Monday, September 12, 2011

My First Time: Carol Roan

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.   Today's guest is Carol Roan whose book Speak Up: The Public Speaking Primer was published by Press 53 last year.  She teaches stage presence in all its forms, from readings by writers to job interviews and corporate meetings.  Her other books include When Last on the Mountain: The View from Writers over 50, Clues to American Dance and Speak Easy: A Guide to Successful Performances, Presentations, Speeches, and Lectures.  She blogs, when time permits, at The Stage Fright Whisperer.

My First Editor

When Starrhill Press asked me to write a book about dance for their Clues to American Arts series, I protested that I knew nothing about dance.  “Exactly what we want,” they said, “because that’s who our readers are."

Months of research in libraries, dance classes, and performances, and then I had to learn how to translate pure movement into words.  I worked for an entire day on Eliot Feld’s “Ion” before I thought I had a sentence that conveyed that dance’s stylistically erudite, abstract essence.

I sent off the manuscript with the naive belief that it was well-researched, well-crafted, and would need only a few marks from an editor’s pen.  What came back was a manuscript that had contracted measles, so dotted with red pencil marks that, if I discovered a pristine black-and-white page, I felt I had scored a major triumph.

I was so devastated after my first glimpse of the measles manuscript that I shoved it back in its box and couldn’t look at it again for two days.  In retrospect, I spent those two days working through the stages of grief similar to those I’d felt when my oldest child left for college.  The days of exhilaration when I found the right format, when the writing flowed, when thoughts came together in a thesis were over.  The book had been born and shaped; the time had come to prepare it to meet the world.

That Eliot Feld sentence of which I’d been so proud?  Red Pencil: “I don’t understand what this means.”  Lesson learned: Write in a style that your market understands.

My careful distinction between Doris Humphrey’s and Martha Graham’s theories of movement?  Red Pencil: “Cut 3 lines on pp. 45-46 for design purposes.”  Lesson learned: A book is a manufactured product; production requirements trump ego.

At about page 13, I began to realize that I had picked up a bad verb habit somewhere.  My tenses were correct, but my forms were weak.  Red Pencil had improved sentence after sentence with the substitution of a stronger verb form.  Lesson learned: Use gerunds and participles only when necessary.

What a great teacher Red Pencil was!  No dicta, no critical statements, just precise little red marks for which I became humbly grateful.


  1. A wonderful lesson in humility--with a nice dose of humor!

    Carol is a wonderful writer.

    Pat B

  2. So enjoyed Carol's essay! As coeditors on a recent project, Carol and I go to play the role of Red Pencil!

  3. A reminder that what every writer needs is an editor. While our first preference is that our work will be loved unequivocally, what we are ultimately grateful for is an insightful reader who can help us get where we're trying to go. Even if it hurts at first.