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.


Wednesday Words for Writers

Time for another picture to inspire you to think of new words in new ways. Either treat it as a writing prompt, or some wordless inspiration, it’s your choice.

What does this picture make you think of? What does it make you feel? How would you describe it?

Misty Forest


For me, it makes me think of Macbeth and the witches on the moor. It makes me think of Sherlock and The Hound of the Baskervilles, the only Doyle tale that I can’t read before I go to bed, lest I have horrid nightmares.

It speaks of cold and damp and fear, but it also speaks of comfort and quiet and life, depending on how you see it. Just looking at it fills my head with that strong, cool smell of damp earth and fresh pine. The smell of forests after a rain, and the absolute calm of a morning in the woods.

Care to share your own thoughts?

I’ll be on Facebook until next time.

Wednesday Words

Some wisdom in the form of words for your upcoming Wednesday.

Remember, we’re all working towards something, no matter if we’re taking our first steps or if our heels are like old leather from plodding along down the path.

Words for Wednesday

For more words, find me on Facebook.

Why Fiction is Essential to Writing Well

GargoyleThere are all kinds of writers out there. From fiction authors, to journalists, to pop culture piece writers, to non-fiction publishers. There are casual writers, serious writers, and some who are in between. We all have our own voices, and we all have our own areas of expertise.

As I have discussed many times, reading is a key part of writing. But I think that those who read only non-fiction miss out on essential writing lessons. You see, fiction is about the words, while non-fiction is about the story. You don’t really need a lot of description in a biography, while in fiction you have to create a world, characters, and every other aspect of your story inside of someone else’s mind.

Fiction is filled with beautiful words and new ideas. Biographies and marketing books teach you about things that already exist (or did in the past). I bet that those who read fiction may even have larger vocabularies than their non-fiction counterparts. I have learned so many new words from Shakespeare and Poe and Tolkien, while I have learned hard facts and statistics and tactics from non-fiction.

Fiction teaches us to write a story, and I believe that that is a fundamental part of any written work. Every small piece of copy, every call-to-action, every product description, or news story, or scientific article should have a story to it. It needs more than just the introduction, climax, and conclusion that we were taught throughout our years in English classes.

The purpose of any piece is to be read. The way to pique a reader’s interest is to write a piece that engages them in some way. Simply knowing how to spell isn’t enough. Fantasy and horror and even romance teach us how to pull a reader in. We need to explore different tones and styles so that we can fit our writing to the audience who matches it. An experienced writer should be able to move up and down on the Flesch-Kincaid readability scale without flinching, to tend to the needs of various readers.

A good writer should be able to make just about anything interesting. And without fiction, I just don’t see how that’s possible. Non-fiction binds us to certain types of writing, and makes it uncomfortable to flit between different topics and styles. Fiction pushes us to be creative, and to understand the varying levels of writing without giving us strict boundaries.

True, I write non-fiction all day, four days of the week. Do I enjoy it? Sometimes. But I like to think that the content that I provide is engaging, suits the audience, and sits in a perfect balance of readability for the people I have targeted to read it, regardless if I am writing about office culture or a legal process. I wholeheartedly believe that because I have consumed so much fiction, I could write about almost anything without much difficulty.

Topics, content type, and audience do not daunt me, because I can relate a piece of work that I have read to whatever I need to write. I have so many resources to pull ideas and examples from, that I never feel like I am facing a foreign or unexplored task.

Limiting ourselves to genres or types of books keeps us from expanding as writers. Though I prefer fiction, I also enjoy articles, books, and posts about science, history, culture, gaming, and news. Often, if I come across something that I don’t enjoy, I will read it anyway so that I can understand what I don’t like about it. It usually has nothing to do with the subject, and everything to do with the writing.

If you only read long, boring articles, why would you expect your writing to be any different? In order to really be a writer and to provide content above and beyond what is required, you have to not only taste every dish at the table, but have a hearty helping of each. How else could you discern your own preferences?

I do think that you can still be a good writer even if you only read one type of book. I just think that there is so much more potential for those who experiment and test the waters of different styles. It’s much more difficult to become adaptable in your reading if you refuse to adapt in your reading.

Do you stick to one genre? Do you think that fiction has anything to offer to writers of all kinds? Do you experiment with your own writing in terms of genres and styles?

Join me on Facebook if you wish. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Parents Are Expendable

family-161068_640In a lot of fiction, whether in comic books or fantasy, the parents of the main character (MC) are often dead, unknown, or unavailable. Whether it’s one parent or both, it is a very common theme. Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins, Katniss Everdeen, Kvothe, Merlin, Lyra, Luke Skywalker, and many, many more have complicated family structures.

The lack of at least one parent is a common theme which creates sympathy and depth in the MC. For some reason, damage grabs our interest and pushes us to feel empathy towards another. It’s rare to see a character who has two loving, supportive, and living parents, whether together or not. The most prominent characters usually come from sorrow, neglect, and/or tragedy. Even the parents that are alive are less than satisfactory as mothers and fathers.

Then, almost always, we have a guardian (or multiple guardians) for that character. Someone who cares for them, guides them, and treats them as their own. This “guardian” is usually like a guide. Pushing them towards the “good”, and keeping them from the “bad”. Teaching them about life and encouraging them to overcome the “evil” that they face. These characters are generally older, experienced, and a lot of them end up sacrificing themselves for some reason or another in the end. They almost always die or disappear, leaving the MC drowning in depression until they bounce back.

I often find myself wondering why parents are so expendable in fiction, and why it is almost necessary to keep them from being a living part of the story. I understand that we need to feel for the MC, and that sympathy is an excellent way to create empathy and a strong character. We love to see the MC rise from the ashes, overcoming all of the hardships of life only to become strong and brave. But wouldn’t it be more enthralling, and challenging, to create a character who was just an everyday person, with a regular life? A character that real people could relate to?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not claiming that everyone comes from a normal, happy, cookie cutter life. Broken homes are all too common, and many children have faced some sort of abuse in their lives, but that doesn’t make them extraordinary. I didn’t have what I would call an ideal childhood, but I don’t feel special because of it. I don’t feel like everyone needs to have a sad tale to tell for them to be a good person or to succeed in life.

I feel like it would be extremely refreshing to experience a book in which the MC was just a regular person with regular parents. No dead mother, no dead father. No abusive or cold caregivers, no lack of love or attention. They don’t have to have a perfect life, the parents don’t even need to be together. I would just like to a piece of fiction where the MC is encouraged to achieve their goals not because they started so low, but because that’s what they want to do.

As much as I love fiction, I feel that in situations where the MC has had a hard life, we are being taught that to become great we must have a sob story. Many of us do have sob stories, but I for one don’t want to be recognized and applauded for the darker parts of my life. I want to be recognized for my skill. I don’t think that to love a character we should have to pity them. I would like to see a character who is so well-written that I can’t help but enjoy them. I want to see a character that doesn’t need sympathy to pop. I would like to see a few parents who aren’t either dead or useless. I want to see parents that aren’t expendable.

MCs don’t need to be shattered every time. We can enjoy them for who they are, not what has happened to them.

What about you? Do you agree that parents in fiction are often expendable? Do you know of any fiction where the MC doesn’t have a twisted, depressing, or broken past?

A Call to Arms! (Or, mostly just a call for opinions)

1346340_80135298Ok, so this isn’t a call to arms, I have just always wanted to say that. Mostly because battle formations in movies, TV shows, and books really get my inner-warrior roused and raring.

As a part of my job and part of my outside-of-job life, I have come across many aspiring writers. Many of you are either anticipating submissions or have published something already. As a writer myself, I understand that budgets are low for most in terms of editing and manuscript evaluations, whether for long or short stories.

I’ve been hearing a lot about beta readers lately and it got me to thinking: I am interested in beta reading, but because of my experience and my education, I don’t think I would want to provide beta reading as it is—free. I still need to eat, you know. So, I’m wondering what you, my readers, think of my idea.

I am considering offering a sort of beta reading, or light manuscript evaluation for short stories at a low cost. Maybe along the lines of $5/page up to $250.00 (this is just floating around in my head, I am open to suggestions). That way, flash fiction and short story writers can get a professional review of their work without breaking the bank and they will have a stronger story to submit when they decide to take the plunge.

I would want to provide feedback in terms of where the story could use some work, how to fix it, and a few suggestions on what could be done differently. I’d catch any errors that I found, but it wouldn’t be a full edit. I would take a look at characterization, story arc, plot, premise, dialogue, and setting, and let you know my thoughts in a write-up after I finished.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not one for blatant self-promotion, that’s not what this is. I am simply curious as to what the reception of such a proposal would be like. I also like to help writers without making it impossible for them to get the advice or support that they want. This would be for fiction only, as that’s where I am happiest, and I think that us fiction writers need the most help.

So, I ask you, would you be interested in something like this? What do you think would be a fair price? Do you think that something like this would be helpful?

If you’re interested in having something like this done for your work, you can
email me
with any questions, suggestions, or thoughts. If you want to know more about what I do, you can visit my website, where you will find all kinds of interesting things.