Editor Vs. Author – Finding the Balance

Happy Friday, everyone!

I don’t normally talk about the specifics of projects I’ve been working on, but today I’m going to nudge that habit aside just for a moment, because it brought up some interesting food for thought. One of my recent clients works as a translator in addition to her own writing, and I was contracted to look over a short story that had been translated into English. The nature of the job and a friendly peer discussion on our freelancing careers subsequently brought up the topic of how to keep the integrity of the originals we work with — or in my case with this contract, an original translation of an original.

Of course I can’t speak for the challenges translators face, as I myself do not have fluency in a second language, but I have always held them in awe. Not only is there the technical accuracy aspect of translation, but to then balance that with equally-accurately translating the intent of the author and the subtleties of connotation is mind-boggling to me. Seriously, hug any translator you come across, or  anyone using a language outside of their mothertongue to any degree for that matter. Having worked with several clients for whom English is not their first language, my admiration remains undimmed!

Editors encounter this balancing act to a lesser degree. While of course our primary job is to ensure readability and technical accuracy of a text, we too seek to preserve the integrity of the original, particularly when it comes to more creative texts. Otherwise, many would run the risk of sounding the same and your favorite authors would not have their unique voice, nor some of your favorite stories or poems their boundary-stretching (or convention-breaking) forms. For example, anyone who has delved into Mark Z Danielewski’s House of Leaves will tell you that if an editor had gone through the (arduous) task of revising the novel to a typical layout and style and it had been published as such, then it would not be House of Leaves. Likewise, we would not have the technically-grammatically-incorrect but stylistically-significant punctuation and syntactic choices of e e cummings.

Herein lies your editor’s challenge: to determine whether you have set additional stylistic rules for yourself (and perhaps then broken them, deliberately) on top of the rules of the language (and form) in which you are writing. Then, once this is determined, to decide whether the breaking is worth it. Although I’m not familiar with the initial publication history of either cummings or Danielewski and thus how long it took their unconventional style to be accepted for publication, it’s safe to say that although they eventually found an editor and publisher that believed it was worth it, that this is not something that happens every day. Often, it will not be worth it because the rule-setting and -breaking has been done inconsistently, or weakly, and ends up crippling an otherwise perfectly decent text. Other times, the form in which you are writing simply cannot allow additional rule-setting or -breaking, such as a civil report or legal document with set styles. The key to helping your editor out in this regard — as well as being good advice for your writing in general — is as Picasso said: “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”

We will do our best to retain your unique voice as long as it is worthwhile. While this may sound cold, remember that if a text is ultimately unreadable, it is useless — and surely that is the endgame for any writer in any medium?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject!

Warm wishes,

~ Taegan

Talking Expectations with your Editor

Happy Friday, everyone!

It’s hard to believe that September’s almost over and that we’re entering the end-of-year crunch, both in terms of budget and deadlines. This is why I thought it apt to talk expectations. I’ve had a couple of questions to the effect of ‘how long will it take to edit X?’, which is of course a valid concern when contracting any practitioner. Unfortunately, in the creative industries this can be difficult to gauge. Knowing the factors that influence the process can help you talk realistically with your editor.

The Subjective, Creative Nature of Editing

It can seem counter-intuitive to call editing subjective (by which we mean the standard we use to judge when something is ‘correct’ or ‘done well’), since on the surface it may appear that editing is about correcting writing mistakes. Of course it is, but that’s not all. Depending on the type of editor you’re working with, editing can require a surprising amount of creative problem-solving if not outright creativity. For example, it would do you no good to contract an editor who specializes in proofreading of legal documents to help you overhaul that novel you’ve been working on — instead you’d need a developmental or line editor. Moreover, even the most versatile editor may need to do several passes over your work (especially longer projects) in order to catch everything, because we’re only human and it’s hard to look at both details and bigger picture simultaneously.

In other words, editing combines both black-and-white judgments — wrangling your commas and checking the spelling of that name you made up and use fifty times — with intuiting the gray areas: helping you reach for what you meant to say but fell short of.

What You Both Bring to the Table

Beyond the nature of the process itself, here are a few things that both you and your potential editor add to the mix:

  • Have you worked together before? Simply-put, if your editor is familiar with your writing it will likely mean that it’s easier for them to work on your project, whatever it may be, because they know what to look for and how long it generally takes them to get through a page or X number of words, which forms the basis for most editorial estimates.
  • Is your editor familiar with the material? This can be different from the above. If you’ve worked with your editor for years on fiction but then suddenly ask them to look over a lease you’ve created for the condo you want to rent out, it requires a gear shift that may not be instant. Following from this, if you’ve never worked with this editor before, check what they specialize in or whether they’re an all-rounder. As previously mentioned, if you’ve got a niche, highly-technical project, you may be better off searching for a specialist editor if you want anything deeper than a copyedit.
  • What kind of turnaround are you asking for, relative to the length of the project? It’s more realistic to ask for a same-day turnaround on a resume lookover than it is to ask for a line-edit of a 150,000-word psychological thriller in a week. It’s always good practice to inquire as far in advance as possible, not only because the editor may have other items on their plate but because there’s always the possibility of unforeseen delays — if their child is sick for a week or they’re not familiar with your work, for example.
  • What kind of editing are you asking for? This often goes hand-in-hand with the above. The more depth and markup you want, the longer it will take. Again, if you’re not sure, check out this handy glossary.
  • The editor’s charge versus your budget. If you have a flexible all-rounder for an editor — one who runs the whole gamut, from proofreading through to in-depth developmental work — this may be a factor. For example, my hourly charge is set no matter the depth I work to, but if I estimate that a deep line-edit of a novel will take twelve hours and thus incur a fee that runs far over the client’s budget, we may need to discuss scaling-back the depth to a copyedit so that the entire project can still be edited.

What Information Your Editor Wants to Know

You may already have an inkling of this, having read the above, but as a tip these are the things an editor will want to know prior to accepting a project. It’s a good idea to have them to hand.

  1. What the project is. Resume? Novel? Scientific article? Webcopy? Essay for school with specific deliverables? A bibliography? An anthology of poetry?
  2. Project length. It’s a good idea to give both pagecount and wordcount, as this helps editors gauge how many words to a page and thus make an accurate estimate of how this will match up with their rate.
  3. Project format. Are you using Word? Is it a PDF? A website? This is a basic logistical factor and to specify beforehand may help you avoid hiccups, particularly if one of you uses a Mac and another a PC.
  4. What kind of edit you’re after.
  5. Budget, if any. 
  6. Deadline, if any, and whether it’s set or simply preferred. While most editors aim to have as quick of a turnaround as is practical without sacrificing quality, giving us this context helps us manage our time — particularly if we have other projects we’re working on.
  7. Any other information you feel it will be helpful for us to have, such as the citation style you’re using (if it’s academic work) or the fact that the blank page ten is deliberate.

Of course many of you are already familiar with the saying ‘Good quality, cheap, fast — pick two’, and this remains true with editing and writing. However, this doesn’t mean that a compromise of sorts can’t be found. Your editor may surprise you! As always, communication is key, and any opportunity you have to build a relationship with a key practitioner in your life should be grabbed with both hands!

Warm wishes,

~ Taegan

Pros and Cons of Using Local Vernacular

Happy Friday, everyone!

I may have mentioned that I was born and currently live in the Southern US; I may also have mentioned that I had a twelve-year stint in the UK. While naturally I haven’t encountered all the dialects either of them have to offer, I’ve seen and heard a good share. Local vernacular is close to my heart right now, too, because of the novel I’m working on that’s set in New Orleans in 1916, which is why I wanted to take today to talk about the talk, a.k.a. local vernacular.

What do I mean, exactly, by local vernacular? It’s slang, essentially. An ingredient of local or regional dialects. What can readily link a person to a geographical area in addition to (but not the same as) an accent. Why should it matter to you? Because yes, there are some occasions where it’s good to be linked to a region, but there are other times that you’ll want to avoid it.

Local vernacular in writing is ultimately a tool, and the better you understand how and when to use it, the better. We see it all the time in marketing (whether we realize it or not) where it’s used to inspire loyalty from a certain customer base, make a product or service recognizable, or support/create an image of belonging. If you’re one of the crowd, you’re trusted as a businessperson. For example, pseudo-French signage and packaging is understandably rampant here in Louisiana because of the pride in French and Creole heritage – if your product or service utilizes it, not only are you understood, but you are seen as belonging and friendly. Meanwhile, we also see local vernacular in fiction to enrich characters and impart flavor and realism to the setting. There’s a little more flexibility in fiction since we can set and play with our own rules. If you get the details right, you’re trusted as an author.

So if local vernacular is pervasive and useful, why would we want to avoid it? There are three main reasons:

  1. Geographical limitations. You can only take a piece of slang so far before, frankly, it may not be understood. For instance, the South will have a ready grasp of lagniappe — ‘a little something extra’, for those of you not from around here — because it’s familiar. Head north, east, or west, however, and while they may have heard it before, they may struggle to define it. Head outside of the US and use it, and you may not be understood at all. If something’s not understood, it’s ineffective. If you’re trying to market yourself, a service, or a product outside of the locality that uses that language, you’re going to struggle — it’s incredibly rare for a business with a name or slogan that uses local vernacular to be successful in a larger national or international market.
  2. It’s ultimately slang, whether you like it or not. Slang falls into the informal language category and as you know, there are occasions where informal language is appropriate and where it is not. It’s unfortunate but true that outsiders to a dialect, upon hearing/reading it, will — because of point #1 — feel at a disadvantage, which usually translates to seeing that dialect as lesser. Not all the time, but often. A more common example is that we all know that we shouldn’t be casual in an interview, and speak formally and clearly.
  3. Consistency problems, which mostly applies to writing. While there may be a few words that have a widely-understood spelling, when you get into the less obvious representations of dialect (e.g. — using apostrophes everywhere to contract words or drop a final letter) the fact of the matter is that it can be difficult to keep track of how you write something and when. I know I do. Also, though punctuation is a beautiful thing, if you have apostrophes everywhere eventually your manuscript is going to look like a spider skittered through an ink pad and then over every page.

Readability is key: too much vernacular and your reader will be exhausted by the time they get through a couple of paragraphs. You want your text — whether it’s a resume, a novel, or a business card — to be easy for your reader to understand, and appropriate to the audience and your intentions.

I’d love to hear about your experiences with local vernacular, be it when writing or reading!

Warm wishes,

~ Taegan

How to Manage Your Drafts

Happy Friday, everyone!

Receiving suggestions and mark-ups from editors and friends is one of the most highly-anticipated – if not exciting – things about the entire editorial process, as a writer. It also stands to reason that eventually, no matter what kind of documents you work with, your harddrive or filing cabinet is going to fill up with bushels of drafts. Which is great, because you want to keep old drafts – what if you lose a current one? What if you change your mind and want to go back to the approach you took last month on that chapter? Trust me, it’s better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it.

But even for the most organized among us, keeping track of which is what – and thus avoiding redundant work – can prove tricky. Here’s some tips!

  1. Filing system? What filing system? – If this is you, this is the first thing you need to tackle. Regardless of whether your documents are digital or physical, where you keep them is of utmost importance. For one thing, all the time you normally spend looking for something can be better-spent working on that something. Separate things into categories – don’t put your vacation photos in the same box as your resume, or those documents you need for your job in the same one as that novel you’re working on. From there, organization can be done in a number of ways depending on the category you’re working with. For example, photos or tax documents are be best organized by date, while files belonging to different clients may be best-placed in files with the client’s name. Under the main file heading of one of my novels, I have sub-files for notes and old drafts while the current work-in-progress draft stands alone. The crucial part is that folder and file names are recognizable to you.
  2. Speaking of names, keep them concise and informative. If you’re working with a series of files all related to one another, decide on a naming convention and stick to it. For example, when I’m editing a series of instructor handouts that are all science labs for a particular module, I’ll use something like: ‘Course Abbreviation, Unit Number, Module: Individual Topic’. And please don’t stick with the automatic first-line file name Word auto-populates for you when you save a file for the first time. If you have a version that’s geared more toward your field of IT, compared to your other version that’s geared more toward teaching, you may want to name them ‘Resume – IT’ and ‘Resume – Teaching’ to distinguish between the two and avoid an embarrassing mix-up. Same goes for different drafts of the same document.
  3. When saving a file, determine the difference between significant and minor changes (and thereby whether you need just the ‘Save’ button or the ‘Save As’ button). This will help you keep file numbers to a minimum. If you’re merely correcting a typo or two, that’s minor – you want to keep that change in subsequent versions of that document. If you get rid of an entire character from a scene, or abridge an article for magazine publication, that’s major. A good rule of thumb is to save something separately (and name accordingly) if you’re not sure about the changes, or otherwise don’t want them to be permanent. I also advise doing this with cosmetic changes (such as font) with professional documents, and documents that aren’t your own – it’s always a good idea to keep a copy of the unchanged original.

Oops! I have five documents that all pretty much have the same name! How can I tell the difference and which do I keep?

Fear not. There’s a couple of tricks you can use, and they involve letting Microsoft’s file viewer do the work. First of all, the file viewer enables you to sort files according to ‘Date modified’ – the one with the most recent date is, naturally, the one you worked on last. It’ll also display the file size – the larger the file size, the longer the contents in all likelihood. Rename as soon as you determine the difference – remember you’ll need to exit the file then rename it in the folder itself, rather than doing a ‘Save As’. If it helps you to put ‘last edited’ dates or ‘Longer Version’ in the file name, go for it! Also note that Word has the handy little feature of document auto-recovery if you forget to save and your computer shuts down (though it is by no means a replacement for diligence).

If you typically work in auto-save programs such as GoogleDocs, you may run into a problem with keeping old versions. You’ll either need to physically copy the entire document into a new one in order to have it then auto-save itself as a new version, or you can switch the ‘Editing’ mode to ‘Suggesting’ mode on yourself, so that changes aren’t made permanent until you tell them to be. If you prefer, you can use this tactic in Word with its ‘Track Changes’ feature in addition to saving separately. I’ll be talking about in-document change-tracking in more detail another time.

Remember that keeping yourself organized is key to keeping professional. I’d love to hear some of the techniques you’ve found that work for you! Questions, too, are always welcome.

Warm wishes,

~ Taegan

Accepting Criticism

Happy Friday, everyone!

Things are getting back to normal of a sort in my household, and we’re preparing to have the pseudo-housewarming we never had now that there are bold new colors on the walls and our eclectic furnishings are front and center. Being the homebodies that we are, and relatively ‘house-proud’, we’re also preparing for these things to not be to everyone’s taste. That’s why I wanted to take today to talk about criticism – namely how to be better at accepting it, and when to politely pay it no mind.

You might tell yourself that there’s no point in contracting an editor if you’re not comfortable with accepting criticism. Often, though, we may think we’re good at it but when it’s staring us in the face, it becomes a little more difficult. Naturally one would hope that any editor worth their salt – particularly with a client they’ve never worked with before – would provide constructive and courteous commentary rather than the clinical, bleeding-red ‘hacking and slashing’ reminiscent of a worn-down schoolteacher from our childhood. There’s a time and a place for the clinical, mind you, but ideally there should be a balance – ‘criticism’, after all, means both the good and the bad. So what do you do with criticism that appears a little harsh? What if it’s your first time getting something back from an editor and now you’re regretting it?

  • The first phase is context: remember that the vast majority of editors have your best interests at heart, and want your document to be the best it can be. Egos and personal tastes shouldn’t be part of this. Also, consider what type of editor you’re working with – a proofreader should not be expected to provide the level of commentary of a development editor, for example (with vice versa being true, too).
  • The second phase is to evaluate the document holistically for understanding:
  1. Read through all the comments, and the material to which they pertain. Refrain from judgment at this point, but get as happy or angry as you want! If you have to respond to your editor at this point, a simple “Thank you for sending this, I’ll be looking through your suggestions in the next couple of days.” will suffice.
  2. Once done, put the document away. Don’t make any changes yet! Just as writing and editing require specific conditions in order to be effective, reviewing suggestions and making changes of your own need the same kind of clear headspace.
  3. When you’re calmer and ready, look through the suggestions again. At this point, if you have any questions about anything your editor has written, ask! Keep your questions centered on clarity rather than vague, subjective topics such as “Why didn’t you like this?”.
  4. Tackle the small, black or white things first – typos, grammar, formatting, etc – so that not only do you get used to looking at the criticism, but you get the clutter out of the way so you can focus on the big, maybe gray things. You can have a separate session for the little black or white things and the big gray things, if it makes it easier! Don’t feel like you have to tackle everything all at once.
  5. Save your edited document under a separate file name, so that if you need to compare or revoke changes later, you can.
  • The third phase is to evaluate yourself, and which pieces of criticism may still bother you:
  1. Read through the document again. Make notes on what suggestions you don’t agree with.
  2. Ask yourself why you don’t agree with them, and be honest – is it because it just gave you a whole lot more work to do? Was it something you didn’t want to hear, or were you expecting more flattery than you got? Has it meant that you have to completely rework something you loved? If the answer to any of those was ‘yes’ – don’t worry! These are fair, if tough, criticisms. There are solutions to all of them! Make a note and put it aside. You don’t have to tackle it right away.
  3. If a suggestion bothers you and it doesn’t feel like it’s a fair criticism, seek a second opinion – a friend, another editor, a stranger. They can help you determine if it fits into the ‘fair’ category above, or the ‘unfair’ category. If it’s the latter…
  4. If, objectively, both you and your second opinion feel that a suggestion is unnecessarily harsh, unrelated, or plain doesn’t make sense – bring it up as calmly as you can with your editor! Mature, constructive conversations may resolve the suggestion entirely, or provide further elaboration to make it fairer and worth working on.

It takes practice. Another important thing to remember is that once you and your editor form a relationship, this process becomes far easier: you both begin to understand how the other works and thinks, and lines of communication are more open. Your editor does not exist to merely give you compliments; however, if after a couple of sessions the relationship does not seem to be improving (and be honest with yourself – is it you or is it them?), or isn’t constructive at all, this may be a sign that you need to find a different editor.

And lastly, remember you can always ask me if you have questions! Have a great and productive weekend!

Warm wishes,

~ Taegan

Ten Ways to Build Writing Confidence

Happy Friday, everyone!

In previous posts, you may remember me mentioning the importance of creation before you can even begin to contemplate editing. Sounds obvious, right? Maybe even easy? A second glance, however – or a second sit-down at the desk to stare at a blank page – reveals that often, it’s the exact opposite. In today’s post I want to take a little detour from our usual fare of editing and the like to talk about writing.

First, let’s get a misconception out of the way – there’s no ‘magic cure’. There will be days where the words just don’t flow, and everyone has them. There’s no hard science that will instantly make everyone prolific. Much of it boils down to practice, experience, and discipline. Yet there are some factors that you can influence in order to make practicing – and thus discipline – come more easily, and lead to experience. Many of these will overlap with those I’ve mentioned in ‘When Editing Is Bad’.

  1. Give your writing – and yourself – due respect. Recognize that this effort is just as important as any other pursuit. Often we become inhibited by thoughts such as “I’m not good at this, so why should I bother?” or “But this has already been talked about.”. They’re often grounded in falsehood and sabotage you before you even begin. Own what you’re doing.
  2. Following on from the above, build an environment that will best cultivate this fledgling habit. This could include setting aside a particular time/day, setting deadlines or goals if they help you or removing them if they don’t, finding a dedicated space in which the writing happens, noise levels, and so on. You may find that this is a work-in-progress in of itself, or that it varies depending on what you’re working on.
  3. Find a support network. There are an unbelievable amount of writers out there and just as many readers, but instead of finding this daunting, know that there are a nearly equal number of groups where you can share your writing and get feedback and encouragement. Likewise, enlist the help of friends and family for additional encouragement (I promise you, I get more encouraging remarks than sneers when I say I’m a writer). No one does this alone, and feedback will be crucial to your improvement.
  4. Find a method that works best for you. You could be a plan-it-out-to-the-last-detail writer, with oodles of notes and bullet-pointed frameworks, or you could be a “I’m going to start in the middle and see what happens” sort. You could prefer writing by hand or by typing or by dictating and transcribing. Everyone works differently and no method is better than another.
  5. Gather what external resources you need for the particular work. If you need to write webcopy for a client, make sure you know what they want; if you’re contracted to write an article on growing tomatoes, read up on tomato-growing; if you’re writing a historical novel set in Jamaica in the 1800s, do your research; if you’re experimenting with ghazals as a poetic form, study lots of ghazals; if you’re writing the next best sci-fi novel, watch a bunch of sci-fi movies or spend an hour or two on Pinterest to get inspired.
  6. Practice. Scribble thoughts in a notebook or on post-its as you go about your day. Keep GoogleDocs open. Write down all your thoughts at the end of the day. Journal. Whatever works best for you. The idea is that the more accustomed you grow to physically articulating your thoughts and seeing them there on the page, the more normal the action will become for you.
  7. Read widely. The truth of the matter is that, if nothing else, reading widely will show you what’s possible.
  8. Try not to pigeonhole yourself – or be too strict – in the beginning. Started a romance novel that ended up wanting to be a mystery? Got halfway through your essay and ended up changing your own viewpoint? What was supposed to be mere tangential evidence in your thesis becomes the thing you’re actually interested in? It happens! The important bit is that you wrote.
  9. Try not to get too caught up in making it perfect the first go round. Editing can come later. Just get it out for now.
  10. You cannot make everyone happy. There are going to be people who love your work, and others who can’t stand it. Building up a thick skin is part of being a writer. The most important thing is, as Philip Pullman says, to write to please yourself. Write the novel, or poem, or critical article, or biography – whatever it may be – for you.

I know not everyone is aiming to make writing into a fullblown career. Some folks just want to be more confident when it comes time to write up that quarterly report for the boss, or feel pretty good about their college entrance essay. All of these are valid reasons to improve one’s writing skills – humans are social creatures that, introvert or extrovert though we may be, need communication in order to feel fulfilled. Writing is just one of those ways, and it opens so many doors.

In a year, you’d wish you’d started today.

Warm wishes,

~ Taegan

Painting and the Editing Process

Happy Easter Weekend, everyone!

I have to apologize for missing our date these past couple of Fridays. Truth be told, we’re in the home stretches of renovating our house following a flood last year and we’ve been feeling antsy to get it all over and done with, so forgive me if these posts are a little light. Most of my role lately has been painting, and this past week’s project has been painting the insides of our kitchen cabinets in particular. It’s been tedious, but worth it; that sentiment and the way our cabinets now seem illuminated from within got me thinking about the editorial process.

Those of you that have worked with me before may be familiar with my advice that rarely does a single round of editing get a text polished to perfection. I’ll frequently recommend at least two rounds:

  1. The first catches all the small and distracting errors such as spelling, grammar, and consistency (a proofread, basically); once those are resolved…
  2. The second round is able to delve deeper and catch flaws of ideas, character, pacing, and so on.

It’s similar to painting these cabinets of mine – on the untreated, raw draft of the wood, a single once-over with the brush does very little. By the second go-round, things are looking a lot better, but on a few I’ve needed a third or even fourth coat before they’re the best they can be. I use a fatter, broader brush – a wider-toothed comb, if you will – to do the bulk of the work, and then go back with the thinner detail brush – the fine-tooted comb – to get those hard-to-spot places and the edges. I’ll do this as much as I need to until it’s polished.

I’m sharing this because it’s useful for you to know that your editor has a variety of mental tools or modes in which they work to get your project on track. While there are those of us that may employ several of these all in one sitting, it’s best to prepare for the possibility that more than one session may be necessary in order for you to get a thorough service, particularly on longer projects.

It is of course possible that a single round of a broader brush does the trick, just as it’s possible to receive a manuscript that – on the surface at least – doesn’t need touching at all. While I firmly believe “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, I also believe as a writer that an editor’s job is not just to catch that single typo in seventy pages, but to illuminate the project from within by making suggestions that can improve its overall caliber. In other words, there wasn’t exactly anything wrong with my unpainted cabinet interiors, but don’t they look so much more professional, so much brighter, now that they’re painted? Instead of focusing on the sub-par things, I can focus on the contents. Likewise would I feel negligent in keeping silent on conceptual, creative, or theoretical flaws or gaps that, when addressed, could bring a project from ‘Good’ to ‘Insightful and Engaging’.

It’s not complicated. Tedious, sometimes, but worth it. And we editors and cabinet-painters alike wouldn’t do it if we didn’t enjoy it.

Warm wishes,

~ Taegan

When Editing is Bad

Happy Friday, everyone!

As all you poets are no doubt aware, tomorrow begins 2017’s Poem-a-Day April! As it says on the box, the goal is to write a poem a day for the entirety of April, which  – even as a poet who’s semi-successfully managed it a couple of times – I have to admit is pretty daunting. Not only am I writing this in solidarity and as a salute, but also as a chance to point out when editing can sometimes be a hindrance.

If you’re not a perfectionist, in a way I envy you. The fact of the matter is that sometimes – no matter what you’re writing – you can become preoccupied with making your first draft perfect on the first try. This can lead to a lot of false starts, over-writing, a sudden block partway through, or worse – never starting. If this happens enough it can even have longer-lasting effects on your overall confidence. All of these are killer if you have deadlines of any kind.

So say it with me: “It’s okay if it’s not perfect on the first try. Or the second, or the third, or…”

Say this, too: “What matters is that there’s something on the page. I can work with that ‘something’. I can’t work with ‘nothing’.”

Always keep those two things in mind, because I promise, you will get stuck otherwise. It happens to folks who have just started writing, and to folks who have been writing professionally their whole lives. You will get stuck on worrying whether you’ve got the right word, that you’ll forget all the others you were going to write after it. You’ll take a break to figure out the right metaphor or a good name, and you’ll get distracted for the next two days. You’ll pause to fact-check and end up down the rabbit-hole of the Internet.

Here are a few tactics to help you curb the tendency to become distracted by editing:

  1. Know there’s something you’re going to have to go back and change or check? Put in a placeholder or highlight it. One method I’ve heard of is the ‘ELEPHANT’ method, where if you can’t think of a word right then and there, just type ‘ELEPHANT’ and keep going – when you’re done drafting, you can search for all instances of ‘ELEPHANT’ and replace them when your mind is clearer. This helps you keep your flow.
  2. Set realistic deadlines if they help you, or remove them if they don’t. If you do choose to have deadlines, don’t beat yourself up if you don’t meet them. For example, you can start with something small like ‘write a poem before you have your second cup of coffee’ – it’s a deadline with a built-in reward. The idea is that when your brain grows accustomed to achieving small goals, it’s in a better position to achieve slightly larger goals, and so on.
  3. A friend of mine hand-writes her work and covers her prior lines with a sheet of paper to stop herself looking back and thus getting distracted by editing. You can feasibly do this with window-resizing on a computer, too.
  4. Devote specific times to writing, and specific times to editing, e.g. – ‘during the week I’ll write, but Saturdays I’ll edit’, or ‘I’m not going to look at these poems again until May, when Poem-a-Day April is over’. Knowing you’ve allotted time in advance can help put your mind at ease, as it’s no longer worried about missing the opportunity and feels bolstered by your organization skills.
  5. Remind yourself that beyond a simple spelling/grammar check, you can always leave the editing to – guess who! – your editor. That’s why this tag-team exists in the first place! Knowing someone else has your back can be instrumental to your process.

Although editing is still part of the creative process – and some would argue that it’s the most rewarding part – they are different modes of thinking and sometimes jostle for elbow room, to the detriment of each other. The fact remains that you cannot edit what isn’t there, therefore you should prioritize creation in the initial stages.

What are some of the hurdles you’ve encountered? Any other tactics for overcoming them that you’ve found useful?

Warm wishes,

~ Taegan

P.S. – Good luck, poets! I’ll be writing alongside you this season.

How to Become a More Concise Writer

Happy Friday, everyone!

I’m privileged to work with many different types of writing these days – I’ll be working on a novel one day, a thesis the next, then a poem, then vocational curriculum.  The list goes on. One of the things they all have in common, though, is often a need for brevity.

You’ve got your audience’s attention – great! But you have to keep that attention. There’s debate over the average attention span and whether it’s shortening due to the rise of digital technology, but the point remains that you only have so much time to get your message across, even if your reader has settled down and is in for the long haul to listen to whatever you have to tell them. Brevity is still a virtue and it is one of the main areas a good editor will look for.

Here’s some easy ways for you to check the concision of your writing yourself!

  1.  Read it aloud. Yes, you may feel silly at first, but reading your writing aloud will not only help identify awkward phrasing, but you’re more likely to notice when you’re being too wordy or have a ‘pet word’.
  2. When rereading your work, ask yourself as often as possible whether there’s a shorter way to say what you mean, or whether this sentence actually presents any new information. Be ruthless.
  3. Punctuation, conjunctions, and transitions not only help the flow of your writing, but allow you more flexibility in communicating your ideas. For example, instead of needing two fully-fleshed-out sentences a simple comma and conjunction tag-team may eliminate the need for five or six words or repeats of important terms.
  4. For some, character/word/page/time limits help. Those of you familiar with the ‘elevator pitch’ know this. If you impose a limit on yourself, your brain is likely to rise to the challenge and pare down what you want to say in order to fit that limit. It helps you determine what’s really important for the reader to know.
  5. Consider your audience and what they will actually want to hear. One of my pet peeves, for example, is a blog post containing a recipe I’m interested in, but which also contains two pages of context about the weather that day. While some may find this charming, I just want the recipe.
  6. Make a bullet-pointed list of your talking points. I use this strategy with non-fiction often, and you can use it before you write (e.g. – planning an essay) or when you’re editing and possibly rewriting. A similar tactic is after writing something once, cover it up and try to rewrite from memory – the stronger phrasings and main points will stick in your mind and you’ll be able to weed out the weaker.
  7. Avoid too many irrelevant anecdotes, ‘weasel words‘, unnecessary qualifiers (‘very tired’ versus ‘exhausted’), and the passive voice wherever possible.

Now, you may be thinking, “But Taegan, I’m writing a novel / thesis / non-fiction book about X; my reader wants to know as much as I can tell them on my subject.”

Yes, absolutely. Longer works do tend to be more lenient in the brevity department. However, here’s my rule of thumb: every word on that page needs to earn its keep, otherwise it is taking up valuable space where I could be talking about something new. It’s a similar concept to the Chinese proverb of ‘If the first words fail, ten thousand will then not avail’, in that if you let yourself ramble, your message weakens. Always choose quality over quantity.

Brevity will benefit: your pacing, the organization of your ideas, your meaning, the strength of your writing, and ultimately your readers.

Remember to use this advice in moderation, since you don’t want to obscure your meaning by cutting too much. For this reason, I often recommend writing all your thoughts out first and cutting back afterward.

Finally, also remember that this advice applies to all types of writing, from fiction to job postings to resumes to research articles to…

I’ll stop. Good luck, and remember you can always ask me if you have questions!

Warm wishes,

~ Taegan