How Do I Put My Reader First? Part 2

In part 1 of putting your reader first, we discussed three questions you can ask yourself to help keep your readers’ needs top of mind during the writing process. But the truth is, you need to carry that mindset into the editing process as well, which is what we will cover here in part 2. During the writing process, it’s just you and the keyboard, banging out beautiful words and maybe you found it simple to adjust your mindset. But in the editing process, you are inviting other people to help get your manuscript to the next level. Which means you now have other people’s opinions and ideas surrounding your newborn piece of art. Nervous? That’s understandable. But don’t let nerves paralyze you from receiving and acting on crucial feedback to make your manuscript shine.

Where I find that authors get into trouble is thinking that sending their MS off to the editor is like leaving an apple pie on their doorstep, perfect and ready to be eaten. What you are really doing is inviting them into your kitchen so they can critique your crust and adjust the spices in your filling. Sending your manuscript to the editor is not the end of the process for you; it’s really the beginning. Keep in mind though, there are different types of editing and each one serves a different purpose. I talk about the purposes of each type of editing here.

So prepare yourself mentally: can you be willing to take their suggestions? Can you humble yourself enough to at least listen to their professional opinion, even if you end up going a different direction with character development, the arrangement of chapters, or “darling” details that are special to you?

As you prepare yourself mentally for the editing process, here are three things to consider to help shape a “Reader First” mindset.

1. Stay humble about your message

I edit quite a bit of material in the faith-based space and one of the disappointing things I see with new Christian authors is an arrogance about their message “because God gave it to them.” If you are a faith-based writer, the phrase “God gave me this book” is not a free pass on receiving feedback and edits on your manuscript. Trust me, God believes in editing. Specifically, if you are a Christian author, I would encourage you to recognize that you are being used as a channel to encourage and edify the body of Christ with a message from God; you are not the one being praised.

It can be tough to keep that in perspective though when you’re in the midst of writing and editing your book. To keep me grounded in my own work, I return to my “mission verse” often:

The Sovereign Lord has given me a well-instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary. He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being instructed. The Sovereign Lord has opened my ears; I have not been rebellious, I have not turned away.

Isaiah 50:4–5

The Sovereign Lord gives…He awakens me…He opens my ears…All of this language speaks of a great Initiator other than myself. Instead, my part is to listen and to obey; to receive and not turn away; to share what God has laid on my heart yes, but to do so humbly and to receive the help and guidance of other writers and editors that God has gifted with insight that I need. There may be one name on the front of the book, but a whole team of people stands behind that name. It’s a group effort.

Whether you write in the faith-based space or not, the truth is that most of the books that you love as a reader have undergone significant changes because of the “group effort.” You just may not realize it.

2. Stay humble about your edits

In her book The Art of Slow Writing, author Louise DeSalvo makes this observation:

None of my books and none of my friends’ books have been published without considerable changes. So, if seasoned writers take editorial advice, and beginning writers seem less willing, I think one reason is because beginning writers don’t know many changes published writers must make to their work because of editorial input. After meeting with their editors, I’ve often heard well-known writers say, “I have to rewrite the whole thing,” or “I have to rethink the way I present the central character,” or “I realize the structure of the book isn’t working.” These writers listen and make fundamental, large-scale changes in the works they’ve labored over for years. What they thought was the end of the process was, in fact, the beginning of yet another round of work.

The Art of Slow Writing, Chapter 26 “Writing as Collaboration”

In the editing process, you’ll probably be asked to reexamine tough points of your book, even things you hold strongly to because of feedback from your editor(s) and/or beta readers. I would encourage you to stay humble and keep your ears open.

Author Krissi Dallas shares how she did just that after listening to her beta readers:

Contrary to many popular authors who write in the teen and young adult genre, I actually consider my teen audience first in everything that I write. While I know a lot of adults read teen books and are comfortable with varying levels of romantic or violent content, they are not my primary audience. I want my teen readers to connect to my stories FIRST in safe and healthy ways. It’s also hugely important to me that teachers, librarians, parents (and other adults who have responsibility or influence in young people’s lives) have books they are comfortable recommending to others without feeling like they have to disclaim content. That’s why I always let my books go through both teenage beta readers and parents-of-teens beta readers and I really listen to their feedback.

In FIRETRAP, the fifth book of my Phantom Island series releasing this month, I made some important changes after consulting with some teen girls between the ages of 13 and 16…one of them was over a curse word. To be clear, there are no curse words in my books. But in this new installment, the characters are older and there was a particularly major event that occurred. As a writer, I felt like in a real situation like that, a very strong word would have slipped out of an 18-year-old character’s mouth. It was the ONLY curse word in five books, but I just couldn’t decide if it should stay or go. I tested it out first on my teen girls and they very honestly said that it was a little jolting and even though it was probably true to life, they liked having a series they could recommend to their friends and their younger siblings without worrying over language. I agreed and changed it. Of course, then it took us a while to find the RIGHT true-to-life reaction from that character, but we eventually did, and I think it works even better! Avoiding curse words makes me try harder at creative dialogue and storytelling.

All in all, I feel very strongly that one of the most important revision steps I follow before I finalize a book is to go back through and read specifically with my audience in mind and then consult a selection of beta readers from that audience. I ALWAYS end up making changes from that step of the process and I’m so glad I do!

3. Communicate with your editor

But let’s be real. At some point, a beta reader or editor will make a suggested edit that you. do. not. like. For whatever reason, it crosses an internal boundary and you have a choice to make. Do you stick with your original version? Maybe. Or do you trust the professional instinct of your editor? Maybe. Whichever you choose, if a proposed change is producing that much inner turmoil, open a dialogue with your editor. Ask what prompted that suggestion. Ask them to share similar changes in other manuscripts. Ask if you can have some time to think about it. Ask for a compromise. But whatever you do, do not ignore a big suggested edit, or a comment that relates to providing more clarity or context for your reader and do not change it back without first dialoguing with your editor. It’s unprofessional to ignore the time and effort your editor put in. Yes, you can probably make the final call as the author, but remember it’s a team effort.

Keeping your reader first is a journey that all authors are on and each project will present different challenges on this front. But stick with it. Keep your ears open and stay humble about your work. Changes and edits can seem scary, but you just may be surprised at the improvements they lead to in your work. Like I said in the first post, writing a book is HARD WORK. Editing a book is HARD WORK. But your readers will thank you by not putting your down your book until they’ve finished it.

Worth the effort? I think so.

Missed part 1? Click here to read it.

Before You Hit Send: 4 Editing Tips

You’ve typed “The End” on your manuscript. You’re about to send it off to your editor. But is your manuscript actually ready to send to your editor? In today’s post, I’ll be sharing four common areas of editing problems that authors can easily review before sending their beloved manuscript off to the editor.

A little background first on industry standards for editing and formatting. The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) is the industry standard for book publishing and it has been around for almost 115 years (click here for a PDF of the very first version), serving as the quintessential guide for those in the writing and publishing fields. The current edition is over 1,000 pages long and it’s intimidating even for those of us familiar with the contours of the guide. But even with this comprehensive guide, publishing houses also operate with their own house style that’s been curated based on the type of manuscripts they publish. You can ask your editor if there are any house style rules that you need to be aware of.

To help navigate some of those confusing rules, today I am providing four helpful editing tips. This won’t cover everything that will come up in your manuscript, but it will provide guidance in common areas of editing that produce the most confusion. The reason this matters is because a manuscript is such a large document with potentially a lot of people working on it. Unnecessary errors or incorrect formatting can make the document behave badly and distract from the task of writing your amazing new book. And it’s great because these are all simple items you can actually address before sending your manuscript off to the editor.

And why is that something you should even attempt? Aren’t editors supposed to like, fix all that? While editors are going to catch the mistakes that your subjective eye didn’t catch, I want to encourage authors to not be lazy. You don’t (or at least I hope you don’t!) put off brushing your teeth a month or a week before your regular cleaning because “it’s the dentist’s job to catch all that.” No, that’s called being lazy, and no matter what your job is, you shouldn’t be lazy.

So let’s dive in! I’ll be providing a reference number for specific CMOS rules so if you decide to investigate the guide, you’ll know where these rules came from!

Numbers

Do you spell them out? Do you use numerals? This is often the area that produces the most confusion. CMOS states that numbers 0-100 should be spelled out, but for 101+ you can use numerals. However, for large, even numbers, you can spell them out. This includes ages, amounts, numbers on addresses, etc. (CMOS 9.2)

Common errors on time:

  • 10:00 a.m./ 3:30 p.m. There should be a space between the time and the a.m./p.m. designator. Letters should be lowercased with a period in between each letter. (CMOS 9.37)
  • 60 BC but AD 33: BC comes AFTER the year, AD comes BEFORE. (CMOS 9.34)

Capitals

CMOS prefers “down-style,” meaning capitals are used sparingly. (CMOS 8.1) Degrees, unofficial titles, or references NOT PRECEEDING a name don’t need to be capitalized.

But pronoun references to God/Jesus are capitalized.

Examples: a master’s degree, a bachelor’s in science, The president stated; but President Lincoln said. The pastor encouraged, but Pastor Billy Graham spoke. He gave us His son Jesus.

Formatting

Formatting and layout come AFTER the manuscript has been fully edited. Do not waste your time manually putting in a table of contents before an editor has even looked at your MS because those page numbers are going to change. If you do insert a TOC using Word, it can be updated as you go, but it’s still best to leave page numbers, TOC, headers, etc. until the last stage.

Do not use the spacebar to make new paragraphs or to align things. Use the enter button, tab button, and the actual left/middle/right align buttons. You would be shocked at what I have to correct: (One author actually hit the space bar to center align subtitles…on every subtitle…in a 100+ page MS)

If you are a Christian author and plan to reference scripture, these are generally good examples to follow, but always check if there is a house style to adhere to when it comes to scripture.

  • (Ruth 2:12) Short book names don’t need to be abbreviated, space between the name of book and chapter/verse, but no spaces around the colon.
  • (Prov. 31:30) Abbreviate longer book names.
  • (Phil. 2:3–4) When showing a range of verses, use the en dash, not a hyphen.

You can’t go wrong with double-spaced (it’s SO hard to edit single-spaced docs) 12-pt. Times New Roman. You can bold chapter titles or subtitles, but don’t get fancy. Now is not the time for that.

Punctuation

Don’t make it weird. Don’t double up the punctuation, don’t put spaces between the last letter of the sentence and the punctuation, and commas and periods ALWAYS go inside quotation marks. If you have an item that’s going to be repeated a bunch and you’re just not sure how to punctuate it, send your editor a message ahead of time, or can you leave me a message on Twitter!

And, as always, you will bless your editor if you can show you know how to use their/there/they’re and your/you’re.

Now get to editing!

Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary

CMOS Home Page

How Do I Put My Reader First? Part 1

Over the past four years, I have had the privilege of working on 150+ different writing projects. Those projects include my own books that I’ve written, articles I’ve either written or edited for my clients, and of course the dozens of manuscripts I’ve edited. While there is a lot to keep in mind with any writing project, one goal I put in front of myself in my own writing and the authors I work with is “Reader First.” But in working on those projects, I can tell you that goal is easier said than done. How exactly do I put my reader first, and why is that important?

Putting (and keeping) your reader first means that you’ve deeply considered the needs of your target audience and have written your article or your book in a way that invites readers in rather than push them away. A helpful way to think of this process is by thinking about having a party in your home. While gatherings look quite different in 2020, I want you to envision hosting a festive dinner party in your home, no pandemic fears. What kind of preparations would you make? Who would you invite? What’s the purpose of the party?

While hosting styles are varied, I would guess that you would think carefully about the guest list, making sure the invitees would know some of the same people, while maybe also intending to introduce them to some new people. You would select menu items that had wide appeal and took into consideration dietary restrictions. You would make sure your guests knew why they were coming and what to expect. You would prepare your home for maximum comfort; not in the vein of a magazine shoot, but truly to help your guests feel comfortable and welcome.

Writers should have this same mindset during the writing process. Whether you are a fiction or a non-fiction writer, this is your goal. I have edited so many manuscripts where the goal was clearly “author first” and the reader second and knew that despite the author’s efforts, the reach of the book would be limited.

For fans of the hit TV show The Office, the deliciously cringy “Dinner Party” episode is a reminder of what happens when you don’t consider your readers first. The hosts Michael and Jan were totally focused on themselves and not the comfort of their guests…to say the least. They were trying to work out their own problems and stroke their own egos in front of their guests, which just made it awkward for everyone. The same can be said of manuscripts that exist solely to stroke the egos of the authors.

THE OFFICE — “The Dinner Party” Episode 9 — Air Date 04/10/2008 — Pictured: Steve Carell as Michael Scott — Photo by: Chris Haston/NBCU Photo Bank

Anyone who puts out content in the 21st century is debuting on a very crowded stage. Statista shared that on average, consumers spend about 7.5 hours a day consuming media. If you want a distracted reader to stick with your book from start to finish, you’re going to have to put out intentional effort in creating a quality reader experience.

So what can authors do to keep their readers first? Here are three questions to ask yourselves to shape a “Reader First” mindset during the writing process.

1. What Are My Publishing Goals?

I actually think most authors know their goals, but I think the conflict comes in when authors expect unrealistic results from goals they have set, even though there are far more opportunities facing new authors today than thirty years ago or even ten years ago. When faced with a plethora of options, authors need to get honest with themselves to cut through all the opportunities swirling around them.

Do you want to publish just to publish? Or do you intend to see your book through and reach a wider audience of readers?

Are you going to pursue traditional publishing via an agent?

Are you going to forge a path with indie publishing?

While marketing responsibilities fall on the author no matter what publishing route they take, there is a bigger onus on the reader who chooses self-publishing. If you want to publish just to say you’ve written a book and create a family keepsake, that’s great; but that will affect how you answer the next question. If you want your book to reach more readers than just your family and an obliging friend or two, be prepared to do some legwork in defining your audience.

2. Who is My Audience?

Think back to when you were dating your significant other. You probably invested time and energy into finding out what they liked and didn’t like, their life story, etc. While the methods are as varied as the couples who pursue them, the end goal is the same: you made an effort to notice the details of their life and show your interest. You can use a similar approach with your audience. Who is your audience? What do they enjoy? What does your audience need or want? You can easily create an audience sketch by thinking through these (and other) questions, interviewing samples of your target audience, and making notes of where your audience hangs out online: social media, Reddit, other forums, Amazon suggested purchases, etc.

But depending on the topic of your book, you might need to dig a little deeper. You might need to consider past experiences your readers are bringing to the table that might skew or color how they receive your words. This is not about writing for every human (because then you are writing to no one) and you can’t possibly manage the reactions of every reader. But with topics that delve into self-help, religion, mental health, and the like, it’s crucial to consider the background of your readers.

For instance, my husband and I have dealt with infertility for almost seven years and I have edited many faith-based manuscripts that try to speak to that situation when the author clearly had not experienced it themselves or interviewed anyone who had dealt with it. I was able to provide gentle feedback to the author about how their words might be received by those in similar situations, hopefully shielding future readers from unintentionally hurtful words. The author was surprised because they had not even considered that perspective, but was quick to make the suggested changes.

Any time you invest into considering the experiences, needs, and background of your readers will be well worth your investment. (Can you hear my Enneagram 9-wing talking yet?)

This is what these suggestions look like from my perspective, but what does it look like to make these adjustments on the author’s end? Author and editor Robin Patchen shares about a shift in her own writing after paying attention to reader feedback: (Fun fact: Robin was my editor on the Bloom series!)

I conducted a reader survey earlier this year and discovered that my readers tend to crave suspense and tolerate romance. I’d been trying to add more romance to my stories, thinking that, since so many Christian readers love romance, my readers must, too. How wrong I was. Now, though I still write romantic suspense, I try to focus my stories on the suspense and let the romance take a backseat. Not only does this help me connect with my readers, but it works for my style as well. I much prefer to write suspense.

While it may seem uncomfortable to make those adjustments at first, you are creating a higher-quality reading experience in a crowded media market. If you are pursuing success for your book, you can’t afford to not dig in and get that feedback from your reader.

3. How Should My Reader Be Different After Reading My Book?

With the manuscripts that I’ve edited, I’ve come in at different points of the writing process. Sometimes I’ve gotten to speak into the early development of the manuscript, but most of the time I am only performing copy editing after the main shape of the manuscript has already been formed. Even in these manuscripts, I see how some simple adjustments to the flow of the MS would go on to create a better reader experience. When your timeline is all over the place or when there’s a repetition of ideas, that lends to the feeling that there’s no thought on the journey you want your reader to take. With no clear path through the book, a reader may simply give up and go on to another book that clearly outlines a journey for them.

Before writing, you should have an idea of the journey your reader will take (it can and probably will change along the way) but each chapter should be carrying the reader closer to meeting that goal.

One manuscript I edited shared the author’s backstory, then shared about family trauma, moved forward in the timeline, then moved back into time before the major trauma. It was a confusing layout that could’ve been easily fixed. Other manuscripts just dump knowledge on the reader’s doorstep with no direction or instruction on how to apply it. When a reader feels overwhelmed, they are again likely to jump ship and turn to another book that skillfully places information or a story in front of them with a clear map of how to interact with that information. As authors, you want to give your reader as few reasons as possible to put down your book.

Writing a book is one of the most difficult artistic undertakings; why not do the leg work to make sure the impact is as powerful as it can be? Your reader (and your editor) will thank you.

“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.”

― J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

Check out Robin Patchen’s latest release.

Stay tuned for part 2 in keeping your reader first in your writing!