Friday, October 21, 2011

Be My Guest: Tracee Jackson

Please help us welcome Tracee Jackson to The Blood Red Pencil.

Editors are to writers what paint is to walls, polish is to furniture, vinegar is to glass: they make words shine. But I write non-fiction, you say. Marketing collateral, websites, speeches—all the stuff that tells and sells. Why do I need an editor? As a nonfiction writer for almost 15 years, I’m here to tell you an editor should be viewed as your clean team, your partner in perfection, your “got your back” friend. If you’ve neglected to form a ménage a trios between you, your words, and an editor, you don’t know what you’re missing. Spread the love.

#1. Get one.
Some of the most successful nonfiction writers would never think of “going to print” without an editor checking, reviewing, red-lining, or urging a rewrite. Take Malcolm Gladwell, for example, the New Yorker column writer-turned-best-selling nonfiction author whose second book, Blink, hit the New York Times best-seller’s list and stayed for an unprecedented 275 weeks. He knows the value of having a relationship with the right editor or, in his case, a team of editors. According to Gladwell, his army of editors makes him look way better than he actually is.

#2. Listen to them.
As long as there have been writers, there have been people advising them how to do it. The first great writing advice book was The Elements of Style, a 1918 guide by William Strunk, Jr., a professor of English at Cornell University. Strunk, who believed that writers used too many words to express their ideas, advocated an economy of style. His advice: Omit needless words—vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short or that he avoid all detail… but that every word tell.

#3. Appreciate honesty.
As with any successful relationship, honesty is imperative. Find an editor you can respect, and appreciate it when they say, “This sentence or this paragraph of this chapter has got to go.” I love how Robert Traver put it: A writer judging his own work is like a deceived husband—he is frequently the last person to appreciate the true state of affairs.

#4. Delete qualifiers.
In 1959, E.B. White of The New Yorker magazine—and a student of Professor Strunk’s forty years earlier—came out with a revised and updated edition of The Elements of Style. In the new edition, White continued the tradition of phrasing prescriptive writing advice in dramatic metaphorical ways. He wrote: Avoid the use of qualifiers. Rather, very, little, pretty—these are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words.

#5. Get rid of exclamation marks.
I can’t say it any better than F. Scott Fitzgerald when he advised writers: Cut out all those exclamation marks. An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own joke. Miles Kingston concurred in a 1976 Punch article: So far as good writing goes, the use of the exclamation mark is a sign of failure. It is the literary equivalent of a man holding up a card reading LAUGHTER to a studio audience.

So whether fiction or nonfiction, all works should be edited. From a simple business brochure to a thesis, a short story to a screen play, a magazine article to a novel, you need an editor. Don’t sell yourself or your work short by omitting this vital step to make your words shine.


Tracee Jackson, a graduate of the University of Denver with a Bachelor’s Degree in Communication, has over 14 years experience in writing, editing, and marketing. An award-winning writer and editor, she specializes in transforming technical material into reader-friendly content. Companies across the nation utilize her services to put the polish on RFQ’s and RFP’s, create marketing collateral, or rebrand and revitalize themselves. She has also served as executive producer of a consumer advocacy nationally-syndicated talk radio show. Visit her at
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  1. Exclamation marks. Designed by people with no emotions for people with no emotions. To give them a name, the English. :)

    p.s. I'm one of them!

  2. Welcome to the Blood Red Pencil, Tracee. Hope you will come back again with another helpful post. I don't think we can stress enough the importance of having an editor to work with. Even us editors have editors. LOL

  3. Excellent post, Tracee! I use exclamation marks in my emails and comments to posts, but advise my clients against them! LOL

    I also advise them to take out the qualifiers, like the ones you mention, trim all unnecessary words and sentences (and even paragraphs), cut way back on adverbs and the use of the passive voice, and more. For a more detailed list of no-nos in fiction writing, many of which also apply to nonfiction, readers can go to my article here at BRP on Jan. 8, 2011: "Style Blunders in Fiction" -

  4. "So far as good writing goes, the use of the exclamation mark is a sign of failure. It is the literary equivalent of a man holding up a card reading LAUGHTER to a studio audience."

    This was pretty great!

  5. Why is it that "us guys" sounds okay, but "us editors" so painfully bad? Not enough beer? LOL. We guys need to drink more, right Maryann? Who says we don't have fun at the BRP.

  6. Tracee: I'm not sure I've ever found such great writing advice so succinctly delivered. I hope that our readers saw this, hit "print," and hung it by their computers. Thanks so much for consolidating this timeless wisdom.

  7. The top take-away is to use an editor. Much of the rest of the advice is sound, but I have grown weary of categorical rules, such as, "eliminate qualifiers," and "don't use exclamation points." Among editors, the list of such absolutes often includes "no passive voice" and "throw out modifiers." While it is true that any of these can be over done--and often are--they are all also legitimate parts of the language in print.

    We trivialize the professions of writing and of editing when we turn art and judgement into simplistic formulae.

    I don't mean to pick on Tracee; the malady is endemic. Part of the problem is the modern imperative to keep to 600 words and reduce everything to five bullet points.

    "Unnecessary" words can be the bouquet garni that turns concise but boring text into a memorable feast of prose. Concision, too, can be carried to excess. Good writing--and good editing--are marked by balance and by inventive use of language that communicates. If the reader nods off or flips through the pages, we have failed--even if we followed all the rules to the letter.

    --Larry Constantine
    (Lior Samson, novelist)

  8. Exclamation marks. I cannot tell you how much I dislike seeing more than one - in anything. If you are showing not telling, then you probably don't need more than one or two in a 70,000 word novel.

  9. "Good writing--and good editing--are marked by balance and by inventive use of language that communicates." - Well said, Larry!

  10. Editors!!!! Can't live with 'em and ya can't live without 'em!!!!

  11. This is really interesting thing good post. Thanks you for your work!)

  12. Welcome Tracee. Thanks for giving me some food for thought.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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