What Every Editor Wants You To Know

When I submitted articles to various editors years ago, I ultimately took the attitude, “I don’t really care if you publish this or not.” I never said that, of course, but that was my mindset anytime there was a disagreement. I wasn’t trying to pursue a writing career back then. I didn’t even think of myself as a writer.

But when I got my first full-time writing gig, all of a sudden I couldn’t have that attitude. I was thrown into a situation where I had to submit every aspect of my writing to someone whose views were very different from mine. And after racking up a full career as an editor for major publishing houses, he wasn’t very predisposed to seeing things my way (the nerve on that guy, right?). Somehow, I thought he should be.

Basically, I was an editor’s worst nightmare. Today, I look back and thank God for that editor. He helped me break many bad habits and set my writing on a completely different trajectory. In that spirit, I thought I would compile a list that serves as my tip of the hat to all you editors out there. Enjoy!

1) If I am not John Maxwell, my editor is probably not going to be a Pulitzer prize winner. But he or she is still my editor. I need to respect the position.

2) The editor role is typically one of mentorship and authority. That’s how it works best. Why? Because we don’t naturally want to submit to someone else’s feedback and direction, especially when there is a disagreement. If we don’t see the editor as wearing the hat of a leader who has the authority to speak into our writing, we will tend to want to spurn any serious correction they offer.

3) The enemy can use disagreements between writer and editor to sabotage God’s work—if we let him. Disagreements are inevitable. For me personally, when I’m wearing the writer’s hat, the editing process is always very enjoyable as long as I agree with the editor’s feedback. But the moment I strongly disagree, the editing process becomes a challenge in my life. I have learned over time to submit to the process, even if it’s painful. Why? Because…

4) God gave us our editor. If we believed God put this editor in our path before we had a disagreement, we should still believe that after a disagreement. As writers, we ultimately have to decide whether we believe the editor God has given us is gifted, called, anointed, and appointed to be our editor as much we believe we are gifted, called, anointed, and appointed to write.

5) If we already know everything they told us in their feedback, we don’t need them. We can’t let our insecurities drive us to act like we were already aware of everything they said. If we were truly aware, they wouldn’t have had to say it. Editors need to feel useful and appreciated like everyone else. We should try to display an attitude of humility and gratitude toward our editor. It helps make their job more enjoyable, which in turn benefits us (see Hebrews 13:17).

6) Most editors are extremely busy. It’s hyper-competitive out there. That means editors have to churn out a massive amount of work in order to stay in the business. They don’t really have a lot of extra time to coddle us. It takes a lot longer to write lengthy, gentle, and overly polite comments than it does to write a lot of short, direct, and corrective comments. Multiply that difference by the hundreds of corrections and comments editors make each day, and you’ll understand the need for them to be short and direct.

7) We shouldn’t resist their corrections just because they don’t fit our personal preference or style. This is especially true when you’re writing for their company or publication. The editor probably doesn’t have time or energy to go back and forth with us about our personal writing style, grammar, capitalization, or punctuation preferences. We should just go with their preferences and let it go.

8) Writing is a team effort. Most of us, when first starting out, don’t like to use an idea, word, or phrase that was suggested to us by someone else. Instead, we’ll try to come up with some third solution just so that we can feel like it was our idea. This puts our lack of experience in the spotlight. Writing in God’s kingdom is accomplished by different members of the body (see 1 Corinthians 12:21). If they made what is clearly a good suggestion, we should use it. Otherwise, we’ve basically insulted them and also made the editing process unnecessarily complicated. Why? Because often, our awesome third solution doesn’t work either. So, they have to give us another round of feedback for a problem that, from their perspective, they already fixed one time.

9) Our writing is not for us. Often, we are so emotionally involved in our writing that we cannot see it as clearly as our editor can. They have the perspective that the writing is actually for the readers. Whether we realize it or not, our strong preferences are often self-centered. We’re concerned about telling our story, or how we come across, or what people will think of us. The editor, on the other hand, is typically free of such bias and thinking a little more clearly about the issues being discussed.

10) Be resolute and persistent about getting your way on proposed content changes only when absolutely necessary. All of the above tips relate primarily to copy editing or maybe the light content editing you experience when writing articles for magazines and websites. If you are writing something as personal as a book—and being edited for content by your publisher—you may have to be persistent about an issue when there’s a strong conviction behind it. However, give-and-take really should be our default mode when we’re being edited. Probably 85% of the things we wrestle over don’t make that much difference in the end. We should try to be very relaxed, peaceable, and even submissive (see James 3:17) about the small things so that we can save our persistence for when we really need it!

The writer-editor relationship can be one of difficulty and challenges at times. In order to work together in a healthy way, proper perspective, attitude, and communication are necessary. None of us are perfect; I still have to work to overcome most of the difficulties described on this list. But hopefully these tips will be helpful toward achieving our goals. What other tips or feedback can you share in the comments below?

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An Evening With Stephen King’s First Editor

I was recently blessed with an opportunity to spend the evening with Mike Garrett—a publishing industry veteran who served as Stephen King’s first editor! By the way, that’s not some spurious claim that Mike throws around along with every other editor who worked with King early in his career. No, it’s actually King himself who credits Mike as being his first editor and publisher in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.

Mike spent more than 30 years in the publishing industry and has edited quite a few more NYT bestselling authors. He has taught many classes and workshops on writing, editing, and publishing. Mike believes that tons of extremely talented writers never get published because publishers and agents put up too many roadblocks for new writers. He shared how we can best overcome those roadblocks and get on the road to publishing success.

I’ve compiled the most interesting insights he shared and organized them into two sections: 1) General Writing and Publishing Advice 2) Fiction Writing Advice. Enjoy!

General Writing and Publishing Advice

1. Writing = Art
Publishing = Business

There are two cabinet makers in a town. Both produce nice cabinets, but they have different approaches. One approaches cabinet making as an art. His cabinets are beautiful, but he only builds them the way he wants to build them. Every now and then, someone comes by his shop, finds something they like, and makes a purchase. The other cabinet maker sells a lot more cabinets. His approach is to go out into the neighborhoods and ask people what they want. He’ll take measurements, get your preferences for colors and styles, and make exactly what fits your needs and desires. He has a booming business. Neither approach is wrong, but one is much more lucrative. Writers basically have the same choice. We can approach writing purely as an art form—a medium that exists only for us to express our souls—or we can approach it more like a business. There’s still plenty of creativity in the second option, but it has more constraints.

2. The average reader is not going to evaluate your writing skills. They’re just looking for a good story.

3. There are no rules for bestselling authors. Once they’re established, they can do whatever they want, so don’t try to mimic them. Publishers expect specific things from new writers. Find out what they want and deliver it to them.

4. Too many talented writers have too much pride and ego wrapped up in their work. This causes them to pay less attention to the needs of readers.

5. Your audience is not made up of your writing peers. Lots of people get involved in critique groups. These can be unhealthy, especially if people begin to critique each other to death. Writers evaluate writing much differently than the average reader. You’re probably better off with a single editor or writing friend critiquing your work.

6. Bestselling authors were born with talent, but not skill or knowledge. They all have to learn the business.

7. Rejection happens to everyone, and it is always tough.

8. Write what you love to read.

9. Fit into a niche that’s already there. You can’t expect publishers to carve out a new niche for you.

10. If you focus on why you’re writing and who you’re writing for—and approach it as a business—you can succeed.

Fiction Writing Advice

1) Don’t give your main character’s backstory all at once. The formula for a successful novel = interesting main character + interesting conflict + conflict resolution. To have an interesting character, they must have an interesting backstory. But their backstory must be worked into the main story. You can’t just state it all at once in the beginning of the novel. That has the same effect on readers as when you’re having a conversation with someone, and they talk for ten minutes straight without pausing or letting you respond. It needs to be broken up. You don’t get to know someone in real life by hearing their life story all at once. Instead, time passes. Scenes change. You learn more about them the more time you spend with them.

2) Let your novel unfold like a good movie. Think about how great movies play out. There is rarely a narrator giving you the story. Instead, scenes appear. Things happen. The story unfolds through each scene. Write your novel the same way.

3) Every character in your book needs to have a reason to be there. If there’s no good reason for a character’s existence, delete them.

4) Your main character should not be perfect, but they should be likable.

5) Novels are about people. Planets, explosions, wars, space; these are all just settings for readers to get to know the people in your story.

6) A great novel will leave readers thinking about the characters after the book is over. Readers will even feel like they miss the characters.

7) The most important trait of any writer is empathy. You have to be able to feel and to know what other people feel. You need empathy for your characters, your readers, and even your publisher. You need to understand what they need and want.

8) Let your hometown be the setting of your first novel.

9) Readers should be able to visualize every scene. A very well-written novel will play like a movie in the mind of a reader.

10) James Patterson’s fans are going to read his book all the way through because they expect him to deliver the goods at some point. But new (and unestablished) authors have to work very hard to keep the reader interested, especially in the beginning of the book. It’s way too easy to put down a book and forget about it.

Mike still works as a freelance editor. You can find out more about his editing services at his website: ManuscriptCritique.com

Mike is also releasing a new novel in February of 2019. It is called Innocence Denied and can be pre-ordered on Amazon here.

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Readers Are Getting Smarter

“Oh, how sad! Look how they used to write in the 18th and 19th centuries, and then look at how feebleminded we sound today!”

I think most of us have experienced that kind of reaction after reading some elegant piece of writing from a romanticized age of literature. But are readers really getting dumber?

Whilst tis true that ofttimes, writers of bygone eras broadly partook of the pleasantries and convivial enjoyment which most assuredly accompanied the writing of highly ornamental prose, tis also true that such nostalgic musings about the implications of aforesaid leanings regarding the acumen and perspicacity of the common man as applied to language comprehension are more likely grounded in wistful and sentimental contemplations than in judicious and discriminative reflections on the true state of affairs most often observed by personages who enjoyed the prodigiously good fortune to have encountered and lived through such times.

In other words, people were not actually smarter back then. Most of the writing we still read from those eras was penned by intellectuals who valued the use of ornate language. That’s the primary reason for our misperception regarding reading comprehension levels of today versus those of bygone eras. In fact, the opposite is true. The average person’s reading comprehension is much higher today than it was back then.

Worldwide, only 12.05% of people were considered literate in the year 1800. In 2014, 85.3% of the world’s population was classified as literate.[i]

In the United States in 1870—which was when the U.S. Department of Education began tracking education statistics—less than 9,000 people had a college degree.[ii] The total population was 38.6 million and 35% of them were under the age of 17. That means less than .04% of the adult population had a college degree. Today, around 34% of those 25 or older have a college degree.[iii] In 1870, there were 7 million enrolled in primary schools while there were only 80,000 enrolled in secondary schools, implying that somewhere around 99% of the population was stopping their formal education after (what we would call) middle school. They only attended school for 132 days per year on average[iv], whereas today’s average is 180 days per year. Clearly, both developed world and underdeveloped world populations have gotten a lot more educated than they were back in the golden days of literature.

Okay, but of the people who could read back then, weren’t they smarter? Well, no. How you use words ultimately depends on your purpose. If people valued the ability to compose ornate writing today, they could certainly take the time to do it. It took me only a few minutes and a thesaurus to write my exaggerated sentence above. If I valued that sort of writing, I imagine I could produce it quickly and easily after a few months of practice. But what would be the point? Only a minute amount of people would be interested in reading such verbal gaudiness. (Yep, gaudiness is a word. I made sure.)

If writers enjoy ornate language and complex writing, there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. There are other people with similar interests. We can find those people and enjoy ourselves together. But we shouldn’t expect the average person to latch onto our writing, dictionary in hand, growing in magniloquence as they passionately imbibe our musings.

It’s probably not going to happen.

Most people aren’t looking to build their vocabulary when they check out a blog or pick up a new book. So, it might be best to stick to writing in a way that most people will read, understand, and enjoy.

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[i] https://ourworldindata.org/literacy

[ii] https://nces.ed.gov/pubs93/93442.pdf Many of the statistics in this paragraph come from page 5 of the linked document.

[iii] https://www.statista.com/statistics/184272/educational-attainment-of-college-diploma-or-higher-by-gender/

[iv] http://mentalfloss.com/article/58705/11-ways-school-was-different-1800s

Is Your Writing Clear?

Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace 12th Edition – An Online Book Study


Writing should be clear. The other option is for writing to be unclear.

The reason we want to be clear is that our writing is not for us. It does not exist to make us feel happy. It can bring us joy. But, the primary reason for our writing is to serve others. Our writing exists to entertain, inspire, help, teach, and encourage. We can offer guidance, wisdom, insight, and other valuable information. Writing can bring humor, joy, and light into people’s lives.

If our writing is confusing, we probably won’t accomplish any of those things. We may only give readers a headache. So, most of us can agree that we want our writing to be clear to the people we are serving.

The question is, how do we get there?

In my book, Calling All Writers! A Small Group Curriculum For Christian Writers, I make the case that simple is best. To be more precise, clear is best. I just happen to believe that using simple, direct statements is the easiest way to be clear. That’s especially true for writers who are thinking about the issue of clarity for the first time.

Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace (12th Edition) appears to make the same case about simplicity. However, there are quite a few other principles we can employ to achieve greater clarity in our writing. These principles are outlined in the book. Style is widely considered to be a classic on the topic of clarity in writing.

So, by studying this book, I hope to achieve greater clarity on how to achieve greater clarity. I hope to help you do the same.

This post is meant to introduce the book and group study.

Please click here to join the Called Writers Facebook group, if you would like to study this book with us.

Here is my review of the first chapter.


Lesson One: Understanding Style

By the time I got to the second page of this book, I knew I had made an excellent reading choice.

The authors urge us to put readers above ourselves. Instead of writing what makes sense to us, we should strive to write what will make sense to others. Here is how the authors put it:

“None of us can judge our own writing as others will because when we read it, we respond less to the words on the page or screen than to the thoughts in our minds. We see what we thought we said…”[1]

The lesson one chapter argues that unclear writing is a widespread problem in English speaking societies. The authors claim that such writing pervades academic, scientific, legal, medical, and literary circles. The problem of vague and unnecessarily complicated writing is depicted as a plague on society. In one humorous quote about language meant to be confusing only to the uninitiated, a New York Times columnist argues that lawyers and judges are “discovering that sometimes they cannot even understand each other.”[2]

The authors make the case that there are several reasons for this undesirable social ill.

  • Writers are careless.
  • Writers are purposefully vague and unclear. This might be common in certain professions.
  • Writers are taught that good writing is complex and difficult to understand. This leads to a self-perpetuating cycle.
  • Writers are seeking to impress others. They believe that complicated sentences indicate deep thought.
  • Writers don’t understand their topic well enough. We tend to overcomplicate what we don’t understand.
  • Writers are trying too hard to follow grammar rules that the average person is not even aware of.

But, the main reason most of us produce unclear writing is:

We are under the delusion that our writing is already clear.

That’s my paraphrase. The authors actually state it this way, “We don’t know when readers will think we are unclear, much less why.”[3]

I want my writing to be clear so that it better serves my readers. That’s why I’m exploring and studying this book.

This is my first time reading the book, so you are getting a completely fresh perspective on its contents. I want your perspective too. Let’s learn together.

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[1] Williams, Joseph M. and Bizup, Joseph. Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace Twelfth Edition. Pearson, 2017, p.3.

[2] Goldstein, Tom. “Lawyers Now Confuse Even the Same Aforementioned.” New York Times, 1 April 1977, p. 23.

[3] Williams, Joseph M. and Bizup, Joseph. Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace Twelfth Edition. Pearson, 2017, p.7.

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