Monday, September 26, 2016


Professional editors also provide structural editing, also known as substantive or developmental editing, to authors. For me, this is one of the most useful tasks an editor can do, especially for long form works.  Over a year or two, an author can forget what they've written leading to undue repetition, omissions, inconsistencies regarding characters, and unnecessary scenes. Then there is "scaffolding,"  something we all do, but that's for another post. Today Joyce Gram, professional editor and writer, writes about structural editing from her point of view: 

Those of you who have faithfully followed my articles here will have noticed that I have focused on the minutia of editing—punctuation, verb style, word usage—detail that I said in my inaugural piece makes writing flow, smoothes the reader's way, spares the reader the irritation of interruption and confusion. But minutia, defined by the Canadian Oxford Dictionary as "a precise, trivial, or minor detail," is only one part of editing (though it is often the part that makes for the best debate; in fact, the debate can get downright dirty!). Another part is "substantive" or "structural" editing, what I like to call the "Big Picture." 

When an editor looks at structure, she asks herself, Does the structure of the manuscript work as whole, given the nature of the publication? A personal essay or opinion piece for a local newspaper will be structured differently than a short story, website, or how-to book. A letter to the editor cries out for a logical sequence that the reader can grasp in seconds without effort. A novel calls for a compelling sequence that will captivate and hold the reader for many hours. Structural rules are not carved in stone, but readers and publishers have expectations. Whatever your piece, its organization must be easy to follow, without gaps, missing steps, or unclear transitions. Readers look for prose that is clear, concise, and a pleasure to read. Few will backtrack to figure out your argument or make sense of what your characters are doing. What matters most is a structure that, combined with all the other elements of good writing, draws your reader right to the last sentence.

Recommended resource on substantive editing: Editors' Association of Canada Professional Editorials standards:

© Joyce Gram 

Sunday, August 28, 2016


I'm a writer who is very project-oriented. I work flat out on one project until it's finished, then I take a break. Yes, it's tiring and my brain feels worn out today.

Some writers work and take a break every couple of hours or once a week. I cannot be as productive that way — we're all different.

I expected to take most of August off and then got snowed by clients who'd finished their projects and needed guidance on their next steps towards publication. But I'm nearly done and I'm heading to Ottawa for a family visit soon.

This post is my way of letting my blog readers know that there won't be any more posts here until late September 2016. Then I'll be back....

Sunday, August 21, 2016

TRANSLITERATION: How to Use It as a Writer

I have been writing travel stories for about a decade now and often spatter a few words of the language of the country to add colour and enhance the sense of place in my articles. This habit has its good side and downsides, and makes me glad I have a good professional editor.
Translation is different from transliteration. 

Translation expresses the sense of the word and is used verbally as well as in text, e.g. when whole articles and books are converted into another language.

Transliteration, in contrast, is representations of written words in a language other than the main language of a book or article. Easier to do if both languages use the Latin alphabet like this post does. More difficult if you're using a word from, say, Arabic or Russian whose alphabet is totally different and you are endeavouring to put it into the Latin alphabet phonetically.

Many years ago, I discovered there are rules for writers when inserting a few foreign words into their writing for publication.  The Chicago Manual of Style is the ultimate guide for transliteration assistance in sections 11.91 to 11.95 for Latin and non-Latin alphabets.
The rules when languages use the Latin alphabet include:
  • The foreign word (other than proper names) is italicized in an English language work if it has not become part of the English language, either for the first use only or all the time – it depends on your publisher's guidelines. 
  • A foreign word that has been absorbed into English is not italicized. You'd be surprised how many have made the transition, so I always check the Oxford or Webster dictionaries to see if the word is listed.  

I visit France often and regularly face this issue when writing about my travels there. The French word for castle is 
ch√Ęteau, but it is now considered an English word too, has lost the circumflex, and would not be italicized. Merci is not in the Oxford Canadian Dictionary. Metro is anglicized. Aurevoir is not.

For example: "Aurevoir," Heloise said, smiling. "The chateau is at the top of the hill in Saumur." (Note the two proper names that are French, but the font is normal.)

If I'm in doubt, I consult an expert. Always! Foreign languages also have different capitalization rules from English for proper names and hyphenation, e.g. rue de Grenelle; St-Malo (note: in English, St. Albans has no hyphen but a period). 

So writers need to employ extreme attention to detail when using transliteration.

© Julie H. Ferguson

Sunday, August 14, 2016

WRITERS: The Difference between Style and Voice

Once more I turn to the wisdom of Joyce Gram, writer and editor. Style and voice are essential to creative writing, but elusive at the outset of a career. Again Joyce helps us out:

Elizabeth Lyon begins Manuscript Makeover, her masterful tome on fiction writing, with one of the most difficult distinctions in the art of writing, that between style and voice. She imagines a panel discussion among literary agents and editors at a writers’ conference on what they most look for in a novel submitted by an unpublished writer. Original style, answers one, distinctive voice, and then story. Fresh, original style, says another, individuality of the author’s voice. The puzzled Everywriter in the front row courageously asks what is meant by “voice” and how that differs from “style,” to which one of the panellists responds, “It’s difficult to put in words, but we know it when we see it.”1

Not all attempts at definition are so unhelpful, and once you see—really see—the difference, I think you will begin to relax and not try so hard to cultivate your voice.

The best definition I have heard comes from my own writing teacher, Eileen Kernaghan, who says, “Style involves the structure and rhythm of the sentences, choice of words, use of metaphors and images. Voice is the disguise you wear when you write. It’s more than style or point of view or word choice, though it incorporates all those things.”

All fiction writers strive for a strong, distinctive, authoritative writing voice, one that will lift their words out of the fast-food category and into collective memory, like “Call me Ishmael. Some years ago…” But, as Browne and King say in Self-editing for Fiction Writers, this is “something no editor or teacher can impart. There are, after all, no rules for writing like yourself. Voice is, however, something you can bring out in yourself. The trick is to not concentrate on it.”2 The best exercise in developing your voice, they say, is to work on your manuscript.

To which I say simply: read and write, and write, and write.

© Joyce Gram

Julie speaking again: Voice may not always be the writer narrating. It can be someone else who is not your gender, personality, or nationality. In that instance, you have to know the character in depth and imagine them telling the story to someone else. For example, you may write for twelve-year-olds and your voice may be the main character who is a boy or girl of thirteen from Scotland. Not easy but doable with lots of practice, expert guidance, and sound feedback.

1 Elizabeth Lyon. Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore. 2008.

2 Renni Browne and Dave King. 
Self-editing for Fiction Writers. 2nd ed. 2004.

Also recommended: Constance Hale. Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose. 2001

Sunday, August 07, 2016


Left-brain types outline articles and books routinely even compulsively, right-brainers often don’t or, at least, not as much. The latter individuals are known as pantsers – they fly by the seat of their pants.

Outlines should never be confused with synopses, they serve a different purpose. Outlines are prepared before a book or article is begun as a guideline and to ensure the writer doesn't forget anything important.
I’ve heard writing instructors teach that an outline is essential and I’ve heard several bestselling authors say they’ve never outlined a book in their lives. My two favourite editors, who have seen it all before, predict a scattered and rambling manuscript without an outline. So what is a writer to do? Probably, what works best for you, which is not very helpful advice.

I'm more left-brained than right so I have always found it easy to outline nonfiction books and articles and in doing so it clarifies my perspective and sharpens the focus. But it was challenging to outline my first novel. I knew my starting point and theme, but not much more. I decided to proceed anyway and the story began to flow. At that point I was able to create a rough outline – turning points, throughlines, rising conflict, resolution, etc. I was more right-brained than I knew. (Bear in mind that your outline should be flexible and not cast in stone.) But I couldn't manage to break it down further into scenes. From that crucial insight, I finally appreciated the novelists' dilemma and struggle. 

Fiction outlines prevent sagging middles, unnecessary scenes, poor chronology, and slippage of tension. If you like to write to a goal of 1000 words a day, your pace may outstrip your plotting (mine did) and this, too, is a strong indication for an outline. Outlines can also keep writer’s block at bay, which is a comforting thought, and can also guide the composition of sizzling long and short synopses.

There are as many ways to tackle an outline as there are writers, and methods can be simple or complex. Books on the craft of writing shed light on techniques to solve the outlining predicament. I recommend two by Elizabeth Lyon (A Writer’s Guide to Nonfiction and A Writer’s Guide to Fiction), which have valuable guidance on organizing your work-in-progress.

Good luck and know that the first outline of your life is the most challenging!

Here are two websites to assist you:

© Julie H. Ferguson 2016

Sunday, July 31, 2016


Many aspiring authors, especially young ones, operate under the misconception that book ideas have to be big ones; that they must span the whole plot and sub-plots if fiction, and the whole subject if nonfiction.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Often big books and articles grow from miniscule ideas that pique the interest and imagination of a writer who is attuned to the unusual.

Here are some examples that have recently become the foundation for novels-in-progress:
  • Young teens spent several years at sea in sailing ships with their fathers, the captains, in the 1800s
  • Crows can fly upside down and learn to talk
  • Time is a river.

And for non-fiction books or articles:
  • The Olympic flame (it's not what you'd expect)
  • Clouds rain liquid methane on Saturn
  • Knitting was in the elementary curriculum for boys in the Shetland Isles.

These flashes of inspiration can strike without warning, so I record them on my smartphone. Opening it as I write today, I find the idea for this article; a name that means nothing to me now(!); places to enjoy in Paris that are free and unknown to tourists (L: Napoleon's tunnel on the Canal st-Martin); a list of amusing differences between Italian and Canadian women; and.... I must stop or I'll give the rest away! Not all ideas produce enough material for a book but might suit an article. Many ideas bubble up while reading—I gave up TV several years ago so I could read more widely.

How do you flesh out these fleeting notions into a book or articles? Reflection and research is key. When and where could this situation occur? What individuals could be involved? How might the fact(s) change them? Writers need to brood on these snippets, sometimes for a long time, before they metamorphose into a full-bodied story.

It's the art of the "What if?"

  • Sailing ship, Wasdale, was my great-grandfather's command
    © Unknown, undated
  • Tunnel of the Canal St-Martin in the heart of Paris built by Napoleon
    © Photos by Pharos 2006

© Julie H. Ferguson 2016

Sunday, July 17, 2016


Nine years ago my professional editor wrote this piece on the active voice. It's important enough to rerun. While most authors and freelance writers know about this, many who write for their jobs don't.  Using the active voice when appropriate ups your game and here's how from Joyce Gram, editor and writer.

The non-fiction guru William Zinsser says, “The difference between an active-verb style and a passive-verb style—in clarity and vigor—is the difference between life and death for a writer.”
Life and death? Wow!

He goes on: “Verbs are the most important of all your tools. They push the sentence forward and give it momentum. Active verbs push hard; passive verbs tug fitfully.” For example, “Joe saw him” (active) is strong. It’s short and precise and leaves no doubt who did what. “He was seen by Joe” (passive) is weak. It’s necessarily longer and has an insipid quality. It’s also ambiguous: How often was he seen by Joe? Once? Every day? Once a week? A passive style, says Zinsser, will sap the reader’s energy. Nobody ever quite knows what is being perpetrated by whom and on whom.

All the books on writing and style that I’ve read contain similar advice: the active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive. Every writer must learn to spot the passive. Invariably, a passive clause contains a be-verb (or get) plus a past participle (usually a verb ending in ed). “The deadline was missed by the student” and “My wallet got swiped” are passive constructions. “The student missed the deadline” and “Some low-life swiped my wallet” are active—and better.

But, hold on! There are good reasons to use the passive. Here are some: when the actor is unimportant or unknown; when you want to hide the actor’s identity (maybe that’s why the passive has become so common in business and political writing); when the focus of the sentence is on the thing being acted upon; when you want the punch word at the end of the sentence; and, my favourite, when the passive sounds better—which it sometimes does.
Know what you’re doing and choose well (and remember Zinsser: “life and death!”).

Books mentioned above:
Zinsser, WIlliam. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. 2006
Strunk,William, Jr., and E.B. White. The Elements of Style. 2000
Garner, Bryan A. Garner's Modern American Usage. 2003

© Joyce Gram 2007