The Benefits of Editorial Assessments

image of editorial assessment

An editorial assessment is an evaluation of your manuscript both as a whole and as individual components. If this is a dissertation, each chapter will be studied to see how well they meet the requirements. For novels, literary devices such as plot, setting, and characterization are examined. Then, feedback is sent to the client that includes a summary, thorough analysis, and recommendations for revisions. The contents of the assessment vary depending on the type of work, a client’s needs and their writing style. In an Editorial assessment, in addition to the tips, links and recommendations, I sometimes ask questions (open-ended questions, as I would in a coaching session) to help writers think more broadly or deeply about aspects of their writing. I also provide a 45-minute consultation/coaching session so my clients can ask their own questions. Most find it very valuable.

Editorial Assessment of a Dissertation

An in-depth evaluation of a dissertation is particularly helpful to a Ph.D. candidate, as long as they have enough time for revisions after receiving the report. The assessment can be done in conjunction with editing or as a standalone service. An examination is completed on each chapter: introduction, literature review (lit review), research design/methodology, findings, and discussion. The strengths and weaknesses of each chapter are described. An analysis of how well the chapter meets the requirements is given along with recommendations for how to add depth and breadth to a chapter. The following are examples of the types of feedback that might be provided for the lit review chapter.

  • Ways to better organize the lit review
  • How best to present the research and/or explain it in more detail

The dissertation as a whole is evaluated including the development and cohesiveness of the writing. Examples of feedback might involve:

  • How to present research introduced in the lit review in the research methodology, findings or discussion section
  • How to explicate the strengths and weaknesses of the researcher’s methods or bias(es) and their impact on the results
  • The importance of describing how the study and findings contribute to the current body of work
  • Defining the researcher’s own unique contribution to the field

There are good reasons to have an assessment of your dissertation. Often, a doctoral degree is a steppingstone to teaching and research positions. Those types of careers involve a lot of writing (and publishing) of books and scholarly articles. A dissertation is also the final requirement in a long, arduous process to earn your Ph.D., and it is usually published. Put your best work out into the world and learn to be a better writer with an editorial assessment!

Editorial Assessment of a Novel

Examining a novel can be beneficial to a writer because the building blocks of the novel are evaluated individually and then together, as a whole. This involves an appraisal of literary elements: setting (actual places or fantasy universes), character, conflict, point of view, theme, tone, and of course the 5 elements that make up the plot: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. Additionally, based on the work itself, additional literary techniques such as pacing, foreshadowing, figurative language, or flashback will be studied. The report consists of a summary, detailed analysis of the strengths and weakness of the novel with regards to the literary elements and techniques and, of course, recommendations. Links to additional information on particular aspects of writing, based on an individual’s need, will be included. For example:

  • Sketching out the setting like you would a character
  • Where to add more sensory details
  • How to broaden or deepen a particular character

It may be difficult to take in but a critique of how and what you write can make you a better writer and help you produce better work with less revisions. It can also provide a confidence boost. Many writers aim to write two books per year. In order to do that, you need to be good and fast. An editorial assessment will help you with that!

When should you have an Editorial Assessment?

In a previous post, I mentioned how all writers should pay for an editor at least once. It is difficult to be objective about our own writing and having a manuscript edited or analyzed by a professional can help us write better. Editing and editorial assessments are not inexpensive – and many writers work a day job to cover living expenses – so pick a special or important manuscript. It could be one that you are struggling with or one where the words flowed easily. It could be a milestone such as a thesis or dissertation or a novel that a large or respected publishing house is interested in. Maybe it’s the book that made you want to become a writer. The novel you first started, or finished, but never submitted and you want to revise it and make the dream of publishing that special book come true. But it might also be the work you just finished writing and you unexpectedly came into a little extra money from a long lost relative, a lottery winning, or a bonus at your day job. Whenever or whatever the reason, be sure to have your writing evaluated by a professional at least once!

What is the Cost?

Depending on the length of your writing project and the qualifications and experience of the editor, you may pay $400 for a partial manuscript and at least $1000 for a 60,000 word manuscript. Some editors will offer a discount when more than one service is requested.

How long does it take?

A good estimate is 2 to 4 weeks. Be sure to communicate your timeline with any prospective editor.

By now I’m sure you can see the benefits of editorial assessments and are eager to have an editor analyze your writing. I enjoy editing a lot, but I love editorial assessments. It is so interesting to deconstruct a story and very rewarding to help writers see their strengths. It can be challenging to see our own work objectively. I would be pleased to help you see your writing more objectively. Contact me today to learn more.

If you’ve already had an editorial assessment, what did you learn from it? How might this help you with a current or future writing project?

The Magic of Joanne Harris

“Magical realism relies upon the presentation of real, imagined or magical elements as if they were real…  [it has] inherent transgressive and subversive qualities [which] has led many postcolonial, feminist and cross-cultural writers to embrace it as a means of expressing their ideas.” Maggie Ann Bowers

Many writers today fall under the umbrella of magical realism. Isabel Allende, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Laura Esquivel, Salmon Rushdie and Alice Hoffman are a few well-known magical realist writers. One of my favorite authors in this genre is Joanne Harris whose stories are particularly delicious. Her work appeals to many who love romance, comedy, fantasy, horror, magic, cooking, and stories situated in far off lands. While her stories do not speak to post-colonialism in the traditional sense, her work is subversive in nature because it illustrates the concept of the individual standing up successfully against the dominant power. Such ideas are a potent part of magical realist writing. That hope and optimism is a strong current running through most of Harris’ fantasy work. Not only can her characters change, but they do. Redemption and happiness are available and often achieved by her characters. It is an everyday sort of magic that we all need and want. And while her stories deal with things that are often brought about by the authority – be it secular or religious – or by a rival or even the individual themselves, the characters in her stories are able on their own or as a community to overcome what has been done to them and go on to lead fulfilling lives.

Where does all that strength and optimism come from? Growing up in a family of strong, superstitious French women who believed in the magic of everyday things. Growing up in small villages where everyone is like your family and spending summers running wild on a small coastal island. Like many magical realist authors, Joanne Harris is bicultural, born in England to an English father and a French mother. Her first language was French. She spent all her childhood summers on the island of Noirmoutier just off the western coast of France and the rest of the time in the English countryside. So integral were her summers on that French island that Harris has written on her website that growing up she felt “that Noirmoutier was where I really belonged.” After earning a degree in Modern and Medieval Languages from St Catherine’s College, Cambridge, she was a teacher for fifteen years. She published three novels during that time. The third was Chocolat, the one she is perhaps best known for. Harris has published twenty-two books to date, including three cookbooks, two collections of short stories, and seventeen novels. Her canon, like her short story collection Jigs and Reels, is a mixture of fantasy, horror, mystery and general fiction. Many of her novels and short stories employ magical realism. A couple of devices that she often uses to support that narrative mode are place and cookery. Many of her stories take place in rural France. Magic seems to be more believable when it’s in the country, or a foreign country, to those of us who live near the centers of scientific inquiry. Eating and drinking, with its ability to stimulate, relax, and satisfy people is one of life’s simpler pleasures and something we spend more time thinking about and preparing than we ever do consuming it. And, in the case of author Joanne Harris, writing about it. And I’m not just referring to her cookbooks.

Food has magical properties in Harris’ stories. Look at her titles. Chocolat and Blackberry Wine in which eating chocolate and drinking wine can change your life. The smell of oranges can trigger migraine headaches in Five Quarters of the Orange. In the short story, “Gastronomicon” preparing recipes in an heirloom cookbook can bring good fortune to the family or conjure demons. “Fish” is an aphrodisiac that causes a man to leave his wife on their honeymoon and hook up with the chef who becomes more beautiful and attractive with each bite of food. A special blend Japanese green tea helps a former psychiatric patient have more confidence and be more outgoing in “Tea with the Birds.”

Even in works not dedicated to gastronomy, the everyday acts of preparing food, eating, and drinking are magical. Indeed, Harris imbues the ordinary with magic. She blurs the lines between magical and real as magic is portrayed as ordinary and the ordinary is depicted as being extraordinary. In an interview after the publication of The Girl with no Shadow (published in the UK as The Lollipop Shoes), the sequel to Chocolat, Joanne Harris told a reporter, “You either believe in magic or you don’t. The occult, religion, superstition – they’re part of the same spectrum for me. I don’t distinguish. Strands of belief run through them all.” Magic infuses the novel Chocolat, a story about a mysteriously magical woman (Vianne) and her daughter who lead a nomadic existence, pulled and pushed by the wind and the spirit of her dead mother. They arrive in a small town in France during the Lenten season. The chocolate they sell in their shop, which is imbued with magic, changes people who consume it. Some people become lustier, less shy, more honest, less bitter, more relaxed while everyone gains a little more happiness in their life. Vianne’s chocolate voodoo even brings the travelling folk, who avoid townspeople, to her shop.

In another magical tale involving magical wine, a down and out English writer of second-rate pulp fiction named Jay Mackintosh, drinks from one of six bottles given to him a long time ago by a mystical man. He then buys a farm in France he’s never seen before and moves onto a happier, more meaningful life.  When he opens one of the bottles after so many years have passed, he expects it to have gone bad. But not only does the magic come alive in the bottle, all the remaining bottles wake up as well. “There was something going on in the cellar, after all. He could almost hear it, like the sounds of a distant party. Beneath his feet the bottles were in gleeful ferment. He could hear them whispering to him, singing, calling, capering. Their laughter was infectious, reckless, a call to arms. He felt a burst of raucous anticipation, a knowledge that something was on the way…” (Harris, Blackberry Wine 14).

At the same time, Harris deals with some important issues in her writing which is a significant aspect of magical realism. Chocolat exposes prejudice and shows a feminist way of mitigating the impact of the unkind and unfair treatment. When the Gypsies arrive at Lansquenet in their boats on the Tannes, the townspeople refuse to serve them. When the visitors attempt to order a few beers in a local bar, the proprietor tells them he’s closed even though there are quite a few customers inside. Roux says that the bar is “closed to us” and he is told he is not as dumb as he looks (Harris, Chocolat 95). And, Vianne’s continued association with the Gypsies further compromises her relationship with the people of Lansquenet, especially the priest, who has been trying to ruin her ever since he found out that she does not have a husband. This further illustrates how women are marginalized in a patriarchal society and the use of magical realism to expose this.

Harris also writes realistically and frighteningly about historical events in Five Quarters of the Orange. This is an enjoyable thriller set in rural France during the German occupation where, as an adult, Framboise must decode the secret, coded entries in her mother’s cookbook, in order to understand the tragedy that occurred one night of her youth that required the family to flee in the middle of the night. Magical realism is a good genre to write about such events because you need a good bit of magic to lighten things up and give people a little hope when reading about the horrors and tragedies of war.

Throughout her body of work, Harris weaves the magical in with the ordinary to make the supernatural seem commonplace. She depicts realistic and magical things side by side, depicts the magic as if it was ordinary and reality as if it was extraordinary, and writes about people and things that are themselves magical. Even when her stories are scary, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. It is comforting when good conquers evil. People love stories like that, and Joanne Harris delivers.

Beyond describing how postcolonial nations have been irrevocably changed, beyond explicating the female experience in a male-dominated society, beyond showing a potential path to resistance or revolution in an oppressive situation, magical realism is a delightful narrative mode that offers people something to believe in, whether it be magic, oneself or a group of people you are part of. In our increasingly technological world, we need something to believe in, perhaps more than ever before. We need something to give us hope that we can transcend our biological natures, overcome the limitations of our personality, and prevail against tyranny and oppression.  And Joanne Harris does this really well. In her contemporary folk tales, good conquers evil and many of her characters overcome the stumbling blocks that have been placed in their way. Because the people in her stories find themselves, find love, find happiness, gain some universal truths, we readers believe that we can too. If you don’t believe that good things can happen to you, you probably won’t notice when they do. According to Joanne Harris, sometimes you make your own magic and “sometimes it happens by accident. After years of waiting – for a correct planetary alignment, a chance meeting, a sudden inspiration – the right circumstances sometimes happen of their own accord, slyly, without fanfare, without warning. Layman’s alchemy, Joe would have called it. The magic of everyday things” (Harris, Blackberry Wine 11). The magic of optimism. Or the greatest magic of all, the magic of believing in yourself.

Promoting Your Book

growing through marketing image

As you know, being a writer doesn’t mean all you do is write. There is often research that needs to be done and always editing and revision. Authors – especially those who are not well-known and who self-publish – are also responsible for promoting their books. But even well-known authors market themselves and their work. Larger publishers will help and perhaps even reimburse expenses for book tours and pay an author for their appearances. As a writer, you should be prepared to handle this aspect of being an author even when you’re famous and can pay someone to take over this part of your work.

Marketing can be time-consuming so it’s good to start before your book is even published. And, you will have plenty of time to build excitement from the time your book is accepted by a traditional publisher until your work is finally in print. Many writers have full-time jobs besides writing, so you need to determine the best avenues to target with your limited time. I’ve included some suggestions below, but this is not an exhaustive list.

Social Media

Posting about your manuscript on multiple social media sites is essential to reaching a wide audience and most authors set aside time daily to perform these tasks. There are many places where you can post updates and snippets, character sketches or links to other published stories. Many authors build and maintain a following on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook but there are other social mediums that may be as, or more, worthwhile such as TikTok, YouTube and LinkedIn. You will have to decide where to focus your efforts based on your audience, where you already have a following, and the medium you are most comfortable with. Just a few general tips for using social media:

  • Don’t post the exact same thing on multiple sites.
  • Post often but more frequently around book release and appearance dates.
  • Be yourself and post personal things that you don’t mind sharing. People like to know something about the person who writes the novels they love.


This site deserves special mention because it is dedicated to book lovers and provides a place to share favorite books, to review books, create quizzes about books, share quotes from favorite books and more. It is a great place for an author to engage with readers and promote their work. You can even hold a giveaway for your upcoming book, if you can afford to pay $599.00. Most readers will leave a review in exchange for a free book. You can find an audience here and readers can find out about you with Ask an Author or viewing your profile. It is a match made in heaven. Plus, Goodreads says it has 90 million members. That is a lot of readers looking for their next good read! If you are not a member, what are you waiting for?!


This is a great place to write (and read) interesting, original and topical pieces. You can post new content as often or as infrequently as you wish. There will always be many readers looking for new ideas. Medium boasts 725,000 members with as many as half of those paying for unlimited access to free and premium content. It is free to write on Medium, but you can pay for a premium account if you want to earn money from your pieces that generate a lot of interest. This site also offers the ability to collaborate with other writers and readers on your work. Sharing and discussing ideas – and coming to new meanings – is how we progress as a society. Why not join the great discussion and build an audience at the same time?

Book Reviews

Some sites, like NetGalley, connect authors and readers so that authors can get reviews and readers can read new books for free. NetGalley charges authors and publishers to use their service. So, beta reading may be a better way to go to get reviews.

Beta Readers

Using beta readers is an excellent way to get honest feedback about your writing from readers who read prolifically in the genre and, ideally, to get reviews on Amazon. For more information, including how to get beta readers, check out this post on Reedsy.

Author Website

Create a website to share about your published works and upcoming publications, appearances, interviews, reviews and more. Some companies like WordPress will let you create a free site quite easily using one of their free templates. You just add the content. The downside to this is that free websites have ads and you have no control over the ads that are displayed. For about $50.00 a year you can have a site without ads. For an even smaller annual fee, you can have your own domain name and brand your website to you. Alternatively, you can hire someone to do this for you, but it can be expensive. There are many freelance web designers and WordPress designers. You can find some on fiverr.

Amazon Author Page

How often do you pick up a book and read the description, read the first few sentences, and look for the author photo and bio? All the time! Showcase all your books in one place and let readers know who you are with an Author page.


You can get some publicity by doing podcasts. There are many podcasters discussing books and authors who would be happy to talk to you. If your novel takes place in a specific country or community, you most likely can find podcasters who talk about those places. If your book is on a specific topic such as history, politics, or spirituality, find someone who podcasts on those topics. Think creatively about how to get the word out about your book. You can link to the podcast from your website.

Book Tours

Even though there have not been a lot of in person book tours lately due to the pandemic, it’s still worth discussing. Sometimes it seems like you need to be a famous author to get sent out on tour. Smaller publishing houses don’t pay authors and may not even reimburse authors for expenses incurred on a book tour. But, to many writers, this is one of the fun things you get to do when you finally publish a book. Don’t be discouraged if your publisher won’t pay you to do this. You can do book readings and signings in your community without spending a lot of your own money. But it doesn’t have to stop there. If your story takes place in New York City and you live in Maryland, why not take the train up for a book signing/reading/question and answer at a bookstore or library? It wouldn’t be too expensive.  If your story focuses on a particular group of people, such as Italian Americans, go to a city near you with a large population of Italian American’s such as Los Angeles, New Orleans, Chicago, and New York City. Focus on your audience. If your story is for middle grades, find local teachers who will arrange for you to talk to their students about your book. Here, too, a little creativity will take you a long way.

There are many ways to promote your book. Whatever ways you choose, make sure that you are getting results from your efforts. If one method is not very fruitful, try something else. It can take time to build a following on social sites and an audience of faithful readers. Be patient and kind to yourself. There is a learning curve and everything you do provides experience, so all your efforts are worthwhile. Please share in the comments how you promote your work and what you have learned from the time and energy you have spent on marketing.

Writers on Writing: Kevin Griffin

author Kevin Griffin
© Kevin Griffin – used with permission

KEVIN GRIFFIN is a Buddhist teacher and author of several books, including One Breath at a Time: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps, and his latest Buddhism & the Twelve Steps DAILY REFLECTIONS. A longtime Buddhist practitioner and 12 Step participant, he is a leader in the mindful recovery movement and one of the founders of the Buddhist Recovery Network. Kevin is a husband, father and musician. His sixth book Living Kindness: Metta Practice for the Whole of Our Lives is upcoming from Shambala Publications. 

ANGELA: Where do your ideas come from?

KEVIN: For fiction, I’m usually inspired by some experience in my own life. My first novel was about a musician on the road, which I had been. I wrote a historical novel about Buddhists in 12th century India for my daughter; that was a way to transmit Buddhism to her and other young people in an entertaining way. I should say that none of my novels have been published (I’ve written five). (If this were a text message, I’d have added “lol.”)

All six of my published books are about Buddhism. Five of them are about the intersection of Buddhism and recovery from addiction. There’s a lot of focus on explaining how you can use Buddhism to work the 12 Steps which are usually interpreted as being Christian. Each of these books has come about in response to a perceived need in the recovery community to cover a particular topic or format. I’ve self-published two books, one a workbook and the other daily reflections. The four others are with major publishers.

ANGELA: What genres do you write in (and why)?

KEVIN: See above. I love writing fiction, so I keep going back to it even though I can’t get published (so far).

ANGELA: When did you start writing (and why)?

KEVIN: After I got sober I went back to school at age 38. I’d been a high school dropout, so I was starting from scratch with English composition at Santa Monica Community College. At the end of that first semester my professor asked me if I’d ever thought about being a writer. I thought he was crazy, but I was flattered. However, I’d been a professional musician my entire adult life and had gone back to school to become a therapist (which a lot of sober people do). I didn’t want to go back into the arts. Nonetheless, he recommended a creative writing teacher, Jim Krusoe, and I signed up for his class the next semester. Jim is something of a legend in LA. He’s guided many people into writing careers. Just while I was in his class over the next two years two people got novels published. Screenwriters routinely studied with him. I immediately fell in love with writing fiction. At the end of that semester Jim ran a writing conference and I was paired up with Kem Nunn, a brilliant California novelist. Kem read a short story I’d written about a musician and suggested I write a novel about a road musician. I was somewhat stunned, and again, flattered. I couldn’t resist. Over the next three years, as I took classes, worked a day job, and continued to play with my band, I wrote that novel, entitled Ghosttown. I took it with me to UC Berkeley when I transferred out of SMC. There I asked Ishmael Reed, a legendary African-American writer, to sign me on for a semester of independent study so I could finish editing the book. Halfway through the semester I went to meet with him, and he told me he was going to give the book to his agent, another “wow!” moment. The agent couldn’t sell the book, but I used it to get into the UC Irvine MFA program. There I wrote another novel called Buzz about a whacked-out drummer. Again, I had a teacher there who believed in me, and again, it didn’t sell. When I graduated, I felt like a failure and an idiot. Here I went back to school to try to take a practical route in my life, and I’d let all the flattery and ego (and passion for writing) lead me astray. I wound up getting a job as a technical writer, which is as far away from novel writing as you can get and still be writing. It wasn’t for another seven years, by which time I’d started teaching meditation, that I got the idea for my first (published) book: One Breath at a Time: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps. It immediately sold and my career took off, both as a teacher and a writer. The lesson for me was that when I was writing fiction, it was about me; my Buddhist books are about helping others.

ANGELA: What are you currently reading?

KEVIN: I usually have a crime novel going. I just finished The Heretic by Liam McIlvanney, a Scottish author. I’m also reading The Sixth Man by the Warriors’ Andre Iguadala—amazing story that gets you into the reality of the NBA. My current writing project is on the Buddhist sutta on mindful breathing. I’m reading several books on that topic: Breathe, You Are Alive by Thich Nhat Hanh, Mindfulness with Breathing by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, and Mindfulness of Breathing by Bhikkhu Analayo. It’s fascinating to see the contrasting teachings coming from these wise and brilliant authorities.

ANGELA: What is one of your all-time favorite books and why?

KEVIN: Not a fair question. I’ll say, Tapping the Source by Kem Nunn. It combines crime fiction and California surfing. He’s got a great voice, dark and hard-edged.

ANGELA: What is your favorite literary technique/device/element to use in your writing?

KEVIN: I don’t really think in these terms. Having been a musician, someone who just picked up a guitar and played, I approach writing somewhat the same way. I sit down and start writing. I’ve often used narrative in my Buddhist books to bring different examples alive. I suppose that is a “technique,” but as a fiction writer, it’s just part of writing. Nonetheless, the thing I do that some Buddhist writers don’t is draw from my own life to illustrate my points.

ANGELA: What is your writing process?

KEVIN: When I’m working on a book (which is a lot of the time), I get up, shower, meditate, eat, and go to my office. I will typically read part or all of what I wrote last, and just pick up from there. Sometimes my meditation beforehand becomes a time when ideas percolate. But ideas can percolate at any time.

As far as I’m concerned, the most important part of my process is showing up. That’s something you learn in AA (if you didn’t learn it before). I know that if I just keep showing up day after day, eventually there will be enough words to fill a book. People get the idea that writing a book is about having this whole thing in your head that you sort of download onto the page. They think that must be really hard and requires some special genius. I don’t worry about having the whole book in my head, just the next sentence. Each sentence leads to the next sentence. Just follow the threads. If you think too far ahead or try to figure everything out, you short circuit the writing process.

All of this is to say that I try not to be over controlling about what comes out as I’m writing. I actually don’t think writing comes out of thinking. If you think too much, you block the creative flow. For me, again as a musician, it’s more like jamming on my guitar; also similar to being an athlete. In both those cases you perform in the moment. Although you prepare for the moment, when it comes you just have to be present and trust that your preparation and inherent wisdom and training will manifest in something worthwhile. After it comes out you can take a look and see if it is worth keeping.

ANGELA: How frequently (and for how long/how much) do you write?

KEVIN: Typically, I write about four to five days a week. Because the project I’m working on now takes a lot of research, there tend to be fewer days of writing and more days of reading and letting the ideas tumble around in my head.

I rarely write for more than two hours at a time. There are only a couple hours in the day when my mind is at its sharpest (which I think is true for everyone). I have to be in flow when I write; I don’t try to think a lot about what I’m doing, just let the ideas come. For that to happen, my energy has to be strong and my mind sharp and clear. The only exception is when I’m editing or copy-editing. Then I might spend more time.

ANGELA: Where do you do most of your writing (and why)?

KEVIN: Usually in my office. I’ve written all my books there.

With the pandemic I’ve gotten a little tired of my office, so sometimes I wander out to the family room or the living room if my wife is out. With our daughter grown and out of the house, there are more spaces I can use.

ANGELA: Do you already have ideas lined up so that you could immediately start the next story?

KEVIN: I often have some ideas for possible books. Right now, I’m writing one book by myself, and also collaborating on two other (possible) books with friends. Sometimes I get an idea and try it out or reflect on it for a while and realize I don’t want to or can’t write it. I also get ideas that I don’t think anyone will buy, and I pretty much only write books that I think I can sell (except my fiction, which nobody buys).

ANGELA: Do you always start the next work immediately after completing one?

KEVIN: No. But I do often have something in mind.

The last two novels I wrote were kind of palette cleansers between Buddhist books.

ANGELA: What do you do about writer’s block?

KEVIN: I don’t believe in writer’s block. In fact, I don’t really know what it is. If I have something I want to write about, I write. But I, unlike a lot of writers, don’t have very high standards. When I write something I tend to like it, at least at first. Later on I might see its failings, but at first my narcissism tends to spellbind me. The same with music; I get spellbound by my musical ideas. I fall in love with them. Later I might think they’re crap, but, at first, they’re my babies. That quality helps me to write pretty effortlessly. I know people who are criticizing themselves as they write, so I guess those are the people who get blocked. That sounds like a horrible experience. I just think writing is fun. I know that I’m lucky for that.

I’ll add that it’s quite possible that the reason my fiction hasn’t been published is that I’m not that good a writer. For Buddhist books, you don’t have to be a literary writer. You just have to be able to write clear texts (and of course, you have to know something on the subject). I’m a very straightforward writer, not flowery or using lots of metaphors. That works in spiritual books.

ANGELA: What do you know now that you wish you had known when you were starting out as a writer?

KEVIN: Maybe how hard it is to publish a novel. But if I’d have known that I might not have done it, and I learned a lot from all the failed writing that I think applies to my writing today.

When I was promoting my first book and had to read from it in public, I started to notice a particular flaw in my writing. (I’m not telling you what it was, so don’t ask.) I used that awareness in writing—and mainly in editing—my subsequent books. It’s important to watch for your ticks. I recently noticed that I was overusing the word “connected.”

author's book covers

Connecting and keeping up with Kevin Griffin
Author Website
Laughing Buddha, One Breath Music 
Buddhist Recovery Network
Spirit Rock Meditation Center
Amazon Author Page

Interview conducted in June 2022.

Working With a Writing Coach

Writers' blocks image

There are many benefits to hiring a coach. A coach can help with anything from advancing your career to improving yourself and your life. Like all life coaches, a writing coach can (and often does) help with the following:

  • Setting and achieving goals
  • Building better habits
  • Reducing procrastination
  • Developing discipline
  • Increasing self-motivation
  • Meeting deadlines
  • Creating balance
  • Enhancing communication skills
  • Solving problems better
  • Improving relationships
  • Boosting self-esteem

The list above is not exhaustive. There are many areas of life where a coach can help people make improvements and achieve success. Most coaches specialize in an area such as finance, career, business, health, and writing (to name a few) however all coaches help people refine areas of their life that are not optimal.  Working with a coach is beneficial because you have someone to encourage and celebrate your success, someone to hold you accountable for the things you want to achieve, and someone to help make change more manageable. This post will focus on writing coaching.

What is Writing Coaching?
In addition to all the items listed above, a writing coach works with you in these additional areas:

  • Finding your voice
  • Expressing your authentic self in writing
  • Becoming more confident in your writing
  • Identifying areas of your novel that need more work
  • Improving parts of writing that you struggle with (i.e. plotting, characterization, research, synthesizing information)
  • Managing the emotional highs and lows that come with being a writer
  • Overcoming “writer’s block” or trouble starting, continuing, or ending your story
  • Learning not to edit (or continuing to research) while writing
  • Developing and sticking to a writing schedule

Another benefit of writing coaching is ongoing critique of your work. This alone is worth the cost of coaching!

What happens in Coaching?

  • A coach will ask you questions (often many questions) to understand your goals, assess your motivation, previous successes and failures, determine how much time you have to devote to your objectives, and the things that might be obstacles in order to build a strong vision of what success will look like for you and to work with you to develop a realistic plan to achieve that vision.
  • The plan will be broken down into milestones and steps to complete each milestone, not unlike how projects are planned and managed in business. How it works is that small, realistic and achievable steps are accomplished daily or weekly that will lead to your goal over time. Small steps create less resistance since we have so many demands on our time and energy already.
  • During weekly or, perhaps, twice monthly phone calls you and your coach will discuss the progress that was made and any problems that occurred and work through them. Adjustments to the scope, time or resources needed to reach goal can be made to the plan as necessary. A coach will work with you to make sure you succeed this time and that could involve tackling some of the bullet points at the beginning of this post such as problem solving, time management, discipline or creating balance. In addition to working with you, a coach will hold you accountable to achieve your goals, will celebrate your success, and help you turn struggles into new strengths.

What should you look for in a coach?

  • Someone who has experience in one or more of these areas: writing, editing, and publishing (traditional or self-publishing). This might be a published author, professional writers such as ghostwriters and technical writers, a writing professor, editor, publisher, publicist, and possibly a literary agent (depending on your needs).
  • A certified professional coach.  Certified coaches have completed training approved by the International Coaching Federation. This training is important because writers do not write disconnected from other aspects of life. We need to create a balance between our writing and everything else. We need to learn to manage all aspects of our life to be sure that we not only have time and energy for writing but for everything else in life as well. If we can create and maintain good health and work-life balance, we can bring our best selves to the writing table. What could be better?
  • Someone who is a good fit. Life/Writing Coaches are people too and our individual styles probably won’t work for everyone. Most coaches offer a complimentary session. Take advantage of this to meet a coach, discuss your needs, and discover how a coach can help you bring out your best writing. Present a challenge you are experiencing and ask the coach how they would work with you on that.

What does Coaching Cost?
Coaching rates vary greatly depending on the type of coaching, the experience of the coach, and length of sessions. You can expect to pay between $75 and $200 per hour. Executive coaches charge more. Some coaches offer discounts for committing to a certain number of sessions and full payment in advance.

It may take some time and effort on your part to find the right coach, but it will be worth it. You can achieve your goals and improve your life overall. Why not give it a try? With a complimentary session on offer, what do you have to lose? Contact me today to schedule!

Writers on Writing: Christina Marrocco

Addio, Love Monster book cover

CHRISTINA MARROCCO is a Professor of English and Assistant Director of the Writers Center at Elgin Community College. Her writing has been featured in Silver Birch Press, The Laurel Review, Red Fern Press, Mountain Review and Ovunque Siamo.  Her debut novel Addio, Love Monster was released on June 1 (Ovunque Siamo Press).

ANGELA: Where do your ideas come from?

CHRISTINA: It depends on the genre, but since Addio, Love Monster is fiction, I’ll head in that direction. I’m an observer with a good memory. By that I mean I’m shy but interested in what people say and do, and I’ve always paid close attention to the world around me, and so a lot of my ideas about settings and human nature come from what I’ve taken in and held. Specific story arcs and characters, though, develop during the revision process. For this book, and a second one I’m finishing up, I moved from my initial vignettes or sketches to full story by reading, rereading, revising until I was delighted by what was on the page. I also find that ideas pop up every day and I have to say “no, not yet” to some. That used to bother me, but I’ve gotten to the point of realizing I can’t write every single thing I want to write, so I need to stay focused on the ideas I’m currently working on. 

ANGELA: What genres do you write in (and why)?

CHRISTINA: I write in fiction, poetry, and memoir regularly. I also do scholarly research and write book reviews. I choose not to specialize because I feel each of these approaches allow me to tap different aspects of a topic or reality I’m drawn to. They depend on different intelligences and creativities–and I hate to limit myself. But maybe more importantly, I find that, for instance, working with poetry improves my prose, working on research improves my knowledge, which then improves my poetry and prose. Working in memoir uses all those skills from the other genres. This approach isn’t for everyone, but I think it can be extremely fruitful for mind and craft expansion. 

ANGELA: When did you start writing (and why)? 

CHRISTINA: I began writing in earnest when I was a child–nothing anyone kept, but I would craft really pathetic letters to my mother and float them down the stairs–letters designed to convince her to let me off grounding. I had a journal, which I would edit and edit into oblivion as I extracted anything that showed me in a light I didn’t like in the days after I’d written it. I wish I’d left it alone and kept it, but I did not. I wrote and sewed together books of pressed flowers with nature notes. But then life changed: I despised school–a cursory look at my old report cards indicates I had undiagnosed ADHD–I became a struggling teen who became a teen mother, dropped out of school, and married two days after her eighteenth birthday. This meant writing in earnest–both for economic and time and confidence reasons–did not resume until my late thirties–I’m fifty-five now and over the last two decades I’ve worked hard to become formally educated and to write with skill. 

ANGELA: What are you currently reading?

CHRISTINA: A few things, and all at once. I like to have a book in my bag for appointments and times I find myself waiting around–it’s got to be short stories or poetry so that I can dip in and out and hear my name when I’m called. Right now, that’s an old book and a small one–pocket sized–Welsh Short Stories selected by Gwyn Jones. They are simply beautiful little classics that don’t get read enough in the US. My bedtime book right now is also a Welsh author–but modern–it’s Alis Hawkins, and I’m reading her The Black And The White–a murder mystery set during the time of the black death. Great stuff. And then, up in my office above the garage where I prepare my teaching and my writing, I’m reading two books: Trapped! The Cherry Mine Disaster by Karen Tintori–I was so lucky to see Karen present on this book just last week at Chicago Literati–her research is impeccable and her writing just beautiful. I’m also re-reading Louise DeSalvo’s Writing as a Way of Healing, which is a book I now recommend to so many of my students as well. 

ANGELA: What is one of your all-time favorite books and why?

CHRISTINA: Gah! How can I choose? When I was a kid I read Erma Bombeck and Mike Royko like crazy–because they were in the house and they were wonderful.  Just thinking about them now I can feel that joy, so maybe they are my favorite writers–their columns and their books. But then I read and re-read Watership Down and The Mists of Avalon–I could not get enough of those. I absolutely love JT Farrell–the Irish Chicago writer best known for Studs Lonigan–and my favorite of his is the collection of short stories–Chicago Stories. I just re-read Paper Fish by Tina DeRosa and was enthralled again. Tony Ardizzone’s In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu, I love it, it’s both an escape and a grounding, told beautifully in magical realism. I guess there are books I’m really drawn to over and over again, but I tend not to choose favorites because there are so many to love–I’m the same with music–If I love a song–regardless of genre, artist, era. Heck, I can’t even choose a favorite color. When people ask me to, I just stand there and blink my eyes. But those above are what’s standing out to me as I think hard.

ANGELA: What is your favorite literary technique/device/element to use in your writing? 

CHRISTINA: I love writing, my own and that of others, that really expresses sensory detail and specificity of environment. I want a journey both in the mind and in the body. 

ANGELA: What is your writing process?

CHRISTINA: My process is not identical for all genres, but I’ll go with fiction here and memoir too to show how things vary. In fiction I am a character driven writer. I realize I need plot–but I hold off on it. I tend to write vignettes of my characters–sit with them and observe them. How they move, what they look like, how their laugh sounds. I start to write what is bothering them. What gives them joy–not in a list but in a scene. So for Addio, Love Monster–which is a novel told in story–linked story–I created my vignettes or scenes and then I had to sit with those and find arcs/stories/movement for them. It took me six years to write this book because of my slow method, but it worked for me. And as I did that the connections and the vitality of the neighborhood exposed itself to me. I have a book of linked short stories underway set in Wales over centuries and that one has worked in a similar way. When I work in memoir, I know the plot. The plot is my life. It exists intrinsically, so I find that process is more about free writing everything under the sun and then coming back to pluck out the best threads and cut away the lint. It’s a very different experience. And poetry, well, that’s something else altogether–like cutting gems. But in all cases, I’m a revisionary writer. If you adhere to Kurt Vonnegut’s idea about “bashers and swoopers” I’m definitely a swooper. I like what it creates. I’m going to list these like a recipe in the second person–as if I’m telling others what to do–but it’s simply what I do: 

  1. Schedule in time for writing–if you don’t, everything in the world will tell you it’s a “hobby” and it can wait. It can’t. I like to write early in the morning because I’m freshest then. Two hours a day–after that I’m writing garbage, but sometimes I go much longer because I just can’t stop. The hardest thing is sitting down to just do it. The second hardest thing is making sure no one disturbs you. Hide. Go out to your car if you don’t have a door with a lock. Earplugs are great. I’m not kidding.
  2. Read each day, even if it’s just 30 minutes. This will water your mind and make your writing stronger–plus supporting fellow writers matters.
  3. Don’t write in fear: save your docs, of course, but fear is not your friend. Don’t worry about losing stuff, don’t obsess about what if you die before you finish, don’t worry about your family being mad that you wrote this or that. All that worry, blow it away. You can probably tell I have to blow it away regularly.
  4. Don’t show your work to others too early. Wait till you have done your best with it, till you feel like things are in the right places, developed, ready and ripe. Showing too early lets others meddle too early.
  5. Do have a trusted writerly friend or a writers group so that when you are ready you can see how your story works with others. Observe. Don’t be petulant–this is difficult (for me). My writers group was very helpful in responding in particular to point of view issues as well as cultural issues. Addio, Love Monster is set in an Italian American neighborhood–in a culture that is very much my own. I needed to hear what they did not get clarity on–what needed more communication for a broad audience.
  6. Editing–another animal all together. I’m an English professor, so you would think I’d not need an editor or proofreader. I needed a proofreader–and when you get to this point, use someone professional and skilled. It’s necessary.
  7. Consider writing workshops–now with Zoom programs so easily available workshops are a great way to connect with other writers across the country or across the globe. Personally, I’ve been attending memoir workshops and a poetry workshop course. Carving out additional time. 

ANGELA: How frequently (and for how long/how much) do you write?

CHRISTINA: I write five days a week when I’m being good. I also teach six sections a semester and have lots of household responsibilities, so it’s a challenge. But that’s the goal and I often make it. 2 hours per day. When I start writing I’m tempted to go for eight hours–always–but I find doing that ensures you will not repeat writing the next day, and in the long run creates worse and less writing. 

ANGELA: Where do you do most of your writing (and why)?

CHRISTINA: I write either in my above-garage office or in a chair in my living room. I should go to the office more but there’s no bathroom. When I write in the house, I’m constantly asked questions by family members and pummeled by my dogs who see the laptop as an unwanted sibling they would like to destroy once and for all so we can be on a perpetual walk. If I were more disciplined I’d always go up above the garage, but like I said: the bathroom. Also, I like to be close to the fridge and pantry just in case of a craving for Nutella and Italian bread. In the summers, I like to drive to Wisconsin. I know a place with cabins for $35 per night and I can write like mad there. Scheduling that right after this. 

ANGELA: Do you already have ideas lined up so that you could immediately start the next story? 

CHRISTINA: Yes. In fact, I’ve got the Welsh Stories, a 350-page manuscript in its final revision plus a memoir I began in Edvidge Guinta’s workshop on cross-generational memoir. The memoir will include family history but also our family struggle with my daughter’s death at thirty-four this past Christmas from leiomyosarcoma. It will be important to me in a very particular way and yet so difficult. I tend to work on two or three things at once, which means I have a pipeline going. It also allows refuge if you are working on something that is emotionally taxing. That said, I’d be working multiple projects anyway because I have a lot of writing I want to get out into the world, and time being what it is, I think it’s natural (for me) to dip in and out of a few projects, while slowly herding them all toward the gate. 

ANGELA: Do you always start the next work immediately after completing one? 

CHRISTINA: Yes. Always. Because I’m always excited about the next thing coming. Wrapping up a manuscript or poem is very different from the invention process. I want to always be inventing. 

ANGELA: What do you do about writer’s block? 

CHRISTINA: I don’t have writer’s block. I have the opposite: a lot of things I’m compelled to write about and the willingness to write clumsily at first and revise until I get it right. Or even write something that will never see the light of day. Will get scrapped. That’s okay. In fact, it’s necessary. I find that writer’s block –and I see a lot of it in my classroom–comes from a focus on perfection at a time when perfection is not called for. It’s fear related. And it’s unnecessary. Write for yourself. Write the story you want to read. Or the poem you want to read. Start there and don’t worry. Tony Ardizzone once said to me (and a group of others) something like this: in invention–when you begin the new piece–it should be the child-you running the show, finger painting if you will. Keep the teenage you and the adult you out of the room. They can come in later when it’s time to revise and edit respectively. I found that helpful. Be kind to yourself. I think that can go a long way in eliminating writer’s block.  

ANGELA: What do you know now that you wish you had known when you were starting out as a writer? 

CHRISTINA: I think my experience had to take the path it took. I find that I learn what I need to as the proper time comes. I don’t know that I was ready before I was ready. So there really aren’t facts or techniques. But there are these things. I’ll number them for ease:

  1. You have every right to write what you want to write. It’s no one else’s place to determine your topics or style.
  2. It will be hard, hard work. And that’s normal.
  3. Remind yourself it’s also joyful. Not just another task. A passion. I like the word story-teller a lot in this space.
  4. Sometimes you will feel dejected, rejected, tired. Okay, so what?
  5. Writers are generally pretty nice people. If you ask them questions, they are often thrilled to reply–writers want more writers, more books, more stories, poems, exploration. Join them. 

Keeping up with Christina Marrocco:
Author Website

Interview conducted in May 2022.

Writers on Writing: Scott Austin Tirrell

Dawn of the Lightbearer book cover

SCOTT AUSTIN TIRRELL is the author of 4 fiction novels (with 2 more on the way) and 7 non-fiction books in his Frustrated Writer series. He also maintains his own publishing company, Satirrell Publishing, which publishes journals and project planners on a variety of topics for creative folks. Scott lived in China for over 3 years where he taught English and American business culture to graduate students and executives.

ANGELA: Where do your ideas come from?

SCOTT: I generally start with an image and a single character and see where the muse takes me. For the “Dawn of the Lightbearer”, book 1 in my Absolution of the Morning Star series, this was an old tree in a cave and a young blacksmith’s apprentice. From there, a story bloomed. I’m now writing book three of the series- some 1,200 pages into the story. It’s been an adventure.

ANGELA: What genres do you write in? And why?

SCOTT: I would say broadly speculative. I’ve written in horror, historical fiction, and sci-fi, but darkish fantasy is where my heart is. I’m fascinated by the medieval period, but I get bogged down in the research for historical fiction. I enjoy the freedom of fantasy and its ability to transcend into other genres.

ANGELA: What is one of your all-time favorite books and why?

SCOTT: It’s a tie. The Damnation Game by Clive Barker is just a comfy Faust-like tale. It is more commercial than his other works, but I’ve read it a dozen times. The second would be Frank Herbert’s Dune– it is just epic world-building.

ANGELA: What is your favorite literary technique/device/element to use in your writing?

SCOTT: I just wrote a blog on something I call dump to dialogue. It is a process of taking an infodump and transforming it into an active dialogue between characters.  

ANGELA: What is your writing process?

SCOTT: I used to plan my stories out in detail. I stopped doing that. I now start with a single situation and let it grow organically based on the characters. I may have a specific destination I want to get to, but I don’t like to know how my characters will get there. I let them make their choices based on their personalities and see where it takes them. It doesn’t always work, but it often does. If I don’t know where they will go, my readers likely won’t know either. I like the poetry of that.

ANGELA: How frequently (and for how long/how much) do you write?

SCOTT: I try to write at least 1,000 words a day, every day. It doesn’t always happen, but I try. This usually takes me about two hours. I write from 6 pm-8 pm. If I can fit more writing into my life, I do, but I also have a day job like most writers. You have to pay the bills, right?

ANGELA: Do you already have ideas lined up so that you could immediately start the next story?

SCOTT: Yes, I have about ten ideas percolating right now. I am actively working on two different series. For The Absolution of the Morningstar series, an epic dark fantasy, I am writing the third book of what will be a six-book series. Book one, “Dawn of the Lightbearer”, and two, “The Mourning Son”, are currently available on Amazon. I am also tinkering with the sequel of my first published book, the Island of Stone. This will likely be my next project before continuing with the Morningstar series- I’m about 70 pages in already.

ANGELA: Do you always start the next work immediately after completing one?

SCOTT: I usually take about a month off to promote what I’ve just published, and then it is back to writing. My goal in life is to get two books out a year.

ANGELA: What do you do about writer’s block?

SCOTT: I research for inspiration. All it takes is a little bit of new information to turn the wheels again. Luckily, I’ve not had a severe case of the block, but sometimes I do lose motivation. Some days I don’t want to spend two hours forcing it, but once I get going, I’m usually ok. The best medicine for the block is to just keep writing- even if it all ends up in the bin.

ANGELA: What do you know now that you wish you had known when you were starting out as a writer?

SCOTT: Don’t waste time trying to make it perfect the first go. First drafts are first drafts. Just keep moving forward and get a foundation down on paper. When I was younger, I wasted so much time reading and re-reading what I wrote to get it perfect, only to cut it during editing. It will all work out in the end. Have confidence in your process. Think about writing a novel like climbing a hill. If you look up and try to encapsulate the entire story, you will get overwhelmed. You may even give up. It will also feel like it takes forever. Instead, focus on taking one step at a time, and you’ll get there before you know it!

Connecting and keeping up with Scott Austin Tirrell:
Amazon Author Page

Interview conducted in May 2022.

How to Write a Literature Review

Literature Review word cloud

Many people are daunted by the literature (lit) review portion of a dissertation or thesis. It requires much focus, time, and energy, so it is not something to put off or be undertaken casually. The good news is that getting this section right will make it easier to write the remaining chapters. Before starting your lit review, you need to decide on your topic and develop a strong research question. Ask yourself the following questions to find a good topic.

  • What topics are you very interested in?
  • What are some of the problems or challenges in those topics?
  • Which of these challenges would you like to learn more about?
  • Is there sufficient current research (within the last 10 years) available on this topic?
  • What kind of study could you undertake to learn more about that issue?
  • Of the theories you have studied, which would best guide your study?
  • What do you hope to find or solve?
  • How could your study benefit others?

You will then phrase your topic in the form of a question that you will strive to answer by performing your own study. The research question should be specific while the topic is broad and complex. This will ensure that you have a lot to work with and room to adjust your research question or study parameters, if needed. And, finally, the research question should be answerable within the allotted time.

Once you have your research question, you are ready to begin! While there are many steps to planning your study and the writing of your thesis or dissertation, this post will focus on the literature review. The lit review is very important to the overall project. It provides information about the current state of research in your topic area and lays the foundation for later chapters, including providing support to your own findings and recommendations. The main steps to planning and executing a good lit review are:

  • Find lots of good research
  • Group scholarly articles by themes
  • Determine the order in which you will discuss the themes
  • Write the lit review

Good research is the key to a great lit review. Find more articles than you think you will need. Not all of what you find will be as applicable or supportive to your project as they seemed at first. Be prepared to search again later as you get further into the writing of your paper. For a thesis, you may need to cite a minimum of 20 or 30 sources. Often, it is more. I used 50 sources in my master’s thesis. For a dissertation, the minimum might be 50 but you could use 100 or more sources. Check your school’s requirements or follow up with your advisor/dissertation chair to be sure.

Once you have a sufficient amount of research, read the articles you found. Highlight quotes and sections that you think you might use in the lit review and make notes of the main points, methodologies, population, findings, and recommendations. Once you’ve read all the articles, make note of the main similarities and differences you found among all the articles as well as any themes that stand out. Analyze your notes and begin to group your articles with similar main points, findings, or themes. Then, look through the articles in each grouping and re-read the highlighted portions. At this point you are ready to develop an outline or perform one or more of the other creative processes that prepare you to write such as brainstorming or freewriting.

Whether you start with a detailed outline, freewriting, brainstorming, clustering, or some other pre-writing technique, it will be best to consider how to order the groupings of articles. You want to arrange them into an order that makes sense. Each subsequent theme should build upon, or connect in some way, to the previous idea discussed. By the time your reader gets to the end of this chapter, they will have a good grounding in the topic including current research and problems and will be able to understand your research question, the study you will undertake, as well as your own findings and recommendations.

Once you have a plan, you can start writing. You will discuss the themes you found, each article in a group (including a brief summary of a relevant aspect such as the main points, stating the population studied, or highlights of the findings and recommendations), and compare and contrast the research and themes you found. You should point out if you think any of the articles do not support their findings well, if there are problems with their methodology, sample problems, or weak conclusions. Explain the articles in relation to your topic and research question. The idea is to take all these different articles and present them as a coherent whole by tying them all together by topic and themes while discussing their differences and the outcomes of your examination of the current literature. This is more interesting than randomly or chronologically discussing each article, one by one, and summarizing at the end. It also highlights your knowledge and understanding of the topic and current research and allows you to organically transition to discussing why your study is needed (and how the current research is lacking).

The most critical part of the lit review is the discussion of the theoretical framework that will be the foundation of your thesis or dissertation. More of your time will be spent discussing this in detail because this is what your study will be based upon. The findings and your recommendations will be the original contribution you make to your field so it is critical that you choose your theory well. Ideally, some or all of the research you find can be tied to the framework in some way. The theoretical framework is the thread that will tie all the chapters of your dissertation or thesis together.

The importance of the lit review can’t be understated. Having this section well-organized by theme will help with writing your findings and recommendations because you can organize the writing of those sections in a similar way or be able to point out why your study is different than much of the prevailing literature. It sets up the writing of future chapters and will make your writing seem more seamless and very cohesive as everything will be smooth and well-tied together. Knowing how to prepare a literature review and allowing enough time to research and write the chapter, will get you off to a great start.

Writers on Writing: Joshua Isard

Conquistador of the Useless book cover

JOSHUA ISARD is an Assistant Professor and Director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Arcadia University. He has published numerous short stories and his first novel, Conquistador of the Useless, was published in 2013.  

ANGELA: Where do your ideas come from?

JOSHUA: Mostly real life experiences. I can’t say that’s new for a writer or anything, but it’s true. Sometimes it’s the mundane, like suburban living, sometimes it’s more exciting things like travel. But my stories always have a kernel of something real, and then expand into a fictional world as I write.

So, I wouldn’t say I write autobiographical fiction, as much as to say that my fiction sprouts from my real life.

ANGELA: Why do you write in the contemporary/minimalist/realist genre?

JOSHUA: Well, I didn’t always. I tried for a much more mandarine prose when I was in grad school, and it didn’t work out. Then in my mid twenties I started discovering contemporary minimalists like Amy Hempel, Marc Richard, and Tom Spanbauer, and something about the way they told a story really resonated with me. I tried it out and realized that a sort of minimalism suited the stories I wanted to tell, and I’ve gone with it ever since.

I think that’s the important thing, finding the style that suits your stories. When those two elements are in harmony, they end up informing each other to produce cohesive fiction.

ANGELA: What are you currently reading?

JOSHUA: A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. I’m in this stage of reading tons of books set in Japan because I’m teaching a course about it next semester. So, it’s been all Japan all the time, with only a few breaks, since June or so. I love it, I’m fascinated by Japan and the way Western culture relates to it.

ANGELA: What is one of your all-time favorite books and why?

JOSHUA: I’m glad you phrased is as “one of,” because who can choose just one as the top?

I’ll go with Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. It’s been a heavy influence on my current project, and the way he imbues such a dark situation with humor is just incredible.

ANGELA: What is your favorite literary technique/device/element to use in your writing?

JOSHUA: I use a lot of em-dashes. I think that’s the best piece of punctuation, and can represent several things based on context, like offsetting sort of parenthetical phrases, and joining two independent clauses in a far more intuitive way than a semicolon (I hate semicolons).

Lots of writers forget how useful punctuation is, and the ranges of uses that still fall within correct grammar. I like stretching punctuation use to its limits.

ANGELA: What is your writing process?

JOSHUA: I go to Starbucks, sit my but in the chair, and write. I also listen to music, but otherwise, that’s it. I think people fetishize the writing process far too much, all it involves is getting in front of a computer or piece of paper and writing. There is no muse, and no magic amount of coffee that makes one able to write. It’s all the will to sit down and do it.

ANGELA: How frequently (and for how long/how much) do you write?

JOSHUA: I try to write every day, but that never happens. On average, five days a week, maybe?

And I make sure to get in a few hours each session. I think sustained time works much better for me than small snippets. But, that’s just me and what seems to get me producing the best work. For whatever reason, I think my writing’s better in the second hour than the first of a writing session.

ANGELA: Do you already have ideas lined up so that you could immediately start the next story?

JOSHUA: You hope this happens, but it doesn’t always for me. It took nine months after my novel was published before I started a new one, and I hardly wrote anything in that time. I definitely need to be more disciplined in thinking ahead and making sure I have another project in mind when I finish the one in progress.

ANGELA: Do you always start the next work immediately after completing one?

JOSHUA: Again, I don’t always have that luxury. But I think that if I do find myself with an idea ready to go, I wouldn’t want time off before starting it.

ANGELA: What do you do about writer’s block?

JOSHUA: I don’t believe in it. Not having a story to write isn’t writer’s block, it’s my own lack of discipline in thinking about a new project. Writer’s block really means the writer thinks everything he or she comes up with is terrible. To which I say, so what? Most of the time you have to write something terrible to get to something good, so just write some bad pages.

I think that if we stop using terms like “the muse,” or “writer’s block,” more people would write more good stories. Those ideas are nothing more than excuses, taking the agency away from the writer. If you’re not writing, it’s your fault—don’t try and blame anyone or anything else. When I was unproductive for nine months, that was on me, and I own up to it. Doing so will help prevent me from not doing that again.

Connecting and keeping up with Joshua Isard

Interview conducted in August 2014.

How and When to Edit

manuscript with markup

Many people think of editing as reviewing a written work, line by line, for typos and errors in grammar. While that is certainly a significant part of editing, there are other types of editing that can be just as beneficial as line editing. In a previous post, I discussed the writing process. Now, I want to discuss editing in relation to the writing process, specifically how and when to edit as well as the various types of editing.

But first, a gentle reminder because writers don’t always take the best care of themselves.  It’s always helpful to take a rest of at least a few days before revising or editing so you can come at the daunting task feeling fresh. You’re going to need that! The focus and analysis you use during editing is distinct and more intense—in a different way—than the other phases of the writing process.

I find the prewriting stage to be both interesting and frustrating. It can be a challenge to find the resources that will suit your writing project best. There is also a lot of skimming and reading that can be a bit tedious.  But I try not to get hung up on that and move on to writing as soon as I have a baseline. The revision stage can, and often does, include more research so everything works out in the end.

The writing period is like the honeymoon phase of a relationship. It is intensely creative. Ideas, words, and phrases reveal themselves all the time, sometimes at the wrong time. Like when you’re trying to sleep! It can be magical when you’re in the zone and the words quickly fill page after page. It can also make you cranky when it doesn’t flow, and then you know it’s time for a break. Many of the authors who I’ve interviewed for my blog agree that writer’s block means you need to take care of yourself. If you are struggling to write, you must replenish yourself physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

I want to say that revision is my favorite part of the writing process. However, like many writers, I struggle with this aspect. I know what needs to be done. I can see where more details are needed. The sections where the writing is not sparkling. The inconsistencies and discontinuities. But it often feels overwhelming. Nevertheless, revision is the opportunity to see the work as a whole and to weave our writing more tightly together. There is creativity in this step but also a lot of evaluation. Many of the students in my freshman comp classes went right to proofreading after they completed their first full draft, but revision is an important element of writing that should not be neglected. This stage is necessary for anyone who wants to bring their best writing. It can be a lot of work—more work than writing—and that can be scary. Looking at the literary devices and techniques in your stories, drafting an outline so you can play around with the plot, examining the synthesis of your research, along with your conclusions and recommendations, requires a lot of time and energy. It sometimes involves scrutinizing your word choices to refine the tone, making sure your outcome is a forgone conclusion in hindsight, strengthening your arguments or researching and writing some more. If analyzing your writing is not your thing, an editor can help by providing an editorial assessment and/or a developmental edit of your manuscript to identify the components that need work. Then, you can focus on what you do best (and enjoy the most)—writing.

An editorial assessment is a detailed analysis of a work as a whole that concentrates on the development of a novel, including an appraisal of literary devices and techniques, or a chapter-by-chapter critique of a technical manuscript, such as a dissertation, including examination of the lit review, discussion of the research, the findings and the recommendations. A developmental or content edit studies the structure of a work—how the content is organized and presented. Both of these will highlight the work that is needed when you revise your work.

Line editing and proofreading, which comes after the writing process is complete and you have a fully developed manuscript, is a different animal again. It requires a lot of dedication, patience, and hard work. There are so many facets that need to be considered: spelling, punctuation, subject-verb agreement, switching verb tenses, repeated words, sentence lengths and structure, word choices, and the application of appropriate style guides for academic and journalistic writing. It can be difficult to tackle so many aspects of writing all at the same time so many writers make multiple passes, focusing on one thing at a time. One writer said they make seven passes at editing. That is an excellent way to edit a work. But you don’t have to make seven passes. Try breaking down your editing as follows.

  1. Inspect sentence lengths and structures. The more varied you can be, the more interesting it is for readers, and it also creates a nice flow. Check your punctuation while you are at it.
  2. Examine your word choices to ensure that you are not repeating words and that you have used the correct word (such as ‘an’ instead of ‘and’). Spell check won’t catch that. Assess your use of figurative language such as similes, metaphors, symbolism, imagery, irony and so on. This is more engaging for your readers and makes them think.
  3. Make sure your subjects agree with your verbs and that you aren’t switching tenses.

Looking at style, grammar and punctuation is characteristic of line or copy editing and you can hire a professional to do this for you. I recommend hiring an editor at least once because it can be very enlightening to see your work through the eyes of another. You can learn a lot and began to change how you write. If you don’t need a review of style and are ready to move on to your next work, you can pay someone to proofread before submission. Proofreading, sometimes called mechanical editing, will evaluate your grammar, spelling, and punctuation so you can send a well-polished manuscript to publishers. As a writer and editor, I have at least 2 people edit my writing and a third to comment on the content and development. The diverse perspectives are extremely beneficial to the piece and to how I approach later writing.

Many writers do not like proofreading or line editing but, if you take the time to do it, you can learn a lot. The more you edit your own work, the better your writing will become. Correcting your own errors is a learning process if you do it mindfully. Recognizing and correcting mistakes will make you less likely to make them while you write. Still, there is nothing wrong with paying someone else to do this for you. It leaves you free to write more! Let’s talk about your editing needs.