With apologies to the Talking Heads, you may ask yourself:
Why do I need a writing class when I’m not a writer?
With further apologies to the Talking Heads, you may tell yourself:
I do my job and I do it well. That’s enough.
We’re sure you do, but we’ve seen the research, and we can say this with full confidence and without reservation: A better writer is a better communicator, and a better communicator is a more successful employee, even if your business is widgets and not words.
But don’t take our word for it. Consider this article and its attention-grabbing statistic:
Nearly three-quarters—73.4 percent—of employers want better writers for the jobs they hope to fill. In fact, it’s No. 3 on the list of sought-after attributes, behind only leadership and ability to work with a team. And believe us: If you’re an effective writer, you’re likely to be a better leader and team member than you’d otherwise be.
Now, consider this quote from the article, from Basecamp founder Jason Fried:
If you are trying to decide among a few people to fill a position, hire the best writer. … That's because being a good writer is about more than writing clear writing. Clear writing is a sign of clear thinking. Great writers know how to communicate. They make things easy to understand. They can put themselves in someone else's shoes. They know what to omit. And those are qualities you want in any candidate. Writing is making a comeback all over our society...Writing is today's currency for good ideas.”
We’re sold. And that’s where we come in.
Elisa Lorello, our lead on writing workshops, built her early career on teaching technical and business writing and approaching the craft from a rhetorical-composition standpoint. That means she can tailor workshops to the specific needs of employers and employees. Whether it’s writing more effective memos, organizing information and ideas, or establishing the proper tone, she can lead workshops that meet your objectives in a stimulating, fun, interactive way, and at a cost that’s affordable for the individual or for an entire firm.
We bring up cost for an important reason. Whether you’re an executive or a frontline worker, your company is already losing money. Consider this, from David Grossman’s report The Cost of Poor Communications: Among businesses with 100,000 employees, companies reported an average annual loss of $62.4 million attributable to miscommunication among employees.
Maybe you don’t have 100,000 employees. Maybe you have 10. That’s still $6,240 a year, lost to an inability to communicate well.
We’d like to help you recoup some of that.
Interested? Contact us today.
The following is an abridged excerpt from Elisa’s book The Writer’s Habit, launching on May 25. For more information on pre-order exclusives or future classes, please join Elisa's mailing list.
We have arrived at my favorite part of the writing process: revision. It’s what I call the blood, sweat, and tears of writing. It is simultaneously the sandbox and the mudpit.
Revision is where the magic happens. Revision is, literally, re-seeing. It’s the opportunity to see your manuscript with new eyes and to make it better. Like a piece of clay that’s been molded into the basic shape, revision is where you take a step back, look at your writing from different angles, and use all your tools to reshape, refine, and add the intricate details that bring your story to life.
Writing is rewriting. Whereas drafting can be somewhat carefree, revision is more methodical, although recursive. Some rewrite as they go along, chapter by chapter, paragraph by paragraph, even sentence by sentence. With each one they stop, read, and rewrite, reread and rewrite again. There’s no wrong approach to revision, but a writer who doesn’t revise is selling the writing short.
Revision is where the decision-making gets done. Have I chosen the best words? Should I begin a new paragraph? Does the fragment achieve a rhetorical effect, or is it just bad grammar? Do I have enough description? Is there too much telling and not enough showing? Is the dialogue authentic and fluent? Does the action move too slowly? Too quickly? Are the stakes high enough? Am I telling the truth? Have I persuaded my reader to care? To laugh? To respond? To keep reading? Revision gives us the opportunity to keep making it better, to hone our craft and sharpen our skills, and to keep writing.
The number of revised drafts are limitless. Some revise a couple of times, others get into ten or more revised drafts. Revision is never really finished—in just about every book I’ve published, I’ve since found something that I wish I could tweak a little bit more, make a little bit better, be it one word or one sentence or even a scene. But if you’re a contracted author, a weekly television series writer, a student, or a journalist, you have a deadline. At that point, you have to call it finished. Even if you don’t have a deadline, at some point you have to call your book finished, otherwise you’ll never get it published or write another one.
What follows is a sample of revision choices to take into consideration. They don’t have to be addressed in order or one at a time. Chances are some of these are always in the back of your mind at any stage of the process. Some writers even make a checklist (see Nathan Bransford’s revision checklist in How to Write a Novel). Do whatever works best for you.
Revise for Meaning
I often don’t know what my novel or memoir is about until after I print out the manuscript, sit down with a pen, and begin to read, making notes in the margins usually in the form of questions or insights. Sure, I’ve just drafted a 55,000-word story. But I still find myself asking, What is this really about? Sometimes that question doesn’t apply to the entire manuscript, but a scene or character’s behavior. I may ask questions like: What does she want? Why is she so afraid? Why are they fighting? Sometimes the answers come right away, and other times I need to dig deeper. Revising for meaning isn’t about explicitly spelling out everything your characters say and do and why. It’s about keeping your reader invested in their journey. Above all, you want to respond to the reader’s foremost question--Why should I care?—with a story that engages the reader through dialogue, description, and all the other ingredients of storytelling we discussed. It’s about getting to the heart of the matter.
Revise for Audience
Earlier I said that I don’t think about audience when I’m the drafting stage. However, when it comes to revision, audience plays a role because once your book is out in the world, it’s no longer yours. It’s theirs.
When Duran Duran wrote the theme song for the James Bond movie “A View to a Kill” in the mid-80s, singer Simon LeBon said, “It had to be a James Bond theme. It also had to be a Duran Duran song.” In other words, there were two audiences to consider. (This example also applies to style. And interestingly, the popularity of the song well exceeded the popularity of its namesake.) If you’ve already established a readership, you might have an idea of what those readers love and expect from you. Does that mean you have to give it to them every time? No. But in many cases what they love aligns with what you love. If you haven’t yet built a readership, then I recommend you take a cue from Mr. Rogers and imagine one reader. Stephen King’s one reader is his wife. Mine varies, but I choose one and then stick with him or her. Thus, when you’re revising, read your story through their lens. Will they find this character likable? Will they understand what’s happening? Will they react emotionally? You also need to keep readers in mind when it comes to sentence structure. Long, eloquently worded sentences may be beautiful, but will too many of them interfere with your reader’s ability to process what they actually mean? Likewise, will a succession of short, choppy sentences be too blunt?
Also, keep in mind that you’re not going to be able to please everyone, so don’t try. My mom reads all my novels, but she doesn’t like my use of profanity. Some might think your love scenes are too explicit; others may think they’re not explicit enough. Beta readers help you gauge all of this, which is why it’s important to enlist their help, or the services of a developmental editor.
Revise for Genre
Every genre—mystery, science fiction, romance, horror, suspense, action/adventure—has certain distinguishable traits. And although you don’t want to be too formulaic in your application of those traits, you don’t want to stray too far from them either. I remember a writer who branded his novella as a romantic comedy. When I read it, I thought it was well-written and I liked the story. But I saw none of the characteristics of a rom-com—no overt chemistry, especially in a dueling way; no humorous situations spurred on by character flaws; no witty dialogue or banter; no high concept. In his case, rather than rewrite the story, I would simply rebrand it as contemporary or literary fiction.
Genres can be combined—paranormal romance, mystery horror, science fiction fantasy—and those can be quite fun to write, if not to market. Above all, you want to best serve the story and not the genre. If you’re writing mysteries because you think mysteries are trending or will sell better than, say, science fiction, most readers will see through the insincerity of that. However, if you write mysteries because you can’t get enough of reading them yourself, or you have an idea that won’t let go of you, or you simply want to try it for fun, then your reader is likely to join you.
I say it again: write the novel you want to read. Sometimes it’s not so much about finding readers as it is about them finding you.
Revise for Organization
In just about every draft of this book, I’ve re-organized either in terms of dividing and classifying the book into sections, determining which chapter comes first, second, third, and even at the paragraph level of individual chapters. (I even rearranged this list of revision choices.) In my latest novel, Big Skye Littleton, I made a big revision at the beginning: Whereas I had originally started with Skye stranded at the Denver airport, recalling a conversation she had on the plane, I revised to begin the story midflight, the conversation taking place in real time, and moved the Denver airport scene to another chapter.
Whether it’s at the paragraph level, chapter level, or scene level, make sure your readers can follow the sequence of thoughts and/or action.
Revise for Detail
Have you provided enough or too much? Have you given readers glimpses into the characters’ inner lives, or are they left needing more (something my developmental editor always flags me for not doing enough)? Have you painted a clear picture or is it murky? Did you change a character’s name mid-story without realizing it? (Yes. I’ve done that. Several times.) Check all of these things. Your reader will thank you.
Revise for Voice
Regardless of whether you’re writing novels or nonfiction, there must be a distinct voice, be it a character’s, narrator’s, or writer’s. It is equally important to consider tone, especially if you’re writing something like a letter seeking support or action. Tone can be easily misinterpreted in electronic communication, such as a text, social media comment, or email. Even something meant to be friendly can be interpreted as belligerent.
Revise for Clarity
Clear, concise, fluent—that’s what I encouraged my students to achieve at the stylistic level. The first one, clarity, is making sure your sentences are properly constructed—no dangling modifiers, bad fragments (as opposed to the good ones that add emphasis or lend to voice), or endless prepositional phrases (another flaw of mine, as are too many parenthetical phrases). Clarity also applies to the story you’re telling, whether a plot point or a conversation between two characters or just the complexity of the story in general. That’s not to say that stories can’t be complex. Stories may have puzzle pieces that readers attempt to put together along the way. However, if your reader has to stop reading, go back to the beginning of a sentence or someplace else in the paragraph, chapter, or book to gain clarity, you’ve taken that reader out of the story. You’ve disengaged them. You’ve made them work harder. And you’ve undermined the story you’re trying to tell.
Reading out loud will help you quite a bit with revising for clarity. A sentence that looked perfectly fine on the screen may be a mouthful out loud or not make any sense at all.
Revise for Pacing and Direction
Is your story dragging in some places and racing in others? Are there too many things happening at once? Does the climax come too soon? (No one likes that.) Is your story anti-climactic? Is your timeline accurate? Your beta readers will be essential in determining whether your story’s pacing and direction work. So will reading out loud.
Revise for Style
I have to be careful with co-opting someone’s style if I’ve been reading their books or watching their movies or TV shows while I’m working on a novel. For example, I watched a lot of The West Wing at the time I was writing Faking It. I got into Gilmore Girls while I wrote Why I Love Singlehood. And at the time of this writing, I’ve been reading Nora Ephron’s columns and articles from her journalism career.
Revising for style is about making sure every word belongs. My ultimate goal would be to read a final draft of my manuscript and say: “It’s perfect. Every word that needs to be there is there. Every word is the right word. The best word. Every sentence is the perfect length. The perfect depth. The perfect rhythm. Every word, sentence, paragraph, and the sequence of dialogue fulfills its purpose.”
Writing is, for the most part, a solitary act. And yet no writer works alone. Any professionally published book goes through several phases of editing before it’s published. Part of the process as a writer is to revise and hone the writing until every word is in its right place, every sentence reads clearly, concisely, and fluently, and every paragraph and thought is organized and arranged.
Unless you are a super-genius (just ask Wile E. Coyote), you will need to hire professional editors to assist you. You need someone with proven experience and a reputation.
If you are self-publishing a book and can’t afford an editor, then you aren’t ready to publish.
Depending on which stage of the process you’re in, you’ll need to call on one of the following (typically in this order):
A developmental editor
A copy editor
A developmental editor looks at the big picture. Rather than focus on things like grammatical issues and style choices, a developmental editor will help you make sure your story and characters follow a full arc, that your timeline meshes, that no plot holes are left open, and more. In other words, a developmental editor is there to help you make the story the best it can be. If you’re writing a memoir, a how-to book, or some other form of nonfiction, the goal is still the same: make sure your sequence of events works, make sure your directions are well-organized and easy to follow, and/or make sure the readers are engaged.
Developmental editing typically happens in several passes. Your editor provides you with a letter addressing all aspects of character development, story arc, pacing, etc., along with a manuscript complete with embedded comments addressing the specific references to those aspects and issues. You then get to work rereading and rewriting, based on your editor’s suggestions. (Do you need to take every suggestion? No. But if you don’t, ask yourself why.) The manuscript is then passed back to the editor for another round of examination, and then the two parties proceed with some number of back-and-forth passes until you both agree the story is where it ought to be (or until the deadline requires the story to be where it ought to be).
While the developmental editor is looking at your manuscript from a big-picture standpoint, copy editors handle the finer issues, those of grammar and mechanics, while providing a second line of defense on the global issues the developmental editor focuses on. (The fact is, all levels of editing, if done right, have some overlap with each other; a good developmental editor will point out nettlesome style issues, and a good copy editor will find a hole in your novel’s timeline.) Copy editors make sure your sentence structure is correct, your references are accurate, your tenses match, and that “Febreze” is spelled with one “e” rather than two. They’ll make sure your modifiers don’t dangle and your parenthetical phrases don’t take over. Trust me on this: They will save your bacon. And they’ll make sure you didn’t write it as “save your bake on.” Typically, this happens in one pass. You address any notes the copy editor has made in addition to the corrections, and unless you have additional questions, you’re ready for the next stage.
Your manuscript is getting into better shape with each editing pass. Now it’s time for the proofreader. Proofreaders generally deal with the typeset, “final” version of the manuscript, and the job is to make sure all the clichéd “i”s are dotted and “t”s are crossed. They make sure no one missed an incorrect there, their, or they’re. They look for typos, spacing errors, and overlooked spelling or punctuation errors. They make sure the pages are in sequence, or that the author’s name isn’t misspelled atop every other page (yes, this has happened). Some proofreaders like to do this with either a printed proof copy of the book, or with a PDF of the interior formatted manuscript.
Tips to editing success
In my experience, finding the right editor for you is as important as finding the right spouse. You need to have a rapport. You also need to trust their judgment. It helps if they have a working knowledge of the genre or the subject matter you bring to them.
Also, when hiring an editor you’ve never worked with before, ask to see samples of their editing first.
Finally, make sure you allot enough time for each editor to accommodate your publishing schedule as well as their schedule.
Need an editor? Contact us for a rate quote and a sample!
Montana Quarterly magazine is one of the true treasures of the state we live in. And we're not alone in counting ourselves lucky to have it. If not for the vision and gumption of longtime Montana journalist Scott McMillion, it would no longer be with us.
A few years ago, the Quarterly's previous operator, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, was poised to shutter the magazine in a cost-cutting move. McMillion, who'd been a senior writer with the Chronicle and a regular Quarterly contributor, stepped in with some investors and rescued it from the scrap heap, never missing an issue. In the summer of 2013, as Craig was preparing to leave daily newspaper work for a full-time writing and freelance career, he signed on with McMillion as the magazine's design director. He'd already been an occasional contributor of short stories, and he relished the chance to join the masthead.
They've been at it ever since.
Here, then, is Craig, with the rest of the story...
The reason the Quarterly cuts such a distinctive figure in Montana is that no other magazine in the state—and there are many—does exactly what it does. The magazine's central mission rests on two tent poles.
The first is that it produces deep, meaningful journalism about real life here, and it does so in a broad way—daring, inventive writing; stunning photography; a beneath-the-surface approach to storytelling where it doesn't so much tell you the what of the news but the why. Your daily newspaper can tell you something happened. The Quarterly will dedicate the space and the resources to explaining it.
Second, the Quarterly takes seriously its place in the arts and letters of the state. Every issue includes an author profile and a short story. Some include poems. Artists well-known and obscure are profiled. Every serious bookstore in the state sells the Quarterly, because the magazine means something vital to those stores' customers. And McMillion invests in the coming generation of writers through offering annual Big Snowy Prizes in nonfiction and fiction, work by young Montanans that gets the star treatment in the magazine every summer.
Here's a selection of page spreads from past issues of the magazine. Note how the presentation of the magazine is driven by the words and the images, as any well-designed publication should be. We endeavor for a clean, quiet look, one where there are no look-at-me design flourishes, because they're not necessary. The work of Montana's finest writers, photographers, and artists does all the talking.
Another reason for the success of the Quarterly, I think, is that McMillion is committed to continually putting out a superior product in print even as the world of daily journalism increasingly shifts to online. He has avoided the great conundrum of the daily newspaper, where most of the money is made in print (although less and less every quarter) while most of the readership gains are online. The Quarterly, not tethered to that daily reality, preserves itself as an experience best left to the tactile pleasures of reading on paper. And unlike the daily newspaper, which is fodder for recycling every 24 hours, research shows that the Quarterly's readers keep the issues long after they come out, returning again and again to the top-notch writing and the arresting photography. That's good news for us at the magazine, and good news for our advertisers, who can see the benefits of their ad buy paying off for months or years after the fact.
Working on the Quarterly—now 15 issues and counting for me—has been a singular joy in my professional career. It brings together a place I love and work I'm passionate about doing, all under the auspices of a magazine that I believe in. Every quarter, as I hunker down on another issue, I think I must be the luckiest guy around, getting to work with the best writers, thinkers, and artists my state has to offer.
You know what? I'm right.
Got a favorite magazine? Tell us all about it in the comments section.
Are you a Montanan, or a Montanan at heart? Consider subscribing to Montana Quarterly. You'll love it.
Welcome to the first in an occasional series of posts where we'll look at the elements of effective print design. Our first guinea pig, conveniently, is the next book we'll be releasing through our Missouri Breaks Press imprint: Julep Street, Craig's seventh novel. So, without further ado, here it is:
Julep Street will be released on May 9. And while there are certain creative advantages to an author doing his own design work, settling on a presentation for this book did not come without challenges. For one thing, it's an intensely interior work of fiction; most of the struggles of the protagonist, laid-off newspaper editor Carson McCullough, are against his own sense of regret, loss, and mortality. While there's no shortage of action, most of the physicality is born of Carson's interior degradation. And that can be a difficult theme to capture in any sort of overt way.
When we found this luminous photo of a bridge by Greg Kushmerek, we knew we had a winner. It's almost the perfect image for a book cover, with light and dark to provide contrast with the type. It's alluring (god, that lighting on the undercarriage of the bridge). Thematically, it's a strong fit, too. The bridge in the unnamed, fictitious Kentucky town where Carson lives has literal and metaphorical resonance in his life and in his story. It's the way out that he never took. It's also the vantage point for all the perspective he never appreciated.
For any book that's going to be sold in bookstores and online--and that's pretty much any book—cover creation comes with some built-in practical considerations. The design has to be eye-grabbing enough to demand attention at full size and color. And it has to communicate quickly in an online world where it appears at thumbnail size and often in black-and-white.
Let's see how the Julep Street cover stacks up in the latter environment:
OK, so in black-and-white, it's a dark cover (hard not to be when the image is a nighttime shot). But it's leavened considerably by the lighter movement of the bridge and by the white typography that still pops hard off the image. While nothing beats the gorgeous lighting and contrast of the full-color image, the black-and-white thumbnail version serves its main purpose: to stop a potential reader and say, "Hey, take a closer look at me."
Let's talk a bit about typography
In designing a book cover, the font the designer chooses, the size at which it's rendered, the color, the treatment (lowercase, small caps, all capital letters, whatever) all communicate something about what's on the pages inside.
For Julep Street, we wanted simplicity and elegance. It's a work of commercial fiction, but with a literary bent, so we chose a font (Bodoni Book, one of Craig's favorites) that is clean and well-weighted, that has an elegant italic option (see the lovely endorsement by Louise Beech), and doesn't lose its attractiveness at a larger size.
For a book with a different tone, a different font choice would have been in order. Consider how the combination of typography and imagery helps sell these books, all from different genres and all by authors we greatly admire:
Notice how everything works together to convey a strong sense of what's inside, whether it's romance, adventure, danger, the seamy underbelly of the city, or the poetry of the physical world. The B.J. Daniels book, for instance, is upfront in its intention to court readers of romance: Here's a strapping young cowboy who'd be fun in the sack (hey, why be coy?). Contrast that with the cover for Allen Morris Jones's A Bloom of Bones, a literary novel of quiet lyricism. All five of these covers are effective ambassadors for the work within.
We'd like to think we achieved the same objective with Julep Street: that if you pick up this book, you're going to bear witness to a work that is, in the words of Louise Beech, "full of gorgeous shade and light."
What's your favorite book cover, and why did it resonate with you? Tell us about it in the comments.
Do you have a design project that needs to communicate clearly with its audience? Contact us today. We'd love to work with you.
It’s been said that everyone has a personal story to tell, but what makes a memoir truly memorable? In this four-week course, Elisa Lorello, author of the memoir Friends of Mine: Thirty Years in the Life of a Duran Duran Fan, will teach you how to bridge the past with the present to get to the heart of your memoir, as well as how to bring your story to life with sensory details, dialogue, voice, and more. Weekly activities and discussions will put you on the path to writing a meaningful memoir that will connect with readers.
Date: Tuesdays, May 9 – May 30
Time: 5:30-7:00 p.m.
Place: This House of Books, 224 N. Broadway
Cost: $149.99 (you save $50.00!) – pay upon arrival (check, cash, or card accepted)
You can sign up at This House of Books or contact Elisa.
Here’s the deal: we love stories.
Between the two of us, we’ve been full-time storytellers for most of our lives, albeit in different capacities. Craig’s job was to tell a news story. Elisa’s job was to help students tell their own stories, be it in the form of a case study, a research proposal, or a personal essay. Then, around the same time, we both became full-time novelists.
As authors, we write novels with dynamic characters, dialogue you can eavesdrop on, and places you can reach out and touch. As readers, we feel most at home in bookstores and libraries, houses with a bookcase in every room and a book on every table. As humans, we dig movies and television shows and documentaries and plays and live music concerts, each one a story in one medium or another.
We are a storytelling couple. But we are also part of a storytelling culture.
Here’s the other deal: being an author, like so many other artistic endeavors, is a feast-or-famine business. The markets and trends change. If you’re lucky enough to make it to the top, it’s often difficult to stay there.
We wanted something to tide us over in anticipation of the lean times. But it couldn’t just be, you know, a job. The kind that keeps 9-to-5 hours and has bosses and two weeks’ vacation and requires a parking pass. (Cue Jerry Seinfeld: “Not that there’s anything wrong with that…”) When you’ve been out of that bubble for a long time, it’s hard to get back in. More important, we both feel strongly that work isn’t just something we do. It has to speak to a central part of who we are.
So we took inventory and assessed what we do well:
We’re good writers.
We’re good editors.
He’s a good designer.
She's a good teacher.
We’re good collaborators.
Our skills complemented each other. Moreover, what we do best are also the things we enjoy the most.
And we’re good at being together.
And so we realized that we wanted to help others tell their stories. Together.
Whether you are an author who needs help making your story—and your book—the best it can be, own a business that wants to better connect with its customers, or work for an organization that wants its members to better connect with each other, we can serve you.
We're in the business of telling stories, across a wide range of media. Here's how we do what we do.