3 writing tips from a crazy boss :: Confessions of A Dirty Blonde

I once had a crazy boss who taught me about editing.

He went on to become a millionaire by designing pizza boxes. I am not kidding.

The man did this to fund his writing habit. And just like all twenty-somethings with far too much money, he blew through it and filed bankruptcy later. Then he rebuilt his career with another looney invention.

I learned several things about passion and perseverance from him. Lucky for me, he also taught me these three easy-to-follow editing tips.

No editing during your first draft

Let it go and flow or whatever else Elsa and the Beastie Boys told you. That’s right, if you’re still writing your first draft, you shouldn’t edit. Period.

Editing while creating makes you ineffective at both. Since originality (writing) and logic (editing) come from opposite sides of your brain, trying to use both at once is only causing your left and right brain to fight each other. It makes both sides weaker and your job harder. Instead of creating another epic man-versus-self battle, force yourself to leave the editing to the second round.

Speak your words back to yourself

Reading sections of your writing out loud will help you locate workable sentences.

Yes, it seems awkward and silly, but it works. A general rule of thumb: if you can’t get through a sentence without stumbling or pausing to figure out how something should be said, your reader isn’t going to be able to either.

At my first ghostwriting gig, my editor – the owner of the company – made us read to him what he didn’t understand. More often than not, that ended with me stumbling in the places he also stumbled, indicating I needed to clarify a certain section or add a comma somewhere else.

At first I thought he was a whack job. Then he made me do this exact practice, reading aloud everything he made me revise. It sucked at first. I was embarrassed.

Once I got over it and realized I could do this on my own, before old-man-boss was able to get to my work, I did it before submitting assignments.

And holy hell, it worked.

Cut it out

Longer sentences do not mean better ones.

You can play with sentence length. And yes, some longer sentences are absolutely fine. But they become a problem when you’re only using them to prove your worth. What’s more important? Your ability to put together a perfect, complex and super lengthy sentence or your audiences’ desire to keep reading? Don’t kill engagement to stroke your ego.

The crazy boss also made us revise every sentence longer than fifteen words.

After reading them aloud, I learned it was hard to follow content when strung together by conjunctions and commas. The sentences were structurally correct. But I couldn’t remember the beginning by the time I reached the end. Since I wanted to write memorable material, I sucked up my pride and followed his rule.

And holy hell, it worked again.

Bottom line? My old boss was a crazy genius.

Even though I still think he was straightjacket material, I became a better writer because of him.


Got writing questions for Capo? Email capo@rebeccatdickson.com. Confessions of a Dirty Blonde goes out every Thursday.

Pictures of Success in 1,000 Words or Less

This month’s installment of a column brought to you by . . . YOU.

This is where we give up control of what’s said and hand it over to the people who matter most: our clients. Your words appear in this space, once a month.


Oodles of ah-ha moments.

Some of the writers who appear here didn’t have a clue where to start and subsequently transformed into writing machines. Some started right where you sit today, confused and needing guidance or maybe a little inspiration. And some were seasoned authors who needed a boost.

ALL of them figured it out and wrote epic shit.

This week, meet Ellen.


In July of 2013, I joined Becky’s writing camp looking for help staying focused. I didn’t want another ten-year novel. After I completed a first draft, Becky and I worked together twice more to bring the novel to completion. As the one-year anniversary of the writing camp approaches, my second novel is set to release. It’s hard to believe that in a single year, I went from a strong concept to finished product.

What did I learn from Becky?

Do you have a few hours?

Most issues – commas, formatting, dialogue tags – were known to me. I wanted an editor to fix them, but I was confident in my voice and style. I knew I could write my sophomore novel if someone nipped at my heels. Call me naive, but I couldn’t wait to strut naked in high heels across the page, shouting, “Look at me! Look at me!”

Showing the reader is a problem all writers confront. Show more leg, show less boob, show how perfect porridge sticks to a spoon with a honeyed thickness of creamed corn flakes.

We all work on the craft of showing and we all have techniques. What we don’t know about are the nasty habits that invade like toe fungus.

Becky peeled back my snoozing writer-eyes when she poked at my use of cliches. The text wasn’t littered with them, and I knew they existed, so I bristled and grumbled. “I was planning on fixing that,” I said to myself. My teeth may or may not have ground pencils.

Then Becky smacked me and asked if I was crazy. “Tell me what you mean.”

I sputtered because it was so obvious.

“Use your words.”

What do you think those groupings of symbols ARE? I wanted to ask.

“Make it yours.”

Oh. Mine?

My words.


Push the place holder out of the way and let my voice fill in like creamy porridge that sticks to the readers ribs.

Oh. Okay.

I’d love to say it only took one cliche, but Becky poked my draft until something unknown bit. I used cliches as spot savers, return-to-later markers that I didn’t always remember to fix. In lazy moments, I thought my carefully borrowed image (read: auto-cliche) spoke directly to the reader. They’ll understand perfectly, I thought, while ignoring my imagination stuck in the bog of my story’s first half.

See, the cliches I left to laze around in my prose slowed the tenor of my voice. Even just a few mired my creativity, instead of freeing me to write more. The solution was such a simple thing. “Write what you mean in your own, unique way.” But discovery meant trusting more than just me.

Now when a cliche offers to help out, I set it down and pose it before grabbing my pencil and sketching my own interpretation. This works for fiction, blog posts and even tweets.

I came to Becky with my voice clutched in my hands, looking for cuddles. I was timid and insecure. She taught me to trust me, my voice.

Thank you, Beckster. (No exclamation point)


Come back next month for another addition of “Pictures of Success in 1,000 Words or Less.” Ellen writes about broken condoms, unhappy marriages and women’s issues. Her first novel Strong Enough was released February 2013. Her sophomore work, The Anonymous Blog of Mrs. Jones, debuted this July. You can find her at www.ellenharger.com.

P.S. You have 24 days left to enter the contest for your shot at $5,500 to write your book.