An American Editor

March 2, 2020

On the Basics: Enhancing diversity and inclusion in your writing (and workplace)

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 6:04 pm

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

Being inclusive and diverse may seem as challenging as switching from two spaces between sentences to one, but really isn’t that hard to do — in many ways, both can be done easily, even though they continue to be a matter of discussion (in the case of spaces between sentences, contention!). Since the publishing world is publicizing, if not championing, the use of new pronouns and options for colleagues to self-identify by ones they prefer, our field can also lead the way in making written works — and the people or businesses producing them — reflect a wide range of variety in ethnic, religious, national/international and gender identities.

I’ve been surprised to notice that TV commercials have become far more inclusive and diverse than many of the programs they support. We editorial professionals can follow their lead in presenting or including a variety of faces and voices.

As writers, most (if not all) of us owe it to our readers to include, and accurately represent, people of all backgrounds, or at least enough to make it clear that we understand there is a world of variety that we live in, work in, and write/edit/proofread about.

As editors (and maybe even as proofreaders, although this should be managed before that stage), we owe it to our authors and other clients to say something when an opportunity to be inclusive is missed.

As anyone who hires writers, editors, proofreaders, etc., we owe it to our employees and the people they serve to widen the scope of where we look for new people.

As organizers of events, we owe it to participants to go beyond the usual group of presenters to find new and varied voices and faces to make those events more interesting and representative of an industry, profession and cause. It’s also smart to use new channels to reach participants who bring variety and diversity to the events.

That doesn’t mean every story or event has to include everyone, but that it’s worth making the effort to go beyond a standard, and somewhat limited, range of people to illustrate the topics we work on. It makes sense to create stories and publications that reflect the real world, and the reality is that world is one of variety, difference and diversity.

One of the best ways to be more inclusive and diverse is to look for versions of the professional associations we turn to first for advice, colleagiality, new hires, trends, projects, etc. In the USA, the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) might be the lead organization of and for journalists, but there’s also the National Association of Black Journalists and groups for and of journalists who are Pacific Asian, Hispanic, etc. If your company needs to bring in more women, look to the Association of Women in Communications. There are organizations for photographers and artists of color, and probably for other communications professionals as well; if not independent entities, there might be subgroups of standard associations that include people of color, various nationalities, different genders, etc.

This perspective isn’t limited only to organizations in communications to consult when hiring. If you’re a journalist, you need to look beyond the big, standard organizations to find people to interview who represent various voices and culture. Associations are a great source of, well, sources — experts in or members of almost any profession or field you can imagine. You might usually contact the American Medical Association for people in that profession to feature in profiles or include in interviews, but there’s a National Medical Association whose members are black. You might know about the American Bar Association, but there’s also the National Bar Association for and of attorneys of color, and the National Association of Women Lawyers or the Women’s Bar Association, just as starting points. Most national trade or membership associations have groups or committees for members of various backgrounds as well.

The not-for-profit sector is also a rich source of diverse sources, situations and experiences. No matter what you’re writing about, or what your authors/clients are writing about, there’s a nonprofit for that — and a lot of them are smaller than a Red Cross, AARP, United Way, etc., but doing important, productive work that includes and/or affects people of varied ethnic, religious, economic and other backgrounds. Some of the larger nonprofits partner with smaller organizations that can add diversity to an article or other project.

The Internet is full of sources of images, many copyright-free, that can be added to various projects when you want to include people of color, different genders, people with disabilities, nontraditional family units, etc.

An easy first step from the grammar perspective is to stop using he, him and his as the default pronoun, and even to avoid the somewhat-clunky s/he, her/him and hers/his or switching back and forth within a piece of writing. The easiest way is to use plural pronouns wherever possible, especially when you don’t know or need to identify the gender or preferred pronoun of someone being written about. To make this even easier, they/their as a singular has been adopted by the major style guides, but I’ve found that plurals usually keep the flow going more smoothly and don’t make readers stop to wonder about meaning.

In the aftermath of recent reactions to the novel American Dirt, where the author has been pilloried for writing about experiences of people from a culture she doesn’t belong to, this might seem risky. I’m not talking about presenting oneself as something one isn’t (although I don’t think that’s really what that author did, and canceling her readings seemed cowardly on the part of bookstores and other venues, even given the insane threats she and they received). I’m talking about realistically presenting the world as it is: full of variety in backgrounds, perspectives, opinions, experiences and more.

Whether you’re writing, editing, proofreading, illustrating, publishing, hiring or more, take time to look beyond the easy sources to find people who represent a wider world of reality. The results — more interest, more readers, more sales, more respect — will be worth the effort.

Have you encountered a lack of diversity in the editorial work you do? Have you succeeded in increasing diversity and inclusion in your projects?

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

February 21, 2020

Registration is open for 2020 Be a Better Freelancer® conference!

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 4:48 pm

Whether you’d like help with using editing tools or expanding your editing business, Communication Central‘s annual Be a Better Freelancer® conference can help — and you can register for the 2020 event now! The conference might not be until October 2–4, but registering early will save you money (that doesn’t mean the date and place haven’t been set, by the way; in case anyone wonders, it means “Just because the conference isn’t until …”).

An American Editor subscribers may use the lower registration rates along with past conference attendees and members of the conference co-host (as of 2019), the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (NAIWE). This year’s conference — the 15th! — will feature presenters both new and familiar, with topics you need to make your editing work and business better than ever. We’ve reduced the costs to make it easier for more colleagues to attend and to offset the cost of parking for those who opt to drive to Baltimore for the event.

2020 C-C conf Registration

See you in Baltimore, MD, for this invaluable event!

February 5, 2020

On the Basics — Starting the new year by planning for emergencies

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 12:28 am

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

There are two levels of emergency planning for people in our field, whether you write, edit, proofread, index, design, etc.: day-to-day protection of what you’re working on and what happens to your projects if you can’t work or when you die. I’ve written here about emergency planning a couple of times (https://americaneditor.wordpress.com/2018/07/11/on-the-basics-a-fresh-look-at-coping-with-emergencies/, https://americaneditor.wordpress.com/2015/03/23/on-the-basics-coping-with-emergencies/, https://americaneditor.wordpress.com/2018/02/09/colleagues-lost-and-not-found-preparing-for-the-worst/, https://americaneditor.wordpress.com/2019/05/15/on-the-basics-rethinking-saving-everything/), but recently saw a slightly different twist that seems appropriate to discuss early in this new year: A colleague asked a discussion list about “what happens if … you’re unable to complete work you’ve started? How easy is it for your survivor(s) to send work-in-progress to your clients (assuming they’ve paid something down on the job already?”

My response was: “This is one excellent reason to participate in a (professional association) — not just join, but BE VISIBLE. Membership gives you a way to find colleagues you can partner with before there’s a crisis, to see how well their work style and quality meshes with yours, and to have names you can give to whoever will look after your business if you’re incapacitated or, well, dead. Your clients might want to find their own replacements for you, but you will be doing them a huge favor by having someone, or some people, in place to step in on anything currently under way.

“(The possibility of being contacted about partnering or subcontracting is a reason to make sure your posts to a group are as professional and letter-perfect as possible.)

“And this is why your potential survivor(s) should have access to some kind of business info — passwords, contract language/business policies, current client list with contact info, project status, etc.”

At some point in the conversation, I also noted that my will is in a safe deposit box, and my brother is a signatory for the box, so he can get access to it if anything were to happen to me. He also has a copy of my will, and of my passwords. I’m going to do the same with my niece, in case anything happens to my brother first.

This can work in various ways. The other day, I realized that I hadn’t heard from a regular client for more than a month; January was busy enough that I hadn’t noticed a lack of requests from her, and if I did think about it, I just figured she was focused on managing end-of-old-year/beginning-of-new-year stuff. I sent her an “Are you OK?” e-mail message just to check in, and she responded to say she had fallen in late December, had a major brain bleed and is still in rehab. Her comment that “I probably should have included you on a list of people whom my daughter clued in …” fit right into this post. I also remember a reliable colleague who hadn’t sent in her usual newsletter column; after several days of trying to reach her, I found out that she had fallen in her apartment and died because she couldn’t call 911 and no one knew anything had happened until it was too late.

I don’t want to be either of these people, and I’m sure none of you do.

Discussion list responses from colleagues provided some useful tips to consider, for both personal and business matters. Here are edited versions of their suggestions.

  • Have a will! And someone designated as your power of attorney, along with a living will and health directive. Every state has its own laws and having a will protects you, your assets and your family. In many states, dying without a will means your assets go probate and/or to the state, which is rarely (if ever) what any of us wants. If you don’t have family or friends to leave things to, designate a charity, professional organization, or educational or cultural institution you care about.
  • Use something like the LastPass password manager, which has the option to share a folder with specific permission giving access to someone you trust. Whatever method you use, make sure someone has passwords to your computer(s), programs, lists and social media so they can manage or inform contacts as appropriate.
  • Create a document that sits at the top center of your computer screen(s) titled “In Emergencies” and details where all the important files are on your system, both client and personal, so a partner, spouse, child or colleague can find what they would need if you become incapacitated.
  • Amazon sells a binder in which you can centralize all of your information — passwords, insurance docs, bank and investment accounts, friends to be notified, health directive, mortgage and other creditors, last wishes, etc. You could include a page with up-to-date client information. You also can create such a binder (on paper) or folder (on the computer) yourself.
  • Have your bank accounts converted to “TOD,” so they transfer immediately to the person of your choice, with no probate or lengthy delay. That way, the person you designate not only can pay any outstanding bills, but will have access to remaining funds in the account and can deposit any outstanding payments that show up.
  • If you do any subcontracting or hiring, make sure someone knows how to reach those connections in an emergency.
  • Put together a letter of instruction that says where to find all the details that have been discussed here, along with where to find safe deposit box keys, cemetery plot deeds and life insurance policies. It should outline your funeral wishes, what to do for any pets, and any other details your heirs/executors will need to handle after your death. Leave the letter and will somewhere easily be found and immediately accessible, and be sure to tell the people who need to know where they are.
  • If you live alone, especially in a detached house or even in an apartment building/condo where you don’t interact regularly with neighbors, consider setting up a daily call-in with someone in case you fall or come down with the flu, appendicitis, etc. Ideally, this should be someone local whom you trust with keys to your home so they can get in to check on you if you don’t answer the call and can let emergency personnel in if needed. At least get one of those Medic Alert (or whatever) buttons so you can call for help.

Are you prepared for the worst (which I sincerely hope doesn’t happen to any of us any time soon)? Are there any other steps we should take to make sure our business (or personal) matters are protected and someone knows what to do if we have an emergency?

By the way, the colleague whose list message inspired this post also asked: “Does everyone make it clear that those up-front payments are non-refundable no matter whether you finish the job)?” If I had received an advance or deposit but something happened before I did enough of the work to “use” those funds, and my backup person or people couldn’t finish the job, I’d expect someone to give the client back the difference. That’s the kind of possible situation that makes it important to keep some kind of log of how much time, how many words or how much of whatever measurement we use to track the progress of a project we’ve spent to date. It’s easy to get so immersed in a big project that we forget to keep track of that information, but this point in a new year is a good one to start trying to be efficient about it.

Here’s wishing all of our AAE colleagues a healthy, productive and profitable new year, whether you’re in-house, freelance, retired or simply interested in editing. I hope everyone has their records, documents and systems in place to make it easier to have that kind of year. L’chaim!

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter (www.writerruth.com) is an award-winning provider of editorial and publishing services for publications, publishers, associations, nonprofits, independent authors, and companies worldwide; editor-in-chief and — as of 2019 — owner of An American Editor (AAE); and owner of the A Flair for Writing (www.aflairforwriting.com) publishing company. She created the annual Communication Central “Be a Better Freelancer”® conference for colleagues (www.communication-central.com), now in its 15th year and co-hosted with the National Association of Independent Writers & Editors (www.naiwe.com) and sponsored by AAE. She can be reached at Ruth@writerruth.com or Ruth.Thaler-Carter@AnAmericanEditor.com.

January 30, 2020

Freelancers’ conference returns to Baltimore in October 2020

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 4:16 pm

You saw it here first: The 2020 Communication Central/NAIWE “Be a Better Freelancer”® conference will be held October 2–4 in Baltimore, MD! We’re putting together the program in the next couple of weeks, but wanted to give colleagues plenty of time to save the date — and start saving your shekels — to attend the 15th annual iteration of this practical, resource-full event. We’ll be back at the Courtyard Marriott Hotel in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor East neighborhood, just a couple of blocks from the Inner Harbor to the west and Fell’s Point to the east.

An American Editor is a cosponsor and there may be a special discount for subscribers. Watch this space for details soon.

Please note that the conference will be held all day on Friday and Saturday, Oct. 2 and 3, and in the morning of Sunday, Oct. 4. Continental breakfast and a buffet lunch will be provided on Friday and Saturday, and continental breakfast on Sunday, with dinner outings on your own at local restaurants in the neighborhood of the conference hotel. The conference hotel room rate will be available from October 1–5 for those who want to do additional sightseeing in the Baltimore area.

January 6, 2020

Thinking Fiction: Name-dropping in Fiction

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 1:40 pm

By Carolyn Haley

Novelists are often counseled to be specific with details, choosing one or two arresting ones to give a strong sense of a person, place, or thing. These focused items, often dubbed “salient details,” can convey information powerfully and succinctly, as well as better than the dreaded “info dump,” which tells too much and invites readers to skim.

This is good advice, but I frequently see it interpreted in a way that detracts from the story and leaves the reader confused. By that I mean an author uses brand names or jargon — any term, usually a proper noun, representing specialized knowledge — without offering a hint about what it represents.

For example, in a manuscript I edited a few years ago, the protagonist was a fan of Biedermeier furniture. This style of furniture played a brief but important role in an ill-fated love affair between characters — but in the narrative, the author didn’t tell the reader what Biedermeier furniture is. Similarly, the author at one point clothed the hero in a Tom Ford suit; another time, the heroine stopped at a Bi-Lo at the end of a long trip.

Hands up, please: How many of you know what these things are?

If you do, then I assume you are up to date on vintage European furniture, modern U.S. fashion, and store chains in the American South. If not, you’re probably doing what I did when I encountered the terms: scratching your head and muttering, “Huh?”

Editing for the few vs. the many

As an editor, I look for those “Huh?” moments in all manuscripts and query the author when they occur. These tend to be carefully chosen “salient details” that are exactly right for the situation, but that lose the effect if the reader doesn’t get it.

Now, if solely the target audience reads the finished book, then such salient details will draw a knowing and appreciative nod because they will be familiar to readers and achieve exactly what the author desires: an incisive way of characterizing a person, place, or thing. If, however, the book is read by people outside the target audience, then it’s guaranteed that some readers will not recognize the references, and go, “Huh?”

Also guaranteed is that every published book will be read by somebody outside the target audience. If the book sells really well, then lots of those people will read it.

The goal, then, is to minimize the number of “Huh?” moments for the full potential audience. To do that, authors must provide a little something extra any time they drop a name into the story.

Here’s how it played out with the above examples. In response to my queries, the author replied:

(1) On the furniture — “I could mention Biedermeier is a style of art and design that flourished after the Napoleonic Wars until the mid-eighteenth century. It heralded the rise of the middle class in Germany and the Scandinavian countries. You are correct that urban folks and people in the arts are more likely to know what a Biedermeier piece of furniture is, or a Bergère chair, with padded wooden arms, seat, and back and a curvy delicate silhouette. But damn, that gets clunky.”

Yep. The full info gets clunky, even if it’s crucial to the story. So the author’s challenge is to decide how much (little) has to be included so readers who are not versed in the subject understand what it is and why it’s important to the character, without disrupting story flow. Often, a single line will serve.

The author solved it just that way. Because the character was well-versed in the subject, it made sense in context for her to remark, “I love Biedermeier, a sleekly streamlined furniture style catering to the tastes of a budding European middle class during the mid-nineteenth century.” Then she cantered along with the story.

(2) On the suit: “I probably spent an hour looking at men’s suits online to find the right one. Comme des Garçons? Boss? Versace? Ralph Lauren? I chose Tom Ford since his clothes can only be worn by men in their absolute prime because of how close to the body he cuts.”

That last line nails it. Now I understand; but, unexplained, it still leaves unfashionable readers in the dark. How to convey to them why a Tom Ford suit matters?

In the novel, a conversation discusses the suit, during which we learn the heroine is something of an expert on formalwear because of her job, and the hero lets his mother choose his suit because she has superlative taste and Ford is her favored designer.

What actually matters in the story, however, is that the heroine thinks men in eveningwear are ultra-sexy, and this particular man looks fantastic in the Tom Ford suit because that designer’s clothes fit him so perfectly. In other words, the author told me what matters, but failed to tell readers. In the narrative, we learn only that this suit is eveningwear and the heroine notices. The salient detail isn’t quite doing its job.

The author solved the problem by resequencing the dialogue, so this bit of explanatory narrative tucked neatly between the characters’ lines: “Not a lot of men can wear Tom Ford because he cuts so close to the body. You have to be in really good shape and even so, his styling favors trim, long-muscled men. Which happen to be my favorite kind.”

(3) On the store: “Bi-Lo is a Southern chain. Its mention adds verisimilitude to the story. Anyone who has been to the South will recognize it. And if you don’t, Google it. Have you not seen Piggly Wiggly mentioned in Southern stories? Or Publix? I read books set in the South often because I’m interested in the area and find these mentions all the time. I concede that adding more description could be a good compromise. So I could definitely say, ‘Bi-Lo grocery store’ and even mention she is taken with the difference in the names of the markets down there compared to home.”

Here again, the full explanation is too much information. Where Bi-Lo occurs in the story, the setup gives the impression it’s a gas station/convenience store, when in actuality, it’s a grocery store chain where the heroine can buy stuff she wants and needs. The fact in itself is not important, but the store name broke my attention while reading because I had no idea what it was. I was intent on the heroine’s journey and expected from the specificity of the name that her reason for stopping there meant something. Instead, it was local color. (And, as a lookup showed, it’s spelled in all caps.)

The author solved the problem with: “At a BI-LO grocery store, a chain we don’t have in New England, I picked up a few provisions for snacks and breakfast.”

Simple and unobtrusive; no need for reader to pause and scratch head.

Unsafe assumptions

This author and I have worked together over many years, so we both felt free to discuss these topics in depth (and yes, she gave permission to quote her in this essay). In our discussions, certain broader but related points came to the surface.

In one message she pointed out: “If anyone is confused … they can figure it out or not. Plus, if you read on a Nook or Kindle, you can highlight the word and look it up there and then, or, as I often do, use your smartphone.”

Ah — there’s some of the problem’s origin: What an author assumes about readers may not be true. Part of the transition between writing a story and selling it is making the psychic shift between author intent and reader reception. This nexus is the twitchy space that editors occupy.

Both editors and authors have to remember that, even in today’s tech-smart world, many readers still read print books, and have no interest in getting up from their comfortable chairs, moving to their computers (if they have one — not everybody does), and going online to look up a confusing detail. What a great way to break their focus on a story! That isn’t something a savvy author (or editor) wants to do to a reader.

Some readers keep a notepad beside their reading spot and jot a list of new terms to look up afterward. That’s a good way to learn from novels, but not everybody does this. Other readers are happy to pause while reading to check something, while others let unknowns roll by. It all depends on the individual, as well as the number of times they’re left in the dark.

An author has to decide which and how many of these occasions matter. My client made her personal position plain: “How did I ever learn much of anything? By finding words or objects I didn’t recognize in text and then looking them up. Thus, I feel perfectly comfortable with these mentions. … We either skip over what we don’t know — nouns and verbs as well as others — or look them up. How did I learn what defenestration was? I looked it up. Fin de siècle? I looked it up, although I had to ask a French speaker for the correct pronunciation. That term is so much more descriptive than to say ‘the end of the nineteenth century’ … because it describes a glittering lost world, totally defining a time and place. … These descriptions, if you know them, are iconic. It’s the difference between someone having an iPhone and someone having an Android. A very big gap culturally and philosophically. I think it is okay for that stuff to go over some people’s heads and not others. Some people will see the word iPhone and think, mobile phone, and some people will see it and conjure the person (in their mind) who carries it — hip and pretty culturally savvy. Whether that is true or not, as a writer I’m using it.”

The last line exemplifies the author–editor relationship. Ultimately, the story belongs to the author and the editor can only query. There’s no right or wrong. But that’s what editors are here for: to check whether an element is a technical problem or part of the author’s creative voice. It’s all about confirming that authors are truly saying what they want to say.

Whose job is whose

The takeaway is: Authors, let it rip during the draft. When you review your work, pause and consider each proper noun or specialized term. Your editor is professionally obliged to look them up, if only to confirm the spelling; your readers, however, need to grasp the point you’re seeking to make. They want to learn new things and to learn about your characters, but they generally don’t want to stop reading or work hard to do so. If you are using technical, regional, cultural, or other special words, make sure that somewhere close to first mention, you drop in a phrase or sentence — paragraph, if necessary — that will put the detail in context. Your job is to keep readers in the story.

Editors, pause and consider each proper noun and unfamiliar term — not only to confirm the spelling, but to evaluate its universality. Does it support the story and enrich character or place, or does it come from the author writing too narrowly within their frame of reference? When in doubt, query. All that has to be achieved is for you to think about the term and make an an informed decision. Your job is to stand in for future readers and help them stay engrossed in your story — to keep those “Huh?” moments to a minimum.

(A different version of this article appeared at a client’s website. Copyright remains with the author.)

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 her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at the New York Journal of Books, and has presented about editing fiction at the Communication Central conference.

November 28, 2019

Thankful at Thanksgiving

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

By Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

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

November 25, 2019

On the Basics — Techniques for effective headlines

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

By Ruth E. Thaler-Carter,

Owner, An American Editor

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

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

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

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

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

Why the changes?

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

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

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

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

What works in headlines?

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

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

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

Capital approaches

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

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

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

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

November 20, 2019

On the Basics — Staying productive during the holidays

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

By Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

Owner, An American Editor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 18, 2019

Are Authors and Editors “Imposters”?

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

By Carolyn Haley

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

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

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

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

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

It’s enough to make anyone feel insecure!

How circumstances contribute

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Succeeding through the paradoxes

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

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

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

A pathway to confidence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 5, 2019

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

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

By Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

Owner, An American Editor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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