Writing tips never get old. Here is one from a post I wrote in 2012.

aa fishActually, the quote goes something like this: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Depending on where you look, it is either an old Chinese proverb or it comes from the Talmud. (I always thought that the first person to utter those words was my fourth-grade teacher in The Bronx, Mrs. Zelda Finkelstein. But, my research did not turn up that attribution.)

Why is this quote important to me? Over time I have come to realize that my Prime Directive as a writing coach and editor (not “book doctor”, folks, pull-eeeze!) is to provide my writers with the tools that enable them to make their own writing better, to show them what I’m doing, and why, rather than to simply do the work for them. “Hey Mike, doesn’t that mean less billable hours for you, if your writers do it themselves?” Yep, more than likely. But then, I have never been all about billable hours. I want writers to learn; I want them to understand this process; and, I want their writing to improve with every project.

A writer once called me, said that he had a 90,000-word manuscript and asked if I would work with him. I told him about my comprehensive evaluation, about how I point out what worked and what did not work, how I would provide him with many pages of suggestions for making his writing stronger—

BooksAnd he interrupted me, just like that. Uh-uh, he didn’t want to know what worked and what didn’t work. He had spent a long time toiling on this manuscript and now he wanted me to fix whatever was wrong with it and get it ready for submission. He didn’t even care if he saw it again or not, he told me. Oh yeah, and it better sell afterward. That expectation became the kicker.

So, being the polite charmer that I am (yeah, right…does the word “curmudgeon” ring true?), I graciously refused the project. Lots of billable hours there, no? But this was not going to happen. How could I justify working with a writer who felt that the first draft of his book was as far as he was willing to go? This is a long process, folks. Lots of grunt work beyond that initial draft.

Okay, so this was an extreme situation, granted. I suppose he even found a “book doctor” willing to do extensive rewrites for all of those billable hours. Does this mean I won’t do any grunt work for my writers? Not at all. Writers that have worked with me from beginning to end know that I’ve cleaned up their next-to-final drafts before the submission process began, but only after they’ve done the lion’s share of the rewriting and, yes, the editing. People absorb learning at different speeds, and I not only understand this, I am also fine with it. As long as a writer is trying, I have no complaints.

books 2For example, a writer came to me sometime back with an early 100,000-word draft of a novel. While the presentation was sorely lacking, the storyline was one of the best I’d read in the prior year or two. Based on the comprehensive evaluation he rewrote his first two chapters and sent them back to me. Oh boy, I knew we were in trouble. A second round turned out little better. After an exchange of e-mails and a couple more face-to-face meetings, I agreed to perform substantive editing on the chapters to show him what he needed to do. Lots of time? Yep. Billable hours? Indeed! His learning curve was slower than some, but he was trying hard, and I appreciated that. My workload decreased with each chapter, and by the end he was doing so much better. He finished the project and saw the book get published.

Mission accomplished: I taught another writer how to fish!

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