Specialist Versus Generalist: The Benefits and Drawbacks of Narrowing your Editorial Focus

If you’re like me, certain editorial projects peak your interest more than others. For me it’s horror, but others may favor historical fiction, memoirs, or short story collections. While focusing on these types of projects may speak to your individual passion and expertise as an editor, is pursuing a specialized career path an option in a world filled with such broad topics?

The quandary of specialist versus generalist is not unique to the world of publishing, with leaders across many industries advocating for one over the other. Bill Gates has come to the defence of generalists, crediting Microsoft’s success to generalists that have broad experiences. Others, however, warn against the old adage about the jack-of-all-trades, but master of none. They argue that specialists have deeper knowledge of subjects and are more aware of emerging opportunities and patterns within those subjects.

The benefits of specialization really comes down to what subject matters you wish to pursue. Editing literary fiction requires less specialization than something more technical, which may demand an editor be familiar with narrow topics and industry terms not well known to the general public. On the other hand, literary fiction still requires editors who know how to work with fiction writing. For instance, an editor who works mostly with memoir or nonfiction would probably not be a good fit for to edit a piece of pure fiction. Because of this, the line between specialization and generalist becomes blurred due to different levels of specialization.

Specialization not only comes down to genre, but also the levels and types of editing you are preforming. For instance, it may be more beneficial to be a specialist in historical fiction when doing a developmental edit, but not necessarily needed when copyediting the same piece of writing. This offers an opportunity to further refine your specialization within specific genres and subjects, but be wary of narrowing your field too far to be effective. Focusing in a popular genre could make you an in-demand editor, while working exclusively within a less utilized topic could eliminate other opportunities outside of your specialization.

So what does this all mean for entering a career in editing? Is it still possible to specialize in a genre you love? Yes! Being passionate about a particular genre or subject matter will mean that your editing will benefit the writer and help them refine their work. That being said, more doors will be open to you if you embrace broadening the types of projects you take on. This leaves room to pursue your unique passions and interests while also being a strong editor in other areas.

Editing pieces that speak to you or at least peak your interest certainly makes working as an editor more interesting, but I think there is a fine line between being a versatile editor and a specialist with too narrow of an expertise. There is certainly a balance to be struck between these two ranges of editing, and finding a good balance for yourself could result in being successful in the industry while still being able to work with the type of writing you are interested in. While some may warn about being a jack-of-all-trades but master of none, remember it can be better than being a master of one.

This image shows a table from a birds eye view with hands out on the table in collaboration. There are books, pencils, coffee, and food on the table.

Bookish Meetups in Portland: A Guide to Find Other Booklovers in the City

A book lover in a big city can seem like an oxymoron. A vast majority of the book community are introverts and it can be hard to find others like ourselves, but the good news is that Portland is known for its lively book culture. Here are a few places to visit for events and meetups so you can find other like-minded individuals in a big city!

An obvious event would be the Portland Book Festival. This book-friendly city is home to an annual book festival. Last year’s book festival was held on November 5, 2022 and contained author lineups, writing workshops, pop-up readings, and an extensive collection of book people. This annual event is a perfect opportunity to be encompassed by book lovers from all over the city. To keep updated on tickets and location check out literary-arts.org.

If you are looking for a place more consistent and intimate, the Rose City Book Pub will be your refuge. When you first walk in, your eyes immediately draw up to the floor-to-ceiling bookshelf jammed with an extensive book collection, which is just a warm hug to any fan of the literary world. They hold community events, music, art, open mics, and discussion. It is also a place for people to retreat to a corner to work or read alone. They carry beer, wine, books, and food for their customers to enjoy. For someone in any sect of the book industry or someone simply a book fanatic, this pub is a great place to connect and even make friends. To check out upcoming events, look up their Instagram @rose_city_book_pub.

Diving further into the book and alcohol fusion, the Workers Tap in Southeast Portland is another great venue for literary events. Just from the outside, this pub is housed in a comfy Victorian-style house and is adorned with string lights. This building is a vessel for writing workshops with communities like Eastside Poetry Workshop and author meetups. In an article in Willamette Weekly, Corbin Smith describes the extensive library, “Essential to this ideas-focused bar is a library on the top floor: several bookshelves holding a few hundred books regarding union organizing, LGBTQ+ rights, anarchism, radical environmentalism and anti-imperialist struggle.” To check out upcoming events, you can visit their Instagram @workerstap.

Along with these three literary hubs, Portland is stuffed with independent bookstores, libraries, and pop-up book events. Starting out with these few places mentioned, a fellow book lover will be able to grow their community and connections as well as make friends scattered across the city.

a hand holding a gold-tasseled, black mortarboard graduation hat in front of a university building

The MFA: Helpful in Getting Published?

Each year, over twenty thousand writers apply to one of the 350 MFA creative writing programs available in the United States. The MFA curriculum presents writers with opportunities to hone their craft, workshop with other writers, and receive mentoring from faculty. What’s more, many aspiring authors see an MFA as their golden ticket to being published. In fact, in a study of some Oregon MFA students, 84 percent said that getting published was either “important” or “very important” to their program goals.

But does an MFA actually increase writers’ chances of getting published?

In 2017, Lit Hub released an article called “MFA by the Numbers, on the Eve of AWP.” The data, which appropriately reads more like a poem than a data set, includes this witty but thought-provoking statistic:

    Estimated number of books sold by Danielle Steel, best-selling author alive: eight hundred million.

    Number of MFAs held by Ms. Steel: zero.

Danielle Steel isn’t alone; other prolific authors without an MFA include George R. R. Martin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, J. K. Rowling, Stephen King, Colleen Hoover, and Nicholas Sparks, to name a few.

Are these authors, prolific though they are, anomalies in the world of published authors?

Last November, the National Book Foundation (NBF) presented the 73rd National Book Awards. As per their mission statement, one of the NBF’s goals is to “celebrate the best literature published in the United States.” The authors recognized by this prestigious literary award are the best of the best, masters of their craft. Is this level of mastery achieved through the rigors and experiences of an MFA program? Probably not; of the ninety-two winners of the National Book Award since 2020, only twenty, or 27 percent, have an MFA.

Another metric comes from the ongoing research of D. A. Hosek (himself a published MFA graduate from the University of Tampa). Hosek’s data includes authors published or appearing in the notables sections of the last four issues of five prize anthologies. Of those 5,459 published authors, 2,804, or 51 percent, are confirmed MFA students or graduates. While this percentage is higher than National Book Award winners with an MFA, it is still incredibly low, especially considering that one of the main goals of most every MFA program is to help students become published authors.

These numbers, while not comprehensive, still make a compelling case: having an MFA doesn’t help a writer get published.

So what is an MFA good for?

Poet Arielle Greenberg makes this argument:

    I’d be thrilled if we lived in a nation . . . where people gathered in local cafes and plazas to recite great verse and breathe it in, but the truth is, in America, this happens primarily in the classrooms and reading series and conferences and living rooms of MFA students, alumni, and faculty—and for this we should be thankful.

Similarly, in a 2021 survey conducted on some current and alumni MFA students in Oregon, becoming a published author accounted for only 32 percent of student responses. The next highest goal was building a “community of writers,” a goal reflecting Greenberg’s idealistic vision of literary gatherings.

Still, if the goal is to become a better writer, having an MFA might not be the way to go. It certainly doesn’t directly increase writers’ chances of getting published or, once published, receiving an award as prestigious as the National Book Award.

In his book On Writing, Stephen King advises writers,

    You don’t need writing classes or seminars any more than you need this book. . . . You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot, and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself.

The real learning, King goes on to say, happens “with the study door closed”—not in an MFA classroom.

illustrated cover art for book showing a car, a moon and city buildings. Text reads "Sleeping in My Jeans" and "Teaching Guide"

Reimagining Marketing with Curriculum-Based Teaching Guides

Here at Ooligan Press, innovation has been the name of the marketing game in the past couple years. To market a book, you’ve got to market your brand.

This is where extending outreach to new or secondary audiences reimagines a stagnant brand strategy. We’ve taken the hassle away from literary analysis and created an online, self-guided curriculum for teachers, librarians, and independent learners alike.

Marketing to Educators

We all know Ooligan is staffed by Portland State graduate students. It would seem only natural that Ooligan serve educational or academic audiences outside of the typical target consumer. So, why teaching guides? And what titles will be included in this new outreach?

Extending our outreach to educators is really all about brand strategy. Every book has a specific target audience, but teaching guides act as promotional materials that appeal to a singular audience across multiple genres. This outreach attempts to solidify a stable target audience for our press. And a stable consumer means a potential increase in sales.

With creative writing exercises, reflection questions, and interactive activities, Ooligan’s new teaching guides will appeal to educators as well as the homeschooled learner or the not-so-enthusiastic reader. Not only do these guides reinforce Ooligan’s mission of regionality, community, inclusion, and social-emotional awareness, but they also strengthen pre-existing connections with educators and the Multnomah County Library.

In fact, as Ooligan Press’s 2021-22 Marketing Manager, I was shocked to learn that the press actually had dabbled with teaching guides in the past. With curriculum-based teaching guides of backlists like Ricochet River and Sleeping in My Jeans drowning somewhere in the deep, dark Ooligan archives, I took inspiration from the strategies of yesteryear and am seeking innovative ways to reimagine how these strategies may be more consistently and successfully implemented now and in the future.

In particular, we will be focusing this effort on YA titles. They may be fiction or nonfiction, but must teach valuable social-emotional lessons or spread awareness about key regional, historical, social, or political spheres. Think of it this way: if one of our YA titles can contribute to meaningful discussion in either a high school classroom or library setting, it is probably a worthy candidate for a teaching guide.

So, what does the process actually look like? Well, it’s taken some trial and error. First, the 2017 teaching guides from Ricochet River and Sleeping in My Jeans had to be redesigned. While the curriculum the 2017 Oolies had created is smart and interactive, the design was not much more than a PDF-converted Google Doc with some on-brand fonts. To ensure each guide seamlessly adhered to its respective title’s branding aesthetics, one volunteer crafts a beautifully designed guide. The sparkly new Ricochet River and Sleeping in My Jeans teaching guides are live on the Ooligan website’s Educator Portal, where access is just a simple click and download away for educators and independent learners.

The tricky bit? Creating the actual curriculum for new titles. Each teaching guide must have a particular set of interactive activities, discussions, and additional materials like comparative readings, teaching slideshows, and K-W-L curriculum worksheets.

Whew! Oolies are multi-talented, absolutely. But it’s not like all book publishers are versed in the art of curriculum building, so how the heck do we do it? With the assistance of fellow educators, our curriculum will be reviewed and given the green light. Once this happens and the curriculum has been created, a callout goes live for yet another designer to conceptualize and design the curriculum into a brand new teaching guide.

What’s Next?

Promotion, promotion, promotion.

With all this hard work, it’s crucial that we ensure these standards are incorporated into future production schedules. Project Managers now have access to a Teaching Guide Checklist to assess their title’s appropriateness for a teaching guide. In the Marketing Plan stage, project teams will begin planning for teaching guides in their Marketing and Publicity Highlights, and will begin production after blurb requests—before publication.

Oh, but that’s not all. We’ve got to spread the word. Social media promotion and community connections will be important here. So, get to work on those social media collateral callouts and continue to reach out to educators and libraries for some awesome deals on class sets. This year at Ooligan we’re all about innovation. If all is implemented successfully, teaching guides can set a precedent for a stable target audience within our little independent graduate press.

group of people talking at a table with papers in front of them

Why You, a Writer, Should Join a Writing Group

Every aspiring author, poet, or even casual writer wants to improve their writing, and there are so many ways to do it—writing every day, experimenting with scenes, and more. Another great way to keep up with your writing is to join a writing group. Writing groups are communities of writers who chat or gather to discuss each other’s writing, motivate each other, or simply socialize. There are so many benefits to joining a writing group, especially if you’re interested in connecting with other writers.

Why join a writing group?

Writing groups can be beneficial for many reasons. Some people join them for social support, to have a group of people they can ask questions, express their concerns, or just socialize with other writers. Other writing groups use their communities for practice and accountability. National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, every November is an excellent example of a writing group that encourages accountability—writers have the opportunity to join Discord servers based on their locations and are able to participate in writing sprints, where they can compete against other members to write as many words as possible in a certain time frame, among other activities.

Want opinions and/or critiques on your latest idea, story, or poem? Join a writing group! Want to improve your beta-reading and editing skills? Join a writing group! Want to find other writers who write in the same genre you do, or wish to expand your expertise into other genres? You guessed it—join a writing group. These groups are great for motivation from like-minded people and getting to talk with fellow writers can help get your creative juices flowing.

What kind of writing groups are out there?

When it comes to writing groups, there are so many options. If you’re looking for a larger group, try the aforementioned NaNoWriMo Discord servers or join a regional group through the NaNo website. There are also other resources to find regional groups, such as the Pacific Northwest Writers Association and Writers Connection. Writer’s Relief also has a long list of associations, sorted by state.

You can also consider finding groups based on the kind of writing you do. Do you like to write poetry or short stories? Are you working on a novel? Do you write exclusively romance or fantasy, or are you looking to branch out? Whatever your niche, there is most likely a writing group out there for it. There are many social media sites to find the group that’s right for you, including Discord, Twitter (using #writingcommunity), or whatever your main platform is.

Of course, you can always create your own writing group. This could be in person, in a group chat, even over email—whatever works for you and your fellow writers. For example, I am part of a larger NaNoWriMo Discord group, where I can work on the outlines for my various projects during the NaNoWriMo season in November, and I also have a (much) smaller group with two of my friends, where we call each other every week or so and talk about our works in progress, collaborate on new story ideas, and read through each other’s writing.

It can be scary to let others read your work, but having a supportive writing group can help. Writing groups can help writers gain confidence in their abilities, make new friends, and find motivation to continue their craft. If you want feedback on your writing, are interested in networking, or just want to spend time with people who share your creative interests, joining or creating a writing group could be just what you need.

teacher and students in classroom

Are Singular “They/Them” Pronouns Grammatically Correct?

At the end of last year, I was catching up with an aunt who is an English teacher. Politics came up, as is inevitable around the holidays, and I asked her how she felt about the use of they/them pronouns to refer to a single person.

“It doesn’t matter how I feel about them,” she responded. “It’s just not correct grammar.”

I wondered if she was right. Certainly, I was taught growing up that they and them are plural pronouns used to refer to more than one person or thing. However, language is created by humans, and therefore, humans have the power to change language as they wish. Of course, a single person cannot suddenly decide upon a new definition for a word. The point of language is interpersonal communication, which is only successful when parties who speak the same language know the same definitions of words and how they are used.

The documentation of that widespread agreement can be found in style guides and dictionaries. Ooligan bases our style guide off of The Chicago Manual of Style, so I looked up what it says about singular they/them. In CMOS 5.48 it says:

…because he is no longer universally accepted as a generic pronoun referring to a person of unspecified gender, people commonly (in speech and in informal writing) substitute the third-person-plural pronouns they, them, their, and themselves (or the nonstandard singular themself). While this usage is accepted in those spheres, it is only lately showing signs of gaining acceptance in formal writing, where Chicago recommends avoiding its use. When referring specifically to a person who does not identify with a gender-specific pronoun, however, they and its forms are often preferred.

This explanation validates the singular they/them as grammatically correct. While Chicago is growing to embrace they/them, there is still some hesitation in using plural they/them, “As of the 17th edition, CMOS recognizes that such usage is gaining acceptance in formal writing but still advises avoiding it if possible—for example, by rewriting to use the plural (see CMOS 5.255).”

Knowing that different style guides have different recommendations based on the disciplines they cater to, I checked the American Psychological Association‘s (APA) guide. It turns out that they endorse the use of singular they with no holds barred “because it is inclusive of all people and helps writers avoid making assumptions about gender.”

The APA cited Merriam-Webster’s acceptance of the word, and sure enough, the definition of they in this dictionary includes usage “with a singular antecedent to refer to an unknown or unspecified person; to refer to a single person whose gender is intentionally not revealed; [and] to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary.” In other words, according to Merriam-Webster, singular they/them is grammatically correct. In addition, they was Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year in 2019, as “the nonbinary pronoun sense of ‘they’ was added in September 2019.”

To me, the growing acceptance of singular they/them is a relief. I always found it tedious when I was growing up to write he/she or (s)he when referring to a hypothetical person whose gender was irrelevant to the topic. These phrases were clunky and interrupted the flow of my writing, but as a person using she/her pronouns, I never felt that generic he was an appropriate alternative. Not only do they/them give gender-nonconforming people a way to refer to themselves in a way that makes them feel comfortable, but they also give writers an innately gender-neutral way to prevent disjointed writing.

The pronouns are in the awkward growing stage as their new usage continues to gain acceptance and faces pushback. It will take time for some folks, like my aunt, to accept the change when they have been using they/them a different way for their whole lives. Even Google Docs is trying to autocorrect the sample sentence at the end of this blog post. Still, I daresay that in twenty years no one will bat an eye at the sentence, “They are a really good teacher.”

hands hovering over typewriter

Tips and Tricks for Writing Memoirs

A memoir weaves together stories from the author’s life, but including every detail and event is impossible. So how do you narrow someone’s entire life to fit into one book? Here are three tips and tricks for writing and editing memoirs.

Trim the Timeline

A lifetime of unique experiences and events can make for an exciting read. When sitting down to write a memoir, many feel that they need to go from their birth all the way through the present, detailing everything that has happened from start to finish. While some memoirs do encompass the entirety of the author’s life, most should focus on particular events and periods in the author’s life.

The reality is that a book can only hold so much, and in order to build a cohesive, engaging narrative, the memoirist should trim the timeline of their life, only keeping what is truly helpful in showing their story.

But how do you determine what is worth including?

Think Thematically

A theme is an idea that runs throughout a work, such as love, friendship, overcoming adversity, etc. It’s important to decide what themes are important in telling your story because these will serve as a guide for what people, places, and events to include. Within the book itself, these themes can guide the reader in making meaning of your life experiences.

For example, if one of your themes is overcoming adversity in a creative way, then include the story of how you started a business from scratch after suddenly losing your long-time job. If loving and helping animals is an essential part of your life story, then include the story of the time you saved a baby bird from a hungry neighborhood cat and nursed it back to health.

Selecting scenes to support the book’s themes involves combing through your memories and selecting the gems that will immerse readers in your life experiences.

Mine Memories

Dig through your memories for moments that truly embody the themes you chose. An important part of making a moment stick in a reader’s mind is the prose itself, but being selective about which memories you include is also key. You may have saved countless stray puppies and sickly kittens, but which of these rescues had the biggest impact on you and your life? You may have endured many moments of adversity over the course of your life, but which ones have contributed the most to making you who you are today?

There may be many gems in your mine of memories, but the ones that sparkle and shine the brightest are the ones that readers are most likely to remember long after closing the book.

Writing a memoir can be an incredibly fulfilling and empowering experience, and editing one can be just as rewarding. Trimming the timeline, thinking thematically, and mining through memories can help the writing and editing of the memoir manuscript run smoother while making a more memorable and engaging experience for readers.

Group discussion

Being Vulnerable: Sharing Your Manuscript in a Writing Workshop

For the last year or so, I have been working on a novel. Like many aspiring novelists, I have made progress in fits and starts, sometimes writing many pages in a sitting and other times not touching the manuscript for weeks at a time. Slowly and sometimes painfully, I have completed a little more than half the story.

Until a few weeks ago, I had not shared any chapters of my novel with anyone. Several people knew that I was working on a story, and I had shared the basic plot with them, but I didn’t want to share anything that I had written.

I am a big believer in the value of allowing other people to read and edit your work. Without question, every writer needs an editor. The more complex the writing, the more value a writer receives from allowing someone else to review and comment on their work. I give drafts of all my nonfiction work to my wife to read, and the final product is always better after hearing her feedback.

But there’s something about writing fiction that makes it so much harder to let others see the work in progress. I think it’s because we are much more vulnerable when writing fiction. Rejecting our story is not merely a rejection of our ideas, it’s a rejection of us as an author and as a person.

Despite my reluctance in sharing my writing, I knew that having others review my novel was a good thing, so I joined a fiction writing workshop. The workshop operates like most others in that you submit a portion of your work to the group, and the group provides feedback, both collectively and individually.

While I joined this workshop voluntarily, I still felt great trepidation about it. When the first few responses to my work were posted ahead of the group conversation, I opened the documents with nothing less than abject fear. What if they hated it? What if they laughed at me?

Much to my surprise, I was not voted out of the group. The feedback was incredibly valuable, and each person had taken the time and care to explain how they had reacted to the manuscript and what they noticed about the craft. I came away with encouragement that I was not an awful author, and I received some specific ideas for revision.

Equally valuable was the time I spent reviewing and providing feedback on the other authors’ stories. The process of carefully considering what I was reading and providing useful feedback gave me many ideas to help improve my own writing.

The author Brené Brown says, “No vulnerability, no creativity.” A writing workshop is the perfect place for writers to put this axiom into action. Giving up your writing to others—being vulnerable to their feedback—is the key to sparking the creativity that is essential to good writing.