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

10 Tips to Clean Up Your Writing

It’s easy to let your writing go and have projects pile up. Here are 10 easy things you can do to clear some space on your desktop.

10. Keep it simple
You have many ongoing writing projects. Prioritize and be realistic.

9. Break it down
Do you need to brainstorm a new story? Have you left a protagonist dangling? Do you have a percolating editing project? Break your tasks into chunks. One week, brainstorm. The next week, rescue your protag. Then edit. Trying to do it all at once will paralyze.

8. Make time
Finding time to write can be tough—especially for this editor. Pick a time that works for you—and stick to it. If you use a day planner or online calendar, schedule your writing time. Treat it like work; that’s what it is. (Like the clock?)

7. Start somewhere
Frustration mounts when what you’re working on is not working. So write your ending instead. If you don’t know the end, skip to the next chapter and move the story forward from there. Or polish what you have written. Just start. (Need an impartial review? Check my Editorial services page.)

6. Clear the clutter
Maybe this means clearing your desktop (real world or computer). But, it could also mean going through your idea file and deleting ones that no longer flip your switch. The upside? It might remind you of an idea you’ve wanted to pursue.

5. Recycle
Remember that character you spent so much time developing for Book 3 only to find he didn’t really fit the revised premise? Rename him and bring him back in Book 5. Maybe he didn’t fit Book 3 because you wanted him to be a second fiddle when he’s clearly a leading man.

4. Baby steps
Key writing tasks include brainstorming, researching, spewing (first draft), polishing, editing, praying, and sending. Wherever you are, divide that step into smaller steps. Interview one character. Outline (if you do that) one chapter. Write one paragraph. Then do it again. Put one foot in front of the other until the task is done.

3. Finish
Do you have a novel going, a couple magazine articles, a speaking engagement, and—what was that fourth thing? Oh, right, your spouse’s birthday! Forget multi-tasking—it doesn’t work! Instead, prioritize and finish one project at a time. When other projects intrude, whip out a sticky-note—write the idea down—and get back on task.

2. Keep track
Listing what you have accomplished in your writing is a great morale booster. You may not have finished Chapter 8, but you did resolve that hole in your plot in Chapter 6. Keep track, then when you get to the end of the day and feel you’ve accomplished nothing, you’ll know better.

1. Give yourself credit
Congratulate—and reward—yourself for what you do accomplish. M&Ms aren’t just for toilet training, you know.

Writing consists of many related tasks. Consistently and conscientiously cleaning out your writing life can be exciting, invigorating, and ultimately, rewarding.


Michael Ehret, for Writing on the Fine Line

What’s All The Fuss About Passive Writing?

If you came here from Novel Rocket, scroll down for the tip!

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 often 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.

Tip

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 FreeDigitalPhotos.net