On Teaching Substantive Editing

correcting-1870721_1920I have a small writing team of three that I am responsible for. These three are all fairly fresh out of school, and while they learned all of the basics while they were there, they are now coming to grips with the fact that theory and practice are two very different things.

I spend a lot of my time editing their work. Three full-time writers producing content means about half my time is spent using Track Changes. This year, we made it a goal to cut down on my time spent editing by having them learn to edit each other’s work, both through copy and substantive editing.

They have copy editing under control. It’s straightforward. Look for misspelled words, incorrect grammar, do a little fact checking, etc. It’s the kind of copy editing that virtually every writer should practice and that virtually every writing program teaches.

It’s the substantive (or developmental) editing that’s giving me a challenge. While it is my preferred type of editing, and I do it well, teaching it is a whole different sack of potatoes.

When I sit down with a piece to evaluate it based on how well I think it was written for the intended audience, and whether the elements of it fit together smoothly, I do it through feeling. If you’ve done any substantive editing before, you probably understand that this type of editing isn’t based on rules or black and white dos and don’ts.

In all likelihood, you could give an unedited piece to three different professional substantive editors and have them all point out different things.

And that’s what has been so difficult. I need my writers to edit for the same types of things that I do so that the content we create is similar in style, tone, and quality when it goes live. If millions of people are going to be reading our work, I need it to be, at the very least, consistent.

But how do you teach three different people to apply developmental edits in the same way? I still have no idea, but I can tell you how we have started.

Although my job calls strictly for nonfiction content, I find substantive edits much easier to apply to fiction, at least when you are first getting started. Issues with plot, setting, vocabulary, transitions, and organization can be more apparent when you’re reading something that you haven’t written and that is outside of your normal content stream.

Therefore, I set to looking for a good piece for us to practice on. It couldn’t be too long, but it couldn’t be too short, either. It had to be appropriate for work, and it had to be in fairly desperate need of an edit.

Eventually, I happened upon Penny in the Dust by Ernest Buckler. At first glance, the story seemed relatively clean. Upon second glance, the issues started to make their way to the surface. Upon the third glance, I had about 30 comments in Track Changes suggesting rewrites, asking questions about vocabulary, and pointing out setting issues.

It was perfect. I gave it to my writers and told them to get to work. Each edited the story, as did I, and then we met to go over it. I was a little worried that we would all find different issues with it and that it was going to be hard to find common editing ground, but for the most part, we seemed to call out most of the same problems.

They, in their editing infancy, found fewer edits than I did, but they also pointed out some things that I had missed and helped to clarify some of the questions I’d had through their alternate impressions of the story.

I think they still have more to learn as editors, just as I still have to figure out how to be better at teaching subjective skills like substantive editing. But, through a good old fashioned workshop exercise, and a lot of discussion, we’re all starting to find common editing ground, and that’s what’s important.

If you are looking for a piece to practice your substantive editing skills on, I highly suggest Penny in the Dust. The main theme of the story is quite solid and works well as a strong premise, but the execution of the setting, plot, and dialogue is, well, you’ll see.

If you have questions about what edits we made, let me know and I may publish them in a separate post.

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Blogging: Cold Emails

Blogging: Cold EmailsFirst, I must apologize for my absence. I took some time to myself this summer to do things that were not writing blog posts, and it was absolutely lovely. But let’s jump right in, shall we?

As a senior writer at my place of employment, I frequently receive inquiries from hopeful freelancers asking to write content for the company blog. Some of these want to drop links for companies they work for and others just want to see their work published on a blog that gets around 15k visitors per month. Either type is fine, as long as they meet our requirements.

The emails that I receive usually go something like this:

Hi Brittany. I was just looking over the _______ company blog and think that I could offer some great content for your readers! Let me know if you accept guest posts. Thanks!

Needless to say, emails like that don’t really do a lot for me. Now, since a lot of you are freelancers or at least freelance hopefuls, I want to use this post to 1) show you the right way to contact strangers, and 2) why you shouldn’t feel bad about sending cold emails.

Our basic requirements are as follows:

  • We’ll need to see 2-3 writing samples
  • You may not include affiliate (paid) links
  • The content must be 100% original (barring any direct quotes)
  • You have to suggest a couple of suitable topics
  • You remember that we are not internet or marketing stupid

Let’s break into the reasoning behind each requirement so that you can understand why each one is so important.

Samples help to show how skilled you are when it comes to writing. When selecting a sample to include, try to choose one that has a topic related to the business you are contacting. Always send at least 2, and no more than 5. Make sure that if they were published, the site they are hosted on is reputable, there are no spelling mistakes, and that any and all links work. It’s also best if the post is actually attributed to you and not someone else.

Affiliate links are not “the devil”, but if you’re writing content for a business, it’s underhanded and unprofessional to try to scrape a profit from their readers. Never include an affiliate link in an organic post  unless you have been given permission.

Original content is an absolute must. I don’t want to get dinged for duplicate content, and I also don’t want your recycled information. If you wrote a post for a business and it fell through and never went live, that’s one thing, but if your blog post was published elsewhere you had better think twice before asking me to give it to our readers.

Suitable topics are another must. Spend time reading any content that the business has on their site. Skim some of their blog posts and peruse a few of their articles. When you send your email, include 2 or 3 topic ideas that you really think will work for them. One of the worst things that you can do is to suggest a topic to me that would never fit with what we currently cover.

For example, I was recently contacted by a potential guest blogger who suggested, specifically, maintaining a pool. This was about a week ago and we’re on the verge of snow here in Canada. That topic is not timely, and it is far too specific for me to use since we cover much more general real estate content.

We’re writers and marketers, we know about the internet. We know that you want to get in some good backlinks, we know if you are actually talented when it comes to SEO, and we know when your writing skills are subpar. We aren’t dumb, we know the motivation behind your content is completely selfish, but so is our reason for accepting it—we like free content. So be honest and don’t bother trying to butter anyone up too obviously.

A Good Cold Email

That being said, I will judge you on your initial email, and it greatly affects my reply. If you frequently send out cold emails to businesses or individuals, I would suggest trying something like this:

Hi ________,

I’m a *insert writing profession* and came across your blog through *insert where you found them*. I thought that your post *insert interesting post name related to what you want to write for them* was very *insert an adjective or two of your choice*.

I am writing to ask if you accept guest post, and if so, what your guidelines might be. I have attached some writing samples in order to give you an overview of the topics I have covered in the past and my writing style.

I thought that a post about one of the following topics would be both a fit for your blog and beneficial to your readers:

*insert topic 1
*insert topic 2

If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask. I look forward to hearing from you.

*insert name (example: Johnny Awesomesauce)

Are Cold Emails Bad?

No. They aren’t bad. Although most businesses will be savvy to the fact that you are only contacting them to either get your name in print or promote a client, we appreciate when you at least make a good effort to be polite, clear, and thorough.

Sometimes you may not get a response at all, other times you may get a short and direct “No.” But once in awhile, you’ll come across someone who wants to give you a shot and who, even if they do say no, will tell you why. I try to be that person as often as I can because as a writer I know that we are expected to accept rejection without an explanation, and it can be very tiring.

So if you’re trying to break into the writing profession by sending out a few cold emails, good on you. Take note of the tips in this post and understand that no matter how good you are, you are going to hear the word “no” often. But sometimes, you’ll get a “yes”, and when you see your post go live to thousands of readers, it’ll all be worth it.

Do you send out cold emails? Do you look for guest posting opportunities often?

I post funny things on Facebook sometimes, so if you like funny things, pay my page a visit. If you do not like funny things, just avoid it.

Writing is a Profession

pencils-762555_1920After spending the last six months reviewing resumes and leafing through writing samples, I have come to question whether the majority of the people who responded to our job posting actually know what a writer is. In fact, I have often wondered if the majority of those who claim to be “writers” truly understand the craft at a professional level.

Let us first consider this: if someone who took a first aid course say, 10-20 years ago, and who casually kept up-to-date on medical news via Google, claimed to be a medical expert, or even a doctor, would you allow them to perform surgery on you? Would you hire them to work at a hospital? Probably not, unless you are presented with the opportunity after a zombie apocalypse and your only other choice is someone who once worked at a Band-Aid factory.

Or, if you were looking to build a house, would you hire an actual carpenter, or would you enlist your neighbour from next door who has a penchant for making birdhouses? Again, the only time this would be a good fit is if he or she were your only choice, as in you survived the zombies and are now responsible for rebuilding human civilization.

But for some reason, people think differently about writing. Perhaps it’s because everyone is technically able to do it. That small difference, the ability to type a word or hold a pen, seems to make a ridiculous number of people feel as if they deserve to be paid for writing, when in reality, they most definitely should not.

Now, that may sound harsh, but writing is a profession just like any other, and those who excel at it deserve to be recognized for the time and skill they put in. We go to school, we spend hours learning how to navigate grammatical turmoil, we learn how to influence emotion through content, and we pay for the privilege to do so. We deserve to be treated just as any other professional would be, after all of the blood, sweat, and tears we put in.

Is it so much to ask that those who have no professional training in writing, who have never even written for an internship or client before, refrain from applying for jobs where their main responsibility will be to write?

As a PSA, I beg of you, don’t contribute to the avalanche of resumes that get sent in for writing positions if you don’t have samples. If you don’t have any professional experience whatsoever. If you have never been to school for writing, editing, or publishing in any capacity.

Please, if you only write for fun, and you don’t know the difference between “their” and “there”, or “it’s” and “its”, don’t bother submitting a resume for a writing position. I don’t even mean this to be unkind or unjust. Certainly, there are many who have natural talent, or who are self-taught, and that’s wonderful. Get a couple of good samples made, either through a blog of your own, clients, or an internship, and I will gladly review your content.

But if, at the end of the day, writing didn’t cross your mind once, or you didn’t stop to correct a text message before hitting send, and you are only mildly interested in the technicalities of the craft, don’t bother applying. I will look at your resume briefly and then toss it into the already brimming “no” pile.

Writing is a profession. It deserves to be treated as such. The people who take time to learn it, to bend it to their wills, deserve to compete with each other. Respect the craft and you’ll become a respected writer.

Do you find that there are a lot of “writers” out there? Do you consider yourself to be a casual writer, or a professional? Do you think there is a difference between an author and a writer?

I’ll be on Facebook until next time.

Do Writers Need Editors?

Do Writers Need Editors?Often, I come across writers who exude confidence in their grammar and spelling abilities. When they speak of books that they are writing, and I ask whether they are going to hire an editor, most just chuckle and say, “No, no! I’ll just go over the draft myself a few times!”.

I know multiple authors who published work without having it edited, and who now have printed books with mistakes in them. It doesn’t seem to bother most, but some seem to regret it.

And while deciding not to have an editor works well for some, it can greatly affect the success and popularity of your content. Whether or not that bothers you depends on your goals as a writer. If you have a story inside of you that you are bursting to tell, and all that matters is that you release it into the world, then perhaps you don’t need an editor. That is, if you are confident that you can at least edit it enough yourself that it will at least be legible.

But if you want to submit something to a publisher, or if you want to self-publish something that has the potential to be successful, then you need an editor. I guess you could assume that if you are writing in the hopes of becoming a full-time, professional writer, you need to start vetting editors. Whereas, if you are writing simply for pleasure, you can continue doing as you see fit.

The difference between an edited piece of work compared to one that hasn’t been looked it can be quite significant. At my job, since I write content for an international audience, everything that I write is reviewed by another writer/editor before it goes live. Does she find many mistakes? To be honest, no, she doesn’t. But she does find a few. And she also offers a lot of great suggestions that improve my work.

For example, you know that one sentence that you just couldn’t figure out? That one that caused you a lot of grief and that you just ended up leaving as is? Yeah, another writer/editor will have suggestions for that. They’ll have ideas for titles, names, places, reconstructions, and more.

It’s dangerous as a writer to think that your work cannot be improved. I have heard of famous writers who sometimes have regrets over the final published manuscript. If you think your work is in its perfect form without being reviewed by at least one professional, you will never improve your craft. Your work will never be the best that it could be.

The key is to find someone like-minded. If you hire a trained editor, choose someone who has experience in your genre, and who can mesh with your style. Many editors will edit a few pages for you as a way to give you an idea of what they will do, as well as to figure out how heavy of an edit you’ll need. If you don’t like one editor’s style, try another.

And don’t use money as an excuse either. There are tons and tons of writers and editors out there looking to network. You can find them on social media, blogs, and in forums. They are often willing to exchange services, so if you can find someone who has skills where you don’t, and who is willing to look over your work for free, take advantage of it. Trade services if you need to, exchange work with writer friends, but never feel that your work is ready as soon as you write it.

Don’t spend time complaining about an edit if you didn’t spend time vetting someone. Take your time in selecting the perfect person to review your content, and don’t forget that you don’t have to accept any changes that you don’t want to. But also remember that by opening up your mind, and by looking at your work differently, you could wind up with so much more than you started with.

So, in conclusion, yes, if you are submitting content to publishers, or if you are writing in order to build a career, you should have your work reviewed. Will mistakes still get by sometimes? Yes. It happens. But fewer than you would have.

And if you are writing for a hobby, or just because you enjoy it, then I still suggest you review your own work before sending it out into the world. You’d be amazed at the things you’ll find.

Do you have someone review your work before you publish it? How important is it to you to have “correct” content? Would you hire an editor if you were submitting content to a publishing house?

I’ll be on Facebook until next time.

The Romance of Writers

The Romance of WritersOh, to be a writer! To waft dreamily through life and to drink it in like lukewarm tea. To feel emotions with edges like swords and flavors of honey! To taste the world with words and to see stories in every crack, in every stone. To be part of an art that consumes you, that breathes fire into your soul. To be a writer is the very essence of romance and of passion.

Yeah. Right. To be a writer is more like trudging through life, dragging a boulder of ideas behind you. To feel emotions like any other human being, but to have the gift (or curse) of being able to articulate them precisely. To experience life just like every other human out there, meeting both struggles and luck on the way through.

How often do we see the life of a writer romanticized? On TV, in books, and in every day life. To be a writer is this strange thing where others view you both as a starving artist and as one of the luckiest people alive. It’s an art that is both respected and scorned at the same time. Often, we are put into this box in which we are labeled as passionate, fiery, and sometimes reactive individuals. We are seen as people who feel things much differently than everyone else.

But do we? I don’t think so. As much as I would like to think that, as a writer, I have some magical gift that allows me to experience life differently than anyone who doesn’t write, I recognize that that is an unreasonable and rather self-absorbed assumption. Think about all of the fictional writers that you see portrayed: Johnny Depp in Secret Window, Hank in Californication, Hannah in Girls, any number of journalists in The Newsroom–they are either mentally unstable, entirely selfish and irresponsible, or they simply use being a writer as an excuse for bad emotional behaviour.

They treat writing, and the life of being a writer, like any other stereotype, and they make the rest of us look bad.

To be a writer is hard work, but not any harder than anything else out there. Anyone can write, just as anyone can paint or sing or dance. How good we are at it aside, it doesn’t really make us different than anyone else. Perhaps we find it easier to describe our emotions, or to relate our ideas to others. Maybe we have bigger vocabularies. But we don’t all behave as if we are too sensitive to be alive. And we don’t all feel like writing is as easy as breathing or as difficult as wringing water out of a dry sponge.

Writing can be romantic, but so can any number of arts and professions. And while we can make everything sound like roses and butterflies, we can also be blunt and clear and precise. We aren’t all waiting to become professional authors, and we aren’t all complaining about how difficult our lot in life is.

We don’t all drink tea and wear woolen shawls. We don’t all have cats or coffee addictions. We don’t all like red wine and folk music. Romanticizing writing is one of the things that makes it so difficult to do. When we have preemptive expectations laid on us because of misconceptions or popular culture, it slowly strips away our individuality as artists and as people. It allows people to make a first impression of us even before we meet them, which makes it hard to feel as if you are being taken seriously.

To write, and to do it for a living, is bloody hard work. But so is programming, and so is construction. Writers are no different than anyone else, and we come in a variety of shapes and sizes (emotionally, mentally, and physically!). We’ll never be “one size fits all”, and that’s ok. We don’t need to be seen through any color glasses, pink or otherwise, so be proud to be the writer that you are, and next time someone has a typical reaction to your announcement of being a writer, just take a deep breath and remember this post.

What are some misconceptions that you have encountered about writers? Do you think that the profession is overly romanticized? What fictional writer do you despise the most?

Care to join me on ?

Catching A Break

Catching a BreakOften, when writers are portrayed in film, they are already successful. If not, then they are the stereotypical “starving artist”, working a day job that they hate while waiting to catch their big break. Which they usually do.

I started out freelancing, and still do some of it on the side, but it was not at all an easy career. Trying to find clients in my area was my biggest problem, and I received a plethora of suggestions, such as: “You just need to get out there and network!”, or “It’ll happen, you just need to be patient!”. While this advice was well-meant, it was, unfortunately, useless.

“Networking”: seemingly a term that encompasses everything from having ridiculous amounts of success from cold calling and free ads to paying to attend conferences and making “valuable connections” that generally end up as empty promises. It’s not as simple, as easy, or as useful as it seems. The thing is, in order to make connections, you usually have to have an in. For a connection to turn into a client, they have to actually be serious about requiring your services. Making those come together is not always easy.

Then there’s “having patience”. Well, let me tell you right now that just waiting for something to happen does absolutely nothing for you. It isn’t even about taking action and then waiting for an outcome. To succeed at writing, you should never just be waiting. To catch a break you always have to be doing.

A break isn’t going to come to you randomly, at least not in my experience. It will only come if you are out there hunting it down. If you really want to be a writer, you should be trying to:

  • find clients on the side
  • look for one time contracts
  • volunteer
  • submit stories
  • write
  • think about writing
  • edit
  • frequent job websites
  • cold call
  • apply for internships
  • and, a million other things

You will never catch a break just because you write well. You will never catch a break by waiting for someone to find you. Breaks don’t happen like they do in the movies, they happen because you work your buns off to find them. You accept rejection and then let it go, you take criticism and suggestions and own them, you take any opportunity you can to improve your skill and to get experience.

That’s the difference between writing being a hobby and writing being a career. I have no real need to look for more work, but I do anyway. Why? Because I want to make sure that I continue to write about different things, in different ways. I want to make sure that I write the things that I want to, or about the things that I enjoy. I do it because I am always trying to move forward and because writing is my best and most prominent skill.

Though I am, by now, a fairly experienced writer, I still apply for internships with publishers, magazines, and so on. I still write stories and submit them when I can. I still do my best to write a blog every week even when I have to do it over two days in ten minute intervals. I do this because any success that I have had, or may have in the future, is success that I want to own. I want to know that it’s mine because I worked for it and I kept going even when the going was tough.

To catch a break, and I mean to have something good happen to your writing career, you cannot sit idly by and assume that because you have some talent, you will eventually be found and become famous. That’s not really how it works with writing.

The best way to think of it is that you will get what you give. The more effort that you put into becoming the writer that you want to be, the closer you will get. Think of any new offers or opportunities as rewards for your efforts instead of blind luck. You didn’t catch that break because of a fluke, you caught it because you fought for it. You got it because you wanted it. And if you didn’t get it, at least you can say that you tried, and that’s one step closer to getting the next one.

What do you do to better your career as a writer? Is it more of a hobby or career for you? 

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