Consideration and Protection to Avoid Copyright Infringement (Part 3)

Eventually, copyright protection expires, which depends on how long ago the work was originally created. Under current law, works created on or after January 1st, 1978 have protection for the lifespan of the creator plus 70 years post-death. If collaborative, the protection lasts 70 years after the last surviving author’s death. For pseudonymous works, however, and those anonymously created (“works for hire”) copyright protection lasts 95 years from the publication or 125 years from the original creation, whichever is soonest. But what about works published prior to 1978? According to the U.S. Copyright Office, “the 1976 Copyright Act retains the system in the previous copyright law—the Copyright Act of 1909—for computing the duration of protection, but with some changes.” For older works in this category, a copyright spanned 28 years from the date the copyright was first secured and could be renewed for a second term of 28 years, and if not renewed, the copyright expired at the end of the first 28-year term, and “the work no longer protected by copyright.” (1, 2) In all cases, when a copyright expires, work enters the public domain.

Public Domain

“Creative materials that are not protected by intellectual property laws such as copyright, trademark, or patent laws” are considered in the public domain; they “belong to the public.” (3) Work can end up in the public domain in one of four ways:
  • Expiration of the copyright
  • Failure to renew copyright by the owner
  • The work is deliberately placed by way of “dedication”
  • Copyright law is unable to protect the work
However, while individual works might belong to the public, the work might be protected by copyright when compiled into another published work that is then copyrighted, such as a collection of poems, in which case there is risk of infringing upon a ‘collective works” copyright, or the work might be managed by an estate. Sherlock Holmes, for example, a character created by Arthur Conan Doyle (1859 to 1930), is quite popular. His character or character likeness has been used in a multitude of fiction and film. He died in 1930, so does that mean his work is in the public domain? Not necessarily. Doyle’s work is managed by the Conan Doyle Estate, who work with creators from around the world to keep his character alive and portrayed for the foreseeable future as accurately as possible. To use any part of Doyle’s original creation, one must reach out to the estate to first obtain permission. “Collectively, we give unique access to personal knowledge, archive material and family connections,” so says their website. “Together we reveal the legacy and potential of Arthur Conan Doyle's endeavours, achievements and fictional characters.” Want to write Sherlock Holmes into a novel? It's best to reach out for permission to avoid a potential lawsuit. (4) Other popular writers and poets have similar estates established to protect and extend copyright on their published works long after death, including William Goldman (The Princess Bride, Marathon Man), William Golding (Lord of the Flies), Robert Frost (poet), and Pablo Neruda (poet), so before ever attempting to copy their words, even if suspected in the public domain, do a little research. If widely popular and quotable, it is most likely protected.

Material to Avoid Quoting / Referencing in Written Work

To protect the writer, avoid quoting from the following, unless researched to be in the public domain, or by first obtaining permission (preferably by signed contract) from those who own copyright, either the original creator or their estate:
  • Song lyrics
  • Poetry
  • Quotes from movies / television
  • Quotes from fiction / creative nonfiction (novels, memoirs, etc.)
  • Quotes from uncited material (without attribution)
  • Quotes from unreliable sources (Wikipedia, Pinterest, quote sites)
  • Graphs or charts created by others
  • Photographs or artwork created by others
  • Anything else created by others
There are always exceptions, but always thoroughly research beforehand. For a nonfiction book, for instance, a writer may want to quote a memorable line from a documentary series or nonfictional podcast, or include statistics or data. This is not a problem, as long as it is sourced and cited properly. Yet a hard “no” exists for what is acceptable to quote in fiction writing, so play it safe.

Legally Acquiring Reprint Rights

“But Stephen King does it, all the time” one might argue. “I read a book in which he quoted song lyrics from the Ramones, and another time he—” Yes, because he is Stephen King. He most likely had his people contact their people and/or paid a lot of money to reproduce words that were not his; or, back when he was getting started, he most likely quoted without permission as many writers did before U.S. Copyright Law was created (or ignored) and his people later went through the trouble to correct such actions in later editions of his books. “Wait, Michael Bailey, didn’t you include an entire page of text from Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury in one of your stories?” Yes, but I reached out to the Bradbury estate beforehand to obtain permission, and they requested to read the story before it was ever published to make sure it was indeed an homage and in likeness to Bradbury’s work as proposed. Later, before that same story was reprinted in a collection, I reached out to the estate a second time and they were again generous. The key is that a contract was agreed upon and signed by both parties prior to the work going into print, and with certain stipulations to protect the copyrighted material, such as proper acknowledgment on the copyright page of the original work that included the protected, reprinted work. In order to obtain reprint rights to Bradbury’s writing in my short story “Primal Tongue / The Fireman,” permission was legally required, requested, and granted. This is the process to reprint another’s words if not entirely in the public domain or if copyright has been extended. The Bradbury estate could have asked for a decent chunk of money. They could have also denied the request, leaving me with the option of not including his words or reprinting them without permission, but the latter would have landed me in serious trouble, even though Bradbury’s novel was published 60 years before my story and Ray was no longer alive at the time of publication. For another short story I wrote years later, “Time Is a Face on the Water,” I wanted to include five memorable words from a Beatles song. Like before, I reached out for permission, as all writers should do, and who owned copyright of the song came to an agreement on their end. They wanted $30,000 for five words and requested a limited print run of 1,000 copies of my work, which didn’t make sense financially. So, I politely declined, and instead wrote a fictitious song from a fictitious band and included those words in the story instead. This begs the question: Was the Beatles song ever needed? No. Had I tried to go “under the radar” and publish the story without permission, it would have surely cost more than $30,000 in legal fees and fines if those holding the rights to the song (even five simple words strung together, written 50 years prior) decided to sue for copyright infringement. It should also be noted that some intellectual properties have people (or teams of people) constantly searching for stolen work (it is, in a sense, theft). Disney and Led Zeppelin, for example, both seek and destroy regularly for copyright infringement. Want to include a lyric from The Lion King? Think twice. Use it to influence the writing, or to suggest theme, but then take it out. If the writing is solid and indeed inspired by the quote(s), that should show clearly through the finished product and render the quote(s) unnecessary. Before considering to include another’s creation, research what might be needed to obtain rights. It never hurts to ask, and is sometimes as simple as filling out a form on website (run by the deceased’s estate), but plan ahead because obtaining permission takes time. The Bradbury rights, for instance, took three months; the Beatles rights took over a year. And if lucky, as I was in obtaining permission to include a short essay by the late Jack Ketchum for my nonfiction book Writing Righting, it took only a few days. Is the desired song lyric or poem or string of text even needed? Probably not. It may be wanted by the writer, but most likely will not be needed by the reader.
1. U.S. Congress. United States Code: Copyright Office, 17 U.S.C. §§ 201-216. 1958. Periodical. 2. U.S. Congress. United States Code: Copyright Office, Copyright Infringement and Remedies, 17. §§ 501-510. 1982. Periodical. 3. Stim, Richard. Getting Permission: Using & Licensing Copyright-Protected Materials Online & Off. El Segundo, CA: Nolo, 2022. 4. Conan Doyle Estate. Arthur Conan Doyle - Licensing - Official Website of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Family Estate. Accessed April 10, 2023.
Michael Bailey is a Senior Editor and the Head of Developmental Editing at Manuscripts, LLC. He is a recipient and nine-time nominee of the Bram Stoker Award, a four-time Shirley Jackson Award nominee, and a multiple recipient of the Benjamin Franklin Award, along with over thirty independent publishing accolades. He has written, edited, and published many books. His latest is Righting Writing, a nonfiction narrative about dedication to the craft. He is also the screenwriter for Madness and Writers: The Untold Truth, a creative documentary series about writers. Find him online at, or on social media @nettirw.

Consideration and Protection to Avoid Copyright Infringement (Part 2)

When listening to a memorable song, or reading a well-loved book, the words invoke feelings and emotions, which are much more important to character creation and portrayal than the actual words that sparked those feelings and emotions. But can a series of uncopyrightable words strung together, such as a book title, fall under any other type of protection? Is it possible to write a book called Harry Potter and the Stolen Franchise?


While the Harry Potter example could fall under parody law protection (more on this later), the two words “Harry Potter,” as well as how those words are portrayed (format, font, logo, artwork) might be protected by a trademark. Protection from this is common for successful franchises to protect the brand. Trademarked words or phrases are signified with a ™ symbol for goods or a ℠ for services, which lets competitors know a trademark is claimed and/or in process. Once registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, only then can the ® symbol be used along with the name. The Horror Writers Association, for example, recently registered a trademark of the phrase “Bram Stoker Awards” to protect the highly regarded name of the award from being used elsewhere, so it is now commonly referenced as the Bram Stoker Awards®. Trademark laws do not allow for protection of individual book titles (or song titles, album titles, or any other creative title), but it does allow for the protection of a series. Examples include the Chicken Soup for the Soul, and franchises like Marvel, Star Wars, and the aforementioned Harry Potter series. According to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (, applying for a trademark is a (rather lengthy) four-step process: application, examination, publication, and registration. A trademark can be “any word, phrase, symbol, design, or a combination of these things” to identify goods and services. “It’s how customers recognize you in the marketplace and distinguish you from your competitors.” A common misconception is the legal ownership of words or phrases. When holding a trademark, the words or phrases are not protected in “general use,” but only when used for the registrar’s “goods and services.” Harry Potter, for example, would be protected from use in books and film and other relatable content, but would not stop someone named Harry from opening a pottery business under the same name since there wouldn’t be a conflict of interest, unless Harry borrowed / stole from the likeness of the Harry Potter franchise and planned to use it for gain. Since book titles cannot be copyrighted, can they be trademarked? Not necessarily. If planning to write a 7-book series of Glimmering Casket novels, or potentially lengthy series based on the title alone, protection could be useful. But if planning to write a single book called Hope or something similarly common, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office would most likely not approve the trademark. As long as the creator of a work can prove they were the creator, and everything written is original, that is all that matters. If not the creator of the work and sources are not cited accordingly, then the writing could fall under plagiarism.


The definition of plagiarism is to take another’s work (or even ideas) and pass them off as one’s own. Synonyms include appropriation, copying, piracy, stealing, and theft, all of which are hefty, equally troublesome accusations. There are four common types, all violations of honesty.
  • Accidental: when misquoting or neglecting to cite sources, or unintentional paraphrasing of text by way of using similar words or phrases or structure without attribution; unintentional plagiarism incurs the same consequences as intentional.
  • Direct: when copying another’s work word-for-word without attribution and/or without quotation marks; a deliberate and unethical use of another’s work.
  • Mosaic: often called “patch writing,” this is when phrases are borrowed from source material and pieced together without using quotations or without citing; a type of paraphrasing (intentional or not) if too similar to the original.
  • Self: while it is highly likely a writer would give themselves permission to use their own work, self-plagiarism, which is possible, misrepresents the author and misleads readers; the Peer Learning Advisor team at La Trobe states that, “Self-plagiarism happens when you reuse your own specific wording and ideas from work that you have previously submitted.” (1)
With nonfiction, quoting and citing material written by others is a common practice, but doing so needs to be handled correctly and formatted to current publishing standards. And With fiction, quoting material written by others is not allowed unless without first obtaining permission, usually involving both signed contracts limiting use and a fee. The only way to legally plagiarize another’s work, in a sense, is by way of fair use or parody, but even that has limitations and must be handled with much precaution (and permission).

Fair Use / Parody

The Stanford University’s online Stanford Libraries define “fair use” as “any copying of copyrighted material done for a limited and ‘transformative’ purpose, such as to comment upon, criticize, or parody a copyrighted work. Such uses can be done without permission from the copyright owner.” Basically, fair use can be used as a defense against a copyright infringement claim. (2) The term transformative is vague, but keep in mind that every year numerous cases are brought to court to determine what qualifies as fair use with plagiarism accusations. The definition of fair use is both ambiguous and highly open to interpretation, as designed. Copying copyrighted material must fall under one of two categories:
  • Commentary and Criticism: when commenting or criticizing a copyrighted work, fair use allows for brief reproduction to serve that purpose; this includes quoting lines from songs in a music review, lines from a book in a book review, or copying a few sentences of an article or essay to use in an educational manner—although doing so still has its limits and is not an open call to plagiarize.
  • Parody: when ridiculing a well-known creator’s work by imitating that work in a comical manner; this typically includes extensive use of the original material to bring awareness to the original, such as with a song parody or a riff on another’s poetry—and to parody another’s work often requires permission beforehand.
The most popular parodist is perhaps “Weird Al” Yankovic. Along with creating original music, half his recorded songs are musical spoofs: “Beat It” and “Bad” by Michael Jackson (recorded as “Eat It” and “Fat”), “Like a Surgeon" by Madonna (recorded as "Like a Virgin), "Amish Paradise" instead of Coolio’s "Gangsta’s Paradise," or "White and Nerdy" instead of "Ridin" by Chamillionaire and Krazie Brown, riffing on the popular chorus of "Ridin’ Dirty." “My parodies have always fallen under what the courts call ‘fair use.’” Yankovic states on his blog article called “The Gaga Saga” about asking for permission to record “I Perform This Way,” a parody of “Born This Way” by Lady Gaga, ”and this one was no different, legally allowing me to record and release it without permission. But it has always been my personal policy to get the consent of the original artist before including my parodies on any album . . .“ (3) Worth noting is that “Weird Al” is not copying songs, he is satirizing them, which protects him from legal issues; and although he always asks the other musical artists beforehand as a courtesy), that does not mean he is not often sued for copyright infringement. He makes a profit off his songs, after all, and fortunately the artists he parodies typically see a large boost in sales of their own work after his renditions are released. What falls under commentary and criticism? Consider articles and reviews published by places like Rolling Stone magazine, or places that offer book reviews such as Publishers Weekly. Brief quotations from copyrighted material may be used to provide the public a review (commentary and criticism) of original works. For the typical writer, fair use and parody only applies in an educational or nonprofit setting, and only if the general public benefits by including snippets of copyrighted work (like this article). If publishing a book, essay, or any other written work that results in receiving payments of any kind, such as royalties, flat fees, advances, etc., this could mean trouble. (4) Fair use and parody do not automatically qualify a work to be copied without permission. If a work is created and distributed for profit of any kind (not for free public consumption by way of commentary or criticism), protection against “fair use” and/or “parody” does not apply.
1. Whaite, Freya. “Self-Plagiarism: When Recycling Your Own Work Can Get You into Trouble.” MyLaTrobe. La Trobe, September 7, 2022. 2. Stim, Richard. “What Is Fair Use?” Stanford Copyright and Fair Use Center. Stanford University, November 25, 2021. 3. Yankovic, "Weird Al". “The Gaga Saga.” Al's Blog, May 7, 2011. 4. Stim, Richard. Getting Permission: Using & Licensing Copyright-Protected Materials Online & Off. El Segundo, CA: Nolo, 2022.
Michael Bailey is a Senior Editor and the Head of Developmental Editing at Manuscripts, LLC. He is a recipient and nine-time nominee of the Bram Stoker Award, a four-time Shirley Jackson Award nominee, and a multiple recipient of the Benjamin Franklin Award, along with over thirty independent publishing accolades. He has written, edited, and published many books. His latest is Righting Writing, a nonfiction narrative about dedication to the craft. He is also the screenwriter for Madness and Writers: The Untold Truth, a creative documentary series about writers. Find him online at, or on social media @nettirw.

Consideration and Protection to Avoid Copyright Infringement (Part 1)

Writers often want to include phrases from other writers in their own work, such as in epigraphs (a brief quotation of text at the beginning of a book or individual chapter to suggest theme), or quote a paragraph or memorable quote elsewhere because it was inspirational or meaningful. Some writers even attempt to have their characters relay material from other creators, but that does not make it legal. In creating an original piece of writing, is it possible to quote lyrics from a song, or include a stanza from a famous poem (or even an entire poem), or borrow a catchy line of dialogue from film, or use a wonderful section of text from another writer’s published work? Whether taken from a book, television, or from popular quotation engines—which are not always accurate—borrowing words can be dangerous. More often than not, quoting another’s creation is not legal without first obtaining permission. Some writers steal words and slide under the radar, ignorant to the laws or not, but copyright infringement is an ugly and incredibly expensive beast. The risk should always be avoided. Want to quote a line from “Hey Jude” by the Beatles, or a few lines of poetry from Robert Frost, or include a famous line from a television series or movie? Be prepared to pay a hefty fee, fine, or risk a lawsuit for copyright infringement.

What is Copyright and Who Can Own It?

According to, copyright is “originality and fixation,” a type of paraphrasing that can get a writer in trouble if not considered fair use. Copyright is thus an intellectual property to protect “original works of authorship” the moment the work is “fixed” in “a tangible form of expression.” Original works are independently created (or co-created by more than one party) with at least a minimal degree of creativity. It is something formed without copying. For a work to be considered created, there must be some form of “spark” and “modicum” of creativity involved, so says the Supreme Court in past copyright infringement cases. Consider Vanilla Ice's song "Ice Ice Baby," which left a mark on popular culture. The song also "sampled" the base line from "Under Pressure," another hit song by Queen and David Bowie. Robert Matthew Van Winkle (aka Vanilla Ice) was sued soon after the release of his song. His "original" base line simply added a single note at the end of the riff in order to make it unique. The case was settled out of court for a large sum of money, the extra note deemed insufficient for the work to be considered original. If a single note of a popular base line in a song is untouchable, what might that mean for written works? Fixed works are created under the authority of the author in a “fixed” medium, such as being written down in a book or recorded by other means, published or not. Any single person, or even multiple persons, can own a copyright. As soon as something original is created and then fixed (no matter the medium), that person, or persons, own(s) the copyright. Companies and organizations other than the creator can be copyright owners if the work was made for hire. For instance, if John Doe works as a columnist for The Writer Life, copyright ownership of anything published The Writer Life would most likely reside with The Writer Life. When writing independently, copyright ownership starts with the author and stays with the author long after death, and even longer if renewed by their estate. If artwork is published by a more traditional press, the publisher most likely owns and controls copyright until it expires, with the author owning little to nothing.

What Constitutes Copyright Ownership?

The U.S. Copyright Office states that “copyright infringement occurs when a copyrighted work is reproduced, distributed, performed, publicly displayed, or made into a derivative work without the permission of the copyright owner. “ The Copyright Act of 1976 is a long and incredibly confusing article to digest, so, simplified, what constitutes ownership? (1) Once an original work is created (unless contracted “for hire”), whether fiction, nonfiction, poetry, a blog article, a recording of a song, a podcast, a taken photograph, a drawing / painting, or whatever it may be, ownership belongs to the creator at the moment of creation, not after the work is published. The copyright act also extends to all “original works of authorship,” which considers any new type of media that develops. (2) The above two paragraphs, for example, were created with original intent, but with a lot of influence from articles published by the U.S. Copyright Office, hence the need for citations. If nothing were researched before or while writing this article, and the information was something more commonly known or “old news” (ice is cold, sharks cannot swim backward), citations would be unnecessary. There seems to be much concern over copyright ownership with writers. Novice writers tend to ask early on, “How do I protect myself from another person stealing my work?” while at the same time also wanting to borrow another’s words to use alongside their own. Most use laptops or other electronic devices to create, so the moment something new is created it is time-stamped along with other collected date, thus protected. Sending an email is timestamped. Taking a digital picture is timestamped. Posting on the internet (social media, blog article, uploading a photo, posting a comment) is timestamped, and regularly includes metadata such as an IP address—a unique string of characters that identifies each device using the Internet Protocol to communicate. When typewriters or handwriting were commonly used to create original work, copyright concerns were more of an issue. Authors even went as far as physically mailing physical copies of their manuscripts and leaving the package unopened with its government postmark to prove ownership and date. Today, copyright for “creators of origin” is less of a concern because of modern technology and the internet. A digital copy of a manuscript contains enough code buried inside the file to prove one’s ownership (metadata). A completed manuscript could likewise be uploaded to a secure storage site, or emailed to the self to force a timestamp and produce metadata, but not even that is needed to prove ownership. Once a creation is shared publicly on the internet, it is considered “published.” This is important when dealing with written work. If hosting a series of blog articles or essays on a website, for example, and later compiling those individual writings into a book, the writing within that book is considered “previously published,” the same way a self-published book would be considered previously published if attempting to sell to a traditional publisher.

What Cannot Be Copyrighted?

In terms of books and writing in general, the basics of what does not fall under copyright protection are titles, names, short phrases, and slogans. According to the U.S. Copyright Office, the following expanded list of items are not protected under copyright law (3):
  • Ideas, methods, or systems: making or constructing things, scientific or technical methods / discoveries, business operations / procedures, mathematical principles, formulas or algorithms, as well as concepts / processes / methods of operation.
  • Commonly known information: vague phrases with no known authorship (cliches) such as the “the ocean is deep,” or “the sun is hot” as well as calendars, charts pertaining to weight or height, phone directories, rulers or other measurements, or lists / tables from public documents.
  • Choreographic works: original or not, they are not subject to protection unless recorded or notated, as well as speeches or other such things not transcribed before or after the performance.
  • Names, titles, short phrases, or expressions: while not protected (other than with trademarks pertaining to business), this also includes descriptions, pseudonyms (fictitious names), and business names; it also includes recipes, formulas, compounds, prescriptions, or ingredient listings.
  • Fashion: “useful articles” such as clothes not pertaining to visual arts or fashion (clothing and accessories) is also not protected, although fabric patterns used in clothing are; however, unique designs can be patented.
If a writer wants to reference a band name or a song title in their work, those are fair game. The same goes for titles of published works (books, albums, essays, etc.) and author names. Likewise, if a writer wants to include a publicly known place such as a restaurant or hotel, street name, or building, or a public figure (President of the United States, basketball player, musical artist, etc.) they are also fair game, but consider how they are used in the writing. If described with mal intent or if negatively portrayed, how might it be damaging to others, or seen as damaging? But even if what is referenced is with good intentions, precautions must be taken to protect the writer. After all, whatever may have inspired one’s writing is not as important to the reader (or meaningful at all) as it was to the writer when creating the work. Inspirational words may have helped define a book or chapter’s theme, but if originally used to determine theme, wouldn’t that come across through the writing and no longer be needed?
1. U.S. Congress. United States Code: Copyright Office, 17 U.S.C. §§ 201-216. 1958. Periodical. 2. U.S. Congress. United States Code: Copyright Office, Copyright Infringement and Remedies, 17. §§ 501-510. 1982. Periodical. 3. Whaite, Freya. “Self-Plagiarism: When Recycling Your Own Work Can Get You into Trouble.” MyLaTrobe. La Trobe, September 7, 2022.
Michael Bailey is a Senior Editor and the Head of Developmental Editing at Manuscripts, LLC. He is a recipient and nine-time nominee of the Bram Stoker Award, a four-time Shirley Jackson Award nominee, and a multiple recipient of the Benjamin Franklin Award, along with over thirty independent publishing accolades. He has written, edited, and published many books. His latest is Righting Writing, a nonfiction narrative about dedication to the craft. He is also the screenwriter for Madness and Writers: The Untold Truth, a creative documentary series about writers. Find him online at, or on social media @nettirw.

Embracing Criticism and Feedback: Using Red Ink (Literal or Figurative) to Improve Writing

Writing a book is a mighty achievement. Not many who start a manuscript ever finish, and not many who finish a manuscript seek help to improve and make the work suitable for publishing. Anyone can write a book, and anyone can publish a book, but what does it take to make one’s writing any good? Writers need editors. A writer must embrace that fact if they ever want to publish a book that meets professional standards, especially if working on their first book. Once a book is published, it is out there, forever, and it defines the author and begins their brand. Closer to publishing a book, writers must also consider other professionals in the industry who can help, such as book cover artists and layout designers, but working with an editor (preferably editors, plural) is the first step to publish a book to the best of their ability.

The Many Types of Editors

In one’s book-writing journey, a writer may be involved with any number of editors. There are many types, and all have different specialties:
  • Developmental Editors
  • Structural Editors
  • Revisions Editors
  • Copy Editors
There are more than four types of editing, including line editing, mechanical editing, as well as beta and proofreading, but for self-, independent-, and hybrid-publishing consideration, those are perhaps the most commonly seen, and the lines more often than not blur between editors. A revisions editor, for instance, may assist early on with line editing, or a developmental editor might point out repetitive writing habits to help with structural or revisions editing down the line. Developmental editors, who sometimes offer substantive or content editing, assist writers anywhere from concept to completed draft. Developmental editing, as the first word in the title defines, helps with overall development of the manuscript, such as pointing out issues with fundamentals, helping to source content, referencing necessary chapter components, suggesting improvements for narrative flow, etc. Developmental editors sometimes even function as a mentor and writing coach. Structural editors take an overall look at the first draft manuscript upon completion, or near- completion. They sometimes work with writers during developmental editing to offer further guidance, but more from a structural standpoint. Is everything where it should be? Does the narrative flow in terms of style, tone, and overall quality? They look at the core components of future books and provide an analysis. Revisions editors work with manuscripts that are already completed, turning first (or second) drafts into more well-defined drafts. Revisions is an umbrella statement, of course, since manuscripts go through multiple revisions (or should, even rewrites). But revisions editors, in this case, work with writers to improve writing by way of improving the writing fundamentals: hook, character, plot / conflict, point of view, show vs. tell, dialogue, voice, pace, etc. They point out what works and what doesn’t and offer suggestions while also putting the writer to work collaboratively. Copy editors should be the final step before a manuscript goes into layout. This includes making minor spelling, grammar, and punctuation corrections, as well as enhancing the writing quality, searching for passive voice, awkward sentence or paragraph structure, and if working on nonfiction they make sure citations are properly formatted, among other things. Once a manuscript goes through copy editing, no further significant changes should be made other than to fix last-minute proofreading errors. Other types of editors exist, all playing different (or sometimes crossed) roles. A line editor, for instance, goes through the manuscript line-by-line, examining word choice, making sure author / character voice is consistent, pointing out clichés and run-on sentences, and focusing on clarity. A mechanical editor, on the other hand, focuses primarily on the mechanics of the writing, making sure it conforms to style guides, and uses consistent capitalization, punctuation, and abbreviation, which are tasks copy editors sometimes absorb as part of their duties. That is a lot for a writer to take on if attempting to create a book on their own, and so multiple sets of eyes are always recommended (and should be required) instead of a lone set of eyes.

Editing Is Highly Collaborative

No matter which type of editor (preferably editors, plural) a writer works with along their publishing journey, it should never be assumed the editor(s) will simply fix issues and return a perfect manuscript back to the creator. All editing is highly collaborative and ultimately on the writers’ shoulders. Developmental and revisions editors, arguably, spend the most time with writers hands-on. Depending on their services, this could be anywhere from eight to sixteen weeks or longer; for structural editors, this could be anywhere from four to eight weeks or longer. In either case, a relationship between writer and editor is established, and during that time the writer needs to put in as much time and effort as the editor, or significantly more. Working with a structural editor is no different. They are not there to change the manuscript, but to suggest changes to help make the writing better. Are there inconsistencies with the writing compared to the outline? Are there incomplete or missing chapters? Does the manuscript feel complete? They offer a book-level evaluation so the writer can fix such things before going through further revisions. The least amount of interaction is between writer and copy editor. Since a manuscript draft is considered “final” by the time it reaches them, having passed through the hands of many previous editors, copy editors work on the practical details that do not need much writer interaction, although an interaction is still there, no matter how small. Yet it is not an editor’s job to simply make changes to a manuscript (except in the copy editing phase, in most cases), but to point out what could be improved so the writer can make those improvements. It is the author’s job, and obligation if they want to be a writer, to put a manuscript through multiple revisions before their work ever becomes a published book. The goal of every editor is to help writers become better writers. After all, it is not their book; it is the author’s. In fact, editors—although they put in a significant amount of work into manuscripts—are not listed as contributors within books other than seldomly appearing in an acknowledgment page. Editors have a passion to help writers, which is why they do what they do. They have a need to insist upon the world the highest quality of writing when it comes to published books, otherwise the world would be (and is, unfortunately) inundated with mediocre, unprofessional books.

Hard Work and Dedication

What many novice writers do not expect is the level of hard work they must put into revisions. It takes a significant amount of time to write a first draft manuscript, but it should take significantly more time to put that manuscript through multiple rounds of revisions before ever becoming a book. Consider a 60,000-word first draft manuscript, completed entirely by the author alone, with no help from any type of editor. Did the manuscript go through an extensive round of self-editing at least? More often than not, this is not the case, since most novice writers are not familiar with self-editing other than basic checks for grammar and spelling. Is this a first draft, second, or third? It all matters how familiar a writer is with the writing, editing, and publishing process, which is extensive. Let’s say, for the benefit of the writer, the manuscript at least went through a round of self-editing, which means it is a second draft. Then, after collaborating with a developmental editor, they put it through a third. Next, they send it off to a structural editor, who works with them on putting it through a fourth. Then a revisions editor, who helps them put it through a fifth or sixth. Then a beta reader, a copy editor, perhaps a line editor, a proofreader, etc. What draft number is it now? Some argue there is no such thing as a “final draft,” that a manuscript can go through endless revisions, that at some point a writer must simply be done with the thing and abandon it, either publishing their work or not. But if the writer decides to publish a book and become an author, wouldn’t it make sense to put it through as many drafts as possible and write / revise to the best of their ability? If this is the case, a writer needs to embrace the red. When editing by hand, many editors use a red pen to note suggested changes, and in word processing programs, edits are typically found as red text. And if the editing is done right (in the case of novice writers), there might be more red text on the page than black, and this can scare a person at first glance.

Embracing the Red

My first experience with an editor was for a 7,500-word short story called “Unstitched Love.” I put it through a weekend writer bootcamp that focused on self-editing because I wanted to learn more about the process and about my writing. One instructor leaned heavily on plot and conflict, another on dialogue and voice, another on point of view and show vs. tell, and the fourth took a line editing approach. When first turning in the story, I thought it was great, and then I received the feedback. The pages bled with red ink. While “a story is there, somewhere,” I was told, it had conflict but no plot, and I had a lot of dialogue that was unbelievable when spoken aloud, and my point of view was all over the place and hopping between characters, and I was telling more than showing. And from a line editing perspective, if I were to fix each of those items previously mentioned, I needed to cut (according to the blood on the page), at least a third or more of the text. I was horrified, at first, then I put their suggestions to use. I turned my conflict into story beats and suddenly had a plot. I created believable dialogue that sounded right for each character (instead of all sounding like me). I took the “camera” off the various characters’ shoulders, as it was analogized, and instead put the lens solely through the mind of the main character. From a line editing perspective, I trimmed the manuscript from 7,500 words to 4,000, cutting the story almost in half. After struggling for years writing alone, and not selling short stories to the markets I was seeking, I suddenly had my first professional manuscript. I sent it out and it instantly sold to a market in Sweden. I then went on to sell that same story to a market in South Africa, twice, and finally published it in the U.S. Without incorporating their feedback, I would have continued struggling as a writer. Today, I put those same practices to use, and from every new editor I work with—whether for a short story, nonfiction article, poetry collection, or novel—I learn a little more each time, forever improving my writing and editing to the best of my abilities. As an editor myself, I pass on what I have learned over the last twenty-something years to other writers and editors and hope they will do the same. Not until you embrace the red and incorporate criticism and feedback will your writing improve, which is an investment of the self. The more editors you work with over the years, the better your writing will become, thus needing less and less editing. It hurts, at first, until you realize it is a necessary pain and part of the process of writing successfully.
Michael Bailey is a Senior Editor and the Head of Developmental Editing at Manuscripts, LLC. He is a recipient and nine-time nominee of the Bram Stoker Award, a four-time Shirley Jackson Award nominee, and a multiple recipient of the Benjamin Franklin Award, along with over thirty independent publishing accolades. He has written, edited, and published many books. His latest is Righting Writing, a nonfiction narrative about dedication to the craft. He is also the screenwriter for Madness and Writers: The Untold Truth, a creative documentary series about writers. Find him online at, or on social media @nettirw.

Strategically Establishing an Author Brand Through Social Media and Other Platforms

Let’s say you have written and published a book, or are in the middle of writing a manuscript for a book, or maybe just starting to think about writing a book and one day becoming a published author, or maybe the first book is on the cusp, about to be released upon the world. What must be considered in terms of author branding? How do you sell yourself to potential readers? Do you sell yourself? According to Mark Coker writing for Publisher’s Weekly, author brand is “a bundle of perceptions and expectations that form in readers’ minds over time. A brand is a promise; it’s what readers expect from an author.” (1) Think of your favorite authors and the books you buy and read based on their names alone. A few of my favorites include David Mitchell, Jonathan Safran Foer, Jeffrey Eugenides, Victor LaValle, Stephen Graham Jones, Barbara Kingsolver, Zoje Stage, Josh Malerman, Cormac McCarthy, and more. I would blindly buy books from any of those writers. The list is different for everyone, but all avid readers have a list. It doesn’t matter what any of those writers mentioned above write. As soon as their books come out, I snag a copy, full price. There’s no hesitation. I simply buy the book the moment it’s out and it goes to the top of my reading list. More often than not, personal bookshelves (mine at least, and many of my friends’) are organized in groups by author name, more so than listed alphabetically by author, or by genre, or by publisher, or even (for some chaotic yet artistically-pleasing reason) by color. And more often than not, these books are collected and stored on shelves. They help define who we are as readers to those who may happen upon the collection. No matter the book, as soon as a new title is released by our favorite authors, we devour them. We instantly add them to our ever-growing TBR (to-be-read) pile, or move them to the top. There’s no need to go into a store and flip through pages to determine if the story or author warrants our time, and there’s no need to use Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature to check writing quality; we simply discover (or anticipate) a new book by our favorite authors and read them. But why do we do this?

Perceptions, Promises, and Expectations

Let’s say Stephen King is on your list. There is a perception that any new book will be a doorstopper, a hefty book with lots of character development, mystery, magic, and maybe a little (or extremely) terrifying. And you, his Constant Reader (as he likes to address his following) expect his name to be emblazoned on the cover in that large, familiar font. And there is a promise that as soon as you start reading, his voice will pull you in like that of an old familiar friend.
  • Perception
  • Promise
  • Expectation
Consider those three things as the base of your brand, and in terms of your author name alone. How will your name be perceived? What does your name promise to a potentially constant fanbase? What can readers expect from each John Doe book before ever knowing the particulars? It should be good, and it will be good. The author’s brand begins (or should) with the first book. It is highly important that a debut makes an impression because once it is out in the world, there is no going back. It will always be the author’s first book. Now think about all the writers on your list of go-to's. Do you remember their first book? Most likely you do, or you at least remember the first book you read by that author, because they instantly hooked you into their world and became a favorite. If your book is published, was your manuscript highly polished prior to publication? Did it go through tireless rounds of revisions, maybe some rewrites? Was the manuscript professionally edited, line edited, copy edited, and proofread? Is the cover eye-catching and represents not only the book but you as its author? And if you haven’t yet published your debut book, is that the plan? Those are a lot of questions to consider, but important to ask when considering author brand. Another big question: Is the book a solid start to your legacy? Always keep in mind (unless a one-hit-wonder) that the goal is to be a name writer others will someday include on their favorites list.

Branding Builds Career

Author branding is how an undiscovered writer becomes discovered. When a potential reader sees your name on a book cover or spine, consider what you want that name to represent, beyond genre categorization. This is difficult with only one published book (or if not yet published), but imagine having an entire row of books one day. When a second book is released, or a third or a fourth, what are the reader’s perceptions of you as a writer, and as a person (as you represent yourself to the public)? What can you promise readers with each of your books, and with your name alone? What are the readers expectations each time a new book is announced? What legacy will you leave behind? Book #1 needs to be so good that by the time Book #2 is announced, readers are already eager for it and will buy it sight unseen. Successful branding means readers are not buying the book, they are buying the author. If you have aspirations to continue writing, whether as a career or an extended hobby, consider the long-haul. Be the best version of yourself online (no matter where) because what you post is a representation of you, and your brand. Just like with family and friends, discussions on race, religion, politics, money, sex . . . they can all be dangerous topics online, and others behind keyboards are often quick to react. A wrong or even accidental turn-of-phrase from a blind spot can be damaging, even career-cancelling. And keep in mind that once something goes online, it’s pretty much permanent.

Sell the Writer, Not the Book

One thing all successful writers have in common is they rarely solicit their work. A new book comes out, they post about it a few times on social media or on their website, and that’s about it. Author brand takes care of the rest. A book signing here, a book review there, but for the most part, they mostly share personal things about themselves: family, friends, pets, favorite films or shows or music, and often other author’s books . . . One thing most novice writers have in common, on the other hand (those with aspirations to become bestsellers), is they tend to oversaturate. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest, Instagram, TikTok, and so on, are all bombarded with advertisements for books from newer writers, which is understandable. New authors need the attention; otherwise, how can they ever become a household name? The key with a social presence is to sell the writer, not the book. The last thing any potential reader wants is to be overwhelmed by advertisements. Readers want an understanding of their favorite authors, some kind of personal connection. The books, if an author has made one’s favorites list, are basically pre-sold already because of a solid author brand, so there’s no need for the author to do anything other than be their real selves online. Follow the footsteps of successful writers: post a few times about the book, but focus on the self. Share a cover. Share a book unboxing video. Share a reading. Share information about the process of writing and how the book came about. Share something amusing or even funny. Share anything but the price of the book and the link where to buy it. Most importantly, share anecdotes about your life that are not book-related. Let both potential and constant readers connect with you. Readers know where to find books. They go into bookstores (unfortunately not as often as in the past). They have their places online where they purchase: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million, Wal-Mart, Target, wherever. Unless offering a means of purchasing an autographed or personalized copy, readers do not need to be shown a link where to buy books. Ever. Social media algorithms tend to filter out such things and limit viewership anyway. Is a book on sale for 25% or 50% off from a certain distributor? It makes sense to share to help readers save money. Is an eBook on sale for a limited time at $1.99, $0.99, or free? It makes sense to help out readers who are money conscious, and because readers are more likely to try a new author if not paying full price for a book. But, for the most part, readers never need to be told where to buy books. All avid readers need is the author’s name if the branding is strong enough.

Social Media and Other Platform Consideration

Part of one’s branding requires a healthy social presence and consistency, which leads to my first piece of advice for successful author branding.
  • Secure a unique author name or pseudonym.
Whether using a real name or a pseudonym, do a little research beforehand. See if there are similar author names in the world. Is your name unique? If not, can it be made unique? Where might your books fit on store shelves, alphabetically by last name? The author name is the most important part of one’s branding. Almost twenty years ago, I was in the process of writing and then publishing my first novel, Palindrome Hannah. Social media wasn’t around then, so a big part of author branding was having a website. Excited about the book, I secured (no longer active) and setup a website. Good idea, right? Not entirely . . . While the Internet wasn’t then what it is today, one lesson I quickly learned about author branding was with website domains. I ran the site for a handful of years, and it didn’t occur to me that I had run into a problem. I was about halfway through editing my second novel, Phoenix Rose, and thought, like I had before, I better grab that domain too, But someone else already had it, and for the next ten years (and they still have it today). My next thought was to secure a domain for my author name instead, which is my second piece of advice:
  • Secure a website domain using your author name (if at all possible), even if only buying the domain and parking it for a while, or forever. It’s not expensive. And if the plan is to publish multiple books under an imprint, secure a website domain for that name.
A website can be the hub for all writerly things: a short biography, a bibliography of published works, links to social media platforms, to the books themselves, or maybe a blog, and, importantly, a Contact page. If you have no use for a website, consider getting one anyway; that way, at least no one else can use it, thus protecting your author brand. With a common first and last name, I unfortunately learned that was already taken (and still is today, despite not hosting a website, and despite my constant efforts to obtain it). I can secure a domain with my middle initial, but I don’t use my middle initial as part of my brand. Years later, after I decided I didn’t want to be a one-hit-wonder, I created a small press called Written Backwards. As part of my branding (for my press), and part of my re-branding (for myself as an author), I obtained, as well as, which is now my hub for everything book-related. And since, by then, social media has basically taken over the internet, this leads to my third piece of advice:
  • Secure all social media handles that match your author or imprint name, even if you never plan to use them.
Consistency is again key. If you have a website like, keep your social media handles as uniform as possible, such as @johndoe for Twitter, for Facebook, as well as using the “johndoe” name for any new social media handles. It will take research on your part to see if names are already taken, but it’s nice having them match. If you are set on your author name, and perhaps fortunate enough to secure your own name-matching website, yet matching social media handles are unavailable, consider using something close, such as johndoe_author. It is not always possible, but try to be consistent with naming conventions across all platforms. This will make it easy for potential readers to find you across the expanse of social media, and looks good in terms of author branding. Some social media platforms even allow cross-platform posting. In Instagram, for example, one has the ability to cross-post to both Facebook and Twitter. With a domain as unique as, I was able to secure for Twitter, and for Facebook, and likewise use “nettirw” for Instragram and LinkedIn and even TikTok (which I don’t use). I even have an Ello account. Basically, I grab every handle that consistently matches my branding the moment any new social media platforms surfaces. One name to rule them all. I don’t plan to use most social media platforms, but securing the handles protects my author branding and keeps others from stepping on them or holding them for ransom.

Represent the Best Version of You

Maybe you will publish a single book and become a one-hit-wonder, or maybe a New York Times bestselling writer and author to many books, but no matter the scenario, represent the best version of yourself to the public. Protect your author brand.
1. Coker, Mark. “Seven Author Branding Tips.”, November 16, 2018.
Michael Bailey is a Senior Editor and the Head of Developmental Editing at Manuscripts, LLC. He is a recipient and nine-time nominee of the Bram Stoker Award, a four-time Shirley Jackson Award nominee, and a multiple recipient of the Benjamin Franklin Award, along with over thirty independent publishing accolades. He has written, edited, and published many books. His latest is Righting Writing, a nonfiction narrative about dedication to the craft. He is also the screenwriter for Madness and Writers: The Untold Truth, a creative documentary series about writers. Find him online at, or on social media @nettirw.

It’s Okay to Say No: Balancing a Busy Schedule While Also Writing a Book

Writing a book is hard. Writing a book with a busy schedule is exceptionally hard. So, is there a way to successfully juggle both? It matters on the writer’s dedication.

Dedication to the Craft

Ask any published author how they managed to not only start a manuscript but eventually turn it into a book, and they will say something similar to, “I made the time.” But time is something that simply passes by, and so we must do something with it or it goes on without us. “Time flies over us, but leaves its shadow behind,” so says Nathaniel Hawthorne. Imagine “book time” (to write, edit, publish, promote, etc.) as a train without any stops, constantly pushing forward to no end. The only option for the writer is thus to hop on or hop off at any given moment, and to dedicate that time to one’s craft during the ride. There are countless quotes about the importance of time; that it’s money, waits for no one, is never found again, is relentless, irreversible, but we must ask ourselves, “What is the importance of time, to me, as a writer?” and “How much time should I invest in myself?”

Establishing a Routine Despite Hardships

One thing is certain: words must go on the page, otherwise books never happen. Whether dedicating an hour each day, hopping on that train between a busy work and home life, or using days off or weekends to focus on writing, words must go on the page. Jack London, one of the most prolific and successful writers of his time (comparable today to the success and output of Stephen King), had an incredibly busy life in his travels around the world. In all the chaos that surrounded him, he managed to dedicate a few hours each day to write fiction or nonfiction inspired by his adventures. His routine: 1,000 words per day on a typewriter, Monday thru Friday, which is four double-spaced pages of rough draft manuscript. It’s not a lot, and he gave himself the weekends off. Sometimes he would finish those pages in under an hour, or sometimes it would take half the day, but he wouldn’t end his routine until he had four pages. Quick math: 1,000 words per day is 5,000 words per week, or roughly 20,000 – 23,000 words each month, depending on the number of weekdays. This simple writing routine equates to a novel-length manuscript every three or four months, or over a quarter of a million words each year if writing all 52 weeks; this is about three or four novel-length manuscripts, depending on length. Highly achievable, right? This article, for comparison, is about 500 words so far (roughly two double-spaced pages of manuscript), and has taken approximately 30 minutes to write because of interruption (emails, texts, notifications, etc.). If I had better focus, it may have only taken half the time. That would be a rate of 2,000 words per hour, thus doubling my daily goal in a single hour, which means I would be capable of writing a novel-length manuscript every two months! But time is not always on our side, making a seemingly simple writing routine such as this seem daunting or implausible.

Establishing Goals Around a Busy Schedule

Unless writing full-time, which is an option for very few, a writer must learn to balance the real world vs. the world on the page. As time passes, using the train analogy from earlier, it gets more and more difficult to hop on for the ride to dedicate to a book. Work gets in the way. Home gets in the way. Life, in general, gets in the way. The “book time” train speeds along, as a blur, and so, more often than not, aspiring authors take the easier path of letting the train pass on by without trying to hop aboard. Consider the following weekday schedule for Jane Doe:
  • 06:30 – 07:30: home life
  • 07:30 – 08:00: travel
  • 08:00 – 12:00: work
  • 12:00 – 13:00: lunch break
  • 13:00 – 17:00: work
  • 17:00 – 17:30: travel
  • 17:30 – 22:30: home life
  • 22:30 – 06:30: sleep
In this 8-hour workday example, Jane Doe spends 16 hours between home life and work and 8 hours sleeping. Perhaps she wants to squeeze in gym time or is so busy she has to work through lunch, or maybe she is responsible for taking the kids to/from school, or works overtime and comes home later than expected, or has dinner plans out with family or friends. On the weekends, maybe Saturday and Sunday are just as busy. For Jane, time keeps slipping . . . How could she possibly find a means to say one day, “I made the time” to write a book? If writing 1,000 words per day (at a minimum) takes an hour or longer (with distractions), when would it be feasible to write? How is writing a book with a busy schedule even possible?

Writing Takes Passion and Sacrifice

Writers who need to write more than want to write all have one thing in common: they sacrifice time to write. Writing is a passion, and passion means suffering, thus something in one’s busy schedule must be forfeited to write and eventually publish a book. On the chopping block is usually home life or sleep, or even one’s lunch break. This article is approaching the 1,000-word mark (and will be there within the next few paragraphs), and I have spent an hour to get to this point (with many distractions). Jack London would be proud, having an understanding of the passion. I currently work 40 to 50 hours at my day job every week, and around that schedule I weave in 10+ hours each week co-producing and screenwriting a creative documentary series. And on top of that, I write fiction and nonfiction (when I can), such as this article, and I also write an average of one novel-length manuscript each year, while mentoring other writers. Not only do I have a passion for writing, and for all types of creativity (and helping others), but understand sacrifice is a big part of that lifestyle. My family suffers. My friends suffer. My health suffers. I get up early to write, or stay up late, or I binge-write on weekends. I am constantly sacrificing my personal life (time) for my creative life. I forfeit one to two hours per day, seven days a week, which is seven to fourteen hours total each week. Time is always moving forward, and that train is always blurring on by, so I either hop on for a half-hour here, an hour there, or take an extended ride over the weekend. I don’t necessarily “make” time to write, I “swap” time: a night out with friends for a night in working on a project, or an hour of sleep for an hour of writing. In the Jane Doe example, what can she do? Weekends are not listed on her schedule, so that might be the place to start. Could she dedicate a Saturday or Sunday on her book, or even two half-days? On weekdays, how much home life might be sacrificed, or lunch breaks? Could she squeeze in an hour in the 17:30 to 22:30 block? Could she wake up an hour earlier each day or stay up an hour later, sacrificing words for fatigue? Even with a hectic schedule, 1,000 words per day (or a cumulative 5,000 words per week) is possible, and that’s with distractions. Imagine being distraction-free and doubling the output. This, of course, requires a writer to often say, “No.”

It’s Okay to Say No

All writing should be taken seriously. Writing a book is a job and should be treated as such. This means scheduling time to write and then holding yourself accountable (or having someone else hold you accountable) for your dedication to the craft, maintaining a healthy writing routine, and reaching established goals. Say to yourself, “I will write 1,000 words every day (four pages of double-spaced, rough draft manuscript), and if I can’t manage that on weekdays, I will collectively write 5,000 words by the end of the week, every week.” Say to yourself, “I will write for at least an hour every day (if pressured by word count, although this will more than likely surpass preconceived goals), and if I can’t manage that on weekdays, I will collective write for five hours or more by the end of the week, every week.” Say to yourself, “I will get up an hour earlier each day and will block out time on my calendar to dedicate to the book,” or, “I will spend my lunchbreaks writing,” and “during this time, I am unavailable.” Say to yourself, “Writing a book is hard, and with a busy schedule is exceptionally hard, but I am going to juggle both. I will establish a routine despite hardships. I will establish goals around my busy schedule. I will make sacrifices. I am dedicated.” Say to others, “No. I can’t [fill in the blank], unfortunately. I am writing a book and unavailable during that time,” just as you would if you were asked to do something during your regular day job. And say to yourself, inspired by Hawthorne, “Time flies over us, but I will be part of the shadow it leaves behind.”
Michael Bailey is a Senior Editor and the Head of Developmental Editing at Manuscripts, LLC. He is a recipient and nine-time nominee of the Bram Stoker Award, a four-time Shirley Jackson Award nominee, and a multiple recipient of the Benjamin Franklin Award, along with over thirty independent publishing accolades. He has written, edited, and published many books. His latest is Righting Writing, a nonfiction narrative about dedication to the craft. He is also the screenwriter for Madness and Writers: The Untold Truth, a creative documentary series about writers. Find him online at, or on social media @nettirw.

Righting Your Writing: How to Improve Your Craft by Working With a Developmental Editor

The job of the developmental editor is often referred to as substantive editing, with a goal of improving the writer’s potential by taking a deeper dive into the work and helping them improve with early constructive feedback and constructive criticism; helping to further develop not only the writing but the writer.
I recently finished a manuscript for a nonfiction book called Righting Writing, an exploration into the madness of writing, editing, and publishing. A book for those who need to write. It took a few years to complete, but I consider 2022 a great year because the manuscript went through multiple revisions and at the start of 2023 became a book. “Need” is used in the statement above because while many want to write, those who need to write almost always follow through, and those who want to write rarely do. Righting Writing exists because of my never-ending need to help other writers improve their craft. The title holds meaning in its tense: writing needs constant righting; otherwise, the title would be Writing Righted, or Writing Right, which, of course, means there is only one way. A writer, no matter their level of expertise, can always improve; their writing can always be righted. Every successful writer-turned-author relies on an editor to make them better. And there are many ways to better one’s writing, especially for novice writers, such as by seeking the help of a developmental editor. I am currently working with Eric Koester on his second book in his Pennymores series (and soon a third). My main focus is developmental editing, but I offer advice to help prepare his manuscript for later revisions editing, such as with point of view, show vs. tell, and tightening prose by way of immersive language. My other focus is to help him realize his full potential. Eric has proven time and again that his storytelling is a need, not a want, and he takes my honest and constructive criticism to heart. He has a desire to ever-improve, which is key. The words flow out of him not with a “my writing is great” (and it is) attitude, but with a mindset of “no matter how great it is, it can always be better.” As a developmental editor, I have helped hundreds of writers: nonfiction narratives, memoirs, novels, fiction collections, poetry collections, and even graphic novels. And every writer who shares that same mindset of self-improvement publish. Along with providing developmental editing for Eric, I help train and manage developmental editors at Manuscripts, LLC, and assist with revisions editing and other departments. We all experience one thing in common: our writers not only finish manuscripts, but they put in the work it takes to turn manuscripts into incredible books. And yet it still surprises me that some first-time authors do not seek help. I thought I’d share my experience working as a developmental editor for Eric Koester’s latest book in his Pennymores series and how we collaborate, as well my experiences working with other writers.

My Fear of Providing Feedback as a Developmental Editor

When I first became a developmental editor at Manuscripts, LLC, I was terrified of my critiques coming across as being too brutal. Before that, I had nearly twenty years of freelance experience editing for various publishers, and so I was (and still am) well aware of writers resisting feedback. The world of editing can be precarious. If my reviews of works-in-progress were taken as too harsh, for instance, perhaps writers would not take my reviews as helpful but hurtful. Their impostor syndrome was quickly becoming my impostor syndrome, despite what I knew I could offer. Years later, I have learned that the writers who utilize the many services offered at Manuscripts, LLC have the following in common:
  • They need to write manuscripts and publish books.
  • They want honest criticism from editors.
  • They have the passion (suffering) it takes to put their manuscripts through the gamut that is developmental editing, revisions editing, structural editing, and later copy editing.
  • They publish their books, successfully.
  • They typically go on to publish more books, successfully.
My own fears as a developmental editor dissolved as soon as I realized what I had known all along: writers who need to tell stories, although they may hesitate when first seeking or receiving feedback, are usually willing to learn what it takes to write to the best of their abilities. Once a writer realizes a developmental editor (or any editor) is on their side, and willing to work with them in all sincerity to improve, that’s when the magic happens. They not only begin to believe they are ‘good enough’ to write, but that they can become great (and they do).

Expect More Than Editing

When collaborating with a developmental editor, know they are not there to simply edit what is already written. And don’t expect them to write if nothing is written. Developmental editors are not ghostwriters; they are mentors, coaches, cheerleaders, and sometimes even therapists if impostor syndrome kicks in (and it will, at some point). Developmental editors are sounding boards. They brainstorm. They work with writers to develop a book from the ground up, or, if an unstable framework is already established, they can help stabilize the foundation. They help turn ideas into stories, help turn stories into chapters, and help form those chapters into a workable Table of Contents. If a manuscript is already written, they can help develop that draft into something stronger. To quote a section in Righting Writing:
A developmental editor offers advice on basic writing fundamentals but does not necessarily correct spelling or grammar mistakes, although often points out such things. They can either be brought in during the book’s development—even prior to any writing whatsoever—or after the first draft of a manuscript is already written.
Developmental editing is thus more focused on a book’s structure rather than prose, such as with character, plot, conflict, voice, theme, and setting. Do chapters have enough hook to pull readers along? Do chapters have the right components? What about the 3 D’s: dialogue, detail, depth? What about the other fundamentals of writing that can be righted: intrigue, prose, pace, tense, point of view, show vs. tell, and imagery? Developmental editors work with writers to improve upon each of these areas, noting what is working well while also pointing out what is not. Working with any editor is highly collaborative, but think of the developmental stage as creating the architecture of a book. Consider the original idea and what it will take to turn that concept into a reality. Then realize there’s a professional on your side to make that happen. Questions to ask developmental editors prior to utilizing their services:
  • What is your experience / training?
  • What are your editing styles or how do you edit?
  • What are your specialties / strengths?
  • What are your expectations?
Questions to ask while utilizing their services:
  • What goals / routines should we establish?
  • What can I expect and what is expected of me?
  • What are my strengths and weaknesses?
  • What can I do to improve my writing?
Expect lots of communication. Schedule weekly meetings if at all possible. Ask for advice on impostor syndrome or writer’s block. If struggling, ask for help! Above all else, do not be afraid to share “ugly” writing, those early first drafts. Developmental editors have seen it all (and do not judge). They can help turn ugly writing into good writing, then good writing into great writing. When working with Eric, if he doesn’t ask the questions above, I bring them up. I offer my experiences to help him better his writing. I point out strengths and his weaknesses, but more importantly suggest ways to improve not only his weaknesses but his strengths. We establish weekly goals and routines. I expect his writing, no matter the quality, and he expects my critiques, no matter how harsh they may seem (although they are always positive). We always push forward.

Five Tips to Get the Most Out of Your Developmental Editor / Writer Relationship

Developmental editors are on your side. All editors have a desire to help other writers improve, which is why they became editors in the first place. And most developmental editors, specifically, are writers, so they know the importance of having the help required to complete a manuscript and publish a book. 5 tips to consider:
  1. Connect: Plan to meet weekly with your developmental editor by way of a video call, or at a minimum weekly messages. It can be daunting at first, so break the ice and then jump right into the writing / editing. It will get easier with time, and might become the highlight of your week. 10 to 30 minutes, depending on what’s needed, even if it’s a simple catch-up or to ask for advice. Are you stuck, overwhelmed? Your developmental editor can help.
  2. Communicate: Send messages over whatever platform you are using. Constant communication with your editor is key. Ask questions. Answer questions. Leave notes and respond by way of in-line comments and wrap-up comments within the document(s). Be precise, always asking yourself and your editor, “What can I do next to improve?”
  3. Collaborate: Editing is highly collaborative. For every hour your editor spends on your work, plan to 4 or 5 times that to further improve your manuscript, maybe even as high as 10. And remember: your developmental editor is not there to make changes or to write for you, but to suggest improvements with your writing. They may suggest sources for additional information, or point out what’s working and what isn’t with your writing.
  4. Set routines / goals: Work with your editor on weekly expectations. Take your word count (expected or already written) and divide that by the number of weeks working with your editor. 60,000 words and 16 weeks? That’s 3,750 words per week, which can be anywhere from 2 to 3 hours of developmental editor time, and 8 to 12 hours for the writer, at a minimum. Keep in mind that you are most likely not your editor’s only client, so be respectful of their time. Punctuality for meetings is important.
  5. Have an understanding that writing / editing is tough: If you put in the effort, your editor will do the same. Your editor will spend a lot of time not only reading your work but suggesting edits (always with the overall book in mind), so also be respectful of their expertise. They know what they are doing. Ask questions if you need clarification.
Developmental editors work with all types of writers, so a big part of the editor / writer relationship is determining your writing style and figuring out what works best in terms of all 5 items listed above. They are experienced working with writers who suffer from impostor syndrome or writer’s block, so listen to their suggestions. The primary goal of the developmental editor is to help writers, no matter their level of experience, finish manuscripts, and become better writers. There is nothing an editor loves more than to experience a writer they have worked with succeed and become great. * * * I am first and foremost a writer, and it is my passion to consistently improve my craft. And as an editor (developmental or otherwise, as I wear many hats), helping other writers improve their craft is also my passion. As an editor, I need Eric and other writers who are motivated with their own work (and their own betterment as writers) to keep me motivated. I read a dozen or two books each year, but perhaps as many as a hundred or more unpublished manuscripts. And when I see one of those projects turn into a beautiful, published book, knowing the writer and their editors did everything in their power to make it wonderful? Nothing makes me happier. Nothing written is ever perfect, but why not get it as close to that as possible, and then make the next writing even stronger, and the writing after even stronger, and so on . . . A special thanks to Eric Koester for not only founding Manuscripts, LLC, which cranks out countless inspiring book each year, but also having the drive to showcase his writing and the books of so many others. Righting Writing is the title of my latest book, but also my mission. It’s an active statement, the continuous art of righting one’s writing, of taking the written word, no matter whose, and ever-improving upon it.
Even the best editors need editors.

Michael Bailey is a Senior Editor and the Head of Developmental Editing at Manuscripts, LLC. He is a recipient and eight-time nominee of the Bram Stoker Award, a four-time Shirley Jackson Award nominee, and a multiple recipient of the Benjamin Franklin Award, along with over thirty independent publishing accolades. He has written, edited, and published many books. His latest is Righting Writing, a nonfiction narrative about dedication to the craft. He is also the screenwriter for Madness and Writers: The Untold Truth, a creative documentary series about writers. Find him online at, or on social media @nettirw.

The Write Environment

Walk into a coffeeshop and you will likely find someone writing. She has a laptop or notebook in front of her and maybe an empty mug. She stares at the screen or the page, perhaps wearing earbuds. She writes slowly at times, madly at others, or simply stares off into space now and again while others silently judge her. She’s probably writing a book, they think, with aspirations of becoming an author. The coffee-goers move through the line and sit around her, spending what it would cost to buy an eBook on a fancy drink, or spending what it would cost for a paperback on a fancy drink and overpriced food, or spending what it would cost for a nice hardcover on food and drink for family and/or friends. Meanwhile, the woman writes or doesn’t write. She is there to create something from nothing using her imagination and life experiences. And she goes about this with or without plans to someday share her work with the rest of the world, and that’s if others consider spending money on books. She gets up sometimes for a restroom break or for refills. She stretches and moves around, because even in a constrained environment change is necessary. Like this woman and many others, I have written a half-million or more words in coffeeshops around the world, along with editing countless manuscripts, and have probably spent more money in those places than I have earned with books over the last twenty-something years, which is beside the point. The coffeeshop can be an ideal place to create: quiet at times, busy at others, the environment and its people constantly changing, which is important for all creators. Yet this is only one place a writer may find themselves writing. If the environment doesn’t work, another might. A coffeeshop may not be the ideal place to spark creativity for some, but maybe a silent corner in a room will do, or an office, or outdoors, or any place with stimuli.

An Ever-Changing Workspace

While in Costa Rica, along with occasionally writing in coffee shops, I often swing in a hammock with a laptop or with a moleskin notebook and pen. In the mornings and throughout the day, the seemingly endless song of parrots, toucans, macaws, oropendolas, hummingbirds, and other colorful birds surround me, along with calls of howler monkeys or the occasional and adorable cry of a baby sloth. Words start, then stop, then start again, depending on distractions. When the sun later descends, the sounds change to nightbirds, frogs, owls, and cicadas. There is constant noise because the jungle is never quiet and often blanketed by a downpour. In the rainforest, the environment is fluid, and more times than not this becomes the ideal workspace . . . for me. But this is not the place for all creators. Sometimes the writing or editing happens indoors, either at a desk or on a couch or while seated in a chair, and sometimes while upright in bed. And when not at home, the writing / editing might happen en la playa under a canopy in front of a turquoise Caribbean Sea with its mesmerizing ebb and flow of waves against black sand. Words flow there, but not always. There are ideal environments in which a writer can write, but they are not always the right place, which is important to consider when searching for a workspace. Also keep in mind that too much change can easily distract a writer, the words slowing — or stopping entirely — while taking in ones surroundings and all the senses stirring within it. The key is to constantly adapt.

The Right Setting

Before Costa Rica, I lived in California and worked primarily from home. I did my work on a laptop on a fold-down desk (attached to the wall because of space limitations) while sitting uncomfortably in a chair. I would get up throughout the day to stretch and move around, and for coffee or food, always constrained. Cabin fever, to a certain extent. To keep from going insane, or “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results,” according to Einstein, or so it’s attributed, I would switch from bedroom to kitchen to living room, or would work outside, depending on weather. I was stuck in this environment called “home” but adapted because writing and editing was a necessary form of supplemental income at this point in my life, along with editing and designing books for various publishers. I was a stay-at-home bonus dad at the time (we never liked the term stepdad), so there were always distractions of helping the children manage schoolwork since the pandemic forced everyone to at-home education. This was my setting as a creator. Setting is both a time and a place, and so sometimes I found a change of the clock helpful. I wrote at night, long after everyone went to bed, or got up early before the house came to life. And on days when the kids were with their biological father, I often worked out of coffeeshops for a change of setting, running into other writers among the coffee aficionados. And there, I was silently judged . . . He’s probably writing a book, with aspirations of becoming an author.

Avoiding Distractions

“What are you working on?” or “Are you writing a screenplay or book or something?” Nearly every single time I worked away from home, I was asked questions like these while deep in an imaginative state. The distractions (unwanted changes in environment) would pull me out of the groove with a look of confusion as my mind slipped back to reality — a creative groove that sometimes took an hour or longer to get there. The words flowing, then suddenly not. Interrupting a writer writing is similar to interrupting a reader reading. One moment they are immersed in another world and a question like, “What are you reading?” instantly destroys the magic. “What are you writing?” destroys magic in the making, like shaking a person awake out of a dream. After answering questions (plural, for their are always follow-up questions when asked about writing or working on anything book related), it would take another refill of coffee and a long period of time to slip back into the creative groove. The words would flow again, if lucky, and then . . . “What’s it about?” or “Where do you get your ideas?” or “I’ve always wanted to write a book.” I quickly learned that wearing earbuds — whether in use or not — would deter most from interrupting the creative process, although I still found myself pulling them out to answer questions.

Letting the Words Flow

What happens when a writer finds the perfect workspace and the words refuse to flow? Is it writer’s block, impostor syndrome? It could be any number of things: worry, anxiety, fatigue, not enough or too much stimuli, or maybe an under- or over-distracted mind. When this happens, a change in environment might be needed. If I ever find myself at a loss for words, I go for a walk, exercise, or do yardwork, but always do so while keeping the stalled project in focus. This is a type of pre-writing, a way of opening the mind and brainstorming. Exercise releases endorphins that help with creativity, and increased blood flow and physical exertion fuels original / abstract thought. A little movement can quickly reenergize a writer and help words flow once again. Not writing is a necessary part of writing, which is coming up with the words before they go on the page, and the time it takes for thoughts to become written words varies. A simple change in environment can either shorten or lengthen that time, and a little moving around can help fill plot holes and spark new ideas. The next time you find yourself in a coffeeshop — whether the writer or the curious coffee-goer — and you see someone staring off into the distance, they are most likely in the zone, in their own personal pre-writing groove, so let them be there for a while without the distraction.
Michael Bailey is a Senior Editor at Manuscripts, LLC. He is a recipient and eight-time nominee of the Bram Stoker Award, a four-time Shirley Jackson Award nominee, and a multiple recipient of the Benjamin Franklin Award, along with over thirty independent publishing accolades. He has written, edited, and published many books. His latest is Righting Writing, a nonfiction narrative about dedication to the craft. He is also the screenwriter for Madness and Writers: The Untold Truth, a creative documentary series about writers. Find him online at, or on social media @nettirw.

A Need for Storytelling

Discuss books and at some point in the conversation someone will say, “I always wanted to write a book” or “I have an idea for a story” or, if talking with a writer, “Hey, maybe you can write one for me.” The defining word hidden in that first of three statements is want. There may be a desire or passion to share a particular story with the world, whether fiction or nonfiction (imaginary or factual), but is there also the need?

Determining Want vs. Need Is Crucial

Want vs. need is crucial to determine. Want is an aspiration, whereas need is an essential requirement. Many want to write and become a published author, but who really needs that status, and what is the difference between writer and author? I recently worked with a musician from Nigeria who wanted to write a book about music’s ability to change the world. He showed signs of impostor syndrome early on, despite displaying incredible prose with his nonfiction work-in-progress. The storytelling seemed to come naturally, and although his opening chapters needed structure, his words held power. The emerging story, his story, was absolutely captivating. He said at one point, “I want to write this book, and tell my story, but what if no one reads it?” I then asked the all important question: “Do you want to write, or do you need to write?” After a look of confusion on his part, I clarified: “What if you finish and publish this book, and sell only a single copy? You reach only one person in the world but they are inspired by your story; your words move them, perhaps even change them as a person. Would it be worth it?” “Absolutely,” he said without hesitation, and I could see the passion in his eyes. “Then you don’t want to write, you need to write.” We worked together on his manuscript for sixteen weeks, building chapter by chapter, and every week his impostor syndrome faded while his confidence strengthened. Soon he had a completed first draft manuscript and quickly raised funds (and beyond) to publish and promote his book. Prior to that manuscript going through the revisions stage, I said to him, “You know what this means, don’t you?” and I received that same look of confusion but also wonderment. “You are a writer. This is something you need to do. And you’re going to write and publish future books.” His smile revealed this would be true, and Nifemi Aluko’s first published book, Press Play: Music as a Catalyst for Change was well received and won an award in independent publishing. But would this book be his last, or would he go on to further explore and develop his creative abilities and tell future stories? A one-time author, or forever a writer?

A One-Time Author, or Forever a Writer?

Storytellers should always have a need more than a want to create, and the difference between writer and author is a matter of tense. An author is in the past, and a writer in the present and always looking toward the future. A writer cannot be an author until after having first written, but a writer possesses the continuous need to write whether their work is ever published. “Author” is a wonderful word, such as in the phrase “I am a published author!” Author is also a wonderful title to have on your resume, but consider its meaning. With modern technology, anyone can write and self-publish words strung together, whether digitally or in physical form, and no matter the quality. If a person writes on a website, on a blog, on social media, or elsewhere, they are from that point onward the author of that work and hold copyright (unless relinquishing those rights). So, how much weight does “Author” hold? “Writer” is a stronger delineation for a storyteller. “I am a writer” is not only a great thing to say about oneself, but “Writer” holds more meaning. It says, “I write, and I publish my words, and I will continue doing so.”

Managing Through the Book Writing Process

To compose an entire book, however, requires a lot from a person, including many sacrifices, and so a writer who manages to publish a book, even if only ever writing and publishing a single book, should be proud of that accomplishment because they are in a minority when it comes to creativity, despite the level of readership. Fast-forward a few years, and Nifemi Aluko, now a published and award-winning author, returns with a concept for second book. “I want to write a novel,” he says. “Writing is music, and I need to keep making music.” So we begin working together for another sixteen weeks on a first draft manuscript for a science fiction novel. The developing manuscript shows a lot of promise, the power of storytelling akin to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and George Orwell’s 1984. The words flow out of him. As a writer, he is passionate to tell this new story, and as his editor I am passionate to help him breathe life into this second book. The manuscript is stronger from the start, both easier for him to write and easier for me to edit, and together we strengthen his words. And not long after another book finds its way into print, Toffy’s Divide, a novel, which does well and wins him another book award. Will this writer (and now author of multiple books) go on to write a third? It’s likely more music will pour out of him. He possesses the desire to create. Not only does he have the aspiration to write, but storytelling is an essential requirement of his very being, and he is willing to put in the hard work it takes to make books.

The Need for Storytelling Always Prevails

Writing, editing, and eventually publishing takes a need for being a storyteller, not just a want, as well as time, dedication, routine, and continuous self-development and improvement. Most who have the desire to write a book either never begin, or begin and never finish. Their manuscript, if ever started, is never fully completed and improved upon and thus never turned into a book as originally planned. The work is at some point abandoned, and so the story they wanted to share is lost to the world and stuck in the past. A very small percentage of writers who start the journey of writing ever finish a first draft manuscript. An even smaller percentage of writers who finish a first draft manuscript ever put their work through additional drafts. And an even smaller percentage of writers who put the manuscript through additional drafts ever see their work published. So, ask yourself: Do I want to write to write, or do I need to write? Once you realize the answer is the latter, find any means necessary to make that happen. Write the story not because you want to, but because you have to, and then do whatever it takes to share your story with the world. Don’t be the one in the conversation about books saying, “Hey, maybe you can write one for me.” Instead, set out to write, revise, and ultimately publish a book. Plan to not only become an author of the past, but a writer in the present looking toward the future. If you have always wanted to write a book, or have an idea for a story, write it! But remember: you don’t have to go through that journey alone. If passionate about writing, look for mentors, and editors (there are many types willing to help), as well as fellow writers who might share those same impostor syndrome nerves. Do not write alone. What is it going to take to tell your story and share it with the world?
Michael Bailey is a Senior Editor at Manuscripts, LLC. He is a recipient and eight-time nominee of the Bram Stoker Award, a four-time Shirley Jackson Award nominee, and a multiple recipient of the Benjamin Franklin Award, along with over thirty independent publishing accolades. He has written, edited, and published many books. His latest is Righting Writing, a nonfiction narrative about dedication to the craft. He is also the screenwriter for Madness and Writers: The Untold Truth, a creative documentary series about writers. Find him online at, or on social media @nettirw.