Whether you’re writing a blog post for your website or getting a manuscript ready to submit to your editor, you want your writing to make a good impression on the reader. In my work as an editor, I often see the same mistakes over and over again. Usually it’s things that a little time and a once-over could solve.
Keep in mind, no one is perfect. I don’t expect manuscripts to be publisher-ready when they come to me (and my writing isn’t either). But doing a self-edit can make a big improvement on your writing. And if your editor charges by the hour like I do, it might even save you some money in the long run.
1: When possible, use active voice instead of passive voice.
Passsive: Caroline and Carter are jumping on the trampoline.
Active: Caroline and Carter jump on the trampoline.
Fewer words = more action. Active voice moves your writing along at a good pace. It’s one of the things I still struggle with as a writer, so I know how important it is to re-read your work to correct it.
2: ALWAYS put commas and periods inside quotation marks when writing dialogue.
Figuring out punctuation with quotation marks is one of the most challenging things for many writers. There are a lot of rules to learn. Often, it just helps to have a handy guide like this one from Grammerly around to keep for reference.
3: Read your work out loud. Maybe not the whole novel, if that’s what you’re working on, but definitely essays and short stories, or parts with dialogue. I find it really helps make dialogue more natural if I actually say it and see how it sounds on my ears.
4: Don’t worry about formatting. Leave that up to your graphic designer. Keep things simple, double spaced, and written in a font that’s easy on the eyes. (I like Times New Roman, but some people prefer Garamond or even a sans-serif font.)
5: Take a break from your writing. A couple hours, a few days, even a month. When you come back to it with fresh eyes you’ll be better able to find places where you can improve dialogue, tighten up sentences, and change passive voice to active voice.
Dear Gardening Editor:
How do I keep the birds from eating all of the berries on my blueberry bushes?
L.A. Jackson: Plant enough to share.
L.A. Jackson was the editor of Carolina Gardener Magazine when I got hired on as an editorial assistant just a couple of years after graduating from college, and he was a force to be reckoned with in the gardening world. An avid garden writer and sought-after speaker on the gardening symposium circuit, L.A. was full of wisdom, and also had a great sense of humor.
I learned quite a few things from L.A., but for some reason that blueberry bush advice really stuck with me. I’ve shared it with others quite a few times over the years. And this year I experienced it first-hand.
I now have four blueberry bushes on the edge of my garden. They started out as two seedlings from Fletcher’s Blueberry Farm. The kids and I used to go there to pick blueberries in the summer, and when Mr. Fletcher made the decision to retire, he sold seedlings so his loyal customers could continue to get the blueberries they loved.
Now, those original two bushes are as tall as me, and we’ve planted some more seedlings to grow our little plot.
In the winter I dutifully pruned the blueberry bushes just like the NC Cooperative Extension recommends, to encourage bountiful fruit.
In the spring, I watched with excitement as the bushes filled with blooms, promising a great harvest. I even lucked out that the proximity to our woods kept them protected from the late freeze that could have burned all the delicate blooms right off.
In the early summer, I could see the bunches of berries turn from green to bright red. My bushes are a late variety, so they don’t fully ripen until late July. I began to dream of all the blueberries I would get, enough to make pie, and have plenty of smoothies, and hopefully freeze a few pints.
In the middle of July, I started noticing something. Some of the branches were completely cleaned off with no leaves, others were picked over. The big bunches of berries seemed to be getting smaller.
Unlike that gardener who wrote into Carolina Gardener magazine years ago, it wasn’t the birds that were my problem. Or at least, it wasn’t just the birds. The many different animals in my garden eating my blueberries (and tomatoes, green beans, cucumbers, and squash) have included rabbits, deer, and Japanese beetles.
Yet even with all those visitors, I’ve picked a pint or two of blueberries every week since the middle of July. Enough for blueberry muffins, blueberry smoothies, and blueberries every morning on my Cheerios or oatmeal.
Maybe I didn’t get as many blueberries as I could have. But really, did I need any more? My garden is not big. I don’t can tomatoes or freeze zucchini. We just like having fresh fruits and vegetables for a few months during the summer. And this year, even with the deer snacking every other night or so, I still got to enjoy a pretty good harvest.
Plant enough to share. Share with the deer, share with your neighbors, share with those in your community that are hungry through great programs like Plant a Row for the Hungry.
Why waste a lot of time and energy getting mad about something that is totally out of your control? Take a page from L.A.’s advice book, and look at the issue at hand with a new perspective. Good advice, in or out of the garden.
It’s 7 a.m. on June 1. The house is quiet. The sun is rising over the trees, shining its golden spotlights on the green grass still heavy with dew.
I have a decision to make.
Should I sit at my desk, working on the project with a looming deadline while the house is still quiet, before the kids get up and start bustling around?
Or should I lace up my shoes and go for a run, before the sun hits its peak and warms up the atmosphere to the point where all that dew on the grass turns into the heavy humidity of a southern summer day?
I don’t write much anymore about the challenges of being a work-at-home mom. The days of trying to schedule phone interviews for when I think both kids might be napping or outlining articles while sitting by the sandbox are long gone. With Caroline going into 11th grade and Carter headed to 8th, I’ve had years now where I can plan on hours of uninterrupted time to get work done, allowing me to be more fully present when I need to be — at soccer games, playing catch in the backyard, or introducing them to the humor-laden life lessons of King of the Hill.
But that doesn’t mean that being a work-at-home mom doesn’t still come with a few challenges, especially in the summer time. When school’s out, gone are my uninterrupted hours of peace and quiet at the house, when all I have to worry about is making sure the dogs are outside before jumping on a Zoom call. Sure, the kids can take care of themselves. I can tell them I’m going to my office and not have to worry about providing constant supervision during their waking hours. But there’s still a level of distraction that comes when there are other people in the house. Especially people who, at random times, yell out:
* Mom, where are my shoes?
* Mom, where’s the remote?
* Can I go out with my friends for lunch?
* When did you say we’d ride bikes?
Part of it is my own fault. Sure, I can close the door. But my radar is still alert, always listening for when the TV is on, or when the door opens for kids and dogs to run in or out, or when the refrigerator opens, or the bickering begins. Try as I might, I can’t tune it all out completely.
That’s why those morning hours are so precious. It’s one of the rare times in the summer when I can truly gather my thoughts, concentrate, and get good work done. It just so happens it’s also the best time of day to do any sort of outdoor workout. And I know from experience, getting a workout in a couple of times a week helps immensely with my ability to concentrate and produce good writing.
So today I chose to run.
I headed out the door, immediately regretting my decision. The dew soaked through to my socks, and I really could have used that hour to get a jump on editing for the day.
Then I came out to the field of clover and caught a view of the church. My outlook changed.
I’d made the right decision. Breathing in that cool morning air, running by the cows grazing in the pastures, and seeing a few of the first wildflower blooms of summer helped center me for the day. This. All of this would make it easier to tune out the kids and work in the afternoon.
And if not, there’s always tomorrow morning to work!
I have a memory from my childhood that plays in my head like I’m watching a sitcom on TV. My dad, my brother and I are in the kitchen of our house in Decatur, cleaning up after lunch. Dad was washing, I was drying, and Locke was putting things up. All of a sudden, in the midst of our normal, everyday banter, Locke said, “We’re as funny as the Cosbys.”
I know, I know. That observation did not age well. But keep in mind, it was 1987. Our Thursday nights revolved around watching The Cosby Show, and apparently Locke and I thought they were the epitome of good-hearted family fun. It was quite an honor to be compared to them.
It’s just funny to me how that moment stands out so clearly, 34 years later. And that moment stands for so much more in my memories. It takes me back to hot summer days in Atlanta, eating Chef Boyardee Ravioli and drinking Cherry Coke with my dad. Helping him do the dishes every day after we ate because that was his contribution to the household chores now that my mom had gone back to work (to help get him through seminary). Watching Perry Mason in reruns on TBS. (Yep, another benefit of living in Atlanta, TBS without having to have cable!)
I think those lunches stand out because it was something new. Before we moved to seminary, my mom stayed home with us while my dad went to work during the day. I was used to PB&J and storytime with mom. Now things were different. Dad was home during the day! We now ate things out of a can instead of PB&J! We made Kool-Aid! It definitely made an impression.
Last week, both Caroline and Carter went back to school in-person, every day. It is the first time they’ve been to school every day of the week since this time last year. There are a lot of reasons I was looking forward to them going to school full time, and a lot of things I’ll miss about having them here with me. But our lunches may be one of the things I’ll miss the most.
When I went to the grocery store last week, I paused a minute at the realization that I had to buy more turkey for Carter to pack sandwiches. The same old thing, every day, again. No more chicken fajitas, individual pizzas loaded with cheese, or nachos made with leftover taco meat. Somehow, during the pandemic, our lunches got a little more creative than before. I used to be a PB&J mom like my mother. But the kids are older now, with their own opinions on what to eat, and an ability to cook as well! We even took a page out of my dad’s playbook, and Chef Boyardee became a staple of our pantry.
When it was warm enough and not raining, we ate outside. We watched CNN10 or the previous night’s Late Show monologue on my phone. We caught up on what the kids had done on their remote learning assignments in the morning. And we’d wrap it up with some “play” time before going back to work — jump rope, frisbee, riding bikes, or shooting hoops.
I can only hope that 30-some years from now, Caroline and Carter will look back on those lunch times with fond memories. Just like my lunches in Decatur, the lunches of the pandemic were symbolic of a change, a new family pattern. And it’s those times of change that make an impact. It’s comforting to know that in this year of COVID, with all the stress, upheaval, and frustrations, there is some good that’s come out of it. Memories of lunch times spent together will only be a small part of what they remember. But hopefully it’s a good part.
At the beginning of December the New York Times ran their annual Year in Pictures, and of course, it’s full of great, meaningful moments and amazing photography. I mean absolutely amazing. From the beginning of the pandemic in Wuhan to the first vaccine administered, with stunning photos from the presidential campaign, Black Lives Matter protests, California wildfires, and many other moments in between.
It served as inspiration for me to create my own “year in pictures.” By no means was my year in pictures supposed to highlight my photography skills. I just thought it was a cool idea, and rather than publishing it like the Times did, I decided to turn it into a wall calendar for my mom and Bill’s mom. A little “extra” gift since we couldn’t spend Christmas together with them in person this year. The funny thing was, scrolling through my photo roll, all my pictures looked somewhat similar. Variations of me, Bill and the kids outside — hiking, camping, hanging out by the fire pit.
Most years my pictures are a good mix of recitals, scout award ceremonies, church gatherings, and marching band events. This year, all of those were cancelled. In their place, we found time to hang out in our own backyard a little more than usual, as well as opportunities to explore parks and trails near us (some familiar, some new to us).
Here’s to 2020 — thanks for the family time, the beautiful outdoors, and a chance to really enjoy the seasons as they passed in a whole new way.
In preschool, we learn about seasons by assigning some simple characteristics:
Winter: Snow and snowmen
Spring: Flowers and green grass
Summer: Hot sun, thunderstorms and swimming pools
Fall: Colorful leaves and pumpkins
It all seems so clear cut, with nice lines dividing up each season into clear periods of time.
In reality seasons aren’t that clear cut. Time is a continuum — a continuum that stands out to me especially in my garden, where the bright pinks and purples of my summer cosmos seem glaringly out of place among the yellows and reds of fall.
Or are they out of place?
Maybe it’s just another type of beauty, a season within a season.
We’re living in the “season within a season” right now, where summer is still hanging on even while fall makes a magnificent entrance. And it’s fitting to have those juxtapositions around me in nature, because I see them all around.
Sometimes the first spring blossoms of crocuses get caught in a late-winter snow. Those thunderstorms that we associate with summer once in a while show up in the dead of winter. The pink zinnias and purple salvia of salvia don’t have a calendar telling them it’s October, and time to stop blooming in order to let pansies take their place in the flowerbeds.
Lately, I’ve seen the season within a season not just in nature. It happens in people as well. Sometimes a person who agrees with political policies such as Medicare expansion and free community college for all might also be pro-life. Sometimes people who vote for Trump for president also vote for Cooper for governor. Maybe they felt like Trump would be good at improving the economy of the United States while Cooper would focus on improving the educational system in our state. Who knows?
I’ve always been proud to live in North Carolina, which political pundits call a purple state. I like the fact that sometimes the electoral votes go to a democratic candidate and sometimes to a republican. Hopefully it means that our state is full of critical thinkers who vote on the issue. Purple also means that sometimes our state might vote for a republican president and a democratic governor all on the same ticket. Take that, pundits!
Just like the seasons, people aren’t straightforward black and white, all or none. There’s a lot of gray. Or in election year terms, people aren’t all red and blue. There’s more purple in us than many are willing to admit. We are definitely living in a polarized time right now, where the red and blue seem to get a lot of attention. But on November 4, no matter what happens in the White House, I hope that the purple in all of us rises above the red and the blue.
Have you ever experienced one of those times when something that’s really small, not a big deal at all in the overall scheme of life, just sets you off?
That happened to me, around the middle of July, when I faced the realization head-on that I wasn’t going to get any tomatoes from my garden.
We’d marched through one disappointment after the other like troopers: school closures, canceled vacation, a soccer season cut short (and by short I mean 1 game instead of 21), no time hanging out with friends. “Chin up,” Grandma would have said. “It could be worse.” I tried to focus on the positives: more family time, getting important things done around the house, taking more time to enjoy where we live by spending more time at the creek and riding bikes down the road populated with black cows and an occasional donkey.
Aother thing I appreciated was more time in the garden. I had enlisted the help of the kids in planning and planting this year (thinking it was a good educational activity for them when they were remote learning in the spring). I went out diligently to hoe weeds once a week, keeping the weeds away better than I ever have in all my years of gardening. And I was rewarded for my efforts by productive bush-bean plants and cucumbers as long as my forearm. When I started seeing the multitude of yellow blossoms on my cherry tomatoes turn into little green fruits I bought bleu cheese dressing and extra bacon and started looking forward to salads and BLTs.
The days went by, turning into weeks, and there were never any red tomatoes on my plants. Lots and lots of green ones, but no red ones.
Then one morning I went to the garden to pick beans, the day after a hard rain, and the cloven hoof prints were undeniable. All through my garden, but mostly around my beautiful, green, bushy tomato plants. I could have let out a stream of cusswords that would look like this in a comic strip: *&%@!# *!?#$ &#@*@!$ %^&# *%@!$.
Fighting back tears of anger, I told myself it didn’t matter. After all, I could buy tomatoes at Hawk’s Market, and I tried to look on the bright side. We still had beans, I thank the Lord the deer didn’t eat Carter’s corn (he definitely would have been mad enough for a stream of curse words).
But you know what? It did matter. Every summer I carefully plan out my produce growing/cooking adventures to have a BLT and a slice of blueberry pie. That wasn’t going to happen. There wouldn’t be any tomato soup made with love by me and Caroline, this year with the immersion blender I’d gotten for Christmas. And not only that, I felt like all the time spent hoeing and babying the tomato plants had been a total waste. I was mad. Was I really just mad about the tomatoes? Definitely not. Months of staying home, forced out of our regular routine, worried about so many things beyond my control, had built up to a boil. And that morning, the deer took the brunt of my angry outburst.
I’ve learned three things from this summer’s tomato experience.
1. Build a deer fence. I guess it was just pure luck I hadn’t needed one before. I thought all the measures I was doing were enough to keep the deer out of my garden (placing human and dog hair in the garden and religiously spraying Liquid Fence deer and rabbit repellant. I also learned this summer that motion lights could help, so we turned on the ones on the garage right by the garden. Didn’t help.)
2. There will be good days and bad days in life, and that’s okay. It’s a lesson that I’ve tried to communicate to my kids, even before COVID, but it’s one I still need to hear myself every now and then. Sure, it’s great to try to see the silver linings in the clouds and make lemonade out of lemons. But no human being is capable of being happy all the time. Sometimes when life gives you lemons it’s okay to be mad about it. And that’s what makes you a healthy human being.
3. I can still enjoy a great BLT made from homegrown tomatoes. Thanks to the generosity of others who didn’t have deer feasting in their garden every night (Jennifer Adams), my windowsill did end up populated by beautiful red tomatoes.
We dressed up in red, white and blue clothes. We ate all-American hamburgers. We played cornhole in the backyard. Then we drove to town to watch Elkin’s fireworks from our usual spot. Sitting on a blanket on the lawn of our church, which just happens to be right across the street from the park where the fireworks are shot off, it seemed just like the Fourth of July.
But it wasn’t.
First of all, it was June 27. For the past few years Elkin has chosen to do fireworks on the Saturday before the Fourth, to avoid conflicts with other municipalities that have their fireworks displays on the Fourth. “This means you can go to more than one event,” people will say. Although we only choose to go to one.
Second of all, it’s life during the pandemic. Living life in the time of COVID-19 means it’s a very calculated decision every time we leave our driveway. Especially as cases continue to rise in the state of North Carolina, there’s a lot to consider. Should we expose the kids to the public? Will we be able to social distance?
Bill wasn’t sure about going. He sees the very real side of COVID-19, working at a hospital. A 9-year old kid hospitalized. People in the ICU. Nurses worried about even coming in to work for fear they might be exposed and put their families at risk.
I insisted we go. At this point, the repetitive, mundane, isolated aspect of the pandemic is starting to wear on the kids. And me. Day after day spent at home. No summer camps. No sleepovers with friends. I know the days are passing, I’ve seen the seasons change from spring to summer with my own eyes. But there was no Easter egg hunt with the little ones at church. No end of school party. No Vacation Bible School to kick off summer in June. I never realized just how these social markers and traditions provide a sense of time passing, until we lived life without them.
So we went to the fireworks on Saturday. It felt great to be out, but definitely different. There was no big gathering at the park with food trucks and bounce houses before the fireworks. Rather than sitting with a group of friends, we waved to a few people we knew from a distance. Normal things, not in the normal way.
On Monday I took the kids to the pool. Another one of those things we do every summer, and something we hadn’t done yet. It felt good to go swimming, to feel like we were doing something “normal.” But at the same time it wasn’t normal.
We had to make reservations, because capacity is limited to 40. Reservations are for 2-hour blocks, so we planned our whole day around swimming from 12-2. (Not 3-5, because I was afraid that time of day was more prone to afternoon thundershowers). It wasn’t our usual swim day of going whenever we happen to finish lunch, with my insistence that we’re only staying two hours, and then end up staying three because friends come and we make a day of it.
This time we didn’t know any of the other 25 or so people who had reserved that time. There were no toys allowed in the pool. No tables set up. And without the day campers there it felt more like swimming at a private pool than the city one.
Going to the pool was fun. Yet surreal. Much like the fireworks.
It’s summer. Summer during a pandemic.
Life’s moving forward. It might be a little off kilter, but it’s going.
What better way to celebrate than with 27th of June fireworks?
During the school year, I try to fit a couple of workouts into my weekly schedule. Now, I’m not an exercise fanatic, by any means. I’m not hitting the gym pumping iron. It’s more like running a couple of miles with the geriatric dog, or doing a workout video (at my own pace) in the living room. My favorite is Jillian Michael’s yoga, a weird sort of cardio/yoga workout routine. A couple of years ago I expanded on that, adding Tony Horton’s P90X3 Pilates into the mix. I had seen an interview with Gwyneth Paltrow who said all she did was Pilates every day, and I was sold.
“What about summer?” you might be asking. Workout time disappears in the summer, and is replaced instead with things I do with the kids, like afternoons at the pool, hikes through the woods, bike rides, etc.
When schools closed in March due to the pandemic, you might have thought that meant my summer routine started early. But instead, being a person resistant to change, I decided to incorporate the kids into my twice-weekly workouts. At first it was pretty seamless. Caroline was smack dab in the middle of soccer season, and with the idea that the closure was just for two weeks, the coach was encouraging kids to work out at home to be ready to get back into games when they got the green light. So a couple of times that first week we ran together, and drug Carter along with us.
Then the weather turned cold and rainy. Work out day came and running was out of the question. I told the kids we were going to do Pilates instead. Carter said anything that sounded like a pirate must be good. We spread out our yoga mats in the basement, got our water ready, and booted up the video.
Almost immediately I regretted my decision. I had forgotten how hard it was to do those that workout the first time. Exercises I had under my belt from multiple repetitions were all completely new to the kids, and unlike anything they’d ever done before. Add to that, to really get the core work of Pilates in, you have to concentrate on breathing. That was nearly impossible to do when the kids were constantly laughing at each other as they mimicked the people on TV.
Halfway through the workout I found myself flat on my back, staring up at the ceiling and holding my breath to try not to yell at the kids to be quiet and take things seriously for the tenth time in probably five minutes. My frustration level was high. I had a busy day of work ahead of me, and I was seriously trying to fit in a good workout in an otherwise sedentary day of sitting at my computer.
But then I turned around and saw Carter trying his hardest to write out the alphabet with his feet in the air. Caroline was laughing her head off at him while trying to fight the puppy off her mat.
At that moment, I had an epiphany. Laying on the basement floor, surrounded by my kids and the two dogs, my emotions changed in an instant. I started laughing too. I let go of the frustration of not getting in a good Pilates workout, and more than that, I let go of the tensions of the previous days — the worries of the virus, the questions of whether we’d go back to school ever this spring, the anxiety of whether to cancel our summer vacation, all of that melted away. I realized that this was what mattered right now — laughing and spending time with each other.
I can still remember clearly the first time I encountered the word epiphany. Sitting in a literature class at Davidson, with James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man open on my desk, the professor asked us to share an epiphany we’d had in our own lives. I felt like all the other students already knew what this word meant, but I was struggling to figure it out how it applied to Dedalus, let alone me. Now I have the perfect example.
After that day, I changed my tactic when it comes to workouts. I’m keeping with my original plan of at least two workouts a week, to help keep some semblance of structure in our lives and get my exercise in. (I’m not so worried about the kids’ physical activity, they’re jumping on the trampoline, riding bikes or doing something outside almost every day.) The difference is now, the kids are in charge. Caroline has already led us in a workout routine she found on TikTok. Carter got us all out on bikes. And one day we went to the church across the street to run laps around the cemetery with the dog. She loved it!
In a few short years Caroline and Carter will be off on their own, starting their careers and families, and I’ll have all the time in the world to do a quiet yoga meditation or concentrate on a Pilates workout. For now, I’m going to enjoy the fact that I get to spend some time together with these kids, no matter what shape that takes.
East Wilkes Girls Soccer season — cancelled
Spring Cal Ripkin baseball season — cancelled
Scout meetings — cancelled
Envirothon — cancelled
Youth Group — cancelled
June vacation —
cancelled — postponed to June 2021
What’s not cancelled?
I don’t think of my family as one that’s “over scheduled.” But our March/April/May calendar was definitely a busy one. It was full of things we were looking forward to — Caroline’s first year playing high school soccer, Carter being one of the “big kids” in rec-league baseball, Easter activities at church.
I know we’re not the only ones missing things. Everyone is missing things, some more than others. As cliché as it might sound, we’re all in this together, and I find comfort in that. There’s no “fear of missing out” when we’re all missing out.
I look forward to our seasons of busy-ness in our little family, and at the same time I look forward to our less busy seasons. I relish the week between Christmas and New Year’s, where there are no places to go, no parties to attend, no long to-do lists to weed through. It’s just me and the kids at home, enjoying the quiet days of winter, catching up on movies, doing projects around the house.
Same for summer, when those weekly activities like children’s choir and music lessons take a break, when we’re not rushing through dinner to get to the next activity, and instead have plenty of time to eat together as a family and play Frisbee in the back yard or check out a new show on Netflix. (Season 2 of Lost in Space was going to be our required viewing for summer, we might get to that earlier now.)
A lot has been written about what will come of us as a society after this pandemic, what we will learn, how things will change. I don’t have much to add, but will put in my two cents.
I hope that we learn, as parents, as families, that scheduling ourselves to death is totally unnecessary. Leave time to be together as a family. Relish the quiet, slow times with nothing to do but play board games and walk the dog.
More than likely, everyone will be in such a mad rush to “catch up” that the scheduling will commence with a vengeance as soon as we’re able to return to our “normal” lives. In that case, I hope that you come away from this time with some memories made, bonds renewed, and relationships strengthened.
In the meantime, take a minute to enjoy the beauty of the world around you.
“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. If God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith? … Therefore, do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.”
Matthew 6: 28-30, 34, RSV.