Monday, May 24, 2010

A good editor is invaluable

Last time, I emphasized the importance of proofreading your work and having a couple of friends double (or triple) check your writing for you. This time I’m talking about something different: editing.

First I think I should probably clarify what I mean when I distinguish between proofreading and editing. Proofreading (or copyediting more specifically, although these terms are used mostly interchangeably nowadays) focuses on correcting incorrect grammar, punctuation, spelling, capitalization, or even formatting. Think of a copyeditor as someone who takes your existing work and, without changing its content or voice, perfects it before it is published. This person’s job is to know how to correct misplaced modifiers, commas, semicolons, and more. Their daily work may also consist of reformatting a manuscript or submission to be ready for print publication, and they may deal with figures, proofs, cover submissions, etc. For one of my jobs, I copyedit scientific journals.

Editing, on the other hand, focuses more on the content of the submission. An editor will be reading for plot holes, continuity, believable characterization, fact-checking, correct terminology, etc. Many large publishing houses have both copyeditors and editors so that the editors do not spend valuable time minutely marking up manuscripts with a red pen; however, many smaller publishing houses do not have the budget for two separate staff members, so some editors function as both copyeditors and editors. In any case, the important part of an editor’s job is reading for content. Good editors, like good copyeditors, will find ways to edit a writer’s work, or ask for revisions, without changing the author’s intended meaning or voice. For my other job, I am an assistant editor for a small, independent publisher.

I hope this is making sense! (If not, please let me know—and feel free to ask whatever questions you have for me. Sometimes the distinction between these terms can be confusing and baffling, so please don’t feel like you’re the only one who needs to ask questions.) Like I said, sometimes these responsibilities may overlap, but they are nonetheless distinct and separate jobs. (Not all copyeditors are good editors, and not all editors are good copyeditors.)

Last time I mentioned beta readers as a great tool for helping you to proofread your work before you send it in (to an agent, an editor, a publisher, etc.). But another great reason to find a few trusted beta readers is that they can (and often do) serve as preliminary editors for you (in addition to serving as proofreaders). Many betas can be invaluable at pointing out plot holes early on or letting you know that they don’t really think Character A, who is typically gentle and timid, would say something so harsh to his mother without being provoked. Just as with checking for grammatical errors, sometimes we as writers can be “too close” to our own work, and we may not catch such inconsistencies. Beta readers, whether they are colleagues, loved ones, or paid freelancers, can do wonders for your work if they have a keen and critical eye.

It is important to know that you can trust your betas to keep your own vision in mind—trust, in any publishing relationship, is vital—and it is also important that you remember your own convictions when you get suggestions back. If you intended for Character A to be acting out of character, then you can safely ignore your beta reader’s request that you “fix” that line (but of course, if this was an accident, thank your beta reader for noticing it!). You don’t need to make every change that an editor asks you to make, but you do need to consider each one carefully and understand why they requested it and why you aren’t making it. If your intended meaning isn’t coming across in the way you thought it would, even if you disagree with their suggested change, perhaps you do need to consider some revisions, even if you are reluctant to put in all that extra effort.

Remember: a good editor is invaluable. Once you’ve found someone who understands your voice and your goals and who can also tackle your work from a critical outsider’s perspective, cling to that beta or editor and never let go!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Proofreading: a gentle reminder

I did say that I was going to write about the merits of editing, didn’t I? Let’s start with proofreading.

Writing is a skill that most people around the world do not have, sadly. Good writing is a skill that is even harder to come by. But good writing that has also been edited and proofread, that has proper punctuation and grammar? Readers, I’ll be honest with you: it’s like finding a rare, precious gemstone in the middle of a dark and lonely forest.

When I’m reading something—whether a scientific article for the one job or a short story for the other—and I come across something that reads fluidly and easily, has no typos or misplaced commas, no fragments or clunky sentences, I can almost hear the heavenly music. I find myself excited beyond all reason, I sigh happily, and I gush about the writing to anyone who wants to listen. (I also tend to respond to these authors with lots of exclamation points! And smiley faces! :-D Because I’m so excited!)

This, unfortunately, happens rarely.

Also fairly unlikely are those who send me horribly unreadable writing: writing that is so filled with spelling errors, random commas, no sense of sentence structure, etc., that I can hardly understand it at all. Like I said, I don’t see these too often (thankfully), because nowadays most people seem to at least know to ask a friend or three to read over their work before sending it in somewhere. (Yes, I realize that this assumes that your friends know about basic grammar rules and the like. Luckily, most of these friends do. Don’t underestimate your friends!) If I can’t even understand your work, writers, it’ll be rejected within moments; if it’s going to take me longer to edit it than it took for you to write it, forget it.

Frankly, it’s tempting to be insulted when people send in this kind of thing—do they think my time is worth wasting? Are they saying they think I’m the type of editor who doesn’t read what is submitted to me? But no, that’s not it. They just don’t know any better.

(Ta-da! Here is Jennifer, to save the day, to slay woeful ignorance and educate writers around the world as to the importance of editing! Huzzah! All hail the editor!)

Most of what I see is the in-between stuff. The writers who know enough about grammar to know that “not only” is always accompanied by “but also” but don’t know that semicolons are only used (other than in lists) to connect two interrelated sentences (sentences that must be able to stand on their own without the semicolon [e.g., This is a sentence; this is also a sentence. But this is not; the proper use for a semicolon]).

The in-between stuff is often filled with wonderful thoughts and brilliant ideas, but sometimes—sadly—that brilliance can’t shine through, or the thoughts are lost because they weren’t expressed properly. A misplaced comma can make the difference between “a panda eats, shoots and leaves” and “a panda eats shoots and leaves” (in the first sentence, we’re talking about a gun-wielding panda, whereas in the second we’re referring to what pandas eat); similarly, a misplaced hyphen could make the difference between “a man eating chicken” and “a man-eating chicken” (a man who eats chicken versus a chicken that eats men)!

In other words, writers, please make sure you have at least a friend or two read over your work before you send it in. If you don’t trust your friends to read over your work, join a writing group to find like-minded friends (or pay a freelance editor to read it, if you have to and if it’s something important). You just never know when your paper or story could have been 90% there, but, because of a few misplaced modifiers, the entire basis of your story has been misunderstood. And hey, nobody is perfect—and nobody (but nobody!) can catch all of her own mistakes. (I even had someone read over this post for errors!) So don’t be embarrassed, and don’t be too proud.

If anyone has any words on the merits of proofreading or having a couple of beta readers, please share them! Do you tend to trust only your own judgment, or do you swear by that outsider’s eye to catch your mistakes?

Saturday, May 1, 2010


If you look on the right --> you'll see that I've added a list of links that I've thought were helpful and/or inspirational. Please note that this is a constantly growing list, so please feel free to recommend any sites to me that you think I should know about or should add! I actually have about 30 links open in tabs at any given time that I haven't yet had time to read, so I'm sure the list of links will be growing day by day.

I've tried to organize it a bit, but I'm not thrilled with the way it looks. (Unfortunately, Blogger doesn't have an easy way for me to organize this list so that it looks nicer, other than just making a whole new list for each topic/subheading, which is time consuming and seems silly.) So we'll see, the layout and sorting of the links may change a bit over time.

What do you think? Any life-changing or otherwise amazing links I should know about?

Friday, April 30, 2010

Social networking (or what NOT to say to an editor)

As I’ve mentioned on here before, although writing is the passion I’m focusing on for this blog, my other passion is editing (and, honestly, I’m a much better editor than I am a writer). I work two different jobs right now: the one that pays the bills is a job as a copyeditor for scientific journals, which is rewarding in that I know my hard work is helping the scientific community (and thus humanity), and the other, which is more personally fulfilling, is my job as an assistant editor for a small independent book publisher in Cambridge, MA.

This past weekend, I attended a (truly inspirational) writers' and editors' retreat for the book publisher, during which we held a party for anyone associated with the press to join. This was a great social networking opportunity—face to face networking, to be specific, which, although it has taken more and more of a back seat to online networking in the past 5 or so years, is still an incredibly important aspect of getting your name out and getting others interested in you. Writers, if you can’t represent yourself overall as the kind of person people want to talk to or be involved with, you really can’t expect them to be interested in representing you—your writing itself may be great, but if you’re flat out rude or insulting, nobody is going to be interested in you (whether you’re looking for beta readers, agents, editors, etc).

Case in point: I was at the party, schmoozing with various people, when a man looked at my name tag and said, with a sneer, “Oh, you’re one of the editors here? I bet you’re one of the editors who rejected me.”

…Did any warning flags go off in your mind? How this man thought this was the appropriate way to approach me I will never know. Writers, I am a writer, too. I understand the pain of rejection and the tendency to take it personally, but as an editor, I know that this is absolutely not the case. For the record, this man had never submitted anything to me—but regardless, starting off a conversation with an editor (an editor you might be submitting your stories to in the future, no less!) with a bad attitude and an offensive, blaming tone is NOT going to incline us to think well of you.

I assured this man that if his story had been rejected, it certainly wasn’t meant to be a personal attack (his story may have been amazing, for instance, and might have just not fit with the theme the editor was going for with the particular anthology this man submitted to). The man then went on to make a snide remark, saying that he was already writing before I was even born (which was probably true, but I'm not quite sure I understand how my age affects my ability to edit)—at which point I bit my tongue, made an excuse, and left the room.

This seems obvious to me, but, judging from this man’s behavior, it isn’t. Here’s the thing about social networking, no matter what field you’re in: every word you say, every smile or sarcastic or rude remark is representing not only your personality but also your work itself. It’s true that some famous writers are rude in real life—but I guarantee you that those people, when they were starting out and first trying to impress editors and agents, turned up the charm and kept their snide comments to themselves. Don’t forget that for every one bridge you burn, that bridge has told one, five, or ten other bridges to avoid you, too. The publishing industry is a small place; if you don’t treat others with respect, don’t expect them to treat your work any better.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

On the importance of writers writing

I got an email today from a friend I admire greatly--she is a fantastic writer and an incredibly kind person. Her email, among other things, touched on the fact that she hasn't written in almost two years, something I can certainly relate to (as can [almost] every writer!). It is so easy to get in the habit of not writing, isn't it? I've fallen into it time and again over the years, and it is only through some kind of outside encouragement that I have typically managed to get myself to write frequently (though never entirely regularly) -- things like contests, creative writing courses, etc.

Lately, though, in writing my novel, I've been incredibly motivated to write (whether because I'm excited about the novel, nervous about the outcome, scared it'll be awful, or just feel accountable now that I've told so many people about it, I'm not sure). Whatever the reason, this semi-regular writing has been great for me. I can feel my thoughts coming in more clearly and the words going down more eloquently, I feel more motivated to start writing in the first place (something that only infrequently happened before), and I find my confidence improving (merited or not).

This of course brings me back to the old schpiel every writer is tired of hearing and yet needs to hear again: Writing often is so important for writers! I don't mean writing regularly or writing on a rigid schedule, because sometimes it really isn't possible, and sometimes we really are too busy, and you know what, not everyone works that way. But often, say, once a day, once a week, once every other week. Certainly more often than once a month or once a year! Set your own pace, writers, and make it a modest pace at first--but then speed it up, write more often, make sure you're letting that inner voice out.

Why? Writers are so important. Writers can start revolutions, writers can bring about peace. Writers see a certain depth in the way the world works, in life and death, that other people don't see. And I believe that we, as writers, have a responsibility to share our thoughts and make use of our talents. It may not be for the greater good; not everyone is going to be famous. But you never know! Someday, one person (or two, or three) might have a sudden epiphany while reading your writing. Maybe it'll stop someone from crying, maybe it'll make someone laugh. (Hell, I'd settle for my writing just entertaining someone for a short while!)

But really: talent is such a sad thing to waste.

(Hey, here's a meta thought: Maybe I encouraged someone to write by writing this! Maybe that person is going to be the next amazing, famous writer! Positive thoughts, people, I'm trying to think positive.)


In unrelated news, in case anyone was wondering, the overwhelming response I got from people about my last post (both here and on Twitter) was that I should finish writing the whole novel before revising. (Sigh.) So I haven't started the revision process yet and am still attempting to slog through the incredibly difficult mire that is the ending of my book, which just does not want to be written. Argh. It is a long, slow-going process, unfortunately. I'm more a fan of those sections of the book that just seem to race out of me, to be honest.... Ah, well. More on that another time.

If you're reading my blog, please leave comments and let me know! Do you like it? Is it interesting? Boring? Not engaging enough? Is there something you think I should focus on, or that you would like me to discuss? I'm thinking of writing about the merits of editing next time (seeing as that's my day job and all). What can I do to attract more readers and/or keep people coming back? Any and all advice is welcome! :)

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Every writer could use a little advice now and then.

Things I have learned:
  • Writing a novel is HARD. It is a LOT of work.
  • Even after writing nearly all of your book, you still might feel a bit lost and confused. (Or, sometimes, even more lost and confused than you felt before you started!)
  • 100,000 words sounds impressive, but it’s quality that counts, not quantity. And quality is so hard to come by!
  • Writers are a very strange breed of masochists.
  • You have to finish; you can’t give up; it’s not an option.

Yes, readers, I have written over 100,000 words. That is a lot of words. And I haven’t even written the ending yet! No, I don’t think the book will be nearly this long when I’m done, and yes, I am aware that this is way too long for a first novel. But writing so many words has been a really great thing for me—it helped me learn so much more about my characters and about their journey than I think I would have had I skipped some of those unnecessary scenes or boring days. A wise person once blogged, “Make every scene noteworthy; make sure something happens in each scene that is vital to the plot.” It is with this mindset that I will endeavor to cut tens of thousands of words out of my novel, not merely to shorten it but to improve it. Such will be my challenge.

So at this point in my novel, my characters have already embarked on their journey, traveled the entire distance, and made it to where they need to be for the final encounter. I know what’s going to happen, and I’ve written an outline for myself, but here’s the problem: I don’t find myself wanting to write it just yet. (Actually I find myself loathing the prospect.) My novel has lots (LOTS) of holes and gaps that need to be filled in before I can be entirely sure of the ending (or rather, of how exactly it will happen, down to each eye movement and gust of wind), and I’m therefore not very happy with my novel at the moment. I feel a bit discouraged, really, and I’m floundering. It’s kind of a scatterbrained, sluggish novel right now (or maybe it’s just my brain that’s scatterbrained and sluggish and I’m projecting those feelings onto my writing!) and I wonder if that might change enough during the revision process to impact the ending. There are a lot of really key elements that either need to be introduced or fleshed out toward the beginning of the novel for the end to be worthwhile, and I’ve realized recently that if I want to be even somewhat proud of the final result, the novel as a whole has to change drastically.

Yes, I know that every writer goes through this. I think that this is the necessary struggle that writers go through with their first novels (the first ones they write, not necessarily the first ones they get published) wherein it suddenly becomes apparent that the story isn’t the only thing that counts, nor are the characters. Finding a way to wrap three million little details into one coherent, smoothly flowing, interesting book is a task that seems nearly impossible--certainly one of the most daunting challenges a writer ever faces.

My question is, would it be terrible if I started the revision stage now without finishing the book first? Should I write down the whole ending, instead of just an outline, and then go back to do revisions after I’m done? I’ve written this until now in the NaNo state of mind: write write write and do not allow yourself to edit ANYTHING until you’re done. Is it okay to let go of that now and finally read back over what I’ve written to see if it’s even halfway decent? Or should I keep writing until I’m totally finished and only then allow myself to revise?

Answers to these questions and any other relevant ones would be greatly appreciated! :)

Monday, March 29, 2010

On writing a first novel, and on the stages of writerdom

I am currently writing my first novel--and by that I mean that this is the first time that I've started an idea and forced myself to follow through with it to its full novel-length conclusion (as opposed to all the novels I've started and set aside). I started this novel during NaNoWriMo; please don't assume it's "just" a NaNo novel, though, because I'd been meaning to do it for a long time and just needed the extra push to really get started. (And anyway, NaNo is an incredible thing! If you've been thinking about doing it and want to know more about it, feel free to ask me anything. You can also visit their website at

I've been told by my writerly friends and former teachers for years that writing a novel is way more work than you would think. "Really," they've all stressed to me, "it is SO much work." Sure, I've always agreed, it must be. Uh huh.

But no, really. It is so much work. And this brings me to my realization of the four (that I've realized so far) stages of (novelist) writerdom:

(1) The first step is when you're a writer who wants to write a novel. That's it. Maybe it's a vague desire, maybe a more persistent urge, but you don't get past the first 50 or so pages. There's something alluring about the idea of writing a novel, but maybe you stick with short stories, novellas, or poems. You don't have the time for a novel; you don't have the ideas/plot/characters/motivation; you don't really think you "have a novel in you."

(2) The second step is when you've committed: you're writing your first novel, you're really doing it, you're committed to making it the best it can be, and you're EXCITED about it! You feel like: This is it! I'm writing a novel! Woohoo! Maybe I'll be famous someday! Go go go! Or maybe you're already querying agents, or you've got an agent and are waiting for an editor to discover you. You've embarked on the long journey toward holding a book of your own in your hands.

(3) The third step is when you've done it, you have written your novel and, not only that, it's been published! You are on your way to being famous--you're the real deal! Bravo, writer: you have become an author. (cue upbeat music) Note that this step can include those who have published more than one novel, maybe two or three, but who are still somewhat normal people, not quite at the Almighty Impressive Celebrity Author level (although they might have a number of loyal and devoted fans who would disagree with me!).

(4) The final step is when you've already "made it," when you're an established, famous author. Think Tamora Pierce or Stephen King, Phillip Pullman or Robert Jordan. These are names everyone in (and out of!) the 'biz knows. You're famous, you're gold, you can write anything you want and get it published because you've got that name recognition. And besides, you've been around now for 10, 20, 30 years. You're Old Money, baby.

So the thing about these four stages that I've identified is that they're all useful in different ways to the budding writer. Stage 3 and 4 writers have all kinds of accumulated wisdom, and it is really wonderful, useful, important knowledge that they're usually happy to share. Take it! Absorb it! Gobble up their knowledge and learn from it, use it to your advantage to help you get where you want to be as a writer.

If you're a stage 1 or 2 writer, like myself, you probably need the encouragement, want to make sure you're doing the right things and are on the right path. Seek out these wise authors and remember that even they still need advice and encouragement sometimes, so it's nothing to be hesitant or embarrassed about. Stage 1 and 2 writers are exactly the ones who the stage 3 and 4 authors are writing to, and it would be foolish (foolish I say!) to pass up this opportunity.

But there's a caveat. I've realized, and this may only apply to me, that the stage 4 writers just aren't working for me anymore. They're too established; they're too good; I don't feel like I can relate to them. So I've found myself, more and more, being drawn to the stage 3 writers. These are writers who have fresh memories and advice about the process, who were recently in my stage 2 shoes, and who understand and still remember what I'm going through. These are the writers I more closely identify with, and these are the ones whose blogs I'm gravitating toward lately. They are also the more immediately inspirational, because they make the jump from stage 3 to 4 seem almost (almost!) feasible for little old me.

I started this blog because it occurred to me, after many hours of quiet reflection time, how incredibly useful it has been to be able to read these stage 3 writer's blogs, now that I'm at stage 2. And, a kind soul recently pointed out to me, wouldn't it have been great to have been able to find a stage 2 writer's blog back when I was a stage 1? (Especially a stage 2 writer who is in the process of filtering/learning from a stage 3 writer's views?)

Yes: I would have loved that. (And hey, I can still learn from anyone in any of the stages--so if you're reading this, no matter which stage you're in, please let me know the URL for your blog so I can check it out!)

So here I am. I am a stage 2. Hello, my name is Jennifer, and I am writing my first novel. I am frequently filled with doubt and feel like I am floundering, and I hope that my learning process can be a useful tool for others, whether they are a stage 1 or a stage 2, like me. I know that this will be an evolving process (as will my "Stages of writerdom"), and I hope you'll stick around for the journey!