How to Self-Edit Your Writing – CAKKALS

Edited draft of Declaration of Independence
Thomas Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence with edits by Ben Franklin, 1776

As painful as it can be to accept the criticisms and revisions of an editor, most writers would agree that it’s far more difficult to edit your own writing. A fresh set of eyes – especially skillful editor eyes – is dangerous to forego.

But there are times when all of us have to write something that no one else will take a crack at – a letter, a report, an essay, a blog post. Once I’ve finished drafting something that won’t benefit from another’s input, I go through a painstaking self-editing checklist summed up as the acronym, CAKKALS.

Yes, Dear Reader, it’s pronounced just like the hysterical sounds of relief you’ll make when you finish self-editing. Continue reading “How to Self-Edit Your Writing – CAKKALS”

7 Ways to Cope With the Well-Read: A Survival Guide

Alexandria VA signThis past week, I learned that I live in America’s most well-read city, according to Amazon.com, and for the second year running.

This was surprising news to me although not completely. I do live in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, after all, which is a snooty place. This is where power mongers and policy wonks rule, where people speak two and three languages – including “acronym” – and hold multiple degrees. And they make sure you know it.

So allow me to indulge that DC snootiness for a moment (“when in Rome…”) by remarking that the list of most well-read cities seems odd at first. DC is not ranked (ironically), nor are other cities you might expect like New York or Chicago or San Francisco. Alexandria ranks first followed by Knoxville, TN (a college town, ok) then Miami, FL (huh?). Fourth is Cambridge, MA (home of Harvard and MIT, back to making sense), and fifth is Orlando, FL (Disney World??).

Amazon’s rankings were based on the per capita sale of books, magazines and newspapers (both in print and electronic format) for cities with a population of 100,000 or more, so smallish cities held an advantage.

Also, Amazon ranked by quantity and attempted no subjective judgment of quality, which is fair. The best-selling book in my city was Gone Girl, a genre-bending thriller that I enjoyed. But the second best-seller was the Fifty Shades trilogy, which I won’t read because it sounds like Twilight with whips (Amazon won’t judge, but I will). My point is, us Alexandrians shouldn’t be too smug about what took us to the top.

But we will, because we’re part of metropolitan DC – again, smug and snooty are what we do. But I have a confession to make, Dear Reader: I’m not that well read, especially for a writer. Several friends of mine here and elsewhere – both writers and non-writers and at least one sibling – have read many more books than I.

books on shelf

So for my own sake as well as yours (unless you’re bookish, in which case you can stop reading this post), I’ve come up with 7 Ways to Cope With the Well-Read. Bookworms are everywhere, in your life as well as in mine. And most of them, I should add, aren’t remotely arrogant about it and don’t mean to make us feel small, they just love their books and need to talk about them. The rest is our problem. To help, consider the following:

1) Accept that well-read people are likely superior to you in several ways.

Not helpful? Sorry. But numerous studies show that reading is overwhelmingly beneficial and comprehensively so. See here, here and here. A paragraph from the 2007 National Endowment for the Arts study sums it up best:

All of the data suggest how powerfully reading transforms the lives of individuals—whatever their social circumstances. Regular reading not only boosts the likelihood of an individual’s academic and economic success—facts that are not especially surprising—but it also seems to awaken a person’s social and civic sense. Reading correlates with almost every measurement of positive personal and social behavior surveyed. It is reassuring, though hardly amazing, that readers attend more concerts and theater than non-readers, but it is surprising that they exercise more and play more sports—no matter what their educational level. The cold statistics confirm something that most readers know but have mostly been reluctant to declare as fact—books change lives for the better.

Gulp. To quote that master of uplift, George Orwell: “Happiness can exist only in acceptance.” I want you to be happy, Dear Reader.

two people reading2) See what all the fuss is about by reading more.

See point #1. After all, this Survival Guide is a form of self-help, which implies self-improvement… so…

3) Read a “classic” book or two…

I haven’t done a lot of this myself, but certain books are called “classics” for a reason – they’re very good and worth your time. Among the classic book authors I’ve tried, Jane Austen is fantastic, hugely enjoyable and accessible. She’s a good one to start with. I didn’t expect to like Joseph Conrad’s work, but I do, a lot. He was a master stylist even though English was his second language. Same for Vladimir Nabokov, a genius linguist who wrote some of his best works in English rather than in his native Russian; if you’re put off by the lechery of Lolita, then read Pnin, a hilarious book about a bumbling Russian professor teaching at a midwest American college. Among the American greats I’ve read and enjoyed are John Steinbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald, J.D. Salinger, Toni Morrison, and my favorite, Wallace Stegner, a teacher of other great writers and an often-overlooked master of everything (plot, setting, character, point of view, etc.).

4) …But focus on reading what you enjoy.

One of my well-read hometown friends in Pennsylvania inhales books and reads purely for pleasure. When I’ve asked her what she likes to read, she always replies: “everything.” She is my model well-read person because books give her so much joy; her face lights up every time you ask her what she’s reading. She is one of the most unpretentious people I know, and also one of the wisest (again, see point #1).

5) Make your reading social by joining a book club.

I’m a veteran book clubber. I helped start one that met from 1993 to 1997 – when I last lived in the DC area – and we resumed meeting in 2010 after I moved back. While I lived in Tucson, AZ, I was in two book clubs simultaneously from about 2002 to 2009. I should point out that I’ve often failed to keep up with book club assignments, and you might, too. The best book clubs – the only ones that last, really – will forgive you and will be flexible about members’ busy schedules. Book club discussions can get impassioned and animated beyond belief — one time I did a head-stand in front of my book club to make a point, another time I climbed on someone’s shoulders (don’t ask, I don’t remember, and yes, alcohol was involved both times). The point is, a book club is a worthwhile commitment that can enrich your life. Through them, I’ve discovered some great books and writers, and – most importantly – I’ve formed some of my dearest friendships.

320px-2012_BostonPublicLibrary_USA

6) Support your local library.

Books – whether in print or electronic form – don’t have to cost you, Dear Reader, as long as you have access to a lending library. As a repository of knowledge, the library concept goes back to ancient times. According to The Washington Post, the city of Alexandria – the one in Egypt – housed the ancient world’s greatest archive of information. Today’s American library system is a jewel of democracy because it offers the gift of knowledge to all Americans for free. Even if you don’t use your local public library, consider donating books or money to it (most public library systems have a non-profit fundraising arm to help support it). Like everything else, library budgets across the country have been cut.

7) Take a break from books and do other things.

Finally, it’s ok to sometimes forget about books and just live. After all, this is part of the well-read person’s m.o.: They’ve learned so friggin’ much from all that reading – point #1 again, always point #1 – that they take time to go out and do some of it. You should, too.

 

 

The Value of Blogging: Ipso Facto or Lorem Ipsum?

I really don’t know where this blogging thing will lead me.

This is my first official blog post on my first official blog. But I have been writing – as a professional non-fiction writer and fiction hobbyist – for over 20 years.

What have I been waiting for?

Ideas? Inspiration?

No, those aren’t hard to find. I once wrote an essay titled “Scratching an Itch,” a short piece on a simple, meaningless act hardly worthy of an essay.

Or is it?

The sudden urge to scratch an itch on your arm, or on your head, or other places less polite, can lead to broader questions. Is it just a little itch, or a nervous tick? Where do you draw the line in terms of what to scratch and in front of whom?

Scratching an itch can be meaningful or not — a harmless gesture, a poker player’s tell, or an affront to society.

Blogging, it appears, can also be meaningful or not. Some will ask: does blogging have inherent value?

Like scratching an itch, it depends.

If you blog to hone your writing craft, or to share something of interest to readers, or to sell a product or service, then it’s fair to say blogging has value ipso facto. But what if you find yourself writing a puff-piece blog post just to check off your must-blog-something task for the day, and bore your readers in the process?

In that case, your blog might as well be lorem ipsum, that Latin-looking gibberish you see on examples of WordPress themes whose only function is to fill text space.

I will never blog just to fill space. I may do it a little, or a lot. I’ll probably cover a few of the topics that I’ve written about professionally such as politics, healthcare, fitness and wellness, and, naturally, writing. Check back more than once.

Another thing for you to know — I enjoy writing essays, which is primarily what bloggers do, right? An essay is often the best way to explore and clarify what it is you think and feel about an issue or event in your life.

As the writer E.M. Forster once said, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?

Over the years, I’ve published a number of personal essays and persuasive essays otherwise known as op-eds (to read my latest op-ed published by The Christian Science Monitor, click here).

I’ve ghostwritten op-eds for business clients, and I also volunteer to help others get their views and opinions in print and online. I’m a volunteer Editor-Mentor for The Op-Ed Project, a great non-profit organization based in New York City whose mission is to promote and increase a diversity of voices in media.

Even though over half of the population are women, only about 20% of major newspaper opinion pieces are written by women. This lack of women voices creates a huge deficit in our national dialogue.

I’ve had the privilege to help several accomplished women in business, academia and advocacy craft and publish op-eds in newspapers and online media outlets throughout the country. I hope to add the links to some of my mentees’ work in the near future.

In addition, The Op-Ed Project’s website has a very helpful and public resource section on how to write an op-ed, in case you would like to share your own opinion on a topical issue in a newspaper or online news site some day.

If you are interested in learning more about the personal essay form as a beautiful exercise in critical thinking and self-discovery, let me recommend a very good book on personal essays:

The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present, edited by Phillip Lopate (Doubleday, 1994).

The book is not really a how-to on essay writing, but it offers an informative introduction to the craft and is a large anthology of some of the best essays ever written, organized culturally, by theme and by form (book review, humor, list, mosaic, portrait, etc.).

If I were to recommend only one essay in this volume, it would be Virginia Woolf’s The Death of the Moth, about watching a moth die on a windowsill. It’s a tour de force on truths surrounding life and death that runs only around 1200 words in length. It is also easy to find online.

Admire it for the language and for Woolf’s ability to connect the trivial to the universal, but fair warning: it may give you a case of the sads.

Finally, one note of business about my blog. I don’t plan on posting any reader comments to my blog posts. Instead, feel free to email me about something I wrote at info@kateholder.com.

For example, do you have a personal essay (or opinion piece) to recommend, one that moved you or helped you or changed your thinking? I’d like to know.

If you do email me about a blog post, please reference that particular post in your comment. In return, I may occasionally post a reader’s email, and I will try my best to read all email comments. However – and this is important – I cannot guarantee that I will respond to any of them.

Remember, I really don’t know where this blogging thing will lead me.

Thanks for reading, and don’t forget to follow me on Facebook and Twitter, where I’ll alert readers of my latest blog posts and other news.