N Is for Negative Capability

I was thinking that N might be for Narrative, but then I read the “N Is for Narrative” I posted during the 2017 A to Z Challenge in this blog and thought No way could I surpass that.

I’ve had thoughts like that recently when rereading stuff I wrote 40 years ago. Has it all been downhill from there? I can’t help wondering. At the same time, I see in those long-ago essays and poems strong traces of who and where I was at the time, what I was reading, what my friends and I were talking about, what I thought was so important I was moved to write about it. Moral of story: Write it now. Don’t put it off.

So Narrative was out. The obvious alternatives, to my mind anyway, were Names and Negative. I could say a few things about names, but the thought didn’t inspire me. “Negative” felt, well, too negative. Not that learning to deal with “no” isn’t crucial for writers. The “no” coming from within can shut us down completely. The “no” coming from publishers, publications, and workshops or courses we were dying to get into can be devastating.

I didn’t want to write about that either. Not now, anyway.

Mulling over “negative,” “negativity,” and “negation” on my walk this morning, I recalled a workshop leader, a poet, talking about “negative capability.” The phrase came from John Keats, but I didn’t remember what it meant. So I looked it up.

The Poetry Foundation includes “negative capability” in its “Glossary of Poetic Terms,” calling it “a theory first articulated by John Keats about the artist’s access to truth without the pressure and framework of logic or science.” The entry goes on: “Contemplating his own craft and the art of others, especially William Shakespeare, in one of his famous letters to relatives Keats supposed that a great thinker is ‘capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’”

The Wikipedia entry is more enlightening. First it gives the phrase in fuller context: “I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Then it notes, one, that this was the only time Keats used the phrase, and two, that the letter in which it appeared didn’t circulate widely until after Keats’s death (in 1821, of TB, in Rome, at the age of 25).

Aha, think I. All we really have is Keats’s definition: “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” All the rest is commentary, some by Keats in his short lifetime and even more in the ensuing three centuries by subsequent scholars, critics, poets, and the like. It must be OK to push all the talk about “beauty is truth and truth, beauty” (from Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”), about art vs. science and intuition vs. reason, to one side and just focus on what Keats wrote in that letter:

“. . . when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

Turn that “man” into “poet” or “writer” or “artist,” or “scientist” or “philosopher,” for that matter, and you’ve got it. It’s about being open to what flows into your mind, or what flows through your fingers when you’re freewriting. It may not be fact or reason you’re tempted to reach out after — more likely it’ll be undone dishes or unmade phone calls or the terror of the blank page. The blank page is where it starts.

Negative capability. Openness. Being ready for anything.

M Is for Memoir

You don’t need a dictionary to tell you that “memoir” is closely related to “memory,” and you don’t need a best-seller list to tell you that memoirs — some of them, at least — are wildly popular. Put that together with the well-worn advice to “write what you know” — what do you know better than your own life, and who knows it better than you? — and hey, why not write a memoir?

Why not indeed?

If you’ve given it a try, you’ve probably discovered that it’s harder than it looks. The challenges inherent in other kinds of writing don’t disappear when you’ve taken your own life as your subject. Structure. Focus. Transitions. Laying down one sentence after another till you get to where you’re going — wherever that is.

You’ll almost certainly discover that some significant incidents in your life didn’t happen when you thought they did, or even where you thought they did. If you consult others who were around at the time — not a bad idea, if they’re still around and if you can do it in reasonable safety both to you and to them — you might find that they didn’t happen the way you remember them either. Others may remember them differently. This doesn’t mean that you’ve got it wrong, only that your version is one of several that may duplicate, complement, or even contradict each other.

Think of what goes down in a courtroom. Witnesses see the same event from different perspectives. They hear the same words spoken but come away with different interpretations, depending on what they know of the speaker and how they remember what was said.

Writing a memoir, you’re not only the eyewitness, you’re the attorney for both prosecution and defense, as well as the judge and jury. It’s not an adversarial process exactly, but be prepared to ask yourself questions that make you uncomfortable.

I didn’t set out to write a memoir, but that seems to be what I’m doing. Memoirs are often written by people who’ve done great things, or taken part in momentous events, or had extraordinary things happen to them. None of these things apply to me.

One of my very first T-shirts, from the campaign to ratify the Massachusetts Equal Rights Amendment, 1976

Well, OK, I have taken part in momentous and otherwise interesting events but usually on the peripheries. And in 1976, the year I turned 25, I started collecting T-shirts from those events. Except that I wasn’t collecting them the way collectors collect things. I was mainly adding to my wardrobe. T-shirts were colorful and cheap. They said something about me that I was pleased to have said.

At some point, maybe when I counted my T-shirts and realized I had over a hundred of them, I said “No more T-shirts.” I said it several times more over the years. When I counted my T-shirts this past winter, I had 190 so you know how that went.

For my 50th birthday party in June 2001 I hung 25 or 30 of my shirts up in the living room. People liked them. They asked questions. I told stories about where I’d got them. That was probably where I first thought that I could do more with my T-shirts than wear them.

But it was almost 20 years before, earlier this year, I launched The T-Shirt Chronicles, a memoir disguised as a blog or maybe a blog disguised as a memoir. I’m 10 posts in and I still haven’t got out of the 1970s. Come check it out and follow if you’re so inclined.

A couple dozen T-shirts hanging on two clotheslines
A selection from the collection

L Is for Literature

I was already thinking that L was for Literature or maybe Literary. My thought was to riff on the ways these words are used to exclude, marginalize, and intimidate. I’ve done this before. I could do it again.

Then I came across something I’d posted to this blog in 2014, after Ursula K. Le Guin was honored at the 65th National Book Awards for her distinguished contribution to American letters. Her acceptance speech is wonderful. As I wrote at the time: “In barely five minutes she proved that her distinguished contribution continues. Her speech seems to be going viral. Good. It’s a challenge to writers, publishers, and readers. Let’s live up to it.”

2014 is pretty much the Pleistoscene at this point. Did we even imagine that Donald Trump could become president, or what havoc he would unleash in the country? Le Guin, like other fantasy and science fiction adepts, knew what mayhem and destruction can be unleashed on the world by an arrogant and ignorant conjurer. Whatever went viral then is long since forgotten now. But this is worth remembering. Le Guin reminds us that “literature” is so much more than what the gatekeepers and the bean-counters want us to believe, and so much more important.

So here again is the video of her speech, and the text as transcribed by Parker Higgins and posted on his blog. He notes that the bits in parentheses were ad-libbed to the audience.

RIP Ursula (1929–2018). May your words never die.

Thank you, Neil [Gaiman, presenter], and to the givers of this beautiful reward, my thanks from the heart. My family, my agent, editors, know that my being here is their doing as well as mine, and that the beautiful reward is theirs as much as mine. And I rejoice at accepting it for, and sharing it with, all the writers who were excluded from literature for so long, my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction—writers of the imagination, who for the last 50 years watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.

I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality.

Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship. (Thank you, brave applauders.)

Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial; I see my own publishers in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an ebook six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience and writers threatened by corporate fatwa, and I see a lot of us, the producers who write the books, and make the books, accepting this. Letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish and what to write. (Well, I love you too, darling.)

Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.

I have had a long career and a good one. In good company. Now here, at the end of it, I really don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want—and should demand—our fair share of the proceeds. But the name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom.

Thank you.

K Is for Knowledge

You’ve probably heard it so often, repeated with such authority, that you’re ready to throttle the next person who says it: Write what you know.

Likely you’ve also heard, or even yourself said, the common rejoinder, which goes something like That’s crap. Haven’t you ever heard of research?

Well, of course. What we know is fluid, expanding and deepening even without any conscious effort on our part. For writers, research is ongoing. We read, we listen, we travel to a new place, we walk down a street we’ve walked down many times before, noticing some things for the first time.

My hunch is that Write what you know surfaced at least in part as a response to the notion that one could only be a real writer if one had had certain experiences. The requisite experiences — being in combat, for instance — were almost invariably skewed male. At a women’s writing workshop in the late 1980s, a bunch of us got to talking about this. We couldn’t help noticing that experiences common to women, from childbirth to housework to caregiving, weren’t considered worthy subjects for serious literature.

One of us remarked, half-facetiously, that “the only suitable subjects for academic poetry were bullfighting and war,” whereupon several of us set out to write about bullfighting, which, need I say, none of us had ever done. My contribution grew into “The Bullfight Sonnets,” which was published by Sinister Wisdom in 1988. It includes these lines:

. . . Novelists extol
the crowd, the sun, the blood, the kill, the role
of manhood challenged and found worthy. I
am less enthralled. Instead, I wonder why
cerebral critics desperately admire
heroes who hold their shit when under fire.

Can you tell we had Ernest Hemingway on the brain? Not so much Hemingway, however, as the “cerebral critics,” English teachers, and others who held Hemingway’s spare style up as the pinnacle of literary excellence. At the time, writing about New York, published in New York, and taken up by an audience of New York–based literati was also elevated a step or two above “regional” writing. Take that, Willa Cather, Flannery O’Connor, and Eudora Welty.

I think that the English-language “canon” has gotten more regional, more international, and a lot less white since then. Nevertheless, I continue to take Write what you know as encouragement to start wherever we are, in place, time, and subject matter. Themes of universal — or at least widespread — concern can be reached from anywhere.

One of my favorite axioms is Your writing will teach you what you need to know.

A corollary to that is Your readers will teach you what you need to know more about.

I live on Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the coast of New England that you have probably heard of whether you’ve been here or not because it gets written about a lot, by journalists, novelists, poets, and others. Most of them don’t live here year-round, or haven’t lived here long. It’s not hard to tell which of these writers have been listening to the place and the people in it and which either didn’t take the time or just don’t know what they don’t know.

It really is OK to write about places where you haven’t spent much time and people with lives and backgrounds very different from yours. Hell, historians and historical-fiction writers regularly write about times where they’ve never been, and plenty of them do it very well. (On the other hand, if we’ve never been there either, who are we to tell them that they’ve got it wrong?) Research is required for sure, but it can only get us so far: there’s more to recreating a place or time than avoiding anachronisms and getting the street names right. Imagination and empathy are also necessary, along with an awareness that no matter how much we know, there’s always a lot that we don’t.

J Is for Journal/ism

Journal, journalism . . .

Lately while out in the woods with my dog I’ve been pondering the connection. It’s out there in plain sight: both words derive from the Latin diurnus or diurnal, daily, by way of the French jour. So does journey, from the Old French jornée, a day’s travel or a day’s work.

The etymological connection is close and clear, but in practice? Both have to do with writing, but journals are private while journalism is very public, right?

Well, a journal is private while you’re writing in it, but in the historical and biographical nonfiction I copyedit, previously private journals become essential sources for published writing. Public figures and figures who plan to become public often keep journals as an off-the-record record of their journeys, their days’ travel and their days’ work. For anyone who seeks to understand what was going on behind the scenes during important events, these journals become crucial.

With journalism, the journey from private to public happens much faster. It may be almost immediate. Being a rather slow writer myself, I’m continually awed by the speed with which a good reporter can gather information, synthesize it, and spin it into a story that makes sense when heard or read. In a competent news organization the reporter doesn’t do it alone, of course. The tighter the deadline, the more important editors and fact-checkers become.

You can see the problem: In the digital age, deadlines have never been tighter, but unfortunately neither have budgets, and the editorial and fact-checking positions are among the first to get axed. For a writer, going to print without adequate editing is like doing tightrope acrobatics without a safety net. Continuous deadline pressure raises the wire a few yards.

Another casualty of the digital age has been local journalism. Local journalists know their areas well. They develop stories that develop under the radar of regional and big-city news organizations. These stories can and often do become the impetus for regional and national stories — the building blocks, if you will.

And that’s a connection between journals and journalism: as journals can become building blocks — sources — for historians, biographers, and historical-fiction writers, so day-to-day news stories become the foundation for longer series, for informed commentary, and for full-length books. Some of the most important books I’ve read began as the writer’s reporting for a newspaper or magazine. Among the works that come immediately to mind: Seyward Darby’s Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism, Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators, and Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, about the migration of African Americans from the South into the Northeast, Midwest, and West.

Others rely heavily on the in-depth reporting of others, such as Rachel Maddow’s Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth.

I recently copyedited two books dealing with Covid-19. One focused on the political and medical aspects of the pandemic; the author had clearly been keeping a detailed record of a year’s worth of developments, while publishing some of it in pieces along the way. The other, by a working journalist, gathered in-depth interviews with individuals variously involved with the pandemic, as patients, health-care workers, local officials, scientists, and so on; earlier versions of most of these interviews had already been published.

So what does all this have to do with you, the writer and/or editor? I see a few possibilities. An obvious one is that news outlets, especially local ones, are a vehicle for getting your words into print and even building an audience. Think letters to the editor, op-eds (opinion pieces that traditionally appear opposite the editoral page), and feature stories, for instance about an individual or organization that’s doing good work in your area.

As local news outlets decline, “citizen journalism” has become more important. Sometimes it’s fostered by existing news organizations; other times it arises from the grass roots, with individuals using social media to report and comment on happenings in their areas. Some practitioners have huge national and international followings. Many more find readers closer to home.

In my area a very large Facebook group has become a conduit for local news, even though we’re lucky enough to still have not one but two weekly newspapers. I think of it as the grapevine on steroids: “news,” such as it is, travels farther faster than old-fashioned gossip ever dreamed of doing, and it can be every bit as inaccurate and even vindictive. But it tells me a lot about the community I live in.

I Is for Imagery

I loved high school English, but after all those in-depth discussions of Shakespeare, Hemingway, Austen, Fitzgerald, and the rest, I went out into the world with some wrong ideas about writing.

I thought images, symbols, and metaphors were like booby traps. Writers embedded them in their stories in order to razzle-dazzle sophisticated readers, and to trick high school students. Why was there a green light at the end of Jay Gatsby’s dock? Why, to drive us crazy, of course.

My English teacher senior year was aware of the problem. She’d ask what an author was trying to do in a particular passage and then, usually after a minute of nervous silence from the class, add, “This is not a trick question.” We didn’t believe her.

For many years, I wrote mostly nonfiction. Nonfiction, I mistakenly thought, was safe from images, symbols, and metaphors. When I started dabbling in poetry, I knew I was in trouble. Poetry is all about images, symbols, and metaphors, isn’t it?

I am not a gardener, but I do have a little garden. It’s in an old dinghy.

Before long, though, I got it: Images, symbols, and metaphors grow out of the writing. They’re gifts, like sprouts in the spring garden. (Look, look! A simile!) The gardener can nourish them and help them grow, or she can decide the row is too crowded and yank some of the seedlings out. (Metaphor!)

A writer I once workshopped with relayed something she’d heard from a poet she knew: “To be a writer, you have to know one thing well.”

The thing you know well is the soil from which your images, symbols, and metaphors grow. Of course there can be more than one thing, and you can always learn more.

When the garden gets too crowded, it’s hard to see what’s going on.

Any story or poem or essay is bound to have lots of images in it. This is fine. Gardens contain lots of plants, don’t they? All sorts of plants. At the same time, if you’ve got too many flowers growing in a limited space, your readers won’t know where to look. They may miss something that you want them to notice. Keep that in mind when you get down to revising your work.

One last thing to keep in mind: Many, many common expressions are metaphors that have long since come adrift from their literal meanings. This can get writers into trouble. Take the phrase “rein in,” as in “rein in one’s ambition.” I sometimes see “reign in” even in the work of pretty good writers. “Rein in” comes from horsemanship. If you keep horses, reins, and bridles in mind, you won’t write “reign” for “rein.” (Come to think of it, I don’t believe I’ve ever come across a reference to “unbridaled passion.” It has possibilities, doesn’t it.)

Metaphors and images can be effectively mixed and matched. They can complement each other or create dissonance. If you use them with care and know where they came from, you won’t inadvertently come up with doozies like “He’s a wolf in cheap clothing” — which also has possibilities, but seriously, you don’t want to do it by mistake, do you?

For a crash course in metaphors, see this post by Richard Nordquist, a retired English professor who is very good at explaining things.

H Is for Habits

Habit: “A recurrent, often unconscious pattern of behavior that is acquired through frequent repetition” or “customary manner or practice.”

When you’re not sure where to start, head for the dictionary. 😉 Those come from the American Heritage Dictionary. There are other “habits,” but I’m not thinking of nun’s habits or riding habits or habits involving narcotics.

Habits are the patterns and practices that can help you create the space that makes your writing possible. Needless to say, they can also create spaces in which writing is difficult if not impossible, so if you’re having a hard time getting down to work, day after day after day, it’s worth taking a hard look at what habits may be getting in the way.

I once wrote a whole poem of ways to avoid writing. I can’t remember any of it, but I’m pretty sure that doing the dishes and vacuuming were in it. The ways to avoid writing are myriad. I can even use writing to avoid writing.

My #1 habit in the sense of “customary manner or practice” is write every day. This started when I was working on my novel. I’d never completed anything longer than 40 pages before. I was desperately afraid I was going to choke. You know where the cartoon character runs straight off a cliff and for a moment is suspended in midair above a chasm, feet still running? That was me.

I made a New Year’s resolution, one of the few New Year’s resolutions I’ve ever made. The resolution was that I would write every day until I had a complete draft. I didn’t specify how many words I would write, or how many hours — only that I would write every day.

I have a candle burning while I write.

Some days, I swear, it would be five minutes to midnight when I sat down at the computer and opened the Word file. That was enough. I’d tweak the last paragraph I’d written and then write another paragraph or two. Just opening the file was enough to reassure me that it hadn’t turned to crap the moment my back was turned. What I’d already written would tell me what to do next.

Ordinarily mornings are my best writing time, especially for first-drafting. In the morning I’m fresh and optimistic. As the day goes on, my mind fills up with distractions, interruptions, and reasons not to write. Editing I can do at other times.

My worst habit, of the “recurrent, often unconscious pattern of behavior that is acquired through frequent repetition” type, is Spider solitaire. Decades ago I played it with real cards, then some fiend decided to bundle it with Windows and I was doomed. If the writing stalls, suddenly Spider is open on my screen and I’m playing another game without knowing how I got there. I am almost certainly powerless over Spider solitaire. I don’t think my life has become unmanageable — yet — but I may be fooling myself.

G Is for Grammar

Grammar scares the hell out of many people. In the very late 1990s, when I started participating in online groups that weren’t oriented to editors and/or writers, people would sometimes apologize to me for their bad grammar or spelling. Once in a while someone would attack me for making them feel inferior. I was mystified. For one thing, their grammar wasn’t bad at all, and for another I wasn’t criticizing anyone’s grammar, spelling, or anything else.

Then I got it: I was using the same sig line I used in online groups of writers, editors, and other word people. It identified me as an editor. I cut “editor” out of my sig line. The apologies and attacks stopped.

Grammar gets a bad rap. (NB: I just took a little detour to look up “bad rap,” like why isn’t it “bad rep,” as in “reputation”? Check it out on the Merriam-Webster’s website.) Plenty of us learned in school that there’s only one right way to write and every other way is substandard. Taken to heart, that’s enough to paralyze anybody.

There’s no shortage of people who’ll sort you into a category according to how you speak or write. (Take a break here if you like to listen to “Why Can’t the English?” from My Fair Lady.) A common assumption seems to be that editors all come from this judgmental tribe. While it’s true that most of us who become editors were language adepts in school — we spot grammatical errors and misspellings as readily as musicians detect sour notes in a concert — the best editors I know put serious effort into learning more about how our language is used in the real world, and how writers use it.

Some grammars are descriptivist: they describe how a language is used by its speakers. Others are prescriptivist: they tell speakers of a language how they ought to be using it. Language changes over time, no doubt about it. It also varies across different populations, which is why both writers and editors need to consider the audience for whatever they’re working on.

Think of grammar as a tool in your toolkit. As tools go, it’s a pretty complex one and takes a while to master — it’s more like a piano than a screwdriver. On the other hand, a sentence has fewer moving parts than the human body, so learning the parts of speech takes a lot less time than learning all the bones and muscles. Understanding how the parts are supposed to work together makes it easier to recognize when a sentence isn’t working, how to fix it, and how to explain it all to someone else.

If you never learned to diagram sentences in school, or even if you did, you might find that diagramming helps you visualize how the parts of a sentence fit together. There are plenty of how-tos online, including this one.

Since my first editorial job four decades ago, my go-to reference for grammar questions has been Words Into Type. It hasn’t been revised in just about that long, so it can be hard to find, so I asked some editorial colleagues what their favorite references were. Here are a few of them:

  • The Copyeditor’s Handbook, 4th ed., by Amy Einsohn and Marilyn Schwartz, University of California Press. I’ve got the 3rd edition, the last one Amy completed solo before her death in 2014. And no, it’s not just for copyeditors.
  • Good Grief, Good Grammar: The Business Person’s Guide to Grammar and Usage, by Dianna Booher, Ballantine Books
  • The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation, by Jane Straus, Lester Kaufman, and Tom Stern, Wiley
  • The Gregg Reference Manual, by William Sabin, McGraw-Hill
  • The Little, Brown Handbook, by H. Ramsey Fowler, Jane E. Aaron, and Michael Greer, Pearson
  • The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th ed., University of Chicago Press. Also available by subscription online. I’ve been using it since the 12th edition, when it was still called A Manual of Style.
My go-to reference books

F Is for Freewriting

Freewriting is like brainstorming for one, though you can do it in the company of others. A writers’ group I once belonged to started each meeting with freewriting. We took turns picking a prompt, usually a word, phrase, or the beginning of a sentence, and a time limit, usually 10 or 15 minutes. One person set the timer and off we went.

We all wrote in longhand, on yellow pads or in whatever notebook we’d brought with us. The only rule was Keep writing. Put pen or pencil to paper and keep your hand moving till the bell rings.

You didn’t have to read what you’d written aloud, but all of us almost invariably did. Our stuff was amazing — funny, profound, startling, poignant — but what amazed me most was what I’d managed to put on paper in 10 or 15 minutes. Sitting at the computer it might take me an hour or more to write a paragraph I was satisfied with. Most of that hour would be spent staring at the screen with my hands nowhere near the keyboard.

That writers’ group experience and the “morning pages” I did while following Julia Cameron’s The Artist Way sold me on writing in longhand.

Maybe it’s because I was an editor as well as a writer, but I could look at a rough draft — my own or someone else’s — and my mind would be full of ideas of things to try: swap those two paragraphs, delete that sentence, expand this a bit, try this word instead of that one. A blank page, however, would provoke unease that could quickly escalate to procrastination, paralysis, and writer’s block.

Something similar often happened when I got stuck in the middle of something. It was like coming to the brink of a very high cliff. Seeing no way to proceed, I’d turn back and give up. Small wonder, then, that I wasn’t able to break the 40-page barrier: anything under that I could do, and pretty well, but I hadn’t been able to complete a novel, because novels are a lot longer than 40 pages. Some writers are able to jump into a novel or other book-length work and keep going till they finish. Not me. I’d get stuck, and because I didn’t have a deadline — no one was waiting for it — I’d give up.

Freewriting got me unstuck. I’d take pen and paper, leave my desk, and go somewhere else. When I was living close enough, I could walk into town, buy coffee and a muffin, grab an empty seat, and write. Often I’d give myself a prompt: “I can’t write this scene because . . .” or “[Character A] walks into the kitchen and sees . . .” The words would pour out. It might take a few minutes before the nugget would appear, the clue to my way forward, but it always would appear. Gradually I developed a deep faith in freewriting, and in writing in longhand.

Some writers freewrite their whole first drafts: no outline, no roadmap, no notes. If writers really can be divided into planners and (seat-of-the-)pantsers, they’re the pantsers. Most of us are probably a bit of both, depending on the project. Whichever, freewriting is a handy tool no matter how you use it: to warm up, to play, to get unstuck, or to write whole drafts.

E Is for Editing

Me editing in my EDITOR T.

What did you expect E to be for? 😉 As an editor, I don’t exactly breathe editing but I spend a lot of time doing it, thinking about it, and writing about it in this blog and elsewhere. In fact, just yesterday in my new T-Shirt Chronicles blog I posted about my first staff editor job and how I got my orange EDITOR T-shirt.

Editing is a big topic so here I’m going to focus on two questions that writers often ask: (1) Do I really need an editor? and (2) What kind of editing am I looking for?

Do I really need an editor?

Many editors insist that any writer who aspires to any kind of publication needs an editor. This is not surprising, because editors need paying clients to make a living. They have a point. Every writer, and every piece of writing that aspires to be read, could use or would benefit from good editing. That includes the editor-writers among us: no matter how much experience we’ve got, we can’t bring a fresh eye to our own work.

I part company with these editors when they emphasize the necessity of editing by likening editors to plumbers or car mechanics. You need a plumber when a pipe bursts in your basement. You need a mechanic when your rear brakes start to fail. You don’t need an editor with quite the same urgency. In the real world where funds are not unlimited, the flooding basement and the failing brakes, not to mention the groceries, rent, and utilities, take precedence over the unedited manuscript.

One-on-one editing is time-intensive. It does not come cheap. It does pay for itself, but rarely in hard currency. Even if you get your book, essay, or story published, the financial returns probably won’t cover what you shelled out for editing. Unless your book is very popular, it won’t begin to compensate you for all the hours you spent working on it either. But consider it this way: If you were looking primarily for a tangible return on your investment, you probably would have gone into plumbing or car mechanics, right?

If you’re serious about your writing, and especially if you self-publish, the time will probably come when the value of good editing will be worth the money you spend on it. Worth it to you.

I encourage writers to learn as much as they can about editing. It makes us better writers. It gives us more control of our work. It saves us money, because the more we can do ourselves, the less we have to pay others to do. And when the time comes to hire an editor, we’re better able to find one who will do justice to our work. Join a writers’ group or workshop. Attend a writers’ conference. Find a couple of fellow writers to share work with. Read widely and read critically; pay close attention to how the writers you respect do what they do. (Keep in mind that they’ve probably had editorial assistance along the way.) And by all means keep writing.

What kind of editing am I looking for?

Like many of the editors I know, I’m sometimes asked by novice writers what it would cost to “proofread” their work. Aside from the fact that to give a good estimate, it’s best to actually see the work, what these writers are looking for is invariably editing, not proofreading.

So what’s editing, beyond messing with something that’s already been written? Here’s where it can get confusing. “Editing” can involve anything from correcting typos and grammar gaffes to rearranging paragraphs and even helping a writer build a book from scratch. So we talk about “levels of editing.” Here’s a rough guide to the levels, starting with “big picture” editing and moving down to what I call the “picky bitch stage”: catching spelling and grammar errors.

Ghostwriting. Ghostwriting is writing, not editing. I include it because I’m not the only editor who’s heard this question: “I’ve got a great idea. Can you help me turn it into a book and we can share the royalties?” The answer is no. Ghostwriting is even more time-intensive than editing and even more costly. The chances that the resulting product will earn any royalties are close to nil. My standard answer is “Sell your proposal first and then we can talk.” None of the querents has ever come back.

Developmental editing. Like ghostwriting, this involves building the manuscript from the ground up. For big projects, like textbooks, it can involve multiple authors, researchers, designers, and more. For the individual writer, it’s all the work that goes into creating a coherent complete draft. Most of us do our own developmental editing, often with assistance from writers’ groups and those generous people who volunteer to read our work and give us feedback.

Rewriting. Most of us do our own rewriting too. From the individual writer’s point of view, it’s close kin to developmental editing.

Structural editing. The structure of a work is its skeleton. When the wrist bones are connected to the thigh bones, the body doesn’t work too well. All written works have structure. Structure is what guides readers through the story or the essay. When you decide that a scene in the middle of the book has to come near the beginning or a certain character’s motivation won’t make sense, you’re messing with the work’s structure.

Stylistic editing. This is called all sorts of things, including content editing, line editing, and copyediting. Here you go through the work line by line, asking whether each sentence, phrase, and word says what you want it to say, and in the best way possible. English is a wonderfully flexible language. Choosing the right word and putting it in the right place can make a big difference. Writers’ groups and volunteer readers (aka “guinea pigs”) can be invaluable here. You know what you meant to say, but until you get feedback from readers it’s hard to know how well it’s coming across.

Copyediting. I hire out as a “copyeditor,” but my work includes plenty of stylistic editing so I have a hard time distinguishing one from the other. Let’s say here that copyediting focuses on the mechanics: spelling, punctuation, grammar, formatting, and the like. With nonfiction, it includes ensuring that footnotes and endnotes, bibliographies and reference lists, are accurate, consistent with each other, and properly formatted.

Proofreading. This level is the most mechanical of all. It means catching the errors that have slipped through despite all the writer’s and editor’s best efforts. (No matter how expert the writer and editor are, there will be errors. Trust me on this. I just caught one in this sentence. No, I won’t tell.)

Before the digital age, edited manuscripts had to be typeset, i.e., completely retyped, and printed out as a galley proof. Proofreaders would read this proof against the manuscript to make sure the manuscript had been followed exactly and also to flag any errors in the ms. that the typesetter had missed. Nowadays the proofs are prepared from the edited manuscript. Because nothing has to be reset, each version is cleaner than its predecessor. Most proofreading is “cold reading”: reading the page proofs to catch any errors that slipped through in earlier stages.