An American Editor

March 21, 2018

On the Basics — Tackling the Other Kind of Writer’s Block

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

There are two kinds of writer’s block. The one most of us are familiar with is when you have trouble starting to write something, whether it’s an assignment or just for yourself. You sit in front of the screen (or at the typewriter, or with your pen and pad; some of us still like the old-style writing implements) and nothing happens. If you write nonfiction, you have interview notes and background material, but you can’t put them together. If you write fiction, your imagination has fled, your ideas have dried up, your characters are flat and stale. Nothing flows. It’s terrifying.

A block can be caused by fear of rejection, feeling intimidated by a prestigious assignment, and any number of other emotional issues. Plenty has been written about overcoming writer’s block. Most suggestions involve stepping away from the project. I don’t avoid writing if I get blocked, though.

I’ve been lucky to rarely experience true writer’s block. I might procrastinate on starting to write something, but that’s a little different from actually being blocked.

The few (thankfully) times I’ve had to cope with traditional writer’s block, the easiest way to break free has been to write a letter, usually to my mother. Even after I moved back to my hometown and there was no need to write letters any longer because she was either across town or right downstairs, and even since she died, I would write letters to her if I couldn’t get started on a writing assignment.

There’s something about writing to someone who will be completely accepting and uncritical that frees up my mind and my muse. After a couple of paragraphs, I’m ready to plunge back into my current assignment and get it done.

Another Type of Block

The writer’s block that is less well-known and less-discussed is one against revision — the inability to rewrite something you’ve actually managed to write. Not so much for yourself, but for an assigning editor or client. I’m lucky again that I’m not often asked to do any major revisions on what I write, but it does happen on occasion, and I hate it.

Once I’ve done my interviewing and research, crafted a draft, edited myself, proofread the result, and sent off the article, I’m done. It’s out of my head and heart. I’m eager to see it in print or online, but I don’t want to revisit it (unless I have ideas for repurposing it somehow). Being asked to revise is frustrating at best and feels impossible at worst.

I’m not talking about minor details where an editor might question a turn of phrase or ask to confirm a factual detail. I’m talking about substantive revision for some reason. Usually that reason is that the editor or publication has decided to take a different angle than originally planned. It isn’t that I didn’t do a good job or didn’t fulfill the requirements of the assignment; it’s that someone wants additional information or to have the information approached from a new direction. (This is when, by the way, contract language protecting against change of scope is invaluable. If I get paid more to do a substantive revision, that helps oil the wheels of my brain and unblock my ability to respond.)

Several years ago, I pitched an article to a magazine for writers that I would love, love, love to be published in. I did something I rarely do: wrote the story and sent it on spec (that is, on speculation — without a contract or agreement, in the hopes it would be accepted; more about that in a future essay). They liked it, but asked for extensive revisions. It’s been sitting in a folder ever since. I was and still am totally stuck; I just can’t wrap my brain around what they want. The problem probably is that the revision request isn’t specific enough for me to respond to it. I can answer actual questions, but taking a whole new approach to the subject seems to have jammed my gears completely.

Every once in awhile, I take out that typewritten manuscript (that should tell you how long ago this happened) and think about re-crafting it for re-submission. I’m not sure if I could even reach the person who was the subject of the article; he might not be alive any longer. The editor who responded to the original submission is no longer at the magazine, which might actually work in my favor; the current editor might like the unrevised version! But the thought of that unfinished, and thus unpublished, piece is like the irritant in the oyster, and I want it to evolve into that bright, beautiful pearl.

It’s quite possible that just writing about how difficult it can be to revise what I thought was a finished work might do the trick and help me find a way into a new version of this article. One approach might be to go back to my original notes and start as if I hadn’t written the first version at all. One can hope.

The Blocked Editor

Writer’s block, obviously, applies to writers — but editors get blocked, too. A very dry or complex manuscript, a first project for a prestigious client, a huge manuscript that takes longer than expected, the need to learn a client’s wacky house style … an editor can get stuck and feel unable to keep going with a demanding project. Even an enjoyable project can push an editor into a work blockage if it collides with something less-interesting to work on, requires using a different style from your usual one, or arrives when you’re struggling with health or personal issues.

Traditional approaches to writer’s block can work for blocked editors.

  • Step away from the computer and your desk or home office, and go out for a walk.
  • Play a game.
  • Treat yourself to a meal or movie with a friend or family member.
  • Switch to another project.
  • Post to a friend’s or colleague’s blog.
  • Spend an hour or two on a craft project.
  • Envision how good it will feel to get it done — or how you will spend the fee.
  • Write a letter to someone.
  • Switch to another project for a while.
  • If the deadline isn’t imminent, give yourself a couple of days or the weekend off.

Just as I was writing the first draft of this post, I got a message from Writer’s Digest magazine with a mention of what might be a useful resource for anyone else stuck in this situation: Write and Revise for Publication by Jack Smith. I just might get a copy and see if it can help. In the meantime, I might take another look at that folder. The subject’s organization doesn’t seem to exist any longer, but maybe I can revise that story and get it out to the world — an updated version might look good to another market entirely.

Have you been blocked on a project? If so, how did you get yourself jump-started so you could finish it up?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter (www.writerruth.com) is the editor-in-chief of An American Editor and an award-winning provider of editorial and publishing services for publications, independent authors, publishers, associations, not-for-profits, and companies worldwide. She also hosts the annual Communication Central “Be a Better Freelancer”® conference for colleagues. Ruth can be contacted at Ruth.Thaler-Carter@AnAmericanEditor.com.

February 7, 2018

Lyonizing Word: Helping Authors Write

Jack Lyon

In my previous post, Lyonizing Word: Workflow for Writing, I suggested some tools that would help authors write without the problems that are almost inevitable when working in Microsoft Word. These include inconsistent and meaningless formatting, document corruption, fouled-up footnotes, incorrect AutoCorrect “corrections,” and so on. Unfortunately, most authors already use Word and aren’t likely to change. How can we, as editors, help them create Word documents that are well-structured and clean, thus reducing our own workload?

Word itself includes a feature that helps make this possible, although I doubt that many editors or authors are even aware of it: Restrict Editing. You’ll find this feature on Word’s Ribbon interface under the Review tab.

What does it do? It prevents authors from using arbitrary, meaningless formatting, applying various fonts in various sizes higgledy-piggledy all over the place as authors are wont to do. The only formatting they can do is with styles — and then only with the styles that you allow. You will like this. And your designer will like this. And your typesetter will like this.

At first, your authors will not like this. But once they understand how it works, they should find great relief in not having to design as well as write. All they have to do — all they can do — is apply a heading style to headings, a block quotation style to block quotations, and so on. They can get on with actually writing, rather than worrying about whether this heading should be bold and that one italic, whether poetry should use Garamond or Palatino. As technical writer Brendan Rowland notes in comment 153 on the blog Charlie’s Diary, “When you’ve worked with locked/protected docs in Word, you’ll never want to work any other way. Life becomes so much easier. No more user-created spaghetti formatting — this becomes a distant memory.”

Restricting Editing

Here’s how to set up a document that restricts editing in Microsoft Word:

  1. In Word, create a new document.
  2. Click the Review tab.
  3. Click the Restrict Editing icon (far right).
  4. Put a check in the box labeled “Limit formatting to a selection of styles.”
  5. Just below that, click Settings.
  6. Put a check in the new box labeled “Limit formatting to a selection of styles.”
  7. Put a check in the box next to each style that you want your authors to be able to use. For recommendations on what those styles might be, see my article “But What Styles?
  8. Under the Formatting heading, make sure the first box is unchecked and the last two are.
  9. Click the OK button.
  10. Now, in the task pane on the right, click the button labeled “Yes, Start Enforcing Protection.”
  11. To enforce protection, enter a password, confirm it, and click OK. The password doesn’t need to be long and complex; it just needs to be something your authors won’t guess and that you will remember. In fact, something as simple as your initials will do. After you’ve entered a password, your authors can’t turn off protection, so it really is protection.
  12. Save the document.
  13. Give the document to your authors, instructing them to write their masterpieces in that document and no other.

Creating Character Styles

There is a problem with this system, however, and it’s a serious one. When you restrict formatting to a selection of styles, Word no longer allows you to use directly applied formatting like italic and bold — styles only, so no CTRL + I for you! The only way around this is to use character styles (not paragraph styles) that are set to use italic, bold, or whatever you need. And here, in my opinion, is what you need:

• Italic.

• Superscript.

• Subscript.

• Strikethrough.

What, no bold? Not unless you’re working with an author whose field requires bold — some branches of math or medicine, perhaps. But for most authors, access to bold means they’ll try to use it to format headings when they should be using a heading style, such as Heading 2 or Heading 3.

What, no underline? Again, not unless you’re working with an author whose field requires it. Otherwise, some authors will use underlining when they should be using italic — a holdover from the days of the typewriter.

Now you need to add the character styles to your document. Here’s how:

  1. For the time being, stop enforcing protection on the document. Otherwise, you won’t be able to create a new style. You remember your password, right?
  2. Click the little arrow at the bottom right of Home > Styles to open the Styles task pane on the right.
  3. At the bottom of the task pane, click the little New Style icon on the bottom left.
  4. Give your style a name, such as Italic.
  5. In the box labeled “Style type,” click the dropdown arrow and select Character. This is key to making this work.
  6. Under Formatting, click the Italic button.
  7. Click the OK button.
  8. Repeat the process for any other character styles your authors will need.
  9. Again enforce protection for the document.

A side benefit to using character styles is that they can be imported into InDesign, where they can be set to use whatever formatting is needed — something that isn’t possible with directly applied formatting like italic or bold.

Creating Keyboard Shortcuts

So now the character styles are available, but only from the Styles task pane. Not very convenient; your authors are going to want their CTRL + I back. Here’s how to provide it:

  1. Under the File tab, click Options > Customize Ribbon.
  2. Click the button labeled “Keyboard shortcuts: Customize” on the bottom left.
  3. In the Categories box on the left, scroll to the bottom and select Styles.
  4. In the Styles box on the right, select the style you created earlier (such as Italic).
  5. Put your cursor in the box labeled “Press new shortcut key” and, well, press a new shortcut key. Let’s use CTRL + I for our italic character style.
  6. Click the dropdown arrow in the box labeled “Save changes in:” and select your document. Now your keyboard shortcut will be saved in the document rather than in your Normal template. Don’t skip this step!
  7. Click the Assign button on the lower left.
  8. Click the Close button on the lower right.
  9. Click the OK button.
  10. Save your document.
  11. Give the document to your authors.

Now when your authors select some text and press CTRL + I, the Italic character style will be applied, so they can work without using the mouse to select the Italic style in the Styles task pane. Easy, intuitive, perfect. Rinse and repeat, with the appropriate keyboard shortcuts, for your other character styles.

At this point, you may be wondering why I didn’t just create this document for you. Stay tuned; next time I will, with a few little extras to make your life easier. But if you ever need to do all of this yourself, now you know how.

Jack Lyon (editor@editorium.com) owns and operates the Editorium, which provides macros and information to help editors and publishers do mundane tasks quickly and efficiently. He is the author of Microsoft Word for Publishing Professionals, Wildcard Cookbook for Microsoft Word, and of Macro Cookbook for Microsoft Word. Both books will help you learn more about macros and how to use them.

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