Tag Archives: editing

Free Editing Help and the Secret to Great Writing

After I returned from the Northwestern Christian Writers conference in Minnesota, I was inspired and fired up to get back to my book and keep revising. That often happens after a writers conference. I’d taken a bit of a break when summer hit, but the great conversations and knowledgable speakers had me raring to go again. If you’re wondering about attending a conference near you, trust me, it works….

The class I taught at the conference is shared below, a distilled collection of key questions for all writers I called Manuscript CPR. It’s culled from my experience teaching writers how to do macro and micro edits, and it’s basically how to resuscitate a dying manuscript. :) It also just happens to contain the secret to great writing (great editing, duh!), and I believe it’ll help any writer. It did me.

I hope you’ll feel inspired to make significant progress on your meaningful and needed work this week, and all month long. But more than that, I hope you’ll learn to enjoy the process so you can continue writing for years to come.

Keep aiming for the higher purpose,


Manuscript CPR+

How to Know When You Need an Editor

“Please turn to page 127,” she said.

The word “I” had been circled every time it appeared on the page.

“How many circles are there?” she asked.

I counted fourteen. The page nearly jumped and jostled with circled I’s. But I was not sure what to make of this. Every time I’d written “I,” I meant “I.” Was it wrong to mean “I” so much? Or did the problem have to do with the word itself? Ought I find a synonym–is there a synonym?–for “I?” But no, I suspected the problem ran deeper.

Bonnie Friedman, Writing Past Dark


Deliberate is a good word.

As adjective, it means purposeful, the opposite of careless: careful.

As verb, it means to engage in careful consideration.

Deliberate, de-liberate, is to remove carelessness. It’s a good word for clarifying why editors are so feared and often untrusted. Their work is frustrating. Writers need them, sure, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t dread their constraining, de-liberating work.

After all, the editor’s job is to constrain the writer, to bind her wandering words to her intended meaning. You recognize the implication here? The blinding light of inescapable judgment? Like a reckoning?

To the extent you’ve found liberation in writing, an editor de-liberates, evaluates, measures, balances, and masters it. Like a dog.

Famous editor Sol Stein talks about writers getting out of the way of their work, the way Fitzgerald said his editor Max Perkins helped him do. All the throat-clearing distraction and unprofessional insertion and interpretations an author tends to give, the explaining and artful hiding they do, it’s not needed, so editors are helpful, if annoying, sort of house elves.

But honestly, professional editing is not required for any author anymore. Only those entering the traditional industry of royalty-paying publishers. It’s only necessary for reaching a broader audience than the author can reach on their own, if that’s what they want. This painful sacrificing of your way–the unconsidered way–for the better way, it requires an uncomfortable humility, a submitting.

And if you’re gonna do it, that’s not optional.

When I was a self-conscious writer just starting out as an evil editor, I used to try and make a case for editing, try to argue for the professional painful poking and proding of editing. But after so many years, I’ve given up. I’m tired of convincing. I finally decided professionally edited books speak for themselves.

But how can you know when you need an editor? Is there a best time to seek editing?

I think, yes. At least, when you’re a beginner, an editor can help right away–although I wouldn’t recommend hiring an expensive one until you’ve got some experience writing and being critiqued by strong readers. Learn from their books, classes, videos, posts, and articles. Find one or a few you like in your genre and enjoy that learning stage. You can gain so much online these days it’s not even funny.

When you first seek out an editor, you’ll need help with structure, theme, and deeper issues than style and craft. Most editors are better writers than you, but it’s because they know how to set up a story, create context, and identify the underlying promise with tangible examples and sensory detail. Their word choices, clarity, efficiency, and sentences are all secondary to satisfying storytelling.

For example, many writers begin by frontloading their story with backstory. We need to care about our primary character first, so polishing the flashback scene doesn’t help. It needs to be moved to later in the book. In nonfiction, the big problem or context for the promise you’re offering readers hasn’t been sufficiently developed. Developmental editing (substantive editing, or content editing) ensures the book feels weighty and important at the outset.

That’s the kind of thing you’ll get once you’ve written the book, so it’s best to simply write and not worry about wasting time and effort. It’s often more easily solvable once you’ve completed the journey.

But if anxiety about having to edit later is derailing you from writing, or if you’ve gotten some strong pushback from readers about fundamental elements–character, plot, setting, theme–an evaluation or consult with an editor may be a good idea.

Coaching is for writers who need deep encouragement to face their dragons and go into that cave they fear. It’s one thing to know it holds the treasure and you just have to do it, but it can be quite another to keep showing up day after day and struggling to explain why you’re doing this to yourself. But specific editing comments during writing are minor and mainly for reassurance.

The best time to hire an editor in my opinion is after you’ve completed two full drafts and had 2 or 3 trusted readers offer detailed feedback. Building that community is essential and prepares you for professional feedback. Then when major revision or minor recreating is recommended, you’ll have some idea of why and how to do it.

Everyone is different, so you need to consider your personal situation and experience level. If you’re a freshman, senior level classes are going to be hard to apply–and vice versa. What you read and how much you pick up from it are very important factors. If you’re in the writing process, enjoy that and if/when you get stuck, consider a consult if no trusted friends can advise.

While editing is about far more than fixing errors, identifying issues that require some revision is not as painful, horrendous, mortifying, life-altering as most authors tend to think. Take heart, warrior. You’re not the first and you won’t be the last to survive a rewrite.

You’ll be assessed, you’ll be shaped, and you’ll grow. All good things come in good time. Don’t short-circuit the supercharging work your inspirer’s intended to challenge, spur, and revise you. 

I looked at my manuscript in my suitcase, thought about all those beautiful, hilarious, poignant people I had been working with for almost three years, and all of a sudden I was in a rage. I called my editor at home. He was not planning on going to work that day. He was a little depressed, too. “I am coming over,” I said, and there was a silence, and then he said, very tentatively, “Okay,” like he wanted to ask, “And will you be bringing your knives?” 

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird


It’s all, always been, for a higher purpose,


Letter to an Anonymous Author

“I am a writer. Therefore, I am not sane.”

― Edgar Allan Poe

Dear X,

I appreciated your note, my friend. And I’m grateful for it.

I’ve seen your struggle and I know how hard you’re working to progress and capture everything well, and also accept help. I knew your journey would be a special challenge, and while your issues and the resistance you’ve encountered is unique to you, I find (and I’d think your agent would agree) that resistance is also the most common thing about working on books.

Writers be farking crazy.

I know because I am one, first and foremost. To create a cohesive, authentic story out of your own life experience you have to dig into old emotions and memories and that’s like poking a sleeping dragon. Either incredibly brave or incredibly stupid.

Your memories and inner struggles are unique to you, but every writer who dares this work finds that monster in the mirror and has to face it. You’re not alone in that–far from it. I see it over and over again, and it’s part of what drives me to study counseling and psychotherapy.

But my primary motive in all of this is understanding my own issues and my own resistance to progress, to change, and to accepting help for my struggles. I want to learn how to be better, and like you, I’m drawn by something bigger and higher than myself pulling me out and convincing me I’m okay and I can let go of my fear and protectiveness. As I read, my heart says, Yes, that’s true for me too, and I listen to that voice and he shows me where we need to go–to help you, yes, but mostly to help myself.

Early on, I know you didn’t want to accept any changes from me. The less I did, the happier you were. So I stuck to cleaning up the “verbal diarrhea” and made sure the digressions didn’t feel too distracting. I told myself that was enough and your freedom was more important than being succinct and focused.

After rereading it now, I stand by that. It’s conversational, inviting, and down-to-earth, just as you are and I don’t want to change that anymore. You were right to push back against my “literary sensibilities,” and I’m glad you did. I think readers will appreciate your honesty, sincerity, and personable style–just like they do in your other writing.

I’ll let sharper minds than mine decide whether we can trim any further–while there’s always more tightening that can be done, every book has an irreducible flow as well. As I said, I don’t think I’m objective enough to know whether we’re hitting that in every spot, but I can hear you speaking the lines in my head and that convinces me we’ve captured your essential style. I’m not worried at all about the length–never have been. It’s long and I want to let others know we’re aware of that and we don’t think it’s a problem. It’s a work of beauty just the way it is.

I’m sorry for the times I haven’t understood your vision and for pushing you at times beyond what was reasonable. You and your book are a work of exquisite art balanced between extreme contrasts, and like all beautiful works of art, you and your book are symbolic of the creator from which you spring, one-of-a-kind as anything. I appreciate you and your book as such wonders.

Thanks for sticking with it and being true to yourself–you teach me tons, and I’m so thankful to get to work with you.

(Don’t think this means I’m going easy on you if we get another shot at this. The struggle is inevitable and inextricable. And fears be danged, that’s for good, not bad.)

Looking forward to the rest of the journey.

For the higher purpose,


Want to Write a Best-Seller? Mine Your Empathy

The greatest of divides…is between those who regard the visible world as being of primary importance…and those who do not.

Dallas Willard


There are so many challenges to writing a story that works, let alone that can capture readers’ hearts and imaginations to get talked about and shared. And so few people who talk about writing never will for one simple reason: permission.

First, you need full permission to share your story exactly as it happened. Even if it’s fiction, you’ve got to be able to go to the heart of what made this story grab you–the reality and heartache of it, the real pain and struggle it speaks about.

That’s job one. And in a way, knowing you have it because it’s the truth, and claiming that freedom to say it all is all that matters. Make that the heart of your motivation, because with it, you can overcome any other opposition—all the skill, ability, competition, understanding, logic, research, organization and all the logistical problems of writing a book are secondary.

Though as you know, there are so many things that need attention after that.

If you also need to ask permission from others, do it. If it means reconciling, forgiving, feeling your grief or anger and then releasing it and writing that part into the story, then that’s what you need to do. Don’t waste time setting things right.

FullSizeRender_1But whether you’re writing a true story or fiction, your first task after claiming and establishing your full permission to share is to think of the external story and the internal as distinct, but related stories. This is so basic, but it’s so neglected in the writing instruction and literature I’ve seen. There are always those two parallel stories and they need alternating attention, often within a paragraph or two. Otherwise readers get lost and forget what’s happening.

Readers can’t see the story as you can—and most writers can’t see that fact until it’s pointed out (= job security for me). Your job as writer is to show them. And you’ll develop this skill best by learning to get inside your reader’s head.

But how in the world do you do that?…

Simple. Give up what you know about the story, discard your knowledge and power as creator, and become ignorant, pitiful, and lost. Because that’s always how your reader feels when they start your story. When you think about it, it’s a wonder anyone reads books at all. Who wants to feel all that? And I’d argue it’s exactly for those feelings that people stop reading. So your job is to prevent that at all costs.

FullSizeRenderWhen you become like your reader, you will know exactly what it feels like to know nothing about your story, and you’ll know exactly what’s needed to resolve those problems.

Empathy—that’s why it’s the key element necessary for becoming a great author. Humility allows you to enter the reader’s experience and make that your strategic priority over teaching or telling them something. You feel their need and you know you need to engage their hearts, reach into their darkness, and reveal the exciting surprise of your story.

Why haven’t you read this in writing books or heard it talked about in courses? Why don’t published authors speak of it more? They obviously know developing this empathy is essential. It’s more than feeling sorry for the reader—it’s getting inside them and feeling and seeing what they do. It’s knowing and feeling what they feel inside, and acting on it in your own external world. See how that works? When you allow your external to be impacted by another’s internal, you’re entering the space of the author’s essential empathy.

FullSizeRender_3That’s your sixth sense that’s developing, and that’s what tells you when to cut, when something needs revealing, deepening. Can the reader feel it or see it yet? If so, congratulations! You’re done. Stop. If not, keep defining and refining to the point. And always remember the internal and external stories must be shown to happen concurrently and influence each other in many ways.

Your main character is the representative of the reader’s experience, which means he or she must respond to external action either similarly or exactly like the reader would. Sometimes, it’s best for the main character to respond better than the reader would, to demonstrate the best self the reader aspires to be—to inspire positive change through wish-fulfillment (“I wish I could be so confident/decisive, etc.”). This will seem obvious to the authors who’ve been writing a while, but many haven’t yet thought about this vital skill enough and they’re forgetting the one key they need to unlock the reader’s understanding and delight in their stories.

I’ve talked about this essential empathy a lot because it’s so important. But it’s important because there’s an internal story that the external is both creating and threatening. Don’t miss that. It’s everything. Too many writers think they can just write “what happened” and expect that to hold readers’ interest. And they’ve missed that there’s an internal world writers must strive to make come to life, to make real.

We have to first feel what readers want conveyed. What emotion is natural to the action, and how will it come across? Consider the sensory experience—the sights, sounds, smells, the words that will bring the right emotion and context.

Think about deepening engagement by evoking feeling with your words. And remember, you create the drama from what you write and what you don’t. Often, the magic comes in the editing where you think about all you don’t need and how much stronger the experience becomes when you eliminate what’s not working or pulling its weight (= more job security for me).

Powerful writing comes with powerful editing. When you edit, think of the internal story, showing the experience of that—the main characters’ thoughts and feelings—and eliminate the words that aren’t necessary to that. It will absolutely increase the sense of drama.

There are many specifics I’d love to share here, but we’ll continue discussing over the coming weeks. For now, think about your favorite books and whether part of the reason was feeling strangely cared for or helped along by the author’s essential empathy for you…

Have you felt that? If you have, share this post with someone and let’s discuss….

For the Higher Purpose,


How Are You Relating to Your Reader?

Last week, following my church’s vision meetings, I was inspired by the connection to our two distinct strategic priorities required for writing and editing:

“Do You Know Your Priorities As a Writer?”

And this weekend, God provided more excellent inspiration to help further define this fundamental difference between writing from inspiration, and editing to help your readers.

wineWe started with a clear objective: meet our friends for wine tasting event at Terra D’Oro winery in the California foothills. Having received some free tickets from the employer of a generous friend, we were excited to get together and see how things were going for everyone while we enjoyed learning more about winemaking and several wineries with growing influence in the region and beyond.

Not knowing much about the business and industry, we were mostly interested in connecting with our friends and enjoying some time together in the beauty of the early summer. However, as is always the case, our objective didn’t take everyone’s into consideration. It couldn’t.

Fortunately, given the wonderful people involved, our friends’ objective for the day matched our own, and we had a great time talking and catching up with each other about the past year. But it could have gone very differently. And afterward, I was struck and amazed again at how important it is for writers to realize this, that editing is an experience in relating with others. And in every experience with others, knowing your objective and remaining open to theirs is the very definition of relating. 

IMG_6801Think about this: to relate is two distinct actions. One is telling your idea, story, or experience, and the other is connecting to someone. Both are required for every writer. And though both are contained in that one word, the two definitions are separate and distinct.

Depending on who you’re relating to or with, you may be required to compromise more or less. Consider how as a writer it isn’t enough simply to know your own vision or strategic priority of relating your story–you’ve also got to know what your listener needs and wants. Sometimes that compromise will feel too stretching and you’ll resist. Other times, you may go too far and forget your own priorities in trying to make it accessible or palatable to others.

In my work with authors, balancing those two objectives is the universal struggle. My training focuses on bringing the readers’ voice and desires to bear on the writer’s telling, and yet it’s also critical to give readers a strong writer to connect to, one with a unique story related in a distinct voice.

IMG_6800That’s why I love when authors recognize editing is for readers, and that relating their story to readers is always a good, refining challenge to their vision. Whenever we set out to relate with others, we simply don’t know what competing priorities they bring. But if we’re open to listening and adjusting, we can achieve our goals and not merely improve others, but be improved ourselves in the process.

I believe this is the wonderful work of writing and editing books that stand the test of time. It’s what I’ve enjoyed doing these past 16 years, and each new project brings new facets of the process to appreciate and learn from.

IMG_6813Other people might have had a very different objective for their wine-tasting experience. And that would have required more adjustment on our part to try to relate with them while we tried to relate our own story and ideas. And yet the inspiring connection would be the same: relating is always a blend of give and take, requiring compromise and clarity about your own priorities.

Both are needed. And both lead to enjoyment and fulfillment in this pursuit of creative living as writers called to connect and relate all we’ve been given to share.

I pray you will know this very week that you are becoming more aware of all that was once unseen — and that it’s one of God’s strategic objectives for your life as His sensitive observer and recorder of His wonders….

For its all ultimately for His Higher Purposes that we commit to this process together,