Today, I will be interviewing Don McNair, the author of Editor-Proof Your Writing: 21 Steps to the Clear Prose Publishers and Agents Crave. (Linden Publishing, April 1, 2013).
Don is currently participating in a Virtual Book Tour from April 1-19th organized by Goddess Fish.
On this site, Don will be answering several questions regarding his book, the writing/editing process, and self-publishing editing.
With so many books currently available in the editing and proofreading genre, why did you write Editor-Proof Your Writing: 21 Steps to the Clear Prose Publishers and Agents Crave?
Because most writers don’t know what they should change when they edit. If they did, they would have written the piece that way in the first place. My book tells them what to change.
There are other editing books out there, but none I’m aware of that tells writers specifically what they’re doing wrong. Using them is like using a geography book to get directions to a mall. My book is like a GPS. It leads them step by step through their manuscript, pointing out what’s wrong with it and then showing them how to improve it.
How long did it take for you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
Editor-Proof Your Writing was a labor of love over many years. I got the idea in the early 70s, as I read a schlock paperback on an airplane and realized some of the mistakes repeated over and over. I wanted to learn more, so for months afterward I edited many manuscripts from fledgling writers, judged numerous writing contests, and figuratively tackled writers on the street, asking them to let me edit their writing. I copied all those manuscripts and finally spent hours dissecting them. The result? I learned there were 21 problem categories. Solutions to those problems became the 21 Steps to Fog-Free Writing.
Can you describe the editing process? (Personal, general readers, critique partners, and professional editors-before and during the publishing phase at Quill Driver Books)
At first, compiling the material was just a mind game. I loved to edit—I’ve done it professionally for forty years—and I reveled in what I learned. Along the way I compiled long lists of foggy phrases, redundancies, throwaway words, etc., not for a future book but for my own knowledge.
Later I taught what I learned in weekend seminars, then in online writing classes. I was delighted with the enthusiastic response I got from my students (I published some in the front of the book and on my website, http://DonMcNair.com.) I knew I was on to something, but wasn’t sure it would make a book. In fact, I approached a well-known writing-book publisher with the idea, and they rejected it. Curious, I called the editor and ask where I went wrong. “Well, our readers love to read about writing,” he said. “But they don’t want to actually do the work.”
So everything I’d learned about editing floated in my mind and filled file drawers for several years. Then one day I picked up a book titled Damn! Why Didn’t I Write That? written by Marc McCutcheon and published by Quill Driver Books. It told of hundreds of books in as many fields, written by professionals in those fields. I must tell you, it was as if the man was looking directly at me. I finally got serious, finished the book, and sold it to Quill Driver Books.
Editing it was straightforward. Quill Driver Books’ editor said this: “It’s a pleasure to meet you over email, and thank you for writing such an incredibly helpful, clear, and much-needed book. The writing was very clean—thank you!—so you’ll find few technical edits throughout.”
The publisher followed up with this: “I’ve reviewed (the editor’s) edits, and the first thought that came to mind was, “Wow, where are all the line edits?!” That’s a testament to the quality of your writing, so kudos to you on that front, Don. Technically, you’re pretty much spot on.”
You included writing exercises with an answer key throughout your book. What role do these writing activities play in improving a person’s writing?
They are very important. I believe the writing itself is compelling, and would fill the needs of that first publisher who turned the book down. Even if readers don’t do the exercises, they will read the book and smile, because they will have learned something. But if they’re really serious about learning the writing craft they’ll do the exercises, then apply what they’ve learned right then and there to improve their own work. They will find a tremendous payoff. The raves from my students? They came from those who did the work.
Here’s a typical comment from a student: “I learned so much, I don’t want the class to end! I started with a 105,600-word WIP, and have ‘de-fogged’ it down to 100,000. If this class went on much longer, I might be sitting here with a short story, instead of the next great American novel.” She obviously took the writing exercises seriously.
How did you decide on the number of foggy writing problems? Were there any less prevalent issues that you chose not to include? If so, can you share a few?
When I started, I didn’t know how many there were. I in fact kept an open mind as I did the research. That number jumped to 22, to 17, to whatever, but finally settled on 21. Are there other things the writer should do? I’m sure there are, although I don’t know what they would be. But solving these 21 problems will defog any manuscript.
You audience is primarily fiction writers. Can your advice be adapted to the non-fiction market?
Absolutely. We’re talking about the mechanics of writing, and most are used in many fields. Some, of course, such as the ones pertaining to dialogue, may not always fit, but most will. In fact, one of my students said this: “Thank you so much for this class. I learned a ton that I can even use in my day job of writing marketing copy, so it was sort of a two-fer.”
Here’s an example of non-fiction editing. My daughter’s getting an advanced degree, and the other day I read a page of her assignment. Her professor wrote this: “Aggressive student interactions often permeate a school’s culture and creates a hostile learning environment that stifles the academic productivity and success of students.” Well, I couldn’t stand it, and within moments edited it, using the 21 Steps. Here’s how it came out: Aggressive students often create a hostile learning environment that stifles other students’ productivity and success.” I got rid of a third of the words without sacrificing detail. Using the 21 Steps in this manner will perform magic on many types of writing.
Many popular authors were initially rejected multiple times by agents and publishers. How does a novice distinguish the difference between a manuscript with writing problems and one that simply does not appeal to particular agents or publishers?
That’s a very good question. A manuscript may be beautifully edited by using my book, but if its ideas are bad it still won’t be bought. Yet keep in mind that most books are rejected by editors glancing only at the first page or so, certainly not in enough depth to consider the total book’s ideas. Foggy writing will chase them away. A well-edited book, however, will get serious consideration.
Does the boom in the self-publishing industry have a positive or negative affect on the quality of books being published today?
I would say negative, for this reason. The publisher’s editor serves as a gatekeeper. If the writing is terrible it will get rejected, and will not be presented to readers. But a self-published book bypasses this gatekeeper, and readers become the gatekeepers by default. They can’t stop the book from being published, of course, but they can—and do—post scathing reviews that keep other readers away.
I personally believe all self-published writers should have their work edited by a professional editor. They should at the very least edit it themselves, using Editor-Proof Your Writing as their guide.
Thanks so much Don for sharing your answers with my audience. Anyone interested in improving their writing, should check out Editor-Proof Your Writing: 21 Steps to the Clear Prose Publishers and Agents Crave.
The book is available on Amazon.
Don will award one randomly chosen commenter their choice of books from his backlist. The books can be seen at his website.
After this blog was posted, I was advised by one of my followers that the comment box was not working properly. It has been fixed. However, if you encounter any difficulties leaving a comment on this blog, please contact me.
Before I wrote the interview questions, Goddess Fish sent me a copy of Editor-Proof Your Writing: 21 Steps to the Clear Prose Publishers and Agents Crave.