Thoreau and the #2 Pencil–Who Knew?

Okay, so I learned something new yesterday–well, I learn something new practically every day. But what I learned so totally amazed me that I immediately thought, I need to share this on my blog.

Did you know that the reason we have #2 pencils is thanks to Henry David Thoreau?

Seriously . . . tell me you didn’t know that.

Of course, one problem with doing this is the realization that perhaps I am the only person on the planet who didn’t know this. Maybe you did.

But since this blog is about writing and this little tidbit is about pencils, well, you can see where I’m going with this.

Credit iStockphoto
Credit iStockphoto

According to this article on Mental Floss, millions of SAT takers can thank Thoreau for those #2 pencils. It seems that Henry’s dad and brother-in-law built a pencil factory after graphite was discovered in New Hampshire during the 1820s. Thoreau worked at the family factory and perfected a way of taking the New Hampshire graphite (that didn’t make very good pencils), combine it with clay, and create decent pencils. “By the middle of the 19th century, the Thoreaus were selling pencils with varying graphite hardness, which they numbered 1 through 4.” Oh, and he also did his “Civil Disobedience” and went to Walden Pond.

Don’t believe me? Let Harvard University weigh in with this photo of a box of Thoreau and Co. pencils.

Surely Thoreau’s writing neighbors in Concord, Massachusetts (who included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathanael Hawthorne, and the Alcott family), appreciated his contribution! (Tell me you didn’t know they all lived within a few blocks of one another.) All of this info, including a Powerpoint walking tour of Concord, was given to this amazed student yesterday in class courtesy of Dr. Robert Habich who has written about the Romantics and Transcendentalists. Thanks Doc!

I’m thinkin’ that little town of Concord went through a LOT of pencils . . .

5 Pledges of Literary Citizenship

In the grand tradition of “last lectures,” Cathy Day posted a note to her students on the Literary Citizenship blog at the end of her class this semester. It’s not really a final lecture since the class will be taught again for another group of fortunate students; the post is more of a wrap-up of everyone’s accomplishments.

And for me who got to sit in on the class this semester, it was a way to think about who I am in this literary world.


I took the challenge and revised my blog to focus on my literary life, and I invited you to join us on the journey as I learned what it meant to be a good literary citizen. Bottom line:

Be interested in what others are doing.

I was doing that, but not in a visible way. Now I “like” and comment on blogs. Now I follow Facebook pages of literary magazines and authors. Now I link to other people’s blogs. Now I’m finding people on Twitter who are as passionate about editing and proofreading and good grammar as I am. Now I write notes to authors I appreciate and thank them for inspiring me.

I learned to write about my passions. I decided to focus on areas of editing and grammar, with nods to all kinds of other topics (it is my blog after all). It was great to stake out a territory and then look around for folks already there and join them.

I learned some technical things like how to tag and categorize posts (yes, I CAN talk about things other than grammar) and how to better use Twitter. I learned about book reviewing.

And I’m finding my tribe.

As any great teacher will, Cathy challenges her students not to stop now that the class is over. This is about building a literary life, after all. At the end of her post on the Lit Cit blog, she challenged us with a few questions. I encourage you to think about them for yourself, but here are my pledges of citizenship in the literary world:

I pledge to continue to blog on a regular basis and to share with my readers great books, bloggers, articles, and ideas (yes, and even great grammar!). At times, I’ll write about what I’m doing, but that’s not the focus. It’s not all about me (that’s just true on so many levels. Wow . . . wouldn’t our world be a better place if we all adopted that mantra?).

I pledge to write a personal note to someone at least once a week to thank that person for his or her contribution to the literary world.

I pledge to keep finding, following, and connecting with folks in my tribe. And then I’ll talk about them so more people can know them.

I pledge to be continually interested in what other people are doing.

I pledge to talk about literary citizenship whenever and wherever I can. It’s that important.

Have you pledged citizenship?

How Not to be a Twitter Twit

I’ll never admit to being ahead of the curve. It usually takes me awhile to catch up with everyone else. When I finally joined Facebook, I felt like I’d arrived late to a party that was already in full swing. Then someone told me to get onto Twitter. I resisted, finally opened an account, didn’t get it, got exhausted trying to keep up with it, and closed it.

Then I finally decided–late–that I really had to be there. That happened when the indomitable Cathy Day (who else?) introduced me to hashtags and Tweetdeck, and suddenly I could make some sense of Twitter. (HootSuite is another option that works like TweetDeck to organize tweets via hashtags.) You can find me @LindaEdits if you’re so inclined.

credit: iStockphoto
credit: iStockphoto

I found some folks to follow (agents, other authors, publishers). Then, I went to this site, 44 Essential Hashtags Every Author Should Know, and found some hashtags that I want to follow. By creating TweetDeck columns for some of these hashtags, I have a constant feed, often with links to great blogs and articles, about the topics that matter to me. These blogs and articles give me great information for my classes, my research, and my teaching.

I follow people who interest me, I get followed, but I’m not trying to break any records. In fact, another indomitable force, Jane Friedman, explains why chasing after huge numbers of Twitter followers can just be a waste of time. Like any other tool of the trade, we just need to use Twitter wisely and well.

Since I’ve jumped back in and found so many interesting links and articles, I also realized the possibility of connections for jobs. Not only do my students need to understand Twitter, they should be there making connections as well as gaining experience in using it. Sure enough, many of the job postings they’re finding want people who understand and know how to use social media–and use it wisely. So this past week, my students in my Writing for Business class had an in-class exercise to create Twitter accounts. We talked about hashtags, and I gave them the link noted above that lists hashtags for writers. I created a hashtag for the class and everyone created a post and used the hashtag. With TweetDeck projected on the screen, their postings immediately appeared as they tweeted.

But I have to admit that it can be a little overwhelming. There is so much information out there that it’s nearly impossible to keep up. TweetDeck does help me by sorting tweets into categories where people are talking about writing or books or publishing or proofreading (my hot buttons).

How do you use Twitter? Has anyone done live tweeting as part of class? How can I make the most of my tweets? What do you find most helpful in your Twitter feed?

14 Good Reminders about This Writing Life

One thing about being a graduate student in my 50s is being able to step back into a world that I left behind three decades ago–a world where learning flows around you like the snowflakes that circled around my house this morning. Just circling, spinning, delighting me even though it is March and high time for them to be on their way.

But I digress.

The In Print Festival–A Rousing Success

Being part of the university community means getting to take advantage of learning experiences there for the taking! Ball State InPrint writersjust held its annual In Print Festival–a festival of first books. The writers who come to speak and read are newly published. Fresh off that first experience, they’re eager to go on the road and talk about writing and publishing. They visit in classes. They stand around and talk after the readings. They happily sign books. Sure, maybe other schools bring in the big guns, but I love the fact that BSU supports these folks. And if the two times I’ve attended are any indication, these authors have so much to offer. Coming from a variety of backgrounds with different journeys to that first publication, they are quite an encouragement to up-and-coming writers. The writers this year were Eugene Cross, Marcus Wicker, Elena Passarello, and Sarah Wells.

And 14 Things the Students Learned

Cathy asked the students in her literary citizenship class to blog about what they learned about writing and publishing from these In Print authors. I’ve been around publishing for 30 years, so I was excited to see what the 14 students in the class discovered. I thought some of their insights might be helpful to you, so here follow 14 interesting things they learned (with accompanying links to their blogs should you want to read more–and you should):

(1) John writes that he wants to open his reading horizons more–to read other people’s work that interests and intrigues him because that will inform his writing and help him find his niche. Good advice for us all.

(2) Michael discovered (beyond some great writing and revising tips) that the writing community is like a family. It is. What a great thing for a new literary citizen to discover!

(3) Jackson brilliantly included book titles in his blog as part of the copy and described his experience, “Their answers to questions showed me something vital: That Abyss between us and Published Writers is not so vast, is a matter of words.” Deep. And good to know. Before we’re published, that goal seems like the other side of a huge abyss. It’s not.

(4) Austin likes to write in all lower case (saves time I’m sure) and describes his opportunity to speak with Eugene Cross, having also crossed paths with him at AWP. His take? “that’s what this is all about, as far as i’m concerned. writing good stories, smiling big, and, every once in a while, covering the tab.” That’s also good advice.

books(5) Rachael described inspiration from Eugene Cross’s book because it is a collection of stories. That can make a book, too! That’s encouraging to those of us who write more short form.

(6) Sarah discovered that “if you’re always drawn to the same topic, stop fighting it.” Just start writing. Eugene didn’t want to write about his hometown of Erie, PA. But when he stopped fighting it and realized that Erie was what he knew . . . well . . . you know what happened. Elena never thought she’d be writing about the human voice . . . but as a theater major with a great speaking and singing voice . . . well . . . it was a natural.

(7) Marv was involved in advertising this festival and, as part of the invitation, reminded people that going to such festivals is important for being literary citizens. We all need to support one another. I know I’m glad I attended!

(8) Kiley learned to bust out the red pen. “Marcus Wicker said that revision is all about time, distance, and being ruthless with your work. I feel like revision is the broken hammer in my writing toolbox, so I soak up any tips on it like a sponge.” Ah, a woman after my own heart.

(9) Lenny was inspired by the night of readings and writes that it “was a breath of fresh air to see three young writers from three different sections of literature that I can keep on my radar and follow their careers as they grow as writers.” Good way to be a literary citizen, Lenny!

(10) Lindsey had some insightful advice for me as an editor: “Editors should not just edit but also write while they edit. Editors who forget to take the time to write their own work aren’t going to be able to relate to authors or keep up with their story-telling skills. In this world, we have to be able to wear multiple hats at once.” She’s so right. I spent too many years editing and not writing. I need to up my game. Thanks for the encouragement, Lindsey. Editors out there, take note!

(11) Jay is the media/video guy in our class. He’s on a different track and he offers us a new perspective. He helps us writers think beyond advertising by posters to this newfangled thing called video . . . he’s good! We would do well to think about promotion in new ways.

(12) Mo reminds us to read a lot–especially literary journals. Find the ones we like and then submit to them. That’s how we figure out where to submit.

(13) Kayla encourages us to not be afraid of rejection. “Without rejection there can be no progress. And if that one publishing company or literary magazine rejects you, they’re probably not right for you. Go back, edit, revise, reread, resubmit.” Words we all need to hear because we all face rejection.

(14) Stephanie mentions how contests can be a good way to get our work published. This was a new world for me–discovered since grad school. You can check out some of the lit mag contests here.

There you have it . . . 14 good reminders for all of us.

6 Quick Proofreading Tips

What a busy week! We had National Grammar Day on Monday, and today, March 8, is National Proofreading Day. For someone like me who lives this stuff on a daily basis, it’s downright exciting!

The day is devoted to “mistake-free writing” and projecting “a professional image with well-written documents that are 100 percent accurate.” Started by Judy Beaver at The Office Pro, this day is designated because it was her mother’s birthday—and her mother loved to correct errors.

As I noted on Monday, I’m not a total grammar geek but I do care about the correct usage of our language, and I’ve made a living for many years honing this skill. Lots of times I still CMShave to look things up in a dictionary or my Chicago Manual of Style (the style manual for much of the book publishing industry). All manuscripts go through several phases of editing, and I’ve done them all. Generally, if I do one phase on a particular manuscript, I make sure that other people do the other two phases–there’s a different focus that has to take place at each phase.

Editing—I call this the 10,000-foot view. I look at the big picture. I’m reading the fiction story and checking the plot, the pacing and flow, the characterization. In a non-fiction manuscript, I’m seeing if the organization works and makes sense. Any changes I suggest at this point are on the macro level—moving chapter 3 to become chapter 1, for instance. Or looking for that loose end in the mystery that the writer forgot to tie up (“What happened to so-and-so?”). The author makes changes (or not) based on my suggestions, and then the manuscript goes to a copyeditor.

Copyediting—This is more like the 1,000-foot view. Now that the editor has put the manuscript in good shape, if I’m in this role, I’m reading closely for sentence construction—dangling modifiers, run-ons, and inconsistencies. I fact check. I query if something doesn’t make sense, if a transition is needed, if a character’s way of speaking doesn’t sound real based on how he or she has been described by the author (“Would he really say this in this way?”).

Proofreading—This is the 10-foot view. If I’m in this role, sometimes I’m working on a manuscript, but often at this phase I’m looking at a pdf of typeset pages—which means I have to check the table of contents to make sure the titles and page numbers are correct, I check all the folios and running heads, I check the look of each page—marking widows and orphans (those random one or two words at the top of a page, or the lone line at the bottom—these just look awkward). Then I read every word. Even a clean manuscript can have random errors show up when the document is flowed into the typesetting program (a hidden tab in a Word document can suddenly rear its ugly head and space words far apart when typeset).

I love it.

Proofreading is probably my favorite. It’s that red pen mentality. I’m looking for errors only because I want the book, the author, and the publisher to put their best foot (feet?) forward.

The three types of editing take different skills. In my Editing class, I give my students practice in all of these areas, telling them that they will probably find an affinity for one and not like the others so much. But I also tell those who want to become editors that they should hone their grammar and punctuation knowledge anyway, because the copyediting and proofreading jobs are often the entry level positions in publishing companies. From there, they can move up, since often editors and acquisitions editors are hired from within, from people who have been with the company and understand the ethos there.


As I noted in my post earlier this week, proofreading skills are vitally important, especially on the job market. To have a clean paper, I suggest the following:

(1) Don’t trust the spell check program on your computer. (Judy has some tips on her blog about this.)

(2) If you’re not absolutely sure of the spelling of a word, don’t guess. Look it up. is your best friend.

(3) Go back and read your letter, paper, email, memo, whatever, aloud slowly to yourself. This will help you notice if words are missing or if a sentence runs on and on. (It’s best to do this on hard copy. Trust me, you’ll see things differently than on screen. A friend of one of my students writes about that on his blog.)

(4) Then, read it again starting from the bottom paragraph backward, a paragraph at a time. This helps you get outside your own flow and see errors you might skip over otherwise.

(5) Electronically, go back and do a search for an open parenthesis (to make sure that you always have a matching close parenthesis), an open quotation mark (to make sure you always have a the appropriate closing quotation mark and to make sure any inner quotation marks are single and that they are both there). And get rid of those double spaces between sentences!

(6) Be aware of your own weaknesses. If you know you tend to write run-on sentences, watch for that in particular. If you know that possessives always mess you up, do a search for apostrophes and check each one for correct usage.

This will clear up a good number of your errors. It never hurts, however, to have someone else look over an especially important document—like a cover letter or resume or manuscript submission.

Let’s put our best foot forward—both of them!

Writers Write, Right?

So as writers, we’re supposed to write, right? I have to admit that I need to think of writing as my job; I need to schedule time to do it. Some days it’s difficult; often it’s just plain hard work. Sometimes it’s rewarding; other times I melt into a puddle of frustration at my inability to say what I want to say.

Ever been there?

What do you do to stay disciplined and keep writing–even when it’s tough?

I’ve been an editor for a long time and have done my share of helping other people’s work sound better. Then I started graduate school at Ball State University, a full thirty years after finishing my undergrad at Houghton College and after a long career in publishing. The writing classes took what felt like dried-up creativity and infused it with new life. I could write again–for myself. I could read some of the best writers, study their techniques, and try them out. I could listen to peer reviews and learn how to make my writing better.

It’s been stupendous.

And I realized that I needed to go about the business of being a writer–which means writing.


Yes indeedy.Calendar

In my class with Dr. Deborah Mix, we discussed how to keep writing. She gave us five key points:

(1) Decide on a writing commitment and post it where you can see it.

(2) Set a word goal.

(3) Set aside time every day to write.

(4) Be creative in how you motivate and reward yourself.

(5) When that distracted feeling comes, realize that at that very moment your brain is working hard. If you don’t yield to the distraction, you may experience a breakthrough.

So I jumped into the proverbial pool. I’ve taken on my job of writing with renewed energy and enthusiasm. One of my favorite sites is–a simple site that gives me a nice blank page and counts my words for me, congratulating me when I get to the magic 750. It sends me a reminder by email every day, “You should write your 750 words” and it gives me a little hashtag on a calendar to track my monthly progress.

In any case, set a goal and then keep track of your progress.

Need writing prompts? Check out these rolling prompts at Writers Digest when you need some inspiration.

Need help with not being distracted? Download this program called Freedom. It blocks your access to the Internet for a set amount of time. You will literally be unable to check email or Facebook or the latest news during the time you’ve set aside to write.

Great idea, eh? What will they think of next?

As citizens of the literary world, we should join our fellow writers in our commitment to write, write, write because, well, it’s what we do.

How to Write a LotNeed more motivation? Pick up this little book, How to Write a Lot, by Dr. Paul J. Silvia (American Psychological Association, 2007). He encourages us not to find the time to write but to allot the time to write, treating our writing time as sacred. And, as a busy professional, he understands that writing can involve more than just writing. Perhaps you have to do some research, or review page proofs, or read the book you’re reviewing. Do it during your writing time because “writing is more than typing words. Any action that is instrumental in completing a writing project counts as writing” (19). He especially takes to task those writers who don’t write because they’re waiting for inspiration. “Serious writers write, inspired or not. Over time they discover that routine is a better friend to them than inspiration” (27). His help with setting goals and charting progress is invaluable.

It’s an odd task we’ve set ourselves, this thing called writing. We do it because we love it. We do it because we take joy in the look of words on the page and the sounds of words as they bump up against one another. We love to see what happens to the characters in our story.

So what keeps you writing?

The Art of the Book Review

I just got off the phone with my friend, L. Marie, who recently created a blog, “Thoughts about writing and life.” I’m thrilled that she’s blogging! We chatted about Literary Citizenship and how she needs this online presence in order to impress the agents where she’s currently shopping her young adult fantasy book. She has an MFA and is a terrific writer—but she realized that she needed to get online and join the literary world. I talked to her all about what we’re doing in our class; we talked through WordPress and how to add hyperlinks and tags. She’s on a roll now!

She’s also an avid reader, so I encouraged her to do reviews of books (her current blog is a movie review that ties into her writing). And wouldn’t you know it, our Lit Cit class is talking about that very topic this week. Book reviews are extremely important–especially book reviews by book lovers and writers who understand the craft.

That’s you.Reading 2

Indeed, Robin Becker at Penn State has an entire class on book reviewing because “my own experience had led me to book reviewing. Years ago, just as my first book entered production, I asked a more experienced poet how to get my book reviewed. She replied, ‘Review other people’s work. That way, you participate in the conversation.'”

As citizens of the literary world, we should participate in the conversation about books by reviewing books and helping along other authors who are just getting started.

Sure, review the latest Stephen King if you want, but it will be a great help to another fledgling writer if you discover and love his or her book and write a well-crafted review. Post it on your blog, sell it to a magazine where it might fit, offer it to a newspaper in the town where the author will be doing a reading. Follow up with an interview and do the same thing.

But maybe, like me, you wonder how to craft a good book review. Well, here’s some help.

I’m new to this, so I come to the topic eager to learn. Our class website featured an interview with David Walton, author and prolific book reviewer, who offered his advice on writing book reviews. So I am passing along what I’m learning to you.

I love the pie chart included there; further detail about each category on that pie chart is here so that you understand what plot synopsis (35%), critical analysis (25%), showing off (20%), providing context (10%), and quoting from the text (10%) mean in the context of a book review.

Reading 1I also discovered that there is a lot of conversation happening in the literary world regarding book reviews. I think I’ve stayed away because I thought: (a) I’m not high profile enough to write in the New York Times book review column, (b) I don’t know how to write a review, and (c) I don’t even want to comment on Amazon because isn’t that just people who either like or dislike the author or the topic and really write nothing about the quality of the book? (Charles Baxter calls this “Owl Criticism”: I don’t like owls; this book is about owls; I don’t like this book.) Indeed, many publishers are vetting their book reviewers to make sure they’re legit.

Well meanwhile, over at Amazon, there’s been plenty of conversation about fake reviews, with Amazon actually pulling down many suspect ones. (For help in writing one of those short Amazon reviews, check out this post.)

So what does that mean for those of us just getting started?

First, read the book.

Second, understand the craft and study the book well enough to be able to see what the writer is doing as a writer.

Charles Baxter’s “Owl Criticism” post puts it this way, “A reviewer is entitled to any opinion at all, but he or she earns that opinion based on a description and a judicious citation of evidence. . . . Is it too much to ask of a reviewer that he should know what he’s talking about?” He goes on:

The marks of a trustworthy review, therefore, have a kind of doubleness: the reviewer manages to assert somehow that the book under discussion is of some importance for one reason or another; and second, a good review provides a formal description of the book’s properties, so that you could reconstruct it from the reviewer’s sketch of it. This description is not the same as a plot summary, although a plot summary may figure into it. What a formal description does is to show what a book is about in relation to the form in which the subject matter has been shaped or located. In order to write such a review, let’s say of a novel, you have to have a basic idea of how novels are constructed; you have to have the technical knowledge that allows you to stand back from the book and to say how a book is put together. By these criteria, quite a few book reviews are worthless.

Los Angeles Times book critic, David Ulin, discusses the importance of well-crafted reviews:

Criticism matters — not because of how many people read it, or whether they agree or disagree with it, but because it is a way of engaging with literature. . . .

Books can stir this range of emotions also, which is why the act of criticism can be so hard. It’s not just about opinion but engagement, the sense of hope, of anticipation with which we come to a book, and the ideas, the feelings, with which we walk away from it, even, or especially, if they are not what we expect.

For me, this is how I know I’m doing my job: not by whether I like a book or don’t (whatever that means), but by what I learn. When I’m reading and writing well, books open up before me; often, they turn my preconceptions around. They make me think — not just about the flow of this text, but also about the flow of all texts: the different texts by this particular author, the different texts that I have read. I have, in other words, to confront myself, to figure out what I think, and then like all writers, to follow that line to its logical conclusion, for good or for ill.

For us writers, it’s a part of our craft to learn to write a good book review. It’s an art form. It keeps us reading. It allows us to learn from one another. It connects us in this literary world. It allows us to share good books with one another.

It helps us be good literary citizens.