Editing Creative Projects

I’ve read a lot of fiction. A lot of fiction. I was an English major for 3 years, an English PhD student for 7, and an English & Writing professor for 15. Since I started editing full-time in 2014, I’ve worked on three creative pieces: a novel, a memoir, and a collection of personal essays. I’ve also done an aerial view of a novel, which was a comments-only read to give the writer feedback on plot, structure, and characterization. I enjoy editing creative works because it lets me use a different part of my brain.

It takes a slightly different skill set to do this work. Editing creative pieces is fun but labor-intensive. My experience as a professor helps me edit these works because I’ve read so much creative writing and given so much feedback. My ear for language helps me follow your story and look for places to improve it. My eye for detail finds the typos, SpellCheck gaffes, and errors of fact or usage that you might have missed. While doing this work, I’m fixing errors and writing issues while maintaining style, flow, and narrative. I’m always reminding myself that I can’t over-edit or change someone’s style just because I’d write it a different way. “We’re more than track changes on a document,” a friend observed when sharing an experience for another post. She’s right.

Before starting work on a creative project, I’m extra-careful to understand what I need to do. Every writer’s (1) needs and (2) ways of receiving feedback are different, so I always make sure the fit is right beforehand. When you’re done here, check out what these writers and these editors have to say in companion pieces about fiction editing I did a few years ago. 

Here are some of the things I look for or ask myself when editing a creative piece:

  • Places to trim or cut. This could be a section, a paragraph, or a sentence. Are you needlessly slowing down your story? Are you spending too much time describing a place or scene and forgetting about your characters? 
  • Wordy passages or constructions. Is there (1) a good reason for them that (2) advances the plot and/or deepens a character? Does the writing feel forced or natural in these cases? 
  • Excessive or unnecessary dialogue markers (“he said,” “she replied,” and so on). Are they helpful in distinguishing multiple speakers? Or are they there just…because? 
  • Too much story or detail. Can we cut some of the background or subplots? Can we segment a longer work into shorter, more accessible ones (e.g., adding a chapter break)? Or—perhaps more boldly—can we make your project 2-3 books instead of 1 long one? 
  • Suggestions for better sentence or paragraph structure. Are the sentences or paragraphs stuck in a pattern? When can some shorter ones break up the text visually or punctuate a point more strongly?
  • Places that seem derivative or too obviously paying homage to something else. Are the references to other writers or pop culture useful? Or, while entertaining or humorous, do they not add much to the story? Are they clever…or showy?
  • More generally: Am I engaged? Am I interested? Am I bored or confused? Where am I saying “ENOUGH ALREADY” and where am I saying “MORE OF THIS PLEASE”?

When editing, I read a lot of your creative project out loud to help you improve both the story you’re telling and how you’re telling it. (Reading out loud also helps you self-edit.) Speaking the words you’ve written helps me catch clunky or confusing language that distracts me from your story. Here’s an example I created to show what I mean: 

She looked up at the birds flying in the sky, seeing them through the canopy of leaves up at the tops of the nearby tree. She thought to herself that the way they fly through the air reminded her of a painter’s circular, swirling paintbrush on the canvas. 

This version is 48 words. Although the intent for poetic language is there, the effect could be problematic for the reader. The wordy, redundant description can slow down the reader and get them lost in the language. For instance, we don’t necessarily need “flying in the sky” or “fly through the air” because where else are birds going to fly? “Thought to herself” is another editable phrase because we only think to ourselves. (Right?)  

Here’s an edited version of the example passage: 

She looked up at the birds, seeing them through the canopy of leaves in the nearby tree. She thought that their flying reminded her of a painter’s swirling brush.

This version is 29 words. It’s maybe leaner than it needs to be, but I trimmed the redundant description to sharpen the imagery. We can picture, for instance, a painter’s swirling brush more easily without the excess verbiage. The writer could decide to keep some of the original passage (e.g., “on the canvas”). In this case, I’d offer an edited version, explain why I tightened the writing, and compare the word counts. If the writer was wedded to this particular style, they could reject some or all of my edits. If nothing else, I’m alerting them to some stylistic choices that a reader might find confusing or off-putting, that a house copy editor will fix anyway—or perhaps both. 

Typically, a passage like this is the rule in a creative project, not the exception. If the predominant style were leaner, I might just flag the passage because it stands out. There could be a good reason for it—say, that the character is anxious or struggling with language. If so, I’ll undo my edits. When wordy passages or redundant descriptions are the norm in a creative piece, though, you risk splintering the reader’s focus as they’re trying to understand the story you’re telling. You also risk losing the reader with a story that’s too long or stylistically dense. 

Ultimately, though, I’m less concerned with ruthlessly eliminating your wordiness than I am with shaping your prose, tightening unruly constructions, trimming excess verbiage, and finding your sweet spot between prose that’s creative or graceful without being overwrought.

When possible, I slow down my edits on creative projects to digest the story and approach it as a reader would any long-form work (i.e., reading in multiple sittings). I’m also looking to add breaking point to help the reader. Sometimes, a simple line break between paragraphs allows the reader to breathe, or perhaps put down the book at a good stopping point. People are likely going to read your work in multiple sittings: say, a bit before bed, while waiting for the bus or train, or for an unpredictable time while a child is napping (#BeenThere). I’m always searching for places where a reader who has to pause for an hour or a day can pick your work back up and reenter the story smoothly. 

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How a Pre-Submission Edit Can Help You

So your book is under contract with a publisher. Or, your dissertation defense is scheduled and you need to do a few more things before you’re done. Or, you’re very colse to self-publishing your novel. The deadline to submit the finished manuscript is a month or two away. You have time, but you also have a lot of other professional or family things to do. Plus, you’ve read and revised your work so many times that you’re tired of it. You’re seeing the material in your sleep, but not in a good, productive way.

You need some space.

I’ve worked with people like you. I’ve done several of these pre-submission edits, and my final read-through has helped my clients. Most of these edits were outside my knowledge area. Three were proposals from, respectively, a defense contractor, international youth advocacy organization, and educational technology company that needed light editing and final proofreading. On the first two proposals, I caught errors that SpellCheck missed, as well as some subtle formatting glitches. I’ve also done this work on a few scholarly book manuscripts and one personal essay collection. Instead of getting lost in the material, I acted as a nonspecialist editor (see more about this role here) in fine-tuning usage, correcting errors, and querying problem areas. I primarily do light copy editing on these because I know the house copy editor will do the more rigorous work. When in doubt, I query.

Here are the 3 levels of work involved in these projects, along with the kinds of issues I look for:

1. Flagging: writing tics that need to be addressed; long, unfocused paragraphs; areas needing a section or paragraph break; poor or unclear organization; complicated sentences needing more work than we’ve agreed to do; stylistic or formatting inconsistencies that need to be checked against house style.

2. Light Copy Editing: awkward language or word choices; clunky sentences; wordy constructions; obvious grammatical and formatting errors.

3. Proofreading: typos and other errors that Spellcheck and/or another editor missed; misspelled names; title formatting; missing or incomplete footnotes.

When I’m doing your pre-submission edit, I’m giving you fresh eyes on something that’s (overly) familiar to you. I’ve noticed incomplete paragraphs, sentences repeated verbatim, incorrect author or title attributions, and other things that can be hard to see in our own work. My clients have known that their work is almost there, but they wanted a new reader to catch errors or issues they’ve missed, as well as to give some early feedback on content and structure.

If you’re working on a project that needs one more edit before formally starting the publishing process, consider a few things:

  1. Do you struggle to edit or proofread your own work?
  2. Are you worried that all of your revisions have introduced new errors?
  3. Are you struggling to motivate yourself to do the work you need to do before submitting it?
  4. Do you have other projects needing your attention?
  5. Are you just tired of the material and need space from it?

 

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How An Educated Nonspecialist Editor Can Help You

When you’re writing about a subject you’ve studied for years, you could assume that your audience knows everything that you do. When you’re moving to the revision stage, you might need a subject-area expert to edit your material and look for gaps in your argument, research, and citations. In many cases—especially when you need to meet professional requirements or get funding—this is exactly the kind of editor you need.

But what about those times when you think your content and argument are solid but want to know how an uninformed reader will learn from your work? What do you do when you’re too far along to overhaul the material and simply want an objective look at your work?

For one thing, you can ask me to help.

In the 7 years I’ve been editing, I’ve read manuscripts about subjects that I never expected to see: Middle English poetry; the salsa scene in 1970s’ New York; Christianity in 5th- and 6th-century Constantinople; and, a history of Benedictine monks and nuns. Three of these were pre-submission edits (more on that here) where the scholars wanted some cleanup work and to see if their material was clear to someone who didn’t already know it.

I’ve liked these kinds of projects for the variety and for the experience of reading something I didn’t know. As a lay reader, I can see issues, errors, writing tics, and so on relatively easily when I don’t get wrapped up in the content or nitpick the argument. I focus on grammar, spelling, paragraphing, and overall organization. I’m also a great stand-in for that intellectually curious reader you want to sell the book to.

One of my first editing jobs after leaving academia was as a nonspecialist. A Twitter follower shared a call for copy editors to work on a book about religious history; she was acting as the managing editor and liaison. She asked anyone interested in the project to do a sample edit. I did my work on a chapter and sent it back. Other potential editors who knew the material had quibbled about sources or arguments and missed the writing issues needing the most work. I, however, just focused on typos, wordiness, grammar, and other issues in my purview as nonspecialist editor. The managing editor chose me expressly because I wasn’t a religious historian. Since I had nothing invested in the content, I could focus on the language and formatting. It was rigorous work, and I found a lot of grammatical and formatting issues that made the manuscript publishable. I had a healthy distance from the subject, which is exactly what the author and managing editor needed.

If you’re working on a project that could benefit from an outsider’s point of view, consider a few things:

  1. Are you trying to reach—and possibly educate—an audience outside your specific field or body of knowledge?
  2. Are you trying to sell books to an intellectually curious readership?
  3. Are you happy with your content, research, and messages and too far along on the project to split hairs?
  4. Are you unsure about your structure, writing, and overall clarity and want feedback from a sample reader?
  5. Are you worried that you’re too close to the material to notice errors, typos, unclear passages, and writing tics that can hinder your message?

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How To Avoid “Writing Like an Academic”

Note: I’m writing this piece from the perspective of an editor who was an academic for 16 years. I’ve edited and *ahem* committed some of the writing infractions I discuss here. I know academic writing conventions can be tricky, so follow my advice wherever and whenever you’re able.  

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A few weeks ago, I asked my Twitter followers for ideas about blog posts I could do. The first request was for a piece about organizing projects and deadlines (see here). The second request was for a piece like this. Later that day, a former academic shared this with me:

One of my professors wrote a comment that my writing was “too smooth for academia. Clunkier prose is unfortunately a hallmark of more complicated thinking.” (IT ISN’T!) Another was this backhanded compliment: “I love that I can give your articles to freshmen and they can understand your arguments.” (I *think* it was a compliment???? To this day, I’m not sure.) Another backhanded compliment: “Your writing has really excelled since you left academia. You always were a beautiful writer, but at least now it’s appropriate to the genre.”

Well then.

Times are changing in academia. This is a great moment to start—or continue—sharing your knowledge with a broader audience. Given our current political climate, such work is especially important for scholars with backgrounds in history, communications, journalism, rhetoric, and social sciences. There’s much correcting and unlearning that needs to happen, and many of us have the knowledge and experience to do it. Just don’t add to the stereotype of the stuffy, elitist academic who can’t communicate clearly or has no “real world” experience. Certain elements of our society are doing enough of that as it is.

We’ve all graded student work filled with long sentences and overly complex, showy diction. If it’s hard for scholars to read such work, it’s harder for emerging students to understand it. Yes, there’s great pressure to conform to the conventions seen in your mentors or research, particularly for graduate students, contingent faculty, and junior scholars seeking acceptance—and stable employment. But imagine a first-year student researching your work and struggling to learn key information about your field from dense prose, obscure references, or lengthy sentences. Such writing is also hard to market and sell, as this recent piece from Rachel Toor shows us. 

I’ll offer a few suggestions on writing tighter prose that’s more accessible for not only a wider audience but also for students within your academic field who are reading your work. Everything I suggest is based on edits I’ve regularly made for academic clients. Remember: leaner, more accessible prose doesn’t mean basic or simplistic prose. It just means that the language can be less jargon-heavy, phrases and clauses can be tighter, sentences can be shorter and more direct, and paragraphs can also be more focused.

First, here’s some of what I’ve seen regularly: 

  • Wordy phrases and constructions;
  • Jargon & obscure words;
  • Hedging and overqualification;
  • Excess material and supplemental argument in footnotes;
  • Paragraphs that span 1–2 pages;
  • Spending too much sentence or paragraph space telling the reader what you’re not arguing or writing about;
  • Excessive lists and lists within lists;
  • Expanding focus and trying to bring in too much;
  • Showy references to literary, theoretical, philosophical, or other works not directly relevant to your material;
  • Halting or interrupting sentence structure via multiple parentheticals, dashes, comma clauses, and the like.

These writing choices add work for all involved. I taught literature and writing for 15 years, and I saw how a heavily “academic” style can replicate itself with graduate students and undergrads. This cycle typically leads to more work for professors, writing tutors, peer workshoppers, and the like. Such writing choices can also make it harder for readers to apply your work to new contexts or knowledge areas. I’m out of academia now, so my career doesn’t depend on me adhering to these conventions. Yet, as someone who works at its margins and works with people in it, I’d like to see more scholars—especially those who edit journals or work with graduate students—accept writers who take the kinds of advice I and others offer. If you’re one of them, let me know and I’ll give you a shout-out on Twitter or in a future blog post. 

If editorial conventions and professional expectations necessitate a more traditional “academic” style, then consider also remixing your work into shorter, more shareable formats as Katie Pryal first suggested a few years ago. Clear, direct, and accessible prose is a key step to writing that’s more relevant to more people.

My Advice

  1. Vary your sentence and paragraph structure. The occasional short sentence or single-sentence paragraph can emphasize a key point you want your reader to take away. If 6 words say what you’re trying to say, use 6 words. If those 6 words work great as a paragraph, let them be a paragraph. I’ve made similar edits for clients, and they’ve thanked me for helping them break up their material. This also lets your reader take a breath before moving on to your next thought.
  2. Watch out for clunky phrases. For instance, “serves to show” can simply be “shows.” The same goes for “the ways in which” (“how”), “due to the fact that” (“since” or “because”), “the very fact that” (“that”), and “despite the fact that” (“although”). When they’re rare, these can be minor inconveniences. But when they’re your dominant stylistic pattern, you’re adding work for the reader and fluff to your writing. I’ve trimmed hundreds of words out of documents primarily by making changes like these.
  3. Make your points clearly, directly, and succinctly. Phrases such as “It might even be possible to argue that” or “One could go so far as to suggest that” rarely add anything useful. The same goes for “What I’m not arguing here is” or “Although it might seem like I’m arguing This I’m actually arguing That….” If you think in those terms, then think in those terms. But go back and delete the throat-clearing. I’ve been distracted a few times by lengthy “Here’s what I’m not arguing” clauses. I’m an editor, so I’m not judging or trying to learn from your work. If you make these writing moves routinely, think about a student trying to wade through the over-qualifying while trying to learn from your expertise. 
  4. Keep your discursive footnotes as lean and serviceable as possible. No single piece of scholarly writing can do or say it all, and cluttered footnotes that try to often distract the reader. From an editor’s perspective, they also introduce the possibility of typographical and formatting errors. 
  5. Test your writing on different audiences, especially beginning or nonacademic ones. Have a first-year student who’s given smart peer feedback? Or a bookish friend? Demo some of your writing with them and see what works…and what needs work. 
  6. When revising, read your work out loud and catch the long-winded, circuitous sentences. (This will also help you self-edit.) I’ve made countless edits and suggestions for academic clients to cut 1 long sentence into 2 or 3. Yes, our sentences sometimes get carried away when we’re thinking and writing at the same time, but we then need to go back and clean things up. Do you want your reader to go back to a sentence 2-3-4 times to find the key point you’re making? 
  7. Have a look at this fantastic tweet thread from Kevin Kruse…especially this part: “Complex thoughts need clear language. I’ve written this a thousand times on undergrad papers, but it’s a lesson that could be learned by some grad students and senior scholars too. You’re trying to persuade readers with your argument, not impress them with your thesaurus.”
  8. Lastly, listen to Benjamin. He knows what he’s talking about. I’ve shared this advice with clients many times: 

Can you do it?

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Organizing Your Writing Projects & Deadlines

We’re all busy. Multitasking various professional and personal projects feels like the norm now, especially for most academics and freelancers I know.

I’ve worked with fifteen academic clients since I started editing full time. A few have had similar problems, particularly with deadline management and generous expectations of productivity among teaching, family, and other responsibilities. I address this head-on when opening negotiations with all clients. In our introductory emails or Skype chats, I ask about potential roadblocks in their schedules, bad writing habits, other ongoing projects or events, and anything else that will delay our work together. In a few cases, I literally had them look at their course syllabi or calendars while we Skyped to identify problem times.

Here are a few tips to help you better organize your work and time:

  1. When starting a project, talk to your spouse, partner, colleague, or friend(s) who’ll give you blunt advice. You don’t want hedging or sugarcoating. You want someone who knows you and your ways and who isn’t afraid to be honest. Show them your projected writing calendar and see if they think you can do it.
  2. Be realistic and brutally honest with yourself. If you know you have bad habits, just accept that the project might take a little longer than you’d like it to. If you’re currently teaching, look closely at your calendar to see if you’ll have grading or meetings happening when you’ve promised something to an editor. If your productivity is fickle, expect it to be—and then forgive yourself. When in doubt, assume there’ll be a delay and plan your work accordingly. A realistic writing schedule for you means a clear, predictable editorial calendar for me.
  3. Understand that writing projects often take more time than you expect—or want—them to. You’re not a machine churning out content. Life, work delays, and creative fatigue will happen, and sometimes you just need a break. Take it. Also, some projects need distance so your ideas and approaches can mature. The extra time might also allow you to get valuable feedback. As long as your editor knows this, the work should go smoothly.
  4. When revising or self-editing, ensure that you deliver later in the project what you’ve promised earlier in it. Other editors and I have read articles or book manuscripts that never address the issues the writers’ introductions mention. We write things out of order or at different times, so always review your work. Make sure your sections are cohesive, that you’re not repeating yourself (sometimes literally with the same sentences), or that you make the points you say you will.
  5. Find the balance between focused, distraction-free work and self-care breaks. My fellow academic editor Jane Jones has offered similar advice. “The longer you work, the more opportunities you have to be distracted,” she writes. “That’s why it’s important to start with a small goal—say 25 minutes.” Plan your work out in focused, manageable chunks.
  6. Most importantly…communicate with your editor. If you fall behind, you can work on a revised timeline for your project. The worst thing a client can do to me is disappear and keep me in limbo with the project. Eventually, I’ll move on to another client and might not be available when they get back in touch. I don’t want that to happen, so within reason I’m always happy to revise our timeline.

One of the reasons I have clients pay me a portion up front is to allow for delays and keep both sides engaged with the work. Some editors have stricter policies or sunset clauses to keep projects moving, so when in doubt, ask them. If you don’t complete the work by the agreed-upon time and haven’t decided on an alternate schedule or payment plan, you risk losing time and money on unfinished work. Freelancers like to be efficient because we have to be: finishing a project and then moving on to the next one keeps the line moving. Delays and poor communication stall the process.

Particularly when I’ve been a developmental editor, I’ve helped writers see—or fine-tune—their project’s timelines and organizing principles. This is where the coaching element of my editing work comes into play. After 15 years as an English and writing professor, I’ve worked with hundreds of writers on multiple versions of their projects. I solo edited one essay collection and I’m currently coediting another, and I’ve worked with a lot of professional writers on developing and expressing their ideas. If you want to work with me, I’ll ask you point-blank about schedules, possible delays, bad writing habits, and anything else that will impede the project.

Delays make things harder for both of us. An important part of my job is helping my writers anticipate them. Honest, open communication throughout the editing relationship is crucial. This starts before I edit the first sentence.

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How An Aerial View Can Help You

You have that novel or story collection you’ve written. Or that dissertation you defended and want to retool before moving forward. You have a completed work that you’ve spent a lot of time with, but you’re not sure what’s next. Do you shop it around to publishers?  Do you carve out pieces and pitch them? Do you ask friends to read it? How do you know if your work…works?

You can ask me to give you an aerial view.

Imagine having a beta reader who also notices grammatical issues, user-unfriendly sentence or paragraph structure, and wordiness—all from what my colleague Karen Conlin calls the 30,000 ft. level. This is the kind of thing an aerial view from an experienced editor can give you. Because these are generally comments-only reads, I can focus on the experience of moving through your work. I’m still reading like an editor, so I’m noticing clunky sentences, overstuffed paragraphs, and anything else that can slow down or confuse your reader. I don’t edit these, though; I simply make marginal notes.

I’ve done three of these aerial views, and I’ve enjoyed the work immensely. They were a refreshing change from line editing or proofreading. I’ve done a novel, a scholarly book being revised before resubmission, and a dissertation that the writer wanted to repurpose. I read these works interactively: I added comments, asked questions, and shared reactions as I was reading. Some were compliments about a good sentence or phrase; others were queries when I wasn’t sure about the structure, purpose, or message.

Here’s the rundown for each:

  • The novelist had been working on his book for a few years and needed new eyes on it. He told a good story about a group of middle-aged friends, but in spots he had too many flashbacks and struggled to signal them to the reader consistently. As an avid Faulkner and Woolf fan, I’ve read a lot of extended flashbacks in fiction. Some of these sections the writer set off in italics, and some he didn’t. I suggested that he have a more regular style to avoid confusing his readers. Likewise, some parts had too much setup before the action and dialogue started; I suggested trimming some of these establishing descriptions. He also overdid some (potentially) dated references to 1960s’ and 1970s’ pop culture. The references were timely for his characters, but some felt forced and could have confused readers. I got him to think more fully about his target readership and how to keep them engaged. He later thanked me for my “good fresh reading and professional thoughts on the manuscript’s presentation.”

 

  • The first scholar was trying to apply feedback he’d gotten from his publisher: they wanted a revise-and-resubmit on a book about two 19th-century American writers. From my time as an English professor, I knew the era but not specifics about the writers he was discussing. He needed an educated nonspecialist reader like me who (1) could read the material from the perspective of someone who needed to learn it and (2) had written a book focusing on the relationship between two writers. The scholar had two lengthy chapters at the beginning that—while they gave important historical context—delayed his discussion of the two writers the book was about. I suggested that he condense these into one leaner, more useful chapter. He also tended to compartmentalize his analysis of the writers and his historical discussions. I suggested that he instead overlap them to improve his book’s cohesiveness and readability. Throughout, I also made suggestions for shortening sentences or breaking up paragraphs. He later applied my edits and resubmitted a leaner and much improved manuscript to the press.

 

  • The second scholar was revisiting her dissertation and didn’t want to go the traditional route of making it an academic book. Because I again acted as an educated nonspecialist, I was a good stand-in for an intellectually curious reader new to her work. The scholar had a lot of material and research, and I made several suggestions for repackaging it into blog posts and digital learning modules. Because she’d written the project at different times and cobbled parts together from notes and presentations, there was repetitive information and prose. (Such repetition is inevitable in long-term projects.) Because she didn’t have a sharp enough target audience in mind, her work was sometimes too general and sometimes too specialized. Because her research had spanned several years, many parts were essentially information dumps without a clear “why” or purpose. I noted these and other revisable issues in my comments and final report. She’s currently reworking her material and figuring out how to repackage it into a more user-friendly format.

 

In my final reports to the writers, I shared with them what I’d edit or flag if they wanted to hire me further. At least one is planning to hire me for the next stage.

Aerial views don’t take quite as long to do as line editing, but they’re not quick read-throughs. Each of these took me a few weeks because I spread out my reading to stay fresh. In a way, this work is editorial triage: we look at your book and identify problem areas. If you like what we’ve done, you can then hire us to copy edit material we’ve already read. It’s inevitable that I notice typos or edit-worthy writing issues when doing an aerial view, but I don’t do any editing. If I feel lost or disengaged in a section, I’ll tell you. If I see too many references to other works or ideas that splinter your focus, I’ll tell you. If I have to read a wordy sentence a few times to understand your meaning, I’ll tell you. And, if I notice strong writing techniques or effective choices of structure, I’ll tell you—to keep doing it.

Sometimes, the key first step in getting that novel or scholarly book published is getting objective feedback on the completed first version. An aerial view from someone like me can start showing you the path to get your work out there.

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Communicating with Your Editor

Editing is a two-way street. Whether they’re doing developmental work on multiple versions of a project or a line-by-line edit on a finished piece, editors need to communicate with their writers regularly. Updates, questions, and reminders can keep the lines of communication open, especially if—like many freelance arrangements—it’s a remote job. One of the reasons I ask my clients who have book-length works to send me files for each chapter is so I can return edited pages promptly and identify problem areas. If I’m doing something wrong starting on page 3, I don’t want to learn about it for the first time on page 103.

It helps us tremendously when our writers do the same. Whenever I’m talking with a potential client about a project, I’m clear about what I will and won’t do as their editor. I’m also clear about how I’ll do the work, make comments, and return edited material to them. I want them to tell me exactly what they want so I know how to do the work. If they want a light edit to clean up some problem areas, I’ll avoid doing the heavier edits. This benefits everyone: the writer gets what they want, and I avoid excess unpaid work.

As the writer looking to hire an editor, you should express your expectations early to find your fit. If you’re unsure or concerned about the level of editing you’ll get, ask to see some sample edited pages. I was in this situation once: I over-edited a client’s work, in part because I have to keep reminding myself that I just don’t like how this sounds isn’t reason enough to make an edit. The client expressed her concerns via email. I saw what I’d done wrong and then only edited what needed to be edited. Early communication solved this problem before it became unmanageable. I’m glad she contacted me because it saved both of us a lot of work. Since then, I’ve offered to share the first few pages of my edits with clients.

Don’t be afraid to walk away if the editor doesn’t seem receptive to your needs. This might be a little tougher if you’re working with a publisher and one of their people over- or under-edits your material, but you can always contact your acquiring or managing editor to express your concerns. If there’s a chain of command, use it.

A writer friend has some advice based on a recent bad experience with a publisher’s copy editor: there were excessive edits, needless changes, and unprofessional queries and comments. She suggests communication with all involved parties, particularly if you feel the copy editor is overstepping their bounds. One issue was that the copy editor didn’t use the manuscript’s cheat sheet for stylistic and other conventions appropriate for the book, so there were a lot of edits and queries that needed to be reversed. If the publisher doesn’t have a cheat sheet for your book’s subject area, she suggests, ask to make your own. This last one is a great observation, so I’ll let her do the talking: 
We’re more than track changes on a document. You don’t have to like our work, and our copy editors deserve direct and respectful communication (like effective cheat sheets). But bad attitudes and poor comments are beyond the pale. Copy or screen shot them. Send them to editors. Stet what you need to stet. Move on.
As editors, we need to remember this when doing our work. Just because something doesn’t look or sound as we would make it look or sound doesn’t justify changing it.
 
I’ll add a few more pieces of advice:
  1. If you’re looking to hire an editor, be specific about what you want and don’t want done. No one wants their time or labor wasted, so establish what you want early.
  2. Some freelancers—myself included—offer to share a scope of work before beginning. This keeps all expectations, responsibilities, payments, and labor clear for both parties. If your editor hasn’t offered one, ask for it. If your editor doesn’t want to give you one, consider finding someone else. 
  3. Don’t hesitate to ask if the editor (1) can send some edited pages early in the process to make sure you’re getting what you want, (2) can put you in touch with recent clients, or (3) has a policy for handling unsatisfied clients. To me, any editor worth their salt should be willing to share excerpts of what they’ve done, client testimonials, or the options for ending the arrangement early.
  4. If you’ve already hired an editor and you don’t like what’s being done, speak up. In my case, the writer pointed to a few areas where I had obscured her point and stylistic choices just because I wanted tighter prose. I flagged what I’d done to remind myself not to do it again in the document.
Trust me: it’s also in your editor’s best interests to ensure the quality and quantity of the work. Communicating expectations or concerns from the beginning can help you realize whether you’ve found the right editor.

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Have an idea for another post on writing or editing topics? Let me know.

New Look

I’ve spent the past week or so tweaking & reorganizing this space. Take a look around and see what you think. I siloed my writing and guest posts to make things easier to find. I’m also planning some short pieces on various writing & editing topics.

And, of course, if you want to talk about how I can help you with developmental work, copy editing, proofreading, or an aerial view of your book, let me know

Logo & graphics by Kat Skills. See http://www.artconist.com/.

Editing and Proofreading Your Own Work

Editing and proofreading your own work is difficult. Even experienced writers struggle with it, because it’s hard to see the issues or errors in our own work—especially if it’s something we’ve worked on for months or years.

As my Twitter colleagues Karen Conlin, Mededitor, and others often remind us, “SpellCheck cannot save you.” (See hashtagged tweets here.) When editing others’ work, I’ve noticed “undeserved” when “underserved” was correct, or “Czech Republic” when—because of the time period being discussed—”Czechoslovakia” was right. I’ve also caught spacing or font color issues that the writers missed. That said, I won’t be going back to my own published writing to find what I missed in the proofing stage. We’ll leave well enough alone.

As much as I’d like every writer needing help to hire someone like me, I’ll take my head out of the clouds and give some advice on doing your own quality control. This can be difficult work, especially if you’re on the clock or dealing with a manuscript you’ve had for a long time. But it’s possible to improve your self-editing or -proofreading skills, such as by printing it out or taking breaks as the linked article suggests.

I’ve seen and gotten a lot of advice over the years, and I talk about this often with friends, clients, and former students. Here are some tips for handling your own quality control:

  1. Remember that writing and editing use different parts of your brain. It’s hard to do one when trying to do the other. Keep them separate as much as possible. I had students struggle when trying to write and then immediately self-edit; things went more smoothly once I told them to separate the activities. The same goes for editing and proofreading; keep them separate to do your best work.
  2. Allow as much time as you can to do the work. As we sometimes joke, the quickest way to spot a typo can be to hit SEND, so make sure what you’re sending is as correct as it can be.
  3. Slow down your reading as much as possible. Focus on how each word moves to the next one. If it helps, use a metronome app or tap your foot to get into a slow, purposeful rhythm. Keep following the rhythm.
  4. Focus your view as much as you can. MS Word and other programs have viewing options to remove menus, buttons, and other bells and whistles. Eliminate things that can distract your eyes from the text.
  5. Read the material out loud. It’s easier to catch your own errors and problem passages or constructions this way. If your sentences are too long or descriptive, you’ll find yourself losing focus or having to take breaths. If you have an error Spellcheck missed, it’s easier to catch it when you’re saying defiantly when you know that definitely is right.
  6. Disrupt your reading flow however you can. When editing, read your paragraphs out of order. When proofreading, go to the end and read your sentences in reverse order. Trick your brain into focusing sharply on the sentences and words, instead of just reading them in the intended order.

And, if it helps soothe your writer’s ego when revising your own work, remember that we editors need help with our work too.

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Have an idea for another post on writing or editing topics? Let me know.

Figuring Out the Puzzle

After I re-ran this popular guest post from last year, I tweeted a call for full-time faculty who’ve served on hiring committees to write a complementary piece from an insider’s perspective. Not surprisingly, Amy Lynch-Biniek took me up on it. She’s an associate professor of English at Kutztown U. Amy is a tireless advocate for fair labor conditions, and she’s been a strong supporter the nonprofit I co-run, PrecariCorps. She uses her privilege well in speaking out for adjunct faculty and other precarious members of academia. She coedited this great book, Contingency, Exploitation, and Solidarity, which is available in e-format here.

In short: If you’re in a position to do so, be like Amy. Adjuncts and graduate students especially need to hear tenured voices and see that you’re on their side.

Remember, faculty, grad students, administrators, and whoever else: I’m always happy to run guest posts. They can be helpful and career-oriented like Amy’s or this one from 2014. Or they can be critical of higher ed’s broken, exploitative labor practices and social system, like this and this gem from a few years ago. If you’re reading this, you know how to contact me. Do it.

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Figuring Out the Puzzle

Amy Lynch-Biniek


As I read Erling Ueland’s guest post from last year, “Addressing the Myths,” I found myself nodding along. Here, I hope to fill in some more pieces of the academic job search puzzle without simply repeating much of the good advice offered there.   

I’m a tenured associate professor. I spent ten years adjuncting before landing my current position. Once on the tenure line, I served as a member of several search committees. My advice and observations are grounded in those experiences, as well as in my work studying higher education’s labor system. I aim to be accurate and helpful, so please forgive any bluntness.

ABDs Do Get Hired…

I agree with Ueland that you can and should apply for positions when you are ABD. You may not make the committee’s initial list of top candidates, but that doesn’t mean you are out of the race. Most often, candidates at the top of the “invite to interview” list already have PhDs in hand. Even so, they also may have interviews at other schools. More than once, I’ve seen committees make offers to all three top candidates, only to find they’ve each already accepted positions elsewhere. In these cases, the committee goes back to the pile. An ABD who missed the first cut for the lack of degree may make the second cut. (In fact, this was the case in my own hiring. I’m lucky #4!)  

…But ABD Hires May Come with Strings Attached

Administration may have a policy that ABDs must complete the degree in a specific timeline. A contract may require you to complete the degree as soon as within an academic year, or as late as by the tenure application. Know what the clock is, and be honest with yourself about whether you can make the deadline. I completed my dissertation while working my first full-time, tenure-line job, and I would not recommend running that gauntlet to anyone. On the other hand, the job security was an enormous motivator to finish. I gained weight and gray hairs in the process, but I earned tenure as well.  

“Terminal Degree” May Mean More Than You Thought

Depending on your discipline, you may not think you need a doctorate. The MA, MFA, MS, or MLS has conventionally been accepted as the terminal degree in a few fields. A creative writing professor, for example, could be competitive with an MFA.  

As more and more PhDs are applying for adjunct positions, however, administrators have realized that they can insist upon a PhD, even if that is not typically the standard in the field. This may not be fair, but it’s a demand that the adjunctification of higher ed has made possible. If you have a Master’s degree, weigh carefully your desire for a tenure-track position and the time, labor, energy, and money required for a PhD.

Expectations for Scholarship

If you are ABD or a newly minted PhD, a hiring committee at a teaching-focused school may consider one or two publications in smaller journals significant. Even a couple of book reviews and some reference materials may be fine. If you’ve been on the market for a long while, though, or worked at other institutions, then a committee may expect you to have accomplished more. Your chapter in an anthology may impress, but your entry in that encyclopedia of Victorian poets may suddenly seem paltry.

If you’ve spent any time in academia, you know the system loves its hierarchies, and faculty can be snobbish. Recently, I put a book review on my CV. This project had taken time and research, and I considered it significant scholarship. A colleague suggested that I remove it from the section of my CV where journal articles live, creating  a new section called “Other Contributions.” I didn’t do that, but I did explain the significance of the work in my promotion letter. I made a case, too, for my “public” writing in blogs and news outlets. You may need to advocate for the work you do, as you can’t assume the scholars reading your CV will. When in doubt, ask someone who’s been there.

I’ve learned that a significant portion of academics construct the the scholarly ladder thusly, from the bottom up: reference works, blog posts, book reviews, peer-reviewed journal articles, chapters in anthologies, and books (or “monograph” if you’re feeling fancy). Where purely digital scholarship lives in this formula varies widely from discipline to discipline and department to department.

This, too, is not fair. If you’ve worked as an adjunct, you’ve likely had less time and fewer resources to devote to scholarship. Most faculty know that the first three items on the list are both intellectually valuable and in many cases more immediately useful to readers. They can also often be completed with limited resources. If you’re lucky enough to have an adjunct-ally or former adjunct on the hiring committee, this might be taken into account. Unfortunately, too many tenure-line faculty have no sense of the obstacles to publication that adjuncting brings.  

Addressing the Challenges of Adjunct Work

You might consider addressing the challenges of adjunct work head on, as our host Joe Fruscione did in his last cover letter in 2013. The approach he shared with me is one I can imagine a search committee being moved by: he emphasized the significance of his scholarship in light of the adjunct’s schedule he was keeping.

In my own interview for my current position, I was asked if I felt prepared for the 4/4 teaching load shared by all members of the teaching-focused university. I think I may have actually chuckled! Honestly, I think the description of my ability to juggle my dissertation with adjunct work at two or three colleges each semester made a convincing case that I was ready to handle the demands of the tenure line. It helped, of course, that the faculty involved in my interview were labor-conscious already.

So, I think that some faculty will be moved by addressing the challenges of adjunct work directly in a cover letter. A few, however, are bound to misunderstand thanks to their lack of experience adjuncting (and perhaps apathy). We’ve all read the posts and comments from tenure-line faculty who dismiss the descriptions of adjunct workloads, claiming that “we all work hard” and “we all have busy schedules,” betraying any understanding of the material differences in positions.

That said, it can’t hurt—and might help—to ask some tenured faculty for feedback on this section of your letter, especially if they have experience serving on hiring committees.

It’s easy to paint the tenured profs with a wide brush, as one-dimensional villains with tweed jackets, mostly because so many of us have refused to acknowledge or address the concerns of our adjunct colleagues, despite advocating for social justice beyond the academy. (You won’t get any “not all tenured professors” nonsense from me.) Even the most ignorant of professors are awakening to the broken nature of higher education’s labor system, since budget crisis rhetoric, increased workloads, and/or shrinking departments have come for us all. As non-tenure-track faculty unions grow in number and power, tenure-line faculty are being forced to acknowledge that the problems of adjunct faculty are linked to the problems of us all.

As a result, emphasizing the particular context in which adjuncts work, while noting the increasing demands on all faculty, can be a better a countermeasure to adjunct-bias now than it would have been ten years ago.

Find Your Fit

While you may be applying to every college with an opening, you will seem a better fit to the hiring committee if you can speak to features of the institution you find attractive. You might want any job, but they want to know why this one is the best fit for you. Learn about the department, its programs, its student population, and its extracurricular organizations and publications. Explain why you’re excited to work in these contexts and with these people. Ask questions that show you’ve done your research. Whatever you do, don’t say that the interviewing institution is a great “first stop” in your academic career. They’re interested in nurturing a colleague, not in preparing you for a job somewhere else.

You may be tempted to apply for a position that you aren’t particularly suited for, or one which you feel you can do well despite it being out of your specialty or experience. Maybe you take the time to recraft your letter and CV to show your ability to do such work, or to acknowledge directly that this is not your field. These are understandable moves, but they’re not always the best tactic.

When serving on committees, I’ve had to read through over a hundred applications for a single position. Looking through reams of paper between classes and meetings, faculty may look at these reworked CVs with a twinge of annoyance—or resentment. If the ad asks for a hard news journalism professor and you pitch your creative writing degree as a qualification for that work, you’re likely going on the “no” pile.  

That said, some applicants undersell their suitability. I’ve seen applicants for composition positions continue to pitch themselves as Medievalists or American Studies scholars (perhaps hoping the job teaching writing may one day allow them to teach in these areas again, too), not bothering to mention the two classes in composition pedagogy and theory they took in graduate school. If I’m on the committee, like your experience, and want to make a case for you to the other committee members, I need concrete lines on the CV and cover letter to point to. I need letters of reference that speak to your work in the area in question. Your identity and long-term hopes may lie in a different specialty, but your qualifications for the job at hand is the only case you need to make. When they have hundreds of applications to consider on a deadline, many committees won’t take the time to hunt out details you didn’t highlight.

One last piece of advice: where possible and practical, apply to institutions that share your sense of fair play and labor ethics. That is increasingly challenging in the modern, corporatized university, and certainly no institution is without its flaws. You can tell a lot about a college by the way it treats its graduate students and adjuncts, though. When I applied to the tenure track at Kutztown University, I did so in part because its faculty were unionized, it employed most adjuncts full-time with pay and benefits above the national average, and it did not take advantage of graduate students in the classroom. I knew that for those circumstances to exist, the tenure-line faculty must have fought for them. I assumed that the search committee might see me and my CV with this same spirit. I figured I might fit.

And if you get that tenure-line job, I hope you’ll remember every detail of the fight to get there, the broken scales and elitist ladders. I hope you’ll volunteer to serve on a hiring committee and be the voice that advocates for fair play.