Archive for the ‘Writing Tips’ Category

Tweak with Caution: Editing true stories from others for your books or articles

Do you enjoy compiling and editing true stories from others, for use in your own books or articles? Here’s a word of caution.

caution sign used to illustrate caution when editing true storiesToday I grabbed a neat book off my shelf to re-read – then realized I’d never read it to begin with. Nor promoted it, as I’d originally intended.

Then I remembered why.

Before the book was published, I was pleased to be asked by the author to contribute a mother-daughter story to it. The author and publisher were highly respectable, and I believed our story would glorify God and hopefully encourage parents.  So I’d emailed a brief version of the story to the author. I fully expected it to be edited to fit the context and style of the author’s book. As a writer for magazines for many years I am used to being edited, so have no problem with that.

However, I also assumed that if the author had any questions related to the story, or had any major additions she wanted to make to it, she would email me.

The day our gift copy arrived in the mail, I was all set to buy a bunch of copies to give to family, friends, and my daughter’s friends. They all knew about or had been part of that story of answered prayer and were excited to see it in print. It was a completely positive story with no bad-guy scenarios, so all involved would have been proud to share it via their social networks. My daughter and her friends loved any excuse to spread the word about how God can work in everyday circumstances. (And who doesn’t like to say they are mentioned in a book?)

Sadly, it didn’t play out that way. Instead, the resulting story made us both feel just awkward enough that we didn’t feel compelled to widely share it. Not upset, nor angry, just  . . . awkward. So it sat on our shelf until now — nearly seven years later.

In retrospect, as I now spend a lot of time in the marketing arena, I simply see this as an unnecessarily  lost marketing opportunity for the author.


The actual result of answered prayer in the story was accurate. My own quotes and thoughts were portrayed accurately. But here’s where the author missed the boat:

1) To make the story more readable and creative, she inserted dialogue and thoughts as if from my daughter, but not provided by her nor me.  The resulting dialogue flowed well and enhanced the story, but didn’t actually reflect what my daughter would have said or felt. It just didn’t quite ring true with her personality. And since it felt awkward to both of us and would have seemed odd to her friends too, it made the resulting story feel less true, so less of a ministry opportunity. Had the author emailed us her additional quotes, it would have been about a ten minute fix to make sure those quotes were closer to the conversation my daughter and I actually had.

2) Not knowing the name of one key person in the story, she made one up. This would have been fine had all our names been made up, but with only one fake name, it was awkward because my daughter’s friends knew she had no friend by that name. On Facebook, she would have had to explain that the story was mostly true, especially the answer to prayer, even if some things were changed. However, it would have taken the author less than a minute to ask me via email the name of the friend in the story. Such a tiny detail, but so important to the person whose name had been changed, and to her friends, and to show the story as fully true.

The book still turned out great, and I’m actually enjoying reading it now. It’s neat to be reminded of God’s love and the way He encouraged us as a family. So truly, no harm, no foul. It just turned into a marketing blunder for the author way back then — and could for another well-meaning author now.

As an author myself, I nearly experienced a much worse-case scenario with an embarrassing misuse of words.

I had briefly offended a story contributor (for one of my own books) by the way I’d phrased a few sentences relating to her child. I thought I was being encouraging but the way I had phrased it came out wrong. I had made an assumption related to special needs that wasn’t accurate, and you know about that word ASSUME: it can make an (first three letters of that word) out of U and ME. In this case it was just ME.

To my great relief I learned this BEFORE I send in my manuscript, so had time to correct it. Thankfully, too, I learned this as soon as I sent my changes to my contributor to ask if there was anything at all I hadn’t gotten right, saying I’m always open to changes. Hopefully that kept the contributor from needlessly agonizing over how to contact me to tell me she was unhappy, and she seemed pleased with my revision.

Sometimes a word or two in the wrong place carries a nuance with it that is unintended and easily corrected.

Giving contributors a chance to review their edited stories or comments is not what’s typically done in the journalism field. Newspaper writers are discouraged from doing this. Time for corrections can push back deadlines or may cause unnecessary challenges, especially when someone quoted accurately doesn’t like the way that appeared in print. (I think this happens most when a quote is taken out of context.)

However, I’ve never quite had the stomach for hard-hitting investigative journalism. I prefer to get my contributors to share their thoughts and have me reflect them as accurately as possible, even if they need extra time to clarify that a bit more. And at least in the book industry, and even with magazine articles with deadlines months out, we have the luxury of a bit more time for fact-checking than something going in tomorrow’s newspaper. However, those of you under tight book deadlines I hope will build in enough time to be able to email edits to your contributors.

None of this may be necessary if you’ve only edited for grammar, clarity, or to condense a story — although condensing may leave out crucial elements, subtly changing a story.  But if you want to add elements to a story to bring it more to life, it would be a great courtesy to your contributors –and a good marketing strategy too — to make sure you got things right. It also goes a long way in building long-term relationships with your contributors, friends, and even family if you dare to quote them!

Your contributor will not only thank you profusely, but is more likely to eagerly and enthusiastically Tweet, Pin, Facebook and email shout-outs about your book that they are so pleased to be a part of!

Your thoughts?

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