Friday, July 22, 2011

5 Key Qualities I Look for in Potential Authors

Acquisitions editors like me are always on the lookout for potential authors. We're constantly vigilant for individuals we meet who seem to possess those particular qualities we each see as requisite in someone who can get a good book written.

The qualities I look for might be different than those other editors look for, certainly, but I'll bet we're all looking for pretty much the same core qualities. Here's my list.

1. Ability to articulate thoughts verbally

Sounds like a no-brainer but it's really not. I've met many enormously dedicated, highly talented educators who struggle to articulate verbally their thoughts in conversation. They can whip up a mini-lecture on coronary blood flow in neonates, something they might have discussed many times before, but ask them to describe their teaching philosophy and they grapple for the right words.

Successful authors, before they've ever put word to published paper, seem to me somehow more able to articulate their thoughts than people who really want to be successful authors but who can't quite get there.

That said, I've worked with a few authors who don't articulate terribly well at first but as they move through the process, they become better at articulating thoughts verbally. But I haven't worked with many.

Tip: When talking with an editor or publisher, take just a moment to collect your thoughts before you speak. There's no rush. We're in this thing for the long haul.

2. Local knowledge, global understanding

To write a textbook that meets the needs of a national (and sometimes international) market, a potential author must possess at least some understanding of what's going on in their field nationally, not just what's going on in their own school or state.

I'm looking for people who can tell me about the trends, rules, and regulations in their own state and also about similar trends, rules, and regulations in other states. If someone doesn't care enough to pay attention to their own profession, if they don't follow news of their profession, if they play no role in their national organizations, then they probably won't be able to translate their knowledge adequately for a national audience.

Tip: Pay attention to your national organization. Join. Get involved. Attend conferences.

3. Drive and ambition

Authoring is hard work and demands a substantial commitment of time and resources. I look for people who give me a sense of themselves and how driven they are to succeed. If I have to talk someone into authoring, I'll never get a book out of them.

Tip: Be realistic about your own time and resources. Can you say without equivocation that you're willing to make a book a high enough priority in your life that the book actually gets written? Or do you see authoring as something you sort of work into your existing schedule somehow?

4. Follow-through

If you and an editor agree that you'll send a vision statement by such-and-such a date, then dag-nabbit, send it by such-and-such a date. The more delays there are in the earliest stages of creating a book, the less likely that the editor will sign you to a contract.

Tip: Follow through on commitments. It speaks volumes about your potential.

5. Sense of humor

I gravitate toward people who can laugh at themselves. I find that they accept editorial guidance more readily, are better able to navigate the sometimes tortuous paths of the publishing world, and are overall more sensitive to the remarkably diverse needs of the markets they're writing for.

Tip: So laugh, giggle, smile. Don't assume we editors are all so serious you have to put on airs to make an impact, you don't. Be yourself.

My next blog: 5 Key Qualities to Look for in a Potential Publisher.

Monday, July 11, 2011

2 Key Things Writers Need to Know About the Oxford Comma

The vaunted Oxford comma has been in the news lately. To wit:

Never heard of the Oxford comma, you say? What's all this fuss about the Oxford comma?

The Oxford comma is the comma that follows the last item in a series, just before the "and," "or," or some other conjunction. You might know it by its more popular name, the serial comma. (See below.)

Writers and English teachers know all about the Oxford comma. The rest of us, not so much.

Keys 1, and 2

To my mind, writers and authors need to know just two things about the Oxford comma, and two things only.

  1. The Oxford comma is helpful in managing lists. Most of the time we craft reasonably simple lists in which each item is independent and not tied conceptually to another item. Here are some examples:
  • The patient c/o nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

  • He grimaced, flexed his right leg, and pointed to his right lower quadrant

  • The drug is contraindicated in anaphylaxis, severe combined immunodeficiency, coma, reduced level of consciousness, or pregnancy.
But suppose one of the items needs to be clearly tied to another item? That's when the Oxford comma really shines. Notice the difference in meaning between these two lists:
  • The patient was visited by his wife, a co-worker and a friend.

  • The patient was visited by his wife, a co-worker, and a friend.
In the first, the wife was apparently the only visitor. In the second three people showed up.
  1. Conform to the publisher's style. Maybe you're a firm believer in the Oxford comma. Or maybe you would just as soon see it disappear forever. Whatever you think actually makes no difference when you're writing for publication. You need to know whether the publisher uses it, and if so, then you use it too.

    To find out what a particular publisher prefers, check a few of their books, journals, or magazines. Do you consistently see the Oxford comma? Then use it.

    If you don't see the comma used consistently, then assume you can either use it or ditch it, as you see fit.

My recommendation

Use it always. Makes life so much easier.

Now go forth and write, create, formulate, scribe, scribble, and publish!