B Is for Blogs & Bookstores

Some letters are friendlier to the Blogging from A to Z Challenge than others. Which is to say I could get through the month on maybe eight letters and never run short of topics. Other letters, however . . . On my brainstorm list I’ve got no shortage of Cs, Fs, and Ss but blanks for K, L, N, O, U, V, X, Y, and Z. Not to worry: one thing you learn and keep relearning as a writer to trust the process and don’t panic. The muses will come through if you let them.

I came to blogging rather late in the game, like early in 2011. My first blog was From the Seasonally Occupied Territories, about being a longtime year-round resident of Martha’s Vineyard. Most widely circulated writing about the Vineyard is done by people who haven’t spent enough time here to know what they don’t know, so I wanted to do my bit to correct the imbalance.

Maybe three years later I started this blog, Write Through It. Since 1997 I’d been an active contributor to online editors’ groups, first Copyediting-L and eventually the Editors’ Association of Earth groups on Facebook. It dawned on me that not only was I learning a lot from these ongoing discussions — they’re great continuing education for freelancers — I’d been editing and writing long enough to have a lot to offer my colleagues. Why not put some of it in a blog?

The cataclysmic U.S. election year of 2016 redirected my energies in a big way. My blogging output is way down, I’m not actively following nearly as many blogs as I used to, and most of the people who’ve subscribed to mine in the last few years have no apparent connection with the subjects. But it’s still a pretty good way to get your words out there and maybe start developing an audience.

As a matter of fact, a little over a month ago I started a new blog: The T-Shirt Chronicles. My more than 190 T-shirts span my life back to 1976, so I’m using them to organize a sort of memoir. Perhaps it’ll eventually turn out to be the rough draft for a book, but for now it’s a work in its own right.


The T-Shirt Chronicles haven’t gotten to Lammas yet, but they will.

During the first half of the 1980s I was the book buyer at Lammas, D.C.’s feminist bookstore. Bookstores testify to the the power of the written word. I had a personal relationship with every book on the shelves. It was there because I’d ordered it, and like as not I’d unpacked it, logged it into inventory, and shelved it. Whether I’d read it or not, I knew enough about it to point customers toward it if they might be interested in the subject or the author.

And almost every day I got to listen to customers talk about how a particular book or story had affected them, or even changed their life

Though I left both the job and D.C. in 1985, and though the store — like so many feminist and other independent bookstores — no longer exists, it’s my experience there that gets me through the times when my faith falters and I’m sure that writing doesn’t matter. If you’re lucky enough to live within reach of a real live bookstore, you probably already know the feeling. Clicking through the options at Mega Online Retailer doesn’t come close.

A Is for Audience

OK, it’s day 1 of the 2021 Blogging from A to Z Challenge. 🙂 My theme is Getting the Words Out, and since I’m both a writer and an editor, I’m going to be approaching this from several directions:

  • Getting the words out of your head and onto paper or screen
  • Getting those words into places where other people can see them

So here goes . . .

Listen to musicians, actors, public speakers, and almost anyone who performs in front of live audiences and they’ll often tell you that their performance is affected by how that audience is being affected by them.

In face-to-face conversations or discussions (remember those?), we consciously or subconsciously respond to how our listeners are responding to us. Are they nodding in agreement or are they starting to fidget? Are they itching to interrupt? We adjust our words, tone, and/or body language to engage them or keep them from blowing up or walking away.

Most of the time when we’re writing, there’s no one else around. (We may have had to shut a door or two to get ourselves a little peace and quiet.)

But we’ve still got an audience, and it’s not limited to the people we hope at some future date will read or hear whatever we’re working on. Someone’s paying attention from inside our head. Whether we’re aware of them or not, they’re influencing the words that appear on paper or screen.

Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, a character or a person you’re writing about may have interrupted to say, No, it didn’t happen that way or That doesn’t sound like me.

A poet friend, once asked who she wrote for, replied, “I write for the woman who told me my poems make her work so hard but it’s always worth it.”

The word audience comes from the present participle of the Latin verb audÄ«re, to hear. Think audio and audible. Your audience is whoever’s listening, and whoever you want to listen.

When I write reviews, or essays, or, come to think of it, blog posts like this one, I’m usually trying to figure out what I think about some topic that interests me. I’ll stick to it till I’m satisfied. Sometimes that’s enough. Other times I want to communicate knowledge I think is important or persuade others to consider a different perspective. In those cases I’ll often have a specific person or two in mind. Ideally that person is willing to put some effort into it.

Handwriting sample, or Why I write first drafts in longhand

It doesn’t help if that person is hyper- and often prematurely critical. For me a big challenge of being both a writer and an editor is not letting the editor mess with early-draft writing. I get around this by doing much of my first-drafting in pen and ink. My handwriting is messy enough that my internal editor has a hard time reading it. Crisp, perfectly formed letters on the computer screen, on the other hand, expose every typo and grammar gaffe.

Having an editor on call who works pro bono is a huge asset when the time comes, but timing is everything. Ideally she comes when called but not until then.


If you decide to make public what you’ve written, you’ll be making conscious decisions about audience: Who is my audience, and how do I reach them? In publishing, this is what marketing and distribution are all about, but publishing isn’t the only way to get your words out. This will come up again in subsequent posts. Watch this space.


As an editor who edits writing by other people, I let the intended audience guide my decisions about what vocabulary is appropriate and what ideas need how much explanation. A primarily academic audience specializing in a particular subject will not need as much historical background as the general audience for a book on that same subject. Fantasy, science fiction, horror, mystery, and romance (etc.) each has its own tropes and conventions that don’t need explaining. A novel intended to cross over into a more general audience will have to navigate the middle ground between explaining too little and explaining too much. We’ll come back to this, I promise.

Theme Reveal: #atozchallenge

I really want to wake this blog up, and I figure a surefire way to do it is to take part in the Blogging from A to Z April Challenge. I did it with Write Through It in 2017 and in From the Seasonally Occupied Territories in 2018.

The idea is to blog every day for the month of April, starting with A on April 1, B on April 2, and so on. You get Sundays off because April has more days than there are letters in the alphabet.

My theme for the month: Getting the Words Out

That includes both getting them out of your head and getting them out into the world so they can get into other people’s heads.

Come along for the ride!

It’s a Bouncing Baby Blog!

I just launched my long-fantasized-and-procrastinated-about blog about my ridiculously large T-shirt collection!! Which keeps growing despite my repeated attempts to put a cap on it.

You can find it at https://the-t-shirt-chronicles.com/. Please let me know what you think, because it’s very much a work in progress.

And yes, I realize that I haven’t posted to Write Through It in more than two years. The longer it goes, the more embarrassed I get, and the more embarrassed I get, the more reluctant I am to post. Anyway, it’s been an eventful couple of years, and the last year has probably been the strangest of my life. Yours too, I bet?

I’m one of the lucky ones who’s been able to work pretty normally despite the pandemic. Since I’d been working full-time from home for two decades already, in some ways not much changed. In other ways — well, if you’d told me on 1 January 2020 that by mid-March I’d be living on Zoom, I wouldn’t have had a clue what you were talking about. So I’m back, I will be posting here again, but meanwhile, do check out the new blog.

Editing on Paper

When I started editing for a living, “editing on paper” was about as noteworthy as swimming in water — like what else was I going to edit on — parchment? calfskin?

Now most editing is done on a computer screen. Editing on paper is a novelty. Some editors I know won’t do it. Quite a few of those a generation younger than I, and those who started editing professionally in middle age, have never done it.

I still do it on request. In fact, I just started a paper copyedit for a trade publisher client. It’s a 700-page nonfiction baby, with a short bibliography, no endnotes, and a 65-page “essay on sources.” I’m adequately supplied with red pencils and Post-its, and I still know copyeditor’s and proofreader’s marks as well as I know the alphabet.

My work nook. It’s much more cluttered than it was when I took this picture.

My little workspace — a comfy recliner, a lapdesk with my laptop (her name is Kore) on it, flat surfaces on either side — no longer lends itself to editing on paper. To my left, for instance, is a short row of editorial essentials: Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed.; The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed. — the newer 17th edition is on the floor next to my chair); Words Into Type; and Amy Einsohn’s Copyeditor’s Handbook.

Trouble is, the editorial essentials I use most often — which is to say “continually” — are online. My subscription to Merriam-Webster’s gives me access not only to the Collegiate but to the vastly larger Unabridged.

When I left my first staff editor job — in the publications office of the American Red Cross in Alexandria, Virginia — in (gasp) 1981, my colleagues gave me as a parting gift a copy of the Unabridged, formally Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. It’s far too unwieldy for regular use. It needs to sit on its own lectern, where you don’t have to wrestle it into your lap. This was indeed the setup in the Red Cross publications office: “Web 3” rested on its pedestal at one end of the editorial section and the venerable “Web 2” — Webster’s New International Dictionary, second edition — sat at the other. We editors each had the current edition of the Collegiate (IIRC it was the 9th) in our cubicles.

Arbiters of style, in hardcopy

I also subscribe to the Oxford dictionaries, which include not only British English (BrE) and the U.S. variety (AmE), but several other languages as well (Spanish, French, German, Italian, Arabic, Russian, Chinese, and Portuguese). Oh yeah, and access to Hart’s Rules, a popular BrE style guide, among other useful tools.

The American Heritage Dictionary doesn’t require a subscription for its online edition, though I’d happily buy one if it did because I use it a lot, and about a year ago I finally broke down and subscribed to the online Chicago Manual of Style because they were offering a good deal when the 17th edition came out in print.

You can imagine how much space all these reference books would take up in hardcopy, and did I say that I live and work in a studio apartment? Not to forget the geographical, biographical, and bibliographical resources that I use for routine fact-checking. My style sheet for a just-completed job included six and a half single-spaced pages of personal names alone, every single one of them verified by me. In the pre-digital days, I would have required access to a research library to accomplish this, and it wouldn’t have been expected: a common publisher’s guideline for copyeditors runs something like “check facts as long as it doesn’t add appreciably to your billable time.”

The digital age has contributed to considerable mission creep on this one. Checking names, dates, and even quoted material doesn’t add appreciably to my billable time, so I do a lot more of it than I did in the old days. The big challenge is keeping it from adding appreciably to my non-billable time. From childhood I’ve been one of those people who goes to look something up in a dictionary or encyclopedia, falls down the research rabbit hole, and emerges an hour or two later having learned all sorts of neat stuff that may or may not include whatever I was looking up in the first place. The World Wide Web laughs at “billable time.”

Social media is, if anything, even worse. I belong to several editing-related groups on Facebook. This is where I go to find answers that aren’t in the dictionaries or style guides, like “Is this sense of ‘set off’ common in the U.S.?” Pretty soon, though, I’m responding to another editor’s query, or checking up on breaking news, or reading an interesting commentary that a friend recommended. Rabbit holes and looking-glasses everywhere!

Gizmo with beer can. I have been a T. E. Lawrence fan since I was about 9. My taste for beer is relatively recent.

So when I edit on paper, Kore the laptop sits on her lapdesk on the floor at my feet, usually with the lid closed. To wake her up every time I want to check a name or date would absolutely add appreciably to my billable time and wreck my concentration too. So I flag the things I want to look up on Post-it notes and do it all in batches.

For access to dictionaries, I use Gizmo, my little tablet. I guess I could use Gizmo for fact-checking too, but the small screen and the virtual keyboard are not my friends, so I don’t.

Logging words, names, and style decisions in my style sheet is likewise clunkier when I edit on paper. (Aside: If you aren’t on a first-name basis with style sheets, check out my 2014 blog post on the subject: “What’s a Style Sheet?” You may already be keeping one without calling it that. When it comes time to work with an editor, your editor will be seriously impressed if you give her/him a style sheet. Trust me on this. )

When I edit in Word, it’s easy to flip back and forth between manuscript and style sheet, and to copy and paste words and names from one to the other. When editing on paper, I start my style sheet on paper, then when Kore’s back on my lap for a look-up session I create a Word file for it, print it out, log new words and style choices on it as they come up, then add them to the Word file at the next opportunity. And repeat, repeat, repeat till the job is done.

Word processors make style sheet maintenance so much easier because they can alphabetize long lists in a second or two. (I’m not going to even try to explain the grid system many of us used in the old days.) But once you’ve edited electronically, the biggest drawback of going back to paper is the lack of CTRL+F (Command + F on a Mac): the Search function. Once upon a time, if, say, the spelling of a name seemed slightly “off”, I could often find the earlier spot where it was spelled differently, even if I hadn’t noted the page number in my style sheet. Thanks to CTRL+F this facility has largely, though not completely, atrophied. I can now confirm my hunches in seconds. If I want to change an earlier style choice (often about hyphenation or a variant spelling), I can easily revisit and revise all previous instances.

So when I edit on paper, the publisher’s production editor provides an electronic copy of the manuscript. I edit on paper, but I search in Word. The same goes for proofreading: I generally mark up the hardcopy, but I have the PDF on my laptop in case I need to search, which I will, multiple times, before the job is done.

Back to Wolfie World

OK, I’m back — I think.

This morning I got back to Wolfie.

Postcard from Mary Likes Postcards. Check out her Etsy shop — lots of good stuff!

Word, which never lies (though it rarely tells the whole truth either), told me that I’d last opened the file on October 2. That sounds about right. That’s when I pushed it aside to focus on doing my bit for the Blue Wave while completing enough paid work to buy groceries, pay the rent, and rationalize the campaign contributions I was putting on my credit card.

Despite some high-profile disappointments, the Blue Wave was pretty spectacular. How spectacular wasn’t immediately obvious, but it was looking pretty good when I gave my “Post-Election Pep Talk” a couple days after the election.

In November I busted my butt to meet deadlines that wouldn’t have been so pressing if I’d done more work and less politicking in October. Now the deadlines are mostly met, accounts receivable are up, and the political outlook is brighter than it’s been in two years, so it’s all good. At the beginning of the month I swore off buying beer till I’d paid down my campaign-related credit card debt. I didn’t miss the beer as much as I thought I would; the campaign-related credit card debt is, if not quite liquidated, then well under control; so that’s pretty good too.

So this morning I finally got back to Wolfie. I didn’t do any writing — after two months away I had to get reacquainted first. I’m maybe two scenes away from finishing draft 3, which was a dangerous place to leave off. Drafts 1 and 2 didn’t go through to the end because until I was well into draft 3 I didn’t know how it was going to work out. Well, that’s not quite true: I had a good idea of how I hoped it would work out, but I didn’t know how my characters were going to get there.

Before I put Wolfie aside to devote more time and creative energy to politics, a promising path had appeared. Whenever I thought of getting back to it, a seductively sensible inner voice said, “Why bother? Your characters have figured it out, you know what’s going to happen, why waste your time writing it?”

Compounding that — well, with the country in desperate straits, how could I possibly justify spending hours upon hours upon hours on completing a novel that only a handful of people will ever read?

Word, which never lies, tells me I’ve so far spent 14,988 minutes on Wolfie since the file was created on March 20, 2017. That’s about 250 hours. Once again, however, Word isn’t telling the whole truth because I’ve been working on Wolfie for considerably longer than that. I started draft 3 on March 20, 2017. I could open the hibernating files for draft 1 and draft 2 and learn how many minutes I spent on each, but no, thanks anyway, I’d rather not.

So this morning I took a deep breath, opened draft3.doc, and jumped in about a hundred pages from the end. Within minutes I was back in Wolfie world, reading critically enough to be trimming words here and there but mostly remembering why for something like four years now I’ve been determined to do justice to these characters and their stories.

Last week on impulse I ordered not one, not two, but three new fountain pens. I already have too many fountain pens — like eleven. Fountain pens are for first-drafting. With Wolfie I’m deep in revise-and-rewrite mode, except when I’m brainstorming in longhand to get through a stuck place: then the fountain pens come out. But three new fountain pens? It’s almost as if the muses are sure that there’s another project coming after Wolfie and they want me to be ready.

Ink blot #1

Ink blot #2

Group(s) Work

Allison Williams’s post about organizing a writers group for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, in which writers aim to complete the first draft of a novel in one month) has useful tips for starting writers groups in general. Note especially that in her NaNoWriMo group not everybody is working on a novel, but one guideline is “Set a big goal” — something you’ll have to stretch to complete in a month. Write on!

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

We’re gonna write…ya wanna make something of it?

Remember that class where the teacher put people in groups and everyone shared a grade? How there was always that one person who slacked and drove everyone else crazy, and someone (possibly you) who worked double overtime to get the project done so you didn’t all fail?

Yeah, groups can really suck. Even writing groups, where we’re all there voluntarily…but so is That Writer. Plus the people who read too long, or ask for professional-level editorial feedback for free, or are all at wildly different levels.

But writing groups can also be great. November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), in which writers all over the world shoot for 50000 words, from scratch(ish). I was on the fence about whether to participate: I’m really more of a memoirist…it’s a big commitment…my mom’s coming to town and I want to take her…

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Why “Exact Match” Is Not Reasonable

Lately my writing has taken a backseat to political organizing. Well, OK, I am writing, but what I’m writing is mostly press releases, social media posts, and postcards to get out the Democratic vote.

Aside: If you’re in the U.S. and you’re looking for a good way to put your literary and/or artistic talents to good use, check out Postcards To Voters. There are currently some 25K volunteers writing GOTV (Get Out The Vote) postcards for Democratic candidates. For more info, here’s a blog post about why I’ve been writing postcards for almost a year now. PTV will continue way beyond next month’s elections, because there are always elections going on somewhere.

For sure I’m editing too, because editing pays the rent and buys the groceries, and rent needs to be paid and groceries bought.

But it hasn’t left much time, energy, or (maybe most important) focus for working on Wolfie (whose draft #3 is almost done) or blogging.

Mostly I’ve kept electoral politics out of Write Through It, but sometimes editing, writing, and politicking converge in a way that I can’t resist. So here goes.

As the 2018 midterm elections approach, Republican strategies to suppress the potentially Democratic vote have become, if not more ingenious, then at least more blatant. “Potentially Democratic” generally focuses on people of color and people of limited means.

Take Georgia, for example.  The stellar Democrat Stacey Abrams, an African American woman, is running for governor against Brian Kemp, a right-wing Republican whose campaign ads have pictured him in his pickup vowing to round up illegal immigrants. Kemp is currently Georgia’s secretary of state. In Georgia, as in most states, the secretary of state is the official in charge of all things electoral.

You see the potential problem here?

The problem is more than potential. The Associated Press recently reported that some 53,000 voter registrations had been put on a “pending” list. Why? In many cases, it was because the voter’s registration info did not exactly match the info on government records.

Say you write your name as Marie Smith-Rodriguez and the government records say you’re Marie Smith Rodriguez, sans hyphen. That’s not an exact match. You’re now on the “pending” list.

Say you write your address as 123 Main St. #4 and the government records have you at 123 Main St., No. 4. That’s not an exact match either. To the “pending” list with you.

It takes a sharp eye to catch discrepancies like these. As a longtime copyeditor and proofreader, I know this, and so do you as a writer who’s reviewed her own work or seen what a copyeditor caught that you missed completely.

Not to mention — “#4” and “No. 4” mean exactly the same thing to a reader familiar with English style. Only digital readers are likely to have trouble with it, as you know every time you commit a typo in a URL or a password.

“Exact match,” in other words, is a very, very high standard, and alone it’s not a good reason to challenge a voter’s registration.

Now it’s possible that the Georgia secretary of state’s office will manage to cross-check all these “pending” registrations before election day. (Early voting in Georgia started yesterday, October 15.) Given Georgia’s voter-suppression history, I wouldn’t bet good money on this. So a voter shows up to vote and her name isn’t on the regular rolls. Does she know that she can cast a provisional ballot, which will be kept separate from the regular ballots until her registration is verified? Maybe yes, but not unlikely no; it’s not unlikely she’ll leave without casting her vote.

So “exact match” is one of the many faces of voter suppression, and no one knows it better than proofreaders, copyeditors, and writers who’ve learned from experience that “exact match” is an unreasonably high standard for something as important as voting.

Mini-Interview with Leslie Pietrzyk

This caught my eye on Facebook because I’m intrigued by flash fiction and tempted to try it. A new member of my writers’ group writes it, and I’m finding it challenging as a reader — in very good ways.

tommydeanwriter

headshot, serious.jpgWhy do you write flash? What makes it different for you?

I don’t think of myself as a natural flash writer; I generally write novels and long short stories. I couldn’t write a poem if my life depended on it. But six-ish years ago, I started thinking about flash when I was working on THIS ANGEL ON MY CHEST, a book of stories that plays around with form. I challenged myself to write something short, to tell a complete and harrowing story in as few words as possible. (Here’s the result.) Now, I love the compression and the gut-punch of a successful piece of flash, that sense of illumination like a firework ripping through a dark sky. I like the power of what’s missing, of the ripples of what is suggested and implied and hidden. I explore the role of silence a lot in my fiction, whether real or…

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Decluttering

Any writer worth her salt has dozens of creative procrastination techniques in her repertoire. My favorites include dusting, vacuuming, and washing whatever dishes there are in the sink. Playing Spider solitaire is also right up there.

Procrastinator’s toolkit

Most writers worth their salt have at least some idea what they’re up to when, say, the blue-gray carpet suddenly seems so white with dog fur that it has to be vacuumed right now. The dog fur didn’t get there overnight, after all.

So when the towering pile of paper next to my work chair suddenly seemed too out of control to be borne, I was suspicious. I was closing in on the end of Wolfie, draft 3. I’d just completed a scene that had been giving me trouble, and I had no idea what happens next: exactly the sort of scenario that makes procrastination such a compelling option.

However . . .

I’d several times brushed past The Pile and knocked a cascade of papers to the floor. Papers that then had to be picked up and re-piled. Picking up papers delayed my getting back to work — perhaps this was a form of procrastination?

Aside: Writers know how sneaky Procrastination can be. Some of us have been known to use writing to avoid writing.

Aha! Down at the bottom of the pile I spied three yellow pads with plenty of blank sheets on them. When I don’t know what happens next in a work in progress, the surefire way to find out is to write in longhand, and to write in longhand blank paper is needed. Excavating The Pile wasn’t procrastination — surely it was a necessary step in the process?

Carefully I removed The Pile from table to floor, sat down next to it, and started sorting it into three piles: Keep, Put Somewhere Else, and Toss.

I didn’t keep an inventory of what I found there — that would be serious procrastination — but I did uncover folders, notebooks, and random papers related to three major projects, two ongoing and one completed last March, including the marked-up printout of Wolfie, draft 2, which I hadn’t referred to in months. Luckily there were no unpaid bills, jury summonses, or anything that had to be dealt with ASAP last June.

The Pile is now one third its former height. It does not cascade to the floor when I brush carelessly past it. Virtually everything in it is related to Wolfie. (The marked-up copy of draft 2 is now in the recycle pile.) Now I can get back to work . . .

. . . as soon as I blog about taming The Pile.

The Pile, reduced to a third of its former self. It used to tower over the books at left. See? There really are usable yellow pads at the bottom.