Staying Focused


I have been an editor and writer for more than 20 years, and I have worked from home for the last 6 years. Sometimes I am super-productive and honestly, sometimes I do too much fiddling around. But I always meet my deadlines and aim to create high quality work.

Here are a few thoughts on how to focus and be productive, for any kind of work situation:

Know yourself. My best time for productive, creative work is in the morning. When I am organizing my daily tasks, I make sure to focus on the projects needing the most brain power earlier in the day. Writing, editing, and my best thinking happen in the morning. Later in the afternoon I can do more administrative tasks – planning time, invoicing, following up on emails. Once you discern your most productive times, then arrange your work schedule as much as possible to follow your natural rhythms.

Know who you are working with. I work with clients and co-workers across multiple time zones, and I also work with people in my own time zone who work varied hours (for example, the mom who submits her writing projects around midnight and the graphic designer who works after his triplets are in bed). So as deadlines approach, I want to make sure I respond to people with appropriate timeliness, so we can keep a project moving forward. I also may push a deadline to be one day earlier, to allow for the lag of different times when people are able to respond.

Think of projects and deadlines in terms of a day, week, and month. It is obvious that I need to focus on what is due today, and what is due this week. But I also regularly review the deadlines that are a month or two out – because they quickly become today’s deadline! If I have an article that is due in six weeks, I don’t necessarily have to start writing the article yet, but I do need to take a few minutes to email people who are providing input for the article. If I need to schedule an interview, I would much rather have the luxury of providing a few weeks of options to schedule the person I am interviewing, rather than scrambling to get an interview done the day before I have to write the story. Five minutes spent on an email today will save me stress and rush a month from now.

Pace yourself. Figuring out when to take breaks is also part of staying productive. Our brains and bodies need to reset and move. I try to set mini-goals and use short breaks as rewards. I may decide to edit 10 pages, then walk into the kitchen and make a cup of tea. Or finish an hour of tasks and then step outside for a breath of fresh air. Too many breaks definitely reduce productivity, but too few breaks can also impair our work. A short break can introduce fresh thoughts and renewed vigor into our work. When I am writing, I try to get at least a first draft done before my afternoon walk break. I will often have an idea while I am walking that will solve some problem or improve the article for the second draft.

Minimize distractions. This is obvious advice and hard to implement at times. I have turned off most notifications on my phone, because I don’t necessarily need to know when a new headline is posted or when someone likes a social media post I have written. I do manage social media for a client, so part of my work is staying up-to-date and responding. But that doesn’t mean I have to respond every minute. On days when a post is active, I can still take breaks between checking. And most of the distraction is not from work-related social media, but from “interesting” but nonessential information. If I feel the need to check on news or social media or any other non-work-related information, I can put that into my break time, between productive times of work. Some days the best thing I can do for both my work and my soul is to pause and let go of the “need” to know everything always.

Staying focused and productive is a process. By evaluating what works well for us, and changing patterns that are not working, we can continue to improve our work habits and the quality of the work we send into the world.

Alphabet Soup: When to Spell Out Acronyms

An acronym is a word formed from the initial letter or letters of each of the successive parts or major parts of a compound term. Acronyms can be quite useful in communications, because they convey information quickly and efficiently to those who are in the know.


However, acronyms can also be a barrier and make people feel like outsiders if they don’t know the meaning of the acronym.

Recently I read a promotional email that encouraged me to click through and listen to a two-minute radio program. The email kept using an acronym for the name of the organization, and I had no idea what the acronym stood for, so it didn’t feel like an invitation to me but a barrier. Since I was curious, I clicked through to the website and even there it was very hard for me to find the meaning of the acronym and the focus of the organization. I became more frustrated and then stubborn. I was only motivated to keep clicking because I am curious about language, not because I wanted to know more about the organization. So the acronym was a barrier to me.

If the email had been to members of the organization, then perhaps a definition of the acronym would not have been necessary. But the purpose of the email was to introduce the organization to new people, so the use of the acronym didn’t help bridge the gap for a new audience. My frustration could have been alleviated by a small note at the bottom of the email, defining the letters in the acronym.

Sometimes acronyms become so commonly accepted that they actually become new words, and a definition is no longer necessary. For example, when I was researching this blog post, the word “laser” was listed as an acronym. That surprised me because I think of “laser” as a scientific term that has a general meaning to a non-scientist like me. I didn’t know that the word was actually composed of the first letters of a phrase that describes the technological concept. In the 1950s, the new technology of light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation was described by the acronym “laser.” Clearly an article in 2020 describing laser surgery would not need to spell out this acronym; it has been a word for decades!

In between a common acronym-turned-word such as “laser” and an unclear acronym with no apparent meaning, there are many acronyms that are part of regular language. As a writer or editor, spelling out the acronym on first use is a good way to promote clarity in communications. For example, in discussing NATO, which many people would recognize as an international organization, the first mention could include NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization).

The practice of spelling out an acronym on first use means everyone is on equal footing with a clear definition, not left wondering and trying to remember the underlying meaning of an important term.


If you are wondering about the graphics with this post, “DIY” means “Do it yourself” and refers to crafting and home projects. “IDK” is a casual expression often used in texts that means “I don’t know.” Clever and useful acronyms, for those who know what they mean!

Who Said It? Attribution Matters

By Carla Foote, Fine Print Editorial

Attribution is ascribing a work or remark to a particular person. With the popularity of pithy sayings on social media, it is tempting to quickly Google a list of quotes from a famous person, such as Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr. or even Jesus.

mlk didnt say it_updateHowever, these quickly “sourced” quotes are not always accurate. Here I have placed “sourced” in quotation marks to show sarcasm. Careful sourcing involves finding the original speech, book or other setting for the actual words being quoted. Google “sourcing” can involve a few clicks to find another person who says that a quote is accurate, even if the sources are not reputable or research-based. Simply noticing that many people attribute a particular phrase to a famous person doesn’t mean that person actually made the statement. Volume isn’t veracity in sourcing.

There are several ways that sloppy attribution of quotes can go wrong: Either the person didn’t actually say what is being credited to them, or they might not have said it in the way that it is being used in the shortened version.

While the internet can contribute to questionable attribution, it also makes the words of famous people accessible for research. I can actually listen to the “I Have A Dream” speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on August 28, 1963 to the people gathered for the March on Washington. Or I can read the text of Mahatma Gandhi’s “Quit India” speech from August 8, 1942.

The third Monday in January is a national holiday in the United States, honoring the January birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He was a civil rights leader who played a significant role in the fight for racial equality in the U.S. He was assassinated in 1968. As a preacher and a national leader, his writings and speeches are extensive. Quotes from Dr. King are indeed inspirational. But in the midst of sharing inspiration, accurate attributions are important.

In 2019, on the holiday celebrating Dr. King, I saw two instances of a quotation that I was curious about. The idea sounded good, but I hadn’t seen it attributed to Dr. King before, so I decided to dig in a little and verify the accuracy of this attribution.

The quote is: If you cannot do great things, do small things in a great way.

When I first read the quote, I have to admit that it sounded a bit like Mother Teresa to me. But that was based just on style, not any research. A quick Google search revealed several instances attributing this quote to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (one in a speech by the President of an Ivy League University). But a number of attributions were to Napoleon Hill, a new name to me.

So who actually said this first?

In the 1928 book, The Law of Success in Sixteen Lessons, Napoleon Hill said, “If you cannot do great things yourself, remember that you may do small things in a great way.” I found the actual book online and saw this quote on page 113.

It is possible that Dr. King quoted this phrase at some time during his many speeches and sermons. I did not do exhaustive research on all of his speeches and writing. Wikiquote is not a perfectly reliable source, however, it does catalog many specific quotes and their sources from books and speeches. Working backwards from Wikiquote, it is possible to find the actual source document for attribution. Searching the Wikiquote page for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did not reveal the “small things” quote. But Wikiquote is not exhaustive.

Another good source of attributions is, whose motto is “Don’t quote it if you can’t source it.” In searching their site, they reference the “small things” quote as coming from Napoleon Hill. That’s how I found the name of Napoleon Hill’s book, and a few more clicks lead me to the actual text. Each quote on the website includes an “i” icon for more information and points to the original source. A writer or editor can then pursue the source document for verification.

Perhaps this work seems tedious, but attribution matters. And since the famous historical figures have plenty of strong, well-sourced material to choose from, if you want an inspirational meme for social media, pick something that is traceable to a reliable source!

Of course, beyond the issue of accuracy, there are a flurry of memes for particular holidays and events. In addition to considering the source for a quote, consider the context and your own voice. Are you pulling together a meme to join popular trends? Or is it core to your work and voice? But perhaps that’s another topic for a blog – to meme or not to meme?

In my research for this article, I found some interesting sources and articles on attribution and quotations.

Words and Definitions Matter


Recently I was having a conversation about current issues in migration with a 17 year old. I was talking about my experience as a volunteer with an organization that hosts migrants who have been released from detention.

In the course of the conversation, I realized that the word “detention” is probably not the best word to describe the experience of migrants in custody. The young woman I was talking with was not particularly up on current events, and she didn’t fully understand what detention meant. From her response, it seemed like she imagined detention as akin to being sent to the principal’s office at school.

I said, “It’s like jail, they are locked up, often for many months.”

“Wow, really?” was her response.

This conversation led me to ponder why we call this “detention” and not “jail”?

The Merriam-Webster definition of detention is a period of temporary custody prior to disposition by a court.

This is a true characterization of the current situation for many migrants. However, temporary is not necessarily short, as the time can stretch into many months.

The definition of jail is a place of confinement for persons held in lawful custody (awaiting trial or those convicted of minor crimes). This is as opposed to prison, which is a place of confinement, especially for lawbreakers.

So according to the definitions, detention and jail could be interchangeable terms, assuming they are held in lawful custody awaiting court action.

Would the policy debate regarding how migrants are handled by the legal system change if we called their custody “jail” instead of “detention”? Especially for young migrants, saying that they are being held in jails sounds different from saying they are being held in detention centers.

Of course, either word paints a much different picture than calling it “summer camp” for kids; terminology which has been recently used by some people to describe detention centers for minor migrants.

Word choice matters because the words we use to describe a scenario communicate values and perceptions. People who are in detention are locked up and are not free to leave. And they have to wait for a period of time outside of their control for a next step.

Some people in this situation are asylum-seekers, who are going through the legal process of applying for relief from a life-threatening situation in their home country. Others have crossed the border without permission. Either way, they are locked up for a period of time. Sounds like jail to me.

As I was reading differing definitions of terms and discussions over the nuances of language, this online comment caught my attention: “An old jail is a jail. A new jail is a detention center.”

My only hesitation is starting to use the term jail rather than detention center, is that saying that migrants are in jail makes them sound like criminals. People seeking asylum are not criminals.

Perhaps the word I will end on for these thoughts is “complexity” – one of the words that my daughter uses (along with “humanize” and “accompany”) in her work with people who are migrants.






Pointing out Mistakes

As an editor, I spot mistakes regularly – in the morning newspaper, on grocery store signs, on websites, and in brochures. Mistakes are everywhere.

Once I’ve spotted a mistake, I have to decide whether or not to point out the mistake. It is tempting to always point out mistakes, but that can make editors annoying friends.

If the mistake can be easily corrected, then I will point it out. Mistakes on websites are quick and easy to fix. When I saw an issue on a brochure that is going to be used for a year or more, I let the responsible person know so that when he reprinted it, he could correct the mistake.


However, when there was a typo on a flier that would only be relevant for a few weeks, I let it go. The organization was not going to reprint the flier, so it wasn’t worth pointing out the error. But the mistake still bothered me – I can’t un-notice errors.

If there is a process improvement that will prevent future mistakes from occurring, then I do usually point out errors. I might even mention that I am available for contract work!

During a beach vacation, I spotted a glaring error in a message scrawled in the sand. I just couldn’t resist, I had to add the missing letter. My husband still teases me about never turning off my editorial brain.

Editing Out Loud

During a dinner table conversation, I read an interesting piece of copy to my husband. It was from an editorial project I’d worked on earlier in the day and I thought he would resonate with the topic. As I was reading the selection out loud, I noticed a typo. What should have been the word “it” was “if” in this first draft. Not a problem, because the article was still in the early stages of the edit and design phase and I could easily make corrections. But the experience reminded me of the value of reading out loud to catch errors.

Brains are amazing in speed and ability. Fluent readers quickly move through text and their brains process content so quickly that many small errors are smoothed over in the process. This is especially true if the reader is already familiar with the content. It is as if  the brain has an autocorrect feature – one that is much better than autocorrect on texts!

So how do we counteract this auto-correcting brain process and catch errors before they get to print?

First of all, having another person who is not familiar with the text perform a round of copyediting is important. Another reader will have fresh eyes and not be lulled into skipping small errors.

However, sometimes fresh eyes are not available for a project. In this case, taking the time to slow down and read the text out loud, pronouncing each word, can reveal lingering errors.

I also find that planning sufficient time for a break in my schedule improves the quality of my work. I try to finish up a project or chunk of work the day before it is due. Then I can give myself some space and let the project (and my brain) rest overnight. In the morning, a fresh round of edits will catch any errors that might not have been obvious at the end of a full day of work.

editing picture

Writing Short

Conversations among writers, editors and publishers about the state of publishing often turn to the short attention span of readers. While I understand the concern and realize that complex topics take more than 140 characters to develop, there are benefits to short, focused content.smartphone

Writing short forces the writer and editor to carefully focus the main idea and judiciously choose words, as extraneous details are cut. This results in clear, direct content.

Writing short gives the reader a clear takeaway. Rather than wading through multiple examples and ideas, the reader can access one memorable nugget.

Writing short allows space for additional graphics to carry a message. While writers and editors might consider themselves “word” people, they are communicators. Words and graphics together communicate. By keeping content short, there is space for graphic elements to reinforce the message.

Looking back at magazines I edited more than 10 years ago, word count on a page was often 800 – 900 words for an 8-1/2″ x 11″ page. Now my target is 500 – 600 words per page with much more space for graphic design. Did people read every word of an 800 word article and remember it all? Does the reader even notice that the content is shorter?

Short, focused content communicates! This blog is 215 words.

The Art of the Apology

Have you done something wrong and need to apologize? Whether an apology is in the professional setting or a personal setting, sincerity and brevity are keys to delivering your apology.

Keep your apology brief – state the infraction and express your deep regret. You can add any policy or personal changes that you are going to implement to keep from repeating the infraction, but never make excuses or blame others. Just apologize. Period.

Sincerity is important in an apology – but the way people receive your apology is based on established trust (or lack thereof). So the believability of your apology is judged over time. If you are apologizing for a repeated behavior in the past, is there any evidence that your pattern has changed? If not, then people won’t believe that you are sincere in your apology. And if future actions repeat the infraction  you apologized for, then people will assume your only regret was in getting caught, not in the actual action.

Keep brevity in mind, especially when giving a verbal apology. Just because someone gives you a microphone and 2 minutes, there is no need to keep going on and on. State your infraction, express your regret, and lay out your plan for moving forward.

Note: An apology for a mistake is different from a disagreement over opinions. See a previous post for responding to feedback.



What’s Your Angle?

TSA is in the news regularly now, with the summer travel season heating up and lines increasing at many large airports. Media outlets, along with social media, are sharing pictures and videos of long lines waiting to get through security. But how accurate are these reports?

I was at the Denver airport on the Friday before Memorial Day. My daughter and son-in-law had a 2 hour layover, and we were going to meet for lunch if the security lines weren’t too long. I had been watching the security time page on the airport website all morning, seeing times from 15-25 minutes, which didn’t seem excessive. When I arrived at the airport at 10:30 am there was NO line at one of the security checkpoint and a short line at another.

We saw a news reporter and camera person shooting out toward the side with the short line. I wondered out loud, “There’s no line on the other side. Are they going to take a picture of that side too?”

The reporter heard my remark and said, “You’re right.” camera angle

Later, when I headed back to my car, the tripod was empty on the side with the line. I do hope they went to the other side to film as well, to show a more accurate representation.

Angle matters – in visuals and in text. What if the photographer above is doing a photo essay about the treeless prairie? By shooting toward distant fields with his camera and omitting the shot of trees behind him, he can tell one story, but not the whole story.

Many of us still believe the old adage that “cameras don’t lie.” But even before digital manipulation, photographers had the ability to adjust exposure on film. And the photographer chooses how to frame the image, which impacts the “truth” displayed.

Writers and editors have the same power over the text, in choosing what it include and exclude for a story.

I am curious what story was transmitted regarding security lines at the airport. My guess is that short lines were not interesting enough to make the news, but perhaps the reporter and camera person waited around until the lines were longer, in time for the 5 p.m. news!


Where to Cut

I relish the challenge of cutting an article down to size. Not that there is anything wrong with 1,000 words, but usually I need to fit an article into a particular spot in a magazine. While writers have a word count with their assignment, they often go over their allotment. Even for online content, where space is theoretically unlimited, judicious trimming results in a tighter, more compelling piece. Good writers will make their own cuts before submitting articles, but it is easier for editors to cut because they are not wed to each word.

Before Cutting

Before I start cutting, I try to understand the big idea of the article. This will help me in the cutting process, as I identify extraneous ideas. If the big idea isn’t clear, then it is hard to determine what to cut, and the article might need a complete re-write to hone the main message prior to cutting.

Next I read through and make edits that add clarity and correct errors. This process might actually make an article longer, but is an important step. For example, if there is an abrupt transition that leaves the reader wondering, adding a few words or sentences can smooth the bump and help the reader follow along.

The Hatchet

If an article is significantly longer than the target, the first cut is with a “hatchet” to chop out entire sections. Perhaps the author gives five supporting examples for the big idea. Each example might be interesting, but the hatchet edit chops the article down to the two or three most important examples. The guiding question for this chop is to consider the reader and whether or not each example illuminates the main point for the reader.

Another area to chop is predictable prose. A great editor keeps the content that is original, but cuts out areas that have been overdone in other platforms. Content should add to the conversation, not just rehash tired thoughts.

In addition, as the editor, I may chop a section that covers content which is present in another article in the magazine. This is an edit that writers cannot make, since they are only aware of their article, not how the whole magazine fits together.

The Knife

I use the knife to cut away unnecessary words that don’t add meaning; words such as really, actually and basically are throwaways.

Watch out for lists that go on and on. While a bulleted list can add clarity for the reader, no one is going to read a list of 15 items. I will focus a list on four or five essentials and trim the rest.

Often I straighten out meandering sentences with multiple clauses. I rewrite such sentences into clear, emphatic prose. Not only will content be shorter, but it will be more compelling.

After the Cut

After chopping and trimming, I set the content aside and come back later with fresh eyes to consider whether any of the edits introduced errors or dead ends.  Then I enjoy the satisfaction of clear writing that hits the target.

Note: This article started at 555 words and I cut it down to 511 words.

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