The Knot Never Goes Away

Let me explain my absence from blogging:

In college, I absolutely loathed “peer feedback” days. I have to be honest with you — part of the reason was that, unless the professor gave us the option to choose our partners, I often felt like I was paired off with someone who lacked the editing skills that came so easily to me. In short, I felt ripped off. I provided my classmate with extensive feedback and received a couple of sentences in return. Trust me, I understand how snooty that sounds.

When I declared my creative writing minor, however, it was a new kind of dread. I wasn’t handing over a research paper; I was handing over a piece of me. Something I pulled from my own brain, spilled out on paper, and pieced together from the recesses of my own imagination. And I was expected to let my classmates take it home, read it, write all over it.

Criticize it.

It was truly a journey in anxiety for me. Workshop days were different than peer feedback days. I remember watching my classmates grab a copy of my short story on their way out the door with a pit in my stomach. I no longer worried that I was getting shortchanged in the review process. Sure, there was an element of that, but it was more that I was afraid of what my peers would think of my creative abilities. These were other writers, after all — some of whom I perceived as being better at the craft than me, and others who I felt lacked my skill. But all writers, who were being asked to critique my work.

I’m happy to say I’ve worked as an editor professionally for over three years now, and I have learned the importance of having eyes on your work. Even feedback that you initially perceive as worthless or bad or judgmental has value. It tells you how others are interpreting your work, whether or not they see your point. Sometimes, this was a hard pill for me to swallow (and truthfully, it still is sometimes). After all, I understood what the theme of my piece was. Why couldn’t they? But in the end, I had to learn to slog through all the feedback — the good and the bad — in order to see where I needed to improve.

A few months ago (right around the time I disappeared from blogging, actually …), a Skype conversation with a close friend and fellow writer sparked a need to pour out words on a novel I’ve been fighting to write since the sixth grade. After several weeks of laying the groundwork, that dreaded pit in my stomach — one I hadn’t felt since my fiction workshop in college — resurfaced. Stuck on a particularly difficult plot point, I sat back, stared at my computer screen with despair and realized I needed another set of eyes on my work. I needed to talk about it with someone, throw plot ideas out, describe characters and get feedback.

With great trepidation, I met with a lady who has become a true mentor to me. She was one of my creative writing professors in college, and I had the pleasure of working for her in my tutoring days. She is a published author herself. More than any of that? She is my friend. I trust her to offer clear, insightful feedback, whether it’s feedback I want to hear or not. It also means that I don’t want to disappoint her. Handing off my notebook and asking for her opinion was one of the most terrifying things I’ve done in my life as an editor or a writer. But several weeks and 12,000 words later, I couldn’t be more grateful that I got over myself and let her judge my work. I continue to be inspired to work on this piece in a way I haven’t in the past couple of years, and I feel like I’ve really come to terms with the editing process and its importance.

The knot never goes away, ever. But I’m able to swallow it down and ask my husband for his thoughts on a scene I’m working through. I can pick up my phone and text my friend for her opinion on a character. I can package up my writing in a Word document, attach it to an email and send it to my former professor without vomiting. Life goals, right?

It may sound funny coming from someone who makes a living editing others’ work, but it’s taken me a few years to really come to terms with the need for others’ opinions on your writing. On a rational level, I fully comprehend the need for this. I preach it daily to my clients. Sometimes I send them pages and pages of copyediting issues they need to resolve in their writing before moving on to the next step. But on an emotional level? It’s hard. It’s hard to pour yourself — whether or not it’s a creative piece — onto paper and put it out there for others to judge. But it’s so important.

All this to say, this creative fire has overshadowed most of the writing in my life. Do you ever have these streaks? In the past, I’ve written about the struggles of being an editor first and a writer second, but I’ll gladly let the writer take the wheel for a while. It’s done me a world of good so far.


“You weren’t prepared,” my husband said. “What’s the harm in admitting that?”

I squinted down at the whiskey and Coke in my hand and tried to think of a good answer.


After more than a year of sending out resumes, someone had finally answered my call. A real, live publishing company. I read the email with a lump in my throat, disbelieving. A publishing company, the thing I wanted more than anything.

“We are looking to add a few more high-quality copyeditors to our arsenal,” the email said. “We have a small house style guide to supplement The Chicago Manual of Style. If you are interested in moving forward with us, please let me know and I will send you the copyediting test for evaluation.”

It wasn’t until I’d responded — “Of course, yes. Please send it right away.” — that my stomach sank. Editing tests were not new to me; I landed my current position as an editor after taking two of them. The Chicago Manual of Style, however, had always been a presence at the very edge of my skills. A style guide that I only had a passing knowledge of from my time as a writing center consultant. I recalled walking students through how to cite their academic sources for research papers, and then setting the manual aside with a complaint to a fellow consultant: “Who really uses it anyway?”


A few years ago, a close friend had given me a new edition of The Chicago Manual of Style as a gift. It had taken up residence on my shelf with its other literary companions (the AP style guide, a dictionary, a thesaurus) for months, but I had no need to peruse it. I sat at my desk and tried to gather up the courage needed to open the thick manual. The spine crackled when I lifted the cover — the sound of my neglect. I scratched down notes, scoured the index, and stuck Post-Its to sections of particular importance. I read and re-read and filled pages with notes about x-height, ascenders, title levels, whether or not prepositions were always capitalized in formal titles. I felt prepared to tackle the documents sitting in my inbox.

I underestimated my desire to edit them perfectly. I stared, aghast, at the sample manuscript, page after page of content to be edited. Editing that would decide whether or not I received a position with a publishing house.

“I don’t even know where to start. I’m a good editor; I can’t stand feeling inadequate at it,” I told my husband through tears. He was silent beside me as we walked around the block, a breather from the stress that had driven me from my laptop. I brushed away tears and sweat in the unusually muggy spring afternoon and waited to be comforted.

But after several moments, he said, “You can’t just quit because you feel stupid. How is that going to get you anywhere?”

It wasn’t necessarily the comfort I had been looking for, but there was logic to the reply. I stomped back upstairs when we returned home, looked at my notes a final time, and dove in with his words ringing in my ears.

As with most difficult tasks, there was a sense of relief once I got started. I broke the seemingly impossible task into chunks — grammar edits, formatting, and a final proofread to ensure there were no missed errors and to wrap up any lingering style guide questions. I took comfort in the routine of a plan, and the accomplishment I felt at facing my doubts eased my worries about The Chicago Manual of Style. A couple days later, I attached the documents to an email, edited with adherence to the manual to the absolute best of my ability. And when I pressed send, I masked the nerves in the pit of my stomach with the relief I felt at pushing through the task.


The fluttering in my stomach took root and grew branches thick with self-doubt when I heard nothing back. I opened my email after a week had passed, intent on following up, but the reply had finally made its way to my inbox. My hand shook as I hovered over the message, but I swallowed and forced myself to click it open.

The reply was to-the-point: “After reviewing your documents, I have decided not to offer you freelance work.”

The cliche of being punched in the gut had never felt more genuine to me, and the rejection ached for the rest of the day, coloring my confidence in my skills as an editor with the purple, angry shade of a nasty bruise.


My husband was still waiting for an answer, and I was still staring at the drink in my hand. It was a muggy night, and the condensation on the glass made my hands feel sticky. Lynyrd Skynyrd sang “Free Bird” to me from the muffled speaker of the cell phone sitting on the patio table between us.

My mind kept returning to the nights I spent with The Chicago Manual of Style, trying to decide if I had truly attempted to conquer the beast, if I had been overconfident, or if I simply needed more time to learn the manual without the pressure of a job offer on the table. Maybe a combination of all three. But the truth of the matter was that I hadn’t returned to square one. I had new knowledge now: this manual is essential to editing. I knew now that I needed to spend time getting to know it before I tried again. And, as my husband had cautioned against, I hadn’t quit simply because I felt stupid; the opportunity to take the copyediting test had afforded me that pride.

What’s the harm in admitting you weren’t prepared? I took a sip of the drink in my hand and decided there was more harm in denying it.

No, I hadn’t really been prepared for this opportunity. But I will be the next time.

The Trouble With Essay Mills

How many times in college (or school, in general) did you hear the word “plagiarism”? It was something that was beaten into my head over and over and over — do not plagiarize. If you didn’t cite something properly, it was plagiarized. If you didn’t paraphrase something thoroughly, it was plagiarized. If you turned in something that you didn’t write but attempted to pass off as your own writing — well, that was definitely plagiarism.

So today, I want to talk about essay mills. This is something that I suppose existed on the edge of my awareness in academia, but I can’t say I ever had a name for it until recently. I was perusing the web for freelance jobs when I came across an ad that seemed to be asking for copywriters. Upon scouring the website listed in the ad, I realized the truth: this company didn’t need copywriters. It needed writers willing to write original papers for students to then turn in to their professors and pass off as their own writing.

“I hate that these kinds of paper mills exist,” my best friend said after I told her my story. And there it was, a name for this thing that I was always vaguely aware of but never confronted by. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.

I worked hard for my grades in college. I worked hard in college, period. At one time, I had 18 hours of classes and three jobs. I still maintained my grades and finished my homework on time. More specifically, I wrote my own papers, from scratch (and usually first by hand), and turned them by the deadline. I don’t mean to sound preachy or pull a “back in my day,” but honestly, the very thought of these companies is offensive to me. What enraged me even more is what I found when I took to the internet to take a closer look at them.

These companies blatantly lie, right on their websites. Most of them have an FAQ section that includes some variation of the question: “Is using this service considered cheating?” I saw various answers. One website points out that no college policy prohibits students from using a “custom essay writing service.” Another company compares using its services as going to the library and asking the librarian to help you find sources appropriate for your topic. Still another tries to sell the angle that their papers are only examples of how your paper should look, that they aren’t meant to be turned in as your own.

Merriam-Webster dictionary defines plagiarism as “the act of using another person’s words or ideas without giving credit to that person.” Moreover, the academic integrity policy at the university I attended goes like this: “Plagiarism is intentionally or carelessly presenting the work of another as one’s own. It includes submitting an assignment purporting to be the student’s original work which has wholly or in part been created by another.” When I looked at academic integrity policies at other, more prestigious colleges, there was no mistaking that generally all universities have similar codes in place.

In sum, I truly believe that all universities would, in fact, consider the use of an essay mill to be plagiarism.

So why do students use them? Why risk the rigid penalties most universities impose for plagiarism? I came across an article by the The Huffington Post discussing various reasons why students turn to essay mills. It suggests that professors are asking too much of their students; it states that especially students attending prestigious universities such as Berkeley, Stanford, and so on must turn to “unorthodox methods to deal with all the challenges imposed by the professors.” It goes on to suggest that students who work or have families may also turn to these companies as a way alleviate all the stresses they must juggle. Furthermore, it discusses the struggles of English Second Language students who don’t have a firm enough grasp of the language to write at the appropriate degree level.

The only one of these arguments I can really understand (not condone) is the former. I worked as a consultant in a writing center for four years, and I have first-hand experience with ESL students. Many of them were desperate to write well, but they truly lacked the grasp of the English language to be able to do it. When I looked into the testimonials for these companies, over half of them appear to be written by ESL students.

Otherwise? I can’t get behind these arguments. Students can’t simply blame the “challenges imposed by the professors” or argue that they have too much on their plates. I understand that the education system in this country needs some help, at all levels, but the existence of these companies is not alleviating the issues in any way or shape. They enable students to make excuses, to blame their bad grades on challenging professors or the fact that they must also work their way through school. Furthermore, they prey on ESL students who read and believe these companies’ assurances that using them is not plagiarism.

You can tell students not to plagiarize, not to be lazy, to work hard for the grades they want, but as long as these essay mills exist, students will continue to have an out. Being able to write well and research effectively are such important skills. The use of an essay mill may enable a student to attain his desired grade, which looks good on paper to any hiring company — but it deprives him of the actual skills and knowledge he’ll need to maintain his position at that company. In the grand scheme of things, these companies are not only contributing to the degradation of education, but also to a workforce that is ignorant and unprepared.


“Whatever your specific field, if there’s a National Association…join it.”

-Laurence G. Boldt, Zen and the Art of Making a Living

It’s that time of year again at my job: annual performance reviews.

This year was my first annual performance review as a team lead. When I changed positions, I also changed bosses, so it was my first review with him as well. The whole experience was nervewracking. I go into all of my performance reviews under the impression that I will be berated, all my flaws pointed out, and then shown the door. This is my own insecurity talking; I’m a good editor, but I’m also a good employee. So far, I have been lucky to have supervisors who praise me for my achievements and talents, but who can also offer constructive criticism and advice without breaking me down.

My new boss made it clear when I first came into the team lead position that he doesn’t just care about my goals within the company; he cares about my goals in general. I want to see you grow as a professional, he told me. Not just a professional here with us. What do you want to achieve in your career?

I could have cried. Since I graduated college, I have struggled with my need to be in a classroom. I go back and forth about whether I need to go back to school, or if my bachelor’s degree plus experience is enough to build my career. What it boils down to is this: I don’t miss school or homework or tuition payments — I miss being surrounded by people with similar interests. I miss the intellectual stimulation that came from attending class every day. Now that I am on my own out in the world, I have struggled to figure out how to continue learning. My boss’s question, his genuine interest, was such a relief after floundering around for years post-academia. What was supposed to be a quick lunch meeting to discuss my thoughts for my upcoming performance review turned into a two-hour discussion about my career goals.

Ultimately, my boss suggested looking for seminars or workshops about writing and editing that I could attend. There, I would be with people who also enjoy writing and editing and reading and literature and all the things I missed about school. I could continue learning without the commitment of another tuition payment.

I’m a smart lady, people. But for the life of me, I can’t figure out why I didn’t think of this option sooner. I spent the next month excitedly researching conferences, workshops, and seminars in my area. I looked at the Editorial Freelancers Association and the American Copy Editors Society. The problem I kept running into was that none of these things satisfied my need to be a writer and an editor…until I stumbled across the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors.

Let me tell you a little bit about the NAIWE: it is a professional association that caters to writers and editors from every field and niche. Its mission statement says, “At NAIWE, we know that a writing or editing career isn’t all about the art. It’s not all about the money, either. Writing and editing is about the joy of creativity, the freedom of working independently, and the fulfillment that comes from creating an authentic, abundant life, earning a great living doing what you love to do.” It offers its members networking opportunities with professional freelance editors as well as publishing houses, and there are discounts on teleclasses and copyediting certification classes. You can surround yourself by other lovers of the craft who are willing to share their advice and expertise. What’s more is that it offers so many amazing opportunities for writers and editors for just $99 in dues a year.

In other words: jackpot.

Up until this point, I have felt stagnant. I have skills and enthusiasm, but I was never quite sure how to grow. I wasn’t sure how to continue expanding my education or keeping up-to-date on my editing skills. Sure, I work as an editor — but a very specialized editor who adheres to a client style guide and the same rules day after day. I am incredibly proficient in my position…but the rest of my knowledge and talents have stalled, and I was genuinely perplexed on how to continue rounding them out. I couldn’t be more grateful that my boss took the time to discuss my future with me because it led me to understand that I don’t have to drop another 30k+ on school tuition to feel stimulated or to surround myself with like-minded souls.

So, here’s to a future of learning, writing, editing and growing as a professional surrounded by other professionals. I can’t wait to share my experiences with you.

Making Sure The Words Are Correct

Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “copyeditor” as follows:

 Copy editor       noun

: a person whose job is to prepare a book, newspaper, etc., for printing by making sure the words are correct

I actually laughed out loud when I read it. It makes it sound so simple — and I can assure you that copyediting is not simple by any stretch. I know first-hand what a frustrating, complicated, satisfying job it can be, but this definition makes me wonder if people truly know what it means to be a copyeditor.

Last week, a reader asked me to write a post about what I do. I realized (with some embarrassment) that, while this is a copyediting blog, I have yet to write about it except in passing. My determination to improve my skills as a creative writer seems to have eclipsed the one thing that often gets in my way: I am an editor at heart. I’m definitely making progress toward compartmentalizing the writer and the editor in me, so they are not constantly stepping on each other’s toes anymore. However, I can’t deny that I love editing more than anything, and I’m grateful for that comment because it reminded me that it’s okay to have a passion for writing and editing.

In my quest to provide a well-informed response to my reader, I dove into the depths of the internet to see what other people thought about copyeditors. The results were something like this:

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That’s right — the world cannot seem to agree on what it means to be a copyeditor (or an editor in general). There are so many different kinds of editing out there, so many specific skill sets that pertain to words and rearranging them, that are crucial to writers and the writing process. If you want a truly polished piece of writing, the truth is that you’re probably going to need more than one kind of editor. What good is that to know, however, if you aren’t sure who does what?

To start you off, I tried to pull together some definitions of types of editors that are more substantial:

  • Copyeditor (also “copy editor”) — A copyeditor looks at your content when it is nearly in final form. He or she is looking to fix grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors in addition to suggesting revisions to sentences or paragraphs that are tangled or unclear. Usually, he or she will also ensure your work adheres to whatever style guide is being used. If the piece is fiction or creative nonfiction, a copyeditor will also ensure that the manuscript is formatted correctly and consistently.
  • Proofreader — This is typically the last stage of the editing process. All content is finalized and in place, so the proofreader is merely looking to identify any errors that were missed during the copyedit or to spot additional errors that may have been introduced during the design or copyedit stage. Generally, no major revisions are suggested during this stage.This is considered the lightest kind of editing.
  • Line editor — This type of editor is exactly how it sounds: he or she will go through your content, line by line, to identify any and all errors. Think of a line editor as a jack-of-all-trades; he or she will fact-check, spell check, format check, and grammar check your content word by word. Additionally, line editors will ensure that your voice and sentence structure (and dialogue/scenes/plot) are consistent from sentence to sentence.
  • Content editor — This type of editor is often used by publishing houses. A content editor looks for lapses in your characterization, voice, setting, dialogue, and so on.

All that said, these definitions can still vary from job to job. I have worked as a professional copyeditor for a while now, and my job responsibilities have not been exactly the same at each position. Currently, I work as a quality assurance copyeditor for a Fortune 500 company specializing in e-learning training. We work with several clients to outline, write, develop, and deliver online training/educational courses. My job, specifically, is to read the final product from beginning to end. I catch typos, misspellings, and grammar mistakes. But I also call out areas of content where the sentence structure is unclear or the writing is too verbose. I identify errors in style compliance, where the training does not adhere to the client’s style guide. If the training is not functioning correctly (assessments aren’t scoring right, buttons and hyperlinks don’t lead where they should), I am responsible for making note of that as well.

For comparison, I worked as a newspaper copyeditor in the past, where my tasks were much less diverse (but no less important to the craft). I paid close attention to the brevity of the writing. I checked headlines, page design, and AP style guide compliance. I always, always, always checked facts when they appeared in an article.

As you can see, it’s all a much heftier task than simply “making sure the words are correct.” It’s also a passionate, sometimes thankless, task that you truly pour your heart, interest, and intellect into. Nothing — not even writing — has the ability to frustrate me to tears and make me feel immensely accomplished in the same sitting the way editing does.

How do your editing experiences compare? Feel free to add to (or correct!) my definitions. I am always thrilled to hear from other editors!


Second only to my love of autumn is the first of the new year.

I am inevitably surrounded by people who are exuberant to begin their next 365-day adventure. All I have to do is log in to my Facebook on January 1st to read about everyone’s goals, resolutions, and aspirations for the coming year. It’s such a hopeful time, and I can’t help but be swept up in the excitement of shedding all the baggage of the previous 12 months and starting over with a blank piece of paper.

This year, as I’ve scrolled through my newsfeed, I’ve noticed a marked difference in the way people are approaching their goals. Almost every blog post or status update I’ve read notes that resolutions are meant to be broken, that these goals are being put into place only to go by the wayside later on. People don’t seem to be any less enthusiastic about them, but it’s an interesting attitude.

Overall, what I see is people planning to make progress.

I’m in love with this approach. Sometimes, when I make a specific goal, I feel so pressured. It tends to feed my need to be a perfectionist, and when I can’t complete my goal flawlessly on the first try, I shut down. Usually with tears and lengthy conversation with my husband about how I will never amount to anything and what’s the point of doing something if I am terrible at it and why do I even bother. I am well aware that this is not a good attitude. I would like to change it, and the change happening around me this year is so encouraging. It inspires me to hop on board.

I want to make my own progress in 2015. I want to write more meaningful blogs. I want to grow as an editor. I want to nail down a freelance job and work on being a more disciplined writer. I want to narrow down my job skills and work toward building a career. Setting goals around these aspirations takes the pressure to be perfect away.

Instead of telling myself “You must write a novel by the end of the year,” I can tell myself “You should sit down and write/brainstorm for two hours twice a week in order to build up a disciplined routine.”

Instead of telling myself “You must be hired for two freelance editing jobs in six months,” I can tell myself “You need to update your resume and research more skills you can acquire in order to be more appealing to potential clients.”

It’s a liberating feeling that is hard to explain. But the thing is that I feel encouraged by it; I actually view these goals with excitement instead of dread. It is already an improvement over the goals I attempted to accomplish last year with a more cut-and-dry attitude.

And improvement is progress, right?

Killing Your Darlings

So what happens when you fall so in love with one of your characters that he or she becomes a hindrance to the rest of your writing?

In high school, I created my darling. The only darling I ever became so attached to that I literally can’t let him go. He has been with me for so long that he has changed, grown, become something entirely different than he was when I first brought him to life. Maybe I love him so much because he really has grown with me as a writer. He is a symbol of my writing improvements, a reminder of what made me want to write in the first place.

But, because I love him so much, I can’t get past him, and this is becoming a problem. I have written his story so many times, in so many different ways, and I am never happy. I always want to do it again, and then again, and then again. I want to do justice by him, and it is often frustrating because even when I am trying to buckle down on something else, I’m still thinking of him. If I could just finish that story and be happy with it, I tell myself, then I could move on to other things.

Time and time again, that has proven to be a lie I tell myself so I don’t feel so bad about neglecting my other writing endeavors. Over the past couple of months, I have begun a nonfiction piece as well as a short fiction story. I am excited about the ideas behind both, and I try to spend time at least a couple nights a week brainstorming about them or writing on them. I don’t always keep the ideas or the writing, but the fact that I am working on them is good, right? Right — except that I keep coming back to my one darling, which forces me to set aside other writing so I can obsess over him some more.

How do I stop? I spent some time digging around on Google for the meaning behind the phrase “kill your darlings,” hoping for some sort of guidance, and I’m surprised at how many people interpret this phrase in so many different ways. My favorite is this article by Gabriela Pereira, who dissects the phrase down to the barest bones: “‘Kill your darlings’ is not a statement about writing, or editing, or even the words on the page. It’s a statement about the writer.” She goes on to apply the phrase as meaning that you have to have the courage to murder the best parts of your characters, your words, your dialogue — whatever you love best about your writing.

I want to take this advice to heart, but I haven’t quite figured out how just yet. I want to be a writer, not someone who says she wants to be a writer. I love my character, but he is in the way of this goal, no matter what I try to do to get around it. Maybe I’m simply not experienced enough as a writer to write his story; maybe I need to get over myself and set one of the drafts of his story aside to come back to later, to go through and mercilessly kill off the words, phrases, and dialogues that make him my darling.

I’m not ready to put the pen to his throat and scribble him from life just yet. So, how do you kill off the darling who represents your journey as a writer, anyway?