by a comet’ — highly unlikely you’ll encounter anyone who’s had that experience” and “In case you’re abducted by aliens” — also highly unlikely (we hope).

Instead of “the worst thing is,” I use “One of the worst things [in this situation] is” or “Few things are as bad/hard/difficult/painful as …”  

For my future presentations, I plan to simply say that accidents, injury and illness can happen to anyone, regardless of age or health status, so health, business and life insurance are key things to include when launching an editorial (or any) business. 

Are there any terms or phrases that you avoid, or that trigger trauma on some level when used by others, because of personal experience or events that affected friends and family?

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 owner of An American Editor. She created the annual Communication Central Be a Better Freelancer® conference for colleagues (www.communication-central.com), now co-hosted with the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (www.naiwe.com) and sponsored by An American Editor. She also owns A Flair for Writing (www.aflairforwriting.com), which helps independent authors produce and publish their books. She can be reached at Ruth@writerruth.com or Ruth.Thaler-Carter@AnAmericanEditor.com.

September 8, 2021

On the Basics: Reflecting on editing then and now

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 11:42 am

© Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

In a recent online conversation about responding to an author who said their manuscript just needed a “light edit” because they had run it through Grammarly, a colleague asked whether “before computers, did folks also assume that editing was just rote grammar stuff or is this a new thing now that spellcheck and other computer functions are ubiquitous?”

I was not surprised to see a number of variations on “Yeah, right; that will happen” and “Never use that tool!” Of more discussable interest is that I thought it was a good question. Here’s my response:

“I think authors in the past had more respect for human editing skills, but there were far fewer aspiring independent authors and most had no way to find an editor. Far fewer got published because they didn’t have today’s outlets, with or without editors.

“And editing/proofreading wasn’t (weren’t?) perfect; almost every book I read [that was published] going waaayyy back has typos. Maybe not many, but at least a few. (It’s why I don’t borrow books from the library; I can’t help marking the typos!)

“Today’s tech tools make it easier for us to check or enhance our work, but those tools aren’t perfect, as everyone here knows. Put the tools in the hands of a skilled, careful editor and the combination is golden. It may still not be 100% perfect every time, but is likely to be much closer than when we didn’t have things like spellcheck and PerfectIt.”

And, of course, the post got me thinking further about publishing then and now, so here we are.

I started writing for publication way back in the 1970s, using a manual typewriter and not seeing my work until it appeared in print; if something got edited, I didn’t see the process.

We used correction tape or fluid to cope with typos, and often had to retype entire pages because there was no find-and-replace or typing over an error. Items might have been missed because there was no spellcheck. For what would now be called self-publishing projects, we typed on green stencil sheets and ran them through hand-cranked AB Dick machines. Making corrections on those was an even bigger headache than correcting typewritten pages on regular paper.

I started editing in the late ’70s — my own work and that of college friends, then on my college newspaper, then as a staff reporter for a weekly community newspaper — when self-correcting electric typewriters were cutting-edge new and exciting, and Compugraphic was the new technology for typesetting. Authors would hand in material typed on manual or electric typewriters, editors would mark up the manuscripts by hand, Compugraphic operators would type in the material and print out the text on bright-white coated paper, and we — often just whoever was handy and cared enough, depending on the environment; many of the places where I worked didn’t have formally trained or designated editors — would proof the resulting galleys before layout. Sometimes the galleys would be sent to authors for review, sometimes not. Corrections for the galleys would go to the Compugraphic operators to be retyped a line or even a word at a time, and pasted down manually.

We referred to printed dictionaries and style manuals, and spent a lot of time on the phone to track down and verify information; no Internet access from our desks to those resources, much less Google and other browsers.

The final galleys would be cut apart, backed with hot glue and pasted into place on heavy-duty graph paper. The pages would go to the printing house and turned into plates that were used to create bluelines (called that because they were in blue ink) — the last chance to review and make corrections, which were charged by the item, because every change meant a new printing plate.

It all took more time than most publishing projects today, although editing, proofreading, layout and more proofreading in the current digital world still takes longer than most authors or clients realize. And it involved costs — for making corrections, and for holding up printing because of a last-minute realization that something egregious had snuck through the editing and proofreading process (if there was one).

The digital environment today has created expectations that publishing — editing, design/layout, proofreading — occurs almost immediately. Clients also often assume that they can have multiple passes of all those steps without extra expense. That means that both in-house and freelance editors, proofreaders, designers and layout experts have to educate colleagues and clients about how the process works; how quickly and when changes can be made, if at all; and the impact of changes on deadlines and costs.

Of course, we also have to educate prospective clients about why they might want to work with us rather than, or in addition to, using online editing tools.

How have you dealt with clients who think that having used online editing or proofreading tools means their work needs “only a light edit or proofing”? How have you responded to clients who keep coming back with more changes but don’t want to pay for your additional time or expect (even demand!) that their project be published per the original schedule?

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 owner of An American Editor. She created the annual Communication Central Be a Better Freelancer® conference for colleagues (www.communication-central.com), now co-hosted with the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (www.naiwe.com) and sponsored by An American Editor. She also owns A Flair for Writing (www.aflairforwriting.com), which helps independent authors produce and publish their books. She can be reached at Ruth@writerruth.com or Ruth.Thaler-Carter@AnAmericanEditor.com.

© An American Editor. Content may not be recirculated, republished or otherwise used without both the prior permission of the publisher and full credit to the author of a given post and the An American Editor blog, including a live link to the post being referenced. Thank you for respecting our rights to and ownership of our work.

September 3, 2021

Thinking Fiction: What is literature, anyway?

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 5:28 pm

© Carolyn Haley

Early this year, I wrote about the challenges that contemporary-novel-writing authors will face in adapting to the “new normal” (https://americaneditor.wordpress.com/2021/01/11/thinking-fiction-whats-next-for-novelists/).

Things haven’t settled down much in the months since then, but enough time has passed that new novels are coming out, through both traditional and indie publishing, in which authors who write contemporary fiction have adapted to the times in different ways.

Some of these works were in process when the combined pandemic and political upheavals started; others have been written since it became clear that daily life and culture were going to change permanently. Enough novels have crossed my desk for purposes of editing, reviewing, and recreational reading that I’m beginning to see patterns.

Even though these books qualify as commercial fiction, I’m interested in them collectively as a facet of literature. I read mainly American fiction but also samplings from western Europe and Canada; this essay is limited to personal observations about contemporary fiction written in or about those parts of the world.

Definition

To better understand what “literature” means today, and how it reflects our era vis-a-vis any other time, I turned to my trusty dictionary as a starting point.

Merriam-Webster Online Unabridged lists several definitions of “literature.” The one I was looking for is this:

3b: the body of written works produced in a particular language, country, or age

This definition embraces fiction, my central concern. But the literal definition does not expand to include purpose, so I went internet trolling to find a more nuanced meaning.

The first search results (I stopped after 20) agreed in principle, albeit with different wording, that the purpose of literature is to explore and express human nature. I refine that to mean creative writing that reveals truth and possibility through story. Doesn’t matter if it’s a simple genre romance or multi-generational saga or anything in between. Storytelling is as old as human civilization, and capturing it in writing is what constitutes literature.

In fiction publishing, there’s a distinction between literature as a written art and “literary” as a writing style and marketing category. My interest is in the former, and in seeing how authors across genres — the body of literature — are adapting to a global pandemic concurrent with intense sociopolitical changes.

Multiple adaptations

The trends I see so far among fiction authors are clustering in four approaches.

(1) Some novelists have simply incorporated societal changes into their stories, including peoples of all colors, cultures, and genders in their character sets as part of the norm of their characters’ worlds.

In physical descriptions, when characters are described at all, references to their racial or ethnic heritages are as generic as possible, country of origin omitted unless directly relevant to the story, and nonbinary sexuality alluded to by casual mentions, such as a man having a husband or a woman having a wife. All human varieties are assumed to be normal. No commentary about it in the narrative; the story just moves on.

(2) Other novelists have gone the apologia route, inserting front matter into their books to define their positions to readers before they launch into the story. Some literally apologize for even mentioning difficult subjects. Those subjects can be the pandemic or socially sensitive topics such as race, sexuality, politics, or violence.

(3) Another group has failed to separate their personal positions from their characters’ positions. I’ve seen this several times in prolific, popular series authors who are confident about their readerships. I usually read those books in pre-press for review, and recently they’ve been keeping me awake at night wondering how to honestly and fairly evaluate those works. Subtle, intermittent shifts in the narrative change the voice so reader attention is broken by what I call “author intrusion.” While the story is doing its job of expressing the position, the author seemingly can’t resist elbowing in (and the publisher’s editor[s] doesn’t elbow them back out), resulting in a distracting mixed message that undercuts the book’s own merits.

(4) Then there are authors who put their positions solidly into their characters’ mouths and actions, leaving themselves invisible but making their points loud and clear.

Art vs. propaganda

Just about every author writes from a political, emotional, and personal perspective, and has done so since the beginning of publishing time. Same is true for almost every creator who expresses through an artistic medium. People flock to the arts to find resonance for their thoughts and feelings. Nothing abnormal there; in fact, that’s the nature of the beast.

The trick is how well they do it — or not. Authors who draw readers into their worlds and involve them in the trials and tribulations of the characters/setting/time succeed in conveying their messages. They make readers think and feel, and indirectly advance their own thoughts and feelings while remaining offstage. The work is its own self.

But when authors step outside the story world to manipulate reader impressions, things slide onto the slippery slope between fiction and propaganda. In my opinion, if authors feel so strongly about something that they can’t keep themselves out of their story, they should switch to a nonfiction vehicle. Or write op-eds (opinion-editorial pieces).

My personal opinion is meaningless in the larger scope. As a professional editor, I strive to put aside my biases and be as neutral and analytical as possible when I edit or review a fictional work. (But I’m totally subjective when I read for recreation!) If a story is historical fiction, I expect the author to adhere to the mores of the time for plausibility. Unfortunately, this has become a flashpoint in some circles, where people judge historical scenarios by contemporary mores.

I think this is unfair. In most cases, the purpose of the story is to show how things were in comparison to today’s sensibilities. Condemning authors for being accurate — and in some cases, calling to ban a book because it’s offensive to contemporary tastes — is unreasonable. Let literature, let art, inform us about the past to help us analyze the present and advance toward the future!

Who owns the viewpoint?

Some contemporary novelists have become scared to write what they want to say because they expect rejection or pushback, even shaming, from a polarized, judgmental audience. I see reports about this on social media, writing/editing/publishing forums, and articles in publishing newsletters. I also hear about it directly from clients and associates.

This anxiety differs from the common one among authors about their work being accepted by a publisher or an audience. Their anxiety has broadened to social and political spheres, which has undercut their confidence.

Some of them question whether to hire sensitivity readers in cases where they wrote outside their everyday reality. Which is worth thinking about, because storytellers have been walking in “other” shoes for as long as people have been writing stories. What’s different now to make that a problem?

I don’t see a problem, because it’s standard practice for conscientious authors to research what they don’t know and round up more-knowledgeable people to vet their work where it touches unfamiliar areas. Acknowledgment and dedication sections in books are full of credits to people who have helped authors with verisimilitude and factual accuracy.

A sensitivity reader is nothing more than an individual offering insight into a different culture or norm. Just like any technical professional, a sensitivity reader is only one person representing a great body of information. Their insight may be valuable, but it must be taken with the same grain of salt as any other resource. How the author handles that information is ultimately what counts.

Context is the bottom line

What’s often forgotten in the world of literary criticism is the world itself. We all belong to an immense, diverse population spread across the planet. Something that’s meaningful or controversial in the United States of America might be irrelevant, inflammatory, or incomprehensible somewhere else — even at a regional level. For instance, rural Alabama in a bayou environment has little to do with the Minnesota boundary waters, or downtown Los Angeles or New York.

A novel’s content has to be framed by not only its subject but also its context. Authors with commercial ambitions must direct their work toward a specific desired audience. By definition, that eliminates others.

“Otherness” has long been a concern of science fiction and fantasy authors. They have the advantage of being able to make it up. Who can speak for aliens from other planets?

Extrapolating from there, nobody on Earth can truly speak for anybody else, so the purpose of a novel is to present what’s happening to a unique character(s), expressed by a unique author, in hopes of finding commonality among unique readers.

The benefit of this is a constant stream of education and enlightenment about different people through their adventures and misadventures. The only thing that matters is story. Story expresses our shared humanity, and the infinite number of stories expresses our individuality. How wonderful is that?

The word that encompasses it all is “literature.”

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 three novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1997 and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.net or through DocuMania. Carolyn also reviews for the New York Journal of Books, and has presented about editing fiction at Communication Central conferences.

August 31, 2021

On the Basics — Biz card, résumé tips as workplaces and in-person events return

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 1:57 pm
Tags:

© Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

I’m breaking my usual pattern of posting here on Mondays, Wednesdays or Fridays because the writing spirit is strong, and there’s more to come this week on our usual posting days.

Now that businesses are going back to the office and a semblance of pre-pandemic worklife seems to be returning, it’s a good time to assess the effectiveness of résumés and business cards. They’re both still important tools for networking and job searches, even in the ever-increasingly digital world and for both in-house and freelance colleagues. 

Here are a few suggestions to keep in mind if you’re getting ready to order new cards or update your résumé.

Business card basics

Business cards that work for you are especially important as in-person events start to come back to life, and real cards are still popular, from what I’m seeing. Someone who enters your contact info in their phone by scanning your card might still keep the actual card ­— and use it first if it has flair and the information they need. I’m meeting new people at such events and seeing a lot of business cards — but many of them don’t do their owners justice.

• Use larger type for your name, company/business name, e-ddress, website URL and phone number. I’ve been seeing a lot of business cards lately with type so small that you almost need a magnifying glass to read e-ddresses or phone numbers. Making recipients squint to read that essential information defeats the purpose of handing out your card and increases the likelihood of errors when someone tries to use your e-mail address or phone number.

• Make space for larger type by dropping street addresses and focusing on website URLs, e-ddresses, and office and cellphone numbers. Not only does that reduce the volume of information and clutter, it creates a more-dramatic design impact. Anyone wanting to visit your office (or send you a fax) can call or e-mail for that information or — for a brick-and-mortar business — find it at your website.

• Include a QR code; it can go on the back of your card so it doesn’t take away from valuable space on the front of the card. It makes you look plugged in and up to date, and makes it easy for recipients to find and file your information, as well as to learn more about you by creating a link to your website or LI profile, whichever is more appropriate and useful. You could even put a QR for each on the back of your card.

• Ditch the glossy paper stock; it’s hard to write on coated paper for anyone wanting to take notes about where and when they met you or add other information.

• Put a handful of business cards in every briefcase, jacket/pants/skirt pocket, handbag, cellphone case, etc. You never know when they’ll come in handy, and you don’t want to have to scribble your contact information on a napkin or the back of someone else’s card.

• Scan your card and add a low-resolution image of it to your e-mail signature (sigline) — unless you’re job-hunting, in which case don’t include anything related to your current employer.

• If you are looking for a new in-house job, create a separate personal card to hand out to prospective employers or referral sources. Employers will want to know about your current and past jobs, of course, but you don’t want to disrespect your current employer. A personal version can still include your job title, with an e-ddress and a home or cellphone number that’s different from your work information.

Résumés that work well

Whether you’re looking for freelance or in-house work, you need a résumé that reflects current practices while making you look good. These suggestions are my own, based on observation of student and colleague résumés and recent reading.

• Label your résumé with your name so it stands out from all the people who will send theirs with the filename Résumé.doc.

• If you have a job and don’t want your employer to know that you’re looking for a new position, create a new e-ddress for this kind of personal activity. Never use your current work e-ddress for something like job-hunting!

• Keep it simple — no more than two typefaces/fonts, black type, no photos or artwork (other than a logo if you have a business identity or are a freelancer).

• Keep it relevant — include volunteer or professional development and membership activity, but leave out personal or family details unless they relate to what you’re responding to. For instance, I recently responded to an opportunity to write about eldercare, and included a (brief) mention of looking after my mom and my beloved Wayne-the-Wonderful as part of my qualifications for the project.

• Don’t attach your résumé to an e-mail message unless you’re responding to an opportunity that has expressly said to do so. Instead, provide your website URL and say that your résumé can be found there. Many business communication systems block messages with unsolicited résumés, whether they’re in Word, PDF, or some other program or format.

You might think of AARP as an organization for older retired people, but it offers advice and resources that anyone of any age and employment status can use. A recent issue of the AARP Bulletin newspaper addressed résumés with advice that works for both freelance and in-house job-seeking (I’ve paraphrased and, in some places, added to their advice).

• Use 11 or 12 point type size and sans-serif fonts (Arial, Calibri, Verdana) rather than serif (Times Roman).

• For your e-mail address, use your name or a variation of it rather than a nickname.

• If you don’t have a professional website that can be the basis of your e-mail address (Yourname@Yourname.com or Yourname@YourProfession.com), opt for one from gmail, which looks more current than AOL, Yahoo, Hotmail, etc.

• Use a heading like Professional Summary for a snapshot of who you are and what you bring to a job, rather than Objective. The obvious, assumed objective is “Find a new job.”

• List your relevant skills. Consider not including Word or Outlook, which AARP says are “universally expected.” (I had no idea Outlook was considered some kind of standard!)

• If you’ve been doing temp work to fill in while you’re job-hunting, call yourself a consultant for that timeframe and list your relevant assignments under that heading.

• Do include dates for employment and degrees, even if you’re worried about appearing “too old.” Leaving them out creates suspicion and the assumption that you really might be too old for a given opportunity.

• Use the heading Experience rather than Work Experience, so you can include work-related volunteer projects you might have done to fill the gap between paid work or to build new skills. 

• Use bullet points and action verbs to make it clear what you’ve done and how your work has contributed to the success of a project or business. That can save words and space, so you include more information, and often is an easier voice to use in writing up your experience.

• Describe your achievements and background using keywords in the listing or opportunity — and check out the prospective employer’s website to find more to include.

• Feel free to include hobbies and philanthropic activities as long as they are relevant to the kind of work you’re looking for.

Your input

Have you updated your business card or résumé recently, or created a new one? What gave you the incentive to do so? Has there been time to assess whether it’s making a difference in your networking and work search?

Best to all in your endeavors as the world tries to go back to a semblance of normal.

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 owner of An American Editor. She created the annual Communication Central Be a Better Freelancer® conference for colleagues (www.communication-central.com), now co-hosted with the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (www.naiwe.com) and sponsored by An American Editor. She also owns A Flair for Writing (www.aflairforwriting.com), which helps independent authors produce and publish their books. She can be reached at Ruth@writerruth.com or Ruth.Thaler-Carter@AnAmericanEditor.com.

© Ruth E. Thaler-Carter/An American Editor. Content may not be recirculated, republished or otherwise used without both the prior permission of the publisher and full credit to the author of a given post and the An American Editor blog, including a live link to the post being referenced. Thank you for respecting our rights to and ownership of our work.

July 30, 2021

Indexing Arabic Names: Compound Names that Cannot Be Split

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 9:20 am
Tags:

© Ælfwine Mischler

Arabic names can be tricky to index and alphabetize in references. In previous posts, I discussed how to handle the definite article al- and family terms Al, Ba, and ibn or bint between names. Unwitting indexers and editors (and even authors) often err by inverting Arabic names that should be left as they are, or splitting compound names and inverting names in the wrong place.

Arabic has a lot of compound names that are identifiable by one of their elements. This column discusses the most common ones. Whether you are indexing or alphabetizing references, do not split these compound names. That is, do not invert — do not move only one element and not the whole thing. The identifiable compounds are based on the genitive construction (iḍāfa) and often, but not always, the second element begins with the definite article al-, which should be ignored in sorting.

I have collected these common compound names by recognizable elements. For the sake of simplicity, I have not used diacritics on the names.

Ibn + [something]

In pre-modern names and names of royalty, ibn (son of) or one of its variants may come between two names. These names are indexed as they appear and are not inverted (see Indexing Arabic Names: Family Terms).

However, when Ibn comes at the beginning of a name rather than between two names, it is capitalized in English, is not inverted, and is sorted on Ibn. Many medieval personalities are known simply as Ibn + [something]. The “something” might be the name of a father or ancestor, or the whole name might be a nickname. For example, the nickname of the 15th-century Egyptian hadith scholar Ibn Hajar al-ʿAsqalani means ‘son of stone’; al-ʿAsqalani indicates that the family originated in ʿAsqalan some generations before him. He is indexed as “Ibn Hajar al-ʿAsqalani,” sorted on I.

Here are some other names of this type — alphabetized as they should be, with the ignored al- shown in angle brackets (see “>Indexing Arabic Names: The Definite Article):

Ibn <al->ʿArabi, Abu Bakr Muhammad*

Ibn ʿArabi, Muhyi al-Din Muhammad*

Ibn Battuta

Ibn <al->Hajib

Ibn <al->Hajj

Ibn Hazm

Ibn Khaldun

Ibn <al->Tabban

Ibn Taymiyyah

*Muhyi al-Din Muhammad ibn ʿArabi (d. 638 AH/1240 CE) is a Sufi scholar who is known as Ibn ʿArabi or, sometimes, as Ibn al-ʿArabi (with the definite article). Follow your author’s practice to include or exclude the definite article. Abu Bakr Muhammad Ibn al-ʿArabi (d. 543 AH/ 1148 CE) is a Maliki scholar and judge known as Ibn al-ʿArabi. Your author might refer to them as simply Ibn ʿArabi or Ibn al-ʿArabi, without the other names.

Bint + [something]

Bint (daughter of) is the feminine counterpart of Ibn and can occur as the first element of a compound name that is not split. Bint al-Shatiʾ (literally Daughter of the Riverbank) is the pen name of Aisha Abd al-Rahman. You should index it as written, without a comma and sorted under B. Your index might also include her real name (indexed as Abd al-Rahman, Aisha), with locators double-posted or a See cross-reference to her penname.

Abu (or Abū) + [something]

Abu + [something] (literally father of [something]) forms a type of nickname known as a kunya. The “something” is usually the name of the man’s eldest son, but the kunya might be used to indicate a trait. In the medieval period, people were addressed by their kunya and might be known primarily by it instead of their real name.

This form of name is still used in some Arab cultures today and may appear as a surname, nickname, or penname. Like other compound names, you should not split it, and if there is an article in the second element, you should ignore it in sorting. Thus, the Egyptian writer, poet, and historian Muhammad Farid Abu Hadid (1893–1967) is indexed as “Abu Hadid, Muhammad Farid.” The Palestinian Abu Nidal is indexed as written, possibly with a gloss of his real name (Sabri Khalil al-Banna), possibly with an entry at al-Banna, Sabri Khalil (sorted under B) with a See reference to Abu Nidal.

If Abu is preceded by ibn or bint, it becomes Abi (or Abī), and the entire sequence of Ibn/Bint Abi + [Something] should not be split.

Umm + [something]

Umm + [something] (literally, mother of [something]), is the feminine form of the kunya. Like the masculine form, it may refer to a woman’s eldest son, as in the case of Umm Salama (mother of Salama), or it may indicate a trait. The given name Umm Kulthum (also spelled Kulsum or Kalsum) means “one with chubby cheeks.” It was used as the stage name of the Egyptian singer Fatima Ibrahim el-Sayyid el-Batagi, whose stage name is indexed as “Umm Kulthum.” If the second element has the definite article, as in the case of Umm al-Qura (“mother of towns,” a nickname for Mecca), the article is ignored in sorting.

ʿAbd + [something]

This compound, meaning “servant of” or “slave of,” is probably the most common. The second element is usually, but not always, one of the names of God, and there is usually a definite article in the second element, which leads to various spellings in modern names. To bring common spellings together, sort word by word and ignore the definite article if it is not attached to the first element:

ʿAbdallah, Jamil

ʿAbd <al->Hamid II

ʿAbd Rabbihi

ʿAbd <al->Rahman III

ʿAbd <al->Rahman, Sayyid

ʿAbd <al->Samad, ʿAbd al-Qadir

ʿAbdel Ghani, Mahmoud

Abdul-Jabbar, Kareem

The one exception to this, by convention, is the name of the Egyptian president Gamal ʿAbd al-Nasser, who is usually referred to in text as Nasser and indexed as Nasser, Gamal ʿAbd al-, rather than as ʿAbd al-Nasser, Gamal. If your author ignores this convention and refers to him as ʿAbd al-Nasser, index him as the author has him, but also put a See cross-reference under Nasser.

It is common practice for an author to use only a surname on subsequent mention. However, twice I have caught an author using only the second element without ʿAbd; for example, referring to Sayyid ʿAbd al-Rahman as al-Rahman rather than ʿAbd al-Rahman. Al-Rahman is a name of God and cannot be used for a human. If you come upon such a mistake in a book, index the name correctly with ʿAbd and tell the client to correct the text.

[Something] + al-Din

Several compounds made of [something] + al-Din ([something] of the faith) are common names in modern Arabic, and served as a form of honorific in medieval names. In modern names the al- might be spelled ad-, ed-, or ud- to show the assimilation of the letter l, and the article might be attached to the second word. Din might be spelled Deen or Dine.

Common modern compounds are Nur al-Din, Saif al-Din, Salah al-Din, and Shams al-Din, all with various spellings (see “Romanized Arabic in English Texts: Sources of Variation” and “Romanized Arabic in English Texts: Other Challenges for Editors”).

[Something] + Allah

A few names, now primarily surnames, are formed with Allah as the second element: Farag Allah, Faraj Allah, Hasab Allah, Khair Allah.

Dhu (or Zu) + [something]

Dhu or Zu is a combining word in a few names. The u is a long vowel here, so the vowel of the article elides in pronunciation and this might be shown in various spellings, or the names might be written as one word: Dhu ’l-Qarnayn, Dhu’l-Qarnayn, Dhu-l-Qarnayn, Dhul Qarnayn, Dhu al-Kifl, Dhul Kifl, Dhu al-Faqar, Zulfaqar.

Miscellaneous genitive compounds

I have seen a number of names of prominent people incorrectly indexed. These names are also genitive constructions and should not be split.

Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, a former president of Pakistan, appeared in one index as “ul-Haq, Zia” with no sign of the first name. I could not access the text to see how the author had written the name, and I always see the surname hyphenated. This should be indexed as Zia-ul-Haq, Muhammad.

The former president of Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, has Ben Ali as his surname. His given name is also a genitive-construction compound, which I have also seen used for other people with different spellings: Zine El Abidine, Zain al-Abidin, Zayn al-ʿAbidin. These should not be split.

Examples of Modern Names

A modern name might have two or more given names rather than a given name and a family name. The second name is usually the father’s name; the third name, if there is one, is the grandfather’s. Look at the last element and determine whether it is part of a compound name that cannot be split. Treat any compound names as a unit, then use the final name (simple or compound) as a surname and invert. Ignore the articles in sorting, as shown by the angle brackets.

ʿAbd al-Rahim ʿAbd al-Jalil >> ʿAbd <al->Jalil, ʿAbd <al->Rahim

            NOT <al->Jalil, ʿAbd <al->Rahim ʿAbd

Abu al-Hasan Kamal al-Din >> Kamal <al->Din, Abu <al->Hasan

            NOT <al->Din, Abu <al->Hasan Kamal

Aisha ʿAbd al-Rahman >> ʿAbd <al->Rahman, Aisha

            NOT <al->Rahman, Aisha ʿAbd

Ali Samir al-Dumyati >> <al->Dumyati, Ali Samir

Ali Moustafa Mosharafa è Mosharafa, Ali Moustafa

Mohamed Salah Eldin >> Salah Eldin, Mohamed

            NOT Eldin, Mohamed Salah

Mustapha Zine El Abidine >> Zine <El> Abidine, Mustapha

            NOT Abidine, Mustapha Zine El

Nasr Abu Zayd >> Abu Zayd, Nasr

            NOT Zayd, Nasr Abu

Noura Ahmad Dawud è Dawud, Noura Ahmad

In a recent book about Yemen, I found several modern, nonroyal names with “bin” between two names (for example, Ahmad Hani bin Dawud). I had to query the author about them because modern names don’t usually contain “bin” unless the person is royal. She replied that “bin” was part of the family name, so I told her to mark it to be capitalized and I indexed them on Bin: Bin Dawud, Ahmad Hani. If you find similar modern names, query the author.   

Titles and honorifics can appear in both medieval and modern names, and cause more problems for indexers. That is a topic for another post.

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 about Islamic studies, Middle East studies, and Egyptology. She has presented a webinar on indexing Arabic names for the American Society for Indexing (https://www.asindexing.org/webinars/mischler-arabicnames/). This post is based on the submitted version of “Indexing Arabic Names: The Basics,” published in The Indexer: The International Journal of Indexing, March 2021, https://doi.org/10.3828/indexer.2021.7.

July 7, 2021

On the Basics: Marketing while uncomfortable

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 8:47 pm

© Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

A journalism colleague recently tagged me in a Facebook post about his discomfort with marketing his freelance services, saying he believes in “privacy, humility and discretion” and that posting about his work distracts him from doing the next project. He’s reluctant to post social media messages because he finds most of them “banal and narcissistic,” but he knows that at some point, he’ll have to market his business to succeed.

I suggested that he “think of social media posts as advice to and support of colleagues, and it might be easier to use that resource to promote your freelance business. Privacy, humility and discretion are valuable principles, but we have to do at least some marketing to be found and hired for projects!”

How does using social media to advise and support colleagues play into a marketing plan? When you answer questions, suggest resources, present solutions and otherwise come in handy in LinkedIn, Facebook and related platforms, including discussion lists and other forums, you establish yourself as professional, skilled, knowledgeable — and the people you help will remember you that way. They’ll think of you when a project comes up that they can’t take on for some reason. They’ll contact you to subcontract or refer you.

This colleague’s post, and my response, got me thinking about how hard it can be to take a business-like approach to freelancing and engage in marketing when we’d much rather be writing, editing, proofreading, etc. We like to think of ourselves as creative types (especially those of us who are writers or graphic artists), and the idea of being businesses or business-like is antithetical to that creative self-image.

But as freelancers, in business we are and market we must. (And even some in-house colleagues have to market themselves — to get promoted, to have their work recognized and appreciated, to find a new in-house job.)

Your first step is to create a website. Once that’s up and you remember to refresh it regularly (which I admit I’m very bad about doing), it will do a lot of your marketing for you. Potential clients will find you before you have to go looking for them. Add the URL for your website to your “sigline” (the contact info at the end of every e-mail message you send), and it becomes even more powerful as a marketing tool.

As colleague John H. Meyer said in a post to the Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA) discussion list, “Think of your online presence as a wheel, with your business website at the center, and everything else (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, etc., etc., etc.) as spokes. Whatever appears on any of the spokes can bring attention back to the hub, which is the permanent repository for all essential info about you and your service.” He has found that “even a non-business presence on various media has brought me clients.” As a result of having several opinion pieces published in local news media with a tagline that identifies him as a “free-lance editor,” several authors “went a-Googling,” found his website and are now clients. “Even if you’re not directly marketing, how you present yourself publicly can still help build your brand.”

(For tips on creating a website, see … or order a recording of my webinar about that topic from the EFA.)

In that online conversation, I also noted that “Cold queries do still work, though.” And they do. If marketing makes you uncomfortable, don’t think of them as marketing. Think of them as pitches or leads for new work. The advantage of cold queries is that you initiate contact with a potential client: You do some research, through Writer’s Market, library or bookstore visits, Literary Marketplace, LinkedIn, etc.; come up with an idea for an article or a perspective on how your skills and experience might meet their needs; and send your message. It’s essentially one on one, which doesn’t feel as much like marketing as being visible in social media. It doesn’t feel promotional. It is business, but it’s on a smaller scale. It’s, well … private, humble and discreet.

You can also create a blog, although finding new things to say on a regular basis might be a challenge.

You can write a book or booklet, which provides credibility and passive marketing backup and income.

You can set a schedule for social media posting and activity, or simply remember to scan groups and colleagues of interest occasionally and respond to some of their posts. I’m a big believer in answering questions in social media groups not only of colleagues, but of potential clients — people looking for editors, proofreaders, writers, etc.

You can also set a schedule for more-direct marketing activity, such as sending out query letters/messages on the first Monday of every month.

You can join and be active in professional associations, show up at events, speak up in discussions, present webinars, write for their publications, etc.

It’s all marketing. Resign yourself to the necessity, find a level of activity that you can live with and go for it. The results might not only be a pleasant surprise for your bank account, but more manageable, and eventually more comfortable, than you ever expected.

Above all, tell yourself that marketing isn’t bragging, posturing, being indiscreet or overly public about your life. It’s good business. Marketing is about letting the world know who you are and what you do, which you can do quietly and with subtlety, while still being effective in bringing clients to your door.  

Even rock stars — literal rock stars, that is — do marketing. Think about the rock band Kiss and their multiple commercial projects, which I just learned about: 5,000 licensed products that have nothing to do with music! We should keep our marketing efforts focused on our editorial business skills and services, but that’s not a bad example to follow from the perspective of marketing as a core element of a successful business.

What have you done to market yourself and your work effectively, whether you’re a freelancer or in-house employee? What have you overcome to make yourself be more marketed and marketable?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter (www.writerruth.com) is the owner and editor-in-chief of An American Editor and an award-winning creator of editorial and publishing services for publications, independent authors, publishers, associations, nonprofits and companies worldwide. She also created the annual Communication Central “Be a Better Freelancer”® conference for colleagues, now cosponsored by the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (www.naiwe.com) and An American Editor. She can be contacted at Ruth.Thaler-Carter@AnAmericanEditor.com or Ruth@writerruth.com.

© An American Editor. Content may not be recirculated, republished or otherwise used without both the prior permission of the publisher and full credit to the author of a given post and the An American Editor blog, including a live link to the post being referenced. Thank you for respecting our rights to and ownership of our work.

June 3, 2021

Copyright reminder

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 3:37 pm

This is a reminder that all content in this blog is © An American Editor and may not be recirculated, republished or otherwise used without both the prior permission of the publisher and full credit to the author of a given post and the An American Editor blog, including a live link to the post being referenced. Thank you for respecting our rights to and ownership of our work.

Next Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: