My New Favorite Word: Benign

“It’s benign,” she said. Tears. All I could offer in that moment.

“Oh, Mom . . . That is GREAT news,” I choked out.

Neither of us spoke. I heard the birds in my backyard, she listened to the traffic outside the hospital where she’d just gotten the results. She. Does. Not. Have. Cancer.

We’ve been waiting for weeks. I got the call on a Wednesday. “They found something on my ovary,” my mom said. “I’m coming over.”

She got to my house and I held her as my brain churned and I postulated about next steps. You see, I get very businesslike in situations like this. What do we need to do? Who can I call so you don’t have to? But, the most important question: Why is this happening? doesn’t come until later. Much later.

She had surgery. Both ovaries removed, with the promise of biopsy results in a week. Or ten days. The Lab, capitalized  in my mind, became a proper noun, an entity, like the Taj Mahal or the White House—and it was in no rush. I’m certain The Lab doesn’t envisage the person to whom the tumor it’s analyzing under the microscope was once attached. It must just see blood and growths and what’s right or wrong with the specimen. And I didn’t want my mom to be a specimen. She’s not. She’s my mom. I wanted The Lab to see her and know that she’s more than cells on a slide.

But I couldn’t tell it. I had no place to send my words but out into the universe. In my thoughts I urged The Lab: Hurry the fuck up.

We got the news this morning, and I now have a new favorite word: benign. Right now, that word connotes life and living and time and future. The Lab did, in fact, move faster than expected. Maybe it saw my mom somehow, in that piece of her that isn’t. Maybe it knew that she needed to know. She. Does. Not. Have. Cancer.

But I have been all business. I’m crying now as I write this. The word I get to write, the word I’ve wanted to say. To shout. Benign. My new favorite word.



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From Mechanical Pencils to the Batter’s Box: The Jessica Swift Softball Story

Sometimes the call of duty beckons and you have to step out of your comfort zone and into the strike zone. This weekend, that happened.

BF (nickname for my boyfriend, whose innocence I try to protect) plays softball during the summer. He’s on a coed slow-pitch team composed of wonderful folks who enjoy the sport, beer, and being in the sun on a Sunday. And, while this may be hard to believe, before I sat on my ass for a living (OK, OK, I do a little more than just sit there), I was athletic. An athlete. I played sports. I used to count down the days until basketball season started—the same for softball.

But as time progresses (and muscles, um, change) we sometimes find that what we once found fulfilling has somehow moved out of our lives. That was softball, for me.

So I’ve been attending BF’s games, and have been keeping the books (an oh-so-appropriate task for the editor girlfriend!). But this weekend . . . This weekend, I was needed. We got the text. “We’re down a player. Can Jess play?” BF looked at me out of the corner of his. My stomach flipped—with both excitement and anxiety. When the hell was the last time I swung a bat?

“I’m in!” I shrieked, forgetting all about the mechanical pencils stashed in my purse. Because, you see, I wasn’t happy with the layout of the book, and the way scores are kept. So, last week I decided that I would use mechanical pencils to adjust the books so that the scores and outs, etc., were more accurately reflected. (Made sense to me. A teeny-tiny little edit and the book would be perfect. Occupational hazard for an editor, I guess. Show me a book, and I want to improve it.)

But not last Sunday! I was not going be on the sidelines scribbling furiously with my red and purple pencils. I was going to be in on the action. And action it was!
I swung the bat. I caught the balls. I got out. I missed some balls. I ran (yeah, me!). I fell. I got up. I slid.

And it all felt good. Now? Not so much. Everything hurts. Everything. (OK, well, my ears don’t hurt. But everything else does.) Muscles? What muscles? But it doesn’t matter. I stretched myself (and my body) and did something I love but that I’d set aside for years and years.

So what, pray tell, does any of this have to do with writing? Well, let me tell you. An author resides inside many people. But, as a result of one thing or another, that love for writing, that drive for it, wanes and takes a backseat to more important life situations.

But I’m living proof (hobbling proof, in fact), that you can get back into the swing of things (see what I did there?) and stretch muscles you forgot you had, that have laid dormant for so long. You, too, can step up to the plate, flex your fingers (don’t forget to breathe!), and let it fly.

Write the words you’ve been meaning to. Create the character you’ve loved. And you’ll see, as I did, that sometimes it just takes that first step and a flood of passion and inspiration can sweep you away.

I put down my pencils and picked up my bat and I loved every minute of it. And now, I need to go to take some more painkillers, anti-inflammatories, wrap up an ice pack so I can ice my bruised body, and get back to editing.

(Please note: BF came up with the title for this post. Because, you know, he’s totally supportive of my writing and editing. AND, it helps that I went six for nine!)

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“What’s In a Name?” or “Language of Hate”

Wife beater. Seriously? We call a shirt this name, without a second thought. (The actual term is “a-shirt” though people will look at you funny if you use that moniker. Because you should get weird looks for saying “a-shirt” instead of “wife beater.”)

“Whatever. I don’t mean it that way,” some have said when I’ve called them on it. (Yes, I’m someone who believes that my being silent in the face of this type of language makes me compliant and that by remaining silent I’m saying that the language is OK. It’s not. At least not to me.)

“Really? What way do you mean it?” I ask. Glares. Huffs.

We use this violent language when we are referring to a shirt, and somehow, that’s OK. We take for granted what those words actually mean. That they’re violent. Derogatory. Scary. When I did a Google search for “wife beater,” the first result was from the Urban Dictionary, defining the word as a “form fitting white ribbed tank top worn by men.” Not a link to a helpline. Not a definition of the crime. To a description of a shirt. But, I know: “It’s just a word.”

Just like “I totally stalked him on Facebook” is merely a funny way of saying that you looked at all his pictures and read his profile updates. You know, because they’re public. He has posted information and photos that he wants people to see. Being stalked in the criminal sense (and I’m paraphrasing/interpreting) means that someone is being followed and/or watched against their will and, in my case, unbeknownst to them,  with the stalker’s intent usually being one of violence. But, I know: “It’s just a word.”

Phrases like these, used glibly and without thought to their actual meaning, perpetuate the idea that things like “wife beating” and “stalking” are just words—not actions, not crimes, just words.

But, by making light of these words, are we not saying that violence, particularly against women, is OK? That it’s no big deal to describe a shirt with violent words? That making light of a crime that already doesn’t get enough attention in the judicial system and is primarily directed at women is funny?

I encourage all of us to think. Before we speak. And to speak up when we’re exposed to this type of language. Because, I know: “No” is just a word. And, “That’s not OK” is just a phrase. But hopefully— hopefully—those words never lose their meaning. Because they’re more than just words. They are power.



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Editrix in the City

On a recent business trip to New York I was compared to a dominatrix. Yes, me—word nerd at large.

While sitting in a café, a fellow struck up a conversation with me and the inevitable, “So, what do you do?” question came up.

“I’m a book editor,” I replied.

“You’re a dominatrix,” he said easily. “Well, an editrix,” he added after only a moment’s hesitation. My mango smoothie almost shot out my nose.

The reason for the comparison, he said, is because people willingly give me their writing—arguably, a piece of themselves—and want me, no, pay me, to inflict pain on them through my edits. My red pen, the preferred instrument of the desired torture. Me, garbed in my leather-bound Chicago Manual of Style, threatening to shame you until you agree to, “Cut! I said ‘cut’ that paragraph!”

I explained it doesn’t really work that way. He was adamant. Sigh . . . I love it when people know more about my work than I do.

But the conversation got me thinking. (Uh, how could it not?) There are lots of misconceptions about what I do as an editor (and the various types of editing). I get comments ranging from, “You just read all day?” (Yes. Sort of.) to “So you look for places where, like, someone is wearing a green shirt, then suddenly they’re wearing a red one?” (Yes. Sort of.) Double sigh.

Many writers (and apparently random men in cafes) think an editor’s job is to slice and dice; whip manuscripts (and writers) into shape by changing, well, everything; and then leave you, exhausted, to deal with your newly beaten-into-submission project with the pen marks leaving deep scratches on the page.

This is simply not the case.

A good editor will work with you, not torture you until you agree to make a change you’re not comfortable with. We query. We suggest. We coax and encourage. We help you maintain (and sometimes find) YOUR voice, not by being harsh and domineering, but by listening to your words as they speak to us from the page.

A good editor’s goal is to ensure that your voice and tone are reflected throughout your piece, be it fiction, nonfiction, poetry, whatever. We polish. We support.

You may have disagreements with your editor and that’s OK. But it’s about collaboration, not one person dominating the other.

So, no, I’m not an editrix. People don’t choose to work with me because of the pain I inflict (I don’t think). Conversely, they work with me to help ease some of the pain that comes with being a writer (I hope). After all, having an editor on your side can be a salve to the wound you created when you opened up your own veins and bled on the page.


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At Least He Didn’t Hurt You

Unfortunately, Mother’s Day means more to me than only a celebration of my mother (and her INCREDIBLE, AMAZING impact on my life). For me, it is also the anniversary of when I discovered that I was being stalked by some man I didn’t know. 

I don’t usually write about such personal things, primarily blogging about punctuation, editing, and other exciting topics. However, yesterday forced me to think about some events that are true and worth examining. And sharing.

My story was posted over on Rachel Thompson’s blog, but am reposting in honor of my healing and in support of anyone who has endured and survived such a life-altering and traumatic event. Stalking is a crime, not a joke and certainly not something to be joked around about. So the next time you’re inclined to say, “Oh, I’m going to stalk him on Facebook,” perhaps you’ll reconsider and choose a different word. One that doesn’t make light of a criminal act that often goes unpunished.


“At least he didn’t hurt you.”

I’ve heard that phrase hundreds of time, relief evident in the their voice coupled with the certainty that they’re saying the right thing.

No, he didn’t hurt me. Not physically. But that’s the only way he didn’t.

I didn’t know he was watching. Waiting. Prying. Preying. Raping my body with his eyes and unidentifiable lust. I didn’t know he wanted to hurt me. Physically. The way everyone was so relieved that he didn’t.

I’ll never know all that he saw. My smile? Yes. My body? Yes. But did he see me dancing while I vacuumed? Did he watch me read in the false comfort of my home? I’ll simply never know.

Because he took what I did not give. What I wouldn’t have. He robbed me of my power, of my safety, of my sanity. By looking, roving, staring, and scheming, he raped my mind of what I thought I knew.

I believed I was safe. I believed that behind locked doors and windows, I could be me. I was wrong.

I found his note in my car on Mother’s Day, 2003. Scribbled on the back of a picture—of his motorcycle.  I was late for a photo shoot so I just tossed it in the passenger seat, thinking it must be a picture my girlfriend stuffed in the car, since we’d been going through pictures the night before. Then I read it. Then the split of me was torn wide open.

 I swiveled my head around, looking for the glint of the telephoto lens I was sure I would see, reminiscent of a Lifetime movie. There was none.

I continued driving to work and was then introduced to my first panic attack. Breath, gone. Control over my body, taken. Vision: Eternally changed. But still I drove, motivated by my commitment to my job. Then I left because I had to, my dedication to my job, stolen.

“I know you’re lonely.” “You’re such a doll.” “Sorry to pry.” Signed, Dave. How could he know these things?

After I called the police, I was immediately ashamed. It’s not like he did anything. I’m so stupid for wasting the police’s valuable time. I shouldn’t have called. At least he didn’t hurt me.

After an examination of my home, that my phone lines had been cut was discovered. I had thought when my phone didn’t work that there had been some sort of construction snafu from the contractors who’d worked outside my house the day before. But at least he didn’t hurt me.

In a stroke of what he must have thought was clearly reaching out to soothe my loneliness, he left a phone number. An untraceable one. When the police couldn’t track him down, it was decided that I should call him from the station, a recording device strapped to the phone to monitor and record everything he said.

“Don’t try to trap him. Don’t say anything misleading. Just try to get him to talk,” the detective instructed.

“I need a pen and paper,” I said with shaking hands.

“Why? The conversation is being recorded?”

“I’m a reporter. I talk to strangers every day to get a story. And I take notes. I need to do that now.” I didn’t say that I needed to clutch something, that I needed to feel some kind of connection to that which genuinely soothed—words.

I called. He answered. We talked. He obviously knew where I lived, what vehicle I drove, and that I did, in fact, live alone. He tried to reassure me, “It’s not like I looked in your windows.” According to some in the police force, fifty percent of what we say we didn’t do, we actually did.

Scribbling notes furiously I tried to speak with him as I would a friend or a potential date. But no flirting. No misleading. His phone disconnected but I called him back, still strapped to the recorder, still with pen in hand.

He told me over and over that I was a doll. That he wanted to take me for a ride on his motorcycle. “You’re so beautiful. You’re such a doll,” his words a terrifying non-compliment. We said our goodbyes like old friends. At least he didn’t hurt me.

Eventually the police arrested him. I don’t remember how they found him and, frankly, I don’t care.  In the interim, before his arrest, I was advised to sleep somewhere else and to hide my car. I did, but just for one night. When I returned home, I sat beneath a window, knife in hand, thinking that was the only place he wouldn’t be able to see me. I was a prisoner in my home, with no means of escape, and no phone. He won. At least he didn’t hurt me.

He pled guilty to charges of “unwanted stalking” (I think that was the charge—as if there’s a type of “wanted” stalking.”). His plea was unprecedented. No one pleads guilty to such a perceived “minor” charge. I believe it was his wife who bailed him out.

It’s taken years, but I can once again dance while I vacuum. I am once again able again to read on my couch in the “safety” of my home. But not without the lingering memory.

I survived without bruises. Without cuts or scrapes on my body.

My heart and mind bear the scars. At least he didn’t hurt me.

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Types of Editors (Yes, There’s More Than One)

Thank you to Naomi Blackburn over at The Author CEO for giving me the opportunity to write about one of my favorite topics: editing, of course! Below I’ve copied and pasted the blog I wrote, just as it appears on Naomi’s site.

To kick off 2014, The Author CEO’s favorite editor, Jessica Swift of Swift Ink Editorial Services,  is back to educate authors on types of editors and their roles to help ensure that the right editor is hired for the right job.

So you finished your manuscript. You love it. You’ve sweated and cried and bled on it for months (years? decades?) and now you’re ready for . . . what? Well, you’re not sure. Everyone seems to be going on about the importance of having an editor, so you decide you should have one, too. After all, this is your baby. You want it to be perfect. So you ask around and get some names. And you draft an email. “Dear Ms. Swift; I’m interested in talking with you about my manuscript. I need a proofreader. Please call me at 1-800-confused-writer so we can discuss. Thank you.” There. Done. You’ll get it proofread and that’s that.

OK. While the above is very oversimplified, it does exemplify the type of query I sometimes get. Immediately my interest is piqued and I want to know: does s/he really mean “proofread”?

Many writers don’t know that there are different types of edits that a manuscript needs. What’s the difference between a copyedit and a proofread? Did you even know there was one?

Writers often come to me and say they need an editor. When I ask them what type of edit they’re looking for, I am met with silence (if we’re talking on the phone).  I can practically see the blank look on their faces. “Um. Well. I don’t know,” is often the response I get.
Well folks, I’m here to tell you that you need to know! Knowledge is power and it’s important for you to understand what your manuscript needs. So, I’ve outlined below the different types of edits and give some examples of what questions/considerations editors might ask themselves while they’re performing the edit.

(PLEASE NOTE: Lots of people use different names for different types of edits. My list here conforms with the descriptions and titles given in The Chicago Manual of Style[the publishing bible]. ALSO: This is not a comprehensive “be all and end all” kind of explanation. Rather, it’s information to help you figure out what you might need and what steps you need to take are so you can bring your baby to the next level.)

Substantive edit: Focusing on large structural issues, character and plot development, narrative and voice, and plot holes. A large-scale edit performed with an eye on the manuscript as a whole and looking at places that may need to be reworked and/or restructured. May involve developing a structure for the manuscript.

Some questions the editor might ask/address (for example):

  • Should the content that appears in what is currently a later chapter be presented at the beginning of the manuscript? Or vice versa?
  • If the manuscript is a collection/anthology, does organization need to be applied to the pieces so that the overall piece is cohesive?
  • Is there an existing overall structure that makes logical sense?
  • Are there sections that need to be tightened/rewritten?

Line edit/manuscript edit: Focuses closely on paragraphs and lines within them and how they work together. (Sometimes performed in conjunction with a copyedit.) Close attention is paid to every word and mark of punctuation.

  • Are there successful transitions between paragraphs?
  • Are there transitions at all?
  • Does each sentence support and flow with the next?

Copyedit (sometimes performed with line edit): Focuses on diction and grammar. Also ensures that the manuscript style is consistent and conforms to The Chicago Manual of Style (or the particular manual that’s being used).

  • Are you using the best words and strongest language?
  • Are your styles consistent throughout the manuscript (i.e., are numbers spelled out versus appearing as numerals)?
  • Are any words missing?
  • Are any words misspelled?

Proofreading: Typically performed after a manuscript has been typeset (ready to become a hard copy book), proofreading focuses on the typographical elements of the manuscript, including ensuring page numbers appear where they are supposed to, words break where they should, spacing is consistent, and, of course, that all words are spelled correctly.

So there you have it. I hope what I’ve provided for you here helps you sort out and better understand the different types of edits that are out there, and what particular needs your manuscript might have. After all, you wouldn’t send your child out into the world without any shoes, so why would you send your manuscript out into the world without giving it its proper legs?

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Publishing Your Work: How, When, Why?

I’m excited to be speaking on the panel, “Publishing Your Work: How, When, Why,” on November 16 in Burlington, VT. If you can’t make it, there will be a podcast available! If you have any questions, let’s get the conversation started now! Feel free to leave questions and comments below.

The Burlington Writers Workshop

How do you know when your work is ready for publication? And, if it’s ready, how do you go about publishing it? When is the right time for you? And perhaps most importantly, with a continually shrinking pool of potential readers, why bother publishing at all?

These are some of the many questions facing writers today. To help you answer them, we’ve assembled a diverse panel of folks with experience and insight. Join us on Saturday, November 16th at 5:30 at this location for a look at the publishing world and various ways to (and reasons why you should) launch your work into the world.

We’ve got an impressive line-up of presenters. In alphabetical order, they are:

jonclinchJon Clinch: Born and raised in the remote heart of upstate New York, Jon Clinch has been an English teacher, a metalworker, a folksinger, an illustrator, a typeface designer, a housepainter, a copywriter, and an advertising executive. His…

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