Busting a Brandon Sanderson Myth

There is a teaching video by Brandon Sanderson which has shaped a popular myth for writers, based on this video:

The whole video is great, but see 7:55-8:45 for this post’s feature:

There was a time when I took this advice to heart. I loved Brandon’s example of the pianist who has worked hard for 20 years at the piano. It gave me hope that, if I’m a bad writer, I just need practice and I’ll get better.

In 2020, I decided to take up the piano again after being away several years. I applied Brandon’s philosophy, convinced that I would get better with lots of practice. After over 2 years of practice, built on 11 years of study when I was younger, I thought I must sound good.

All this hope was shot down when I played for a seasoned musician who said I was dreadful and there is no hope. He suggested I make the piano a hobby.

This was, in piano terms, my equivalent of what happens when a writer works years on a book, or several books, convinced of the “grind hard” myth, only to get cold rejection from an editor.

Here’s where I want to bust Brandon’s myth entirely.

He uses the example of an amateur practicing for 1 year, compared to a seasoned concert pianist who’s been practicing 20 years.

But in actual fact, someone with exceptional talent can, in 1 year, sound better than someone with reasonable talent who’s been practicing for 20 years. This is true of musicians, and it’s true of writers as well: you have it, or you don’t.

Put differently, if you work very hard at something you’re very bad it, then you’re going to make something very bad that you worked very hard at.

Now, this post isn’t meant to be defeatist at all, as you’ll see shortly.

Instead of giving up on the piano after that harsh American-Idol-crushed-dreams experience, instead I accepted the reality that I had to shift my perspective on what I can hope to accomplish at the piano. To this day, I still practice daily, sometimes for 2-3 hours, and the piano sings and my soul sings and I am in utter joy.

When I do this, I don’t care about what I sound like. Sometimes I might sound good. Sometimes I might sound really bad to someone listening. But to me, as I’m at the piano, that’s the moment my soul grows larger, and it carries through to my creative life.

I started to think differently about where I might go with the piano. Maybe I’ll teach intermediate students some day. I should continue lessons. Instead of trying to be a “pianist” why not just “piano student” and take the pressure off? I’ve gotten into composing, which I’ve found I enjoy a lot because it draws on my writing skills. That’s a new door that opened last fall and I still don’t know where it will lead, but the point is:

Cold rejection of hard work does not need to mean, “Quit, it’s over.”

Instead, it means, redirect, assess, replan, find your home base and plant your seeds where they grow best.

I had a similar experience with writing. I published my debut novel, an epic fantasy called A Thousand Roads. I have never worked so hard on anything. I expect it was about 800 or so hours of work all in all, over 8 revisions, taking over 5 years. I went through every editing round, left no sentence unripe; really, I worked my ass off.

In hindsight, the book has been such a failure to me I sometimes want to unpublish it. However, every time I feel this toxic attack of self-doubt, I remind myself that no, I want to keep that book available because to me, it’s a reminder of how hard I worked, and it truly showcases a lot of skill — not just my own, but that of my editing team. It showed me, at the time, I can take on a very big project and see it to the end.

Even if I’m very bad at it.

Similar to with the piano, I didn’t quit writing when I realized I’d failed with A Thousand Roads. Instead, the process of publishing got me thinking about what else I can publish, and where I’m better. It’s led me now to writing non-fiction educational material on Highbrow, which I’ve posted about. Though I’d never dreamed I’d be anything other than an epic fantasy writer, here I’ve discovered I am much more suited to writing about the real world and explaining how it works for those who want to take some time each day to learn a little something new.

As with composing at the piano, this nonfiction realization might lead to many things I can only guess at now. But what’s important is, as with putting away the label “pianist”, likewise I’ve put away the label “epic fantasy writer” and I feel a whole lot less stress.

And sometimes you have to let go of something that eclipses your foreground to see the things hiding in front of your nose. I discovered, when I let go of the stressful “epic fantasy writer” label that I also love editing. I’m the senior editor of an editing company, and over the last two years, I’ve taken on more private clients, and I’ve found so much reward in converting my own passion for writing my own stories to instead bringing all that writing skill to other writers and working alongside them. It brings out a collaborative energy, closer to a co-authorship, except in this case, all stress of having to decide on the right story choices are removed from me. I can just focus on the co-piloting the writing from the comfort of the editing cockpit.

So, back to Brandon’s myth.

Brandon isn’t wrong in his point: editors can tell the difference between “concert pianist” and “amateur”. But, as goes with musicians, and writers as well, working harder, for longer, won’t help you, if you’re working on the wrong thing.

Use that rejection as a prompt to head in another direction. Or, if you choose to self-publish, don’t obsess over why your book isn’t selling. Instead, do your diligence, and keep trying to figure out where your true skills lie.

Maybe they lie in writing and it’s just a matter of figuring out what else you’re good at writing. Maybe they lie elsewhere and this “aha” moment will lead you to realize writing is complementary to that. Though I’ve not given up hope that I might do something economical with the piano, taking off that “pianist” label helped me to see that in actual fact, I do better creative work with less time available (2-3 hours of practice could be spent grinding hard on writing projects, burning out, and stagnating), and in fact, working on a book (or editing project) happens in many forms away from the keyboard. There is a synergy to it, and if you’re a creative person, creativity has many facets, and being great at one of them can be enriched if you nourish all of them.

Much like a happy garden.

As my piano teacher remind me many times: “Don’t work harder. Work smarter.”

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Mastering Your Conversations: My Newest Course

When I started out 7 years ago as an editor, I had hoped that at some point I would realize my dream to be an author.

Fast-forward 7 years and the picture looks quite different than what I expected. While I tried my hand at being an author, that didn’t quite work out. However, because my freelance editing gig evolved quickly into a business and my role evolved as I went from editor to senior editor, I was able to creatively define just what it means to do this job.

While it’s true that there is always something editing-related on my plate (though mostly it’s editorial direction and decision-making for our publishing imprints), what’s also true is there is always something writing-related on my plate.

This is my roundabout way of announcing I’ve released my latest Highbrow courses! It is called Mastering Your Conversations, and if you want to sign up for it, you can do so here:

This course was not my idea. I was asked to write this course by the Highbrow team, as a dream course they wanted to see on their platform. The opportunity arose because, I followed a rabbit-hole forward — from the first 2 courses I wrote on self-publishing and author promotion, purely to promote our editing company, to the follow-up requests which led me to write 16 more courses. I’ve quickly earned a reputation as someone who is great at taking a new topic and, like a journalist, doing my research then making it informative and engaging.

All that said, to this day, though I now have 19 courses on Highbrow (including the audio versions for 14 of them on Listenable — click here to get that), I still consider this part of my “senior editor duties” as the “write content for company revenue” part of my job description.

And I have no plan to stop with Highbrow, though it’s worth saying that I plan to shift gears and take on something radically new:

I will be writing longer courses now that focus on notably dynasties — one 900 word lesson for each person, following a bit of a Game of Thrones format where each day we will see who will hold the throne next. I am starting with the British monarchy, and, provided there is interest, will tackle other of my favorite dynasties, like the French, the Popes, the US Presidents, the Roman Emperors, and so on. If you are familiar with podcasts like Rex Factor, Totalus Rankium, and Pontifacts, the concept is similar, except, because my goal is to deliver a lesson in a 10-minute daily reading (or listening) session, I will be briefer and it means you can get through an entire monarchy, from start to finish, in a matter of weeks, rather than a few years.

I have blogged before about my love for reading in this fashion, where I will work my way through a line of succession from start to finish, so it is exciting to finally have a place to put all my notes into action.

And of course, I have no intention to quit my job as an editor. Every year I work on a few meaningful books and find I enjoy how the editing process is two-way — I often learn as much from working with an author on a book as that author might learn from me.

I also believe that some of the best editors are also skilled writers. Some of the best writing feedback a writer can receive from an editor is the kind that is very tangible and easy to follow as a working example. Whereas, when an editor waves their hands and gives very general comments which makes you think they sped-read your book (an approach I am pretty harsh in calling “phoning it in” since I sadly see this a lot from other experiences shared with me by other authors), this is unhelpful because a writer is left staring at a wall of criticism without much sense of a path forward.

In order to understand what you are asking a writer to do when you give them an edit, it’s critical that you understand what you are actually asking them to do, not just conceptually, but from experience. It’s true that some editors have read thousands of books, and from this have a wealth of snippets sewn together in their mind, like a complex tapestry of the literary landscape, and can lay down a particular square inch of that cloth for a writer to consult. Even that can still leave a writer having to guess, or worse, imitate unintentionally.

I still prefer a hand-on style, which means if you’re going to dole out medicine, you ought to have taken it yourself. This means writing a lot, so that when I’m working with words that aren’t my own, I still have an understanding how to work with words that are missing something, and figuring out what that is by way of in-line examples, lots of comments (anyone who has worked with me will be familiar with how, on most pages, my explanatory/instructional comment bubbles are so dense they sometimes have more text than the page itself), and most importantly, a solid work ethic of knowing in order to understand what it means to tell this writer what they have to do, I have to walk in their shoes with their story, really know on a deep level what it is I’m suggesting to them.

In fact, it’s this very thing that makes me love editing and has given me consolation in choosing this career over my naïve first hope of being an author instead. Working on someone else’s story, where I get to think like a revising writer, with an editor’s toolkit, is often more rewarding than working on my prose — particularly because I don’t have to sweat over coming up with the story, characters, and plot. The writer has rescued me from all my weak spots where usually I falter on my own in my attempts as an author. Instead, I can come in with my strongest skill: my work with words.

In the same way, writing educational non-fiction is a perfect marriage for my tendency to get labyrinthine and ludicrous with plot and character when I attempt fiction. There’s always a solid form and, like a skilled author who has delivered through their story genius, that form also gives me something to work with where I can do my part and focus on how to use words effectively.

Back into the forge I go. It won’t be long before I emerge with my first dynasty course, which I’m already excited about, even though I haven’t formally started writing it yet!

Please, if you have any requests for dynasties, let me know in the comments. Meanwhile, enjoy the latest Mastering Your Conversations course, or any of my other courses. There are enough of them that, if you took them all, your inbox would be full for half a year!

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Secrets to a long life: a study of the world’s oldest people

In 2020, I wrote 4 Highbrow courses, and finished the year with my latest, a study on longevity. To kick off 2021, I’ve decided each time I have a publication, I’ll share a bit with you on what I’ve been up to.

To start, a bit on Highbrow:

For those not familiar with it, Highbrow is an email-based learning platform. There are over 300 courses, from 100+ experts. More than 500,000 people subscribe to this platform, where they can sign up for a course anytime. It’s a great way to learn. I myself have taken over 100 of their courses, over the last 4 years, and to this day, I continue to keep my inbox full of knowledge.

These courses aren’t hard to learn. You receive an email each day that can be read in about 5 minutes. Everything you need for your lesson is there in that email. No need to set time aside to watch video lectures. That is the brilliance of Highbrow. You can learn in bite-size chunks, a little each day. Instructors work hard to hone their topics down so it can be delivered in this form. With 18 courses now under my belt, I can tell you, it sure is hard achieving this.

Highbrow also has a separate audio platform, with a different selection of courses, called Listenable. I have adapted most of my courses for this platform. If you prefer receiving lessons in audio form, as part of your daily listening feed, it’s a great alternative to reading lessons in your inbox.

Here’s a link to my latest course on Listenable:

Secrets to Long Life: A Study of the World’s Oldest People

Lessons about writing, from the garden:

If you’ve followed this blog for a while, then you’ll be familiar with my fantasy epic. Indeed, a blog called “Epic Fantasy Writer” is one where you’d expect to find stuff relating to fantasy writing.

Over 2020, if I had one writing lesson I would say stands out over the others, it’s this question of what it means to figure out your gig when it’s not quite what you set out with at the beginning, but what you see coming together is far more interesting.

We all struggle with this at some point as writers. It’s a dream like winning the lottery to imagine writing your one book you’re passionate about, then having that launch your career, then writing sequels, and nothing else. From vision to success, the path is laid by hard work.

I’m sure that happens to some. In fact, I’d say it happens for many. I, however, am not one of those people.

I began with a fantasy book. I’m still, somewhere deep inside, a fantasy writer. But in the process of maturing these richer, longer-term works, I’ve come to see there are rich byproducts, and in fact, I have discovered there is a short non-fiction writer in me.

One hobby that has helped me realize this is gardening. In particular, the art of creating rich soil.

Each year, I grow several things in my yard. I have my potatoes, squash, beets, onions, spinach, kale, corn, and a few other things that I can fit in the 200 or so square feet of yard available to me. The harvest is in the hundreds. Last year, I had over 120 potatoes, and, with winter nearly done, am still halfway through eating the stockpile.

Half the success of this is down to something else I started doing a few years ago. I began composting. I have a recipe I follow which lets me turn food into dirt in a few weeks (provided temperatures are warm). As a result, I now have 5 different households giving me their organic waste, and in the spring I’ll have 3 compost bins to start cooking down everything from the winter.

Composting builds up layers of nutrient-rich soil over several years. It is, in a sense, like the annular rings of trees that thicken and harden every year. Every year a gardener invests in the garden, keeping on top of this vital flow of waste into the soup that makes new life, and in turn is later the food you eat, discard, and break down in future years of compost — this adds up to a garden that is happy, rich, and vibrant.

And so I have learned my fantasy epic continues to thrive and evolve each year, at its slower pace, while the more relevant harvests are the Highbrow courses, my short non-fiction works, which themselves are byproducts of the reading and research I do to try and write better fantasy, and all around, to just bringing better thinking and feeling to the page in all I do.

Whatever it is your writing career evolves into, I think the main lesson is, keep showing up. In my garden, I laid down a simple rule: I show up every day, no matter what. Quickly, from doing this, the yard revealed little hints to me — weeds that could be pulled, soil that could be turned, a patch by the fence with good shade where grass could be torn out and beets might grow happily alongside the walkway. Adventures, waiting to be discovered, but only to the one who is willing to come there and discover them.

I can’t say what I’ll be writing by the end of 2022, or beyond that, but I can say, as now, I will still be showing up every day, eager for a new spring, and as in my garden, will be ever looking forward to the surprises that await, and the results that accumulate over year of commitment.

What is it that keeps you coming back to the keyboard every day? I’d love to know!

Be sure to check out my latest course, Secrets to a long life: A study of the world’s oldest people | Highbrow (gohighbrow.com), and begin your Highbrow learning adventure today. Or check it out on Listenable if you prefer audio.

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Reading our way out of prison

I came across a great quote on the importance of reading, through James Clear’s weekly newsletter.

It is from inventor and writer Lin Yutang:

“Compare the difference between the life of a man who does no reading and that of a man who does. The man who has not the habit of reading is imprisoned in his immediate world, in respect to time and space. His life falls into a set routine; he is limited to contact and conversation with a few friends and acquaintances, and he sees only what happens in his immediate neighborhood. From this prison there is no escape. 

But the moment he takes up a book, he immediately enters a different world, and if it is a good book, he is immediately put in touch with one of the best talkers of the world. This talker leads him on and carries him into a different country or a different age, or unburdens to him some of his personal regrets, or discusses with him some special line or aspect of life that the reader knows nothing about. An ancient author puts him in communion with a dead spirit of long ago, and as he reads along, he begins to imagine what that ancient author looked like and what type of person he was… 

Now to be able to live two hours out of twelve in a different world and take one’s thoughts off the claims of the immediate present is, of course, a privilege to be envied by people shut up in their bodily prison.”

I certain can relate to this! It’s seemed counterintuitive, spending about 1-2 hours every day on reading, and in fact, putting it on a priority higher than daily writing. I schedule reading time for immediately. It is my “first done” activity, and I do absolutely nothing else in a day until reading time is done.

At first it was an experiment. But as I’ve invested in this daily, now for about a year and a half, I only grow more and more convinced it’s the bread and butter of what gives me the strength and spontaneity I need at the keyboard later on in the day.

I especially relate to this quote because it emphasizes the importance of reading in how it breaks us out of a prison of ignorance. I’ve found that reading is not about quantity. For example, one National Geographic History article forever changed my world and forced me to confront ignorance I’d held onto since childhood and never had a medium with which to confront it and know it was wrong. I find, again and again, every time I read, I am casting off these prison bars and becoming aware of how much I know nothing, and because of this, becoming more curious, humbler, and then, realizing the extent of ignorance, I get excited because I realize just how much there is to learn, and I have a lifetime of that ahead. One day at a time.

What are you thoughts on this? Have you found if you don’t read, your writing suffers? What is your strategy to keep up on reading?

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My review for Zen In the Art of Writing, by Ray Bradbury


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My new piano adventure!

*This post is based on the newsletter I sent out today, so apologies to those subscribers who also follow this blog.

I’m excited to share something new!

While I have continued to work on Blood Dawn every weekend now since March, I have also discovered a new part of my gig that I’m having so much fun with, I want to make it a part of what I do.

Here’s a link to a piece I have been practicing, that I finally felt was ready to share:

I began practicing this on the first week of the COVID-19 lockdown, in early March, and recorded that video on June 5th, some 16 weeks later, with lockdown still in effect.

It is from an anime series called Yuri On Ice, called the Free Skate Program. This piece had a lot of meaning for me as I thought about getting through to the other side where we will all be free to resume our lives again. For me personally, though, there was also something very freeing inside as I committed to the practice required to learn it.

I have been playing piano since I was 7. I started with Fur Elise, after copying one of the parents who would come early to daycare. My mom put me in lessons, but I didn’t like them, until when I was 9, a new teacher decided to break the rules and let me learn the Moonlight Sonata on the side. That was when my interest in piano took off. When I was 13, I got into piano quite seriously and took all the grades in our local conservatory, up to the final level. I played my way through all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. I practiced Chopin’s etudes often, as well as most of his other works. I tried Rachmaninov, and though I struggled with his maniacal patterns, one dream in my heart was to someday play his 3rd piano concerto.

Then, when I was 20, when told I wouldn’t be able to make much of a living on piano, I gave it all up to chase academic dreams that left no room for piano lessons.

In the last few years as I went full in on writing, I’ve often wanted to incorporate piano practice. Over the last 17 years since quitting lessons, I’ve tinkered with the piano on and off, but never committed to learning anything for performance.

Free Skate Program from Yuri On Ice was my first official commitment to turn that all around.

At first an experiment, where I tried practicing this piece only for 1 hour a day Monday to Friday, I soon couldn’t get enough of that, so I went up to 1.25 hours. I went up to 1.5 hours a few weeks ago and already want to go up to 2 hours. When I sit at the piano, focused on one piece and the creative problem solving required to perfect it, I feel liberated inside, tapping into something I never knew I loved so much, and I can only get excited about what lies ahead.

I was worried this side quest would mean my writing suffers, but in fact, I’ve found that something about the magic that goes on in my brain when I’m immersed in piano notes transfers to my daily writing sessions. I’ll never be able to measure directly if and how it improves my writing, but I can certainly say I’m sharper than I’ve ever been, and every week am doing the best writing I’ve ever done.

The good thing about piano too is, it’s active. Most of my work involves sitting at a desk reading articles, or sitting in a chair reading a book, or sitting at a desk typing on a computer. Sitting, sitting, sitting.

On piano, I’m sitting on a bench, but I’m moving the whole time. It’s a full-on arm and finger workout (and, perhaps, improves typing skills).

Right now I am learning Chopin’s Etude #23, “Winter Wind”, which is so difficult it might be windy winter by the time I can perform it. But I will learn it, and share when it’s done. I also will do a 2nd recording (without cat toys in the background) of the Free Skate Program, once social distancing is lifted and I can get my piano tuner in.

If you want to follow my piano recording progress, go and subscribe on my YouTube channel after you listen to the video. And please click “like” if you enjoy it:

And share too — the more mileage I see this video get, the better. It will encourage me to practice more so I can make more videos.

I have no idea where this piano side quest will go, or if it will at some point take over my life, though as it has forced me to give up a lot of extraneous work, it’s helped me understand how deeply I want to do what remains: like write Blood Dawn, and Highbrow courses, and the reading and research I spend hours a day on.

If you have requests or comment, you can leave them in the comments here!

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A Covid-19 Writer’s Routine

I’ve always thought my writing routine boring to most people, so I just don’t talk about it. But as social distancing now nears the end of its 2nd week, with perhaps many more weeks to come, I see many people sharing how they are spending their time to stay sane. Among these especially: writers. So, it’s my turn.

Back at the start of 2017, someone gave me some good advice:

“Don’t wait to be a full-time writer. Be that now. Make it real, and let the reality catch up.”

I thought he was nuts, but I understood where he was coming from. The context of this advice: at the time, I was snowed in with editing jobs. There was no time to write. No time to do the reading I know a writer should be doing to improve.

What he was saying to me was that I had to cement the times to write. Pretend that money is no issue. Pretend I’m sitting on a 6-figure cheque. How exactly would I spend my time if writing were my job?

What he was leading me toward was a stark truth: just because you have all your time free to write doesn’t mean you’ll write. Instead, you’ll be stuck with Netflix and video games and social media chats and extra visits with friends and whatever the hell you want to do.

Becoming a full-time writer isn’t a financial thing. It’s a mentality, and the gateway to a discipline that becomes several habits.

The first thing I realized when the Covid-19 social distancing routine started was that my life for the last 2 years, since taking my friend’s advice, has been identical to social distancing, with one main exception:

I can’t go out to coffee shops where I like to work.

In a typical weekday, I’m get in about 5-7 hours of productive work. About 4-5 of that is specific to the full-time writing routine I keep up. On Saturday and Sunday I’m only productive about 3-5 hours and most of that is reading and writing.

I don’t do this all at once. I like to break it into about 3-4 chunks of 1-2 hours, and usually I change location between each. Hence the coffee shops.

One thing I learned right away during Covid-19 social distancing is that “change location” doesn’t have to involve much. Here are some examples of how I “changed location” without leaving my house:

On Saturday and Sunday, I go to a coffee shop first thing to put in 2 hours of reading on the local paper. This is a great routine and I typically can read about 50-60 articles on relevant news each weekend. I like to read a physical paper because there are no distractions. My phone is out of reach. It’s just me and the words.

I really didn’t know how to do this at home. But, left with no choice, I assessed the house and realized the kitchen table, if cleared of junk, is perfect. I did it and made a French Press of coffee, and was pleasantly surprised how it felt just as engaging as my coffee shop setting.

This is all a psychology game. Sitting and putting in a solid 30-40 hours of a mix of reading and writing (for me, it’s about 70% reading), will drive most people nuts. The trick is convincing yourself that each chunk of 1-2 hours is special and unique, so you don’t feel you’re doing the same thing over and over and over again.

In the case of my kitchen table, I set up a bit of a ritual to play the psychology game well. I will only sit at it to read the paper for my 2 hours on Saturday and Sunday. Now that space and setup in my mind is “weekend coffee shop”.

As another example, I have two different couches and an office. I’ve also learned to turn my bed into a reading space by propping up pillows so I can sit against them like a chair. I do this for some of the article reading I do first thing each morning on weekdays. I deal with my 1 hour of business decisions and tasks in my office every weekday afternoon. I do my writing there as well, but usually after I’ve gone to the garage for my workout (I have a power rack and dumbbell equipment there and work out about 20-40 minutes every day), and played piano for about 30-60 minutes. I do some journaling and reflection as well in the middle of the day. So, though I’m back in the office chair to write for 1-2 hours again, I’ve been doing other things and my brain is refreshed for 100% focus on the words and only the words.

Having these spots around the house to put in different types of work helps me prime myself to feel like I’m at a special place to do that certain work that “belongs” there. I knew this before, but the Covid-19 outbreak has helped me appreciate deeper how one can achieve this in a small 600 square foot house.

Going for a walk is quite important. We are not in extreme quarantine yet, so taking a walk around a few blocks, being sure you keep well away from anyone you cross paths with, and touching nothing on the walk, ensures you get your exercise and fresh air, without compounding the issue of this spreading virus. Going for a walk has simulated for me the same psychology as getting in the car and driving to a coffee shop. Usually, that’s a mental way of switching gears from one chunk of work to the next. But walking is also great because it engages every muscle in your body in light exertion, while you’re getting sunlight and breathing fresh air. It awakens your mind in ways that don’t happen otherwise.

Even if I could only walk around my yard in circles, I’d get out for that movement/air/sunlight dose.

I definitely miss coffee shops though. While I’ve found I get an extra 1-2 hours / day of productivity because of not having to drive anywhere, I do like the outing. But that said, I think after Covid-19 is past and life slowly shifts back to “post-Covid” and whatever that means, I will be staying home more than before. Spring is on its way, and that means the 2020 garden and what adventures it will bring for me this year. And if gardening has taught me anything, it’s that you don’t need to go far to feel like you’re immersed in a world of possibilities.

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How to copyedit a book: a checklist for a copyeditor

I know I promised no more “how to write” stuff. Well, I promised no more rules about what I write about, so that means there’s no rule saying I can’t write about writing when that’s what I want to write about.

This thing is, I believe many best decisions are made when you’re simply trying to solve a problem by doing them. And here’s my problem: I’m training a brilliant new copyeditor on my team of editors, and I want to do better than just write up a checklist. Why not make this easy to access, because you never know who else out there might be wanting to work on their copyediting chops.

I’ve resisted this post before. The problem with writing about how to edit is: training an editor is unique to each editor. Every editor has a unique style. Every writer, and even more specifically, every writing project, has nuances. This means there is no textbook that I can give to an editor that tells them how to do the job right. Most of what I’ve written on how to copyedit has come in personal emails, messages (gotta love the Slack app), and my own layer of comments in the manuscript. It doesn’t matter how many books on how to edit you read: until you cut your teeth on a job and get right in the trenches, and do the work, pick and shovel, well, it’s all might-be academics.

Consider this a caveat before I dive in. This post is, to whoever is reading this, just more academics, more textbooks, more how-to how-to stuff. If you want to learn how to do it, the best way to learn is to apprentice under an experienced editor who can teach you, who can build a learning program customized to you, based around studying how you work, your quirks, your strengths, your weaknesses.

To my copyeditor reading this post, no need for this caveat, because our email training talks will continue. So, let’s dive in.

A copyeditor’s checklist

How do you copyedit a book?

The simple explanation: read it like a book, in Word (or Google Docs), with the track changes feature on. Apply corrections and query as needed, according to your copyeditor instincts.

The hard version is based entirely on that part “according to your copyeditor instincts.”

On the surface, this will boil down to a checklist. Though not exhaustive, the checklist consists of:

  • Grammar
  • Punctuation
  • Clarity
  • Word choice
  • Continuity
  • Fact checking
  • Formatting
  • Logic

I could write a post on each of those, but won’t bombard you with that here. The main take away from that list is:

You don’t dive into storytelling, and you don’t fuss too much with typos and last minute errors.

To appreciate what a copyeditor does, imagine a relay team. The editing cycle involved in publishing a book is like a relay race. The first runner is the developmental editor. They work with the writer on revision at the broadest level, ie the storytelling itself. The second runner is the copyeditor. They come in after the storytelling is solid and get down to the nitty-gritty line-by-line. The final baton is passed to the proofreader. They come in after the chopping and hacking that is common during copyedits (more on that below), to fix typos and oopsies that are hard to spot when you’re trying to get a confusing sentence right.

The copyeditor is the one in the middle. That perspective is important when you’re a copyeditor. And this is the hardest part about copyediting:

You have to anaesthetize two parts of your brain — the one that says to catch every typo and get it all perfect right now, and the one that tells you to “correct” sentences and push to story-level rewrites. As much as you might want, if you are copyediting and you send a writer back to the drawing board, you’re sending them in circles. If the manuscript is so bad that you have to “fix” it, that means the developmental editor before them didn’t do their job right. Usually, that means send it back to the first editor, let them dig in deeper, then when that is done, then and only then are you ready to take your anaesthetic. (This has happened before, and usually this is the result not of negligence, but simply of the first edits requiring so many rewrites that the developmental editor got what I call “perspective fatigue”, ie, being so focused on the given rewrites that the other plot hole vanished on the battlefield; this is where a copyeditor’s fresh eyes can actually help the first editor rise to the helm for the final melee.)

When you copyedit, as you keep your checklist in mind, there are two ways you can do edits:

  • Directly in line
  • By way of comment bubbles

Most of your edits will be in-line changes. A grammar issue like wrong verb tense is best fixed directly.

Sometimes, though, your edit isn’t as objective. This is especially true of matters relating to logic, clarity, word choice, fact checking, and continuity. If someone’s hair was blue on page 54 and it’s suddenly green on page 57, you don’t know which colour is correct, so that’s best left for a comment.

It’s helpful when commenting to categorize the type of edit. For example, put the word “continuity” at the start of a comment, then make your argument. This helps the writer see what kind of copyediting issue you’re addressing. It also helps you though, since it’s tempting to use the comments to “chat” and share more subjective ideas, which becomes overwhelming to a writer who is already wading in heavy copyedits as it is.

As for what the rules of grammar, punctuation, and formatting are, this is where you can do your diligence. Read and reference style manuals. The Chicago Manual of Style is a good benchmark.

The biggest point though isn’t that you have to know your style manual rules inside and out. Do your best to learn as much as you can, but you can do even better:

Don’t ever let yourself “guess” unless an edit is a no-brainer. If you’re pinning down the use of a pain-in-the-ass verb like lie/lay/laid/lain, you don’t want to guess and guess wrong. You’re being paid to be the one who will look up what you need to, as you need to, so that the writer/publisher can trust their book is in good hands. Google is your friend, and lest I go on a rant to those who say that’s an unprofessional move for an editor, let me add: Google is your friend, because you’re smart enough to query like a detective and make sure you reference reliable sources. The internet’s full of gold, but it’s also full of junk, but again, there’s a reason you’re paid the big bucks, and it’s not because of the style manual you memorized.

And that’s as far as I can go for a copyediting 101 article. Good enough for a follow-up training email.

Lastly, it’s 1:00 in the fucking morning and I shouldn’t be writing this. This is the test embedded in the post. Copyeditor-in-training, please send me a list of typo corrections, so I can hit publish and get back to reading. I have a cat on my lap and my George Carlin book waiting for me, but, as George is teaching me in his Last Words, sometimes you got to just improvise, and get on stage when you’re needed.

Back to the cat!

Post note: this blog post has now been revised with my copyeditor’s copyedits. Passed with flying colors!

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Blogging out of the box

Thank you to all who have followed this blog. I started blogging in late 2014, unsure what I was doing with it. It’s been over 5 years, and I’m still as uncertain.

Thank you not just for following me, but for letting the email notifications for this blog fill your inbox. While I’ve been finding my voice in writing itself, finding my “blog voice” has been a secondary pursuit.

As 2020 commences, I’d like to think of what’s next for this blog. A good way to do that is to look backward first.

I’ve written about my writing habits. I’ve written more generally on writing craft. I ran a fun series called World Builders that had 3 incarnations and connected me to nearly 100 other writers. I even tried writing about anything but writing.

My most viewed posts are the ones on writing craft, so I’ve tried to write more of that.

But really…

…why do I blog?

After all, I have a newsletter. The newsletter for me has been a place to talk about progress mostly on my epic. Other relevant writing news is also fair game, such as my educational Highbrow courses.

Blogging is different. I want to create something a bit more public, and because of that, useful.

But I’m also a writer who focuses primarily on the writing that will be published and read, and how to improve that. I don’t have time for side-ventures that take me off track.

For this reason, from time to time I’ve gone quiet on the blog. And that fact is the most important as I reflect on what comes next.

Going forward, I want to try using what I’ll call (since I’m a writer and get to invent names) the Twitter Metric:

If it starts as a tweet but is too long for a tweet, I’ll blog about it.

If it’s official news about my own writing, publishing and marketing, I’ll save that for the newsletter. If it’s something useful, I’ll make a course or a book — which means, like 95% of my writing ideas, it will sit on my project whiteboard and only get written if it stays circled and irks me enough to decide sometime this year or next, that project will work its way into my queue.

One such project: Self-Publishing With A $0 Budget.

As I’ve explored different blog posts on aspects of self-editing, one thing that’s occurred to me time and time again is that this is the shitty rough draft of a book, not a blog post. I’m too daunted to write a formal book on how to edit or self-edit for self-publishing, because I feel there are too many books already on the topic, by authorities more seasoned than me.

But I have a unique experience in my role as senior editor with my company, and I’ve overseen the editing process on over 200 publications. I personally have edited more than 40. So, while I don’t feel I have the authority of others who have written books on self-editing and how editing works, I do most definitely have experience to share, and with my love for educational writing, it would be a fun project.

So, it’s on my whiteboard. Some of you have written to me to give me suggestions for posts on how to edit, which I appreciate, and I encourage anyone else who wants to do so to reach out by email. I’d like to assemble a team of beta readers, particularly self-publishing writers wanting to learn how editing works, who will act like students in a classroom as I write this book, using the comments to “put their hand up” and interrupt my otherwise one-sided lecture. I’d like to explain editing inside and out, how I understand it, but also to receive live input so I have a useful feedback loop, and can use that as part of the drafting process.

At least, that’s the project on my whiteboard as I see it, if is it to become a reality. And, as I find with writing in general, if it’s meant to become a part of the lineup, it will present itself somewhere in the crazy improv act that is the writing life.

I won’t be blogging about this topic anymore then, for the same reason I don’t blog my drafts in progress. I will either refine this into a product worth publishing, or ignore it; but, as Einstein wisely advised, if it comes to anything, I will keep my mouth shut while I work work work.

By the logic of the Twitter Metric, this means you can expect future posts from me will be my occasional thoughts on books I enjoy, the reading process, aspects of writing lifestyle I’d like to share, etc.

The blog will be more about living the writing life, and my unique angle on it, to be appreciated by other writers in their unique journey wanting to draw on inspiration and ideas. In that spirit, there will be long pauses where you don’t hear anything from me, since that’s also part of the game; don’t peek at rice when it’s cooking.

I’m thinking not just about those of you reading this now, but future first time visitors who come to my website and click on the blog link, and what I’d want them to find. The blog is my place to share more personally, less author-business-focused, like a longer tweet that’s worth expanding upon. At least, that’s what it will be from this point onward (and, to those new visitors, this post would be the “sorry for fucking this up the last 5 years, but now I think I got it” post).

Twitter is my heartbeat. And, my tweets are embedded on the sidebar here, so new visitors will find the both of best worlds.

I don’t know what you can expect next from me, but I will endeavour to make it unpredictable enough to amuse you, but not so much that you wonder if I got hacked by a bot.

Here’s to 2020, and blogging outside of the box.

And now, back to Anne McCaffrey’s inspiring Dragonflight, and the cat that won’t leave my lap until I get at least another hour of reading in.

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How to do a developmental edit: understanding how it works before you hire an editor

You’ve likely heard the term “developmental editing” tossed around. The term will vary from editor to editor, much like how “hot yoga” can mean a lot, depending on which studio you go to.

This is because editing has become the Wild West of publishing. We can thank the rise of online publishing for this. Before the 1990s, editing services were mostly limited to the traditional publishing houses. Editors who freelanced on the side were mostly helping writers strengthen their books for submission.

There was no need to look past the “editor” hat and talk about developmental editing, substantive editing, or structural editing.

But that’s all changed with self-publishing. It is now the new frontier for authors who aren’t just strengthening manuscript for a publisher. Self-publishing authors have to emulate the steps involved in a publishing house, and in fact, they have the opportunity to do even better by hiring the right team and understanding the process well.

The most important first step is understand what a developmental edit is.

To put it in perspective, let’s talk about three kinds of editors you might encounter.

The cheerleader editor:

Many authors who pay for developmental editing end up disappointed because of what I like to call the cheerleader editor.

They might receive an abundance of comments like:

  • “Oooooh, I love the suspense here! Great plotting.”


  • “This scene is dragging, really need to rewrite.”

You might get some suggestions, but you’ll mostly find their edits consist of fixing typos, cutting repetitive words (i.e. overuse of “that”), tweaking commas, and occasionally reordering phrases.

But these are the kinds of edits you mom, spouse, or good friend could give you. They are what you might expect from a beta reader you’ve asked to read for input on your book. They aren’t worth $60/hour.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with an editor who adds compliments, or adds comments about pacing and assess reader engagement. I personally make sure I add these into every editing job I do. There’s nothing like an uplifting compliment when you are wading through hundreds of critical edits. It reminds you that, though your editor is doing their job well and thoroughly, they are still thinking about the value of your story and enjoying it.

Side note: an editor should always be honest, otherwise what are you paying them for? When I’ve encountered a story that’s falling flat and giving me nothing to cheer for, I stop while I’m ahead and prepare an editorial letter for the author suggesting revisions. The only thing worse than paying an editor $60/hour for a meticulous developmental edit is paying them $60/hour for a developmental edit on a book that you’ll later wish you’d put away for a while, or not published at all if you’d been better advised.

The show-off editor:

At the other extreme is the show-off editor. Their comments might look like this:

  • “The character arc here is failing to execute due to how the tension between plot and theme are intersecting. I recommend you consult Joyce and Wilde for structural comparisons, and draw from archetypes.”


  • “The symbolism in this scene is very powerful. Great choice of imagery to match the idea of an ascending spirit, as per the overarching theme of the book. Conjures images of Proust.”

These are the kinds of comments you’d expect from a pretentious book reviewer, or a literary critic, or someone making notes for their university literature class. These comments are absolutely useless to a writer who is trying to determine exactly what revisions they need to do in the limited time they have without pulling their hair out and throwing their computer out the window.

That said, there’s nothing wrong with an editor paying attention to symbolism or theme, or mood or style comparisons. Just like adding compliments, it shows additional perspective if an editor can, when relevant, point out how your novel is fulfilling its genre expectations, or how well your writing executes the tension of a suspenseful scene.

Side note: in a developmental edit, an editor will summarize global comments in categories, such as genrecharacters, plot, scene execution, and craft. You can expect to see some analysis and comparisons to other existing books, consideration of genre expectations, analysis of plot holes, and discussion on your craft habits and craft conventions. There might be some notes in the manuscript accompanying the edits themselves, but these should feel secondary. You will have a sense of the edits that are local, i.e. assessed for each specific line given the context of that line, vs edits that are global, i.e. broader perspective notes tacked in a given place, but which apply to a larger arc.

For example, sometimes when I have an overarching remark on a plot issue that’s developed across a sequence of chapters, I will put a comment right on the header of the first chapter and say in the note something to the effect, “This comment applies to the chapter 12-16 arc. I will label comments related to this in bold font with the label ’12-16 note’.” What this allows me to do is communicate clearly with the author how that exact comment fits, in a global sense, with other specific comments unified under one specific editing issue.

The Goldilocks editor:

Somewhere “just right” in the middle between the two extremes is the Goldilocks editor. You’ll find these sorts of edits:

  • “I rearranged these two sentences because we want to ensure cause before effect.”
  • “I’ve rephrased this to avoid the passive construction, and disembodied description (see editorial letter on disembodied description habits).”
  • “You can cut this sentence. The thought is already implied by what she says in the previous sentence, and reader will infer via subtext. Especially here, you want to avoid over-narrating because it slows the pace of the dialogue.”

You’ll notice that one thing all these edits have in common: they refer to specific in-line changes and suggestions. They augment real edits you can work with. Your editor isn’t just phoning it in and telling you, with a hand-waving ease, “You need to rewrite this, it’s boring.” Your editor is giving you a prescription.

That’s a good word because of the analogy. If you went to a doctor with a health concern and the doctor just told you, “It sounds like you might be having warning signs of a stroke,” then sent you home, that would be useless. You aren’t going to the doctor just to be told you have a serious medical condition. You’re going to the doctor, and paying lots of money, so that you can find out what’s wrong and how to fix it.

$60/hour is not a small sum of money. It’s on the cheap end for editing, as some editors with big house experience charge up to $200/hour or more. Whether $60/hour of $200/hour, you aren’t paying just for a diagnosis. You want an expert editor with expert skill who will sweat and toil expertly over every single sentence of your story, think of every paragraph and sequence of paragraphs, of every scene and chapter, of all the plots, character arcs, reader promises, of the line-by-line tension and narrative drive that must persist every single line from line 1 to the final line when the reader closes the book and thinks, “Damnit! When is the next book coming out?”

Caveat: the difference between voice rape and editing:

Rape is a strong word and I will apologize if this word offends you. But it is the correct type of word to describe the crime of an “editor” violating an author’s voice and vision with their own.

Developmental editors will cut. They will rearrange. They will rework phrasing. They will fill in “example” prose to highlight a certain type of phrasing they want the author to provide (a principle called a “minimum viable edit”, which means, if you like what they did, you could hit “approve” and you’re ready to go).

A good analogy is how the editors work on a movie.

In film, the director will create a wealth of shots during filming. It’s a jumble and there’s no way those shots are anywhere near the final movie. When the editors take over, their job is to refine the excess of shots and piece them together into the movie that is going to keep the audience on the edge of their seats minute after minute.

For the most part, the editors are cutting, splicing, and organizing. The whole time, they are doing so critically and carefully. Sometimes, they will realize something is missing. That means the crew and director might be going back for some last-minute shots. The editors push for whatever it takes to get that final movie working.

Never once, though, do the editors make new shots themselves. They don’t deviate from the direction of the film. They are using their expert skill to work with the mastery of the directors, producers, actors, sound and special effects crews, and everyone involved.

Your developmental editor likewise will get in there with a strong hand and in some places, if needed, hack relentlessly. They will not change words and phrases just because they think “this one is better,” but they will provide a suggested change if certain words or phrases you used were confusing or break the narrative drive. Each and every time, and every single edit, you should be able to see their justification, and, most importantly, that the edits are suggestions — minimum viable edits which act like doctor prescriptions you can follow, yet which you can modify if you feel they don’t quite work.

At the end of the day, when I’m doing a developmental edit for an author, I am thinking purely about the author on the receiving end of my edits and the experience they are going to have. That means I’m thinking about efficiency on their end. I want them to have a sense of what they have to do, and if ever they disagree (and everyone is going to disagree, since I’m not telepathic), they know what I’m thinking and can provide alternatives that gel with their vision.

Putting it all together:

Contrary to what many people think when they think about developmental edits, a developmental editor isn’t just following a check-list. There is no hard line between when a specific edit is best made as a comment with examples and suggestions, or when it’s best shown through a cut or rearrangement with comment to justify. If there’s a typo that gets crushed in the process, you can’t blame your editor for loving the Law of Grammar, but of course, this should be the exception, as the copyeditor who will work on your book after the developmental edits are complete will be tasked specifically with sound grammar, punctuation, and clarity.

Think of your developmental editor as your first line of defense. All the heavy lifting happens here, and the biggest bogeymen are going to be chased out of the closet, all corners of consideration carefully dusted.

The goal of a developmental edit is to produce a manuscript that the copyeditor will delight to pick apart further as they focus less on story, and more on clarity and final form. And that in turn will produce a manuscript that’s almost print-ready, which your proofreader will go over with fresh eyes to make sure it’s bullet-proof. A developmental edit done will will mean the copyeditor can delight at what they do best, and not wonder, “Why wasn’t this edited?” and likewise, a proofreader will not wonder, “How did these issues slip through the previous two editors?”

There are so many nuances in how to do a developmental edit that the only way to keep learning them is to keep reading more articles on specifics. For my part, I will write more (please leave requests in the comments, or email me), but want to start with the basics in this article about what it is and how it works.

And, of course, I am but one editor coming up for air to share some tidbits, so enjoy these and add them to your growing collection of resources, as you become a smarter self-publishing writer in this Wild West of opportunity for authors looking ahead to the 2020s.

Posted in developmental editing, Writing Tips | Tagged , , | 9 Comments