Hone Your Craft to Own Your Craft

The conversation went a little something like this:

“OMG, are you reading a dictionary right now?”

After glancing up and trying NOT to roll my eyes irretrievably into their sockets, “No, Hon, I’m actually reading a professional guide for editors to refresh my knowledge and see what’s new in the field.”

It was NOT, in fact, a dictionary. It was an editing style guide, thank you very much!

“So, like a dictionary, but worse?” Laughter and mocking conversation followed as the rest of the family got in on the joke.

“Har, har. You guys are hilarious.” I pushed my reading glasses back onto my nose and once more wielded my highlighter like the weapon it is.

The Importance of Staying Current

You know how our kids mock us when we say things like “groovy” or “psychedelic”? As writers, we spend a LOT of time focusing on speech patterns, slang, and even everyday activities of the younger generations. Why? It’s not because we enjoy watching exotic species in their natural environment. It’s because we need our writing to stay relevant—and, also, we don’t want to be mocked into a permanent room at Shady Acres just yet.

Writers today have many options. We’ve all seen the movies about hermits who decide to become lighthouse keepers on remote islands. They end up writing brilliant novels, and they never have human contact—except for that one captain who arrives in a rickety boat that crashes toward shore once per year with the basic supplies needed for survival. And who among us isn’t clamoring for that option?!

But—and this is just me going out on a limb—there are those writers who want to live an existence in modern society and write about current topics. And that means staying up to date with what is going on around them.

Collectors of Knowledge

We’re collectors and learners and hoarders of facts. And when you think about it, observing new trends, behaviors, and speech patterns are all ways of learning and collecting knowledge.

The intuitive and empathetic nature most creative people possess drives them to not only study and recall behaviors, but also try to understand how they fit into the context of the world surrounding them. All the human emotions and behaviors we learn about add to the worlds and stories we create.

But Why Study Grammar & Editing & Stuff?

The mechanics of our jobs—whether you’re a writer, an editor, a proofreader, or all of the above—are the supporting framework of the creativity we put out there. Think of the inner structure of a building, the weight-bearing support.

Is it all about grammar? Absolutely not. Is it about rule-breaking? Nope, not that either.

It’s about how everything works together to form a balance. It used to be all about grammar, but today I read style guides and grammar books to learn about updates and accepted uses.

THEN, I use my professional judgement, based on the text I’m currently writing or editing. True, there are still a few dusty, by-the-book rule followers who are likely growing apoplectic at reading this, but they are few and far between. Most writers recognize they’ll capture a larger and more invested audience if they “speak their language.”

Yeah, I’d Totally Read a Dictionary

When it comes down to it, I suppose I should apologize to my husband for being so appalled that he mocked me for nerding out while reading an editing guide…because it could have just as easily been a dictionary or a thesaurus. (#Guilty)

Why? I want my writing to be the best it can be. Likewise, I want my clients to get the very best work I can give them when I’m editing. That means they deserve the extra time I put in to stay abreast of current style guide updates and even the latest additions to Merriam-Webster.

P.S. Did you guys know that, as of 2021, “hard pass,” “@,” and “cancel culture” have officially been added to the dictionary? Don’t blink! Things change daily.

From Editor to Reader: How to Put Down the Red Pen and Read a Damned Book for Fun

Being an editor is great for so many reasons, but I’ll name just a few so we can all get back to writing and creating:

  • It’s nerdy. Cue eraser residue, chalk dust, and inspirational cat posters. As angsty as 6th grade was, there were still some pretty great moments—a lot of them in English class. While everyone else groaned about singing the preposition song, I annoyingly sang it AT EVERY OPPORTUNITY—for everyone who would listen. I eagerly diagramed and rewrote sentences and volunteered to recite poetry in front of the class. Others called in sick on ‘balcony day,’ but I perched myself atop my teacher’s rickety ladder and proceeded to Romeo & Juliet the hell out of a soliloquy. (Things like safety were of little consequence then. Now, you’d have a lawsuit on your hands before you could say ‘Dodgeball!’)
  • It’s methodical. Editors are a weird breed. (I probably don’t need to tell you that.) We’re writers, and we’re over-the-top creative, but we can also flip our analytical switch and focus solely on mechanics when necessary. The methodical nature of editing is quite relaxing and fulfilling. Maybe it’s the way all that red ink and those editing marks lend themselves to a feeling of accomplishment. An editor’s marks are a sign that an author’s work is nearing completion! After a long, hard road of research, drafts, rework, more drafts, and edits, a book finally takes shape—and it’s freaking amazing! It is worth all the hard work, sweat, and tears you put into it. Pretty great reason to love editing!
  • It’s nuanced. The little details of editing are especially appealing to grown-up geeks. Here’s why. Many of us would still be sitting in a musty university library somewhere researching the origins of the ampersand (originally the 27th letter of the alphabet, btw) if we didn’t need to make a living to survive. The great news is that, as editors, we sort of still get to do all that dank, musty research—except now we have laptops and Starbucks, both of which are way more en vogue than old-school card catalogs and micro-fiche.

Super-fun afternoon break idea: Choose a piece of writing and then decide as a group whether or not a specific pause in the writing is worthy of an em dash or if a comma will suffice! (SEEE, editors are FUN people, too!)

Hazards of the Job

If you’ve ever gone on vacation and attempted to NOT be an editor…

Hold on. I’m going to try to stop laughing before I finish that sentence. Starting again…

Editors don’t ever feel like they are on vacation; however, occasionally, they DO attempt to read books for fun. Weird, right? It’s sort of like explaining to kids that their teachers don’t actually live at the school. It usually goes something like this:

  • Editor arrives at beach with family and doles out 4 beach chairs, 2 totes full of everything needed in case of sudden apocalypse: water bottles, flip flops, hats, towels, sunglasses, water toys, shark repellant, snacks, kitchen sinks.
  • Trudges across sand, weighing option of continuing to struggle in flip flops vs. burning feet on boiling-lava-hot sand.
  • Plants chairs, towels, and umbrella in pristine location and shoos kids off to boogie board and avoid sharks.
  • Attaches sunglasses to face and pulls paperback novel purchased specifically for relaxing vacation reading out of beach bag.
  • Sinks into chair and opens to first chapter.
  • At exactly page 7, dog-ears page and works backward to see if protagonist’s name has been spelled consistently. Something seems off.
  • After verifying, returns to reading spot…only to discover accidental extra space before last sentence on page. Marks spot and digs in bag for pen.
  • Reminds self not to edit and ignores extra space.
  • Clears mind, checks on kids who are still safely playing, and flips to next chapter.
  • WHOA! Why is font size 2 pts. larger on this page? Unable to even more forward like this, closes eyes for a sunshine siesta.
  • Tries again later…only to encounter a typo and a factoid about a turtle that is really a tortoise.
  • Puts book down before heart failure sets in.

Ah, the Life of an Editor

If you haven’t yet been through the non-vacation vacation, don’t think you’ll avoid it forever. It will happen to you sometime in your editing career. You’ll sit down somewhere, yearning for unknown worlds and a blank mind—but instead you’ll end up getting a shitstorm of brain noise and the urge to mark all over things with a red pen. It’s unavoidable, so just remember it’s not your fault.

Every now and then, we have to remind ourselves that it all started with a story–and not with a whole bunch of grammar rules. Take a deep breath, order a margarita, sit back and have a good read. Take a vacation, dear editor, discover new worlds just for fun, and enjoy ALL. THE. VOICES.

Here’s What We Know

While vacay practically mandates at least one day of sandy, sunny, margarita-laden book reading with ZERO itinerary and an overload of cat naps, it’s sometimes hard to get our inner selves to cooperate. The pizza stain on page 87 of my new book is proof that I tried.

Before our latest trip, I delivered a mom mandate a little something like, “We’re all going on vacation, and we’re all GOING TO HAVE FUN.” I was determined to set the example.

But for the love of surf and turf, there were factors beyond my control! How was I supposed to kick back while staring at comma splices and run-on sentences? That’s no way to relax.

The Downtime Conundrum

Many people have an inner workaholic that refuses to clock out. For editors, it’s the constant flare-up of Sudden Onset Editor Syndrome that stops them in their tracks. (This should be listed on WebMD so we can research it while we’re up at 1:00 a.m. looking for new ways to kill off characters.) It’s very real and can be debilitating when it comes to reading material for enjoyment or informational purposes.

For example:

Sign at WalMart last weekend:

“All customer’s must wear masks.”

Me (after taking emergency hit off inhaler and tightening belt one notch):

“Honey, do you have a red pen?”

Normal people would be able to extract the necessary information from the above sample signage and then move on with their lives. Editors, however, have a gene that prohibits them from moving past such transgressions without righting the wrong.

Editors lose sleep asking themselves things like “the customer’s what?” and “If we don’t stop this, then who will?” after seeing possessives used to indicate plurals.

Work Your Just-for-Fun Muscle

Here’s what trips us up. The very things we critique for clients, friends, co-workers…anyone, really…are the things that pop up frequently in whatever we choose to read for fun. So just like we flip our switch from creative to analytic/writer to editor, it’s important to work the just-for-fun muscle, too.

After all, we’re not quitters. We will have fun reading, dammit. And we can ignore grammar mishaps for the sake of a good story. (We really can!) It might take modern pharmacological intervention, but we can do it.

There was a magical day when we all picked up a book and fell in love. And know what? That book probably wasn’t perfect. (Top secret insider info: none of them are.) But the story was fantastical, and we disappeared into our imaginations—and that’s what made us fall in love with the craft in the first place.

Let’s make a little more time for that. And keep taking time to look for the voices who are creating magic for future readers.

Your Readers Aren’t Bumblefucks: How to Tell They’re Smart & Treat Them That Way

I get it. It’s tough to give readers the benefit of the doubt when you’re talking about complicated subjects like snow, seafood, and shoes. As writers, we all fight a powerful inner force that drives us to explain things well beyond the point of clarity—often to the point of “Hey, in case you’re a dumbass, let me tell you what water is.”

Your readers will get tired of that faster than yesterday’s playlist.

Here’s a quick sample of what’s sometimes put in front of readers…and what they really think when we talk down to them:

Writer: Snow is white and cold.

Reader: No shit. There better be an inescapable blizzard trapping an entire town within the terrorizing clutches of an abominable snowman before you tell me more about this white, cold snow.

Writer: Seafood comes from the ocean…and often tastes (gasp!) “fishy.”

Reader: Unless you just pulled a megalodon from the sea, I don’t need the genealogy of the dinner you’re describing. However, if some prehistoric badassery is going down, then by all means, continue the explanation.

Writer: Shoes are utilized to protect the feet and often worn when leaving the home.

Reader: I’d really want to read more of this…IF the protagonist were running through a volcanic lava flow while wearing the latest lava-repellant footwear. However, I don’t need to be reminded every time Karen needs to slip on her Birks before leaving the house. Move on. We’re all well-versed in the role shoes play in our lives.

Remember

Cut the filler. Cut the fluff. Get to the good stuff.

We don’t do it on purpose. But every now and then, we write one of those sentences that makes it seem like our readers have the mental acuity of a box of rocks. Take a look at the last couple things you wrote. Is there anything you can omit (either because the reader likely already has that knowledge OR because the reader would love the opportunity to build that picture up in their own mind)?

PRO TIP: Never make your readers feel like they don’t know their ass from a hole in the ground. If you’re planning on a long-term career as a writer, this is BAD for business.

Why Focus on Readers?

When you empower your readers, you create excited, confident readers. You produce readers of more books! Remember every time you had a great book-reading experience as a kid or young adult? What did you do? You went and found another book. As writers, that’s all we can hope for: readers who want to READ MORE BOOKS.

Your Readers Are Worldly, Intelligent & Insightful

Readers have life experience, and you can assume that if they’ve picked up your book, they have interest in the topics you’ve tackled. (That means they probably have at least a little bit of subject matter knowledge, and they’re engaged in your content. Bonus!)

Your Readers Wear Pants

And they drive cars. And they know that water comes out of water fountains. (See? Smart!)

This is momentous insight for writers, because it means you don’t have to tell readers what pants feel like or how they work! You also are not obligated to tell them that cars have steering wheels and four tires; nor do you need to tell them water comes out of fountains. Unless something utterly STRANGE and UNEXPECTED is happening with the aforementioned objects, your readers can paint those pictures all on their own. (And they LOVE doing that. It’s part of THEIR creative process.)

Why Readers Read

Readers are a huge part of your creative process. They are the recipients of your stories, and they turn the words you’ve written into entire worlds in their minds. The best writers, the writers we all return to, are those who create just enough story to intrigue us, draw us in, and challenge us to fill in the blanks. They paint the picture—just not the ENTIRE picture.

Challenge: Read your latest writing and look for signs that you’re accusing your readers of bumblefuckery. Avoid this at all costs, because nobody wants to be known as the reader who needed to be told that “the rain fell down.” (Well I damned well hope so. Tell ‘em something they didn’t know.)

Read the following encouraging signs to remind you that your readers are total BRAINIACS who just want to read some great writing. So let loose, sling some creativity, and stop second-guessing yourself about what they can handle.

5 Pretty Obvious Giveaways That Your Readers Are Smart

  • They are holding a book. And if they aren’t currently holding a book, they’re likely shopping for a book, telling another person about the book they just read, or reading book reviews online to decide which book to purchase next (probably while listening to an audio book).
  • They are alive. Meaning, they have experienced life things. If your reader has ever been through a breakup, they know it causes sadness, so get more creative than that when describing a similar situation in your writing. They know dogs bark, but a snarler evokes a completely different feeling. Small changes in your writing infuse more emotion AND give readers credit for being able to fill in some of the blanks.
  • They speak your language. This is fan-freakin’-tabulous news, because it means you don’t need to fluff up your writing with pretentious words readers don’t understand. They talk just like you do, so wa-bam! You can just start typing. Unless you’re completing a post-grad thesis, uptight writing will only make you seem stuffy and in need of a fiber supplement. Plus, readers will wonder why you’re making their brains hurt.
  • They can imagine. If you tell readers about the “scraggly, bony-fingered witch who mumbles to herself each time a well-dressed businessman passes by,” you’ll have 500 readers who come up with 500 different mental images of that witch. And that is AMAZING! Do more of that! Encourage your readers to be smart and creative and whimsical. This is what brings joy to reading…and therefore, potentially an inkling of job security to the lowly writers of the world.
  • They contribute. Yep, that’s right. Think you’re the only one contributing to your writing? Think again. You are setting up a platform that invites readers to enter, absorb, and then create worlds of their own—all by reading what you’ve written. You are dancing with the reader, and there is a fine balance between telling them enough and telling them too much.

Readers are brainy and creative. They are learners, and they want to be part of the adventures in the books they read. As a writer, it’s your job to bring the story into focus. Paint just enough of a picture to connect almost all the dots; and then let readers fill in some of the blanks to envision specifics. Part of the beauty of creativity lies in the give and take between writer and reader.

Now, get out there and write a literary masterpiece. Go…scoot! Before I am forced to tell you that grass is green.

Those writers: They always wanna write

I once had a boss in marketing who told me, “You know, I can always tell the writers in my group. Whenever I call them and leave a message, they respond back with an email.”

There’s truth in the words he spoke. We write for a lot of reasons—one of them being it gets us out of having to talk to people.

I’ve heard this observation multiple times since then, stated in a variety of ways. For the most part, however, the gist is always something about the preferred method of communication for writers being…well…writing. Go figure.

This isn’t an issue when working with other creative sorts. They just “get” it. Problems occasionally arise when trying to explain this particular phenomenon to more unilaterally-focused, one-way-to-do-things individuals.

Whether it’s a memo, a daily interaction, or a passing thought, I always gravitate toward the written word, and there are several reasons for that:

  • Peopleing is hard. I’m an introvert who has learned how to function in polite society where adults must occasionally speak to each other. But deep down, I’m more comfortable with a book (or a pen and paper).
  • Memory is tricky. Email is a nice way to CYA—and it’s also a great way to ensure that you’ve followed through on tasks. It can keep you out of a lot of potential pickles that can crop up if you forget to do things. You can easily look up past messages to ensure tasks are on track and everyone’s taking care of the things they committed to.
  • Email has an end point. If you don’t exactly gravitate toward extended conversation, email is a great way to gracefully dip your toe in, say what needs to be said, and then get the heck out. Say it and retreat: it’s that easy. For introverts, there’s EVERYTHING to love about that.
  • Talking is a workout. You know how you feel after a really intense workout? Energy zapped and muscles turned to jelly? That’s how introverts feel after talking and interacting for a long time. Afterward, they need to recover from their ordeal by hiding in a closet with a book and a blankie for the weekend. It’s so much better to just avoid all that and send an email.

Don’t get me wrong. Talkers are lovely. I have many of them in my family. Extroverts are wonderful, vivacious people with access to seemingly endless energy that’s constantly replenished with fairy dust and unicorn magic, and they spread that energy far and wide across the land in the hope of converting every quilt-covered bridge troll into a brilliant conversationalist. Their liveliness and positive attitudes are admirable; enviable even.

But it comes down to this. Introverts gonna introvert. And extroverts gonna extrovert.

We’ve heard for a whole long time that we need to embrace different work styles and personalities. Usually that is code for, “Hey, all you quiet people, it’s time to adapt and learn to do team projects with the rest of us while we trade stories about traffic jams and new coffee flavors.”

introverts and extroverts in the workplace

But maybe, just maybe, there’s another approach. Maybe there’s a way to combine the BEST of the INTROs with the BEST of the EXTROs. (Brilliant, right? Corporate America should have totally thought of this!) And if we did that, we’d end up with an alliance as powerful as that of Captain America and Iron Man. Can you even imagine?

C’mon, SpaceX is planning human spaceflight, yet we haven’t figured out how to combine the super powers of introverts and extroverts and use them for the good of all mankind? I feel like we’re missing out here.

Corporate America, you can do this. We’re counting on you. Do something more than trust falls and obstacle courses; you’re better than that. Think about your workforce as a whole and think about the talent that’s driving you. There’s a way to be inclusive of every work style…but we’re just not there yet.

How to break your toys and be glad you did it

I killed a character today. And it was hard because I sorta liked her a lot. I was digging what she stood for, how she carried herself, and how she had her shit together. But she took a turn…in my head and in my imagination. And suddenly, she just wasn’t the same girl anymore. She had to go.

All that was left was to figure out how to murder her.

It’s not easy to kill your darlings

But sometimes it must be done. Why? They no longer serve the purpose of your story. They’re no longer the people you thought they were. There are lots of important reasons, but first and foremost, they simply don’t fit into the story you’re telling anymore.

The corporate world has been my darling…

As a creative writer just starting out in the world, I constantly heard my mom’s words reverberating in my head, “You can’t make any money writing. Why would you want to major in Liberal Arts?”

I thank everything on this giant spinning globe that I didn’t listen. She tried to get me to shoot for an international business degree, and since checkbooks, banking, and generally anything dealing with finance sends me into a bout of hives, that would have been a disastrous decision.

So, when I landed my first corporate job as a proofreader / transcriber, I was elated. BOOM, Mom! See, there are jobs for those of us who prefer diagramming sentences to solving equations.

From that moment forward, I never left corporate. I’ve proofread, edited, written, marketed, planned, organized, branded, rebranded, and worked my way up as a pretty decent word nerd extrordinaire. But here’s what I just learned.

Writing in the corporate world

Writing for companies and large entities is a unique experience, and I believe all creatives should give it a shot. Why?

Because it gives you experience in learning to write to the voice, tone, and feel that another person is directing. It gives you the experience of working with a team to develop an overal concept that’s not your own. And it gives you the experience of not owning your work. It makes you tough. And resilient.

We’re all human

Writers are often portrayed as “too sensitive,” but that’s only the case because we HAVE to let our expressions, words, and feelings out in order to pour them onto paper (or a screen). Spreadsheety McNumbers doesn’t have to do that in order to get his job done, so a lot of the time, he doesn’t understand that. (That leaves it us to we sensitive sorts to be a little more understanding.)

Giving up control is hard

There’s nothing worse than feeling extremely protective over your work and then having to give up control over it. I’ve recently had to step back and learn this, both at my money-making job and at my creative-outlet job.

Here’s what I’ve learned about myself, both in my personal writing and in writing for a corporate entity:

  • I will take on too much. I will continue to take on projects, work, writing, whatever you can throw at me until I break. And then I will keep going.
  • I won’t tell you. (#IntrovertProblems ?) Could be an introvert thing, but I don’t think just introverts suffer from this phenomenon. Maybe it’s more of a pride thing. If you keep handing me things, I’ll keep doing them. And I won’t stop until they complete and correct.
  • I won’t answer the phone. OMG don’t call me. I love you, but don’t call me. I have email and text, and I am exhausted from human interaction. I answer the phone for a very select few people, and if that’s you, then you know I would also throw myself in front of a bus for you because I love you that much.
  • If I’m backed into a corner, I will fight. And I won’t fight fair. I think that’s true of a lot of people, but I’ve learned that a lot of people won’t admit it. They just get nas’y. See how I let people know in advance? That’s the sensitive side of me!
  • I’ve worked hard, and it sucks when it feels like someone is downgrading that. So if I see that happening to you, I’ll fight for you, too.
  • I will respect you, but I want respect in return.
  • No company will ever value my family and my personal time as much as I do. That’s true for me. It’s true for you, and for everyone else on this planet. So if you’re working somewhere that you don’t feel valued, it’s time to re-think your situation.
  • I’ve been too hard on myself, but then again, who isn’t? Here’s a little secret about creatives: you don’t have to be tough on us or our work. We’re already WAY ahead of you there.
  • There are still a LOT of old thinkers in corporate America. They may throw around words like “innovative” or “bold,” but many of them will balk the first time you give them new-day, new-thinking ideas. Often, they don’t want to be the first ones to take chances.
  • I thought it would be easy to walk away from a corporate career. It’s not. We’ve been brought up with this mindset that a corporate title determines our success. You’ll finally feel free of that B.S. when you dip your toe into the slow lane…the one that chugs along outside the Rat Race.
  • I have more pride than I thought. Pride can be a good thing, but don’t forget, there’s also that old saying about it coming just before a fall. It’s all about balance. Don’t let your pride get too big to simply put it in your briefcase and walk away.
  • I’m underselling creative talent to please other people. And so are you. Your talent for creating, writing, editing, and imaging new worlds is phenomenal! (Honestly, you think that guy over there putting all your accomplishments on a spreadsheet can come up with next year’s kickass tagline? As my teenager would say, “Naw, fam.”)

Question for my writer friends: Are we selling our creative souls for the sake of funding our present comfort?

So what’s next? Here’s what I propose:

Take a look at your darlings. Do you still love them? If so, then they get to stay in the story for a while. If they are meaningful, add depth and intrigue to the plot, let them stay. (I loved being in the office for a long time! I loved the hustle and bustle and deadlines and watercooler meetings. And it’s ok to love that!)

But when it’s their time to go…when it’s time for a new chapter, don’t think twice about choosing your murder weopon and OFFING your darlings.

Also, I did just kill a fictional character, and it felt pretty good! But if anyone runs across my online search history, I expect you all to vouch for my “research” endeavors.)