The phrase, “the map is not the territory,” was coined in 1931 by semanticist Alfred Korzybski. Ninety years on, it’s more relevant than ever for writers of creative nonfiction, memoirs, autobiography, and biography.

Why? Because the metaphor emphasizes the gap between our representation and what we seek to represent.

This gap is both necessary and useful: Without it, representation ceases to be meaningful. A “gapless” map, for instance, would reproduce territory in a one-to-one correspondence. It couldn’t provide a picture of relative position necessary for way-finding and would be useless as a map.

This gap is also a consequence of selection. By choosing to represent something, we  make choices. When making a map, for instance, we choose both a certain point of focus and a particular point of view. We consider which of our needs we must meet and which needs to meet of our fellow wanderers.

For writers striving to represent “the truth,” the map is not the territory can be a liberating expression. It reminds writers that there is—and should be—a gap between the territory they explore and the way-finding they offer in their book. 

The gap is not just a product of form but of function. After all, maps, aren’t only representative: They’re operative, too. As Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther writes in When Maps Become the World: [Maps] also function within our behaviors, our institutions, and our conscious and unconscious understanding of phenomena. Maps are not solely static, general, and abstract.”

Ultimately, that the map is not the territory should provide comfort: There will always be space between what is and what is represented. There’s no need to eliminate it. The reader simply requires a bridge—and of course a guide—to this new territory.

Road Running

Brian Stevenson / Getty Images

For most of my life, I’ve found comfort and catharsis in running. The relentlessness of the pace and its imperative to persist (almost) always help quiet my busy brain.

Like many dedicated runners, I’d always assumed that, sooner or later, I’d run a marathon. For years, I waited for inspiration to strike. When it did—usually while clicking through finish-line pics of exhausted-but-elated marathoners—I expected motivation to follow. But the sustained urge never arrived.

Over time, I upped my mileage, hoping that, eventually, I’d need to, I’d just have to run a marathon. But many miles were logged, and still I failed to feel the urgency commensurate with the goal. It wasn’t until these last months of Covid-provoked upheaval and change passed that I remembered that I can change, too.

Among other experiments, I decided to try a training plan. Which I hated. Change is hard, and new learning curves are often very sharp. The plan insisted on showing me, with spreadsheet severity, that what seemed possible in the abstract was impossible in practice: I couldn’t hit my paces; my watch was constantly disappointed in my efforts; and marathon mileage felt totally out of reach.

I decided I wasn’t going to run a marathon after all—clearly, I wouldn’t be able to, anyway. Instead, I’d just have to work on disciplining myself to the plan, and that would have to be enough.

Surprisingly? It was.

Many weeks have now passed, and I’ve made that imperfect plan a part of my every day. This is not to say that I hit my paces (I don’t) or that my watch is happy with me (never). But marathon mileage is in reach, and its proximity has given me the motivation, the drive (if not necessarily the need) I passively sought in the past.

What lessons have I drawn from this experience? A few, but among the most meaningfully applicable: The discipline is the goal.

When a goal is too big, or too diffuse, or maybe even too quiet to command attention, a plan to start and a commitment to continue can bring it into view and therefore in reach. I didn’t have to need to or have to run a marathon. I could simply want to, and start from there.  

Chuck Close famously observed that “inspiration is for amateurs—the rest of us just show up and get to work.” That’s one way to describe it. But here I think Rilke offers a more philosophical sourcebook: You don’t yet know the answers. That’s okay—you don’t have to. You inhabit your answers by first living your questions.

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.