Sunday, March 21, 2010

Tom Gillispie - The Master of Simple, Powerful Words

Joining us today from Rural Hall, NC is Tom Gillispie, writer and editor extraordinaire. Tom was a career newspaper writer and copy editor working at eight newspapers over a span of 30-plus years. Today, he is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer. He edits magazine articles, business letters, novels, non-fiction books and more.

Tell us about services you offer.

If you owned a business and wanted a regular company newspaper (print or online), I could take photos, write stories, lay out pages and edit copy. Except for ads, I could do it all. The last time I did that was late 2008.

I have written (and still occasionally write) newspaper, magazine and online articles, but my main thing is editing. I edit fiction and non-fiction books; I edit for writers, businessmen, lawyers or anyone who has written a resume. I have tutored writers, usually via email or chat. I offer academic editing and tutoring, although I will not write academic papers. For all writers, I don’t rewrite your work, unless it’s a mess. I try to let the client’s voice shine through. He/she might not even notice the changes if not for Track Changes in Word.

Who do you usually work with?

For 30 years, I have edited for newspapers, and I still do that one or two days a week on a freelance basis. Otherwise, I’ve edited fiction and non-fiction books, magazine articles, web-site material and even law work. People often ask if I edit their kind of writing. I probably do. Two women were uncertain if I could edit their books on spirituality. Turned out that I could. Another woman feared that I couldn’t edit her novel. I told her to send a chapter and pay me for that chapter when it was done. I worked on that novel and a second one for her. Still another woman had written an ebook on care of hands and toenails, and she seemed thrilled with the editing.

You have stated, “I tighten, focus and improve copy, and I'm good at fact-checking. Everything I edit gets a little shorter, a little tighter, and, usually, a lot better.” Can you give us an example of how you achieve this?

I cut out unnecessary modifiers like certainly and very. Do you need to say that the 7-1, 300-plus-pound Shaquille O’Neal is huge or massive? The numbers say it. Can something be very unique? Can a woman be very pregnant? Sometimes I exchange big words (exacerbate) for smaller ones (weaken, worsen) that are familiar. I look for strong verbs. I untangle long, messy sentences and paragraphs.

I often do this on my blog to show writers and editors what I’m thinking. I recently heard this on TV: There is no such thing as that which is impossible. Sounds very profound (I couldn’t resist), doesn’t it? I’d change that to Nothing is impossible. Simple. Powerful.

I find ways to use the fewest words possible. Shakespeare, for instance, wasn’t famous for being wordy. He made every word count.

You created the Yahoo group, Freelance Writers and Editors. As a member of the group, I’m impressed by the support and encouragement offered by members. There is camaraderie present and a genuine effort to share resources. Please tell us about the group. Why did you start it? What role would you like it to play in the lives of writers and editors? Can anyone join or are there criteria that must be met?

I started the group, I admit, to find work. I wanted it to be useful to writers and editors, but that was my ultimate goal. It’s turned into more than I expected. One of our members tried me hard when the group started. He wanted to see if I’d throw him out of the group. I told him he didn’t need foul language to get his ideas across; I believed he could be a valued and valuable member of the group. And he has. When he had surgery, group members got in touch with the family and followed his progress. And when his wife died, we mourned with him.

Some of us have learned about grammar, computer programs, helpful web sites and such. We’ve shared laughs and picked on each other. I won’t say the group has been family – most of the nearly 500 members never speak up – but I feel close to several people I’ve never met in person.

As for membership, I ask that potential members be a writer or an editor. If they’re selling products or they don’t use the word editor, writer or freelancer, they don’t get in. If they don’t write anything, they don’t get in.

Can you share a personal experience with us on writing vs. editing?

When I first started, I wanted to be a writer, but I had to learn how to lay out newspaper pages. When I was working at a weekly paper, the sports editor of a nearby daily called and offered me a copy-editing job. He told me that any metropolitan daily would hire me as a copy editor, but he added that no newspaper would hire me as a writer. That wasn’t true, but that newspaper tried to convert me to a full-time copy editor.

I was interviewing for another writing job, and I took their test. The sports editor said he would hire me as a copy editor but not as a writer. I told him that he’d never hire me.

I went through that at every job. I was better than most of the writers they had, but they always wanted to make me a copy editor. I knew I was probably a better editor than writer, but, dammit, I wanted to write. And I have. I’ve written for nine papers I worked for. I’ve written on a freelance basis for dozens of newspapers, The Miami Herald, Washington Post and Baltimore Sun included. I’ve written for probably 20 magazines, including The Sporting News and Sports Illustrated, on a freelance basis. And I’ve written three books and several comic-book scripts.

But I’ve come to realize that my talents are all based on copy editing. My copy editor’s “ear” makes me a better writer, and my copy editor’s “eye” makes me a better photographer and page designer.

I’ve come to terms with being a copy editor. It’s what I do best. But I write when I can.

To learn more about how Tom can help your writing reach new heights, please visit his web site. You can see more of his work at his blog and his writing blog. If you are a racing fan, don’t miss Tom’s books on the subject: Racing books.


  1. I know a couple editors and will pass along that Yahoo group!

  2. Tom & Brigitte,

    Nicely done! Congratulations! Kudos!

    Cheers ~




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