Category Archives: Writing Advice

Rhetoric: The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly

Here’s a seemingly innocuous but actually rather controversial subject: rhetoric.

Is rhetoric good or bad?

Bad if you’ve been victimized by a crafty rhetorician—either someone you bought a car from, or voted for in an election, or even dated or married, only to find out this man or woman was great with words, but the words were empty or deceitful or disingenuous. It’s also something to root out when performing dissertation editing, because scholarly writing demands the objective and formal use of language. But before we stereotype rhetoric, let’s define it. Starting with definitions is the first step in a careful, critical analysis. Always best to be sure we’re on the same page—definitionally anyway.

The 1st step in critical analysis: Define your terms

Rhetoric is the skilful use of language to persuade or argue. An early definition of to “argue” is to “clarify.” I love that because it implies that if I can just be clear enough, I should be able to persuade you to see things my way. Argumentation is, after all, a means of fulfilling desire.

Aristotle & Bill Clinton: Masters of Rhetoric

2350 years ago, Aristotle taught how to compose a convincing argument through his rhetorical triangle of logos, ethos, and pathos. Employing these three elements makes your case pretty compelling. President Clinton also was, and still is, a master of triangular argumentation. He never gave a major speech—perhaps not even a minor one or even an impromptu townhall reply to an audience member’s question—without triangulating his words. As he infamously replied to a Congressional inquiry regarding the stain on Monica’s blue dress: “It depends on what your definition of is is.” The funny thing is, he’s right.


Logos means the “word.” Quite simply, you have to use the right words. For example, our dissertation editing service examines the writer’s message for its internal consistency: your claim, contention, or thesis must be clear; your reasons must be logical; your supporting evidence must be factual. Aristotle designed a syllogistic structure to test the logic of an argument: from the premise, to the reasoning, and then the conclusion. It’s deductive; it makes sense.


Ethos refers to the character or credibility of the author or speaker. Ethos is conveyed through reputation, credentials, tone, and style. It’s the way the writer/speaker refers to opposing views that shapes his/her ethical image that appeals to the audience. A speaker or writer creates that ethos by being knowledgeable about the issue, demonstrating fairness, and building a bridge to his/her audience by stressing shared values, assumptions, and benefits.


Pathos refers to emotion—the impact of the message on the audience—its motivational appeal. A writer or speaker creates emotional appeal by using concrete language, specific detail, and personal experience. The issue is humanized through a moving, compelling anecdote, an actual example of how the topic impacts real people.

Face the facts: We are all rhetoricians

Tricky stuff or common sense? What salesmen and politicians do, or what you do when you want someone to agree with you? Both, obviously. We all do it, or wish we had the skill to do it. And what’s wrong with that? We should make our words and argument clear. We should demonstrate we’re credible authorities. We should show people what’s in it for them or how it affects them. Funny, though, isn’t it, how the word “rhetoric” has a negative connotation? Sheer hypocrisy, really. We condemn salesmen and politicians for their slick rhetorical skills while attempting to use those same tactics and strategies in our own daily communications. The fact is we’re all rhetoricians—to one degree or another.

Novel Editing from the Inside Out

Having helped to usher roughly a dozen novels into print over the last two years as one of, Inc.’s book editors, I have been asked to delineate how our book editing services go beyond those that you might find touted elsewhere online. Frankly, this is a no-brainer. Most of our competitors, if you read between the lines of their advertised competencies, are essentially what I would call “clean-up crews”–that is to say, hygienically-minded proofreaders. If you aspire to a more rigorous and professional treatment of your full-length manuscript, go with, Inc.

Over the years this company has notched an enviable record in securing authors’ contracts for publication, many of whom were first-time petitioners for acceptance of their work. Given my experience in this venture, I will summarize below the process I go through while editing a novel. That outline, in turn, may suggest some points for fiction writers to keep in mind as they prepare drafts of their manuscripts.

Be true to the author’s voice

The first thing I try to detect and, in my role as a book editor, respect is the text’s latent voice. This involves more than the technicality of identifying narrational point of view. It also is not easy to describe. What I initially try to do is to hear the author’s cadences as they percolate through characters’ dialogical speech patterns, which of course should be distinctive to each. Through them I cock an ear for the echo, register, or stylistic tonality of a writer’s ventriloquism, the kind of nuanced effect found, for example, in John le Carré’s latest production titled Our Kind of Traitor (2010). Attunement to this idiom guides me in proposing editorial changes.

Assure the characters’ credibility

I next concern myself with the credibility of those characters. Do they speak in a manner consistent with their individual depiction and the text’s setting? “Spiffy,” for example, is an inapt description of male attire in 1920s New Hampshire. I also pay close attention to how characters are originally introduced, since such profiling will have a significant bearing on their subsequent roles. Are they plausible, again as gauged in terms of the work’s fictional context, and are their actions congruent with both the story’s events and human psychology? Persuade us that your invented personae are real and that we should care about what happens to them.

Attend to the plot

Then comes the matter of plot. While verifying that developments jive with previously indicated circumstances, I check for minor lapses. Sometimes this can be a minefield. As in a 5,000-piece puzzle, one wrong detail can derail the entire project. Consultant editors should be fanatically adept at questioning these occasional miscues. Thus, if you do not find that your manuscript comes back to you with at least some marginal queries about plot consistency, something is wrong. Even Homer nodded. We all need another pair of eyes to tell us how we’re doing.

What does it all add up to?

What I look for, finally, in a fictional manuscript is an answer to the question, “So what?” By the narrative’s climax and resolution there should be some indication, however obliquely framed, of its conceptual import. This is another way of saying that the text ought to limn by its end what has been at stake throughout the entire plot. Formulaic or pat closures, of course, should be avoided. The dénouement instead must arise credibly from earlier plot complications and project some larger insight into what has informed them all along. The pay-off for the reader, in other words, should be worth his or her investment of time and attention.

Is it a satisfying, organic story?

These major points encompass what I look for while editing a novel. My approach is to work from the inside out, letting a fictional manuscript’s flow guide me in monitoring its unfolding design. I would like to think that most editors adhere to this method, or something like it, but in my experience many come at the task from the outside in. Seek professional assistance, then, from those who are sensitive to your work’s organic shape. That doesn’t mean they’ll be uncritical; it does mean, however, that their suggestions will mesh with your text’s objectives. The book editors affiliated with Edit911’s book editing service are, hands down, your best resource in this regard.

—Dr. Robert

Document, Don’t Plagiarize

Knowing when to quote and when to paraphrase is quite an art. Basically, you don’t want to string a whole bunch of long quotes together, with a few of your own sentences connecting them, and call it a researched essay. You want to use quotes sparingly, to support your points. Paraphrasing is useful, but be careful that you don’t find yourself endlessly paraphrasing and not writing much of your own thoughts and words either. When you do paraphrase, you often need to give a citation as well.

The guiding principle: Is it your prior knowledge or not?

You must cite even material you’ve paraphrased if that paraphrased passage—whether it’s a sentence or several paragraphs—is not your knowledge. The concept of ‘your’ knowledge is very important. It’s an honor system in which you acknowledge that as you are writing you are immediately referring to the material at hand. In other words, if you have to look back and forth from an article or book to the computer screen as you are working to put a passage in your own words, then you must cite it. But if you read something days before, and studied it, so that when you’re writing your essay you’re able to do so without looking at those notes or that article, then it’s become your knowledge and you need not cite it.

There’s one exception to that, however. And that’s if what you’re writing is an original idea or thesis. You must give credit to those who have influenced your thinking. For example, take the following sentence. “The Tubes was an early-punk rock band from the 70’s and 80’s.” That’s a fact and you need not cite your source.

However, take this sentence: “All punk rock originated with the Tubes.” That’s a thesis, an idea, someone’s opinion. In that case, you have to cite your source, giving credit to the person who’s making that claim.

Learn more so you can quote less

So…how do you avoid an overreliance upon quoting and paraphrasing? Don’t ask an editing service to do that for you. That’s cheating. Do your own research, reading, and studying to become knowledgeable in the subject, so that when you sit down to write, a lot of the material comes from you, from inside, and not from your notes and sources. You need to KNOW the subject well enough so that the words you type are YOUR words, your ideas…your knowledge.

Thus, that underscores the importance of really doing your homework… literally. Read and study the subject. Make yourself a legitimate expert in the subject. Then you’ll have something to say that’s your ideas, your words, not just the ideas and words of your sources.

Give credit where credit is due

Of course, to be truly professional you must meticulously document your sources. Why? To give credit where credit is due. To protect yourself against charges of academic dishonesty. To enhance your own credibility. And to provide your readers with the source information should they care to read more about the subject.

What Christian Fiction Can Learn From Secular Fiction

Have you ever read a book of Christian fiction and thought that it just did not measure up to your favorite fiction authors? I have as well. When I contemplated the reason for this difference, I came to the following advice for Christian fiction writers.

Characters need depth

When I mention depth, I mean for writers to move beyond the stereotypes. Certainly we tend to think in stereotypical ways and may even plot our characters to fulfill certain roles, but real life is not very cut and dry. Good people do bad things. Look at any Bible story and see this truth. Even saints make bad choices. The characters in your novel need similar complexity. Resist the temptation to have every Christian fiction piece have an overly simplistic Jesus-type. Look at the complexity of Jesus’ words in John 17 to see genuine personal struggle.

The story has to be strong

And it should be from the beginning chapter. The best stories are ones that grab you from the first chapter and never let go. There is a reason why I picked up John Grisham’s The Firm in high school and could not put it down until I read the entire novel. Books with a good first chapter still need to build suspense and have realistic plot points that move along the action. Contrivances just don’t work.

Go with real-life dilemmas

Readers can identify with issues related to love, friendship, work, personal mistakes, and everyday choices. Everyday choices may lead to unexpected places, but you want the reader to identify with the character and possibly being in his place, identifying with his choices.

Choices have to seem logical

If the decisions of a main character start to appear illogical and don’t make sense to the reader, you will quickly lose the reader. This is especially true when illogical decisions mount in a primary character. Real life dilemmas and real life decisions make the story believable.

Give depth and complexity even to the “bad guys”

As mentioned before, people who make bad choices aren’t just bad. They make bad choices for a variety of reasons connected to their past and current situation. Similar to the good character discussion above, resist the urge to have overly simplistic characters portrayed as pure evil. What are the reasons that bring them to the place they are in the novel? Readers want to know how a person could be like that or why they make those choices. Equally, people who do horrendous things also can be redeemed and make unbelievable turnarounds. Look at the Apostle Paul. His move from persecutor and accessory to murder soon turned to his becoming the greatest missionary of the Christian message of hope.

Make us want to come back for more!

Your ending should be satisfying in a way that readers want more. The best books have endings that leave you feeling that way but without an obvious to be continued ending. You don’t want to assume there will be an audience for the second book you have in mind just because you wrote your first novel to have one.


The #1 Prerequisite of Good Writing: Exhaustive Research

If you are not good at researching and making use of your researched information in writing an essay, then now is the time to get up to speed in this vitally important area.

Why Should You Research Before Writing?

  • To know your subject.
  • To be informed.
  • To become educated.
  • To formulate a fresh thesis statement.
  • And to write a well-supported essay.

You need to ask yourself: Why would your professors want to spend their valuable time reading an essay that’s clearly not professional or publishable? They wouldn’t…and they shouldn’t have to. Good essays are well-researched essays. In fact, very few professional writers and scholars write anything off the top of their heads. Almost all of them spend at least a little time doing more research into their subjects before writing an essay for publication, even if they are already considered experts in their fields. And that should be your goal: every essay you write should be written for possible publication.

Aim High: Aim To Publish

I’m aware that’s a lofty and probably unattainable goal for many people. However, that’s the standard to which you need to aspire. If you play baseball and you think you’re pretty good at it, you don’t aspire to a career in the minor leagues, do you? Not likely. Your goal is to be a major league baseball player. Whether or not you make it remains to be seen. But that’s what you aim for. The same thing should apply with academic endeavors. Aim high. Aim to be an expert, a professional, a scholar. When you pick a subject, research it, and write your essay—aim for publication. Find a good editing service to polish it for you. But first, always aim to write an essay that could be published in a scholarly journal.

Be a Professional Writer or Don’t Write at All

What’s the point of writing garbage? There’s enough of that already. Furthermore,  you’re far more likely to get an article published when you sound like you really know what you’re talking about. Your essay or article has to positively overflow with knowledge, authority, and credibility—both in the strength and originality of your thesis and the depth and detail of your supporting evidence. Thus, without rigorous, extensive research into the topic, you cannot possibly hope to know enough to formulate and convincingly support a fresh thesis statement on the subject.

The #1 Key to Successful Self-Publishing

In grad school, I studied the publication and history of texts. The prevailing assumption was that the author’s original version, warts and all, was inherently more interesting than what had been conformed by editors to printers’ “house style,” corrected by proofreaders, and silently changed in subsequent reprints (e.g., to modernize spelling). Only late in my doctoral program did the premium on original authorial versions begin to be challenged, as critics pointed out that publishing itself was what gave us access to most authors’ work. Nevertheless, the preference for the naked authorial document, stripped of all the wardrobe provided by the publishing process, still held the upper hand at the time of my exit from academia.

I exited academia to become a publishing professional. I became part of the manufacturing process that massages and tweaks a text to the point that it is considered publishable. I made this career move originally to pay my bills, but as I progressed from proofreader to production editor to editor to writer, increasingly I appreciated the need for this assembly line to ensure a good final product. Someone’s cherished final draft clearly had to pass under many eyes–be queried, conformed, and corrected–so that no one who had a stake in the final product, including the author, would have occasion for embarrassment or regret. I accepted readily this quality control process even when I myself was the author, and my own draft under someone else’s scrutiny.

The notion that the traditional publishing process gets between authors and their readers is not a dead idea. It still lives and is experiencing renewed vigor with the current gold rush to self-publish, inspired and enabled by the World Wide Web and its parvenu publishers such as Amazon and Apple. Casual reading about the exploding e-book phenomenon easily gives the impression that many authors now think that they can leave behind editors and other publishing production (and distribution) personnel as expendable “hidden costs.” They are so wrong.

Precisely because editors and other publishing personnel are not expendable, the production of e-books costs about as much as that of paper books. For a clear and simple explanation, see this blog post by the chairman of one major publishing company, “Why Do eBooks Cost So Much? (A Publisher’s Perspective).” If publishers must continue to invest so much into the making of e-books, then can self-publishers afford to neglect these functions? Self-publishers often fail to hire professionals with the needed skills, and the results speak for themselves to the reading public. Note the first reason given in this article for readers’ low expectations about self-published texts: “The Big Reasons Indie Authors Aren’t Taken Seriously.” The cost of not hiring editors and other publishing professionals extends way beyond dollars.

Becoming your own publisher means that you need to take on the responsibilities of a publisher. You need to be sure a text is ready for its public. Securing the services of editors and professionals with other necessary skills is as essential to publishing your own work as securing copyright. To be professional, you must use professionals. No one can do it alone. So come on: be a player.

—  Dr. John C. (Staff Editor,

The World Needs Important Dissertations

What would make a good dissertation topic?

In a perfect scholarly world where all research and writing is done by intelligent, diligent, inspired and inspiring people, a dissertation would be a) a great read about b) a very important topic that c) has been rigorously and thoroughly researched and d) thoughtfully and brilliantly developed to e) instruct, edify and inspire a wide-ranging audience into f) action that thereby solves or, at least, moves in a positive direction toward solving a major problem or issue in the world or field about which the doctoral candidate has studied and with which he/she has engaged.

That’s a perfect world dissertation, anyway.

Sadly, it’s been my (vast) experience that few dissertations achieve those admittedly lofty goals. Most of the 4000+ dissertations I’ve seen are good, but not great. Adequate but not outstanding. Worthy but not noteworthy. Good enough but not enough to do any good.

Pick an important topic, if you’re a serious doctoral student that is.

This is very serious, folks. No less than the future of higher education rests–in a very large sense–on the seriousness, scope, and importance of the research, arguments, and conclusions of this generation’s doctoral students. I say to this current legion of doctoral students: don’t settle for writing tripe. Pick a big and crucial subject. Do your dissertation diligence as if your life and the future of humanity, the world or at least your field depends on it.

Write a great dissertation, I challenge you.

As a PhD and owner of one of the world’s most experienced dissertation editing services (having edited over 4000 of them since 1999), I am an authority on this subject. I hereby challenge all universities and all doctoral candidates to raise the bar far higher than it is now. Raise it to Olympian heights. Demand of students and of yourselves to tackle the world’s problems with your research and writing. Make your dissertation make a difference. Don’t settle for merely obtaining your PhD with it. Make it so good it can be turned into a book that everyone should read.

Now that’s a worthy goal. You can do it, you doctoral candidates. You can make a difference. You can write a great dissertation that might even change the world. All that’s stopping you is yourself.


Farmville English, and Why Not to Use It

Farmville has become one of the most popular games on Facebook. However, any good book editor or book editing service would tell you that its use of English is problematic for several reasons. Let’s take a recent example:

Gordon has a chance to discover a very rare chicken in FarmVille!

Gordon just harvested their Chicken Coop and found some Treasured Cornish Mystery Eggs! They’re excited at the chance to hatch a rare chicken and wants to share the opportunity with you.

While there’s nothing wrong with the title, there are two serious grammatical errors in the 31-word statement that follows it. First, “Gordon” is singular, and “their” is plural. Second, while “They’re” is plural, and therefore matches “their”, it doesn’t match “wants”, which is singular. For completeness, I should also point out that I was harvesting eggs from the chicken coop, and not harvesting the coop itself, but this last error does not concern me here.

As a copy-editor, I receive documents that mix singular nouns with plural pronouns increasingly frequently. I would suggest that there are two main contributing factors in this situation: the increasing popularity of text messaging, with its necessary use of abbreviations, which can sometimes result in habitual mis-spelling by those who text often; and computer-generated language from inadequately programmed apps.

Nevertheless, laziness is not the only potential problem here: there are also more complicated constructions that can make it difficult to know when to use singular pronouns and when to use plural pronouns. One obvious, frequently used example is “a flock of geese”. Since “flock” is singular, pronouns relating to the flock must also be singular. However, “geese” is plural, and pronouns relating to the geese that make up the flock must be plural. Attention is therefore needed to the subject when selecting pronouns. This is something with which many writers struggle, including some professionals. However, consistency in number does also improve the clarity of your writing. If you write well, which includes structuring your sentences well, you are more likely to be able to sell your work, and you are likely to get a larger readership. So be on the lookout for such issues when you perform your book editing.

–Dr. Gordon,

Designing Dialogue: Real Words for Real People

Good dialogue is vital to good writing for a number of reasons:

  • It shapes character without an intrusive narrator telling the reader.
  • The conflict between the speakers can move the plot along.
  • It can provide vital exposition for a reader’s understanding of backstory.

Because a character’s speech is such an important part of developing depth, it’s very important to do it well. Here are some hints to follow when performing your book editing:

  • Pay attention to mannerisms in speech. A person who is uncertain might open a statements with “Well,” as a matter of course. A more extroverted person might use “I” often, signaling his/her sense of importance.
  • Pay attention to dialect, especially regional. This can be like Twain’s Huck Finn, or merely the use of contractions (can’t instead of cannot) or even a general dropping of the “g” at the end in such words as tryin’ or callin’. Sometimes this can indicate a sense of class or education, so make use of what it suggests.

There are some caveats, though, about dialogue:

  • When trying to capture speech, sometimes too much reality can be distracting. A modern teenagers really does use you know or like a great deal in a given line of dialogue. While this should be represented, too much can suggest a lack of eloquence and draws attention from the speech to its problems (unless, of course, this is your intention).
  • Again, dialogue can be great exposition, but make sure it’s natural. For example, the following is slightly clunky:

“Hi,” said Rachel.

“Hello,” said Jason.

“You must be Jason,” she said, “Sarah’s friend, the one who works for a Wall Street firm and volunteers at a homeless shelter on the weekends.”

There are a few issues here. First, while this is important information about Jason, Rachel mentioning it seems forced. Such detail might be teased out later in conversation. So resist the urge to tell what can be shown. Also, be wary of repeating “said” too often. Instead:

  • Use more descriptive words. Perhaps Jason whispered or muttered “hello,” depending on his mood and character. While this can be overdone, if you find yourself writing “said” over and over again, variety can save the prose.
  • If there are only two speakers and they are alternating lines naturally, it’s possible to leave out the “said” altogether. So:

“Hello,” said Rachel.

“Hello?” Jason’s head jerked around.

“Jason? Sarah’s friend?”


“I’m Rachel. Sarah’s roommate. I saw you at the shelter yesterday, remember?”

“Oh, right,” Jason responded, still hesitant.

This dialogue is more natural: brief questions and even briefer, halting answers as people first meeting each other might use; no need to use “said” when “ventured” suggests a bit more abouthow Rachel speaks; and leaving out the speakers’ names since it’s clear who is saying what and this focused our attention on the dialogue rather than on names.

Dialogue format:

Formatting dialogue is relatively simple. Indent as you would for a paragraph each time there is a shift in speaker. Also, use a comma before the closing quotation mark and the verb: so, note the commas in the example above before “ventured” and “Jason responded.”

Indirect Discourse:

A neat way of avoiding too much dialogue is the use of indirect discourse. This is when one character (or the narrator) relates in a summarized fashion what another character has said or is saying. For example,

“I’m Rachel. Sarah’s roommate. I saw you at the shelter yesterday, remember?”

“Oh, right,” Jason responded, still hesitant.

Jason politely nodded as Rachel began to confide in him about why she hated being late for work, the laziness of the super, and Sarah’s surprising choice of turning down the role.

It’s not necessary to relate all the dialogue, and we get a sense of the character through this as well. Think like a book editor and experiment with your own dialogue.

–Dr. Dan,

Critical Thinking Part 5: When is a Fact not a Fact?

Ultimately, analysis comes down to discriminating between facts and opinions. This relates to the preceding discussion in two essential ways. First, objectivity seems to imply you are dealing with facts, whereas subjectivity implies you are dealing with opinions. Second, the debate about absolute vs. relative truths and perspectives is itself contingent on the distinction between facts and opinions.

Since, as I mentioned in an earlier blog, the first step in analytical critical thinking is to define your terms, how might we define a fact? “Some thing, some issue, some belief that almost every rational person everywhere would agree is a true and accurate representation of reality.”

But that’s a might slippery definition! Note the “almost,” which allows for exceptions. And how do we define a “rational” person? Or “a true and accurate representation of reality”? What is “true”? What is “accurate”? What is a “representation”? And what the heck is “reality”?

We just can’t get away from subjectivity—from relativity! We must struggle endlessly, it seems, to arrive at a definition we can all agree upon. So, undeniably, viewpoints, positions, terms, words themselves are agonizingly complex and difficult to settle. They can always be “traced” further back, as the deconstructionists note.

Thus, even the very first step of defining terms often hangs us up in analysis. But let’s go with that definition of Fact and add to it the definition of Opinion (or inference) as: “Some thing, some idea, some belief which may or may not be true, and needs factual support to prove it’s a fact.” That’s easier than a fact. Because what isn’t a fact is an opinion. Of course, what’s a fact to you is just an opinion to someone else who holds the opposite viewpoint. And vice versa. It’s very frustrating, isn’t it, to believe something is an absolute fact and to be confronted by someone else who believes it’s not a fact at all?! Thus, the necessity for a rigorous analysis and discriminating critical skills.

The point is that those who have been raised on the tolerance and non-judgmental propaganda of the radical relativists and p.c. crowd need to be reconditioned. In the interest of us “all getting along,” many people have had it drilled into their heads to not discriminate, not make judgments, not think that one thing is any better than any other thing, not criticize, and to be tolerant of every opinion and every viewpoint. But such an approach to life is not only counter-productive, it’s hypocritical. We all make judgments and discriminations all day long. It’s what our minds do. We have to in order to survive.

To be continued…