Tag Archives: writer

6 Tips for a Perfect Writer’s Staycation


Photo courtesy of SXC.

It’s a tough year for planning R & R – despite the fact that travel bargains abound – and given all the economic uncertainty, it seems foolhardy to plan a big, expensive out-of-town vacation. But what to do with your time off this summer? Isn’t there something to do that can get you out of the daily grind and not cost a fortune?

Of course there is. I’ve compiled a half-dozen tips for creating an enjoyable writer’s “staycation,” the sort of stay-at-home (or stay-close-to-home) vacation that will bring you back to the keyboard rested and ready for your next writing project without producing worry about its expense.

1. Tell a story in pictures. Whatever you choose to do with your days off, take a small digital camera with you, or use your mobile phone’s camera. Try to take enough pictures that you can create a “filmstrip” about your day, one that needs no captioning to get the message across. In addition to getting you in the habit of documenting your life photographically (which is fun and useful in and of itself), this tip also teaches you how to frame anecdotes and think scenically.

If you need some inspiration for what you can do with a cel phone camera, you might check out the My GPS Camera Phone blog. Blog owner Pete always amazes me with the photos he gets out of a humble mobile phone.

2.  Tell a story in sound. If you’re doing any driving around on your staycation—or even if you’re going on a long bike ride, run or hike—create a mix CD or a playlist on your MP3 player to honor your journey. The idea here is to create a soundtrack to your down-time that expresses your feelings, as well as give you experience in using subtle factors to set an anecdote’s mood and tone.

3. Buy 5 magazines to read for recreation. The trick here is to buy five that you don’t ordinarily buy, perhaps even five you’ve never heard of or would never even glance at otherwise. The farther the publications are from your ordinary reading, the greater the chance that they will creatively cross-pollinate your thinking about your writing projects or help you generate ideas for fresh, new works.

4. Keep a “vacation journal.” Even if all you do is stay home and weed the garden. If you look at the letters and journals kept by people before the invention of the telephone, they often described “ordinary” events in great detail—dinner parties, conversations ‘round the fire, walks they took in the woods. Deprived of other means of being intimate at a distance, writing about their day helped share it, and themselves, with readers of the journals or the recipients of their letters.

Being able to write about what you’ve done helps you see the value in how you spend your time, and also strengthens your ability to write interestingly and cogently in the first person.

5. Live like a Spaniard for a day. Or an Italian, Greek, or French person. If you’re mimicking the Spanish, you should definitely take an afternoon siesta, but the idea here is to make time for the Mediterranean ideal of “the sweet life,” one that includes plenty of good food, heart-to-heart talks over meals with friends and family, and a pace of living that doesn’t feel rushed.

The benefit to living this way is that it can free up your subconscious to incubate writing ideas with which you may be struggling. Plus, it’s fun and renews social ties that are easy to put on the back burner in the heat of a project. By focusing on your writing challenges before you go on vacation, then letting go while you’re taking time off, you may just come back to your work with solutions that work better than whatever you might have come up with by “forcing” an answer to appear.

6. Have at least one plan-free day. Most writers who are successful know how useful goal-setting tools and systems can be. However, if you can’t have a change of geographic scenery to shake you out of your routine (and thereby spark some insights about how you are living day to day), make it a point to build in at least one staycation day where schedules and planners are tucked away, and you set out (physically or mentally) with a few simple intentions: to explore public art in your city, for example, or to bike to the next town and see what there is to see. The idea is to be open to how the day develops, following one’s nose as it were, and receptive to what is experienced, rather than trying to cram it into one’s pre-planned blocks of whatever.

Leo Babauta, author of Zen Habits blog and the book “The Power of Less,” recently discussed this approach as an aid to simplicity. This is what he had to say about his stepping away from excessive planning:

Don’t try to force outcomes — let them happen. Be open to what emerges.

This is a change that I’ve been trying in my life over the last year or more — slowly, gradually, because it’s not always easy. You have to learn to let go of the need to achieve certain outcomes, to embrace the flow, and that can be very difficult. So I’ve learned to embrace it slowly, and it has been wonderful.”

He asserts that this approach focuses one in the moment, and that can be very liberating.

“The lesson I learned (from my experiment): you don’t know what will happen, or what opportunities will arise, until you arrive at that moment. You can plan and plan and plan, but there is just no way to know how things will turn out…. Instead, I have forgone the need to define outcomes, and have focused on enjoying the journey. That doesn’t mean I’m not motivated to do my best … It means that I’m motivated by the work, that I enjoy the activity, not by the destination, goal or outcome.”

It’s a great lesson to learn, but as Leo points out, it can take a while to internalize it. Since vacations are the best time for most of us to experiment with new routines without the outside interference of daily pressures, why not try living a day or two by intention, instead of a strictly defined plan?

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Don’t give up your day job, it’s good for you!


Photo courtesy SXC.

I’ve wanted to be a full-time freelance writer since I was 13—so long ago, in fact, that the books about it that I borrowed from the public library talked about “over the transom” submissions (hint: it means sending the entire manuscript instead of a query) and gave tips on what sorts of typewriters and typing paper worked best for long manuscripts.

I got published professionally for the first time the next year (I’ll give you a hint as to the era: Reagan was president) and have stayed published for the last 25 years. However, there have been very few periods when I have worked full-time as a freelancer. And maybe that’s OK.

Sarah Hodon, guest posting over at the Urban Muse blog, recently wrote a great post about “5 Ways That Your Day Job Can Help Your Writing.” She has some good points about what working for someone else, regardless of whether or not it is writing-related, can boost your productivity and creativity as a freelancer.

I especially like two points she makes, about focus and self-discipline.

Sarah asserts that focusing on your day job can help you think of story ideas. She notes:

“Your subconscious is still buzzing away, even if you’re intently working on a project or sitting through a meeting. Most writers … admit that their best ideas come to them at the strangest times. … Carry a notebook with you so you can jot down those brilliant ideas.”

It’s true, having something else to focus on, other than the looming deadline for your next article/chapter/etc., can help open the floodgates to fresh ideas when sitting around worrying about it isn’t.

I think, though, that I agree even more with her assertion that having limited writing time helps one develop self-discipline. I did much of my early work as a freelancer during the summers when I was in high school. I had a “job”—stringing for a national magazine aimed at the 14-21 year old crowd—and that helped me manage the rest of my freelancing time very well. I had to do the “paying gig” first (I was given a small monthly stipend for clipping story ideas and sending them to the editorial mothership, suggesting interviewees for upcoming articles and conducting interviews and research for staff writers), then I could work on story pitches and the humorous essays I imagined editors would find gut-bustingly funny (and some actually did).

After college, living at home and without a full-time day job, I had much more time to freelance—but fewer steady writing gigs. I floundered for a bit, not as certain as in high school how to divvy up my time. It was not until I got a full-time job–doing PR for a library system–that I truly got back on track with my freelance writing.

Hodon addresses why having a regular schedule (whether from a day job or a recurring writing assignment) helps you get more done:

“If your writing projects are reserved solely for evenings and weekends, you have no choice but to get yourself on a schedule. Most writers that I know need a deadline—even a self-imposed one. Come up with a to-do list and start tackling the less time-consuming tasks—get those emails sent, look up the name of the book you’re hoping to use for research, or send the photo to the editor for your bio. It may seem overwhelming at first, but it’s a great feeling of accomplishment to get some of those items out of the way.”

In addition to Hodon’s fine list of day-job advantages for writers, I’d like to add a couple of my own.

A day job will get you out among real, live people. People who aren’t your sources, your editors, or your family. In other words, people whom you can observe and relate to in a non-commoditized way (at least where writing is concerned). I’ve heard of more than one writer who’s taken up a day job—anything from teaching to flipping burgers—just to be able to have human contact on a daily basis.

A day job gives you other identities beyond that of “writer.” Unless, of course, you are writing for someone else! In any case, a day job, writing related or not, can give you perspective on your freelance identity—since you are living another professional identity during the day and can reflect on your freelance identity from the outside when you are in the day-job role.

The questions to you…
What advantages have you found to holding a day job while working as a freelance writer? Is steady income a primary motivation or are there other, more compelling benefits in your case?

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A Sampler of Summer Writing Retreats


Photo courtesy SXC.

Summertime, and the writing is easy … whether or not that is true, summer does offer more than its share of writing retreat opportunities. Here are a few happening this summer that looked especially inviting.

ShawGuides: Guide to Writer’s Workshops and Conferences

If you need a place to start to stir your imagination, or just get the lay of the workshopping land, you could do far worse than the ShawGuides. Writers can search the nearly 1,000 workshops listed by location, genre or date. A click on “July” shows nearly 250 choices, including the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop at Reed College in Portland, Oregon and the GLCS 2009 Literary Conference, hosted by the Golden Crown Literary Society.

A Room of Her Own Writers’ Retreat

This biennial retreat is hosted by A Room of Her Own Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to furthering the vision of Virginia Woolf and bridging the gap between a woman’s economic reality and her artistic creation. This year’s retreat will take place at legendary painter Georgia O’Keefe’s “Ghost Ranch” in Abiquiu, New Mexico and will feature a reading and seminar by Rita Dove, the former U.S. Poet Laureate.

St. John’s Multi-genre Writers’ Retreat 2009

This retreat, offered through The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, wins points with me on two counts: one, it’s being presented at St. John’s University in Collegeville, some 70 minutes northwest of the Twin Cities, with approximately 2,400 acres of forest, lakes, prairie, oak savanna, and wetlands to explore between workshop activities; and two, it balances serious workshop titles such as “Writing Journey, Sacred Journey: Writing as Spiritual Practice” and “Writing the Landscape” with a session titled “The Laundry’s Piled So High, I Can’t See the Washer: And Other Bad Reasons for Not Finishing Your Writing Project.”

Science Fiction & Fantasy Novel Writers Workshop

The University of Kansas, my alma mater, is home to the Center for the Study of Science Fiction and apparently an epicenter of expertise for writing in this genre. The SF/Fantasy workshop will run concurrently with a broader Science Fiction Writers Workshop taught by legendary KU professor James Gunn. The novel workshop, taught by Kij Johnson, aims to help aspiring fiction writers generate the best possible chapters and an outline for a writer’s submission packet; to learn what will be necessary to complete or revise their novel with an eye toward publication; and to build bonds with other members of the writing community.

I can personally state that the location of the workshops, Lawrence, Kansas (a 45-minute drive from the Kansas City area), is one of the hippest college towns one could spend a couple of weeks in—and the traffic is (if I remember correctly) a lot less hellish on campus in the summer, so enjoy yourself!

Writers Retreat Workshop

Co-founded in 1987 by the late Gary Provost and his wife Gail, the ten-day Writers Retreat Workshop is described on the home page of its website as “an intensive learning experience for small groups of serious-minded writers who are committed to improving and completing their novels for submission.” The Aug. 22-30 session of the retreat, to be held at Marydale Retreat Center near Erlanger, Kentucky (adjacent to the Cincinnati metro area), will feature story structure workshops, one-on-one meetings, lectures, writing exercises, and lifelong memories, all revolving around retreat participants, their novels, and their lives as writers.

Writing Ourselves Whole: “Raw Silk” Erotic Writing Intensive

This one-day writing workshop, scheduled for June 20, is for women in the San Francisco Bay area who identify as “queer” (lesbian, bisexual, trans, etc.) and want to receive feedback on their erotic writing. This intensive, as with most of Writing Ourselves Whole’s classes, uses the Amherst Writers and Artists workshop method. The website promises that participants in the one-day intensive will leave with a rich body of new erotic writing, feedback from peers about what’s already strong in their writing; and some thoughts about revising the work.

And finally, the low-budget option…

If you find your budget is too tight to visit one of these educational experiences, you may also want to check out Kitty Bucholtz’s post from earlier this spring on the Routines for Writers blog on how to plan your own writer’s retreat .

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Feed Me! A five-course RSS meal for the hungry writer


Photo courtesy of SXC.

In today’s hurried, media-rich world, it’s nice to know that a news and information can still be accessed in bite-sized pieces. I have written  here and elsewhere about the usefulness of RSS feeds and how to use them to build a dashboard of incoming news on topics that are important to you.

Here are five feeds, most (but not all) of which link to blogs, that you might consider following to further your writing and editing career. They can serve as the foundation of a “balanced diet” of information relevant to non-fiction story-crafting, ready to be consumed when you have time to snack on them and (like food in your pantry or fridge) all accessible in one handy place.

Editor Unleashed
Maria Schneider, former editor of Writer’s Digest magazine, has assembled a terrific blog dedicated to sharing what she knows about writing and editing. Now a freelancer, she posts on a variety of topics and in a variety of formats, including author interviews, marketing advice, tips on social networking, blogging, and grammar, writing technique tune-ups, and thought-provoking writing prompts. She’s not afraid to speak about what she’s learned from her own experiences, as she did earlier this year when she posted about getting in over her head by taking on a difficult writing assignment at a trade magazine.

Quips and Tips for Freelance Writers
Canadian freelancer Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen’s blog has as its sub-head “Where writing quotations meet practical writing advice. And live happily ever after.” And she means it! Laurie and her band of guest bloggers cover a wide range of writing-related issues, mostly through helpful tip-based posts. Last month, Laurie had several very practical “housekeeping” posts on invoicing clients and keeping track of query/article submissions, as well as 6 tips for coping with the stress of freelance writing.

Columbia Journalism Review
CJR has several blogs on its site and updates its content elsewhere on the site frequently, just like you would expect a nice RSS-enabled online magazine about journalism to do. But this publication is more than just a “web 2.0 correct” magazine—it carries ongoing coverage of the life and times of American journalism. If you want perspective on the death-spiral that print newspapers are currently in, and informed debate about what comes next, CJR is a good place to seek it. I prefer the “master” RSS feed, which covers all new content on the site and gives a nice overview of what’s available.

Teaching Journalism Online
For more than three years, Mindy McAdams has been blogging about her experiences as a multimedia journalism educator. She uses her site to showcase or link to good work done by online journalists or promising students, discuss current trends in cyber-journalism, and talk shop about the programs reporters and producers use to assemble their Web stories.
One of her most recent posts, “Your (Journalistic) Past Can Haunt You Online,” generated a great discussion of whether student newspapers should permanently archive work by fledgling reporters. She also wrote an interesting post on lessons learned from teaching multimedia reporting, which could have implications for print-era writers trying to get up to speed in online journalism.

Write to Done
Any blog started by Zen Habits author Leo Babauta can’t be all bad, and in this case, his mix of positive thinking, practical tips and philosophical musings have continued on his writing blog, although he has turned the day-to-day reins over to managing editor Mary Jaksch. I would say these nice things about the blog even if they hadn’t published a guest post of mine on how to come up with fresh story ideas, but I do believe their mix of outside bloggers is key to tip posts covering fiction, non-fiction and other forms of writing continuing to draw interest and comments.
Recent offerings on Write to Done have included posts on improving your blog’s About page, whether or not to release copyright on some of your writing, and how much personal information to reveal in your work.

Second Helpings

Which RSS feeds do you follow to enhance your writing? Answer in the comment field below.

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Do-It-Yourself Story Coaching: An Introduction


Photo courtesy of SXC.

Writers and editors can sometimes be an unpredictable alliance. Specialists in each discipline need each other (although sometimes they don’t act like it), but at times it’s unclear which set of skills will best bring a non-fiction article to a satisfactory conclusion and eventual publication.

During the month of March, Write Livelihood will be exploring do-it-yourself story coaching, a new approach to self-editing. Story coaching is a way of editing that broadens the concept of revision well beyond proofreading and line-by-line revision, taking the whole of the piece into account, as well as a writer’s development over time.

Story coaching isn’t new. The legendary author, editor, teacher and writing coach Don Murray, who passed away in late 2006, was one of the first to suggest that an editor’s relationship to authors should be that of a coach, not primarily a grammar cop or an overseer. In a eulogy of Murray on Poynter.org, Roy Clark has this touching anecdote that summarizes Murray’s attitude:

“Some time in the early 1980s, my youngest daughter, Lauren, now 26, was a toddler, and I asked her, “Can you say ‘Don,’ Lauren? Say ‘Don.’ ” She looked up at the Santa Claus-like figure in our family room and said something like ‘Bobo.’ ‘That’s great,’ I said, giving her a little squeeze. ‘Good job, Lauren!’

“What followed was a mini-lesson from Murray on how to teach writing. It went something like this: ‘Too bad we don’t teach children to write the way we teach them to talk or walk. When a baby tries to take her first step and then falls down, we treat it like a national holiday. We surround the baby with support. We don’t say: No, no, no, before you can learn to walk, you need to develop the proper foot angle. Don’t try that again, you little brat, before you’ve mastered the basics.’”

Others who have added to the craft of story coaching are Clark himself (individually and in partnership with Don Fry), Jack Hart, and Jacqui Banaszynski. Banaszynski was my introduction to the discipline; her story-coaching seminar at a gathering of university editors helped me recognize the sort of editor I was all along, and fired me with new confidence that I had something to offer to my writers.

DIY Story Coaching

The only catch with the current state of story coaching is that if often relies on regular contact with an editor to make it work. For many writers, including freelancers or those just starting out, this contact is sporadic or absent. This month’s blog series will cover how to adapt many of the most useful tools in the story coaching “kit” to use with your own writing.

There are many rewards of self-coaching your way through your stories. For one thing, practicing story coaching on your own work makes you much more desirable as a writer to editors, as you will improve your ability to understand their approach to editing and how to collaborate with them successfully. Also, you will be able to peer edit the work of other writers with more clarity and specificity, which is always a useful communications skill to have (and a leg up if you ever want to become an editor yourself).

Next Week: The 2 Essential Keys to Story Coaching

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Write this Way: Writing and Editing Links for February 16, 2009


Image courtesy SXC.

Tips for “tweeting” productively on Twitter, confusion surrounding the best way to save journalism in the digital age, and myths and truths about freelancing are all on tap today in our monthly link-fest. Plus, a couple of fun and useful bonus links (as always).

Our first featured link comes from Maria Schneider’s excellent blog, Editor Unleashed. Like many writers, I’ve been struggling to figure out the best way to use Twitter, a social networking application centered around text-message-length communications (140 characters or less), and she has come up with writer-specific Twitter tips, plus a list of 25 folks to follow on the service, including authors, agents, book publishers and publicists.

Schneider, a former editor of Writer’s Digest, admits that Twitter can be intimidating at first:

“At first, Twitter feels like being at a cocktail party where you know no one. But if you focus on making the right connections, Twitter can actually be quite useful.

“There’s a bunch of publishing types using Twitter and following them is tapping into the zeitgeist—a never-ending stream of conversations, random thoughts and links. It gives you access to lots of smart, interesting, connected people.”

In case you’re wondering what you’re actually supposed to say/do (or “tweet,” in Twitter parlance) once you’re connected to these people, she has also written a very insightful post on how to build up your Twitter “street cred.” For example, I learned that you should follow the 60/40 rule when promoting your own stuff to the Twitterverse, as well as the fact that you should never ask for followers—Schneider calls it Twitter suicide.

All in all, her posts are a friendly introduction to the fast-moving, almost ephemeral world of Twitter—and a good guide to using it for more than detailing what you had for breakfast.

Our second stop today is at the Knight Digital Media Center’s News Leadership 3.0 blog, where veteran journalist Michele McLellan has posted parts one and two in a multi-part series on ideas that get in the way of saving journalism.

It seems everyone with a pulse (or at least a journalism degree!) is aware of the business struggles of daily newspapers across the nation. In her first post, McLellan takes on the idea that only the newspaper industry can produce quality journalism, and that endowments should be used to save newspapers in communities where a for-profit model is failing:

“Right now, the newspaper industry does produce the bulk of original reporting that we find in print and on the Internet …. But the superior performance of the Internet for a growing number of users and advertisers is transforming the journalism and the business model, and thought leaders in the industry itself recognize there is no going back.

“As long as people believe that only the news industry equate newspapers-only with good journalism, the debate is heading down a blind alley. It might be possible to raise an endowment for a beloved newspaper in a few communities. But I don’t see a lot of monied people—much less taxpayers if that is proposed—willing to underwrite a product that is only one player, albeit an important one, in the field.”

After that treatise, she takes on the even stickier issue of whether readers will pay for online content in her second post. She admits there are no easy answers. The newspaper-centric model of paying a set fee for all content bundled by a single provider hasn’t worked, and the potential for micro-payments to take up the slack from traditional publication advertising is extremely controversial. Other models, which include voluntary consumer funding of projects they deem worthy of coverage (keeping tabs on the local school board, for example), are still very much in the development stage.

Whatever your belief about the future of American newspapers and/or journalism, this series of posts will give you food for thought.

Finally, if you’ve worked as a freelance writer or editor for years, as I have, you tend to rub up against some very odd notions of what your life as a freelancer must be like. And if you’re a newbie freelancer, you may very well wonder if the ecstatic or apocalyptic claims of the joys or sorrows of the freelancing life could possibly be true. Laura Spencer, a contributing author at Freelance Folder blog, did a great job recently of sorting out some lies, myths and half-truths related to freelancing.

She covers everything from needing money to get started freelancing (a myth, she says) to freelancers typically working for next to nothing (a half-truth, she asserts). Here’s her take on the number one item on her list, “freelancing is an excuse for not working at all.”

“According to this myth, none of us are working . . . not really. We are either spending our days playing computer games or in front of the television with a box of chocolates….

“The real culprit here is the difference between the experiences of a significant portion of the population and that of most freelancers. For many people, work is synonymous with a place that you go each day. If you don’t go anywhere, then you must not be working. Technology is changing this perception, but it will take some time before it is completely gone.”

Bravo! And if you like that train of thought, Laura also posted a companion piece on 10 things you’ve heard about freelancing that are actually true.



Storybest is a “social content network” for storytellers (of any genre) powered by the filtering/ranking service coRank.

CPSIA: Book Banning in the Guise of Safety

A cautionary tale from the Bookshop Blog on (we hope) unintended consequences of Consumer Product Safety Commission’s updating of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA).

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How to Make the Editor Your Friend (III): Be Willing to Revise

Another area in which little things mean a lot in the writer-editor relationship concern story revisions, and the writer’s ability and willingness to revise a story once it’s been submitted to the editor.

When I say revision, I’m not talking comma patrol. As an editor, I expect to have to do a copyediting sweep to get the article to conform to Associated Press or house style expectations. However, if the writer is able to turn in copy free of typographical or common AP style errors, that shows me that he or she is aware of style issues and is trying to make my job easier, which is a plus.

But even when there’s been a good flow of information on the story’s progress back and forth between writer and editor (which often happens when the editor uses story coaching techniques), parts of an assignment may not hit the mark. The writer might explore a tangent that doesn’t bring out the general theme of the piece, he/she might raise questions with a source that they don’t answer later in the article (but sound deliciously relevant to the editor!), or it may be that one section is too long, while another, more important area has been overlooked in the quest to meet the word count for the assignment.

I often tell new writers to plan for one round of revisions in the article writing cycle. Eight or nine times out of ten, I don’t need a rewrite from them, but it avoids the ugly situation in which a writer might insist I should publish an article “as is” because they don’t have any more time to work on it (this has actually happened to me once or twice; those folks don’t write for me anymore).

My favorite way to communicate rewrites to writers is through a story edit memo, which provides my take on the story (what I got from the piece as a reader), identifies what I see as the story’s primary strengths (e.g., good use of description or quotes, excellent transitions) and summarizes what I see as the article’s main problems. I like to provide as specific feedback as I can, rather than expect the write to know what I mean by “tighten it up a bit” or “tell us more about the subject’s childhood.”

A couple of hints for making the revision phase go more smoothly:

  • Clarify with your editor during the assigning phase how many rounds of edits are typical for the publication, if you haven’t worked for them before.
  • Let your editor know early on if you’re having trouble structuring the piece in such a way that you can meet your word count without going over. (Or if, heaven forbid, you don’t have enough to fill out the length requirement.) He or she may have suggestions for what to expand or trim.
  • If your editor doesn’t provide detailed feedback on a revision, by all means ask for specifics! If the editor says “write less about the businesses involved in this project,” ask how much less (number of words) and if there’s any part of that section he/she wants preserved.
  • Don’t forget to ask what’s working about your initial draft. Getting the editor’s take on what he or she likes can make the decision-making while you are cutting or rewriting material easier.

Helpful links related to article revisions

How To Edit, Revise & Rewrite Your Articles, Essays Or Book Chapters

Tips On Revising Your Writing: How To Edit Your Article Or Manuscript Professionally

Rewrites and Revisions: They’re Nothing Personal

The Rewrite Request

Working with Your Editor: Three Tips on Getting the Most out of the Editorial Process
This post is aimed at book writers, but some of the advice about responding to revision requests still holds.

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