At Bold Type, we’re fortunate to know a lot of incredible writers—university professors, communications professionals, authors, and entrepreneurs. These experts have taught us so much about writing effectively, and we want to share their advice and insight with our network. We hope you’ll enjoy learning from these pros in our Q&A series.
Joseph Fruscione, PhD, is an editor and writing consultant working in the DC area. He acts as consultant and social media manager for ReinventPhD at Georgetown University. He’s coedited the new book Succeeding Outside the Academy (UP Kansas; with Kelly J. Baker). He also coedits the book series “Rethinking Careers, Rethinking Academia” (UP Kansas; with Erin Bartram). He spent 15 years in academia as an adjunct professor of English and First Year Writing at Georgetown and George Washington University, publishing a book, essay collection, and several articles along the way. Find him on Twitter @Joe_Fru or at his website, www.jfruscione.com.
Bold Type: What do you do for work, and how is writing important for it?
Joe: My primary work is freelance editing and proofreading for my business, The Consulting Editor (part of an LLC my wife and I cofounded). I’ve worked with academic clients on their monographs, emerging and established novelists on their manuscripts, corporate clients on proposals and other business documents, and a handful of memoirists. Ideally, freelance editors are supposed to specialize in a particular genre or type of client. I’ve intended to do that...yet I’ve also grown to like the variety of projects to edit. I’ve developed strong skills as an educated nonspecialist, which gives me the necessary editorial distance when working on a subject I know nothing about.
You have a PhD in English, and you’ve worked in and out of academia. What’s the difference between academic writing and, say, public-facing writing? How have you seen writing change during your career?
I’m not sure if the writing itself has changed, or just my perspective on the kinds of writing I value. Probably some of each. I certainly don’t miss having to read dense, jargon-heavy scholarly writing, nor do I miss reading undergrad and grad student writing that overdid the academic writing moves because they’d only seen such models valued before. When I produced scholarly writing—book, essay collection, articles, and conference papers—I strove for clear, purposeful prose.
When I work with academic clients, I’m always looking for places to trim and tighten, and I’ve gotten good at revealing writing tics they themselves weren’t aware of. Any kind of public-facing work I’ve edited—novels, memoirs, and other trade books—is a refreshing change from the more traditional academic writing I’ve seen. The prose is generally more direct and calm, and there’s a more explicit intent to connect with the reader.
How do you edit your own work, especially if you’ve been staring at something for a long time or feel over-familiar with the content?
I change things up somehow: read the paragraphs in a random order, read it out loud, or print out a section and edit by hand. When I was a professor, I spent the summer of 2008 revising my dissertation into a book. There was a lot of reading out loud—and a lot of “What was I THINKING with this?” or “Why am I using so many words?!?” Shedding the hedging and academese I felt compelled to put into my dissertation was tough but necessary work in maturing as a writer.
How similar is that process to the way you approach editing other people’s writing?
I sometimes read clients’ writing out loud when I’m figuring out how to make the best kind of edit. I’ve had to learn to edit on the screen, although at times I miss editing by hand. I also understand that, when in doubt, a good editor queries something instead of making an edit. At times, I haven’t been sure what the author means to say in a section or sentence, so rather than impose my editorial will—as tempting as that could be—I make suggestions and tell the writer to self-reflect.
For you, what makes something “good writing”? What makes something “bad writing”?
Good writing just...is. We move with it smoothly and naturally as we’re following the plot, argument, or message. Among other things, bad writing continually calls attention to itself: say, from the writer’s lack of skill and confidence, or from the writer’s lack of discretion and self-control.
How does good (or bad) writing impact a professional’s personal brand?
Good writing typically speaks for itself: the author is confident but not cocky or showy in their abilities, and they have a clear message and purpose that they want their audience to understand. All of these make us want to read the writing and respect the writer. On the flip side, writers who paint a weak or unclear message in lofty prose alienate me. I’ve seen it in academics, first-time novelists, marvel-at-my-genius writers...and I’ve always wanted to look the other way. It’s hard for me to respect a writer who tries too hard to show me how good they (think they) are.
Which Social Media channel interests you the most right now, and why?
Twitter above all others. So much great stuff happens there for people in writing professions. It’s no exaggeration to say that Twitter has been instrumental in my professional life: a few editing projects, my coedited book Succeeding Outside the Academy, and the series I coedit for the University Press of Kansas, “Rethinking Careers, Rethinking Academia,” wouldn’t have happened without Twitter. I’ve also learned a lot from editors who’ve been in the industry for decades.
Blogging has been a great way to develop my brand and articulate my various thoughts on editing and writing (see https://jfruscione.com/writing/editing-writing-tips/). I recently started a blog post series called “How We Edit,” where I feature colleagues talking about the nuts and bolts of their editing processes. Blogging has been a great way to enhance my inbound marketing, since it brings new people to my site.
A person, publication, or brand with a writing style that you admire?
Cormac McCarthy. His spareness is both calming and unsettling.
One bad habit from school writing that you wish people would give up?
Cookie-cutter paragraphs. Paragraph structure is made to be varied.
One book on writing that everyone should have on their shelf?
Dreyer’s English. You’ll learn and you’ll laugh.
Feelings about the Oxford Comma?
It should be required.
Finally, what’s your #1 editorial pet peeve?
Wordiness for the sake of wordiness.