Chip MacGregor

March 20, 2015

Ten Lessons I've Learned (a guest blog)


Before I opened my freelance doors for business, I worked as an associate editor for a small publishing house. Long before that I earned a degree in Journalism. But much of my training for my current job came from many hours writing fiction and working with my critique partners. Since I started this freelance venture, I’ve worked with all sorts of authors, newbies to multi-published veterans on multiple projects, fiction and non-fiction, in various genres—contemporary and historical, romance and suspense, memoir and magazine articles. As a writer, a critique partner, an associate editor, a copyeditor, and a freelancer, I’ve learned a few things.Keyboard

  1. Talent matters. All great writers begin with talent. I can’t carry a tune, but suppose the height of my ambition was to become a famous singer. Suppose I took voice lessons and spent lots of money and time honing my skills? Suppose I spent thousands of dollars going to singers’ conferences (are there such things?) and hob-nobbing with the best? I might possibly be able to carry a tune someday, but would I ever be singing at Carnegie Hall? Heck, my church’s worship team wouldn’t even want me. I can become a better singer. But I would never be good enough for people to fork over hard earned cash to hear me. Hard as this is for some of us to hear, talent matters.
  2. Hard work is everything. I’ve seen many writers with only a modicum of talent transform their writing through sheer determination. These writers don’t rely on instinct. Rather, they work with good critique partners, question their editors, and subject themselves to arduous rewriting sessions. They don’t settle for that’ll-do writing. They read craft books, attend writers workshops, and devour great works. Eventually they hear the words, “You’re so talented.” And they are, but that talent would still be raw without these writers’ passion for excellence.
  3. Writing is hard. You’ve heard the joke about the brain surgeon and the novelist who chat on the golf course. The brain surgeon says, “I’m going to take this summer off to write a novel.” And the novelist quips, “Really? I’m going to take the summer off to perform brain surgery.” Too many people believe writing is easy. They remember what they learned in ninth grade English, and they know where the commas go. They have decent vocabularies and a story that (they’re sure) needs to be written. What else is there? I’ve worked with folks like this. They pen their first manuscript and send it to me to edit, figuring they’ll get it back ready for a big New York publishing house. Instead, I send it back dripping in red. Even after they make the changes I suggest, in most cases, that manuscript still won’t be ready. I hate to break this to you, but your first manuscript probably isn’t very good. (I’m no exception. My first was terrible. My second rose to the level of mediocre.) Are you surprised? Was your first painting akin to a Van Gogh? Was your first Play-Do sculpture comparable to a Rodin? Writing is hard.
  4. Writing costs. Oh, I know, all you need is a computer. Theoretically, all you really need is paper and a pencil. But you also need what’s inside you. Your heart, your experiences, your emotions—these need to be liberally poured into your manuscript. If you’ve never felt heartbreak, you can’t write about it authentically. Sure, you can imagine a scenario, but unless you dig into yourself, find the heartbreaks in your past—even if they’re quite different from those in your story—and apply those feelings to the scene, your words won’t have the depth of emotion your readers are seeking. When you attempt to write without touching those deep, difficult places, your writing turns out flat and inauthentic. No editor will pull your truths into a story. Only you can do that.
  5. The editor isn’t always right. In fact, I’m sure I’ve often been wrong. I might read something one way when you intended it to mean something different. (However, one could argue that if it’s not clear to the editor, then it might not be clear to readers, either.) If your editor misses the mark, shake your head and move along. If he misses the mark a lot, consider chatting with him about it. If he misses the mark more often than not, it’s time to find a new editor—assuming you’re working with a freelancer. Having said that, please consider the fact that, though your editor might be wrong, if he is experienced, if he has worked with many manuscripts and authors over the years, and if he is an expert in the field, he might be right.
  6. Tension is king. Your manuscript needs big conflicts. But it also screams for minute-by-minute tension. That’s what makes readers turn the page. It’s not what happens at the climax of the book, it’s what happens in the next page or two that keeps a reader up at night. There are lots of ways to add tension. Learn those techniques and employ them on every page. Yes, on every page. It’s not your editor’s job to add tension to your manuscript, and we don’t like it when our eyes glaze over, either. Unlike readers, we don’t have the luxury of putting the manuscript down.
  7. Planning helps. Sorry, seat-of-the-pants writers, but it seems to me that the plotters have an edge. It might not be as fun to write with a detailed outline, but it usually makes for a better, cleaner book. I’ve seen so many plot holes and lost storylines in novels written by non-planners. Obviously, not all pantsers leave holes and hanging storylines, but that’s often because they’ve gone back and fixed them. If you must be a seat-of-the-pants writer, plan to do a lot of self-editing before you send your book to an editor.
  8. There’s no such thing as a good first draft. If you’ve ever been tempted to send your first draft to your editor, go back and read that opening line again. I’m serious. Don’t do it. Find a critique partner or two (I have eight). Rewrite and edit. And then, when you’re absolutely convinced it’s perfect, send it to an editor to prove you wrong. (He will, by the way.)
  9. Even the best editor can’t fix ugly. You should treat your editor as you treat your housekeeper. Everybody picks up before the housekeeper comes over. We joke about it, but do you really want to pay someone to pick up your dirty socks? If your housekeeper walks into a room covered in clutter, even if she hasn’t been paid to pick it up, she has to move it to clean around and under it. Either she will charge you more or not clean as well. If your book is filled with spelling, grammar, and usage errors, if it’s riddled with overdone metaphors and overflowing with unnecessary adverbs, your editor will spend half her time sifting through that junk to dig out the story beneath. It’s easy to miss plot holes when they’re cluttered with bad writing. So clean up that manuscript before you pay someone to shine it for you.
  10. Good critique partners are priceless. Find one—or a group of them, if possible. Your local and national writer’s organizations should be able to help you. And if you’re not involved with a writer’s organization, get involved. Once you’ve found a good critique partner or group—and beware: they’re not all good—you and your partners can learn and improve together.

So there you have it: ten lessons I’ve picked up in my years as a writer and editor. I strive to learn even more this year, not just about editing, but about writing and marketing, too. If I’ve picked up anything since I started this journey, it’s this: the more I know, the more I realize how much I don’t know.


Robin Patchen runs Robin’s Red Pen, an editorial service specializing in fiction editing. She is one of the editors we really like and respect, and we’re thrilled to have her offer this guest blog to our readers. Robin blogs regularly with a group of friends over at Quid Pro Quills, and she is the author of several books, including the just-released Finding Amanda. 

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  • This was so good. Thank you. So much.

  • Jericha Kingston says:

    I always benefit from your knowledge, Robin. Thanks for sharing your time and talent.

  • Marge Wiebe says:

    Robin, I loved everything you said, but especially the bit about writing costs. Yes, yes, and yes!! And for the record, you’re usually right. 😉

  • Terri Weldon says:

    Hey Robin, excellent advice and spot on as usual. I’m so thankful you read my work. Love the comments about first drafts. Mine are so bad that I’ve started revising prior to letting critique partners read. Oh, and I love the comment about writing being hard work. It is!

    • Sharon says:

      Robin, I love your insight, and that blasted pen!! 8 crit partners huh. Time for a Borg designation. Signing this One of Eight.

    • Robin Patchen says:

      Resistance is futile, Sharon! Yes, eight, and you’re all awesome.

    • Robin Patchen says:

      Thanks, Terri. I don’t like anybody to read my first drafts. I rewrite at least once before I share–usually more.

  • Normandie Fischer says:

    Good job, Robin! I’m one who can vouch for all you’ve written here.

  • Rajdeep Paulus says:

    Spot on, Robin. Thanks for sharing!
    *Waves from NY*

  • Regina Jennings says:

    Great tips, Robin. My favorite line, “Unlike readers, we don’t have the luxury of putting the manuscript down.” Ouch! But without great editors, there’d be a lot more books tossed aside. We thank you for your sacrifice! 🙂

    • Robin Patchen says:

      Most of my clients are fabulous, so I don’t have to worry about this much. And your books are too entertaining for anybody to put down!

  • Janet Lee Barton says:

    Great post and very good advice, Robin!

    • Robin Patchen says:

      Thanks, Janet. I’ve learned so much from my local writing group–great writers like you.

  • Julie Jarnagin says:

    I’ve had the pleasure of working with Robin, and she’s a fabulous editor!

    • Robin Patchen says:

      Aw, thanks, Julie. It’s easy when I have such great stuff to work with. I can’t wait to see your books in print.

  • Linda Goodnight says:

    Robin, I laughed at number 9, “you can’t fix ugly”. So funny and true. In fact, all your advice is spot on, especially number 8, “there’s no such thing as a good first draft.” And the truth is, beginners don’t usually understand that unless they have a good editor like you to tell them. Publishing too soon can be one of the pitfalls of self-publishing, don’t you think?

    • Robin Patchen says:

      Absolutely, Linda. I thought my first book was pretty good–all 260,000 words of it. (Shocking it was never published, right?) Now I look back and realize how little I knew. And I’m so happy I never self-published it! I’d have to change my name.

  • Pegg Thomas says:

    All good stuff, Robin. Not that we’d expect anything less.

    • Robin Patchen says:

      Thanks, Pegg. I learned most of that stuff from awesome critique partners like you.

  • Pam Halter says:

    Excellent advice, Robin – thank you!

  • Robin Patchen says:

    Thanks for hosting me, Chip. Finding Amanda’s not quite out yet, but it will be soon.

    • I have a question Robin…. First, thanks for such a great post. So good. How does one assize their own level of talent? How do you know if it’s worth your time and your energy, or if you should submit your work to editors, or if you should even bother querying agents? I struggle with this a lot. I love love love to write. But maybe I was born to write stories and share them with my friends.

      Perhaps it’s an issue of confidence. I have no idea. Would love to read your thoughts.

    • Robin Patchen says:

      Good question, Tina. It’s so hard to gauge your own talent level. I suggest you find a critique partner or two (or more) that you can trust. Sometimes you have to “test drive” critique partners until you find some that you trust. Check your local writers groups and national organizations for critique groups. Those who think you’re awesome and don’t need any help–they’re not the ones you want. You’re looking for people who can see what you’re good at but can also see what skills you lack. (We all lack skills somewhere.)

      Also, enter contests for unpublished authors. You might not win. You might not even semi-final, but most writers contests offer feedback, and often, that’s the best feedback you can get, because the judges don’t know you. They’re very likely to be honest. (And who knows–maybe you will win!)

      I believe wholeheartedly that the desire to write is a gift from God, and if God gives you the desire to write, then he must give you a modicum of talent. But all talent needs to be honed. So if you discover that you have a lot of raw talent (and have a lot to learn), then take classes, read books, and work hard. Writing is art, but it’s also craft, and you can learn the craft.

      Finally, you have a great attitude about it. You love to write, and you recognize that some people will write to share with friends and not for publication. That’s a great place to start.

    • Great response! Thanks Robin. Blessings.

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