An American Editor

May 4, 2020

Navigating that Request for Proofreading When the Work Really Needs Editing

By Richard Bradburn, Guest Writer

As professional editors, we’ve all had them — the inquiry that arrives in your inbox: “I’ve written my first novel and my wife/partner/best friend/dog told me it’s really good. I can’t wait to publish it but I read somewhere that you should always get books proofread first. Can you give me a quote?”

I’ll assume that we agree you need to see the manuscript to give a definitive quote. You let the prospective client know and receive it by return e-mail. You open the manuscript. It begins with a prologue — a 20-page dream sequence set in cursive. Skipping most of that, you start the book proper. There are five chapters of exposition and world-building before the main character is introduced. Skim-reading further, you see evidence of point-of-view fails, pacing issues, generally poor sentence structure and grammar, and atrocious punctuation.

What to do?

The potential client has asked for a proofread, but in your professional opinion, the book is nowhere near ready for proofreading. It needs some serious copyediting and, your editorial hunch is telling you, probably some major structural surgery.

It may be that if you primarily work, even freelance, for publishing companies, you haven’t faced this dilemma. I’d imagine that someone further up the production chain has assessed what help the author needs and sent the book to you for the appropriate editing. However, it’s a common situation for those of us at the sharp end of the fiction universe who are dealing largely with authors who have no prior experience of the publishing industry or the editing process, and little or no realistic concept of how high the bar should be set if you are producing work for sale.

What follows with the client is a rather delicate dance of managing expectation and massaging ego for the author, and securing the right commission for yourself. I’ve developed a … I hesitate to say method, because that smacks of science … a strategy, if you like, for dealing with the issue.

You could just go ahead and proofread the manuscript (for a monstrous fee). It’s what the client has asked for. There are two issues with this.

One is reputational. If you proofread a shockingly poorly written book, there’s always the chance that it will come back to bite you. Asking the author to kindly not mention that you had anything to do with their masterpiece is all very well, and they may not put you in the front matter, but you have no control over what they say about you in the wider world. The book is going to do very badly, the author isn’t going to understand why (“I spent a lot of money on editing!”) and is probably, given their unenlightened attitude to publishing generally, going to look for someone else to blame. That could well be you. The author might have no great expectations, is happy with a few sales, and brags on social media about what a super editor they had. Other potential clients, perhaps with more idea about what a good book should look like, will look it up and … that’s the end of that potential client relationship.

The second problem is that it’s darned hard to proofread a terribly written book. Ask me how I know. It’s extremely slow, very frustrating and, at the end of it, demoralizing because you know that the end product is still going to be awful, no matter how diligently you work away. It’s also very hard to prevent mission creep from turning the proofread into a copyedit, for which you’re not being paid.

What are your options? You can come straight out with it: “This book isn’t ready for proofreading, because of x, y, and z issues. I suggest developmental (“structural”/“line” — whatever your terminology) editing to start, followed by copyediting …” It’s a tough call, but I’d suggest this is a poor way to start this delicate conversation. You’re giving the author lots of negatives. You’re telling them you’re not going to do what they ask. You’re telling them that their book needs substantial revision/rewriting when they thought they were a few weeks away from publishing. You’re telling them that fixing their book is going to be a lot more expensive than they thought, and require much more work on their part. You’re telling them, fundamentally, that they can’t write for <insert suitable expletive>, and that their relationship with you is going to be an intense and ongoing and expensive one, which they may not have been expecting.

You could just say, in as kindly a way as possible, that the book isn’t ready for editing, and the author should attend some writing classes, or join a local (or virtual) critique group and come back when they’ve gotten better at their craft. There are ways to phrase this so the author isn’t too crushed, but how helpful is that advice, really? Unless the author is local to you, you have no way of knowing what local classes the author has access to, whether the author can afford them, and whether those resources are any good.

As a freelancer, another issue is that you’re essentially rejecting this client. The manuscript might be such a horror show turning it down is an agreeable outcome for you, but let’s say that times are tight and you don’t want to flatly turn away any lead. How do you keep them engaged in your process, but start to realign their expectations?

My first step is always the same: Whenever you ask for the manuscript, always ask for a synopsis as well. A synopsis will tell you far more about the client and the book than actually reading their manuscript (that’s why agents and publishers insist on them in submission packages). With very little investment of your time, you can establish whether the client knows anything about novel structure, whether the characters have any discernible arc, and how distinct and cohesive the plot is. Even the very existence of a well-written synopsis tells you a lot about the client and their ambition, because synopses are hard to write. An author who has written one has read up about submission packages, has gone at least a little way down the path of analyzing their work as a reader would, and has put some thought into their character, plot lines, and overall structure.

This client is eminently worth pursuing, because an ambition to learn their craft is the one thing it’s particularly hard to instill remotely. If they have no synopsis and can’t be bothered to write one, my instinct would be to let that client go for the reputational and operational risks mentioned above. Money talks, but it would have to be shouting for me to take on that project. If they have no synopsis now but send one in later, and it’s a dreadful rambling mess, then at least you know where you stand: They are capable of taking instruction, they’re willing to learn, and they might prove to be a valued long-term client.

Armed with this information, you can begin the process of educating that author about how much work is going to be involved in molding their book into publishable material. If you have blog/website resources of your own, you can refer that author to articles you’ve written about plot structure or character arcs. If blogging isn’t your thing, there may be other resources written by editor peers that you can refer your client to (the “Talking Fiction” essays here at An American Editor, about editing fiction, would be a good starting point).

The big difference is that now this author is your client. You’ve established quietly and authoritatively your expert credentials, given them guidance, started them down a long road toward publication. You can send this client off anywhere on the web, but they will keep coming back to you because you are now, without really much effort on your part, their writing coach.

Why bother? Because ultimately you have no idea how far, under your tutelage and encouragement, this author might blossom into a productive, well-trained, and lucrative client.

I have one resource I’d like to offer: my book, Self-editing for Self-publishers. It’s a pretty comprehensive guide to all the major stumbling blocks that novice (and some even not so novice) authors have problems with: plot structure, character issues, point of view problems, etc. It also provides thorough explanations of common punctuation and grammar mistakes. I had never thought of marketing it to editor peers (I doubt there’s anything in it that a good fiction editor wouldn’t know already), but one of them who helped at the beta reading stage pointed out that it’s an ideal tool for exactly this situation. What if you really don’t want to engage in those long-winded e-mail coaching conversations that you may not have the appetite for and that have an uncertain financial payback? Tell your author, “Go buy this book. Work through it. When you’ve finished it, come back to me and we’ll have another look.” It’s the “silver bullet” that could save you an enormous amount of time and effort, and bring you a commission that you really want, rather than are struggling to avoid.

Richard Bradburn runs editorial.ie, a full-service literary consultancy. He’s a Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editors and Proofreaders in the UK; member of the Association of Freelance Editors, Proofreaders and Indexers in Ireland; partner member of ALLi; and approved supplier to Publaunch. He writes occasionally for the Irish Times and journals like The Arts and Letters Daily, and regularly talks about writing and editing at conferences in the UK and Europe.

April 27, 2020

On the Basics — Contracts, pro and con

By Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

Lately, I’ve been seeing a lot of questions about contracts between authors and editors (or other editorial freelancers and other prospective clients) — should we use them, what should go into them, how do we implement them, do we need attorneys to create them, and so on and so on.

Plenty of editors say they’ve never needed contracts in their work with individual authors. I’m glad for them; I’ve also had good luck with clients who didn’t have contracts and whose projects went smoothly enough that I didn’t regret not asking them to sign one of my own. For the most part, though, I think it’s smart to have something along the lines of a contract between service provider (editor) and client (author, publisher, organization, publication, company, university, etc.).

The con

One reason, and probably the only valid reason, not to have a contract for working with a new client is that some people are scared off by the very concept of “a contract.” It seems so … legalistic … so serious … so untrusting or suspicious. Asking for or offering a contact apparently comes across as expecting problems to arise at some point in the relationship.

One of the telecommunications companies even uses that perspective by boasting that they don’t require contracts for their services, making it look like an advantage for the consumer over providers that do. The problem? The consumer doesn’t have any protection against rate increases, service reductions and other issues that can arise during the life of the relationship.

The pro

And there’s the concern: Not having a contract with a client means that neither party has any protection in case there’s a problem. It can be worth the effort to explain to a reluctant client that a contract protects both you and the client. It gives you protection against the client not paying, paying very slowly or adding to the project without additional compensation, among other potential issues, but it also protects the client against the freelancer not doing the work as expected. Not that any of us would do that, of course, but it’s something to use to reassure the client.

The process

With the disclaimer that I am not an attorney, the good news is that a contract doesn’t have to be complicated or heavily legalistic. It can take the form of a letter of agreement or a checklist, or even a confirming e-mail message. You can ask the client to sign and return the agreement, or use language like “Unless I hear otherwise by Date X, this will constitute our agreement/contract.”

And speaking of e-mail, a contract nowadays doesn’t have to be on paper. A chain of e-mail messages describing the project and setting out and agreeing to the parameters can be treated as a contract. Just be sure to include language like “As we discussed and agreed, I will do such-and-such for this amount by that date …” — and to save those back-and-forth messages, just in case.

Contract details

What should go into a contract for editing services? Here’s a checklist I use to identify what I’m expected to do (for writing assignments, I include number of interviews and who provides the interview sources).

Genre

Scope (topic and length)

Fee or rate (per hour, word, page, project, etc.)

Definition of page

Payment policy and timing

Deadline(s)

Number of passes

Number of revisions (for writing projects)

Fee or rate for additional work beyond original scope

Expenses

Mediation jurisdiction if any problems

What you don’t need or should try not to agree to

One reason contract questions come up is the increasing tendency of clients to include draconian terms in current contracts, especially businesses and companies that aren’t used to working with freelance editors. The most-common one is expecting the freelancer or independent contractor to have liability insurance. Something like errors and omissions coverage might make sense for an investigative journalist, but editors rarely need something like liability coverage. That kind of policy is usually intended for situations where the contractor works onsite at the client’s office or property, uses heavy equipment on the client’s behalf or project, has subcontractors, and otherwise is likely to have access to the client’s information or property.

Accepting liability for your work is especially an issue for writers, editors and even proofreaders, because other people are likely to change (or not accept) what you submit. The publication process is fluid and involves people we never meet; even printers/production people have been known to introduce changes — and, unintentionally, errors — after an editor or proofreader signs off and gets paid for our role. We can’t be responsible for what happens made after we finish our part of the project.

Pointing out that you are a sole proprietor who works from home and doesn’t use heavy equipment or subcontractors can help carry the day when you’re asked to provide liability insurance to a client. If they still insist, add the cost to your contract and include language to the effect that you aren’t responsible for any changes made to your version of the material.

Authors new to the publishing process also might ask you to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). These are usually benign and more valuable as assurance for an author that an editor won’t steal their precious words for some reason than for any other reason; they generally commit you to not telling the world all about the author’s work, or perhaps that you worked on their manuscript. If you’d rather not sign an NDA, you could point out that any editor who would violate an author’s trust in such a way wouldn’t stay in business for very long.

What you don’t want to sign is a non-compete agreement that limits how you can use your skills with new clients in the future, even the near future. Signing such an agreement can lock you out of doing similar work for similar (or any!) clients, which would interfere with your ability to pursue your career or business.

Protecting yourself

You might not need a formal contract of your own that’s packed with dense, incomprehensible legalese, but you at least need someone with legal knowledge to rely on when a prospective client offers a contract that seems impenetrable. It’s one thing to say, “Read any contract before signing it.” It’s another to actually read and understand some of these documents.

My attorney is an old friend from back in high school whose practice is in intellectual property, copyright and contracts. I have her look over any contract or NDA that I’m asked to sign; we swap services, but it would be worth whatever she would charge if I were paying for her help. If you don’t know anyone who would be willing to review contracts for you, check with your local bar association or chapter of Lawyers for the Arts; some professional organizations also have legal services where one consultation is free, or there’s a substantial discount on an initial request. Such reviews shouldn’t cost much, and any expense is deductible at tax time.

For a template or boilerplate language, look to professional organizations and online resources like LegalZoom. Pick one and tailor it to your needs and each project.

The ideal resource

You don’t have to take my word for any of this, and you can get a lot more advice from colleagues Dick Margulis and Karin Cather from their book, The Paper It’s Written On: Defining Your Relationship with an Editing Client. That’s a must-have for every editor’s bookcase — and well worth having no matter what kind of editorial or publishing work you do.

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, which was founded by Rich Adin. 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), sponsored by An American Editor, and (still) planned this year for October 2–4 in Baltimore, MD. She can be reached at Ruth@writerruth.com or Ruth.Thaler-Carter@AnAmericanEditor.com.

April 20, 2020

Thinking Fiction: The Three Bottom-line Facts of Writing and Publishing Novels

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By Carolyn Haley

Over the years, my editing enterprise has evolved so that most of my clients are now indie authors. A high percentage of them are first-time novelists. Some have done their homework and understand what to expect from editing and publishing; for others, it falls on me to help them align their expectations with reality as part of the job.

To date, I haven’t worked with an author who doesn’t desire to publish. The biggest idea that most new authors aren’t prepared for is the psychological transition from the personal art experience of writing to the impersonal business of publishing.

In other words, once their book is out of their hands, it becomes an object.

This is why I routinely convey these three facts that novelists must understand and accept if they want to publish:

  1. It’s your story, your voice, your work.
  2. Writing is a craft as well as an art.
  3. Once your book leaves your hands, it becomes a consumer product.

Owning one’s work

If I had a dime for every time I’ve tried to convince a new author that their voice and efforts are legitimate, I’d be a wealthy woman!

So many new authors apologize for themselves, comparing their stories, their years (or not) of writing, their personalities, to people who are prominently successful. They do not believe their voices or ideas can compete on that level, or even have merit. They put too much importance on what other people — including me as an editor — think of their efforts, considering each step of the writing process to be an exercise of judgment, usually against them.

Some do go the other way and think that every syllable that comes out of their pen or keyboard is a priceless pearl, but I rarely get those folks as clients. Usually they fall into the insecure camp.

That’s when I emphasize that the story is their own: their idea, their voice, their art/craft work. Not mine. My job is to help them tell the story so it’s coherent and accessible to the largest number of readers, particularly the desired audience.

The author’s job is to believe in their story, and believe that somebody out there wants to read it and will understand it. Whether that’s a single person or a million people depends on what the book is and through what channel it is made public. The bottom line never changes: You must get the right book into the right person’s hands on the right day. I, the editor, might not be that right person, but I believe every client’s book is the right book for someone.

The book has to be as smooth and tight as it can be before it’s passed around — and therein lies part of the problem. It’s hard for new authors to grasp that every story can be written dozens, sometimes hundreds, of different ways. Just ask anyone who has recast their novel over and over again in response to personal drive, beta reader feedback, or editorial direction. Sometimes the biggest problem is knowing when to stop!

Ultimately, what makes a story uniquely the author’s is how it’s expressed. Just like snowflakes and fingerprints, no two authors’ voices are the same. Even if someone is retelling a classic fairy tale and the story itself is unoriginal, the way an author writes it is what counts. (This is the basis of copyright protection.)

Aside from that legal aspect (a work is protected by copyright from the moment it comes into existence), it’s the author’s responsibility to establish and hold boundaries for their work. Some boundaries are intangible, like accepting or rejecting influence, while others are concrete, like contract terms. Authors need to know themselves well, believe in their work, and be clear about their goals if they want to survive the transition between writing a novel and publishing it.

Writing is a craft as well as an art

The first thing most new authors need to understand is that only the tiniest percentage of writers get their novels shipshape in one draft; in fact, I would be surprised if anyone publishes a first version unless, perhaps, they’re self-publishing and think their work doesn’t need at least a critique if not editing (and proofreading). The rest of us need help somewhere along the line. The old saying “can’t see the forest for the trees” applies here, in that it’s nigh impossible to perceive both overview and detail at the same time: A writer is usually so intimately involved in creating their story world that they can’t detach enough to perceive the package in the same way as an outsider would. That’s why writers need beta readers and editors. Those other eyes see what the author can’t. Ideally, the multiple perspectives of beta readers, an editor, and a proofreader (again, at the least) combine to make a novel the best it can be.

Having the flaws in one’s work pointed out is a hurtful experience. Some writers can’t take this and either skip the help phase or get so defensive about it that they draw their boundaries too tightly and reject every suggestion. Others writers swing the opposite way and revise to accommodate every person’s preferences. That rapidly becomes a merry-go-round they can’t get off, and might result in the book getting worse instead of better. Savvy writers manage their emotional reactions and take what they need from the feedback, reject the rest, and move on toward their writing and publishing goals.

Savvy writers also recognize that every reader will have a different reaction to every story, whether it’s their mother, an agent, an editor, a paying customer, or a reviewer. Pleasing all of them can’t be done, so it’s not worth trying.

Authors must bother, instead, to get their vision translated into clean, coherent prose and structure so the most readers possible will be able to understand and embrace it. Authors must figure out who they want to connect with and aim their fine-tuning efforts at that audience.

Books are consumer products

Authors who seek traditional publishing will likely have to compromise somewhere, and face the prospect that they could lose control over their work if they don’t read the fine print in a contract. Once they’ve signed with an agent or publishing house, they can’t change their mind without consequences.

Their personal boundaries, then, must be solidly understood internally before they reach out to others. I advise authors to look at their boundaries in light of their goals, and be prepared to think hard about what they want so they can respond appropriately when faced with hard choices. They have to be prepared to accept the consequences any time they stick to their guns, and not play the blame game. It’s their book, and they are ultimately responsible for its fate through saying yes or no at decision points.

The upside of hard choices is the gain that can come from pain. Commonly, the character, plot, or plausibility point causing the strongest reader or editor objection (and the most distress in the author at the thought of changing or cutting it) came from the author’s heart and feels vital to the story. They need to own this problem and solve it by one of two means: (1) Dig deep into their creativity and figure out how to make the problem point work to mutual satisfaction, or (2) just delete the problem (an action known as “killing your darlings”) and then use it in another work. Sometimes problem parts truly are extraneous — something the author loves that just doesn’t serve the story. It also might be that they only need to solve a craft issue, and doing so will set the art free.

Subjectivity

Just because a person writes something with all their heart and soul doesn’t mean it’s any good. “Good” is a subjective judgment, of course, based on other people’s tastes, but it’s also a technical judgment, based on coherence and convention. A small percentage of the reading public is open to experimental material or has a high tolerance for sloppy presentation if something else grips their attention — characters, story line, relevance. The rest expect novels to follow certain standards of story structure, language use, and genre tropes, and they don’t want to see typos or poor grammar, punctuation, and spelling, or boring info dumps, or unbelievable characters and situations. It’s an insult to readers to foist immature work upon them. They want the best a writer can do.

Therefore, authors who desire good sales and reviews must study writing and story craft as well as find someone who knows what they’re doing to review the manuscript and help polish it. Rare is the writer who has all the skills needed to conceive and execute a story for hundreds of pages so other people can get lost in reading it. The greater a writer’s experience, the less they have to learn and compromise; but until that experience has been attained, the writer must expect to work long and hard, and receive some negative results along the way to success.

 

In all the arts (writing, painting, dance, music, sculpture, drama), a common wisdom is, “You have to know the rules to break them.” Knowing the rules is craft. Knowing when to break them is art. Writers who don’t know the rules — who think art alone will carry their work to acclaim — generally don’t succeed to their satisfaction. To avoid that, they must do their homework, and allow people who are farther along the path to help. That’s how the successful folks become successful. Learning to write is a continuum, and a given author is at their own point along it, always seeking to advance along the line. There is no ultimate point of achievement, only process and evolution.

The impersonality of being an object

Many people liken writing a book to having a baby, and revising it to raising a child. Publishing a book is like pushing a fledgling out of the nest to fly or fall. The author might retain a connection to the creature they’ve created, but at some point, it becomes an independent entity that will leave them behind.

That phase begins the moment they let another person read the manuscript. What lived privately in their head becomes an object vulnerable to other people’s perceptions. The only way to prevent this is to keep the manuscript in a drawer. It’s shocking to learn how differently other people will interpret what seems to clear to the writer, or that they will react opposite to what the author intended. Depending on what they wrote, how they wrote it, who reads it, the author’s relationship to them, and how adept the responder is at couching critique in technical rather than personal terms will determine how well the book (and author) weathers exposure.

Editors, unlike most beta readers, are trained to view a book in craft and marketplace terms, and their job is to analyze the forest while an author is focused on the trees (and vice versa). For self-publishing authors, editors are the test readers before a novel hits the public. They help finesse an author’s work and advance it toward the publishing goals. The keyword here is help. Editorial feedback helps authors make the technical and psychic transitions to understanding their book as a product — the result of art and craft honed for reception in the wider world. Once money enters the equation, either going out or coming in, an author’s art becomes a consumer product.

When consumers read an author’s acknowledgments in a published book, they usually see a list of folks who contributed to the project. “It takes a village” is a common theme. Authors who seek help, love help, accept help, reach their goals. Authors who spurn it usually don’t. That’s why it’s important to understand the reality rules of writing and publishing. Authors who own their work, ask for and accept help with it, and recognize that it will become something beyond them, for better or worse, usually get where they want to go.

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.

October 12, 2019

Saving the world from major typos

By Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, AAE Owner

One of the delights of hosting a conference for colleagues is the opportunity not just to meet and connect with people in person, but to share anecdotes about our business adventures, challenges and successes. In conversations during the opening day of Gateway to Success, this year’s Communication Central/NAIWE Be a Better Freelancer® conference,  I had a chance to reminisce (and chuckle) over what I consider my two major contributions to civilization through a sharp editorial eye. You might get a kick out of them — and have similar triumphs to share!

The first involved a visit home to Rochester, NY, years ago to see my parents. I had only officially been working in editing for a while, but had always had a pretty good eye for errors. I was driving past the park near our family home when I focused on the huge granite sign with letters at least a foot high, literally carved in stone, and realized that it said COBBS HILL RESEVIOR.

Now, that sign had been there for a long, long time. I can’t tell you how long, but it seemed like something that had always been there. I had walked, driven or taken a bus past it zillions of times, but never really looked at it until that moment. And I guess no one else had, either!

I called the city parks department, public works and I think the mayor’s office, trying to find someone, anyone, to report this to (this was long enough ago to predate e-mail, websites, etc., although I really wish it didn’t; I’d love to have had a photo for Facebook!). I don’t remember who I finally reached, but the next time I came home, presto: Somehow, the stone sign had been fixed! I think there was a plaque of some sort covering the original carving, but however it was done, I can say that I helped fix a typo that was … carved in stone. And my correction also had that standing!

The other was almost as satisfying, if not as permanent or visible. When Wayne-the-Wonderful and I went to Rochester for our wedding (I always wanted to be married at my parents’ house), we went to the town hall for our marriage license. I started to sign the form, but couldn’t help actually reading the thing. And … I found several typos. In the official marriage license form that had been used by the town, and possibly other New York locations around the state, for quite a few years.

I said to the town clerk, “I can’t sign this. It has typos in it.” “But that’s our official form.” “I understand that, but I can’t have typos in my marriage license. I’m a professional writer and editor, and I just can’t do that.”

This went on for several minutes, with Wayne not knowing whether to laugh, cry or leave; probably wondering what kind of a persnickety nut he was planning to marry, but prepared to stand by me as needed. I finally marked the errors and said, pleasantly but firmly, “Our wedding is on Saturday morning. I don’t care how you do it, but we’ll be back at 9:10 a.m. on Friday, and I expect to have a marriage license with no errors in it that we can sign. We’ll see you then. Thank you.”

Sure enough, when we went back at the end of the week, there was a corrected certificate for us to sign. It was my understanding that they typed up a fresh copy (this was before the days of MicroSoft Word) and used it as the new master for the license. No one else might ever have noticed, or cared, but I am proud to be responsible for — AFAIK — the town of Brighton in Rochester, NY, providing couples with error-free marriage licenses from that point on.

We all catch errors that affect meaning and comprehension, and that would have made our clients look foolish at best to their reading publics (my favorite in the more-common arena of catching errors in publications was noticing a reference to “food panties” in an article about food pantries (not edible underwear). Not many of us have the opportunity to see our work carved in stone or be responsible for fixing something as important as a marriage license. Such moments are wonderful personal triumphs that make all the hassles, arguments over usage and frustrations worthwhile.

What momentous edits have you made? Tell us about it!

July 3, 2019

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

By Richard Adin

In the early years of my freelance editing career, I joined the EFA (Editorial Freelancers Association) as a way to “meet,” via its chat list, other freelance editors. One thing that struck me was how united — except for me and a very few others — EFA members were in their approach to the business of editing. We outliers viewed our chosen career as a business, while most of our colleagues viewed what they did as more like art; that is, they paid as little attention as possible to the business side of freelancing and as much as possible to the skill (editorial) side.

There were many discussions about financial struggles, poor pay, added tasks, multiple passes, and the like. There were few discussions (and very few discussants) regarding advertising, promotion, business practices, calculating what to charge, negotiating — any of the business-side skills. And when business-oriented discussions did start, they often ended quickly because colleagues piled on about how craft was so much more important than something as pedestrian as business and money.

As I said, I was an outlier. For me, it was about the Benjamins (the money). Freelancing was my full-time job — my only source of income. I had a mortgage to pay and two children to feed, clothe, keep healthy, and school. I had no trust fund or wealthy relative who couldn’t wait to send me money on a regular basis. Although how well I edited was very important to both myself and my clients, the money was equally important to me.

I recognized from the start that if I didn’t pay close attention to the business side of freelancing, my family and I would be in trouble. When my son needed $5,000 worth of dental work, it was my job to make sure he got it. It was not my job to tell the dentist, “Sorry, but I am an artisan without sufficient income to pay for your services.” When it came time for college, it was my job to try to get my children through with minimal or no debt for them to deal with upon graduation. And this doesn’t even address such things as providing for my retirement or providing health insurance and auto insurance and the myriad other things that are part of modern life.

In other words, for me, it was all about the Benjamins in the sense that my editorial work could not be viewed through rose-colored glasses as if the only thing that mattered was artisanship.

Which brings me to the point of this essay: EditTools 9 and the project management macros that are part of the just-released EditTools 9 (www.wordsnSync.com).

In Business, Data Drive Success

What seems a lifetime ago, I wrote a series of essays for An American Editor about calculating pricing and why it is important not to look at rate surveys or ask colleagues for guidance (see, for example, the five-part essay “What to Charge,” beginning with Part I, and “The Quest for Rate Charts.” ) Yet, when I go to chat lists like Copyediting-l, it is not unusual to find colleagues asking “What should I charge?” or “What is the going rate?” Nor is it unusual to see a multitude of responses, not one of which is really informative or meaningful for the person who asked the question.

When I meet or speak with colleagues and these questions come up, I usually ask if they have read my essays (some yes, some no) and have ever actually gathered the data from their own experiences and used that data to calculate their personal required Effective Hourly Rate (rEHR) and their actual EHR, both for a project and over the course of many projects. Nearly universally, the answer to the latter questions (about data collection, rEHR, and EHR) is “no.” Why? Because “it is too much effort” or “the XYZ rate chart says to charge X amount” or “I can’t charge more than the going rate.”

But here are the problems: If you don’t collect the data,

  • you can’t determine what you are actually earning (as opposed to what you are charging; you can be charging $3 per page but actually earning $45 per hour, or you can be charging $5 per page but actually earning $9.25 per hour);
  • you can’t know what is the best way to charge to maximize your EHR for the kind of projects you do;
  • you can’t determine whether some types of work are more profitable for you than other types; and
  • you can’t easily determine what to bid/quote when asked for a bid/quote for a new project.

Ultimately, if you don’t know your rEHR, you don’t know if you are making money or losing money because you have nothing to compare your EHR against.

It is also important to remember that there are basically two ways to charge: by the hour or not by the hour (per word, per page, per project). Although many editors like to charge by the hour, that is the worst choice because whatever hourly rate you set, that is the most you can earn. In addition, it is not unusual to start a project and suddenly find that it is taking you less time — or more — to work than originally expected. If you charge by the hour and it takes less time than originally thought, you lose some of the revenue you were expecting to earn; if it takes more time, and assuming nothing has changed, such as the client making additional demands, you run up against the client’s budget. I have yet to meet a client with an unlimited budget and who doesn’t rebel against the idea that you quoted 100 hours of work but now say it will take 150 hours and expect the client to pay for the additional 50 hours.

However, to charge by something other than the hour requires past data so you can have some certainty, based on that past experience, that you can earn at least your rEHR and preferably a much-higher EHR. The way it works is this:

If you charge $3 per page for a 500-page project, you know you will be paid $1,500. If your rEHR is $30, you also know that you have to complete the job in no more than 50 hours. If you can complete the job in 40 hours, the client still pays $1,500 because the fee is not tied to the time spent but to the page count, and your EHR is $37.50. If you were charging by the hour and charged your rEHR of $30, you would be paid $1,200 — a $300 revenue loss.

All of this is based on knowing your data. During my years as a freelancer, I accumulated reams of data. The data were not always well-organized or easy to access until I got smarter about how track the information, but it was always valuable. Within months of first collecting data, I learned some valuable things about my business. I learned, among many other things, that for me (I emphasize that this applies solely to me and my experience):

  • medical textbooks earned a higher EHR than any other type of project;
  • charging by the page was better than charging hourly;
  • calculating a page by number of characters rather than words was better;
  • high-page-count projects that took months to complete were better than low-page-count projects (I rarely edited books of fewer than 3,000 manuscript pages and usually edited texts ranging between 5,000 and 7,500 manuscript pages; I often edited books that ran between 15,000 and 20,000+ manuscript pages);
  • working directly with an author was highly problematic and to be avoided;
  • limiting my services to copyediting was best (I phased out proofreading and other services);
  • working only with clients who would meet my payment schedule was best;
  • saying no, even to a regular, long-time client, was better for business than saying yes and not doing a topnotch job because I hated the work.

I also learned that investing in my business, such as spending many thousands of dollars to create and improve EditTools, paid dividends over the long term (the more-important term).

And I learned a lesson that many editors don’t want to accept: that sometimes you lose money on a project, but that is no reason not to try again. Too many editors have told me that when they have charged by a non-hourly method, they lost money, so they returned to hourly charging. How they know they lost money, I do not know, because they had no idea what their rEHR was, but their assumption was that if they earned less than they would have had they charged by the hour, they lost money. This is not only incorrect thinking, it is short-term thinking.

Such decisions have to be made based on data. Because collecting and analyzing accurate data is a stumbling block for many editors, EditTools 9 includes the Time Tracker project management macro, discussion of which will begin in Part 2 of this essay.

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

May 24, 2019

Thinking Fiction: Protecting an Editor’s Rights — If Any

By Carolyn Haley

A subject that comes up from time to time in publishing circles is whether an editor has any copyright interest in an author’s manuscript — that is, the edited version of the manuscript. Some editors believe the edited version is unique to them and forms a new and different work, which can give them leverage in demanding payment from a recalcitrant party.

I first saw this tactic suggested as a last-ditch measure against publishers that don’t play fair — those that pay late or try not to pay at all. I’ve since seen editors adding language to the same effect in their contracts with independent authors, to protect themselves from clients who change their tune after the job is done and refuse to pay, or take way longer to pay than was agreed. As part of the language, the editor’s claim to having a copyright in the edited version becomes null and void upon receipt of full payment.

In my opinion, attempting to conflate copyright with payment is irrational and unprofessional, regardless of whether a given case is winnable in a court of law. My opinion comes from my combined position as an author, an editor, and a self-employed business entity.

How Copyright Works

Consider first that copyright applies to intellectual property. Per the U.S. Copyright Office, it pertains to “original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression.”

“Original” and “tangible” are the key terms, because ideas themselves are common and fluid, and expressed in myriad ways by myriad people, and have been so over centuries, if not millennia. Copyright law only protects an individual’s unique presentation of an idea, not an idea itself. (Nor are titles protected by copyright.) In addition (italics mine), “copyright infringement occurs when a copyrighted work is reproduced, distributed, performed, publicly displayed, or made into a derivative work without the permission of the copyright owner.”

A work qualifies as derivative “if the changes are substantial and creative, something more than just editorial changes or minor changes. . . . For instance, simply making spelling corrections throughout a work does not warrant a new registration, but adding an additional chapter would.”

With those criteria in mind, how much does an editor have to change in a manuscript before it becomes a different enough “tangible medium of expression” to acquire uniqueness, and thus give the editor a copyright?

How Editing Works

Adjustments in punctuation, spelling, subtleties of phrasing, consistency — the tools of line editing and copy editing — all serve to clarify an author’s unique expression of their ideas, not change them. Perhaps developmental editing can get deep and gnarly enough to significantly change an author’s presentation, but does it change the book’s concept, audience, characters, or plot, or the author’s essential language and style?

If so, then the contract between author and editor should be about co-authorship, not editing.

The main thing to understand is that in an editing job, the author has the right to accept or reject the editor’s changes and suggestions. That gives the author ownership of the content by default. In some draconian contracts out there, an author may have signed away that right and must accept whatever a publisher’s editor or an independent editor does to the work — but in that situation, the author has made a regrettable mistake. In the absence of such contract terms, the agreement between author and editor generally is based on the editor helping improve the author’s work, not alter it.

Understanding Editing vs. Revising

Another argument against claiming copyright of the edited version of a work is the nebulous relationship between editing and revising. A manuscript is a work in progress until it’s locked into its published form and released. Until that point, starting with the first draft, most authors revise their work numerous times, and may have other parties, such as friends, family, colleagues, beta readers, editors, proofreaders, agents, and pre-publication reviewers — paid or unpaid — participate in the process. These helpers, individually and collectively, contribute to a version of the manuscript different from the one before, which is different from the one before, as often as needed to complete and polish the work.

Should each party in that revision cycle get a copyright interest in the work? Should the parties involved in the next cycle supersede them because a new, copyrightable version has been created?

What if the author desires to register their copyright after the first draft? Registration is not required for an author’s copyright to be valid, because copyright is automatically granted the moment a work is “fixed in a tangible medium of expression.” Registration is recommended to protect the author’s interests in the event of a legal challenge, but is not conditional for protection. Nonetheless, many authors register their copyrights because doing so makes them feel more secure. Imagine, then, what the paperwork and costs would be if they had to register every updated version of a work in progress, each one involving different people!

The whole idea is silly, because all editing occurs before a work is deemed complete. As such, it is subsumed into the overall development and revision process. Without a legal structure to define and support the many layers of building a publishable work, and the many people who might be involved, there is no basis for giving anyone but the author a copyright in the work.

The Alternative to Claiming Copyright

Having copyright-related language in editing contracts might be effective with publishing companies that employ accounting departments and lawyers, who fear legal action and can’t or won’t take the time to research the efficacy of defending copyright claims. Such language also might discourage individual authors from playing head games with independent editors.

More likely, the language would chase away independent authors of good will who are paying out of their own pockets for professional editing services, and who desire a personal, supportive, and honest relationship with their editors. Many writers have been coached by other writers or online gurus to fear that editors will steal, or drastically change, their work. Adding the threat of somebody claiming a copyright on their work will just reinforce their anxiety and give them a reason to look elsewhere — or go without editing at all.

In which case, an editor won’t have to worry about getting paid.

Getting paid does remain the bottom line. It can best be assured through transparency and a straightforward contract. My contract states: “Unless a co-authorship arrangement is made in writing, all royalties and monies gained from the sale of the book will be the sole property of the book’s copyright owner. Editor acknowledges no rights to the manuscript beyond the right to withhold delivery of the edited manuscript until final payment for work is received.”

In other words, the politically incorrect expression “no tickee, no shirtee” applies. I consider this a reasonable business position (i.e., I do the work, you pay me for it), and that claiming a copyright for something that isn’t mine is needlessly aggressive. It is also not trustworthy, owing to the copyright claim’s dubious enforceability and the specious element of “oh, that claim disappears as soon as you pay me.”

From an author’s standpoint, I wouldn’t hire an editor who would hang that kind of threat over me. My book is my book, and somebody who thinks they have the right to hijack it is somebody I wouldn’t deal with.

A Balanced Approach

Editing is — or should be — a cooperative profession, not an adversarial one. Editors stating plainly that they expect to be paid are declaring themselves professional businesspeople. Editors stating plainly that they are prepared to co-opt an author’s copyright are inviting trouble. Most publishers and indie authors will pay for services rendered. The minority who won’t pay are the reason that editors consider using the copyright-claiming ploy.

One way to avoid needing such a ploy is to require a deposit before commencing work. This usually isn’t an option for independent editors dealing with publishing companies, which state the terms that editors must take or leave. In such cases, editors need to weigh the pluses and minuses, negotiate the best they can, and be prepared to accommodate a loss should the project go awry.

When making deals with indie authors or amenable companies, however, editors should state their terms and stick to them. I have found that a signed agreement delivered with a 50 percent deposit demonstrates a client’s intention to pay. They go into the deal knowing that I will sit on the finished edit until they pay the balance, and if they don’t pay, they lose the work and have to start all over again.

In the event they don’t pay, I may have wasted time but not suffered a total loss. The less-than-expected final compensation might end up being a painful learning experience, but still, learning can’t be discounted. Meanwhile, I still have something in my pocket to show for the effort.

Nine times out of 10 (more accurately, 9.999 times out of 10), I end up with full payment on time, a happy client, an open relationship, and future work from the client or someone they refer. These benefits come from respecting authors’ work and position, and not messing with their heads. Better yet, their work goes to publication; and with luck and a good story, cleanly edited, they enjoy publishing success. I doubt I would have this track record if I made it a policy to step on their writerly toes.

How many of our readers have invoked copyright claims on edited work with authors who have not paid as promised and planned? Has it worked for you? What other techniques have you used to ensure being paid?

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1997, 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.

May 15, 2019

On the Basics: Rethinking Saving Everything

By Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, AAE Owner

For more years than I can count, I’ve saved everything related to my work: multiple paper copies of published articles and of pre-computer edited and proofread projects; electronic or digital copies from the days of 5 1/4-inch disks to 3.5 diskettes to Syquest and Zip disks to CDs; finished files on both my iMac desktop computer and MacBook Air laptop; cloud storage …

My theory was that we never know when a client might want to redo or update a project, and I wanted to be the freelancer whom my clients could rely on to have old copies of projects at hand, just in case.

I recently changed my mind about this approach. In preparing to move halfway across the country last fall, even though to a larger space, I found myself wanting to scale back on this extensive, bulky, obsessive wealth of backups. I had to empty out file drawers for the movers, and clear stuff off shelves and out of cubbyholes; the more I could get rid of, the more I could save on the move. A light bulb went off: It seems unlikely that anyone would want anything more than a year old, but even if they do, I could keep a paper copy of everything, so I’d be able to scan anything that someone might want, and update old versions in new, current editions of software.

I went through those file cabinets in my home office and weeded out all but one paper copy each of published works. Then I went back and pitched all the loose copies after I remembered that I have a copy of everything in notebooks organized by year and going back to the 1970s, which creates the one paper copy that all that I really need — in these days of websites and online portfolios, there’s rarely a need to send someone a paper copy of a finished project. Although my file cabinet copies were organized by client or publication name and the notebooks are organized by year, I’m pretty sure I can remember at least roughly when I worked with which clients and thus can pull old copies as needed.

Next, I got rid of all paper copies of edited and proofed projects — anyone wanting to update or revise any of those nowadays will send me an electronic file to work on, and a current version is likely to be different from the one I worked on years ago. Even if it’s the still the same, my edits should already have been incorporated, and it would make more sense to reread the current version as if it’s new than to try to copy old edits from the past. The clients should have paper copies of anything not available electronically and also should be the one responsible for scanning paper copies to create new versions.

I wouldn’t use those paper edits in pitching to new clients anyhow, because no one would want their “before” versions made public, even on a limited basis. I don’t need to wonder about that or to have signed anything promising not to show the edited version of a document to anyone other than the client. If a prospective client wants proof of my editing or proofreading skills, I’d rather do a short sample than risk embarrassing a past client by showing what I did on their projects, even if I can hide their names. And my website has (wonderful) testimonials from clients attesting to the value of my skills and services, often more effective than samples.

After trashing all those paper copies, I bagged all the various types of disks and headed to the local recycling center to dispense with those as well. I still have electronic versions of everything that’s a year or so old on my computers and in cloud storage.

I even gave up my dad’s little classic Mac and my ancient Radius CPU, taking those to the recycling center as well (after wiping their hard drives).

It felt wonderfully liberating to clear out so much old material — and saved a bunch of effort in packing, which probably saved some money in the way of moving costs. I’m hoping a client won’t ask for a very old project after all, but I’m prepared to defend not keeping ancient files or copies, and can always photocopy or scan my paper versions from those yearly notebooks.

The next task for the aspiring organizer in me: going through all those old business and tax records to get rid of everything from receipt copies to entire years’ worth of documentation! That will open up an entire bookcase … I won’t know what to do with those empty shelves.

For a little farther down the road, it’s time to clear out old computer files in my e-mail program, Dropbox cloud storage account and project folders on both computers … at least I can never say I have nothing to do!

How have you changed your processes for saving projects and client files?

April 12, 2019

On the Basics: Finding joy in what we do

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

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

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

Sure!

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

Finding joy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Avoiding hassles

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

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

Weeding out the weasels

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

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

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

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

April 8, 2019

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

By Carolyn Haley

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

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

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

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

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

The big three

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

1) Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain

2) On Writing by Stephen King

3) Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card

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

1) Techniques of the Selling Writer

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

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

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

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

2) On Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3) Characters & Viewpoint

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

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

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

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

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

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

Same points, different angles

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

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

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

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

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

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at the New York Journal of Books, and has presented on editing fiction at the Communication Central conference.

March 4, 2019

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

By Carolyn Haley

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

Extra padding

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

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

Loose ends

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

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

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

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

The subjectivity factor

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

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

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

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

The editor’s role

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

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

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

Appreciating the lazy …

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

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books, and has presented on editing fiction at the Communication Central conference.

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