Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Confidence-Building: Avoiding writing mistakes that kill confidence

Many months ago, fabulously successful writer Alisa Bowman wrote on this blog that revisions still spike her insecurity. I believe her exact words were:
Lots of revisions generally cause me to blame myself. I think, "I really screwed that up. That editor hates me."
Amen, sister! I feel that, too. In fact, I think we all feel that. Of course, Alisa goes on to say that's not true, that it's an editor's job to, well, edit your work. But it's also true that making small mistakes over and over again for the same editor can be demoralizing--both for you and for your editor. There's a simple way to address this: First, slow down. Second, make a list.

Slow Down
This is not my first impulse with revisions. Often I feel such a stew of emotions when I get heavy revisions back--embarrassment, shame, anger at myself and sometimes my editor, defensiveness, anxiety--that I want to get the edits done with as quickly as possible. On the outside, this is a good thing. Being prompt with edits will make you your editor's darling. I worked for a year as an editor for a trade magazine in 2010 and 2011, and I can tell you that professionalism is sometimes hard to come by.Writers who take the editor's timeline into account--basically, writers who prioritize making their editors' jobs easier--make you want to work with them again. Period.

But it's often our haste to get edits off our desks--and to wipe away what we think of as the stain of our mistakes--that cause our simplest and most embarrassing mistakes.

So take a page from the editor's handbook: Slow down. If you have the time, walk away from it and come back to it an hour or a day or two later. Then, read through it three ways:

First, read through it on screen, looking for content mistakes.

  • Any weird word choices? 
  • Any transitions that don't work?
  • Any dropped source names or titles? 
Second, have your assignment letter and whatever style guide your client uses handy. Review the story for common errors. Big ones for me are:
  • Says or said: Every client differs on tense for this.
  • Starting paragraphs with the word "And."
  • Small style peccadillos you know your client has. I have some clients who hate short transitions sentences that end in a question mark. Others hate em dashes. Whatever your particular style (and I'll admit to using both those things more than I probably ought to), check to make sure it conforms with your client's preferences. That way, you can feel free to write in your style while also meeting your client's needs.
  • Special capitalization or terms of art specific to the client or industry.
Finally, print out the story and do what editors do right before final publication. Read only the most outstanding bits:
  • Titles;
  • Headlines;
  • Source names and titles; and 
  • Sidebars.
This way, you'll catch any glaring mistakes that might catch your editor's eye right away. I always use this as an opportunity to follow my gut as a writer. If I'm a little unsure of a statistic or a quote, this is my chance to check it one final time. At the very least, I'll feel confident in the work if I root out those niggling doubts early.

Make a List
Once the story is filed, don't move on just yet. Take whatever style guide the publication uses (or if it doesn't, create a Word doc or write on a sheet of paper to be displayed prominently) and write on it your common mistakes:
  • Do they always ask for additional sources? What type?
  • What are their style peccadillos? Record them so you'll remember next time.
  • What common mistakes do you make?
Get a Reality Check
Finally, take a moment to compare what you're worried about to reality. I, for instance, often feel like I'm failing if I can't get edits in by a certain date. Sometimes it's a date set by the editor. Sometimes it's an internal deadline. I have one of those right now. Tomorrow I have edits due back, and need to find a difficult-to-track-down "real person" source. I feel the pressure mounting to get it all in--and perfect--by tomorrow. 

But the reality is my editor told me he has some wiggle room and, knowing that he's asked something difficult of me, is willing to extend the deadline. So am I--are you--creating pressure and problems that aren't real?

This is another great opportunity to enlist your editor onto Team You and to ask for help--both of which boost confidence and serenity.

The Upshot
The bottom line is that we all want to feel good about our work, and our relationships with our editors. Taking a few minutes to do these edits is not only our obligation as professionals, it's a gift. It's a chance to acknowledge that mistakes and indeed growth as a writer is part of our journey. 

We don't get better without recognizing the places where we're weak. But we also don't get better by believing that weakness is all we are. To quote a very wise friend: We can cease believing that because we make mistakes we are a mistake. 

And then something amazing and lovely happens: We are more in our bodies. We are more present for our work. We discover we are capable of growing and, just maybe, capable of becoming the writers we always wanted to be.

How do you approach revisions?

Photo by dingler1109

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