If it’s difficult to accept vulnerability as a precondition of strength, it’s even more difficult to express this acceptance. Few of us want to reveal our weaknesses, particularly weaknesses that have been (and maybe still are) difficult to overcome. For some, however, revelation is a requirement.

Among writers, memoirists face a singular burden of expression. Though their work frequently illustrates triumph in the face of adversity, their expression of vulnerability is often their most effective tool. 

For lessons in expression, memoirists can look to fiction writers. The best fiction writers are expert at endowing their characters with the kind of vulnerability that solicits readers’ care. That care fosters a connection–offering insight into weakness and strength that extends beyond the page.

Consider Jo March and her initial rejection of and later regret over Laurie, or Estha and the shame he hides after his encounter with the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man, or Harry Potter and the loneliness contingent on the private pain of his scar. We connect to these characters through their fragility. Their recognizable vulnerability enables us to examine our own.

Unlike fiction writers, however, memoirists don’t have the luxury of distance. The presumption of truth that defines their work ensures any tenderness expressed is their own. Although this provenance raises the stakes, it also raises vulnerability’s value.

Therefore, aspirational memoirists can and should coach themselves to embrace vulnerability’s inherent, etymological power. They should remind themselves that the example of their fragility will inform their depiction of strength, inspiring readers’ connections, motivating their reflection, and perhaps moving them to action.

By viewing their vulnerability as a mirror, a conduit, a facilitator, and a tool, memoirists can generate a power from which readers draw significant courage. The work is not easy, but it’s worth it: Like the very best fiction writers, the best memoirists transform vulnerability into a power so stable it can hold up others.

For some of us, the new year provokes a Pavlovian response. Every January, the month and year conspire, and time seems to be both starting over and running out. Some respond to the conspiracy by becoming, for a moment or more, their most industrious, goal-setting selves. Others might be paralyzed by illusory, elusive possibility.  

In a typical year, the first week of January means a new slate of queries at Modern Writing Services. The queries usually come from writers in the former category. They’ve been prompted, by the new-year fire, to grasp the hot iron of a long-envisioned book and make their mark.

But this year is not a typical year, and while it has closed so much down, it has also opened up a space for atypical queries. A number of writers who have reached out in this first week are the industrious, almost-finished kind. But a surprising number of others have reached out with goals they’ve only recently and tentatively identified as worthy of pursuit.

And this latter group is beginning to look like a trend.  

Because developmental work can be a long game, new-year queries often set a powerful focus. It’s early, but 2021 appears focused on women writers creating autobiographical passion projects that speak truth to power on issues of climate change, sex abuse, trauma and healing, and social justice.

It’s hard to make predictions from January’s vantage point, but if the trend holds, 2022 looks to be an incredible year. Not just for the health of our nation, but for writers and readers, too.

The propinquity effect describes the likelihood that interpersonal relationships develop—and develop more deeply—according to proximity. We’re more likely to forge friendships and develop deep relationships with people who live near us or with people we frequently see.

This may be unsurprising, given that physical proximity provides so many opportunities for, and thus expands the time we spend in, conversation (an effect made abundantly clear during the pandemic). More surprising might be the propinquity effect’s relevance to book development.

In my last post, I advised authors with underbaked, underdeveloped manuscripts to take a break. A break aids consolidation, which in turn enables authors to return to work with newly accrued knowledge and a fresher perspective. (Also, sometimes it just feels good to take a break, even if we don’t want to or don’t feel like we deserve to.)

But a break doesn’t need to be passive. Authors can help themselves (and maybe extend their enjoyment) by activating the propinquity effect. By identifying and reading the books with which their work is in conversation, and by producing imagined responses, authors establish deeper connections between their work and the proximate books with which their work is in relation.

By making the most of propinquity, authors enlarge their perspective and view their work’s particular qualities and strengths more critically. This not only  benefits their manuscript, it also helps refine extratexual efforts such as query letters or marketing materials.

In fact, the propinquity effect should be considered an incentive for taking a break. Authors may benefit from a pause in their work, but their manuscripts benefit when authors develop the connections between their manuscript and proximate titles.

Sometimes, authors seek editorial work for a manuscript that isn’t yet ready for the editing stage. (And oftentimes, authors are surprised to hear this feedback.) But what if your manuscript is underbaked (or unformed or underdeveloped)? What can you do to prepare your manuscript for eventual publication?

If your manuscript doesn’t qualify for developmental work, you’ve received good news and bad news. The good news is simply the fact of feedback. Manuscripts are many and editors are few: If an editor responds to your work—even to say it’s not yet ready—something in it caught their attention.

The bad news is the manuscript is underdone. It could be the argument lacks precision, illustration, or evidence. Or it may be the treatment of argument, illustration, or evidence lacks depth, detail, or distinction. Regardless of the cause, after the hyperintense effort of writing, you may feel frustrated or demoralized by the prospect of a return to drafting.

What should you do? You should take a break.

“Take a break” sounds like an ineffective or childish intervention, but findings from brain-based research are robust: When it comes to periods of acute skill acquisition, emotional engagement, work productivity, and of course muscle activity, taking a break is imperative for mental, emotional, or physical consolidation.

Taking a break from the work also clears brain congestion to enable more efficient neurological processing. This, in turn, might help you see your manuscript more clearly, and through the critical perspective required for self-revision.

So, if you’re an author with manuscript feedback that amounts to “not yet,” fully enact that assessment: Take a break.

Like any craft, developmental editing is aided, and sometimes limited, by the tools of its trade. As a freelance developmental editor, I use Google Docs, the MS Office Suite, Adobe InDesign, and a number of client-based content management systems.

Although Docs is popular with my clients because of its promised collaborative potential, its tools aren’t well suited to projects with a long timeline, or (from my perspective) multiple readers. MS Word can also be maddening: Its nonembedded fonts, nonuniversal autoformatting features, and processing limitations on long docs with tracked changes can pose annoying obstacles to efficiency.

But Word is still more navigable than Google Docs, as I’ve written about before, and it more capably and more transparently (with the right tools) handles long dialogic projects.

InDesign offers another programmatic tool, but it typically applies to typeset projects, or projects in which interior layout design has already been applied. It is seldom flexible or navigable enough for early-stage work. Although I sometimes work in InDesign, designers and proofreaders work there much more frequently and efficiently.

Excel, on the other hand, is crucial for tracking word counts and other project details, and for informing client content-management platforms. I augment it with a trusty shareable, interactive calendar (Google or otherwise), and a synced cloud-based folder.

Developmental editors are a lot like project managers. Both plan, facilitate, and manage execution, and both simultaneously attend to micro, macro, and meta perspectives. The right (or right-enough) tools make such attention possible.

Because developmental editing is a type of creative work, editors often take an idiosyncratic approach to their projects. But because developmental editing is also a type of project management, editors often take a systematic and regimented approach. Creative and systemic come together by way of an intimate but structured conversation.

“Intimacy” is a somewhat extreme word to use in reference to an argument-driven manuscript, but most authors are well aware that writing requires a teeth-gnashing, garment-rending, hair-tearing effort. And even if it doesn’t inspire self-inflicted figurative violence, good writing depends on attention, care, and time. It therefore represents and reflects fundamental truths, maybe about the world at large, but most definitely about the world within the writer, and the world within their work.

A developmental editor extends the writer’s attention, care, and time—but also stages an intervention. This is necessary because intimacy, while it brings us closer and more deeply into our work, narrows our field of vision. To make use of its potential value, we must adopt the meta-perspective that enables us to see both the benefits and the drawbacks of closeness.

Helping writers acquire this perspective is the developmental editor’s job. We insert ourselves into an extant intimate conversation, using tools to structure the intimacy and make it more meaningful.

As indicated in a previous post, the developmental work I do begins and ends in conversation.

Prospective authors schedule a 30-minute intake call on my calendar, and we talk about their project, timeline, and goals. During our call, I’m hoping to establish a connection, but I’m also hoping to determine fit.

If my skill set doesn’t fit an author’s needs—maybe an author seeks a straightforward proofread or requires a too-tight timeline—I will typically encourage a visit to the Editorial Freelancers Association job board.

Other times, however, the fit feels right, and our conversation becomes a lot more interesting.

In some ways, a developmental edit is more like an intense, ongoing conversation consisting of three intertwined dialogues: between the author and me, between the author and their manuscript, and between their manuscript and me. 

The conversation begins with an author articulating their extratextual focus, providing answers or ruminations to questions such as the following: What is your book’s message? Who wants or needs to hear it? Why does this audience want or need to hear it, and what will they gain from it? What do you want out of the book publication process (in terms of number of books sold, but also in terms of legacy)? How do you want to be introduced to others five years from now?

Once I understand these answers, we turn to the manuscript and extend the conversation.

Like other Minnesotans, I’m not as much out in the world these days. When I venture into public, it’s usually to run to the grocery store, where masks make idle chit-chat feel positively furtive.

Now, when I’m asked what it is I do, exactly, it’s not in casual conversation but when describing my services–their use and their potential value–to prospective clients. In these conversations, I’m typically describing developmental editing, my most popular service for writers and publishers.

A developmental editor is a big-picture editor who helps strengthen a manuscript’s focus and structure. Most developmental editors (or at least this one) offer hands-on substantive support, including reverse outlines, sample sentences and paragraphs, and quick-and-dirty lessons on grammar or syntax.

My developmental work is informed by a bifurcated sense of focus, in both textual and extratextual terms. Textual focus refers, of course, to the clarity and persistence of subject-specific investigation. For example, if I’m working with a self-help or how-to book, I’m assessing it for focus on a clear, replicable process.

Extratextual refers to something a bit different, but something that often proves crucial to the success of a final project: This is the triangulation of a writer’s message, audience, and goals.

Frequently, when a book lacks textual focus, the blurred lines are a consequence of a lack of extratextual lucidity. Accordingly, my developmental services frequently begin with a series of phone calls to discuss a writer’s sense of alignment among message, audience, and goal.

These conversations are a big help to me because I can capture a writer’s rhythm and cadence, which often invaluably informs my developmental work. They also set in motion the deeper, more intense, and ongoing conversation that constitutes a major part of the developmental edit.

What does it mean to work as though we live in the days of a better civilization? Although frequently attributed to Alasdair Gray (despite his disavowal), the line belongs to Gray’s contemporary, Canadian Dennis Lee.

In Civil Elegies, Lee writes:

And best of all is finding a place to be
in the early days of a better civilization
For we are a conquered nation: sea to sea we bartered
everything that counts, till we have
nothing to lose but our forebears’ will to lose.
But what good is that in a nation of
losers and quislings

Although Lee’s early work denounced Canada’s colonial complicity and earned him the Governor General’s award in 1972, he is better known for his children’s poetry. In fact, his poetry was a favorite of engineering professor Deb Chachra, who recently namechecked Lee in Metafoundry, her newsletter on the nexus of infrastructure, engineering, art, and individuals.

In Issue 73: Our Cyborg Collective Body, Ourselves, Chachra invokes the slow-burning apocalypse in William Gibson’s scifi novels (specifically, The Peripheral and Agency) to describe the current COVID crisis. She then cites Lee’s poetic injunction, calling on us to imagine a systemic, collective response.

What would it look like, after all, to build an infrastructure fit to serve a better civilization?

According to Paul Graham Raven, infrastructure is a “tool,” “an extension of baseline human abilities.” It’s a systematized technical augmentation–but with a biological input (us!).

In the context of COVID, we know our bodies have needs that manifest individually but must be met collectively: We become infectiously ill individuals, sometimes so ill we must be isolated from the collective to be cared for by the collective before returning to the collective. Needs like these are met (or not) through infrastructural responses, such as public health, also public education.

Yet, to build tools to meet the needs of a better civilization, we must not only identify needs that have not yet been met, but also determine those needs that have not yet been recognized as the collective’s responsibility.

In Sexuality for All Abilities, Katie Thune and I argue that there is an individual and a collective need for comprehensive sex education for young people in the special education classroom. While writing this book will not determine a better civilization, arguing for recognition of a collectively solvable problem may help hasten its arrival.

Way back in January of 2018, on my negligible commute, I tuned in to Minneapolis Public Radio for the local angle on NPR’s special series, “Abused and Betrayed.

The conversation was guided by Marianne Combs and focused on the silent epidemic of sexual abuse among people with intellectual disabilities. Combs was joined by NPR correspondent and special-series investigator Joseph Shapiro, sexuality educator Katie Thune, and attorney Patrick Noaker to discuss the Minnesotan context of this national problem and respond to listeners’ phone calls.

The guests’ words were incredibly powerful, but my driveway moment was attributable to the anguish expressed by the parents and caregivers who called in to discuss the abuse sustained by their loved ones with disabilities.

Particularly memorable–and devastating–was the voice of an elderly woman who talked about the exploitation of her adult son. She recounted a situation that occurred years ago, when a powerful man in the community approached her young adult son with a sexual proposition. Her son has a traumatic brain injury: He lives independently, but he has limited cognition and social awareness and can be easy to confuse. The powerful man preyed on this vulnerability, framing his proposition as an arrangement that would help powerful man “relieve stress” and “do his job better.” Her son ultimately agreed, believing his actions were necessary and that he would be paid for them.

A few years later, the man died. When her son learned of the man’s death, he explained to his mom that he would be inheriting money, and why. She was of course shocked and furious, but what followed was even worse: When her son didn’t receive his money, he couldn’t understand why and accused his mother and siblings of stealing it.

The mom’s voice, broken in suffering, compelled me to reach out to Katie Thune to ask about turning her educational curriculum, Sexuality for All Abilities, into a book. The result of our efforts, I am proud to say, is Sexuality for All Abilities: Teaching and Discussing Sexual Health in Special Education, released this week by Routledge, as part of its Eye on Education series.

We created this book to give educators and others the tools and confidence required to teach topics in comprehensive sex education in the context of special education. In it, we draw on the expertise of educators, the experience of teachers, the stories of parents and caregivers, and the words of people with disabilities to inform lessons on healthy relationships, public and private spaces and behaviors, consent, hygiene, and other important topics necessary to living an informed life.

The book is a useful resource in and out of the classroom, but it’s also a contribution to the better civilization we strive to build—a civilization in which we acknowledge a wide range of individuals with varying abilities, and in which we seek to supply the education necessary to live as fully, safely, and with as much autonomy and pleasure as possible.