The Careful Writer: When To Use Passive or Active Verbs

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Maple spalting with carbon cushion fungus (photo by Nina Munteanu)

One of the most common pieces of advice I give to students of writing in coaching sessions and my classes at UofT (technical and non-fiction writing) and George Brown College (fiction writing) is that active verbs most often work better than passive verbs.

 

Active Verbs Clarify by Identifying Agent

The use of active verbs avoid confusion because they clearly identify the subject (the doer). For instance, consider these two versions:

ACTIVE: Alice walked the dog.

PASSIVE: The dog was walked.

The active sentence clearly identifies Alice as the one walking the dog; the passive sentence does not provide agency (Alice). We don’t know who walked the dog. When we use active verbs we always know the agent (of change); not so with passive. However, if we modify the passive sentence with “by”, then agency is provided:

PASSIVE (with agency): The dog was walked by Alice.

But the sentence no longer flows easily. This is because the typical subject-verb-object (SVO) flow that we are used to in the English language has changed to object-verb-subject (OVS). If you speak Native Brazilian Hixkaryana, you might be OK with that, given they organize their sentences this way. But that is not how we think and read. Here’s another example:

PASSIVE: The report was written by Ahmed, and it was found to be excellent

ACTIVE: Ahmed wrote the report and it was excellent.

ACTIVE BETTER: Ahmed wrote an excellent report.

 

Active Verbs Clarify and Empower by Reducing Need for Modifiers

Another reason to use active verbs is that a writer depends less on modifiers to prop up a weak verb, which passive verbs tend to be. For instance, which version is more compelling and easy to take in?

  1. Jill was walking quickly into the room.

  2. Jill rushed into the room.

The example below that I explore in my book The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! shows how the use of active and powerful verbs adds vividness and clarity to a scene.

PASSIVE

ACTIVE

„ Joe walked slowly into the room.

 

„ Joe sidled into the room.

 

„ The naked couple were in the bed almost buried under the rumpled covers. They were now struggling to get up.

 

„ The naked couple struggled out from the rumple of clothes and blankets.

 

„ Joe saw the big man sit up and stare at him angrily.

 

„ The man reared up and glared at Joe.

 

TOTAL WORDS: 38 TOTAL WORDS: 25

TheFictionWriter-NMNotice how the use of active verbs also unclutters sentences and makes them more succinct and accurate. This was achieved not only by choosing active verbs but power-verbs that more accurately portray the mood and feel of the action. Most of the verbs used in the Passive column are weak and can be interpreted in many ways; words such as “walk” “were” “sit” and “stare”; each of these verbs begs the question ‘how’, hence the inevitable adverb. So we end up with “walk slowly” “were now struggling” “sit up” and “stare angrily.” When activated with power-verbs, we end up with “sidle” “struggled” “rear up” and “glared”—all more succinctly and accurately conveying a mood and feeling behind the action.

 

When Passive Verbs Clarify…

In Chapter 17 of their book The Craft of Research (University of Chicago Press) Wayne C. Booth and colleagues stress that mindlessly adhering to the tacit rule to choose active verbs over passive verbs can in fact cloud a sentence. They suggest asking a simpler question: do your sentences begin with familiar information, preferably a main character? “If you put familiar characters in your subjects, you will use the active and passive properly,” they say.

It’s all about context.

Booth et al. provide two passages and ask you to choose which “flows” more easily:

  1. The quality of our air and even the climate of the world depend on healthy rain forests in Asia, Africa, and South America. But the increasing demand for more land for agricultural use and for wood products for construction worldwide now threatens these rain forests with destruction.

  2. The quality of our air and even the climate of the world depend on healthy rain forests in Asia, Africa, and South America. But these rain forests are now threatened with destruction by the increasing demand for more land for agricultural use and for wood products used in construction worldwide.

Most readers will find that 2. flows more easily. This is because the beginning of the second sentence picks up on the “character” (the rain forest) introduced at the end of the first sentence (…the rain forests in Asia, Africa, and South America. But these rain forests…). In the active verb version of 1. the second sentence starts with new information unconnected to the first sentence. The sentences don’t flow into each other as well.

The passive version (2.) permitted the reader to continue with the familiar “character” right away. This, argue Booth et al., is the main function of the passive: to build sentences that begin with older information. The other reason version 2. works better is that the second sentence opens with something short, simple and easy to read: These rain forests are now threatened. In the active version 1. the second sentence opens with something long and complex. The key to clarity is to start simple (and strong, with a “character”) and end with complexity; this way, you set up the reader to better understand by starting with familiar/simple and moving to new/complex.

In engineering and the sciences where I teach at UofT, teachers still demand the use of passive verbs, believing that this makes the writing more objective. This advice is often equally misleading. Booth again provide two passages to show this:

  1. Eye movements were measured at tenth-of-second intervals.

  2. We measured eye movements at tenth-of-second intervals.

In fact, both sentences are equally objective; however, their stories differ. Version 1. ignores the person doing the measuring and focuses on the measurement. Avoiding “we” or “I” doesn’t make it more objective; it does, however shift the focus of the narrative. There is another explanation for using the passive version of 1. vs. the active 2. When a scientist uses the passive to describe a process, she implies that the process can be repeated by anyone—much like providing a recipe that anyone can follow.

Consider the following two passages:

  1. It can be concluded that the fluctuations result from the Burnes effect.

  2. We conclude that the fluctuations result from the Burnes effect.

The active verb in 2. conclude and we as subject refers to actions that only the writer / researcher can perform. In other words, they are taking responsibility for that conclusion. Anyone can measure; only the author / researcher can claim what their research means.

The lesson here is that there is no one magic stick for sentence structure and active vs. passive verb use. Reader-ease and clarity depends on context and a natural flow of ideas.

 

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Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Waterwill be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

New Directions in Self-Publishing: A Discussion by Writers and Editors

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I was recently invited by Editors Toronto and the Toronto chapter of PWAC to participate in a panel (co-sponsored and hosted by UofT’s Creative Writing Program) exploring the current state of self-publishing and the publishing industry in general. I was one of four professionals whose work has involved all facets of the industry from POD, hybrid models, and ebooks to crowdfunding and writing communities.

The four speakers included:

MeghanBehse_closeMeghan Behse, the president of PubLaunch Inc., a new online marketplace and crowdfunding platform where writers, readers, and publishing professionals join forces to get books published. In her role as publisher, she steered Iguana through a new world of digital and print-on-demand publishing while experimenting with unique royalty arrangements and funding models, including crowdfunding. Behse talked about how PubLaunch is using emerging technologies to help overcome the obstacles writers continue to face in the self-publishing industry.

nina-munteanuNina Munteanu, an experienced editor of traditionally published and self-published books, and an award-winning author of eight novels, including Darwin’s Paradox and The Splintered Universe Trilogy. A frequent contributor to Amazing Stories and the current editor of Europa SF, Munteanu teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto and has also published short stories, essays, and non-fiction books. Her latest book is Water Is…The Meaning of Water, a scientific study and personal journey as limnologist, mother, teacher, and environmentalist. Munteanu provided an overview of the industry—including use and misuse of terms—then spoke about evolving professional standards in self-publishing, and what these changes mean for writers and editors.

sfyshStephanie Fysh, a Toronto-based freelance editor of independent authors in a variety of genres, including fantasy, science fiction, YA, romance, and erotica, and the former chair of Ryerson University’s Publishing program. She works with hybrid publishers on projects that range from harrowing memoirs to comedy, and still enjoys a textbook project that she can learn something from. Using her own experience as example, she talked about what self-publishing authors look for in an editor, and how that differs from the roles built into traditional or hybrid publishing.

MarkLeslieLefebvre_LaurenLangMark Leslie Lefebvre, the author of more than a dozen traditionally published and self-published books, a professional speaker, a digital publishing advocate, and a bookseller with more than a quarter century of experience.  Lefebvre explained what prompted him to self-publish “ten years before any self-respecting writer would admit to such a foul thing.” And he’ll tackle the big-picture questions: “What is currently wrong with self-publishing, and how can we work together to fix that?”

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I started the panel discussion with an overview of the publishing industry from traditional to indie to self-publishing. I overviewed five main publishing models and discussed advantages and disadvantages depending on needs and perspectives of the writer. A few advantages of self-publishing include: 1) getting a book to market more quickly than through the traditional publishing path; and 2) having more control over the end product.

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The downsides in self-publishing arise from the same: 1) getting a book to market more quickly may seduce writers to compromise the lengthy process of perfecting their work (provided by editors, layout and cover artists) to put something out before it is ready; and 2) having more control also means more responsibility borne by the writer (the need to understand more in book production and marketing than a writer in the traditional process needs to). Another important disadvantage to self-publishing lies in more restricted distributing, marketing and exposure.

In my talk, I emphasized that while the current industry is providing great opportunities, with these come great responsibilities.

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Authors and editors are currently facing a sea of possibilities. New directions, models, collaborations and structures face us as the publishing industry morphs into something new. Self-publishing and hybrid-players are at the forefront of that evolving tide of new publishing. And it’s very exciting!

Suzanne Bowness of PWAC Toronto provided a good summary of the panel discussion on PWAC’s blog Networds, and shared by the Editors Toronto blog Boldface. Editor and publishing consultant Michelle MacAleese who attended the event made these observations:

  • Many in the biz draw a distinction between self-published authors and hybrid-published authors; both are “independent,” but the self-published authors are a special breed, who *are starting to understand art and business and (usually) gladly develop proficiency in all the technical and administrative details of the process.
  • Not surprisingly, options for authors continue to change rapidly. What worked best in 2011 is irrelevant today. Many quality companies offer publishing services and hybrid publishing deals. (Many companies will pretty much just steal your money. One must read up before signing up. *Research is paramount)
  • The best publishing option for e-only genre fiction won’t be the same as for a debut hardcover business book. It’s a wide world of independent publishing.
  • Authors: If you don’t love technical things (formatting ebooks, working Amazon’s categories, tweaking descriptive copy), you probably won’t enjoy starting a publishing house of one.
  • Editors: Working with self-published authors is a specialty and those editors who are good at taking on that relationship and guiding the process are worth their weight in gold. (Isn’t it about time we begin to mentor each other in why this kind of author-editor relationship is unique, and how it borders on the agent role at times? *This is a great opportunity for editors willing to evolve and grow.)
  • Editors who already specialize in working with self-published authors: Let’s talk about how to partner with reputable publishing services companies as well as with other independent designers and book marketing professionals to launch great self-published books that sell! This point was just touched upon in the panel and is still evolving; again, editors are uniquely positioned as author-consultants to play key roles in new networks of independent professionals in the publishing industry. *italics throughout are mine

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A few years ago, I gave a talk at Editors Toronto on the industry from the self-publishing author and freelance editor’s perspective. It remains highly relevant today, given that it spoke to the changing face of publishing and what it means for editors and writers. Editors learned about self-publishing and indie publishing, publishing myths, and imaginative ways to find new editing opportunities:

Self-publishing used to be a scar; now it’s a tattoo.”–Greg Cope White

Other relevant articles include:

Nina Munteanu on the Author-Editor Relationship

Beating Today’s “S” Curve (or Why an Editor is Every Writer’s Best Friend)

Walking the Tightrope Between Innocent and Cynical

The Moving Target of Indie Publishing: What Every Editor (and Writer) Needs to Know

The Writer-Editor Relationship, Part 1: Editors Preparing Writers

The Writer-Editor Relationship, Part 2: Five Things Writers Wish Editors Knew—and Followed

The Hidden Costs of Self-Publishing, Part 1: The Solution to “Author Solutions”

What Indie Authors Should Know for 2015

Surfing the Hybrid Wave of Publishing

The Indie Book Tidal Wave…What Does it Mean for Bookstores, Publishers & Writers?

  

nina-munteanuNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of

When Do You Know Your Story Is Finished?

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Spalted maple log (photo by Nina Munteanu)

A student of mine once asked me how many drafts it took to get the final version of a story. I answered cagily: as many as you need. I wasn’t trying to be cheeky or elusive. In truth, this is a question that only you can answer; and it will be different with each story you write.

George Lucas once said in an interview about the remaking of Star Wars that in the film industry, projects were never finished; only abandoned. What he meant by this was that at some point in the creative and revision process of polishing a story, you have to stop and show it to the world. Let your baby walk and stand on its own.

This is a big step for all beginning writers and many will freeze. Terrified at the idea of failure or censure, they end up sabotaging their own work. If you’re emotionally or psychologically not ready for the consequences of getting published, then you will falter, procrastinate, forever fuss over your creations and convince yourself that it isn’t ready. In truth, it’s you who aren’t ready.

This is a shame because to have written an entire novel is a great accomplishment. You’ve already done what over 80% of those who embark on a book don’t do: finish it. To halt the process by entering a perpetual cycle of revision is admitting defeat when you have really won the major battle. It’s like that fatal stumble on the last leg of a homerun.

If the idea is to publish, then you need to give yourself a kind of deadline or goal, based on something that makes sense to you and is achievable. This could even include a time deadline.

Robert J. Sawyer’s response to the question of “when do you stop revising?” was: “When you’ve taken out all the boring bits.” That may seem on the face of it either too simple or too abstract. But, in fact, he is right on the mark. However, to truly achieve that conclusion and consequently get your manuscript to where it is meant to be without you lingering like a frightened ghost, you need to accurately perceive what “boring” is. In order to do this you need to do several things.

The first is to gain objectivity of your work. You accomplish this by setting it aside for a while and letting it “breathe” (really, you’re letting yourself breathe). By distancing yourself a little from your work, you are able to return with a fresh outlook and read it more like a reader. Your “boring” meter will be running better this way and you will be in a better position to pick out redundancies, overly long exposition and detail, lack of context, “talking heads”, lack of action or tension, and confusing or awkward sentences. The other thing you gain with distance is the ability to describe your book’s theme and major plot. What is it really about? You need to reach the point where you can describe it in a couple of sentences or even a few words as you would describe a movie you like to a curious friend who hasn’t seen it yet.

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Carbon cushion fungus spalting maple log (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Once you’ve gained some objectivity, you can critique each scene and each character for his or her plot purpose within that central plot and theme. You can also assess each sub-plot’s role within the major plot and theme. When every paragraph within every scene within every chapter of your story scintillates with purpose and meaning, you have accomplished your task of removing the boring bits. Now you have a story that is finished.

Art is self-expression and expression is a reflection of the culture and time in which you live. Stories are a snapshot of time and place. Treat your art like life; some revision is good but at some point you need to just LIVE. Let go of your work and move on to the next chapter.

 

Nina MunteanuNina Munteanu is an ecologist, limnologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

 

The Writer-Editor Relationship, Part 2: Five Things Writers Wish Editors Knew—and Followed

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Cedar log (photo by Nina Munteanu)

In my previous article, “The Writer-Editor Relationship, Part 1: Editors Preparing Writers,” I focused on clarifying expectations between editors and writers from the editor’s point of view. Part 2, this article, focuses on this same relationship from the writer’s point of view.

Clarity of expectation, honesty, and mutual respect are key features in a productive and successful writer-editor relationship. Writers expect editors to inform them if their expectations are out of line, and writers rely on editors’ honesty and transparency to let them know if they are comfortable with the task being asked of them. This, of course, is predicated on the editor’s full understanding of what that task is; again, it is the responsibility of the editor to determine the scope of work from the author—just as a doctor will ask key questions to diagnose a patient. If an editor has reservations, caveats, or limitations with the project, these should be shared upfront. Honesty is always best, and it should start right from the beginning so that mutual respect is cemented.

Below is a list of five things that writers wish editors knew—and followed.

  1. Edit to preserve the writer’s voice through open and respectful dialogue

Losing your voice to the “hackings of an editor” is perhaps a beginner writer’s greatest fear. This makes sense, given that a novice writer’s voice is still in its infancy; it is tentative, evolving, and striving for an identity. While a professional editor is not likely to “hack,” the fear may remain well-founded.

A novice’s voice is often tangled and enmeshed in a chaos of poor narrative style, grammatical errors, and a general misunderstanding of the English language. Editors trying to improve a novice writer’s narrative flow without interfering with voice are faced with a challenge. Teasing out the nuances of creative intent amid the turbulent flow of awkward and obscure expression requires finesse—and consideration. Good editors recognize that every writer has a voice, no matter how weak or ill-formed, and that voice is the culmination of a writer’s culture, beliefs, and experiences. Editing to preserve a writer’s voice—particularly when it is weak and not fully formed—needs a “soft touch” that invites more back-and-forth than usual, uses more coaching-style language, and relies on good feedback.

An editor colleague of mine consistently accompanies her edits with the question, “Does this change preserve your meaning?” This prompt both focuses on “voice” and reminds the writer that the editor is considering it, which fosters a nurturing environment of mutual respect. Editors who are not familiar with working with writers in the early stage of their careers may wish to defer to one who is more experienced.

Editors also need to consider how the author’s narrative voice harmonizes with the standard in the author’s targeted genre and niche market. Pursuing respectful and open dialogue about how the author’s voice fits or doesn’t fit that standard is another responsibility of a good editor and one an author will come to rely on—particularly early on in their career.

  1. Understand—and embrace—the market and genre of your writer

Writers are often told to write what they know. This edict applies equally to editors: edit what you “know” and understand. Each form of writing—from literary and genre fiction to journalism, the memoir, and technical writing—encompasses an overall style, culture and vision, associated language, and even “jargon” that is important to understand to succeed with readers. Even writers who subvert the trope need to first understand what they are subverting, and so does the editor.

I write and edit science fiction and fantasy. I do it very well, because I have a passion for it and I intimately understand its world and language, including where the boundaries lie and where the risks—and sublime nuances of originality—also lie. I worked as a scientist for over 20 years and have published papers in peer-reviewed journals, so I am comfortable editing technical and scientific papers. I live that world. On the other hand, I do not read, nor do I understand or care for, the horror fiction genre. Not only would I do a lousy job editing a work of horror, but I wouldn’t provide the discerning editorial advice to best place that work in the horror market. It is in the area of market niche that one editor will shine over another based on their familiarity with, and current activity in, that industry sector. This is ultimately what writers are paying for: the multi-layered understanding of the editor that comes with a full embrace of that world.

Editors should ensure a good fit and the best chance for success by not taking on work in a genre with which they are neither familiar nor comfortable. Think of the author. Which leads me to the next point:

  1. Be honest and practice moral integrity: Don’t take on a writer’s work unless you like and believe in it

 When I was starting out as a writer with my first novel, I shopped it around to many agents, hoping for representation. While the book was eventually published with great success, many agents had rejected it. Literary agents take on clients and shop their books to publishing houses. They usually charge a percentage of the take and are not paid (if they are good agents) until the book is sold to a publishing house. Payment, therefore, is predicated on success. In many cases, an agent would respond with good things to say about my first manuscript but would not take it on, citing this common phrase: “It just didn’t excite me enough.” I was initially puzzled by this response. If they liked it, why didn’t they take it on? But “I like” isn’t the same as “I’m excited.” I soon realized the importance that excitement played in the agent’s business. They were my advocate, after all. If they weren’t eager about the book, how could they sell it to someone else? And if they couldn’t sell it to someone else, how could they get paid?

While the editor is usually paid up front and/or upon deliverable, they fulfill a similar role: that of advocate. If an editor takes on a writer’s work without enjoying it or believing in it, they are much less likely to do a good job. And both lose when that happens.

When we just do a job for the money and not for the passion of doing something well, we run the risk of losing on all fronts. We run the risk of being dishonest in our assessments and then doing a shabby job. And then losing our reputation. Be an advocate and be honest; sometimes, that means saying “no” to a project and explaining why. The writer will benefit and will thank you for it—if not right away, then eventually.

  1. Edit professionally and appropriately to promised deliverable

In my capacity as writing coach, I have met with several writers who have complained that their work had been insufficiently or inappropriately edited. This can occur for several reasons: (a) lack of time; (b) incompetence; or (c) inappropriate match-up.

  • Lack of time 

As a writer, I once experienced an insufficient copy edit by a freelance professional editor. In fact, this particular editor was a good editor and had impeccably edited a previous work of mine. When I submitted my “edited” work to a beta reader, he pointed out many places that my copy editor had missed. A few is OK, but she’d missed many. From subsequent correspondence, I deduced that my editor had been overrun with other projects and had skimmed mine a little too fast. Unfortunately, this was unacceptable, given that I’d agreed to pay her a professional rate for a specific deliverable: a copy-edited, proofed, and publication-ready manuscript.

The ultimate message here for editors is, don’t take on a writer’s work and make promises of delivering until you know what you’re getting into and know that you can do it in the time you suggested. Honesty is best here. If you are too busy to meet the specified deadline, say so and refer the writer to another respected editor if they can’t wait. And don’t worry about “losing” the client—you haven’t. But that editor I mentioned in the previous paragraph did.

  • Incompetence 

Unfortunately, most editors who are incompetent are unaware of it. One of my professional writer-editor colleagues at SF Canada invoked the Dunning-Kruger Effect (“at a certain point, people who really don’t know something don’t know that they don’t know it”) to share her story of what passes for editorial input in “an age of homonym errors.” She suggested that some self-appointed editors are convinced they have significant skills but allow a large error rate.

This is where organizations like Editors Canada become invaluable. Editors Canada certifies editors for skills in various editing fields and forms (that is, structural-, stylistic-, and copy editing and proofreading). If you are a professional editor with certification, ensure that you make this known to the writer; many writers not only don’t understand the various editing forms (for example, copy editing vs. structural editing), they also don’t necessarily recognize competence until after the job is done—when it’s too late.

  • Inappropriate match-up 

This is similar to point 2, which talks about matching writer and editor through genre and market. A good fit also includes temperament, schedules, communication style, and other considerations that will affect the editor-writer relationship and the natural progress of the project. As editor, I have encountered a few clients whose communications with me created tension and misunderstanding. We mutually agreed to terminate our arrangement early on, which saved much tension and grief. The transparency of the relationship allowed us to recognize the mismatch early on and attend to it before it became problematic and wasted both our time and efforts.

  1. Keep the relationship—and language—professional and respectful 

Without necessarily expressing this, the majority of writers—particularly beginning writers and, by default, indie/self-published writers—seek a professional editor who will treat them with respect. What this translates into is the use of professional language, tone, and behaviour. Writers aren’t looking for an editor to be their “friend.” Writers are also not looking for a professional editor to validate their work or them as people. Writers seek professional editors to give them honest and helpful advice that will help them create the very best work they can for eventual publication.

Simple. Not so simple.

As an editor who is also a writer (who gets edited a lot), I provide rationale as much as I can for the suggestions I make to writers. This helps establish and maintain a respectful and collaborative relationship between author and editor through the use of professional language, tone, and behaviour. Think of it as a doctor-patient relationship; I’ve dropped doctors like hot potatoes who are not willing to sit with me as an equal and discuss their prognoses. I want to know why, and ultimately, it’s my decision. The editor is an expert, but so is the writer.

The writer-editor relationship is foremost a professional one. As an editor, I feel it is my duty to promote integrity and respect with the writer, and this hopefully within a safe and nurturing environment for the achievement of mutual excellence.

This article was copy edited by Nicole North.

 

Nina MunteanuNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

The Writer-Editor Relationship, Part 1: Editors Preparing Writers

 

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Spalting patterns on decaying log (photo by Nina Munteanu) 

As indie publishing soars into new heights and successes, writers are looking more and more to freelance editors to help them create works of merit that will stand out in the market. Whether this process is seamless and productive or fraught with difficulties relies on the relationship established between editor and writer—at the outset and throughout.

The writer-editor relationship—like any relationship—works best when communication between parties is transparent and clear. What ultimately drives misunderstanding—or its corollary, harmony—is “expectation” and how it is met. Clarifying expectations on both sides is paramount to creating a professional and productive relationship with few hitches.

Realizing Expectations

Indie authors often come to editors with unclear and, at times, unreasonable or unrealistic expectations on services. Many writers know very little about the kind of editing we do and the different levels of effort (time and associated fee) required. They do not understand the difference between “copy-editing” and “structural editing”, particularly as it pertains to their own work. In fact, many indie writers don’t even know what their MS requires. This is because of two things: 1) they can’t objectively assess their own work, particularly in relation to market needs; and 2) many authors have not sufficiently considered their “voice” or brand and matched it to a relevant target market. Both of these will influence how the writer comes into the relationship and the nature of their expectations.

It is best to be “up front” with everything, from understanding a writer’s work and market expectations to establishing your fees, your time, and the nature of your services. This is why a savvy editor will ask for a one to several page example of the author’s writing prior to offering their services and finalizing the nature of a potential relationship. Such an exchange may, in turn, include a sample of the editor’s work for the writer to assess. This exchange helps clarify the process for both parties.

A savvy editor will want to establish with the author the following things prior to taking him/her on as a client and embarking on the actual editing task:

  1. The nature of the writer’s work: a writer’s work should harmonize with the editor and achieve a good fit; e.g., I edit fiction and non-fiction; however, I do not edit horror, because I simply can’t relate to it and don’t care for it. More on this below.
  2. The author’s expectations and target market: this is key to establishing the kind of editing required for the author’s piece. Is it good enough to just copy-edit or will the piece require substantive edits to succeed in the identified market? This often requires open and frank communication between editor and author.
  3. Nature and time of submission: on which the schedule is based.
  4. Schedule and deadlines for deliverables: based on the editor’s realistic timing (including other work) and the nature of the editing job (to be established by some reliable means).
  5. Nature of communication: form and frequency; partly to ensure that the writer does not abuse the communication stream with a barrage of emails, e-chats, phone calls, etc.)
  6. Nature and cost of deliverables: e.g., use of track changes; inclusion of summary letter; follow up meetings, etc.
  7. Mutual agreement on fees, fee structure and payment details: what, how and when.
  8. Inclusion and nature of contract: this may include an NDS, if desired.

By clarifying these, you and the author create a new set of realistic agreed-upon expectations.

Fitting Writer with Editor

The right fit for editor and writer includes more than harmonizing genre, writing style, and content. The fit includes personality. A professional editor and colleague of mine recently shared on our list-serve about his experience as both a freelance and publishing house editor. The editor shared that a majority of writers responded to his edits with comments like, “finally, someone who just comes out and plainly tells me what’s wrong!” However, others complained: “why are you so mean?” The editor admitted to using humor liberally in his assessments and was described by one of his clients as “playfully harsh.” While the work of this editor is no doubt impeccable, the added humor may not be a good fit for some writers, particularly those who are not highly confident in their work.

Knowing your own brand of editing and being up front with it is part of achieving a good fit with a writer and can avoid huge headaches down the line for both of you.

Toward Honesty & Moral Integrity

I and some of my editing colleagues have run across several cases of indie writers who have come to us with “already edited works” that they believed only needed proofing or minor edits, but in fact called for substantive editing and story coaching to fulfill market requirements. The previous editor had either done a poor job of editing or the author had done a poor job of incorporating the edits. Either way, I was now in the position to inform this author, who had already spent several thousand dollars on edits, that his work required more than a “trim job off the top” to meet the standards demanded by the market.

My colleague suggested that it is unethical to copy-edit a manuscript that obviously requires structural editing or has serious “story” problems. I’m inclined to agree. The key lies in the expectations of the author and his/her intended market. This is where the editor’s knowledge of “matching work to market” becomes a critical part of the relationship with the author, whether you take him/her on as a client or not. I talked more about this in a previous article on Boldface, “The Moving Target of Indie Publishing: What Every Editor (and Writer) Needs to Know.” Honesty is best. Following the path of moral integrity may not put food on the table; but it will maintain your reputation as an editor of quality, which will keep the roof over your head.

Below is a mock email of a general response to a writer’s inquiry for help on their MS:

Dear Alice,

Thank you for your interest in my editing services. I am still taking on clients and would be happy to help you.

In your initial letter, you included a brief description of your story. It sounds intriguing and interesting. Science fiction is my passion (I’ve published nine SF books so far).

Before we proceed, I need a few things from you to ensure we are a good fit and to help me do the best I can for your project. First, can you please send me a short sample of your work (2-3 pages) and a very short summary. From this I’ll be able to confirm the kind of editing that best suits your project. For the kinds of editing/coaching services and associated fees please refer to this page on my website: xxxx.

Can you also answer the following questions?

1.     (If they haven’t included the genre or a short premise, I ask them for one).

2.     How do you intend to publish this book (traditional, indie, self-publish)?

3.     Who would you say is your intended audience and market?

4.     Is this book a stand alone or part of a trilogy or series?

5.     Is the book complete (first draft or more)? If not, how much is written?

Based on this, I will suggest the kind of editing (and coaching) required to best fit your needs. This may be one or a combination of the following: 1) an evaluation/assessment at $xx/page; 2) copy-editing (with some substantive editing) at $xx/page; or 3) story coaching at $xx/hour. As outlined on my webpage (xxxx), I provide digital commentary (line by line) in your manuscript (in Word through track changes) accompanied by a summary letter with recommendations. You can find examples of what I do on this page of my website: xxxx.

Once I’ve determined what services best suit your work and you are in agreement with the service and fees, I will draw up a contract for you and I to sign. The contract will stipulate a reasonable schedule that you and I can agree on for the process and deliverables.

Once the contract is signed by both of us, I would ask that you send me your material along with Paypal payment for the first half of the agreed total fee by the date marked in the contract.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Best Wishes,

Nina

 

Nina MunteanuNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

 

 

 

 

 

The Moving Target of Indie Publishing: What Every Editor (and Writer) Needs to Know

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The Seine, Paris (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I’m a writer and an editor. I’ve written and published novels, short stories and non-fiction books with traditional publishing houses and indie publishers, and I’ve self-published. As editor, I serve as in-house copy-editor for a publishing house in the United States and have acted as acquisition editor for several anthologies put out by a local indie publisher. I also coach novice writers to publication and edit in that capacity. So, you could say, I know the industry from many angles and perspectives. That’s been good for me, because this industry is a moving target and it’s good to triangulate on a moving object. The entire publishing industry is evolving and it’s a slippery evolution.

Even the words we use are slippery. Indie. Hybrid. Publisher.

Many people, like award-winning author Kristine Kathryn Rusch, when they use the terms indie-writer and indie-publishing include what some call self-publishing in their definitions of indie, “because so many [professional] writers who are not with traditional publishers have started their own presses. It’s not accurate to lump all writers who are not following the traditional route into the self-publishing basket any longer.” According to Rusch, an indie publisher, then, is anyone who is not a traditional publisher. For the sake of this article, I’ve adopted Rusch’s definition to provide the full range of expectations for editors working with writers in the indie field. I define a traditional publisher as an established and often larger publishing house or press that: 1) follows traditional submission criteria; 2) does not charge writers; 3) pays out royalties; and 4) employs in-house editors.

Indie writing and publishing can then be described in several ways depending on where the writer submits, by what mechanism and what model they use. All of these will affect a writer’s needs and perceptions for an editor and, in turn, an editor’s expectations as well.

I overview five major models of indie writing and publishing in Table 1, below.

Table 1: Types of Indie Writing / Publishing Models:
1. Small Independent Press

(not writer’s)

Author submits to a small press that does not require author to pay for publishing costs; house may pay small royalties; acceptance criteria limit submissions; there may or may not be formal distribution
2. Small Independent Press

(not writer’s)

Author submits to a small press that may require author to pay for part of publishing costs; house typically does not pay royalties but may provide complementary copies and/or author’s rate for copies; acceptance criteria may still apply to submissions; distributor tends to be Ingram/Amazon model
3. Small Independent Press

(writer as sole proprietor or part of a consortium; also called self-publishing by some)

Author can pretty well write and publish as she pleases; costs of publication are born solely by the writer(s) and royalties come straight from profit; no acceptance criteria apply; distribution typically Ingram/Amazon model
4. Service “Publisher”

(e.g., iUniverse, Friessen, etc.); this is self-publishing, even though the “publisher” name appears on the work

Author can pretty well write and publish as she pleases; all publication costs born by writer; service will include various services, including: copy-editing, layout, cover design, printing, some distribution, some promotion—all at cost (based on service package); distribution typically Ingram/Amazon model
5. Self-Publishing

(e.g., the publication is in the author’s name)

Author can pretty well write and publish as she pleases; author uses a la carte style of self-publishing in which she hires various experts—or herself does—the production of the work (e.g. editing, layout, cover, printing, distribution, and promotion).

Depending on which model an author uses for their work, their perceived need and actual need for an editor prior to submission and publication will be affected. I make the distinction between “perceived” and “actual” because, unfortunately, in many cases these diverge: an author may not think they need a certain kind of editing for their work when they do. The opposite is more rare: the author thinking she needs an editor when she doesn’t. I will talk more about this in a later article.

The availability of these models and their hybrid cousins has provided writers with a cornucopia of often confusing choices. In many cases, I am finding—particularly with my clients—that writers don’t even know which choice is best for them. Part of the reason for this is that writers carry forward ideas from the old model and create a misconception of expectation. Unfortunately, this often translates into misconceived ideas about and expectations of editors. That’s another article too.

For editors, it’s important to recognize these different models and what they, in turn, provide and expect from authors. A savvy editor translates into a savvy author. Your advice, if driven from a place of publishing industry knowledge, will be invaluable to authors seeking your services. And they will come to rely on this as much as, if not more than, your actual editing.

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Eiffel Tower, Paris (photo by Nina Munteanu)

By its very nature, indie publishing has given the freelance editor an opportunity to take on a new role—a service that agents used to and still do provide many traditionally-published authors: that of industry consultant. In the traditional model, an author would seek an agent who would then not only sell their work to a publisher but also provide advice on what to expect in the market as well as help with career-longevity choices (which include “branding”); questions many novice authors haven’t even considered, never mind answered sufficiently. Most indie authors will not engage an agent; but most will (should) hire an editor. So, instead of an agent, the freelance editor becomes the first stop in the publishing industry for an indie author. This has become one of my primary roles as editor and writing coach. And this is again because most writers, when they start out, do not know what direction they want to go—mainly because they aren’t familiar enough with what is available to them and the ramifications to their careers.

Here’s an example: one client, working on her first novel, wanted my advice on whether she should try with a traditional publisher or just forgo and self-publish. An editor, if possessing savvy knowledge of the industry and now knowing something of the author’s work and ambitions, can bring informed and constructive advice to the author.

The ramifications on how I handle and edit a story directly follows which route the author has decided to follow. This is every bit as relevant to an author publishing with a traditional publishing house, an indie press, or self-publishing. Style—whether it is that of a publishing house or the author’s brand—relies on consistent application of voice and tone. Just as publishing houses embrace different and unique styles, so do authors. In fact, if they are self-publishing, this is even more important.

The editor plays a crucial role in helping an author establish their “voice” and “style”, and ultimately their “brand.” And, perhaps, this becomes one of the principle differences between traditional and indie publishing. While voice and style is pre-determined to some extent by traditional publishing houses (hence they employ their own editors to impose a style in some cases), it is left to the author—and her freelance editor—to determine this in the indie scene. The structure of traditional publishing is both more orderly and more confining. Indie publishing—particularly self-publishing—is an infinite melting pot of creativity. Some view it as one big mess. In fact, it is a chaos of astonishing opportunity. It is a chance for intimate collaboration that demands mutual respect. Freelance editors are poised as both gatekeepers and enabling wizards of the indie world.

Table 2, below, describes a freelance editor’s focus in the five indie models I described in Table 1.

Table 2: Editing for Different Indie Models:
1. Small Independent Press

(with submission criteria similar to a traditional model)

Authors often think they don’t need a freelance editor if they are submitting to a press with in-house editor; this is incorrect. Those who have had their work edited prior to submission to a press—even a small press—will have a much higher chance of being accepted. The freelance editor’s job, then, will include attending to the style of the publishing house.
2. Small Independent Press

(without submission criteria)

While authors may not recognize the need for an editor in submitting to an indie publisher without submission criteria, the need for editing remains—particularly because many of these presses do not employ or have sufficiently qualified editors. Excellence in presentation and nurturing a strong author voice are the freelance editor’s responsibility.
3. Small Independent Press

(writer’s own press)

Given that the author has pretty well carte blanche on what to write and publish, a freelance editor’s role in recognizing, harmonizing with and helping to establish a genuine and strong author’s “voice” becomes most important.
4. Service “Publisher” Authors have misconceptions about service “publishers” and particularly their editors. I have had several clients come to me after recognizing that their works were not well represented by the provider’s in-house editor. Service “publisher” in-house editors do not represent a particular style, voice or brand (given that most are underpaid students and there is no style identity); the freelance editor role is as with #3.
5. Self-Publishing The same criteria exist here as for model #3.
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Paris street (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The take home is that freelance editors can flourish in the indie writing and publishing field by: 1) establishing their expertise in the industry and what it requires (taking on the role of consultant, which agents normally provide in the traditional model); 2) recognizing a need for strong authorial voices and helping to foster them; 3) promoting point #2 with consistency in style, tone, etc.

Hope this helps. Let me know.

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

Nina Talks to EAC About the Changing Face of Publishing

In January 2014, I gave a talk to the Editor’s Association of Canada (EAC) on the changing face of publishing and what it means for editors and writers. Editors learned about self-publishing and indie publishing, publishing myths, and where to find new editing opportunities.

 

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.