July 2012

What a Good Copy Editor Does – Interview with Leonard Pierce

When I was first introduced to Leonard Pierce, I realized immediately that here was someone who shared my values of excellence, professionalism, and a passion for words. As any writer worth their salt knows, it’s the likes of Leonard who make us look good!

For the past 25 years, Leonard has been a freelance writer and editor for magazines (including National Geographic), as well as newspapers and websites. I was thrilled that he agreed to join my “virtual team” to extend his services to my clients and anyone else who appreciates that the language you use to communicate an idea is as important as the idea itself.

Let’s begin by talking about the skills you have, Leonard, for improving someone’s writing – beyond simply tidying up grammar and correcting spelling.  Is this something anyone can be educated or trained to do? How much of a lover of words do you need to be to be a consummate copyeditor?

LP: I firmly believe that anyone can acquire a skill with enough practice and dedication, but if your passion for the work isn’t there, you won’t have the incentive to put in the time it takes to learn that skill.  A common misunderstanding that many copyeditors have is that it simply involves learning a specific set of rules for grammar, syntax and style and applying them across the board. The best copyeditors are those who understand the art as well as the craft and make sure the final work reads as if it’s a true creation, not just a collection of sentences that have been subjected to a checklist of rules.

That’s why you have to love to write, as well as love to read, to really excel at being a copyeditor.

I read a couple of articles recently, this one bemoaning the “internet-induced cheapening of language” and another one talking about the “rampant illiteracy on Twitter” and other social media sites. As a wordsmith, what are your thoughts on these issues?

LP:  I’m of two minds about this.  The arbitrary restriction of language can be a paralyzer of thought, or an incredibly effective focuser of it — it depends entirely on the user’s attitude towards it.  (Personally, as someone interested in all these things, I’ve found Twitter to be excellent for publicity and marketing, and a source of some great experiments in humor, but as a way to express complex ideas it falls a bit short.)  But one thing about the Internet is that it doesn’t allow you to maintain many illusions.  I don’t believe there are more illiterate people or more lazy writing than there was before, just that the Internet doesn’t allow us to pretend these problems don’t exist.

It’s not that the Internet has created a lot of bad writers; it’s that it has exposed the number of bad writers who were already there.

What was one of the most important lessons you learned about good writing, good editing or pretty much anything to do with publishing exemplary content while you worked at National Geographic?

LP: My time at National Geographic’s school publishing division taught me so many important skills and lessons, but none of them greater than the value of teamwork.  Writers and editors are often used to working in isolation, but educational publishing is such a complex task, with so many factors and so many demands, that it has to be done by a team, and the teams I worked with were truly exceptional. Every division had different skill sets that elevated the entire project to a higher level, and multiple sets of eyes ensured that if one group missed an error or an opportunity for improvement, the next would catch it.  With everyone working together, each member of the group picked up each other’s skills like a benevolent contagion — everyone learned a little more about editing, writing, design, layout, proofing, and production than they knew before. In the end, you looked at the finished product and didn’t think about your own individual contribution, but the pride of being part of a team that had put out something better than you could have ever done on your own.

Well, that raises an issue I come across all the time. We’ve all met those business people who are so used to doing everything themselves that they delude themselves into thinking they can write a superior book – or any great content – on their own. What’s been your experience of that?

LP: People who have become successful often forget that part of what made them successful is knowing how to identify talented people and delegate necessary work to them.  Even for the most brilliant people, there are only 24 hours in the day, and finding the right people to handle the right tasks is part of being a good leader. Writing, like any other skill, is something you can only do well if you stay in practice — if you share that job with someone who has spent as much time doing it as you have running your business. The end result of which is that everyone does the work they’re best at, and the final product is all the better for it.

Finally, Leonard, if you weren’t busy polishing other peoples’ prose, what would you be doing?

LP: That’s a great question.  There’s not a lot of money in being a professional hobo, and since libraries don’t serve alcohol, I suppose I’d try and secure employment as a bartender somewhere that carried a lot of baseball games.

LOL. Thanks, Leonard!

Fast, Flat and Free Author, Gihan Perera, Interviewed – Part II

Gihan Perera, Author & Thought Leader


Australian entrepreneur and consultant, Gihan Perera is the author of the invaluable book, Fast, Flat and Free, which he self-published. In the second part of our interview we talk about 

Dr Liz: Gihan, yours is one of those rare self-published books that’s virtually indistinguishable from a commercially published book; the layout is superb, it has a great cover — very professionally done. I believe that other than hiring a cover artist you did everything on your own computer. What advice do you have for fellow authors in that regard?

GP: Thank you – I really appreciate you saying so. Yes, I did all the layout myself, using nothing more sophisticated than Microsoft Word. I’m not a designer at all, so when I started I did so fully prepared to hand it over to a professional if it was too difficult. But I was pleasantly surprised to find it relatively easy. It was simply a matter of flicking through other books until I found a layout I liked, and then using that as the starting point for my book.

The one piece of advice I would give to other non-designers like myself is to make it as simple as possible. The professionals know how to do fancy things and make them look good, we amateurs don’t. That’s why my book is (broadly) just text and pictures. Simple fonts, lots of white space, no fancy tables, no multiple columns, no text flowing around images, and so on. Even the cover just has text and one image on a plain white background.

Dr Liz: One piece of advice I give my clients is to begin by completing the following sentence: “The question I answer in this book is…..” Did you have a focus like that yourself…and what’s your opinion on that advice?

GP: Yes, I did, and I do like that advice. I used slightly different wording: “The problem I solve in this book is …” (but it comes to the same thing). I thought about the biggest problem people have about my topic — which with Internet marketing was “There’s too much to do, and I don’t know where to start”, and used that as the focus for the book. It helped me to stay on track, and avoided too many tangents and deviations.

Of course, this not only helps in the writing, but also gives you a short “sound bite” when promoting the book later.

Dr. Liz: Many consultants are realizing that it’s one thing to write a book, quite another to successfully market and sell it. Can you tell us a little about how you have marketed your book: what distribution channels you’ve used; how you promote it to current and prospective clients; how well it is selling and what indirect revenues (if any) have come from writing it?

GP: I never intended for this book to be a runaway bestseller (which is just as well, because it isn’t!), nor even for it to necessarily pay for itself through direct sales (although it has). As I said earlier, this was the flagship book for my consulting business, so it was primarily a positioning tool. In fact, I gave away the first 100 copies to my existing clients, as a thank-you gift (and, of course, an opportunity to strengthen my relationship).

I do get enough sales to cover my costs, and that’s good enough for me. So, to be honest, I haven’t done a lot to promote the book beyond my own networks. Of course, it’s available in Amazon.com, the iTunes Store and other online stores, but I know that alone isn’t enough to bring in many sales without a focussed marketing campaign.

However, it has definitely opened up opportunities for me – such as media interviews, speaking engagements and leads from people who have seen it on a client’s bookshelf. Some clients who book me for speaking engagements also buy copies of the book in bulk to give to their people, and that allows me to make more money from those engagements.

Dr. Liz: Is there anything I’ve not asked you here about your experience that you think would be important for my readership to know — mostly consultants like yourself who want to establish “thought leadership” in their space from writing a book?

GP: I think of “thought leadership” as a combination of expertise and authority – in other words, you get good (expertise) and then get known (authority). So yes, a book can help your thought leadership because it helps you get known, but that’s only half of the formula. If you don’t have expertise yet – and I mean real, true, tested-in-the-trenches expertise – then don’t write a book.

Writing a book takes commitment – not just commitment to writing, but a commitment to your ideas. Putting them in writing means they can be read, digested, analysed, twisted and thrown back in your face. As I said earlier, this book comes from 15 years of experience and expertise, so I feel confident I can stand behind all the ideas in it. I know there’s real substance behind every word, so I’m happy for you to challenge or question anything in it. Even if you don’t agree with me, I know we can have a meaningful conversation about it.

Ultimately, I want my book to spark conversations – between you and me, between you and a friend, or between you and your professional colleagues. If it can do that, it has achieved its purpose.

Dr. Liz: Excellent advice, Gihan…thank so you much.

Be part of the conversation! Buy your own copy of Gihan’s book — believe me, there is a wealth of information here for any sized business, it’s one of the most marked-up and thumb-eared on my bookshelves — here. 

And look out for my review of Gihan’s book for my ActiveGarage.com Thought Readership series. 


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