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

Make Your Message Clear

If you’re writing an article for a magazine or a novel your end goal is to have what you wrote read and understood. Why is it, then, that when you have a friend or critique group member read a piece they sometimes don’t get it? Are they just thick?

Could be you have an issue with clarity. Maybe you’re overwriting. Maybe you’re using too many million dollar words and not enough “buck and change” words. Regardless, if your reader doesn’t understand what you’re writing, he certainly won’t get any of the deeper meaning you’re shooting for.

Are your words too big?

Impress the reader with your ideas, not with the size of your words. When you have a choice, use the common word over the extraordinary. Avoid showing off your vocabulary.

Caveat: In fiction, characterization may trump this advice. If your protagonist is a professor, her vocabulary will be different than if she’s a high-school dropout.

Tip: Avoid using verbs as nouns. Rather than Seth provided an explanation for why he lied try Seth explained his lie. That’s four fewer words.

Speaking of fewer words

Be religious about cutting the fat. Scour your writing for throat clearing tactics such as:

  • Introductory phrases: “The point I’m trying to make is…” Just state the point.
  • Redundancies:
    1. “Josh estimated that they’d arrive in Minneapolis by roughly 4:00 p.m. in the afternoon.” (14 words)
    2. “Josh estimated they’d arrive in Minneapolis by 4:00 p.m.” (9 words)

Use estimated or roughly, but not both. Use 4 p.m. and not in the afternoon because 4 p.m. is more specific and is clearly in the afternoon.

  • Wordiness:
    1. “Sarah knew that at her place of employment Jason was knee-deep in advance planning for the next year’s fundraising campaign.” (20 words)
    2. “Sarah knew her co-worker Jason was knee-deep in planning next year’s fundraiser.” (12 words)

Identifying Jason as her co-worker rather than writing at her place of employment saves words and is clearer. And, isn’t all planning advance planning? You can’t plan after the fact, right?

Clarity is critical, both to keep your reader’s interest and to give your message a greater chance of getting through. When self-editing, look at the size of your words and the amount of words you use. Your readers will thank you.

Michael Ehret, for Writing On The Fine Line

Next Thursday: Not only smaller and fewer words, but better word choices enhance clarity.