Invisibility is good

shocked“The story in this book is fantastic!” Rowlf exploded. “I can’t put it down.”

“Oh really?” Cyndy interrogated. “I found it annoying to read because of all of the oddball speaker attributions.”

“That’s because you have no vision,” Rowlf interjected. “This writer is being experimental.”

I’m proofediting a book right now for a publisher that is full of attributions just like these. It also has no discernible POV, switching within scenes to whatever character is most convenient at the time (head hopping)—or even to omniscient.

So why do I like the book? And what lessons can you learn from it? See my post today at Seriously Write, one of my favorite writer’s blogs.

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic /


Michael Ehret, for Writing on the Fine Line

Mike-9Michael loves to play with words and as editor of the ACFW Journal, he is enjoying his playground. He also plays with words as a freelance editor here at, where he often takes a writer Into The Edit, pulling back the veil on the editing process. He has edited several nonfiction books, played with words as a corporate communicator, and reported for The Indianapolis Star.


Joy in Revision

I’m somewhat of a revision monkey. I love sculpting words! Which likely explains why I prefer editing to writing.

chimp_at_typewriterSo, I’m revising—again—and that means I’m reading through James Scott Bell’s excellent Revision & Self-editing—again. This is not a commercial, this is a strongly held opinion: If you don’t own this book you may not be a real writer.

Anyway. Each time I read through the book I glean new insights and shore up the things I already know.

Read the rest in my post today at Novel Rocket.

Michael Ehret, for Writing on the Fine Line

Quote It! F. Scott Fitzgerald / Neil Gaiman

Cut out all those exclamation marks. An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own joke.

– F. Scott Fitzgerald, an American author of novels and short stories

Laugh at your own jokes.

– Neil Gaiman, an English author of short fiction, novels, comic books, and graphic novels

Wow. Sometimes writing advice is so contradictory. What’s an aspiring author to do?

When advice seemingly contradicts, I find it helpful to approach it from a ‘Yes, and’ perspective. First of all, Gaiman is likely not referencing exclamation points–context is everything.

But, that doesn’t negate the benefit of ‘Yes, and’. Fitzgerald and Gaiman are both right–even if talking about exclamation points. In my writing (and editing), I favor eschewing exclamation points for the most part. However, in the right circumstance, they are positively necessary! But only in those rare circumstances.

What do you think? About exclamation points and contradictory writing advice?

Michael Ehret, for Writing on the Fine Line

In The Edit: Jennifer Slattery

In these posts, with the author’s permission, I look at their work pre-editing and post-editing—and at what I did to improve the piece. The idea is to catch a glimpse into not only the editing process, but the relationship between editor and author.

Jennifer Slattery

Jennifer Slattery is one of my favorite writers for the ACFW Journal. She comes up with great ideas, pitches them well, and then executes them pretty much to my expectation. She is an editor’s dream, because I know I won’t have to reconstruct or rewrite, but more than that, that she’ll make it interesting.

The piece we’re looking at today—a feature on author Athol Dickson—is one of my favorites. It ran in the July 2012 issue of ACFW Journal. I’ve attached the designed spread (below) so you can see how well it works.

Dickson is, for me, one of those writers almost of mythical proportions. His body of work is consistently engaging and thought-provoking. Yet, Jen has revealed him as entirely human.

Jennifer’s edit

See Jennifer’s original.

These are the three main things I addressed in this article:

  1. Article’s purpose: This is a little hard to define, but for magazine writing—and specifically for a writer’s magazine—the features have to show the reader who the subject is without coming across as a tour guide or promotional piece. I did this by:
    • Punching up the lead.
    • Enhancing Jen’s natural accessible flow
    • Paying close attention to word choice.
  2. Writing tighter: Paring down where possible and expunging unnecessary information.
  3. Style issues: AP style and manuscript style.

See my edit in track changes.

What are we doing here?

Any magazine you write for has a style, an audience they are trying to reach. The ACFW Journal’s audience is Christian writers, published and unpublished. Our mission is to instruct, inspire, motivate, and entertain them.

Since that’s our audience, we need to write with eloquence, while adhering to established writing mores the organization teaches.

We want to grip the reader from the get go and then make it disarmingly easy to continue reading. One example is the change in the lead. You can see that what Jen did in one paragraph, I turned into two. The content is largely the same, but trimmed and divided into the punch (graf 1) and the support (graf 2).

Advice: As you write, think about the map of the magazine you’re targeting. We use a 3-column grid, big art, and lots of pull quotes, white space, and color. Jen’s original lead, while containing the right information, would have been a mass of grey in our grid.

Did I mention tight?

Review my previous In The Edit posts for lots of tips on how to write tighter. Though I use many of them in Jen’s piece, today I want to focus on just one: Getting rid of information the reader doesn’t need or that doesn’t add substantially to the piece.

In the section, ‘I’m done with You’, where we learn that Dickson was angry at God, Jen originally included this quote: “There was a televangelist talking on the TV set at that moment, and I watched that man jabbering on and on and strutting on the stage.” But, Dickson had just said he was mad at God, so why diffuse that anger by including the televangelist?

Don’t get me wrong—it may have been an important part of Dickson’s thinking. But without a lot more explanation, the reader is not going to feel the same indignation. Better to get right to what he was feeling when he was angry with God.

You can see similar cuts made elsewhere in the track changes version of the article.

Stylin’ baby, stylin’

Each magazine, newspaper, or publishing house has a style guide they adhere to. Our go-to guide is the AP Stylebook, the preference for many newspapers and magazines. AP stands for Associated Press.

You’ll note in Jen’s original, she referred to Athol Dickson on second and subsequent references as Athol. But AP style is to default to last names on second references. (Exception in this article: When quoting Athol’s brother, also a Dickson, for clarity we used first and last names for both brothers.)

Another style issue is the use of says instead of said for attribution. The thinking is this gives the article a stronger immediacy. Personally, I do not agree, but this is one area where I grit my teeth and go along with what is becoming standard practice.

Finally, in the style section, if you are sending an article or manuscript to an editor, it is still expected that you send it in double-spaced paragraphs, with half-inch indents, and a 12pt serif font such as Times New Roman. Unless you know with certainty, as Jen does, that your editor prefers another approach. (I prefer single-spaced, no indents, because I never edit on paper, only electronic.)

See my edited version, clean.

See the designed version from the ACFW Journal.

Jennifer, thanks for submitting this piece to In The Edit. As always, I enjoy working with your writing. Because you submitted, you are now eligible for a 25-percent discount on any of my editorial services.

If you would like to see your writing in a future In The Edit post, send a maximum of 350 words to opusmle (at) gmail (dot) com. Please send in Word format (.doc). You too can be eligible for a 25-percent discount.

Michael Ehret, for Writing On The Fine Line

Where’s Today’s Post?

I invite you to visit one of my favorite blogs, Novel Rocket, where I post today about ways to cut words from your manuscripts.

Michael Ehret, for Writing on the Fine Line

Quote It! Robert Louis Stevenson

“There is but one art, to omit! Oh, if I knew how to omit I would ask no other knowledge.”

Robert Louis Stevenson, 19th century author, best known for his novels Treasure Island and Kidnapped.

You know my love for tight writing. I am convinced knowing what not to include is far more important than what you do include.

Therefore I was surprised to recently run across this great quote from Stevenson that I’d never seen before. (Thanks to author Anita Higman for bringing it to my attention!)

Writers: What’s your best tip for writing tight, or, as Stevenson would say, for omitting? Share in the comments.

Michael Ehret, for Writing on the Fine Line

What’s All The Fuss About Passive Writing?

I’m on vacation this week and re-running a couple of my favorite posts. Enjoy!

Go to any writing conference or eavesdrop on any writer’s critique group (both great things for the practicing writer, by the way) and if you hang around long enough, the subject of passive writing will be discussed—and usually with the same conclusion:

It’s bad. To-be-avoided-at-almost-any-cost bad.

Well, you won’t get any argument from me that writing in passive voice is best avoided. But how do you avoid it if you’re not sure what it is?

Active voice

In an active sentence, the subject performs the action.

  • Example 1: Linda dances the samba.
  • Example 2: Bill Withers sings Lean On Me.

In the first example, Linda is the subject and she is dancing the samba, the object of the sentence. In the second, soul singer Bill Withers is the subject and he is singing the song Lean On Me, the object.

Passive voice

Passive voice gets it backward, making the object of the sentence into the subject.

  • Example 1: The samba is danced by Linda.
  • Example 2: Lean On Me is sung by Bill Withers.

Here, the subject has become “the samba” (or the song Lean On Me) and the focus of the sentence has shifted from Linda to the dance (or from Bill Withers to the song).

Prefer the active

Most times, active voice is better. Why? Several reasons:

  1. Active voice sentences use fewer words. “Linda dances the samba” is four words. “The samba is danced by Linda” is six.
  2. Who wants to use weak words? Words like is/am/are/was/were/being/been, etc., are dull. Strong writing includes concrete nouns, powerful verbs, and vivid adjectives.
  3. No one likes confusion. Passive voice is often confusing or unclear.

Is passive always bad?

You know how it is. Nothing in the English language is always—not even the long-revered serial comma. (Don’t get me started. That’s a subject for the future.) But it is good to remember that passive sentences aren’t incorrect. What is true, however, is that passive sentence construction is not the best way to express your thoughts since it is vague, awkward, and wordy.

For examples where passive voice is preferred, visit this page on Grammar Girl’s site.


I found this invaluable when learning how to write in active voice. Microsoft Word has a setting you can activate within the program’s Preferences menu that shows readability statistics. One of the stats it shows is how passive your writing is.

In fact, you can check a single paragraph or a single sentence for passivity with this tool, make changes, then check again to see if your change helped. This helps you learn to identify passive voice.

To use this tool on a Mac, open the Word menu then click on Preferences (or press Command and the comma key). Then select Spelling and Grammar. The tool is also available on PC. Just play around in the menus until you find it or search for it.

Under Spelling, check whichever options you prefer. Under Grammar, also make your choices, but to use the passive identification tool, tick the “Show readability statistics” box.

Then after you run the Spellchecker a box will appear showing several interesting statistics, including the percentage of passivity. If your file has passive writing, to find it repeat the process paragraph by paragraph until the readability statistics box indicates you’ve found a passive section. Then, if necessary, repeat the process sentence by sentence.

Is it perfect? No, but it is a fantastic educational and self-editing tool.

Michael Ehret, for Writing on the Fine Line

Samba image from

Choose the Right Words

While I’m watching mental fireworks (no real ones, too much fire risk), enjoy this post from the past. I think the advice is still good.

Earlier, we looked at ways to be more clear in your writing by eliminating redundancies and overwriting, and choosing simple words when appropriate.

Now, let’s look at how the right word also helps your reader grasp your meaning.

Alive or dead?

Perfect words are the difference between writing that leaps off the page and writing that just lies there, waiting for resuscitation. Words that show are more powerful than words that tell.

Many times using words that evoke the senses (taste, sight, hearing, touch, smell) adds much-needed pizzazz to your writing and engages readers. In the July issue of ACFW Journal, award-winning author Deborah Raney offers great advice on how to make your readers’ senses come alive in your writing.

As important as sensory involvement is, there is more to choosing the perfect word. Or, as Mark Twain said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

Sometimes the right word will fall naturally into your manuscript—particularly if you’re an avid reader. Writers who read a lot (note: the word alot does not exist and is therefore never correct) have a greater storehouse of words to draw from.

But more often than not, writers have to search for the perfect word. Here is great information from the website, On Blogging Well, that provides six ways to do that.

Do you have tips for enhancing clarity? Share them!

Michael Ehret, for Writing on the Fine Line


In The Edit: Ruth Logan Herne

In these posts, with the author’s permission, I look at their work pre-editing and post-editing—and at what I did to improve the piece.

Ruth Logan Herne
Love Inspired author

Ruth Logan Herne and I go way back. I won’t say how far because she might kill me. You think I jest? Well, maybe so, but let’s just say I’m not willing to take that chance.

Ruthy is the author of a slew of Love Inspired titles, such as Yuletide Hearts, Mended Hearts, and Small-Town Hearts. She is also the doyenne of The Seekers and Ms. Bossy-Pants on the popular blog, Seekerville.

The sample she provided for this post is from an unpublished contemporary manuscript tentatively titled Call Of The Old Guard and seems to toy with a rural area still bound by legends of days when wolf/humans ruled viciously. Interesting!

Ruthy’s edit

Read Ruthy’s original.

I’m not a fan of prologues. Too often they feel self-indulgent. The author wants to set the stage for the reader, but not give too much away. I say, just bring me the story. So I would elect to cut this entirely. I understand not everyone feels the same.

That said, this prologue does have a nice feel. If Ruth elects to keep it, I’ve provided some suggestions to strengthen it.

In addition, I found three main places of attack:

  • Extra words
  • Unnecessary, or untimely, information that slows the narrative
  • A few changes to heighten the tension

Read my edit in track changes.

Ferociously self-edit

Some changes are simple.

  1. Mental protests rose within, but Gideon had been a cop a long time. Mental protests are not going to arise from anywhere but within.
  2. Wary, She hesitated. Wary and hesitated are redundant in this context.
  3. Incredulity deepened her voice. Her arched brow said she wasn’t buying it his declaration. These two sentences said much the same thing and we know what she’s not buying because of context, so no need for “his declaration”.

Don’t slow things down

In the middle of the sample, Gideon has the woman seated—but she’s on the edge of the chair, clearly not yet trusting him. And then instead of moving the characters forward, there’s a paragraph of backstory. If that information is important, bring it back in as part of the questioning, not in an info dump.

Later in the same scene, there is unnecessary (or misplaced) information, some of it with the potential to offend readers, i.e., the lines about “tree-huggers.” I realize this is a characterization line for Gideon, but I suggest staying with Gideon and the interrogation and bring in his character in other ways.

Gimme that old-time tension

In the opening graf of Chapter 1, it felt too early for the “Her eyes beseeched him…” line. Instead, I moved that line down and tied it to Gideon’s examination of the woman. In the process, we get a better look at the character of Gideon and his empathy.

I like the repeat then of “Wolf’s eyes,” but separating those one- or two-word sentences into four separate lines felt like overkill, especially since we’re in Gideon’s point of view. But I also thought it too early to resolve the issue with that declarative “No” at the end of the series, so I added a hint of doubt.

I loved the way Ruth turned the tables on Gideon (and our expectations) with the woman’s indignation near the end. But in places, the turn seemed overdone. I modified that by keeping the stronger sentences.

Then, by giving the woman a bit more of an even playing field in the interrogation, the stage is better set for the future. One way of doing that is to have her use the accusation from Gideon (of having a Wiccan cape) as a way to turn the power a bit in her favor.

Ruth already is headed this direction by having her lean in closer for the first part of her line. But if we then have her lean back into the chair–no longer nervously sitting on the edge–it completely tips the power to her for her line, “But weave the story as you choose.” She is not going to participate in Gideon’s delusion.

Read my edited version in clean form.

Ruthy, thanks for coming Into The Edit with me! I like the possibilities in this story and would love to read more.

If you would like to see your writing in a future In The Edit post, send a maximum of 350 words to opusmle (at) gmail (dot) com. Please send in Word format (.doc). If I use it, you’ll be eligible for a 25-percent discount on any editing services.

On Thursday, we’ll look at another self-editing writing tip. See you then! Then on Saturday, drop by for a quick writer’s quote and to share what that quote means to you.

Michael Ehret, for Writing On The Fine Line

So, you want to be a professional?

Many believe there are only seven basic plots. What amazes me are the variations on those plots writers come up with—the twists and leaps they make within those structures.

As a freelance editor, I see manuscripts in all shapes and sizes. One conclusion is unmistakable—those who work with me are all creative people.

But what is also clear is that some of those professing to pursue professional writing are shooting themselves in the foot with unprofessional presentation.

Marks of an amateur

What I often find are typos on the first page—sometimes within the first three paragraphs. Or, if not a typo, some kind of inappropriate formatting:

  • A nonstandard typeface—most places still prefer to see only Times New Roman or Courier fonts in 12 point
  • 1.5-line spacing rather than 2-line spacing
  • Full justification instead of ragged right
  • Too narrow or too wide margins (standard is still 1” to 1.25”)

All of these formatting errors are easily correctable. As a freelance editor I can catch these—and I’m glad to do so.

The competition is stiff

But editors and agents have mounds of submissions on their desks to plow through. Wise writers don’t give them reasons to set those manuscripts aside, instead they work to develop their skills to the level editors expect.

If you’re serious, you’ll want to ensure any freelance editor you hire (like me) can spend time polishing your prose rather than correcting obvious mistakes you could have caught.

Five steps to take

There are many things you can do to develop your skills, but these five ideas will provide a great return:

  1. Join (or form) a critique group. Several groups incorporate critique options, including American Christian Fiction Writers. Or, like Novel Rocket, can help you connect with others looking for critique partners.
  2. Purchase, read, and use resources. Excellent books are available on standard manuscript formatting.
  3. Proofread your work. Form a partnership with a writer friend and pass manuscripts back and forth. Then proof again—and again.
  4. Take classes. You can do this through conferences, online courses, or a local university.
  5. Join a professional organization. You have your choice from faith-based or secular (or both), including ACFW, the Christian Writers Guild, My Book Therapy, and Writer’s Digest Online.

If you do these things, your take on one of the seven basic plots could end up published—rather than tossed in File 13.

There are loads of excellent freelance editors. See my Editorial Services page or contact me at michael.ehret (at) inbox(dot)com. You can also use the Find An Editor service of the Christian PEN (Proofreaders and Editors Network).

Michael Ehret, for Writing on the Fine Line