Category Archives: Publishing

So You Want to Be a Writer!

In my last post, I mentioned an article about marketing that really impressed me: How Content Marketing Changed My Life, by Kiri Masters.

Today I’m going to talk about the article again, but from a different perspective. The article hints at one of the biggest factors in determining whether or not you’ll be a successful writer.

Before I tell you what it is, read the two little scenarios below (they’re true, by the way). Do they sound like you?

  • A friend wants to be a writer. She writes a charming memoir about her teen-aged daughter and a dog she rescued. Friend submits the memoir to the Reader’s Digest. They reject it. My friend stops writing.
  • A friend wants to be a writer. After spending most of a year writing a book about his tropical-fish hobby, he asks me to edit it. I notice that he consistently writes fla. for Florida. Sometimes he capitalizes the names of the fishes, and sometimes he doesn’t. Many words are misspelled.

The bad news is that neither friend is headed for success. The good news is that they don’t have to  accept failure.

Let’s begin with Friend #1, who wrote about the daughter and the rescue dog. She made an obvious mistake – sending her piece to the wrong magazine. Reader’s Digest is deluged with submissions, and her memoir isn’t a good fit anyway – the Digest usually prefers more dramatic articles.

But choosing the wrong market wasn’t her biggest mistake. Here’s where she really went wrong: she didn’t want to invest any time and energy into her writing project. She told me she “didn’t have time” to go to the library and search Writer’s Market for a magazine that would love her piece (it was well written).

Her second big mistake was giving up right away. Remember Kiri Masters and the article that impressed me so much? Masters warned that blogging (the strategy I use to market my own books) often takes years to attract book buyers. The same principle applies to almost any kind of marketing. If you’re not committed to writing for the long haul, you probably shouldn’t even get started.

(I’m going to throw in an extra story. A friend self-published a three-volume adventure novel. His sole marketing idea was to send a copy to Colin Powell, hoping that Powell would be photographed holding one of the books. Are you surprised that he sold very few books?)

Friend #2 had a different problem: he raced through the writing process at top speed, not thinking about annoying details like capital letters. But even that wasn’t the real problem. Here’s what really threatened to sink his project: he didn’t go back over his book a second time (or a third, fourth, or even fifth time). He didn’t even bother to run his book through a spellchecker.

Now obviously he had a competent friend (me!) who knew how to fix all his mistakes. So do those pesky mistakes really make a difference? Yes, they do. They’re a symptom of a much bigger problem – not having his brain fully engaged as he was writing.

When I read his book, I kept seeing terms that weren’t defined and advice that was clearly over the heads of the new hobbyists who would be looking at his book. He had to face the long, arduous task of rewriting almost a fourth of it before I would even start editing.

I also told him (I run a tight ship!) that I’d be glad to fix the formatting and usage errors that are common to many writers. But geez, Louise – you’ve never seen fla. in a book, have you? And you’re fully capable of running a spellchecker and looking up the names of the fishes you’re talking about.

(Another detour. Why fishes? Because he was talking about many species in his book. You would do the same for deers and – surprisingly – fruits. A bushel of apples would be called fruit. A bushel of apples and pears would be called fruits.)

There’s a happy ending for Friend #2. He is revising his book! Friend #1 never did try her hand at writing again, and that’s a shame – that memoir was wonderful, and it would have thrilled her to see it published.

Persistence – that’s the key to success!


Help Them Find You!

A few years ago, I met a remarkable woman with an amazing life story. I was delighted to learn that she was writing a book, and so were several of my friends who knew her.

Last week I had some great news: she’d published her book! But when I went online to buy a copy, I came up empty. It isn’t listed on Amazon, and she doesn’t have a blog.

LinkedIn was another dead end. I know she’s a member, but I couldn’t find anything about her book – not even the title. In fact it looked as if she hadn’t been active on LinkedIn for a long time.

My guess is that she had her book privately printed and hopes to sell it at book signing events…which means that she’ll probably make very little money for all her hard work.

This ambitious but unwise friend is one of many writers I’ve known who failed to heed the most basic (and most important) principle in book marketing: Make sure readers can find you.

How do you accomplish that? Every writer should follow these steps:

  • Have a headshot done by a professional photographer, and ask someone (it doesn’t have to be a celebrity) to write a brief endorsement of your book
  • Create a free sales page on Amazon that includes a description of your book, the endorsement and headshot, and a bio
  • Join, and use the resources there to showcase yourself 

Of course these are only the first steps in marketing your book! You can find many more suggestions by clicking here.



Writing for a Professional Journal

My friend (and fellow Shaw enthusiast!) Gustavo A. Rodríguez Martín just sent me a link to an intriguing article about academic publishing: Most Common Formal Grammatical Errors Committed by Authors. The writer is Dr. Anthony J. Onwuegbuzie, a professor of education with a distinguished background in writing and teaching.

His article is based on an examination of 116 submissions to a professional journal over a six-year period. Onwuegbuzie classified 35 kinds of mistakes (he called them “formal grammatical errors”). The article lists them in order – from most to least frequent – and offers examples of each one.

Any writer – especially someone who wants to write for professional journals – will find a wealth of useful information here. For example, Dr. Onwuegbuzie counsels writers to avoid using this and these as stand-alone pronouns. That trick is a simple and elegant way to help writers avoid a problem grammarians  call an indefinite pronoun reference. Here’s an example:

Joe gave me the wrong flight number. That caused a delay when we tried to meet his flight.  INDEFINITE PRONOUN REFERENCE

Joe gave me the wrong flight number. That mistake caused a delay when we tried to meet his flight.  CORRECT

All you do is change that to that mistake, and the problem disappears!


Now we’re going to take a detour. I have always been curious about how people think. What do psychologists think about during a social encounter? Do they analyze people’s behavior? What do professional dancers think about when they’re performing? What details and subtleties do they focus on that completely escape my attention? 

I’m hoping that some of you reading this post are curious about how a professional writer thinks. So I’m going to discuss some of the thoughts that went through my head when I read Dr. Onwuegbuzie’s article. Because his field is education, and mine is English, our thinking processes are (of course) different.

Often where Dr. Onwuegbuzie sees a grammatical error, I see a problem with usage (a topic I’m going to save for another day) or house style (which I’m going to discuss today).

Grammar is the system and structure of a language. (Another term for grammar is syntax.) Grammar issues are solidly embedded in the language. In English, for example, subjects and verbs have to agree (you can’t say “I are”). Pronouns have to agree with their antecedents. Word order is important in English: Joe likes Jane has a very different meaning from Jane likes Joe. (In some other languages, word order doesn’t matter.) Grammar is fixed and slow to change.

House style, on the other hand, deals with arbitrary choices and evolving issues that publishers have to contend with. Every publisher has a house style, and so do many businesses and other types of organizations. They create documents with names like “style guides,” “style sheets,” “guidelines for authors” to lay out their writing preferences. I’ve worked as a consultant for several organizations that wanted to create style guides to ensure that all their publications and correspondence were consistent.

You might be surprised how many writing practices fall into the “arbitrary” or “evolving” category. Here are some examples:

  • The Oxford comma – which do you prefer:  Jane, Joe, and Linda or Jane, Joe and Linda
  • Should you write healthcare, health-care, or health care? Childcare, child-care, or child care?
  • Is data singular or plural?
  • Should you write ok, okay, o.k., or OK? 1860s or 1860’sHallowe’en or Halloween? Catalogue or catalog? Theater or theatre?

Sometimes an organization will create a house rule to meet a particular need. For example, Yale University capitalizes Incomplete in explanations about students’ grades. Newspapers (to save space) don’t usually capitalize titles like president and director, but many colleges and businesses want to honor people in important positions by capitalizing those titles. And I could cite many, many more examples.

Another issue is that the ways we use words inevitably change over time. Manuscript comes from two Latin words that mean “written by hand” – but if you sent a handwritten manuscript to a publisher today, it would be thrown in the trash. You might be surprised how many everyday words were once controversial. Escalate – which wasn’t even allowed in the American Heritage Dictionary in 1960 – has become a perfectly respectable word.

Those changes continue to happen all the time. Only 8% of the experts recently polled by the AHD still treat data as a plural word: 92% accept the singular form (data is or data was). Snuck (for sneaked) isn’t there yet, but it’s moving toward mainstream status. Enthuse – a word I used to warn my students not to use – has crossed the line and now shows up even in formal writing.

How do professionals decide these issues? Google can help. When I do a consulting job, I also like to check the Chicago Manual of Style to see how they handled a particular problem. The Usage Notes in the American Heritage Dictionary are another excellent resource because I can track controversial words and usages as they gradually become acceptable.


What does all of this mean to an ambitious writer? I’d suggest reading Dr. Onwuegbuzie’s article to make sure you’re familiar with some fine points of grammar and usage. If you’re thinking about submitting an article to a magazine or journal, go to the publisher’s website and learn about their house style.

You should familiarize yourself with the words that are in flux right now, and you should have resources at hand to help you stay in touch with what’s happening in professional publishing. What’s most important is to develop a healthy respect for both the big and small issues associated with writing.



Sidney Poitier

Several people have been asking questions about obtaining permission to reprint. Instead of taking you through the steps, I’m going to tell you a true story about a particularly thorny permissions problem I ran into myself.

Some years ago I wrote a study skills textbook for college students. Early in the writing process I spent several Saturday mornings in the biography section of local library, scanning the early chapters to look for true stories from famous people about their early learning experiences.

I struck gold with actor Sidney Poitier’s memoir This Life. (He’s since written another one.) Poitier described arriving in New York City from the Bahamas as an ambitious 17-year-old with little education and limited funds. He supported himself washing dishes and dreamed of becoming an actor – but he couldn’t read well enough to get through an audition.

A Jewish waiter saw Poitier struggling to read a newspaper and offered to help. Years later, Poitier vividly remembered those reading lessons. One especially helpful skill was learning how to figure out the meaning of a word from the context. It was an impressive story, well told, and I gladly paid the Alfred A. Knopf publishing company $100 for permission to copy Poitier’s story in my chapter on reading.

Happily, my study skills book eventually went into a second edition. But not so happily, I had to redo all the permissions, and the Poitier selection became a problem. Knopf no longer owned the rights – they had been transferred to Poitier’s law firm.

In those pre-Internet days, it was no small feat to learn who Poitier’s lawyers were – and that was only the beginning of my struggles. The permissions fee was too small for the firm to be concerned about. I called multiple times, explaining that my book was about to go into production and I desperately need that permission form. Each time they promised to take care of it and immediately forgot.

One morning I went through my spiel for about the twentieth time (it seemed that someone different answered the phone whenever I called). I was put on hold. After several minutes, someone came on the line and asked what I wanted.

I was getting fed up with telling my story over and over – but common sense won the day, and I politely explained what I wanted.

“Can you tell me more?” the voice asked. And suddenly it dawned on me that I was talking to Poitier himself. The attorney’s office had patched my call through to his home phone.

I explained how impressed I’d been with his story about the dishwasher and newspaper lessons. Poitier gave me his fax number and asked me to send the chapter to him so he could see what I’d be doing with his story.

Three days later I opened my mailbox and found the signed permission form there. He was the only author who didn’t ask for a permissions fee.

A great and generous man.

(Because I’ve been hearing so many questions about modes of development, I’m adding a postscript. If I’d described the permission steps in a general way, this would have been a process article. Because I told you a story that happened once, it’s a narrative.)

Actor Sidney Poitier received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2009.

Actor Sidney Poitier received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2009.



Help for Ambitious Writers Part I: House Style

So you want to get published – wonderful!

Perhaps you’ll fill a writing position for a publisher – or you’ll get a contract to write a book – or you’ll self-publish one. Maybe (like me) you’ll be lucky enough to do all three during your career.

Will you be ready? High school and college writing courses don’t always teach you everything you need to know. This week I’m writing two posts about the larger world of professional writing. Today’s topic is house style – policies that a publisher adopts to ensure consistency about various issues:

  • Which is correct: ok, okay, OK, or O.K.?
  • Should it be a.m., AM, or A.M.?
  • Should you use a capital or lower-case letter after a colon?
  • Is it healthcare, health-care, or health care?

The answer to all of these questions is…it’s a matter of preference. And that’s where copyeditors and house style come in.

My friend Charles Warren is a fine writer and the author of the one of the best young people’s novels I’ve ever read – Address Unknown. (If you know a youngster who likes to read, buy a copy as a gift.) Yesterday Charles sent me the link to a short TED talk by Mary Norris, copyeditor for the New Yorker magazine – meaning that she ensures that every article follows the guidelines for the magazine’s house style.

The video is less than 10 minutes long and well worth watching. It gives you some interesting examples of what good writers (and editors) think about when they prepare a written piece for publication. A bonus is that you’ll pick up some of the terminology that editors use.

Let me also recommend Norris’s wise (and very funny) book Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen. Her stories (some about working on a dairy farm) are hilarious – and you’ll also learn a lot about writing and editing your work. It’s a book I plan to read again.



Be a Pro

In one of my favorite Andy Griffith Show episodes, Gomer Pyle is looking for a job and decides to answer an ad for a butcher. Andy asks, “Do you know anything about cutting meat?” Gomer, startled, says, “Do you think they’ll ask me that?”

It’s funny when Gomer Pyle says it. But that kind of attitude is NOT funny coming from a would-be writer. I regularly get asked to evaluate manuscripts from hopeful writers who haven’t taken the time to acquire the skills needed for a writing career.

Here’s a typical snatch of dialogue:

Me: “What word-processing system do you use?”

Writer: “What’s that?”

Other questions: Are you familiar with (You’d better be – they’re going to be selling your books.) Have you studied books similar to yours to see how they’re put together? Are you thinking about self-publishing? (The odds are strongly against persuading a commercial publisher to take on your book.) How much time and energy are you willing to commit to marketing your book?

Writers who take themselves seriously can produce outstanding work. My husband, a garden writer, just came across a beautiful self-published book about ornamental tobacco plants: Illustrated Guide to Flowering Tobacco for Gardens by Richard Pocker. I’m writing a review of another impressive book, The Baby Mama Syndrome by Judge Robert Doyel.

Another self-published book didn’t impress me as much – and it underlines the point about knowing the writing business. I just finished reading The Art of Compassion by Yola Miller Sigerson. It’s a biography of Sigrid Undset, one of my favorite writers, and it’s beautifully researched and a joy to read. All the scholarly apparatus is there, including pages of endnotes.

But…there are no endorsements on the back cover. Sigerson spoke to Undset’s relatives and friends. Why not ask them to make some comments about her book to enhance her credibility? And there’s no acknowledgments page. Another problem is that the word didn’t was misspelled numerous times (with an extra apostrophe).

Yes, Gomer, butchers need to know how to cut meat. And yes, dear would-be writer, you need to go to the library, pull some competing books off the shelves, and learn how to punt your book into the same league.

It’s all about a commitment to professionalism.

Jim Nabors as Gomer Pyle

                   Jim Nabors as Gomer Pyle



A Natural Woman

Carole King,  one of the most accomplished pop songwriters of our time, has just published a wonderful new autobiography called A Natural Woman. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book I enjoyed so much. King is very likable, she’s worked with some amazing people, and – my favorite feature of the book – she goes into some detail about how she creates her songs.

A Natural Woman is remarkable for another reason: The editing is meticulous. Comprise is used correctly every time. (It means “include,” not “composed of.”) All the pronouns are correct.

There was just one irritant that somehow escaped the editor: The constant use of respective, a meaningless word that’s distracting and almost always unnecessary. King refers to respective ideas, respective families…respective this and respective that. NO! Stop it!

Here’s just one annoying example. King went to a party with (I am dying of envy) Paul and Linda McCartney. Paul entertainingly reprised a recent appearance on Late Night with David Letterman, “playing the respective roles of David Letterman and Paul Shaffer.” Huh?

If you think a reader is going to be confused, use “own”:

We brought our respective ideas to the session.  NO

We brought our own ideas to the session.  YES

But it’s still a wonderful book.

A Natural Woman


My Father’s Places by Aeronwy Thomas

Every writer needs a good editor (a person who oversees a book’s content) and a good copyeditor (a person who makes corrections in grammar and usage). That sound principle was reinforced yesterday when I read a lovely book that could (and should) have been even better: My Father’s Places by Aeronwy Thomas, daughter of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.

The book is an enchanting memoir of growing up in Wales. Even someone unfamiliar with Thomas and his poetry would certainly enjoy Aeronwy’s account of a magical childhood spent playing near the seashore and living in a lively household with two madcap parents. And if you love Thomas’s poetry (as I do), the book is rapturous: Aeronwy has her father’s gift for vivid language, and as a bonus she sometimes shows her father at work on Under Milk Wood and other projects.

But it didn’t take long for me to suspect that the book had been rushed into print without careful editing. There are confusing anecdotes that make sense only when a missing piece is supplied several pages later – and that’s only one of the problems. “Children’s” is printed with not one but two apostrophes, and Aeronwy numerous times talks about “peddling” her bike (no, she wasn’t selling it). There are many references to “the Aga,” but it’s only far into the book that you learn that it was a brand of stove. Some words are never explained at all. I read the book on an airplane, so I couldn’t look up “mitching” (“loitering”) or “twp” (Welsh slang for “stupid”).

Many confusing details could have been fixed if a thoughtful reader had gone through the manuscript. For example, in one chapter Aeronwy takes an album to a birthday party as a gift, but it turns into a comic annual several pages later.

Often I found myself rereading a section, thinking I had missed something. For example, one paragraph begins “The anticipation of seeing movies was never quite matched by the event.” Clearly we’re going to read about disappointments and unmet expectations. Instead, though, Aeronwy tells us “it was heaven” to see Laurel and Hardy, Zorro, and Tarzan on the screen.

Parts of Aeronwy’s narrative are disjointed and puzzling. Just before her father’s untimely death, he decides to send her to boarding school – which turns out to be, inexplicably, a ballet academy. Did Aeronwy tell him she wanted to be a dancer? Did she have dance training in Laugharne? There’s no explanation.

Even the title is confusing. Why “my father’s places”? More than 90% of the book is about Laugharne, in South Wales. What are these other “places”?

The more I read, the more certain I was that the manuscript had never been edited. So it was a shock to read, on the last page, Aeronwy’s warm acknowledgement to both her editor and her copyeditor. What were they doing while they were supposed to be working on her book?

A plea to all the future writers out there: Find yourself an alert and unrelenting ceditor. Your book will thank you, and so will your readers.



Tips for Writing Dialogue

Dialogue – back-and-forth conversation between two or more people – is a vital component of most novels and short stories. You might also use dialogue in a nonfiction report, article, or book. Every writer should know how to write effective dialogue.

Here are some practical tips:

1.  Know your purpose:

  • background information
  • setting a mood
  • creating conflict between characters
  • advancing the plot
  • making your story sound real

2.  Make your dialogue easy to follow.

A full page of back-and-forth conversation may cause readers to forget who’s speaking. Attributions (“said Joe”) can help, or you can insert the name of the character being addressed (“Look, Joe, that’s never going to work”).

Another good strategy is to break up the dialogue (“Joe looked down at the floor”) and then start it up again.

3.  If other characters are present, find a way to work them into the dialogue.

Imagine that Joe and Mary have been arguing while Penny, their four-year-old, looks on in silence. Suddenly Penny jumps into the argument. Some of your readers are going to be puzzled – they forgot Penny was there.

Avoid confusion by breaking up the argument to remind readers that Penny is there. Penny could cry, gasp, argue back, climb onto Joe’s lap – anything to keep her in the scene and in view of your readers.

The golden rule of dialogue is to keep it natural – difficult to do because real-world conversation sounds awful if you write it down word-for-word.

Here are a few tips:

  • Use informal style (“don’t” instead of “do not,” “but” instead of “however”)
  • If you’re using dialogue to provide background, don’t overload your sentences with information (“I’m calling Jo, the baby-sitter we liked so much last month, so that we can celebrate our tenth anniversary, which many people thought would never happen because you and I are so different in temperament and upbringing”)
  • Use simple sentence style. An occasional colon, embedded clause, or list can work fine in dialogue. But if you overuse any of these, your dialogue will start to sound stilted and unbelievable.

Here’s some nuts-and-bolts information about punctuating dialogue:

  • In American punctuation, commas and periods belong inside quotation marks (there are no exceptions, at least in the US)
  • Start a new paragraph for each speaker
  • Thoughts belong in italics, with no quotation marks
  • If someone speaks for several paragraphs, use quotation marks at the beginning of each paragraph. Save the closed quotation marks for when that speaker stops talking

And here’s the best advice of all: Read, read, read. See how skillful authors write and punctuate dialogue. You’ll learn a lot.