Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Ideal Final Draft--Carol Brinneman

In the last few weeks, I have enjoyed editing eight articles from women readers of this blog. As an editor, I don’t suggest or make changes randomly, just because I happen to like one word or grammatical structure over another. I’m hoping to see a number of elements line up to make a strong, beautiful piece. And I do my very best, too, to honor the author’s style and content.

I also try to encourage the writer by pointing out what she’s doing well. One of my own mentors would always give me positive feedback through numerous, short comments written on my manuscripts: “Beautiful!” “I know whatcha mean.” “Love this wording!” “Praise the Lord!” And if she had trouble understanding or disagreed, she always couched criticism in kindness. I try to follow her example.

Here’s what I hope to see in your article by the final draft:

  • A message that is appropriate for the chosen publication
  • Correct grammar and punctuation
  • A compelling lead (an opening sentence that is so interesting it will compel people to keep reading)
  • A logical, step-by-step presentation, which creates no confusion or (even minute) hesitations as one reads
  • Good word choices—the best and most exact ones possible
  • No repetition of any particular word near its last occurrence
  • No repetition of any words, thoughts or information, except for intended emphasis (in other words, “tight” writing)
  • No Christianese
  • No sentimentalism (forcing emotions on your reader, ones they may not have)
  • No sentence using negated verbs when positive ones would do (Ex: Jane didn’t want to go. Better: Jane refused to go.)
  • No passive constructions, unless unavoidable
  • Variety in sentence length
  • Good rhythm within sentences, and from sentence to sentence (yes, a tad subjective)
  • Emphasis in the right places—the strongest, most memorable words in a sentence occur at the beginning of the sentence; the second strongest spot is at the end
  • A conclusion that “snaps,” surprises, satisfies the reader and not one that drifts off lazily. It will often reflect the first sentence/paragraph in the piece
  • Strong verbs; no “have” or “be” verbs (is, are, was, were, etc.), which are considered weak; unless unavoidable
  • No -ing verbs as main verbs. Instead of “I was thinking,” use “I thought” or “I think”

What if you don’t agree with an editor’s suggestions? What if her changes distort your message? Usually, you are not obliged to accept them. It is, after all, your article with your name on it. However, beginning writers will be wise to accept most of what an experienced editor suggests.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Protect and Respect--Carol Brinneman

Thinking I had potentially murdered three people, I slept poorly all weekend. I had included a certain photo in the magazine I edit. Realizing some of the people in the pic worked in countries where Christianity was not a favored faith, I had written to someone for a security approval. Check.

But after the issue was printed and went live online, one man in the photo wrote, saying his ministry might be compromised and asking who approved the photo. Aaagh! A misunderstanding… In the end, he let the photo stand. But not before I spent three days in agony over my mistake of not checking directly with him.

Another couple, who had recently moved into a “sensitive” ministry, questioned whether an article on their former assignment—revealing their background—should be expunged from the Web.

And just this week, a fellow missionary friend e-mailed me, questioning the cultural and theological effects of certain Scripture media, which were covered in an article.

With the way the world works today—instant communication almost anywhere on the planet, and Google searches able to finger the most minute, obscure bits of information—writers (including editors) possess power and responsibility unimaginable only a few years ago. Because untold numbers of people may read what you write in your prayer letter, or on your blog, or in an article for Women of the Harvest, you must push yourself to be especially sensitive to every potential consequence, opinion, or reaction.

Your mission policy concerning topics you are allowed to talk about, or not, may be markedly tight or fairly lax. I once phoned a mission for approval of a book article that mentioned their name. The response was, “Oh, if so-and-so wrote that, then we don’t need to read it. We trust her.” Working in an organization where several people at different levels examine articles carefully, I was taken back. You need to know your mission’s policy concerning published books, articles, or personal blogs—even if they never mention the name of the mission.

When I first started writing, I shared experiences I had had in Africa—some poignant, some inspirational, some humorous. Experiences I’d had with my friends, both African and expatriate. Experiences we had suffered through or laughed over. But once approvers read a couple of my accounts, they questioned whether I had set myself up as a “savior,” or made fun of my friends, or sounded paternalistic, or outright negative. Aghast and knowing that was certainly not my intention, I reread the pieces and saw how others might get a skewed impression. Because of those concerns, I quickly realized that many of my experiences could never be published without going into exhaustive detail, adding disclaimers ad infinitum.

So, be vigilant and avoid possibly hurting someone. Consider what the people in your stories would think if they could read and understand them. What would the head of the church in your country of service think? Or the president? How does the article reflect on your mission? On your co-workers?

Be doubly sure the “snapshots” you choose for your writing will not offend or embarrass or put someone in a poor light. The world is watching. And reading.

Ways to “secure” your writing
1. Get approval, if possible, from the people written about in your article or appearing in photos.
2. Use a pseudonym. Call a person (on first mention) “Joe,” in quotes, which will signal to readers that you are using an alternate name.
3. Use a region or continent name and thus avoid pinpointing a “sensitive” country by name.
4. If you feel any doubts at all about publishing the article, wait for clarity and direction from supervisors and God.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Common Mistakes Editors Find--Carol Brinneman

My editor job requires that I examine writing closely, picking noxious nits out of otherwise healthy, happy articles. Here are a few common mistakes I see over and over. (I follow Chicago Manual of Style.)

· A comma follows the state or country name in running text: Mobile, Alabama, …
· IN, MI, NY are postal codes. Instead of IN, use Indiana or Ind., etc. (This rule is presently in flux and possibly dying a slow death.)

· Apostrophes are not needed in plurals, such as NGOs, 1900s, unless confusion results without them.
· Probably the most common spelling mistake made in English is confusing its (possessive) and it’s (it is). Double check!

Bible verses
· Placing a Bible verse at the head of a story/paragraph is not as effective as working it into your article.
· For referencing verses in running text, close your quote with quote marks, then put the reference in parentheses (abbreviate book name, or not), then follow with a period. Example: The shortest verse in the Bible is “Jesus wept” (John 11:35).

· People often cap many words that should not be. Examine why you want to capitalize a word. Is it a proper noun? Is it a title? Or is it only a subhead, which would not demand all caps?
· Note correct capitalization on these common words: Internet or Net; Scriptures, scriptural; Web or Web site; website.

· A comma should follow the year in running text: August 9, 2009, ….
· For dates, using th/nd/rd is not preferred; write August 9 (not August 9th, even though we do pronounce it that way!).
· A dash between numbers requires an en dash, as in August 9–12.

Ellipsis points
Many people use ellipsis points excessively and incorrectly. Ellipsis points can be used to:
1. Show that words or sentences or paragraphs have been deleted from a quote.
2. Show that you will continue your message on the next line (I find this grossly overused as a design element that is not needed.)
3. End a sentence (no space preceding ellipsis), showing that you could say more, but won’t…
4. Make a dramatic pause. Use this rarely.
Do not mix use 1 with the others in the same piece, which would create confusion.

· Book, song, movie/film/video titles, and names of boats should be italicized.
· Words emphasized should preferably be set in italics, rather than in all caps or bolded.
· Bible verses do not need to be italicized in most cases; italics might be used as a design function.

Spell out any one-digit number: one, two, three, etc. Exceptions: chapter 1; page 3.

Quote marks, apostrophes
Make sure all quote marks are curved (“smart”). In Word, to get curved quotes, do a Find for a quote mark (single or double) and Replace All with the same quote mark; they will be changed automatically to smart ones. Do the same for apostrophes.

Double spaces
For a final check, do a Find for double spaces and Replace with one (changing one at a time is safest!).

Your attention to such details will no doubt please editors you hope to impress.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Strong Writing--Carol Brinneman

...Or Weaknesses to Avoid in Writing

Let’s say you send what you think is a great article to an editor and ask for a line edit. It comes back covered in red ink, and you can’t help but believe it’s a mess. That’s not always the case. Editing is a time-consuming, tedious job (not without its joys). Most editors (including me) wouldn’t even bother investing time in a piece if it were poorly written. So cheer up!

Often many edits show up on your early efforts because you are making the same, few mistakes over and over. Once these are pointed out, and you learn to avoid them, your writing will take off.

Watch out for these bad habits that suck the life out of your stories:

· Wordiness. Every word must count to make an article shine. Common words that can often be deleted without affecting the meaning are: and, by, of, that, the, to, which, who.
Search for these and delete every one possible. If your article is, say 600 words long, force yourself to rewrite it in 400 words. That will surely show you what to cut!

· Weak verb choices: Avoid using be (is, are, was, were, has been, There is, There were) and have as main verbs, wherever possible. Find concrete, descriptive verbs. Bypass using an “-ing” form of the verb (Use: she goes vs. she is going). Use present tense, or past. Avoid passive mode.

· Repetition
. Avoid repeating a word in close proximity to its previous occurrence.

· Unneeded adverbs. Avoid ones that add little to the meaning: a lot, just, pretty, quite, really, very, well. If she was “pretty upset,” is that any different from “upset”? Sometimes, however, these adverbs are valid if your tone is light, dialectical.

· Clichés. Someone has said, “A cliché is anything someone else has already said.” Find fresh metaphors, similes.

· Lack of transitions. Be intentional about creating logical connections and smooth transitions from one idea/speaker/point of time /location to the next.

· Overuse of exclamation points. Avoid using exclamation points as much as possible. Use one per piece, at most.

· I. Avoid overuse of “I.” Use “my __,” “mine” instead.

Avoid weaknesses of all kinds! That includes ones inside you. Get tough enough to keep trying. Gifted missionary writer Elisabeth Elliot often quoted a verse I remember whenever discouragement threatens. “Because the Sovereign LORD helps me, I will not be disgraced. Therefore have I set my face like flint, and I know I will not be put to shame” (Isaiah 50:7).

Achieving excellent writing takes time; it’s hard work. When I write an article, I come back to it every day or two to read it anew, as for the first time. I continue to make improvements until I can find nothing more to change. Then I send it to editor friends to evaluate. We often ask each other to “be brutal.”

Be strong in the Lord … and in your writing.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

What Do You Want To Say?--Carol Brinneman

A few years back, a fellow missionary handed me an unusual piece she had written about living near a massive trash dump in a large, African city. The writing was exquisite, but I was puzzled and asked her, “What are you trying to say? What is your message?” She stared at me dumbfounded for a few seconds, and then said, “I don’t know.”

Few writers can be totally sure of an article’s message until it’s written. Articles, poems, books, take on a surprising life of their own as you write. And yet, before you write, think about your message. Write it out in one encapsulating sentence—even for something as long as a book. This will serve as a guiding star as you write and later self-edit, delete, or expand. Make every word, sentence, paragraph support that one-sentence message. A working title can help, too. Many times the final title will leap out of the text, once written.

Before you write, also determine who will be your audience. “Sell” the piece before you write it. Who will want to read it? Who will be champing at the bit to publish it? In my learning years, I was guilty of writing for anyone and no one. This leaves editors in a quandary, not sure what to do with the piece, how to edit it. Is your audience female? Mixed? Young? Christian? It will make a difference in how you write and in the success of the piece.

Few of us are authorities on messages we want to convey. Reading what well-known people say about topics helps us understand better how to express our own points. Sprinkling their opinions and thoughts into your writing can lend weight to the piece. Working appropriate quotes, Bible verses, and vignettes into your message deepens and multi-layers it. Like yummy, rich chocolate layer cake!

Why do you need to say something? Many excellent writers I know have lived a hard life, passing through painful experiences. For some reason this kind of life produces creative artists of all kinds. Writing can indeed provide a healing exercise. We, as missionaries, also experience many difficult situations on the field. Will we use our writing to whine? I hope not. A deeper treatment of our experience can come through sketching the background but then showing the answer, the faithfulness of God. A balance produces powerful pieces.

Where are you going with your writing? Are you writing only occasionally or do you have hopes of producing many articles, a blog, a book? If so, it doesn’t hurt to think big. Can you choose a theme early on in your career in which to specialize? Maybe over time you can write enough pieces to create a unit. Having edited a few books and scores of articles, and written many diverse articles and a number of poems, I feel my best gifts are editing, writing inspirational essays, and teaching others. What is your gift? Your niche? What do you want to say?


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