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The Toofer Controversy

The English language changes slightly about every five years. Sometimes, it’s a change in words and at others a change in punctuation or usage. Today, writing in general has been heavily influenced by chatting, texting, and messages on social network sites like Twitter.

Over the last five years, a controversy has arisen about punctuation and the word “too.” Throughout my schooling and my writing career, I always placed a comma before the word “too” when I used it at the end of a sentence.

A few months back I was revising a book of mine–How to Start a Home-Based Antiques Business–when I discovered that all the commas preceding the word “too” had disappeared in the current edition. I asked my editor about them, and she was as baffled as I. So in the revised edition, I replaced all those commas. I have yet to see the published new edition, so I don’t know if the commas mysteriously disappeared again.

Several months later, I noticed those same commas missing in the stories written by some of my creative writing students. This seemed to be more than a chance coincidence, so I did some checking.

It seems that at the moment I, as a writer, have the choice of whether to place a comma before the word “too.” Unlike other English usage practices, this is the only incidence in which I have a choice. So what’s the difference? If I place a comma before the word “too,” it implies that the sentence provides additional information. In this instance, I could substitute the word “also.” But if I delete the comma before the word “too,” the sentence lacks the emphasis I want. And writing is all about emphasis.

The Proof is in the Book

During my writing career, I have written quite a few books. Like most writers, I labored over the content and the words and phrases to bring it to light. When I finished writing my books, I sent them off to an editor at my publisher.

Recently, I took on the job of editing a cookbook for a Quaker Meeting of which I’m a member. While this seemed like an easy task at first, I soon realized that editing was much more than correcting spelling and punctuation and the occasional mistake in grammar. How difficult would it be to edit recipes? Boy, was I way off base.

Yes, there were spelling and punctuation errors to correct, but editing a book involves so much more as I soon found out.

One of the main jobs of a book editor is to make sure the content and style remains consistent throughout the book. A book is a large volume of work. When writing one, I try to keep the main idea in mind, but as I get deeper into it, I sometimes change how I express certain things which results in inconsistencies.

And so it was with this cookbook. The person who compiled the recipes is a cook, herself, so the recipes, themselves were okay, for the most part. However, different recipe donors had different ways of expressing the same procedure in similar recipes. For example, some donors used fractions while others used decimals to indicate parts of measurements. A few recipes weren’t at all clear. And while folksy and interesting to read, they left the cook wondering what to do next. So in this case, clarity became a major concern.

Another facet of editing this cookbook was focusing it to the reader. At first, it targeted only to people at our Meeting, but to make this a successful fundraising project, it had to be clear to those outside our Meeting who might purchase the book. The problem that surfaced while editing was how the descriptive anecdotes that accompanied the recipes related to the reader. Originally, the compiler had only the people at our Meeting in mind as readers. But to sell the book to a broader audience, that had to be changed so that other readers would understand the family relationships mentioned in the book.

Upon finishing this project after six or seven weeks of intensive editing, I now have a very healthy respect for my book editors. And as a writer, I plan to insure that I make their job a little easier by paying stricter attention to details when writing my books. I also learned a lot about the other side of publishing–getting the book ready for market–which I can now use to self-publish books.

Look Before You Leap

When writing a book, most writers begin by doing just that. They bury themselves in researching their topic or story and spend months, if not years, writing about it. Sounds logical, doesn’t it? But how many of them actually get their book published?

In general, most people feel they have something so important to say that every publisher will want to publish their book and every reader will run out to buy it. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

This attitude of self-importance originates way back in school—as far back as first grade. Most teachers don’t mean to instill this in their students, it sort of happens through a process of educational osmosis. The teachers had it instilled in them by their teachers in a never-ending educational process. So what is a book writer to do? Market research.

Whether you plan to write a non-fiction or fiction book, it pays to take a look at the market for your idea—not your book. Take a trip to a good bookstore and browse through the books on your topic. This will tell you what’s being sold. Remember, most of the books on the shop’s shelves originated at least two years prior to you seeing them. Now stroll over to the sale tables. The books on these tables are remainders—leftovers that didn’t sell during the book’s most recent run. Many may be terrific, but for some reason didn’t hit the mark. Take notes, being sure to nor publishers names.

Next surf on over to Amazon.com, the world’s greatest book depository. Search for books on your topic. Amazon has practically everything in print. Do the same at their competitor, Barnes and Noble’s Web site. Take more notes, again being careful to note the names of publishers.

After all this research, review your notes and draw some conclusions about how viable your topic really is. Generally, too many books on your topic means the market is overloaded. Too few often means not enough readers are interested or the topic hasn’t been explored to any great degree by writers.

Armed with your conclusions, you’re ready to proceed with your book, modifying the topic to reflect market trends. It’s important to note that you shouldn’t cater to your topic’s market but be driven by it. Doing so will greatly enhance your chance of publication.

Total Immersion

I began my writing career over 25 years ago writing short articles for local newspapers. At the time, I thought spending a week working on a 1,000-word-or-so article was a long time.

Over the years, I continued to write articles, eventually graduating to longer more complicated magazine pieces. Churning these out one after another became the norm. Each required some research and writing skill, but not as much as goes into writing a book.

Though I began writing shorter books early on—my first was one on solar energy that was 20 years ahead of its time—none of these projects demanded as much of me as the book projects I’m working on now.

My total immersion into book writing began in 2005. For about a year before that I knew deep down inside that it was time for me to move on to longer works, and as the Honda commercials so aptly put it, “Mr. Opportunity came a knockin’.” Then, instead of working on a project for a few days, I began working on ones that took 10-12 weeks or more.

This level of intense concentration on one subject was at first daunting. But after finishing my first 100,000-word+ manuscript–it actually was 130,000 words—my mind became used to the routine of 16-hour work days.

Working on a book necessitates that my mind be constantly working. While I’m writing one chapter, I’m researching the next, thinking about another, and editing the last. It’s not until about a fourth of the way into the writing of a book that the book’s concept begins to gel. It’s then that I begin to visualize the entire book as a unit.

So many beginning writers want to write books—I suppose for all the “glamour” and credibility that they perceive comes with them. But what they don’t realize is that no only are their writing skills not fully developed but neither are their thinking skills. And it’s because of the latter that 99 percent of the books started never get finished.

So before you set out to tackle those big projects, start out slowly with smaller ones. Sharpen your writing and your thinking skills and soon you’ll be on your way to writing success.

Promote Thyself

“Promote thyself” should be every writer’s motto. But getting out there and telling other people about your work is directly opposite to the writing lifestyle. Writing is a solitary profession, and except for interaction with your editors and perhaps people you interview, you write in more or less total isolation.

However, in today’s world of networking, it’s important to make you and your work known.

Sure, book writers—you’ll notice I didn’t use the term “author”—can present book signings here and there. While this may sell a few more books regionally, it doesn’t do much to get a book known for the average writer. Perhaps your book becomes a bestseller and Oprah invites you on her show. It becomes an instant success. But what about all the rest of us who don’t get that golden opportunity.

Whether you write books, articles, or short stories, you need to create a plan for promoting them. You’ll discover that it’s inherently easier to promote non-fiction than fiction. First, you can easily produce articles on the same topics as your books or articles in which you can promote yourself as a writer in other topic areas. Publishing these in print or online will definitely help get you noticed.

And what about creating your own Web site? People in businesses of all kinds have Web sites today. It shouldn’t be any different for a writer. You have two ways to go there—developing a professional Web site through which you can engage editors or a more personal site to engage readers.(I’ll discuss creating your own site more in a future blog.)

Even if you don’t have a Web site, you can offer your work to Webmasters of other sites—either ones that deal with your chosen topic or ones that focus on writing, itself. Don’t do this haphazardly, however. Instead, target good sites with higher visitor counts or rankings in search engines like Google.

And finally don’t discount social networking sites like Facebook. While all the”friends” you emass on Facebook may visit your fan page regularly, are they doing much else to further your career, like buying your books or reading the magazines in which your articles and short stories appear. Only you can decide if the time and energy you’ll need to put into a social networking page will be worth it in the long run.
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