I started writing for money at the age of 20, when I got a paid internship at my university. My supervisors were a writer from the University Relations Department and a Pulitzer-prize nominated former music critic from the Chicago Tribune. One or the other, usually both, of these mentors, plus the Public Relations Director, reviewed every word I wrote that was sent out under the university’s name.
Most of my work came back to me covered with blue pencil marks: corrections, margin notes, and suggestions for things to add.
My first job out of college was as an assistant editor at a music magazine where I was encouraged to, or at least allowed, to write. Once again, every word was reviewed, first by another editor at my level (normal lead pencil), then by a senior editor (thick blue pencil) , and then by the publisher (thicker black marker). Some pieces came back looking like a kindergarten art project, more like something to be tacked to a refrigerator than to be published in a magazine.
Well, I’m dating myself: Paper copies, blue pencils, black markers. And I haven’t even mentioned the White-out or the type-over tape; or Exacto knives, or scissors for when the “cutting” part of “cutting and pasting “ involved actual cutting.
Today, my pages came back to me with “track changes,” which can be every bit as colorful. If you haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing “track changes,’ each editor gets her own hue, so if you have four editors on a piece, you have four colors. And of course, there are those pesky author queries and requests for “tweaks.” (Such a harmless sounding word, tweaks. I HATE that word!)
Here’s the thing: Those colors? Those queries? Those scrawled margin notes (“Awk”, “???”, or my favorite: “DRD” (that particular editor’s shorthand for “department of redundancy department”)? Those damned tweaks? THAT is how I learned to write.
Oh, my grammar was fine long before that. My syntax was competent. Sure, there were some mistakes; there always are, but the average English professor had no problem with my papers. I’ve always been a reader, and basic writing skills have always come easily.
But I had no idea what the difference was between writing correctly for a college term paper, and writing entertainingly and engagingly for a commercial audience.
Listen up here, because THIS is important:
My (and your) professors were paid to read what I (and you) wrote.
Our magazine readers pay to read what we write.
Big difference. Professors can give you a bad grade and help you fix it; if magazine readers don’t like your work, they can just turn the page. Or put it in the trash. Or write a nasty little letter to the editor.
And while we’re at it, let me put a possible objection to rest: Sure, your Internet readers aren’t spending money to read what you wrote. but they ARE spending their time. If you want them to stick around, you have to earn their attention.
I had a lot to learn, and I learned it from those multi-colored scribbles and irritating queries and endless tweaks.
Learning to Write in the Brave New World of the Internet
Today’s writing world has completely changed, and for beginning writers, it is both easier and harder.
It’s easier because the barriers to entry are non-existent. Wanna write? Start a blog. It takes 15 minutes.
Sure, gatekeepers still zealously and carefully guard the traditional bastions of old-style publishing. I remember the nervous, excited, Cinderella-at-the-ball feeling I had when I first visited an editor at a New York publishing house, invited into to the sanctum sanctorum to pitch what would become my very first book. Even now, 15 books later, the feeling of stepping through those glass doors still seems to me like being invited to the palace.
A few years later, visiting a friend who was an editor at Knopf, I looked around the reception area. Could it have been any more intimidating, decorated as it was with the covers of Pulitzer prize winning books and iconic literary best-sellers? On the floor near the door was a sad stack of yellow 9 x12 envelopes, submissions in the truest sense of the word. Would anyone ever read them? These New York agents, these prestigious old houses, those revered magazines with their Ivy League accents; they don’t need security guards to keep out the unworthy.
In yesteryear, if you didn’t have a connection, you had to bang your head against the palace walls until you broke through or someone took pity on you.
Tough Love is an Editor’s Job: The Tougher Their Love, the Better Your Work
Today, that’s all different. Today, you can start a blog. or write for a revenue share site, or for one of the thousands of sites that pay 10 cents a word…. or less. The Internet’s ultimate effects on professional writers and on journalism in general have yet to be determined. From where I sit, the Internet has surely done some damage. But for beginners, it’s a godsend.
Print editors used to sniffily reject authors unknown to them with the rationale that they couldn’t tell from a clip whether the work was heavily edited or not. And they were right. The more prestigious the magazine, the less likely it is that the published version is what a writer actually turned in.
They can’t say that anymore: In contrast, online work is often unedited, and if it is edited, it is edited very lightly. My online work, for example, has appeared on sites ranging from MSNBC.com to Weather.com to corporate sites for General Electric and The Northface, to the revenue share site, Suite 101.com. I’ve written way more than 1000 articles on-line, and I can count individually — perhaps a dozen — the number of those that have been bounced back to me with requests for anything more than an occasional request for clarification or a questions that needed to be addressed. I’ve never had to rewrite. If an editor is reading me online, that editor is, for better or worse, reading ME.
My experience in print has been quite different. Early in my career, in my early 20s, I wrote a few stories for the New York Times. I remember when my editor (who, over the phone, had that stereotypically gruff old-time newspaperman’s voice) questioned a few details. Realization struck like lightning. THIS is what we mean by clarity. THIS is what we mean by specificity. THIS is what we mean by “Show, don’t tell.” After writing a couple of stories for this one editor, my goal was to make my stories so tight and waterproof that he wouldn’t have to ask those questions anymore.
But I still had more to learn: My first book had to be entirely rewritten: As soon as the editor started pointing out flaws in the first chapter, I realized that there were global problems all over the place. It was an easy rewrite; he was a good editor who made his points clearly,and after a while, he barely had to make them at all, only circling or putting the odd question mark here or there to call my attention to a section that needed reworking. I guess we were on compatible wavelengths, because I immediately saw not only what he needed and how to do it — but the value of it. There weren’t any egregious technical writing mistakes in my first draft. Nonetheless, the difference between that and the second draft was night and day. My first draft may have been correct, but it was unpublishable. This was another key realization. Correct does not equal readable.
If you are open to learning, THAT is what good editing can teach you. If you are NOT open to learning, you will continue to write and wonder why you’re not getting anywhere. In order to be teachable, you have to be willing to be taught. You have to be willing to act on what you don’t even want to hear. Willing to rewrite the Whole. Damn. Book.
Misconceptions About Editing From On-line Writers and Why It Matters if You Want to Write for Print
I hear the following a lot from Internet writers:
That their writing is basically correct.
That they have written for a long time.
That changes an editor wants are all about that editor’s preference.
That it’s all a matter of opinion.
That someone else told them they were a really GOOD writer.
That writing rules rules and styles change.
Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes.
BUT: Good writing means more than agreeing nouns and verbs. It means more than scribbling something that passes your computer’s grammar check.
As an editor, I can tell in 30 seconds if your writing is what I’m looking for. A lot of writing I see has huge red flags screaming “I’m not yet a professional writer.” The fact that a writer doesn’t yet know what these red flags are and hasn’t learned to identify and fix them doesn’t mean they aren’t there.
True, different editors will disagree about issues of style. They will suggest different solutions for the same problem. Some will hate passive voice; others will let it slide; some don’t care. But don’t let that fool you into thinking that there’s no foundation here. Nothing could be further from the truth. For such a subjective field, the agreement among editors (who, after all, are the ones approving your pay check) about what is good writing and what isn’t is remarkably consistent. We may not agree on the fine points. We may have different pet peeves and quirks (and yes, that makes it hard for new writers). But we know quality.
And it’s in working with editors — with many different editors, over time — that writers begin to find their own voice and develop a style that that holds up under the scrutiny of scores of editors, all with different training and predilections and preferences. We develop our preferences and our style, and we can defend it. I can answer *exactly* why I used *that* word if challenged by an editor — but at the same time, I’m open to their interpretation of the issue, because guess what: Here’s an opportunity to have a dialogue with someone who knows and cares. Maybe they’ll show me a new angle I hadn’t considered.
Internet writers often don’t have the benefit of this tempering experience. A writer who makes the jump from unedited online writing to professional traditional publishing is often shocked to see her work returned looking like the online equivalent of that children’s kindergarden project: Purple track change marks from one editor, red from another, blue from a third. One new-t0-book-publishing writer called me almost in tears when writing her first book. She’s a fantastic writer, with a great voice, and her book had more than 100 author queries and thousands of changes. Thousands. Which is not uncommon.
“They say they love me,” she sniffled, “But I don’t even know how to look at this; I can’t even see what I wrote under all these changes. How can they say they like me? It looks like they hate me. They’ll never want to work with me again.”
Well, no they didn’t hate her — as a matter of fact, they signed her on for three more books.
THAT is how the “real” world of publishing works. That is why experienced writers and editors can ID most self-published books after reading a couple of paragraphs. Because it hasn’t gone through three layers of edits and a knock-down drag-out between author and editor over the use of the passive voice or a split infinitive.
As a writer, I EXPECT to have to defend my word choices and syntax choices and weird little rule-breaking habits to any editor who asks. And I expect my editors to be able to defend THEIR changes, too. However, the truth is that when I work with editors, the vast majority of the time, I don’t argue about their changes; I immediately see where they are fixing my inconsistencies, tightening flabby sentences, eliminating redundancies.
I’d like to end this with one final thought:
Soon after starting my first job, at the not-quite-mature age of 21, I learned that I didn’t HAVE to like the changes the other editors proposed.
I didn’t have to accept them, either.
What I DID have to do was FIX the problem that caused the editor to think that a change needed to be made.
The answer was NEVER, “But it was fine as it was.”
If the writing caused enough of a bump in the road that the editor had to stop and look around, there was something there that needed fixing. Their solutions might have been the right ones, but they usually showed me what the problem was, and helped point ME to the right answer. Editors are stand-ins for our readers. We may be the experts on our topic, but THEY are reading for sense, for continuity, for holes, for illogical jumps, for questions that the readers will not be able to ask us.
These guys have our backs, and as a writer, I, for one, am grateful for it.
So here’s the question: If this sort of feedback is essential, as an online line writer, how do you go about getting it?
Some suggestions coming next post.