A few months ago, Jess and I were giving our website a critical once-over. Something wasn’t quite right. When Jess mentioned that the sidebar was a little old fashioned, I cocked my head and suddenly saw that it wasn’t just the sidebar—the whole site was old fashioned. And not in a good way.
Our old website didn’t really speak to our work, and it definitely didn’t speak to the clients we worked for.
So we began the redesign process. And it was hard. So hard! Part of the hardness is that the medium—and what is relevant to it—is constantly changing. But an even harder part of the hardness is the impossibility of achieving the personal perfection for which every professional writer aims.
I assumed we’d get stuck negotiating big-picture elements. And coming up with a tone that sounded like it originated from our brains and could be uttered in our voices (without the obligatory eye roll accompanying pretty much all industry jargon) was the worst. “Authentic” and “curated” are so overused we don’t want to write them—or read them—ever again. Even actually valuable words like “content” started to feel weirdly loaded and vacuous.
But we got stuck on smaller stuff, too. Image proportions, font sizes and weights, the number of case studies to include, and the persistent and omnipresent question of whether (and how) to flout rules of grammar for the sake of tone and style prompted debate and soul searching.
The interminability of the process began to prove the old perfect-is-the-enemy-of-done adage. Our debates shifted from the perfect manifestation of our business vision, to the perfect way to show how we can help organizations, to the perfect serif and sans-serif fonts, to the perfect use of a comma splice. It was clear that we were ready to be done.
And we maybe missed out on perfect, but I think we achieved the best iteration of our current vision for Modern Writing Services. We’ve also (and very helpfully!) illustrated that perfection is a process—it’s best not to aim for it alone. 
We love books; you love books. Send us an email to join our book club.
In an ideal world, every writer would have a top-notch editor who understands the needs of her project and the idiosyncrasies of her writing process. There’s no substitute for a trained editorial eye when it comes to realizing the full potential of a piece of writing—even (or maybe especially) those of us who are editors by trade value another editor’s insight on our own writing.

But we live in the real world. And the reality of tight budgets and tight timelines means that you can’t always get what you want. What you can always get, however, is yourself. It’s absolutely possible to be your own (cheap!) editor, if you know how to shift gears. Self-editing is not always easy—there’s a reason it’s called “killing your babies”—but it’s among the most useful skill sets for anyone who writes.
Try these tricks for wrangling your writing into top form.

  1. Step away from the manuscript. Yes, you have been staring at it for too long. To successfully edit your own work, you need to see it from a different perspective, and nothing facilitates this more effectively than time. So go take a long walk or watch some cat videos before you try to edit.
  2. Give yourself fresh eyes with a fresh format. As with stepping away, printing out a hard copy of the document in question is an important way to see it differently. While it may seem terribly twentieth-century, working from a print copy forces your brain to engage more deeply. Similarly, you’ll also notice things you wouldn’t otherwise by reading your work aloud—one of the oldest tricks in the editor’s book.
  3. Think big-picture first. Fight the temptation to start rewording sentences or adding commas, at least for now. Start with a holistic review—that means looking at the organization of the entire piece to make sure it’s logical and complete. Creating a reverse outline is a great technique to this end.
  4. Get to know your bad habits. We all lean on certain writerly crutches, and it’s important to recognize your own. Perhaps you overuse the passive voice, repeat the same transitional phrases, or write overly long sentences. Once you’ve identified your problem tendencies, it’s easy to spot and fix them. (We’ve got a post in the pipeline that focuses on this topic, so stay tuned for more!)
  5. If you can say it in fewer words, DO. While the utility of academic jargon has long been a contentious topic, it’s always the case that more direct communication equals more clear (and therefore more effective) communication—even if you’re writing for an audience of specialists. Examine every sentence with an eye toward simplification. Your readers will thank you.

The holidays have passed, the new year’s initial promise has dimmed, and winter has tightened its icy grip. If you’re anything like us, you’re in no mood to make a list of business goals.

But, we’re doing it anyway. Why? Because the year is moving inexorably forward, and at the end of January, we’re more gimlet-eyed about what we want to achieve in 2016. At the top of our list? Write more, write less, and write better.

It surely comes as no surprise that this is our goal, but you can (and should!) make it yours, too. The 5 guidelines we’ve committed to:

1. Write more. Everyone (from famous authors to teachers to business writers) says it. If we want to be smarter and more proficient writers, we must establish a writing routine. This year, we’re aiming to write a handful of sentences every single day. We’ll set a timer, block our Internet connection, and write (er, type) some words.

2. Write less. Of course, working our writerly muscles is not the same as winning the writing race. To write better, we need to write more and less. Better business writing necessitates brevity and concision. Short, pithy communications make every word matter (and fill readers’ hearts with gratitude). Just do it.

3. Write more (and less) formally. We don’t want to write in Siri-style formalities, but we also don’t want to write in acronym-laden textspeak. This year, we’re looking to strike a Seth Godin-inspired balance: less jargon, fewer acronyms, and a more balanced—and authentic—style.

4. Write less enthusiastically (when appropriate). Speaking of text messages…. They’re delightful and have expanded our communication skills. But they also force exclamatory enthusiasm that unhelpfully influences other communications. Resist. The period is still respectable (and respectful). That said, if you’re an enthusiastic person and the exclamation point feels like an ideal tool of expression, use it.

5. Write better. This year, we will strive to never miss a typo. It’s nearly impossible—even for seasoned editors—but we’re tipping the balance in our favor by instituting the tried-and-true method of reading backwards (slowly) and reading aloud.

Five (pretty) easy steps to writing success in 2016. We’re in, are you?

We love books; you love books. Send us an email to join our book club.
Here at MWS, we work with scholarly writers at all stages of the book publication process, so we’re very familiar with the hurdles they face along the way. One of the most daunting for many is creating the book proposal for submission to potential publishers. We recently had the opportunity to talk to Sara Cohen, Editor at Temple University Press. We asked Sara about what piques her interest in a book proposal, as well as what makes her pitch a book proposal without a second glance.
MWS: How important is the query letter, and to what degree does it impact your solicitation or acceptance for review of a manuscript? How do you suggest authors approach it, as a separate genre from the proposal proper?
SC: The cover letter that accompanies a proposal and sample materials is important for my acquisition process because it provides my first impression of a project.  I like to see a cover letter that’s about one page, single-spaced, and presents a concise description of a project, its argument and stakes, and what’s new about the project.  It’s an author’s sales pitch to me, letting me know what the project is and why I should want to publish it.  If I’m sold after reading the cover letter, then I read the other materials an author sent; if I’m not sold, then I usually skim the materials to see if there’s something that the cover letter didn’t convey clearly, though we’ve already started off on the wrong foot.
The cover letter is different from the proposal proper in that it’s a much shorter document.  The cover letter is a distillation of the key ideas of the proposal; it’s what you’d want to tell me about your project if you only have one page to tell me about it.  The proposal is a longer form document.  I’ve seen them anywhere from 5 pages to 25 pages, but I think the sweet spot is usually around the 8-12 page mark.  When I start reading the proposal, my interest has already [hopefully] been piqued and now I want further details and greater depth.
MWS: What makes a book proposal catch your eye? What makes you immediately disregard a proposal?
Many publishers have advice for how to write a proposal on their website, so it’s a good idea to look for that before submitting a proposal.  Our guidelines, for example, are here: http://www.temple.edu/tempress/submissions.html. I don’t expect every proposal to conform to these guidelines precisely, but as my list below suggests, I do expect authors to include several of the elements described there.
I think every proposal should include:

  1. A description of your book project.  As in the cover letter, this should include a description of the project and should demonstrate its argument, stakes, and what’s new about the project.  It’s also important to position the argument in relation to contemporary debates in the field(s) with which the manuscript engages.
  2. A table of contents with a brief description of each chapter.
  3. A section about comparable books.  This section should list some of the people who have written about similar topics and/or who have influenced your work.  It’s important to make it clear how your book responds to, builds on, and differs from others’ work and that it’s not simply a rehashing and remixing of others’ ideas.
  4. A section about the market or audience for your book.  Here you should describe who you think will read your book—students (undergrads or grad students? in what fields?), scholars (in what fields?), and/or popular audiences (interested in what?).  If you think that your book has the potential to be used in classes, list the kinds of classes in which you think it might be adopted.
  5. A timeline for completion.  Describe how long you think it will take you to finish the project. If the project is already complete, you should note that.
  6. A note about how many other publishers you’ve sent the proposal to.  You don’t need to name the publishers, just indicate that you’ve sent your project out to five other presses.  It’s a courtesy to publishers to let us know that you’re talking to other publishers.  If you’re not talking to other publishers, it’s good to note that as well.
  7. Why us?  As I read a proposal, I’m always thinking about how a book will fit in with the other books we’ve published, so it’s helpful to me if your proposal explains why you want to publish with us in particular.  To this end, you might include a couple of books that we’ve published that have influenced or that are similar to your work, or you might say something about how your book fits into our larger publishing program.

I’m willing to read just about any book proposal as long as it’s on a topic that we publish in and it’s well written. With regard to the former, check the websites of the publishers to whom you’re submitting proposals to see if they have recent books in the area that you’re working on, broadly.  If you’re writing a monograph about psychology, and the publisher hasn’t published books on psychology recently, they might not be the right fit for your work.  With regard to the latter, remember that a book proposal is a sneak preview of a book and the author’s writing style.  It should be clearly written and argued—if it’s not, then that gives an editor doubts about the author’s ability to write a book that’s clearly written and argued.

MWS: So are you less likely to consider someone whose submitting to lots of presses, as opposed to targeting you very specifically?

SC: We like to see some level of commitment from potential authors.  If someone has sent a proposal solely to us, that usually makes us feel like we’re their first choice. If someone sends a proposal to multiple presses, it can have a few different effects. If the proposal is great and I see that it’s out with other presses, that might light a fire under me to act quickly.   At  the same time, it might make me feel like I’m someone’s back up or second choice, which can make me take a project less seriously.  It’s context dependent, I think.

Knowing how many presses have seen a proposal also helps us communicate clearly with the author about our expectations if we send the project out for review.  Some presses require exclusive review of a project, so if they sent a project out for review they make the author withdraw it from all the other presses they’ve sent it to.  Other presses, like Temple, allow multiple submissions but ask that authors not to allow the project to go out for review with more than two other presses.  The review process costs us time and money and we don’t want to spend either unless we have some level of commitment from the author (i.e. we know we’re one of their top three choices).  One of THE WORST things is when an author sends us a manuscript, we send it out for review, they don’t tell us it’s out with anyone else, and then they spring that on us suddenly.  This usually happens with first time scholars who don’t know how publishing works and think that you need to be secretive about whom you’re talking to.  That’s not the case at all, and I think it demonstrates a lack of trust and confidence in my press, in me, and in the publishing process.  

MWS: What are the common characteristics of successful book proposals?
SC: Successful book proposals are clearly written, clearly argued, contain few or no typos, make a clear case for why a book is important, and demonstrate why the author is the right author for the project.  Even when a book proposal has all that, I may still turn it away.  A lot depends on the kinds of books I’m looking for at a particular moment—and that depends on factors like personal preference, list balance, and the market.
MWS: What mistakes do you most often see people make in book proposals?

SC: The most common mistakes I see are:

  1. Jargon.  Most editors acquire books in a number of fields and aren’t experts in any of them, though we are generally familiar with contemporary issues and trends in the fields in which we acquire.   Try to avoid extensive use of field-specific terminology and if it’s necessary to use field-specific terminology, make sure to provide short definitions. 
  2. Writing to more than one editor at the same press.  You should only send a proposal to one editor at a press.  To figure out the best editor for your project, you can check the publisher’s website to see who acquires books in the subject area(s) that you work on.
  3. Proposing a book on a topic that we don’t publish in.  Before submitting a proposal, check to make sure that the publisher you’re proposing the project for publishes books in that area.  You can do that by checking their website and searching by subject.  Make sure that the publisher has published books on that subject in the last several years. 
  4. Proposing a book for a defunct series.  This happens with some regularity and creates the impression that an author is unfamiliar with the work that we’re currently publishing.  If you’re proposing a book for a series, make sure that series is still active by checking the publication date on the most recent book in the series.  If it’s more than three or four years old, the series is probably defunct.
  5. Saying that you’ve written your dissertation to read like a book. Lots of people say they’ve done this, but I’ve yet to see anyone accomplish it.


We love books; you love books. Send us an email to join our book club.
We usually think of writing as a singular contribution, but writing is really a long-term investment. Read on to find out how to repurpose your projects and ensure that your work brings a future return.
Our clients spend a huge part of their day on writing tasks. But starting over again and again on reports, white papers, newsletters, presentations, and internal and external business communications can make writing into a giant bore.

Update your approach by overlapping content and repackaging it for new readers.

To recoup calculable benefits from one-off writing, effectively repurpose and repackage your work. Think:

1. Beyond the basics: The more complex a project, the more reusable material it contains. Ignore shorter press releases or memos; identity pithy sections from larger works and use them as a springboard.

2. Beyond the first form: No written doc should remain in its original form. Think cyclically: presentations become SlideDecks; SlideDecks become infographics; infographics become social media updates.

3. Beyond the copy-and-paste: All written work must offer use-value. A list of bullet points copied from a prospective-client presentation doesn’t resonate on a website.

4. Beyond the summary: Identify a new audience’s expectations. Web readers expect a good story; white paper readers expect researched arguments. Summarize old material, but make it new.

5. Beyond the one-and-done: Repurposed content is evergreen, of course!

Make your written materials work harder for you. The effort may not mean less writing, but it does mean less work.

The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association—now in its sixth edition since its inception in 1929—is a constant companion to many of our academic writers (whether they like it or not!). We recently interviewed Mary Lynn Skutley, the editorial director of APA Books, who headed up the manual’s latest revision. From Skutley, we learned firsthand just what goes into the making of this slim volume, frenemy to so many.
Needless to say, revising the manual and its five ancillary texts is an undertaking of imposing proportions. “It feels like messing with the Bible,” Skutley said. “I was really aware [of that] and really didn’t want to make changes that were not necessary, because of how much people rely on it.”

Despite its biblical authority, Skutley and her team know that the APA’s role is to serve the manual’s users and reflect their concerns rather than dictate rules from on high. Ultimately, the APA’s primary responsibility is to meet “the needs of researchers and writers, to make their work easier and to encourage the smooth dissemination of information.”

Of course, revising the manual is a Sisyphean task, given the ever-changing universe of scholarly publication. Creating the sixth edition was a painstaking process that entailed soliciting feedback from general users, panels of experts, and internal task forces and editorial boards: “One paragraph in the manual may be the product of an incredible volume of discussion and analysis,” Skutley reported.

Many of the updates reflect changes in technology and information sharing. In the sixth edition, Skutley explained, “there were a lot of changes in referencing, with the beginning of digital object identifiers [DOIs] and changes in tracking online resources.”

Other updates involve trying to eradicate bias in language and dealing with historical bias in existing publications; making the organization of the Manual more intuitive and user-friendly; and clarifying concerns about intellectual property and plagiarism in light of changing practices around data sharing.

Maybe the most useful addition has been a companion blog that works to keep pace with changes in the field between editions. APA’s editors diligently respond to questions and criticism, and flexibility is a priority in their decision-making. Skutley wants to “make things as easy for the user as possible—so rather than developing new forms for new kinds of references, for example, we’re trying to use existing forms and communicate them through blog posts.”

As an editorial maven herself, we asked Skutley about her favorite resources for writers. Her personal go-to text is Joseph Williams’s Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. For APA users, she also recommends the blog, along with the manual’s companion website.

As for the seventh edition of the manual, its timing “really depends on what happens in the field over the next several years,” Skutley says. And she’s grateful for a bit of respite before starting to push that boulder up the hill again.

Did you know that around 53 million estimated freelancers—about 1 in 3 workers—make up the American workforce? According to recent reports in The Economist, freelancers define an increasingly on-demand economy and augur a future in which rootlessness and flexibility will dominate. It may make sense to rely on Lyft or Handy for your driving or household needs. But does it make sense to hire an on-demand writer or editor?
As ever, the answer depends. If you are part of a business with a strong communications department looking to outsource a few finite and low-stakes projects, an on-demand market like Elance might be right for you. It offers a forum in which businesses pitch projects and freelancers compete with the lowest bids.

If, however, you are part of a business with a solid but overextended communications department, or if you expect top-quality materials at first pass that reflect and respond to your business’s mission, principles, and clients, the benefits of an on-demand editor or writer might not be worth the transactional cost.

In the on-demand marketplace, employers outsource parts of projects to specialized workers: Employers take a risk on a relatively untried entity, and workers compete to offer the cheapest rates. While the piecemeal, competitive approach works for some services, it can result in an inconsistent, substandard product for others.

This is particularly true of writing and editing projects. A business communicates its vision of itself in the documents it produces. Whether internal or external, every project is high-stakes. While a one-off editor may be able to offer an immediate solution to a temporary problem, there’s no guarantee that the services won’t be worth the low price paid. When the stakes and expectations are high, a writer with whom you are building a relationship will offer both immediate solutions and future strategies.

We embrace the on-demand economy—but maybe only part of it. For us, the time we spend building client relationships is the best part of what we do. We’ve learned (and our clients have, too) that with every project we complete, we are better prepared and more capable of anticipating and exceeding our client’s future needs.