Tag Archives: non-fiction editor

How to pick out an editor

Since you probably do not follow editors’ forums, I’ll spill: There are a great many people who first decided they wanted to be editors, then set forth to learn the English language.

For the record, that is not the proper order.

A high degree of English proficiency in at least one dialect is the baseline expectation for an editor, which means having been a voracious reader for at least a couple of decades. If one has to go on editorial forums and ask about punctuation because one’s chosen style guide doesn’t dictate one’s every action,  one evidently doesn’t know enough about the language to make those decisions oneself. That’s like a military platoon leader who doesn’t know basic small unit tactics outside a field manual, and is afraid to improvise under fire lest s/he break a rule.

Writers take harm by hiring a less than competent editor, or by hiring the wrong editor. I’m not the right editor for everyone or every situation; no one is.

How would I go about it, putting myself in the writer’s chair?

I would learn what editors do. An amazing percentage of writers do not understand that there are different editing modes with different objectives and requirements. In nearly every case, my first job is to explain my job to the prospective client. They come in thinking “editing is when you fix all the things and crush my soul, duh.”

I would be clear and realistic about my goals for my project. If it was meant to make money, I would develop some marketing strategy beyond “hope to get discovered without doing any actual work.” I would take a guess at the type of editing that might best help me with my goals. I would prepare to be told otherwise, but I’d at least give it some thought.

I would ignore all the gig-economy.com sites where people can just list themselves and be hired directly. I would talk to other writers, ask about their experiences. I would eavesdrop on the Facebook groups for editors. I would observe the state of the art, all the people who need a committee meeting and an emotional support group to know where to put a comma, who treat the interpretation of a Chicago Manual of Style passage like rabbinic scholars treat Talmudic passages. I would look for the people who answer the questions, and how they answer them. I would pick out a few that seemed knowledgeable, intelligent, and successful enough to share their knowledge.

Then I’d get in touch, one at a time, but at first I’d let the editor direct the process. This would not be me abrogating my right to decide; rather, it would be meant to show that I wasn’t a control freak, and to observe the editor’s screening method. I would want to decide whether I liked that method, whether I found it helpful and promising.  I would not profess to know anything about editing, though I would at least have done some basic homework. I would wait to see how well the editor guided me to a wise course of action and cooperation that would take into account my concerns and goals, about which I would expect to have been asked.

I’d keep doing this until I found someone that completed a good team, that I could afford, and above all was a knowledge sharer rather than a knowledge hoarder. This distinction is of paramount importance. Successful and skilled people tend to signify their success and skill by sharing knowledge in a generous fashion. They are never afraid they will run out of wisdom because they know how much they know. They are concerned not with being paid for every tidbit, but with giving the maximum value and support for any form of payment.

It’s expensive enough. You might as well get someone good–and that’s how I’d go about it.

Recent read: Ottoman Odyssey, by Alev Scott

The basic concept of this book was creative: After finding herself barred from Turkey, Scott (of English and Turkish parentage) decided to travel and write about the former Ottoman dominions. Most were lost to the former Sultanate just about a century ago, post-World War I.

After reading her first book, Turkish Awakening, another volume by Scott offered considerable appeal. The Erdogan government evidently wasn’t too thrilled with what she wrote. Turkey can be very sensitive about critics, enough that it has a law against “insulting Turkishness.” That includes, for example, referring to the Armenian genocide as genocidal. Formerly a somewhat authoritarian but determinedly secular republic, Turkey of late has shown significant drift toward theocracy. It once ruled much of the region, and that has left not only lingering grudges but lingering allegiances. Not everyone regrets the Turks’ absence.

D and I have been to Turkey, but only briefly. We liked what we saw, realizing our sample size was too limited for any generalization, and we liked the people we encountered. We felt safe and well treated. But that was over ten years back, and I am not sure we would return in the current climate. I’m not pointing a finger over the rise of theocratic hyper-nationalism; no American reasonably can. But I can also see why tourists were avoiding my country after 2016.

As Scott traveled about the former Ottoman lands (the Balkans, the Levant, Iraq, etc., she saw that Turkish support for local Islamic education and places of worship was on the rise. A century after its dismantlement, at least in the United States where historical understanding is atrocious, only history majors even know that “Ottoman” can mean anything other than a place to rest one’s feet.

All right. At its height, the Ottoman Empire included all the modern Balkan countries as far north as part of Hungary and some of Ukraine; the entire Black Sea coast; the Caucasus and Iraq; most of the Arabian peninsula; the north African coast from Egypt to Algeria. Its western boundaries somewhat curled around Italy. That’s big. This was a powerful, sophisticated, diverse imperium in which Muslims enjoyed preference (lower taxes, for example) but which, to be blunt, treated non-Muslims much better than western Europe treated non-Christians most of the time in most places. Jews, Greeks, Turks, Slavs, Arabs, Armenians, mostly lived and worked in amicable proximity. Western Europe took the Ottomans very seriously, especially when the Turks tried to expand into the Balkans.

Over the 1800s, the Ottoman grip grew flaccid, its member regions declaring independence or being seized by other powers. By 1900, the Ottoman Empire had a glass jaw. Siding with the Central Powers in World War I sealed its fate. When the outcome was settled, there was no more Ottoman Empire. Turks controlled only the area bounded by modern Turkey (minus Antakya, better known in the west as Antioch, which they reabsorbed in 1938-39). They had learned a thing about European wars, and they sat out the one immediately arriving. Not a single Turkish soldier died in World War II.

Postwar Turkey became a staunch NATO ally, in spite of periodic conflicts with fellow NATO member Greece, and to all external appearances was the farthest thing from seeking a new empire. Its troubles mainly involved a large Kurdish minority deeply resentful of its overlords. From the US standpoint, that’s long been the biggest problem for US support to the Kurds: such support would alienate Turkey, one of the most strategic positions in the world and a key US ally.

It has been, at least. Nowadays that alliance stands shaken and uncertain, with both sides thinking they never really knew one another. Maybe they didn’t.

If not, Scott’s book is a help in understanding the various undercurrents of that relationship. I look forward to more from her.

The investing fast takes I wish I had absorbed when I was much younger

When not editing people’s manuscripts, one of my interests/occupations is investing. In thirty years, I’ve paid lots of investing tuition, which means I made stupid mistakes that cost me money. This has taught me some things, ones I can distill into the modern attention span, so here they are.

  • Stock and index raw numbers do not matter. Only percentage change matters. If you see a headline like DOW JUMPS 100, and you care, you are incorrect.
  • The Dow sucks (and not just because it’s the market’s FUD dispenser). When it’s done, it sucks some more.
  • The money media spend long hours trying to scare you into reading their media. None ever get fired for being wrong. So we keep reading them…why?
  • All fees and taxes matter. Never ignore any fee or tax; that’s the path to self-delusion.
  • Any investment setup that looks like a cutesy little dance, such as little gimmicky stuff that gives you free money to invest, is probably an e-monte game designed to tap into your “omg i could get rich yes plz” wishes. Read the terms, especially those about how you get out when you want to. Bears repeating: Watch the fees. Yes, even those little ones. Yes, those too. And yes, that one. Do you sense a trend? Are they targeting those at younger and less experienced investors? Well, what do you think? Do you suppose that it’s aimed at people who know much about what they are doing? If it’s that great, wouldn’t affluent older people be doing it?
  • Wall Street gets to cheat; you don’t. Love that or hate it, but it is what you will live with, and no one with the power to change it will ever do so.
  • Anyone who uses the word “bagger,” without “grocery” or “vance,” start ignoring. Just put an R after the B and all will be clear.
  • When you are young, time is your friend. Most young people will reject this friendship. I get it; so did I. I was a young idiot. If it were easier to accept that friendship, more young people would do it.
  • Even your brokerage will give Big Money better deals than it will to you. They will only be surprised if you act surprised (or outraged) by it, as if all people were created equal or something. In investing, you would be a hopeless naïf to believe this, and they would treat you with the gentle restraint and pity typically shown toward volatile persons missing a few marbles.
  • The three main ways to make money investing are to: sell it for a profit, get it to pay you, and/or save on your taxes. Growth, income, tax advantages. That’s them.
  • You really can’t know how you’ll react to big gains and big losses until you experience them. What you say about them now is irrelevant. What you do when the crowd’s going wild, or the building is on fire, is your investing identity.
  • Most non-index mutual funds do not beat their target indices, raising the question of why pay them more in order to do worse.
  • Conventional open-end mutual funds have some inherent flaws that harm performance.
  • Understand every investment you buy. It is very stupid to buy something and then go find out what you just got.
  • The biggest enemy of your success is your own emotions, both greed and fear.
  • If you just read the above and though, “Aha! I’m a man, and the women are more emotional, so I have the advantage!”, your furry ass is showing. A book called Warren Buffett Invests Like a Girl makes a convincing case that women are likely to be better investors, more prone to do their research homework. I wouldn’t take any generalization too far, but read that book before you start patting your XY chromosomes on the back.
  • If that doesn’t convince you, consider this. With the exception of Berkshire, the only separate issue stocks that have ever succeeded for me were the ones my wife picked. She knows very little about investing. She rarely misses. I don’t even buy them any more, except those she directs me to buy. If you want to know her secret, it’s not very complicated; she buys stock of companies she likes and uses.
  • If you want to punish an evil company, don’t boycott their stock.  That’s mindless, and doesn’t hurt them. Want to mess them up? Buy a bunch, and then vote against management every time in shareholder elections, especially for the loopy proposals management recommends you vote down. Donate the dividends to anti-company causes if you like. But don’t confuse activism with investing, because they do not have the same goals.
  • If your job has a 401k, and you aren’t putting in at least up to the employer’s match, you are financially self-harming. They’re offering you free money and you are refusing it.
  • As you change jobs, roll your old 401ks into a rollover IRA, then manage them yourself. You will have better and more options.
  • Read good books about investing. Ask successful investors which are good books, and why. Don’t read stupid books.
  • If you’re tempted by an investment newsletter, start by rejecting any that arrive as junk mail.
  • If you just want the market return and can be happy with it, buy and hold index ETFs. If you did that consistently, you’d probably end up with a pile without having to do any work.
  • Every minute you spend watching Jim Cramer, you’ll get a little dumber. About 160 hours might be a functional financial lobotomy.
  • “It’s different this time” are investing’s famous last words.

It’s up to you. Good hunting.

If you’re such a great editor, why don’t you write your own books?

We get this one a lot. There are many possible answers, and for some, multiple answers might apply.

  • The editor doesn’t want to. It can be as simple as that.
  • The editor realizes that there is more money in editing than in writing.
  • The editor knows that marketing is the difference between success and failure, and doesn’t like marketing. Or doesn’t mind it, but can’t or won’t do it well.
  • The editor has done so, either under a pen name or perhaps an unpublished work.
  • The editor takes more satisfaction in helping and guiding and teaching other people than in creating his or her own projects.
  • The editor doesn’t want the public engagement that could come with a reasonably successful book, at least not for the pittance s/he would likely earn from it.
  • The editor never got comfortable with the traditional publishing model (writer begs and begs, house condescends to accept the bulk of the revenue).
  • The editor isn’t neurotic enough to be a writer. (Okay, I’m sort of kidding. Sort of.)
  • Editing and writing require different skill sets and not everyone has both.
  • The editor hasn’t got anything original to share.
  • The editor is too busy helping others to focus on his/her own book.
  • A similar situation exists in many disciplines. Not everyone who can refinish furniture can build it. Not everyone who can repair a car can design and build a car.

Some of those apply to me to varying degrees. I’d bet some apply to most editors.

Laura Miller on Spamazon

Here’s her article.

The emptor must caveat real well these days.  While I think that the advent of e-readers has a lot of benefits (though I don’t currently plan to obtain one), any new technology signals that it has become popular and mainstream when it is invaded by crooks, garbage and advertising.  (Okay, sorry, that was triply repetitive.)  Anyway, do keep an eye out when buying, so you don’t get sucked into the Great Internet E-Trash Vortex of these sorts of books.

Over time, having moved from writing into editing, I have also seen this evolve. For example, I used to get tons of book review requests, but one day they just ground to a halt. What replaced them? Seriously irritating spam trying to bribe 5-star reviews out of people. I’ve had to change my whole guidance to editing clients with regard to marketing, because I once knew how to generate book reviews, and it no longer works.

Trolling Craigslist for work

This is what ‘lancers do, troll around for assignments.  But how to winnow out all the crap from the legitimate opportunities? The former outnumbers the latter.

First, you can throw away anything where they don’t even give you a hint of what they want you to write, nor who for.  They aren’t professional.  The less they tell you, and the more hype, the more likely it’s spam.  For example:

Do you love writing???
Do you love making money???
Then this is the opportunity for you!
Internet companies are looking for fresh, new writers to create original content for their websites, blogs, and newsletters. The more articles you write, the more money you earn.
Write about almost and topic or subject you want. Write from the office, from home, or wherever…

This is obviously crap.  No specifics, no idea who it’s for.  Just ignore these.

If you are willing/desperate enough to write search engine optimized stuff, a lot of online writing leads there.  SEO essentially means marketing writing, which is probably the largest market out there for online writing.  What you are doing is writing something, but you are following some rules to work in the right keywords.  This will help the article float to the top of Google (and the other 15 search engines no one uses).  Companies get a big wood when their marketing floats to the top of Google.  If you are at all a competent writer and present yourself well, you can probably find SEO work (if you learn what it is and how it works).

Is there anything wrong with the literary prostitution of SEO? You’re asking me, the literary mercenary? The only things I won’t write for money are those which I a) am too incompetent at to even understand much less write, b) find too morally disgusting even for my rather unconventional moral code, or c) don’t get paid enough.  Most of what I turn down, that’s the reason.  The work sounds fine, but $3 an hour doesn’t cut it.  A lot of opportunity out there is designed to attract those desperate for exposure, which I am not.  I like to work with professionals who have high standards and clear expectations, with reasonable compensation for quality work promptly done.

However, I confess I got my start writing marketing stuff.

I don’t believe in ‘writer’s block’

Honestly.  I do not believe in it, and I believe giving it a name makes it a bugaboo, like a syndrome or disorder that comes to be the attribution for counterproductive behaviors.  “Why I can’t I write? Augh!  I have ‘writer’s block!'”

If you truly want to write, you will.  About something, anything.  Why am I currently writing this blog entry? Because I want to write.  When I am not writing, it’s because I am doing something I want or need to do other than writing.  Might be mowing the yard, might be playing Alpha Centauri, might be watching Looney Tunes DVDs, might be making something to eat.  Right now I want to write, and I’m doing so.

“But what do you do when you sit down to write and nothing comes?” I so often hear.  Well, here’s the usual dialogue:

“Here’s what I do.  I go to my filing cabinet.”

“Your filing cabinet? Is that where you keep your file of ideas?”

“No, it’s where I keep my file copies of contracts.  I pull out the most recent one and skip down to the part where the para begins ‘You will write…’  I read that paragraph carefully, as it delineates what I agreed to do.  Then I skip down to the paragraph that says ‘You will be compensated…’  I take careful note of the parts that point out, in short, that if I don’t do my work I won’t get paid, and if it sucks, I also won’t get paid.”

“And how the hell does that help you feel inspired to write?”

“It doesn’t help me feel inspired.  Inspiration is for creating art, and my writing is my job, not my art.  It does help me feel motivated.  As in, ‘you better sit your butt down there and get it done.’  I rarely even need this, because I like to write.  Nearly all the time when I have work to do, I like it and want to do it.  And when I don’t, tough; it’s a job.  I accepted it.  Time to knock it out, get ‘er done.”

“Okay, fine, but I’m working on my science fiction novel and I don’t have any contract at all to read, and I’m not getting paid any time soon.  I’m stuck!  How do I get unstuck?”

This part is hard.  “If you can’t figure out where to take your story, you need to do some thinking.  But if you know where you want it to go, and can’t put it on paper, then you don’t want to write badly enough right then.  If you did, you’d just start writing whatever part of it you thought of first, and fix it later.”

“Uh…but….” They taper off into silence.  I just dropped a bomb.  I said the thing you can’t say.  I may just have blown their supposed ‘writer’s block’ to gravel (I was certainly trying my level best), but it’ll take time to process that.  I just challenged their basic desire to write, the unchallengeable.  They look at me like I’m the kind of cold S.O.B. that just isn’t supposed to exist in the “Oh, for a muse…” world of Writer’s Digest.  Well, yeah.  I’m a freelancer, a literary mercenary.  If you want feelgood advice that will reinforce all your existing perceptions, I’m the worst person to ask.  However, I don’t get jollies from the fact of jolting eager psyches, so I soften it…

“It’s true.  If you think about it, you aren’t sure where to start with what you want to say, and you don’t want to redo it all later.  Sorry, more bad news:  you will anyway, so just embrace that.  Start with something, anything, even if you have to throw 90% of it away later.  Any writing at all is progress, and not writing is zero progress.  If you clearly understood and absorbed this, you will now desire to go immediately to your computer and begin banging keys.”

“(various confused and noncommittal responses)”

Now, none of this bothers me.  I’m used to it, it’s part of what I do, like a hardware store owner being asked by his brother-in-law about caulking.  Only two things bother me:

  • Arguing with me, trying to tell me how wrong I am.  Maybe I am, but you aren’t paying me for this advice, so if you don’t like it, or find it an annoyance, debating me is useless to you.  You gain nothing except that you can be sure that you’ll never have to worry about getting free advice from me again.  Do I mind healthy disagreement? Not at all–but something I am doing is working, so what I say can’t be too totally incredible.  And if what someone is doing is not working, then where is the knowledge basis for debating me? This blog began purely because my favorite author gave me some stern, kind, wise advice:  “You must start a blog.  People who like your writing want more of it, often, and you need to learn to think in terms of giving it to them.  They want to know the mundane stuff you can’t imagine anyone would care about.  You must have your own domain.  You must learn to present yourself in your profession.”  Did I argue with her? Hell’s bells, no.  I went and did it, within two days.
  • Ignoring what I said, and continuing to seek approval for the dysfunctional methods they’re currently using.  If you wanted to know, why did you just ignore everything I said? Surely you can understand that if I think you’re doing it wrong, I gain no happiness from having to break that to you.  It’s a service.  Freely given, but please think of what it’s like to be simply ignored and have the same thing thrown back at you.  It feels ineffectual for me.  It makes me want to stop.  I don’t fundamentally want to stop.  I like to help people.  I hope what I say will help them write more productively and happily.  If I’m not perceived as an authority, why ever ask me?

This has wandered afield from the topic a bit, I acknowledge, but it does all pertain (if tangentially) to the busting of this mythical ‘writer’s block.’  If you stopped believing in the concept, and started writing–something–anything–even a piece on abuse of the em dash, like someone on Salon recently did–the concept would go away.  Bang out 300 words about how frustrated you are.  Describe your beer can opener.  Rhapsodize about five hairs on your arm.  Write a scathing rebuttal to this, telling me I’m full of baloney.  You will be writing.  That’s the idea, is it not?

Writers want to write.  Non-writers want to talk about how cool it would be to write, or why they can’t write.

And if writers know they should blog, and have no idea at all what to write about some night, you can see what happens.

Dashing through the text…

A writer on Slate decided to have a little fun with hyperdependence upon dashes in writing.  I recommend the read.

My own besetting literary sin is the semicolon, though my guilt in the dash sector is more than it should be.  I’ve learned that, the longer it takes to edit a paragraph for clarity and flow–the more you have to move stuff around to remove this dash or that semicolon–the stronger your signal to rewrite it afresh.

If you fooled with it for fifteen minutes, you already wasted more time rewriting it than you spent writing it.  It’s fourth down; if you aren’t past midfield, punt.

You aren’t the whole process

I was compiling a list of the articles I authored for Myths & Misconceptions today for a friend, listening to Rex Navarrette (Pinoy comic, really funny) in the background.  Looking at my originals compared to what the editors published, it got me to thinking about the sentence I hear the most from people who say ‘I want to write’:

“Oh, I don’t think I could handle being edited.”

If you can’t handle being edited, you are writing for personal enjoyment only, because not only will you be edited, you need to be edited.  The author is not the whole process, nor even necessarily the most important aspect of the process.  Nearly all published work has aspects of collaboration.  I am not saying that one must never argue with an editor; I can and I have.  You can argue for a usage or a phrase or a description if you can justify its stet (‘let stand as set’…the term for canceling an edit) in terms of making the writing better, provided you have taken into consideration the space issues the publication faces.  ‘Because this turn of phrase sets up a joke later’ is a good one.  ‘Because this descriptive bit will orphan a later paragraph if nerfed’ is another.

What is not a good one:  ‘Because my ego is bound up in my cleverness.’

A good example would be the piece I authored for Armchair Reader:  World War II on the Warsaw Ghetto Rising of 1943.  It was a very difficult and painful piece for me for several reasons, difficult enough there is only one person who has ever heard the full tale, haunting even to see on the page in the printed book.  I suggested two titles:  Masada 1943 and “Juden Haben Waffen!” (this being what the SS cutthroats yelled out when the Jewish fighters opened up with their very limited supply of firearms).  I thought the first title was brilliant, evocative, and incorporated a bit of my own soul’s blood that poured that terrible day and night of my career.  I offered the second in case they didn’t like the first, knowing I was emotionally bound up in the piece.

The publisher used the second title, as I learned when I got my comps.  A part of me was crushed–but that was so me!  Obviously, it would have been entirely too late to complain; perhaps less obviously, it would have been very unwise of me to lobby real hard beforehand.  The editors make those decisions and the author needs to either be okay with it, or get okay with it, because my emotional problems are not something the editors can be expected to own.  Plus, if I really really wanted them to use my pet title, it was very foolish of me to present an alternative which they might take.

Do I still think my first title was much better? Oh, hell yes.  But that is because I am emotionally bound up with it, and my judgment is deeply biased.  My editors’ judgment was not.

I am not the whole process.  And if I try to assert myself as though I am, I will no longer even have a place in the process.

Researching with Wikipedia

Heh, don’t have a heart attack.  Wikipedia is great for research, but not in the way you’re thinking.  I use it all the time, yet rarely read the actual entry.

No, you can’t take anything you read there as authoritative.  However, you can see where it sends you.  Check the links, source notes, and all that stuff.  Armed thus, you can investigate those and make up your own mind about their reliability.  Website of some Holocaust denial maven? That’s a distrustin’.  Article by amateur historian? Better, if not fully authoritative.  Peer-reviewed article by expert, from whom further research indicates no predilection or motivation for bias? That’s pretty good.

The other benefit of Wikipedia is that it will at least alert you to high points of a subject for further study.  Reading about an event in its Wiki entry, you may believe nothing the author says, but you at least gain some idea of the main points of controversy.  Thus, if researching the Boston Tea Party, you would not let Wiki decide for you what its real motivations were–but you’d at least get a sense of how some construe the motivations, and from there, you could do some more substantive discovery and deciding.

I realize it’s un-AC (academically correct) to say anything about Wikipedia that doesn’t trash it, but in the editing process, I use it all the time. Suppose a client makes a reference to something I’ve never heard of. Unless it’s a proper noun, there exist a fair number of self-described editors who simply run spellcheck and grammar check, then ask to be paid. If the writer used an arcane term, too bad–they’ll just let the software change it. Laugh if you will, but I have seen the outcome. A competent editor looks up any word or term s/he does not understand; how can one evaluate its use if one does not know what it means? I wouldn’t use Wiki as my definitive source, but as a quick way to follow along with my client, it definitely has its niche.