dennis meredith editor

7 Questions With Editor Dennis Meredith

Dennis Meredith writes science thrillers, based on his expertise in science from his career as a research communicator at some of the country’s leading research universities, including MIT, Caltech, Cornell, Duke, and the University of Wisconsin. He has written well over a thousand news releases and magazine articles on science and engineering over his career. His novels seek to extrapolate real-world science into compelling stories that speculate on their ultimate implications. He is also author of the nonfiction book Explaining Research: How to Reach Key Audiences to Advance Your Work.


Dennis is a compulsive writer, writing for several hours a day on both fiction and nonfiction projects. In fact, Dennis feels that a day has been a failure when he couldn’t spend time writing. He tries to be as ruthless when editing his own work as he is when editing someone else’s. In fact, Dennis even made his daughter cry when as a student she asked him to edit some of her writing, because he didn’t pull punches. As an adult, however, she has said she was grateful for the editing; that it made her a skillful writer.


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What’s your own definition of a good editor?



First of all, a good editor absolutely does not care about the ego of the writer. The editor is a staunch advocate for the reader, which is the best way to serve the writer.


A good editor is also “lazy” in the most productive way. They do not tolerate rough drafts, which means the writer needs to do the hard, and instructive, work of making a draft as perfect as possible. That means not only making a draft as error-free as possible, but adhering to requirements of word count, editorial conventions, and style.


Good editors are also “dumb”—in a very smart way. In advocating for the reader, they refuse to follow leaps of logic, cope with elaborate prose, endure too many factual details, tolerate a confusingly large cast of characters, or deal with big words and intricate explanations.


Good editors can be annoying, but great editors can be a royal pain, but will be a pain that can make the writer’s work far better. The best editors will engage a piece in minute detail and with deep insight, and the result will likely be a blizzard of questions and editorial suggestions that might at first seem to be the work of an overly obsessive, even pathological personality.


However, if the writer sits in a dark room for a while, let their frustration dissipate, and look at the editor’s response with an open mind, that may come to understand that it is both incisive and helpful. Those edits have come from an editor whose acute editorial eye sees with crystalline clarity flaws in your article’s writing, fact, and logic.





What mistakes do authors make when approaching you and what advice do you have for them in that sense?




They expect the editor to rescue a poorly written piece. The author should already have taken advantage of the many resources to make them the best writer possible. These resources include the many books, websites, and courses on writing, as well as writing groups that offer critiquing.





Have you ever found authors you were not compatible with? Can you share more details on this experience?




There was one author who stubbornly insisted on referring to people and events that readers would simply not have understood. For example, the author described one character as looking like the agent Ziva David in the television series NCIS. When told that many readers would not get the reference, he insisted on retaining it. The lesson: authors, and not just editors, need to put themselves in the place of the reader, and not let their stubborn ego be their ultimate guide.





Looking back, what advice would you give yourself at the beginning of your journey as an editor?




Think outside the piece. By that, I mean not only edit the work that is before you, but think broadly about its overall purpose, and think about whether there are other concepts, resources, or ideas that can be recommended to the author to make the piece more interesting, relevant, and compelling.





What should authors do before handing you over a manuscript?




As indicated earlier, first lose their writer’s ego. If they are lucky, an editor might have only minor nitpicking questions. But more likely, their article will undergo major dissection and recommendations for reorganization.


Second, proofrede, prufread, proofreed! Good writing also includes assiduous proofreading. That said, there are significant problems with proofreading one’s own work. For one thing, the author is so familiar with it that they gloss over errors. Among the proofreading tricks suggested by writing experts: print out the work and edit it by hand; and/or change the font, so  the piece is not as familiar. In any case, if at all possible, enlist an obsessive-compulsive outside proofreader to go over the piece before submitting it to the editor.


A significant barrier to good proofreading also arises because there are different levels of proofreading, and it’s extremely difficult for an author to do all three levels at once. The highest level is the conceptual level, where they are concentrating on the ideas they’re trying to convey. Then there’s line editing, where the author is looking at sentence and paragraph structure. Finally, there is what’s traditionally known as proofreading, where the author looking for typos, punctuation errors, and visual landmarks. So, an author should try to proofread their work only at one level or the other, not all three.





Could you give authors a few tips on writing?




Here are some of the most effective tips I give authors:


Write actively. Avoid passive voice wherever possible. It is less dynamic and conceals the person or object responsible for the action.


Use thrifty words. Writers used to academic or professional writing too often prefer “expensive” words over “thrifty” ones. Longer, expensive words seem scholarly, and you might believe they lend credibility and authority to your prose. However, overstuffed verbiage is expensive because it takes more time and effort to read and frustrates and loses readers.


Make sentences sing. Keep average sentence length short. Research on reading  has shown that as sentence length increases, text comprehension drops drastically, even for educated people. An American Press Institute study found that readers typically understand on first reading



  • 100 percent of the information in 8-word sentences
  • 90 percent in 15-word sentences, but only
  • 50 percent in 28-word sentences
  • 10 percent of the information in 43-word sentences


However, a string of short sentences tends to slow reading, so mix up your sentence length. Use short sentences to give ideas punch and longer sentences when needed for a more complex idea. Like this.


Use a readability tool, such as the one built-in to Microsoft Word, to measure readability and try to keep your readability score high. For example, this interview has only 1 percent passive sentences, scores a high 58.5 on readability, and requires only a ninth grade education to read comfortably.


Write for the “reading eye” Your writing should not only engage the mind but be easy for the “reading eye.” That is, provide the eye with visual landmarks.


To explain: the eye does not scan text smoothly, but fixes on a word or phrase and then makes rapid jumps, called saccades, to the next. During a fixation, the reader’s peripheral vision registers the next word or phrase. Thus, people read chunks of words and phrases to comprehend text, rather than serially recognizing letters. This “parallel letter recognition” model of reading holds that readers simultaneously recognize all the letters within a word or phrase and use those letters to recognize it.[i]


Given this perceptual machinery, you can make your writing more readable by providing the eye with visual landmarks in the form of distinctively shaped words and phrases. For example, I sometimes revise a sentence whose words have too many planar letters—a, c, e, m, n, o, r, s, u, v, w, x, z—to substitute words with letters featuring the visual landmarks of ascenders and descenders: b, d, f, g, h, i, j, k, l, p, q, t, y.


I also indent paragraphs more often than my high school English teacher would have preferred. The reason: indents also provide visual landmarks for the reading eye.


[i] Larsen, Kevin, “The Science of Word Recognition,” Microsoft Corporation, July 2004


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