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Posts Tagged ‘Revising’

The manuscript for Word by Word is nearing completion . . . but it hasn’t been easy sailing.

That first draft looked perfect! I felt an overabundance of self-confidence as I emailed those 49,000 hard-won words to the publisher.

And waited.

After several weeks, I received a loooooooooong email with the editor’s comments — some positive, some negative, lots of suggestions. I cried a bit and fell into a funk for about five days. Then I thought about how I would want my author to react if I, as editor, had sent such a letter (and I have sent a few in my day). Finally, when I got into the right frame of mind, I printed off the editor’s letter and dove in. Among other things, she wrote:

There are a number of issues in this manuscript that need focus and clarity. As I read your table of contents, my first thought was that you had nailed the content that needs to be in the project. But then I discovered that the actual content doesn’t quite deliver in some cases.

I had my work cut out for me. The biggest issue my editor pointed out was that my audience wasn’t clear. As I reread the manuscript, I discovered that she was right. Sometimes I was writing the book as a textbook for my students; sometimes I was writing to the person who already has a manuscript at a publishing house and is working with an editor; sometimes I was writing to people who are critiquing others’ manuscripts; sometimes I was writing to people who want to become editors. Only sometimes was I writing to the true audience of this book. I realized I had done more of an information dump about everything I know than staying true to my audience.

Other issues included some random items that made me think, I know better! Why didn’t I see that?

But then this:

Thank you for your hard work on this project. You are obviously knowledgeable and have a broad background of experience to enable you to write this book. . . .

I trust you will take the critiques as constructive and that you will be challenged to take it up with renewed enthusiasm. . . . You are a wealth of knowledge, Linda, and your voice is needed in this arena. I really really want this book from you.

Yes, indeed. And I really really want it published! So yes, I can and will do this.

My editor listed a number of fixes.

1)    Identify a clear picture of the audience.

2)    Set definite goals about the type of material you want to write.

3)    Prepare an outline (extensive) of each chapter and what will be covered in that chapter, as well as the primary target audience for that chapter.

4) Rewrite the manuscript using these tools and suggestions.

I pictured my audience and knew what I wanted to write. My target audience is that pajama-clad and coffee-fueled author who has just pressed the key for the period at the end of the stunning final sentence on the first draft of his manuscript. He’s finished! But in the back of his mind he knows he isn’t really finished. He knows that no first draft is perfect; he knows he needs to edit.

But he doesn’t know how to do that or where to begin.

My goal is to help that writer understand both the publishing process and the steps and keys to self-editing.

bookProbably most helpful was my editor’s suggestion to create a revised extensive outline. Internally, I balked a little. Why do I need an outline at this point? But forcing each section of my manuscript to prove why it was there, where it fit best, and how it helped my target audience caused me to be very focused and brutal. Doing the big-picture editing with a revised outline proved invaluable.

I set to work with scissors, tape, and a red pen. Cutting, moving sections, taping pieces together — following my new outline. After a complete restructure on hard copy, I made the necessary changes on the electronic document. I let it sit for about two weeks. Then, I printed it out again. . . .

. . .  and read word by word.

That’s where I am now. Reading and marking with my red pen. Suffice it to say that my manuscript is very red.

It will be better for it.

I am doing what I said everyone should do — in my book. The lesson is, of course, that no matter how much you go over your own manuscript, no matter how many critique readers you have, editors will still make marks and offer suggestions. They come at the manuscript completely objective. While an author sometimes can’t see the forest for the trees, the editor comes in like a surveyor and see the trees and how to create a clearing.

I’m thankful to have been on this side of the desk with an excellent editor who saw exactly what my book needs.

What about you? If you’ve worked with a professional editor, what has been the best advice he or she gave you in feedback on your work?

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It’s 1976. I have just been dropped off by my parents to this place in the middle of nowhere. Houghton College, Houghton, New York. The town doesn’t even have a stoplight. Go too fast on Route 19 and you will go right on by without realizing there’s a really wonderful college just up that two-lane paved road part-way up the hill. In the years since I was there, the college astutely placed a large brick entrance sign and widened that road so that it’s a little more difficult to slide on by. However, there is still no stoplight.

sign

I’m trying America back on again after spending my four high school years in Europe. We didn’t have American television so all these guys are going “Ehhhhhhh!” flashing a thumbs up and the explanation I get is that they’re imitating Fonzie.

“What’s a fonzie?”

Clearly, I am way behind the times.

My first writing instructor in college is a man named Dr. John Leax (pronounced “Lex.” He was fond of telling everyone not to make him more exotic with some sort of pronunciation like the French word for water, l’eau. It was just “Lex”). After we get that he’s pronounced “Lex,” I learn that although he’s John, his colleagues call him Jack. Sort of that “John Kennedy–Jack Kennedy” thing going on that I never understood. How does “John” become “Jack”? Well, it really didn’t matter anyway since I would never have called him by his first name.

It’s the required 101 basic writing class with whatever department call letters are used at the time. I am terrified. I’m in a new place in, basically, a new country; all of my high school friends are scattered (literally) all over the world; I’m hoping I can hack this whole college thing; I’m eight hours away from my parents and sister. 

Here’s what I remember about Dr. Leax’s class:

Our papers are turned in and then mimeographed (I don’t think we yet had photocopiers in the world) onto clear plastic sheets. Our names are blacked out, and each paper is placed on the overhead projector so that all of its electric-typewriter-typed glory appears on the screen so we can read through it as a class. Not everyone gets this treatment. I think he picks out the especially good or especially bad papers.

One day my paper is being projected onto the screen, and I sit as nonchalantly as possible to make sure no one can possibly think it’s mine. Dr. Leax is underlining sections, discussing them. At one point, he draws a line through a paragraph and sketches a little trash can in the margin. It looks something like this–much more simple and crude, of course.

That’s what he did for everyone when something just was . . . well . . . trash. Trash cans in the margins. Sometimes, if the writing was especially bad, he’d do this:

The squiggly lines above the trash can signifying the especially pungent odor of said writing . . . er . . . bad writing. I don’t recall ever getting the squiggles on my papers, although I know I got more than one trash can.

Later in my career, I discovered proofreading marks, and there are no trash cans.

But there should be.

Since I eventually declare a double major in English and Writing, I will have the privilege of studying under Dr. Leax for other classes. He’s a poet and an inspiration. From Dr. Leax, I learn about the value of good writing and how to spot poor writing. And he teaches me how to make bad writing better. He teaches me the value of words and of finding just the right word.

Thank you, Dr. Leax. You gave me the tools I still use today.

Who’s your inspiration? Is there a person in your past who helped inspire you to be the person you are today?

 

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I spent this past weekend being an academic.

While I’ve presented at plenty of writers conferences, this past weekend I gave a paper (oooo, that sounds so academic) at the SUNY Council on Writing held in Buffalo, New York.

Buffalo

At the conference, I heard professors share teaching strategies to help their students engage better in a research paper and how to navigate different rhetorical situations required by different pieces of writing. One professor described working with students from one semester to the next to improve in areas where they need improvement. Another spoke during lunch about how he encourages his students to use all the technological resources at their disposal so that a paper is no longer just a Microsoft Word document but something full of visuals and hyperlinks.

The world is indeed changing, but some things are still the same.

That final product needs to be clean, perfect, polished.

My presentation was about the value of proofreading (big surprise). After decades in publishing, it’s been difficult for me to let go of the “perfection” level and understand that students need to be given freedom during the writing process. Two particular researchers in the field (for anyone who cares, it’s David Bartholomae in “Inventing the University” and Mike Rose in “The Language of Exclusion: Writing Instruction at the University”) helped me get my head around how to help writers and yet deal with my own requirement of final polish on papers. They explain that students new to academia are learning to write in a whole new way. They have to try on the language of academia. They have to take on the role of “authority” in their papers even though they’re writing to profs who are authorities. They have to think critically and not reach for the easy answer. They have to put together a coherent paper. And I would add that after writing it, they need to revise, copyedit, and proofread.

That’s a lot to ask. In a publishing house, different people do all those roles. And we’re asking students to do it all. Other research has shown that if students try to revise as they write, they end up bogging down in their own process, getting frustrated, and producing something maybe with fewer sentence-level errors but way less coherent.Frustrated student

“So Linda,” I said to myself, “let the proofreading go, would ya?”

“But I can’t,” I said back to myself, “because it’s important.”

And indeed it is. But it depends on what part of the process students are in and the rhetorical situation. I’ve learned that in initial drafts, I should work with students on the big picture. Let them get their thoughts together. Let the paper be full of comma errors and run-on sentences because this is still in process.

I should know this, for that’s just what an editor in a publishing house does. The big picture is what matters at that point.

From there, students can be helped to copyedit and then to proofread. I have for too long jumped right in with my red pen which focuses on the wrong thing too early. In reality, a student may have a lot of errors but also the beginnings of a well-reasoned argument or an amazing creative story. How much better to offer encouragement and queries at that level and leave the rest for later in the process.

Yet we still owe it to students to help them understand how to polish their papers. After all that work, we should help them deliver a piece that is indeed free of glaring errors (and that was the point of my presentation at the conference). And in a rhetorical situation like a resume or cover letter (which my Writing for Business students are doing this week), they have to understand how to create something that is indeed error free.

So what that means for us writers is that, during the process of writing, we need to just write. Get it down. Write as fast as we need to in order to keep up with our characters or our thoughts. Don’t stop to revise, at least not until the day’s writing is finished. Don’t get bogged down in the details during that first creative part of the process.

If you’re on a deadline, be sure to schedule in time for revision so you don’t feel rushed. Gone are the days of pulling all-nighters and turning in our assignment–our reputations are on the line, maybe even a paycheck.

To do it well, we need the time to revise and proofread (or have others help us–who also need to have time). But when we don’t get bogged down in the creative part of the process, we’ll feel much better about that final product.

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