Monthly Archives: February 2014

Awakening Your Stylistic Instinct

From my friend Ruth Cauble, I inherited a book called COMMON SENSE ABOUT WRITING, by Thomas H. Cain. Its copyright date is 1967, making it a brand-new book when Ruth won it as a prize in a writing competition. She inscribed the flyleaf: “Rec’d for first place award in the Grace Gaylord Creative Writing Contest  — June 9, 1967 — R. Sammons Cauble.”

I’m endlessly interested in matters of style, so I turned first to chapter 7, titled “Expression: Style and Sentences.” Dr. Cain, who wrote the book when he was an associate professor of English at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, defined style as “the total effect of writing.”

“It is the effect achieved,” he wrote, “by the ideas, the order, the paragraphs, the sentences, and the words all working together harmoniously.”

Cain recognized that a writer’s style is a very personal thing. No two people will write exactly alike, or even agree completely on what constitutes good style:

“The reason may be that when you try to express your ideas in the best words, sentences, and sequences of sentences, a whole army of subjective human variables comes into action: personal factors, individual gifts, range of experience, reading background, discretion, sense of decorum, feeling for rhythm, and plain taste … style springs from just such individual sources.”
Style, then, is partly subconscious: it arises from a writer’s way of thinking. But by reading widely and intensively, we can sharpen our stylistic instincts.


We’ve all heard the advice to read widely in the genre in which we wish to write: picture books, chapter books, memoir, novels, etc. According to Alan Cheuse, author of novels, short fiction, and memoir:


“You can’t write seriously without reading the greats in that peculiar way that writers read, attentive to the particularities of the language, to the technical turns and twists of scene-making and plot, soaking up numerous narrative strategies and studying various approaches to that cave in the deep woods where the human heart hibernates.”


To help you read in the writer’s “peculiar” focused way, Dr. Cain suggested this exercise:


  1. From a book you especially admire, choose a passage of about 12 or 15 sentences. Read the passage silently.
  2. Note the structure of each paragraph.
  3. Read the passage aloud, listening to the stages in the paragraph structure and especially to the rhythm of the sentences and how they vary in length and emphasis.
  4. Now copy the passage slowly by hand (don’t type), sentence by sentence, first reading each sentence aloud and noting its pattern of emphasis and rhythm.
  5. Copy the entire passage again (typing it if you wish), listening for the way the sentences work together in groups of two or three.


“By the time you reach Step 5,” Cain predicted, “you will find that you have almost memorized the rhythm and scheme of emphasis in some sentences, even though you can’t quite repeat the words. This is enough. The whole point of the exercise lies in sensing when sentences sound right. It marks the awakening of the stylistic instinct that guides most professional writers as they write.”


I did this exercise with one of my favorite books, THE GOLDEN COMPASS by Philip Pullman. In analyzing a page chosen at random from near the middle of the story, I noted unusual similes, questions presented in groups of three (employing “the power of three”), specific and colorful word choices, strongly rhythmic phrasing, and the use of the conjunction “and” to create both a driving rhythm and a smooth flow. On just that one page, I identified and studied a wide range of the techniques that contribute to Pullman’s powerful and pleasing style.


Dr. Cain suggested doing the exercise one hour a day for a week or two. This kind of intensive reading isn’t a replacement for an extensive reading background, but it can be a useful crash course in developing your stylistic instinct.


(Thank you, Ruth Ann. I love the book.)


Reprinted from the May/June 2010 issue of The SCBWIs of Texas, the newsletter of the North Central/Northeast Texas Chapter of SCBWI.


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How Much Does an Editor Cost?

From time to time I’m asked how much I’d charge to edit someone’s book.

At present, I am not editing for individuals. As a freelancer for a national nonprofit organization, I stay as busy as I want to be just editing the assignments they send me.

Perhaps it will help some writers, however, if I quote the rate chart of the Editorial Freelancers Association:

Editorial Rates

Updated: June 2012

Common editorial rates —regardless of whether a project is flat rate or hourly— tend to fall within the ranges indicated below. These should be used only as a rough guideline; rates vary considerably depending on the nature of the work, the time frame of the assignment, the degree of special expertise required, and other factors. The industry standard for a manuscript page, however, is a firm 250 words.

Type of Work Estimated Pace Range of Fees
Editing, basic copyediting 5-10 ms pgs/hr $30-40/hr
Editing, heavy copyediting 2–5 ms pgs/hr $40–50/hr
Editing, website copyediting   $40-50/hr
Editing, developmental 1–5 pgs/hr $45–55/hr
Editing, substantive or line 1–6 ms pgs/hr $40–60/hr
FACT CHECKING   $30-40/hr
INDEXING 8-20 pr pg/hr $35-65/hr
$5.50-12/pr ind pg
Layout, books 6-10 pgs/hr $45-85/hr
Layout, newsletters 1-4 pgs/hr $40-100/hr
Layout, websites   $16-20/pg
PERMISSIONS   $40-50/hr
PROOFREADING 9-13 ms pgs/hr $30-35/hr
RESEARCHING   $40-75/hr
TRANSCRIBING variable $3-5/pg
TRANSLATING 300-500 wds/hr $40-50/hr
WEB DESIGN   $50-75/hr
WRITING 1-3 ms pgs/hr  
Writing, fiction   $40-50/hr
Writing, ghostwriting   $50-60/hr
Writing, grants/proposals/sales/PR   $50-60/hr
Writing, journalism   $40-50/hr
Writing, medical   $60-70/hr
Writing, nonspecified   $40-100/hr
Writing, technical/trade   $50-60/hr
NOTE   ind = indexable page, ms = manuscript, pr = printed, pg = page, hr = hour, wd = word

© 2014 Editorial Freelancers Association | All rights reserved |

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Traditions of Celtic Mythology: How Waterspell Fits

A reader and reviewer (she’s also an editor of long experience and impeccable taste) recently paid me an enormous compliment when she advised her Facebook friends to read my books because “the Waterspell trilogy is solidly in the class of great epic fantasy (e.g., Tolkien, George R. R. Martin); definitely not namby, trite fantasy, of which there is far too much.”

Humbled to the earth by such praise, I was moved to recall a similar discussion with an early interviewer during the long years I spent researching and writing the Waterspell trilogy. Below are excerpts (the full interview is here, on my oldest website).

Q: Does WATERSPELL take its inspiration from Celtic mythology?

A: Broadly and indirectly, yes. When I started reading the early Irish legends and Celtic myths, I was looking mainly for “the telling detail”—authentic figures of speech, colorful descriptive terms, gritty background textures. But as I read, I noticed that aspects of the mythology had their counterparts in this fantasy I was writing. Or vice versa. For instance, water often has mystical qualities in the legends—Irish rivers like the Boyne were held sacred. It’s pretty obvious from the series title—WATERSPELL—that water has magical properties in my story, too. The traditions tell of quests, leading into the Otherworld and back. “Other worlds” figure prominently in WATERSPELL—the premise is that what’s harmless in one world or reality may prove deadly if it arrives, whether innocently or by skullduggery, where it doesn’t belong. Also central to my work is the heroic quest, undertaken to gain information or wisdom, to bring healing, or to find or restore lost objects.

I am by no means an expert on Irish legends. Given the huge number of books that have been produced on the subject and the very few of them that I’ve read (see “Books”), I can barely claim a nodding acquaintance. My sole aim, in working into my writings details from the legends, is to make WATERSPELL “fit” into the world of Celtic mythology the way Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings fits with traditional Scandinavian mythology. Katharine Briggs said of Tolkien’s work: “The whole was not decorated but deepened by the use of traditional folklore which gave it that sense of being rooted in the earth which is the gift of folklore to literature.” That’s what I’m after: to create a fantasy world that’s rooted deeply in an ancient tradition.

Obviously I’m thrilled to have a reader/reviewer make the connection independently. That tells me I succeeded, at least on some level, in my attempt to pay homage to those great old Irish and Scottish storytellers who are a link to the Celtic mythology that underpins much of the fantasy genre.

Thank you, Shelley! ♥

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