Category Archives: Writing/Editing Advice

Studying English for a career as a writer?

As we begin to gear up for the new school year, I’m thinking about studies and majors and careers. I’ve encountered quite a few wonderful young people recently who share my interest in language.

Say you are in high school or just starting out on a professional path post high school, and you really enjoy English and writing, and like the idea that you might be a writer some day.  Obviously, if you want to be a novelist or a poet, the best thing for you to do is read everything you can get your hands on, and just start writing.

And if college is in the plans (and I think it is an experience not to be missed, whether you do it right away, with a brief delay- as I did, or as a returning* student), I have a proposal to ensure your financial comfort: Study something in addition to English and writing, so you can have something to write about.

Famously, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Michael Crichton were both physicians. Alice Walker was a civil rights activist; Haruki Murakami, a bar owner; Raymond Carver, a textbook editor. John Grisham, a lawyer; Sue Grafton, a screenwriter;  William S. Burroughs was an exterminator; Harper Lee, a ticket agent for Eastern airlines, but this was a job, not a career, and the same can be said of many other writers whom I admire or whom I don’t admire but who sell a lot of books.

A diversity of life experiences and also subject-area knowledge provides you with a broader base from which to draw as you compose your novel. You meet more kinds of people (not just English majors).

And as another bonus, all fields, all trades, all professions need writers, if you think about it. So if you are a scientist-writer, or a physician-writer, or a psychologist-writer, or a computer tech writer, or a game theorist writer, or a veterinarian-writer, then you have an amazing niche market and can write or edit a variety of materials in a field you enjoy while you are shopping your novel.

My two cents.


Look sharp! Editing adds professionalism.

Professional Tip: Hire an editor to refine your language.

Wait– maybe “refine” isn’t the best word for what I do, because most of my clients are average-Joes who don’t want to sound like they are drinking tea with their pinkies in the air. So because “refine” has this subtle unintended meaning associated with snobbery, let me find a better word to explain myself exactly. How about “clarify” or, even better perhaps, “sharpen”? Because who doesn’t want their language to be precise, to cut right to it, and to get the job done efficiently, like a sharp knife?

What I did here in my first paragraph is precisely what an editor can do for your writing. An editor will sharpen the language you use to communicate with your audience.

This might make some people fear that their personality will be cut right out of their writing. (And too many writers have had that experience with editors; it is true.) Doggone it—you want to sound like you! And if you’d never-ever use the word “doggone” in a blog post, no one should add it in an effort to “refine” your language.

A good copyeditor will listen to your voice and maintain your personality while cleaning up wordiness and redundancy in the language of your post or web copy.

Your casual voice, the way you talk, is completely fine for blogs and social media posts, which are intended to be friendly and build community based on who you really are. It is important not to come across as stiff or fake. But it is easy to miss silly things when we read our own writing. (Like using “also” and “too” at different ends of the same sentence.) So an outside professional is better equipped to notice the tics that make you who you are, and emphasize them; as well as notice the tics that make you look unprofessional (or idiotic) and eliminate them.

And for more formal writing, like whitepapers, cover letters, or printed marketing material, a copyeditor can also help identify jargon that hides meaning from the layperson you’re trying to attract. A copyeditor can trim down the number of words so you can have a more attractive layout. (Some editors also do design work.)

A proofreader can make sure your autocorrect hasn’t added an auto-error, that you haven’t misplaced an apostrophe, that you haven’t used the word “tick” when you meant “tic;” or, (heaven forbid!) “there” when you meant “their” or “they’re.” These are things that should have been eliminated from your writing by ninth grade, and these errors poorly reflect your professionalism.

If you’re interested in learning more about what an editor can do for you, you may want to visit the Editorial Freelancers Association, or, head over to my Contact Us page, follow the directions for completing TSP’s Editorial Services Survey and I’ll get in touch with you.






The #AWP15 Rundown part 1: Small Press Publishers


The first year I attended the conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, I went as a writer. I was really focused on improving my own writing and hearing amazing authors read their work. That role for me has gradually morphed, and this year I identify more as an editor, and attended the conference as the Senior Editor of Under the Gum Tree #telltruestories. My attention was split between panels and readings that would promote and inspire the literary magazine and those that would help me support my freelance editing clients.

Man, it was a good mix.

At their annual pre-conference meeting, CLMP‘s Jeffrey Leppendorf and SPD‘s Brent Cunningham discussed their respective non-profit service orgs–here to support small presses. They also announced their Firecracker Award winners, which included our friends at Etruscan Press, publisher of Renee D’Aoust‘s Body of a Dancer and Peter Grandbois’ Nahoonkara, two books I often use with my clients and refer back to again and again when I want to be moved by language.

Small presses are so important to today’s publishing landscape, and this was illustrated at panel R154: Small is the New Big: Working with Independent Presses to Build a Literary Career. Two agents from Folio Literary Management (Michelle Brower and Erin Harris), the executive editors of two mid-size presses (Coffee House’s Molly Fuller and Greywolf’s Ethan Nosowsky), and the executive editor of Harper Perennial (Cal Morgan) talked about the role of small presses. The big takeaways:

  • Some agents will shop your work to small presses if they believe they are cultivating the career of a writer at the beginning of his/her career arc, even though small presses don’t pay large (or any) advances.
  • A smaller press might be the best fit for your less commercial book because of the opportunity it provides an author to acquire cultural capital, as well as the small press ability to maximize the possible audience. You will be the big fish in their small pond rather than the other way around.
  • Small presses with good reputations are scouted for talent. Even the execs at the Big Five know that small presses have the most creative, most adventurous writing. They read Greywolf books. They read Coffee House Press books. They even read Nouvella, Rarebird, Semiotext.

Gotta love it.

University Presses are considered small presses, and quite a few panels at #AWP15 were inspired by University Press publications. Like this one:

Published by the University of Nebraska-Gender Programs, the anthology Being: What Makes a Man, was the catalyst for panel R274: Tender Moments: The Role of Tenderness in Men’s Narratives. Kevin Clark, Lee Martin, Dinty Moore and James Engelhart were assembled by Jill McCabe Johnson to have a conversation. No conclusions were drawn, other than the fact that there is a subtext of great tenderness in nearly all of the most admired writing by men. Even Hemingway, Richard Ford. Think about it. My takeaways:

  • Tenderness appears in the moment where the façade we create can’t stand any longer. It is woundedness. It is when the writer is open to his own pain and is able to transcend self-pity. It is when he is aware of other people, when he has empathy for the human conditions.
  • A good writer of any genre and of any gender will focus on language to avoid sentimentality, and as I believe it was Lee Martin said: “Earned sentiment is found in the furniture of the world.”

#AWP15  #underthegumtree  #CNF

On selling out and selling

Something to think about:  A really excellent writer, who happens to be a friend of mine, spent the early part of her life as a writer reading and writing romance novels which she has since relegated to the trash bin as being beneath her. And you know what? She’s right that she can write “better” stuff than that. She can compose incredibly beautiful stories that surprise the reader and can rock the world of literature. She is also pretty set on hitting the big time as a writer, making a living at it. If she can write marketable romance novels and sell them while also working on crafting a literary-language based piece, maybe she should. What do you think?

Is it possible to switch back and forth in our writing?

Do you object to what may appear to be an implicit denigration of romance novels in this post? Or do you understand the distinction I’m making, and that I’m not making a value statement so much as a statement acknowledging the different purpose and goals of genre and literary fiction?


Attention to writing craft

Telling rather than showing is a clichéd piece of criticism in writing workshops. But really the advice to “show don’t tell” has to do with many layers of writing, not just with providing more detail as most novice writers mistakenly believe. It is providing the right details at the right moment and about making everything do enough work. It is also about sentence structure and strong dialogue and creating scenes that contain not just words but personalities, and not relying on adverbs and adjectives but selecting just the right verbs and nouns. In other words, attention to the entirety of writing craft.

The imprecise selection of detail can detract the most from a manuscript. It contributes to issues regarding omniscience and character development: What the reader learns about each character, the details the writer chooses to share, must help develop the protagonist. The same is true of the settings: Where the writer may tell the reader that the slipcover is yellow, if that yellow slipcover is not important somehow to creating the scene, developing the fictional dream, then that is the wrong detail. Every detail must be carefully chosen to move a story forward or create tension. It must do double duty regarding painting a scene or creating a character (not just a minor character, but contributing to the roundness of a major one).

Take a look at these two lines, which contain many of the common pitfalls of early drafts:

“So what’s new?”  She asked him, wanting to tell him about her day.

“How about you go first.”  He said, sensing she wanted to talk.

The dialogue is not doing enough work; there are no gestures or visual clues, and the writer is telling the reader rather than showing; the sentence structure is repetitive and the point of view is inconsistent. Note that “wanting to tell him” is internal to her, “sensing” is internal to him. Consider this kind of revision:

Dragging him outside by the wrist, opening her mouth to speak and then quickly closing it, she moved her eyes from his, and tilting her head to the ground, said, “So. What’s new?”

“How about you go first,” he said, as he reached for her arm and bent his neck to look more closely into his friend’s eyes.

writing craft, revision, Sacramento editor, Robin Martin, Two Songbirds Press, Writer resources

This revision (while certainly imperfect) is more sensory and gesture driven, and an improvement on the original. The reader sees (through visual cues) that she wants to talk to him; the reader sees (through visual cues) that he recognizes that she needs to talk first. The reader does not have to be told. The point of view is more subtly his, more limited; the portrait of each character- she as uncertain or withdrawn or troubled, his as empathetic and compassionate, is created through the choice of details.  The rhythm of the lines is less staccato and so creates more feeling and emotion around them.

With each revision, with attention to these things on the level of language and writing craft, we come closer to telling a story that our readers will remember and recommend to their friends.

My go to books on craft are John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction and Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, because they provide some of the best explanations of common pitfalls and ways to eliminate them in revision.

Beyond any marketable definition

small press, spuyten duyvilsmall pressesWhen small press publisher Spuyten Duyvil released the anthology Wreckage of Reason in 2008, the Ted Pelton, of The Brooklyn Rail wrote: “Were this book published by St. Martin’s or Norton, they would have slapped its contents on wider margins and packaged it for the college market at twice the cost. Except Norton or St. Martin’s would never publish this book—it’s too dangerous, wild, and singular. Wreckage of Reason gives us three dozen women authors beyond any easily marketable definition; by any description, it’s an anthology worthy of an audience and acclaim.”

What do you do if you are a writer who works “beyond any easily marketable definition?”

I just finished reading a New York Times Bestselling novel. It is written in alternating first and third person narration; the third person is from the limited point of view of an eleven year old French Jewish girl swept up in one of France’s great atrocities during the Nazi occupation. The first person narrator is an American ex-pat living in Paris in the modern day, a journalist assigned to research this round up of Jews for the 60th anniversary of the event. There is a mystery, a struggling marriage, the promise of newly budding love, with the backdrop of the holocaust. I read it in four hours. The subject matter indisputably compelling. This is highly marketable, and also highly formulaic. I won’t say the writer isn’t skilled, because she obviously grabs the writer with her descriptions and the way she establishes the scenes and evokes the reader’s emotions. So I’m not disrespecting this writer. I’m not disrespecting this genre. It has its place, a very important place, in the world of books and readers, and frankly keeps books in the public eye.

Can I point to moments of breathtaking language or astute observations of the human condition in the pages? I cannot. Is it great literature? Not by my definition. Sorry.

So when I work with a writer who wants to know how to make his book appeal to the market, whose prose is not only articulate but artistic, whose story has breadth as well as depth, whose story has many intertwining arcs, whose protagonist has many antagonists, and whose work may well refuse to fit on any of the major publishing houses book lists, a part of me grieves.

I believe that too many writers with great potential to affect readers with their prose are always looking for ways to sell their books. They water down their imagery–instead of dredging to get deeper into the real motivations of their characters, they are backfilling to make them accessible. They’ll dump an obscure barbaric British imperialist in favor of Adolph Hitler, and the reader, who might have actually learned something new or unexpected is cheated out of ever having that opportunity.

Valuable and relevant work is crafted every day. Small presses affirm this every day. While working with a small press might not be glamorous and might not give you an immediately recognizable name to drop at networking events, it is nonetheless crucial to maintaining the craft of writing (though you may both toil in poverty and obscurity).

So, what do you do if you are a writer who works “beyond any easily marketable definition?”

If you’re a writer with chops, a writer who crafts stories and who cares about the obscure and the meaningful, you might do well to ignore the call to achieve fame and fortune through writing. Write, damn it. Read small press books and write some more. Hone your craft to be the best it can be, not necessarily to fit the formula of the mainstream book publishers. And don’t consign yourself to the role of publisher, designer, marketer, and chief bottle washer if what you really are is a writer. We need writers. The world needs writers like it needs mothers, people devoted, truly dedicated to the task, despite the lack of acclaim. The future of the art and the world depend on them.

AWP Boston 2013, take aways from the panels

Using Careless Speech for Careful Writing. Peter Elbow’s new book, Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing, was the impetus for this Day One 9 am panel. Elbow talked about intonation units in speech and how the musicality of these intonation units can be harnessed to create beautiful and effective language. Intonation units, he explained, can be used during the late revision stage to “produce strong careful prose.” This strategy is presented on his handout:

Take every sentence or longer passage and read it aloud well, lovingly, but looking for how to improve it. Keep fiddling with it till it feels right in the mouth and sounds right in the ear. In short, don’t use any conceptual knowledge about what makes for good sentences. Use only the mouth and the ear to guide you.

Strong writers, he concluded, harbor no prejudice against spoken language; on the contrary— they are able to hear and feel (in the mouth) the frequent superiority of spoken discourse over written.

Application:  For me, this rang true and played well with several conversations I have been having with myself and others. I am working with a woman on her memoir, and we are maintaining much of her African-American urban patterns and vernacular. It is her story, her life, and while my intern and I were careful to “clean up” anything that might be embarrassing to her on a “correctness” level, it is important to the integrity of her story not to clean it up too much.  Also, I recently began reading Neil Young’s autobiography, which I obtained from a friend (not in the business) who insisted that the musician had no editor.  Well, that speaks volumes for whomever over there at Penguin’s Blue Rider Press had that task, (I know it was someone!) which, based on the beautifully circular, occasionally stream of consciousness design of this work, was extremely complicated.  That Young’s voice- or what the reader could believe was his voice- was maintained throughout, is a thing of beauty.

Thursday night was the VIDA prom at Daisy Buchanan’s on Newbury Street. If you don’t know VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, you should. Cheryl Strayed (and others) read, but the audio was terrible at the bar and I couldn’t hear a thing.

On Day 2, I attended Purpose and Practical in Historical Writing at 9 am, with Zachary Lazar, Emily Barton, Peter Ho Davies, and others. This was a wonderful panel and I learned a ton, not the least of which is that I must read Sway, Lazar’s 2008 Little Brown release. Writing historical fiction is all about creative acts of imaginative empathy, the panelists emphasized. As writers, we must find a personal route into the character, make them feel more available, and like all writing, it is about occupying the other. So how true to the historical record need you be? True enough so as not to remove the reader from the fictional dream. The verifiable facts combined with the imagination make the character come to life for a reader. If a reader knows the rules you’ve created, then you can play fast and loose with the facts.

Day 2, at 1:30 I found myself at Editors as Readers as Writers~ a different kind of reading presented by Fourth Genre, an uber cool non-fiction magazine. The magazine’s editors read their own written responses to the pieces they had acquired for the magazine. It was here that I heard and fell in love with “the taco-Tuesday guy,” Michigan writer Richard Hackler. His voice and pacing and of course the attention to language, the effective way he used repetition… very impressive. I did not flinch paying the special AWP rate of $18 for the fall 2012 issue that contains his piece “Come with me to Taco Tuesday.” I hope I’ll be seeing more of his work. If non-fiction is his bag, perhaps he’ll submit to Under the Gum Tree.

The last panel I attended on this second day was Write Short, Think Long: Exploring the Craft of Writing Flash Nonfiction: a panel with Brevity’s Dinty W. Moore, the wonderful Sue Silverman (who I first heard at AWP Denver 2010), Judith Kitchen, who literally wrote the books on flash non-fiction, and others. It was inspired, at least in part, by the release of Rose Metal Press’ new release, edited by Moore, The Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction. What does digression, so important to a longer piece, look like in a piece that doesn’t go much longer than 750 words? There must be associative connections, a double exposure in each sentence— the voice of innocence and the voice of experience compressed. The images must convey the totality of experience.  I enjoyed the discussion of the second person in a flash non-fiction piece: It is a disguised I, also an epistolary form, a way of addressing the reader, and this is what I found new and interesting— a way to avoid sounding like you’re delivering a eulogy of the subject.

At happy hour, I cruised over to Bukowski’s for a Belgian beer. The beer hit the spot and seemed an appropriate venue but, honestly, I don’t think the man would be caught dead at the place. Dinner at the Trident Book Store and Cafe… what’s not to like? Well, the falafel (it was rather like a hockey puck), but it’s a cool indie bookstore (the breakfast was better).

Creative Nonfiction Editors Explain Logistical Challenges, at 9 am the final morning, helped to remind me that an editor is a mediator who helps the writer put his or her best foot forward. The reason a non-fiction editor includes fact checking as part of a copy edit is because they want both the writer and the magazine not to look foolish. You don’t want to jolt the reader out of the experience.

In Changing the Sheets: How Best to Get Sex on the Page, four writers read sex scenes from their books. They were very different from each other, and after a Bloody Mary lunch, extremely entertaining. How often is a sex scene really about sex? When does vulgar make sense? All of these questions were raised, and no clear answer was ever given, as it seemed the panelists intended to have us answer them for ourselves. I most enjoyed the “panel’s designated prude,” Chris Bachelder.  His theory was that guilt and shame are the existential bits of sex, and the aim should be to defamiliarize the action, to complicate it. In literary fiction, there has to be a balance between psychology and anatomy so that it isn’t sentimentalism and it isn’t porn. The stifled want is way better than the sex in a literary work, they suggested. A takeaway message: A sex scene must always advance a plot. And panels are better after a Bloody Mary.

Shadow Show: The Influence of Ray Bradbury, during the last session of the final day, was a panel inspired by a new anthology of the same name produced by panelists Sam Weller and Mort Castle. Alice Hoffman was also on this panel, and she delivered some lovely one-liners, including “Stories are really the only thing that matter,” and the recognition that “stories can save readers.” The panelists reflected on how Bradbury influenced them and other writers and how he fought against category and crossed genre. He “refused to be bound by the sales department.” He is credited for telling other writers: your first audience should be you. My take away:

Jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down.



Effective Critique: Avoiding dogma and snobbery

Professor Doug Rice, author of Dream Memoirs of a Fabulist and A Good Cuntboy is Hard to Find, (and more) was the second reader for my graduate thesis and a remarkable teacher of the craft of writing.

One assignment from my first master’s-level creative writing course with him required us to share our favorite short story by a published author. Each day, one of us would bring in one of these stories and we would critique it; we’d workshop it like we were concurrently doing with each others’ stories, but of course we had the knowledge that these stories were published stories that were loved by at least one of our colleagues in the class and likely a multitude of other readers in the world.

When it came time to share the story I had chosen, by a little known writer published only posthumously- Mary Ladd Gavell’s “The Rotifer”– a short story that had been influential in my deciding to enter graduate school for creative writing, I became acutely aware of all of the adverbs throughout, and I got scared for my writer and scared for myself. Rice rails against adverbs, can rant about their overuse for hours, replete with flying saliva. But instead of sharp criticism, I remember him asking me: “How do these adverbs work for this author, this voice, this piece?” And he said it kindly and invited us all to explore what was working so well. I left that class not with any shame about my taste or my lack of intellect or lack of sophistication but with a better understanding of critique and audience and purpose.

This exercise created new ways of reading and responding to literature. It enabled us to see “the rules” and how and when a writer successfully strays from them; to resist dogma and snobbery when evaluating a manuscript. This, of course, has been a foundation for me in my work with Narrative Magazine and Under the Gum Tree, and with my clients.

Checking in with the blogosphere

As part of my ongoing professional development, every day I check in with a handful of writers in the blogosphere-mostly via RSS feed, a few notices via e-mail.

I am so impressed by the high value of the information being shared on these writer blogs I read regularly, that just about every day I am tempted to commit one of the cardinal sins of blogging— the re-blog (as opposed to the re-Tweet). Frequently, I do forward the link on to clients when there is a topic that matches their needs. I struggle to believe it is worth my time and energy to write my own take on a subject for my blog when someone else has written about it so well, particularly when my blogging goals are really so small (I’m not trying to grow or go viral, I just want clients and potential clients, in short—you, to know I am alive and connected).

So, for this post, I’ve decided to share the names of a few of these writers who do such a good job and greet me in my Mail each morning. Some are well known, others not so much.  In no particular order:

 Anne R. Allen with Ruth Harris: This particular post about the work-shopping advice to eliminate “to-be” verbs from your writing is right on, and helpful for most writers who haven’t had the advantage of a post-graduate degree in grammar.  Look at how complete her explanation of the verb tenses is! Most of her posts are extremely well written and provide very useful information.

Jody Hedlund: This writer gave her readers a fun opportunity to vote for the book cover option we liked the most, which I really enjoyed. But this blog entry, in which she discusses putting the “social” back in social media, was really concise and put into words what I had been feeling. There is too much promotion and not enough connection in most social media. The other thing she does really well is link to other articles worth reading.

Nathan Bransford: Now this guy is famous for his impact on and skill with social media to sell books, and I rely on him to keep me in the know about what is hot and what is gauche in this area. This particular entry about why you shouldn’t post your Tweets to Facebook makes so much sense to me, and goes hand in hand with Hedlund’s blog above without saying the same thing.

Kristen Lamb: This blog about the things that are killing self-published authors (#1: publishing before we’re ready. AMEN SISTER!) is representative of her posts. She’s completely an overachiever; I think she’s trying to catch up with Bransford.

Alan Rinzler: Shifting gears a bit, Rinzler isn’t a writer, he’s an editor. I am essentially a disciple of this man, who has spent a lifetime in traditional publishing editing books that everyone has read and has now jumped into self-publishing advocacy and support. I’ve studied his model for editing and taken his opinions to heart. Here’s a piece he wrote about developmental editing, and I love to check in with him to see that my practices are aligned with his, which I perceive to be the best-practices of the industry. He has a lot of good information for writers considering hiring an editor; true, he’s hoping you’ll hire him—so why am I sending you over there? I’m just. That. Confident. No, seriously, because he’s a real pro.

Things worth knowing and sharing, written well. 

I encourage all writers to connect with these and other bloggers; to learn from them and, when appropriate, interact with them.

What blogs do you follow and why would you recommend them to me?


The Perfect Client

The perfect client reads as well as writes.  The perfect client has done his or her research on editing and writing, is a good listener, and is willing to pay a professional rate for the professional services requested.  The perfect client is diligent about deadlines and schedules and follow through.  The perfect client asks thoughtful questions, receives feedback gracefully even when deciding not to listen to it.

And every once in a while, a perfect client will give the editor a recommendation, or write some nice things about the editor in a blog post.

I am very fortunate to have a wonderful list of clients right now.  Thank you for your business; it makes work fun.

Sacramento editor, Robin Martin, Rob Mahan, writer
My client, Rob Mahan Books