The Book I Didn’t Understand

Once I was the editor for an author whose book I didn’t understand. I liked him personally but found his manuscript vague. He employed specialized vocabulary, using words to mean things they didn’t normally mean. I had no idea why the book was organized the way it was and couldn’t figure out what other structure to suggest. His stories were coherent and easy to read, but I didn’t see how they fit.

There was nothing wrong with the book sentence by sentence. He was a competent writer. His content was not offensive or inappropriate in any way. I just didn’t get it. Who was he writing for? What was he trying to achieve? What was his main point? I couldn’t tell.

So what did I do as his editor? I asked for no revisions whatsoever and published the book as it was. Why?

Because he was clearly intelligent, had published successfully before and had a following. He was a sought-after speaker and consultant. I was sure this book would also find his substantial audience—and it did! I was equally sure that I was not part of that audience.

The lesson here is for editors. We don’t have to like a book to publish a good book. Sometimes we don’t even have to understand a book to publish it. We do, however, have to recognize that it has value for an existing audience.

We need to be humble enough to let the authors that we have contracted to speak for themselves. This can be hard because as editors we are often jacks of all trades. We know and have learned a lot about a lot. And if we don’t understand something, we assume no one else will either. It’s hard to remember that this is not necessarily true.

We believe we have average—ok, above average ability to decipher even convoluted prose. If we can’t figure it out, others won’t be able to either. This can also be false.

Our job is not to publish books for which we are the audience. We are to publish books that fit in the mission of our publishing house for which there is an audience.

It’s often said that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. What we like, agree with, or even understand is also not the ultimate standard by which a manuscript should be judged.

Image by Greg Montani from Pixabay

Mr. Ryan’s Class

Propped up on a desk in the front row of the room, thirty-something Mr. James Ryan sat silently surveying my high school English class. I was a junior on the first day of school. The first minute of class. We quieted down waiting to see what he would say. Would he introduce himself? Tell us about class requirements? Have us open a book?

“Are there any questions?” he began.

We were even more silent now. Questions about what? What was he talking about? We were confused. At least I was.

After waiting a moment and hearing nothing, he said, “Ok, then,” and with a wry smile that impishly suggested we had had our chance and wasted it, he began.

Many people have had a teacher or coach who had a major impact. Someone who believed in us when we didn’t believe in or even know ourselves, someone who made a subject captivating that we previously thought was dull as a spoon. Mr. Ryan would become that teacher for me.

Over fifty years later I still remember things he taught us, ideas and practices that have continued to affect my life as a writer and editor.

Consider vocabulary. He exposed us to a wide range of words each with a nuance of meaning that made literature and writing richer and deeper. Memorizing word lists sometimes seemed tedious. But he showed how word selection matters. It can make a huge difference in the power of a paragraph.

Overwhelm is such a great word, he told us. It is a combination of “over” (as in turn over) and “helm” (as in the tiller of a boat). To be over-helmed, then is to be capsized, to be in danger of drowning. Think about how you might use that word, he urged. Not to talk about a delicious new ice cream flavor or when we missed the latest episode of Batman. Instead, we should use it when our world or our perspective on something important has been turned upside down, when we are at least momentarily out of control.

Tone was another key topic he introduced us to—how a piece of writing works on you at a deep level. More than just the ideas or information, the tone can make a piece powerful, memorable, significant. For fifty years I have tried (not always succeeding) to develop tone in my writing and help authors do the same.

That’s where the chapter on tone came from in Write Better. That’s where I learned of the magic and weight of words. That’s where my lifelong journey into creativity, ideas, and story took hold of me. From Mr. James Ryan.

Who was an influential teacher, coach, or relative in your life?

Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay

The Four Phases of Editing

For many, the work of editors can seem mysterious, if not a bit intimidating. As writers we know they hold the power to get us published, but we have little idea how the process works.

One doorway into this mystery is the four phases of editing. All four phases can be handled by a single person, or each phase may be carried out by a different editor. Then at times a writer will work with two or three editors on a single project. It often depends on the size and structure of the publisher.

Phase one is acquisition editing. An editor’s role here is to sign up authors to provide articles, blogs, books, or other written material. This is likely the first gatekeeper a writer encounters. Sometimes editors solicit pieces from writers they know, and sometimes writers come to editors with ideas. This phase has been jokingly (derisively?) referred to as “belly editing” for the legendary lunch meetings between editors and authors.

Phase two is developmental editing which involves guiding and coaching authors as they begin to write and shape manuscripts as well as when it comes to making major revisions. While an acquisitions editor may also do the developmental work, sometimes the manuscript is handed off to another person. At this stage larger questions of structure, tone, and audience are in view. For fiction, character development and plot are the focus. For nonfiction, presentation and persuasion are foremost.

Once the development editor and the author are largely in agreement about the revised manuscript, phase three begins: line editing. Here the editor concentrates on the sentence level, centering on awkward phrasing, clutter, stylistic issues, and word choice. Your development editor may also handle the line editing phase, but probably not the acquisitions editor unless there’s only one or two people in the whole department.

The final phase is copyediting which deals with grammar, spelling, punctuation, house style, and format. Fact checking may arise here or perhaps at the line editing stage. Sometimes line editing and copyediting will be done simultaneously by a single person, collapsing these last two phases into one. After each stage authors are normally given opportunity to review the editing, respond to questions and suggestions, and to make further revisions.

What are the priorities and concerns of editors in each phase? That is a topic for other blog posts. To get you started, however, I offer some ideas about how editors and agents think in Appendix B of Write Better.

In general, remember all editors in all phases of editing care about good writing, good ideas, and finding readers. In that regard, we are all on the same team.

photos: restaurant (Life-Of-Pix, Pixabay); manuscript (annekarakash; Pixabay)

An Editor’s Work

I clearly remember my second day as an editor forty-five years ago.

The first day was mostly orientation. But the second day an author came in to discuss a contracted manuscript with Jim Sire, my boss. I sat in watching and listening as they discussed the editing Jim had done. That morning and afternoon, the two of them sat side by side at a table, flipping through the edited pages one at a time, often reading aloud long passages. Jim would make observations and raise issues about certain passages, about what the author intended and how to resolve various questions. The two would work together to come to an agreement on what do do and move on.

That day provided my whole career with a metaphor for the work of editing. I haven’t always had the privilege of sitting side by side with an author going over a manuscript. But when I have made comments on a manuscript (a manuscript I would originally send to the author my snail mail and later by email) or talked on the phone, I tried to keep the image in mind.

I wanted the author to know I was on his or her side. I’d look for the positive, and cheer great sentences, paragraphs, and sections. I tried to understand what was closest to the author’s heart and goals. Sometimes that meant pointing out where I thought things had gone astray in the manuscript. If I could, I would offer alternatives for how things could be worded or structured or presented.

The editor-author relationship is ideally one of mutual respect and mutual submission. Sometimes the editor accedes to the author’s obvious expertise in subject matter. Sometimes it is the other way around because many editors have not just published six or a dozen books but dozens or hundreds.

A colleague, Jim Hoover, often said, “An editor is the author’s advocate to the reader—and the reader’s advocate to the author.” The job of editors is not to shape manuscripts the way they would write them. Rather when alerting authors to potential problems, editors aim to show authors what questions people might raise the first time they read the text. That is just virtually impossible for authors to do who are overly familiar with what they’ve written. “Isn’t it obvious?” No. Not always.

Editors are on the author’s side, aiming to make what authors have to say as strong as possible–but as strong as possible for the intended audience (which means advocating for readers). Editors and authors need not have an adversarial relationship. Rather they are partners, allies who sit side by side, facing a common challenge.

Images: James W. Sire (IVP); Twilight (Hypatie, Pixabay)

Upside Down Writing Strategies

One of the best writing strategies is to write a lot of bad stuff. Yes, the more bad stuff we write, the better. If that sounds counterintuitive, it is. Here’s how it works.

One reason Beethoven and Picasso produced so many great works was that they produced a lot of ordinary, unknown works. We might know a couple of Beethoven’s nine symphonies, the last of his five piano concertos, his one violin concerto, maybe his opera Fidelio, and probably “Für Elise.” But in his 45-year career, he wrote at least 722 pieces.

He produced twenty variations for piano, dozens of sonatas for piano, for violin, and for cello, chamber music including sixteen string quartets, and more. Yet only a few are in the standard canon of often-played pieces; only a few are considered masterpieces.

We know Picasso as the twentieth-century artistic genius who created Guernica, the sculpture in Chicago’s Daley Plaza, and stunning abstract portraits. But he produced “more than 1,800 painting, 1,200 sculptures, 2,800 ceramics, 12,000 drawings as well as prints, rugs and tapestries—only a fraction of which ever garnered acclaim.”*

We know creative geniuses for their few great works. What we don’t know is that in general they simply outproduced their peers. Creating so much increased their odds that a few would be landmark creations.

We shouldn’t be afraid to create junk or to write something that’s ordinary. For thirteen years I have been blogging at Andy Unedited. In that time I have produced over six hundred posts. I do my best but most of them are just OK. A few, I think, are very good Yet I wouldn’t have written any good ones if I didn’t have the discipline of trying to produce something every week, including the commonplace ones.

A second upside down writing strategy is to do stuff besides write. Studies have shown that scientists are twelve times more likely to win a Nobel price if they write poetry, plays, novels or other works, than if they don’t. And twenty-two times more likely if they perform as an amateur actor, dancer, or magician.** To be more creative with our writing we should branch out.

If you write mystery novels, experiment with poetry. If history is your field, try literary fiction. Take up a musical instrument, go to museums, do some painting, throw clay pots, immerse yourself in Japanese culture. As I say in chapter 11 of Write Better, when we have a wider range of new experiences and ideas that we are exposed to, the more we will make interesting connections that can inspire our writing.

A third strategy: Don’t start at the beginning. If you are writing a book, don’t start with the first chapter, start with the easiest chapter—the one you’ve thought about a lot already.

If you are writing a chapter or an article, don’t begin with the first paragraph. Start with the easiest thing for you to write, whatever comes to your mind. It doesn’t have to be great or even good. It just has to be there. You can (and should) always revise later.

I emphasize this strategy with writers because it is the one piece of writing advice that I give to myself most often. Every time I sit down to write, I pause. and tell myself, don’t worry about where to start. Just start . . . anywhere, with any related or semi-related idea or story, whether good or bad. Just start.

What writing strategies have you found helpful?

*Adam Grant, Originals, p. 36.
**Adam Grant, Originals, p. 47.

Credits: Daley Plaza (; Guernica (Pixabay, Almudena Sanz Tabernero)

Dear Mr. Editor Person

Do I get letters? Yes. I get letters.

Dear Mr. Editor Person:

Often I read words or phrases that make my grammatical hair stand on end, my syntactical stomach churn, and my semantical head bow in grief. Someone uses “impact” as if it were a verb or “ask” as if it were a noun, and I become anxious, disoriented, and grumpy with my dog. Do I need medication? Can you help me?

Unsettled in Seattle

Dear Unsettled,

Editors and writers worth their salt have pet peeves. Being a salty person myself, I have many.

I sympathize with your problem. Why do people insist on forcing the word ask to do what it was never meant to do? They don’t even say, “Please,” to such a request. All along we have had a perfectly good noun to use in such situations. Oh, and there it was—request! So, no, I will not make a big ask here. I will make a polite, though perhaps large, request.

No doubt the ship has sailed when it comes to impact. Making it a verb is sadly now just part of standard usage. But I die a little every time I hear or read someone say, “How did that impact you?” or, “We were impacted by the recession.” Couldn’t they say, “The recession had a negative impact on us”? Or what’s wrong with affected or influenced when a verb is needed?

And what is the difference between giftables and gifts? Two extraneous syllables and four unnecessary letters! What could possibly justify creating a gratuitous adjective just to make it into a noun? And don’t get me started on using too many exclamation points!

If, however, I hear one more customer service rep tell me on the phone that they are going to “reach out” to a colleagues instead of “contact” them, I swear I will reach right through the ether and request that someone give that rep the gift of laryngitis. That would have a most salutary impact.

Then there is this. Since when did the undeveloped syntax of the playground retort, “You’re not the boss of me,” become standard adult usage? I have no problem if someone wants to tell me, “You’re not my boss.” That’s something I can engage with respectfully. But the former creates a massive facial tic that interrupts my ability to think rationally.

I’m sure my readers have other similar pet peeves, and I’d be glad to hear them. But what then is the solution for sensitive souls like you, Unsettled, and me?

We must remember that part of the genius of English is its flexibility. New forms and new words pop up all the time—some bad but many good. Time will sort out which is which. Certainly we should oppose confusion, ambiguity, and error. But we can’t eliminate all change if we also want to have the benefits of a versatile language.

Therefore, it is best to remember that for those of us who love language, it is our lot in life to suffer.

The Reason Is Not Because

The great pianist Vladimir Horowitz practiced the scales every day, even in his eighties. He wanted to continually master his craft so that he would be be in possession of the full arsenal of skills when inspiration does come.”

The same is true for us. Here are two skills you can master. Don’t worry about them as you write. Go back and look for them later.

First, we all know passive voice is usually a no-no. But recognizing it can be a trick. Here’s one easy way to catch a bunch. After you’ve drafted something, search for these:

There is
It is
There are

You can probably rewrite 90% of these sentences in active voice. For example,

Weak: There is much to learn about the theology of dancing porpoises.
Better: We still have much to learn about the theology of dancing porpoises.

Weak: There are other people who are as good looking as I am.
Better: No one is as good looking as I am.

Weak: It is well known that a supernova of the sun would eliminate male pattern baldness.
Better: As we all know, a supernova of the sun would eliminate male pattern baldness.

Here’s another one you can easily search for and fix. Sentences using the pattern of “The reason is because . . .” are redundant, and redundancy drives me nuts and crazy. This is like saying, “The cause is the cause that . . .” We can do better. Consider these:

Weak: The reason is because Facebook is trying to suck all the DNA out of my body.
Better: The reason is that Facebook is sucking all the DNA out of my body.

Weak: The reason is because the dog ate my homework.
Better: That’s because I had to burn my homework to stay alive when I was stranded in the middle of a blizzard.

Weak: The reason is because Al Gore is so boring his code name as Vice President was “Al Gore.”
Better: You can identify Al Gore when he is in a room full of secret service agents because he’s the stiff one.*

Be like Vladimir. Practicing scales can seem tedious and below you. But it can be the gateway to art.


* Thanks to Al Gore and “Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me!” for these two.

Credits: Cianna Pixabay (porpoise); desimaxwell Pixabay (rock face)

English Made Fun

Benjamin Dreyer is the Stephen Colbert of grammar, style, and punctuation—informative while always being cheerfully acerbic.

When he tells us in Dreyer’s English to never use actually, it is “because, seriously, it serves no purpose I can think of except to irritate.” When offering examples, Dreyer also gives us cause to smile. Honorary titles should be capitalized, as in, “Please don’t toss me in the hoosegow, Your Honor.”

You’ll have fun with this book whether or not you care or know that “the verb in a relative clause agrees with the antecedent of the relative pronoun”—not least because Dreyer hates that stuff too! Even as a decades-long copyeditor he still has to look things up in dictionaries and style guides. We should too!

His stance toward the nature of rules in English is one I have long advocated to authors. They are helpful, but don’t take them too far because spoken English profoundly affects written English (eventually, usually). And he chirpily breaks, bends, and bruises them all the time—once, for example, suggesting we “give it a good think,” right there in front of God and everybody.

Memorable tips abound. How do you tell if a sentence is passive (with the likely result of changing it to active)? If you can add “by zombies” to the end. “The floors were swept, the beds made, the rooms aired out.” Yep. Passive.

And here I can now confess that I could never keep straight the rule about restrictive and nonrestrictive commas because neither can Dreyer. But he has a dandy new name for it that makes all the difference.

Use the “only” comma, as he calls it, when the noun in question is unique. So “Lincoln’s eldest son, Robert, was born in 1843” because Lincoln only had one eldest son. But if more than one son could be under discussion and must be named for clarity—no comma. Thus “Lincoln in the Bardo concerns Lincoln’s son Willie.”

He also festoons his text with, well, I wouldn’t call them explanatory footnotes. They are more like asides. After offering three acceptable options for use of a possessive he concludes with, “You choose.†” At the bottom of the page we find, “†Psst. Take the middle option.”

What every one of you is wondering, of course, is how Dreyer’s English differs from my Write Better (available October 2019, since you asked). Dreyer’s book is a wonderful journey into the details of punctuation, grammar, and use of numbers, augmented by many lists of misspelled, misused, and miscellaneous words—all whimsically annotated. I say almost nothing about these things.

My focus is on larger strategies for writing which Dreyer does not —such as, how to find openings, focus on readers, develop a structure, battle writer’s block, be persuasive, make a compelling title, increase our creativity, use metaphors, and say more by saying less. The last part of Write Better considers how the act of writing affects our relationship with God.

The two books should be enjoyable and valuable companions.

The Key Question I Ask Authors

When people hand me a proposal or manuscript for a non-fiction book and ask me for a publishing opinion, we’ll talk about a number of issues. But I have one chief diagnostic question. Almost anything and everything an author has to say flows from the answer to this question. It tells writers what kind of vocabulary and images to use, how long the piece should be, how to organize the material, what to leave in, what to take out, and even where to try to publish it.

The question is this:
Continue reading “The Key Question I Ask Authors”