Precise Storytellers – interview with David Bowman (25 August 2009)

davidbowmanIntroduction

Some time ago, I signed up to receive a free copy of part of David’s latest ebook. I was very fascinated by what he said and took a closer look at his site. I was impressed and wrote to ask if he’d like to be interviewed. I’m glad he did and, therefore, without further ado, I have great pleasure in introducing to you, David Bowman …


Aneeta: David, thank you for agreeing to this interview.

David: Thanks for the opportunity.

Aneeta: Let’s start with a little information about you. Can you please tell me where you were born, what was your life like growing up, what you do for a living and where you live now?

David: One at a time, please! I was born in California to a nuclear physicist father and an elementary teacher mother. From my dad I learned about thinking logically and about using processes and techniques. From my mom I learned about connecting with people and understanding their needs. Without those two very different skill sets, I doubt I could have become a successful editor.

In my early career, I was a high school writing and communications teacher. I taught for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in a boarding school just off the Navajo reservation. I started a master’s program in Comparative Literature at that time. Eventually, I became a program administrator at the State Department of Education, and I finished the master’s degree program. Somewhere in there, I started editing documents formally, both for my colleagues and for hire.

I left the State and became a program director for multi-state after school tutoring program. At that time, I was also assisting local universities with grant writing and needed an official status so they could pay me. I started Precise Edit. That was 2003. The company has grown since then and has greatly expanded its services. We still work with grant writing, but, as you have probably noticed, we also assist businesses, students, and authors in a wide variety of ways. I see our purpose as helping people communicate in writing, about making the connection between the writer and the reader, and this perspective has opened the door to new business areas, including teaching university courses and writing books on writing.

Your readers may be interested to know that most of our early clients were novelists and short story writers. Some just needed proofreading, especially those whose first language was not English. We saw a lot of problems with subject-verb agreement and pronouns, not to mention the punctuation problems. Some needed advice to guide their revisions. They would come with the question, “How does it sound?” And we would tell them, along with recommendations and a rationale. The client didn’t always agree with us, and that was fine. Even in those cases, through our collaboration, we, the clients and me, would usually come up with something better than what either of us thought individually. In part, that’s what editing is for.

Some writers needed more substantial help, including major revisions and content development to address plot gaps or character motivations. One time, we completely rewrote a nonfiction book from page one. The ideas were good, but the writing had major problems, mainly organization and style. That was a pretty big job, but the client was happy, so we were happy. Every job was different and interesting. In fact, one of the best stories I have ever read was a book we worked on. The author was a super storyteller.

We are still working with some of those early clients. About a fourth of our clients now are authors, with about half of those being novelists or short story writers, and half being nonfiction writers, such as authors of business books or self-help guides. Some are novices; some are on their fourth and fifth books with a few awards behind them. Editing books is probably the most satisfying work I do, and I do most of the work myself. Sure, I’ll pull in the proofreaders, and I’ll discuss the books and potential revisions with other editors, but I do most of the actual revisions, and I do all of the collaboration with the author. The favorite part of my personal library is the shelf with client’s published books.

Starting my own company in a field I love was very satisfying—and challenging. After several years of running Precise Edit, and in response to the challenges of managing its growth, I realized that I needed to get a bit more business savvy with academic knowledge, not just street smarts. I had sworn after getting my master’s in English that I wouldn’t go back to school, but never say never, right? I went back to school for an Executive MBA.

After class one day, I was discussing problems I was having with my freelance editors. I was doing much of the editing work myself, and I had a couple of regular editors, too, but I passed on some to freelancers, mainly university professors in English. I hate to say it, and I don’t mean any offence, but I was spending hours and hours re-doing their work before sending the documents on to clients. They just weren’t meeting my standards for effective writing. A fellow classmate told me that what I really needed was better-trained freelancers. If they weren’t able to work at the level I promised my clients, then I needed to train them.

Well, my freelancers are all over the country. I couldn’t ask them to come to me for training. On the other hand, I could create a training manual that explained what I wanted them to do, how, and why. Following that discussion, I wrote the first version of the Precise Edit Training Manual. Many of my colleagues, classmates, and peers got copies and praised it. Hmm…why not sell it, I thought. That was our first book. People have asked my why it has such a dull name. That’s the reason. I wrote it to train my freelancers. I’m pretty practical.

You can probably tell that I’m enthusiastic about the work we do. I tend to go on a bit. What was the other part of the question? Ah, where I live. Santa Fe, New Mexico. I moved to Santa Fe because the main education offices are here, and I have stayed because it’s beautiful.

Aneeta: I know about you and your work from the information displayed on both your websites: http://www.PreciseEdit.com and http://HostileEditing.com. Before we delve into the websites proper, can you please tell me what prompted you to set up these websites in the first place? Let’s start with PreciseEdit.com. What is the purpose of this website?

David: You’re looking at about the fifth version of the Precise Edit site. I built it for all the regular reasons. Show off our services. Let people know about us as they search for editorial services. Provide resources so people could learn to communicate better. Our clients come to us from everywhere in the world, from Canada to South Africa. The site helps them find us. We also have around 150 website subscribers. I send them some writing info from time to time.

Aneeta: Now, let’s move on to HostileEditing.com. I must say that this is a fabulous name for a website – it’s very eye-catching. What is the purpose of HostileEditing.com.

David: Thanks. I think so, too. HostileEditing.com is different very different from PreciseEdit.com. The term “hostile editing” refers to making revisions to someone’s text for malicious reasons. I first heard the term when developing Wikipedia pages for a client. Hostile editing is rampant on Wikipedia.

We got the domain name thinking we would maybe sell things with snide, off-color phrases about writing. I had visions of coffee cups with the message, “Hey! Ever heard of commas?” We abandoned that idea—it’s too far outside what we really do best, and I didn’t like the tone of the sayings we were passing around. It’s just not me, and I didn’t want that attitude to be associated with Precise Edit. But we did keep the domain name.

Well, the Precise Edit site was getting crowded. All the books had their own page, and I was afraid that people would have to hunt to find them, or not find them at all. Midnight brainstorm—use that domain. www.HostileEditing.com became the online shop for our writing books, as well as a place to recommend other great writing resources. The problem was the name. I had to think pretty hard about how the term “hostile editing” might relate to our writing guides. Then one day, I told another editor, “Look, don’t be so timid when revising. Just do what needs to be done.” That statement gave me the clue I needed. I redefined “hostile editing” to mean a rejection of the fear people have about writing and the artificial and pedantic approach of most writing instruction.

Aneeta: Of course, I came to know about your work from the samples of ebook I downloaded. For the benefit of my readers, can you please describe all your ebooks/resources?

Bang! Writing with Impact


David: Sure. I’m really proud of these resources, so I don’t need much encouragement to talk about them. I’ve already talked quite a bit about the Precise Edit Training Manual. I’ll just add that from a few most critical issues, it has grown to 28 short chapters. Each chapter covers an issue that we commonly address. If people do what’s in this book, they will solve most of their problems with clarity and correctness. I will add one last point. Most of our buyers are outside the U.S. I wasn’t expecting that, but I’m glad people from all parts are benefiting from it.

I can’t talk about 100 Days to Better Writing next. You’ll see why in a moment. I need to talk about Writing Tips for a Year first. Writing Tips is based on a simple concept: send subscribers a new piece of writing instruction every day by e-mail. A new tip, some instructions and advice, and a few samples to help them understand. The content is solid. I tried to make each day’s tip new, useful, and thorough. The daily instruction averages around 180 words, which is far more comprehensive than other services that send out a sentence or two for a few weeks. It’s also a lot more instruction, just by the number of words, than many writing guides you can get in a book store. I spent probably 15 minutes to an hour on each one. They are good. Our first subscribers have already received nearly 300 tips.

These tips don’t deal with issues such as plot and characterization. They deal with organization and clarity and mechanics and understanding your reader. So, while these aren’t necessarily storytelling topics, they are topics that storytellers need to understand.


Ok, now for 100 Days to Better Writing. I pay very close attention to what my clients tell me, whether we are editing their manuscripts or selling them our writing guides. Several of the Writing Tips subscribers mentioned that they wanted all the tips together in one document. It’s a different instructional model than the one-per-day method, but it makes sense for many people. So, the content for 100 Days to Better Writing comes directly from Writing Tips for a Year. I took the content, reorganized it, made some modifications, added a topical index, and there you go—100 Days to Better Writing.

We actually have two volumes out. Each one contains 100 tips and strategies, and each one is just over 60 pages. People can buy them separately or together for a discount. The third and final volume will be about in a couple of months. I think that will be the last book I write for a while.

My question to buyers is how they are using the books: printed out or on screen. We are toying with the idea of selling a printed version. When the third volume comes out, the entire guide will be around 180 pages. This might be too much to use on screen and too much for some people to print. We’re not sure yet, so we’re looking into it, whether there’s a market for a printed version, how much it will cost to bind and ship, etc. We might go the self-publishing route with a print-on-demand publisher to make costs lower and shipping easier. I am a big fan of the self-publishing field. We’ll see.

The last book is Bang! Writing with Impact. This interview is well timed! We just released this book on August 31. We had sold a few advance copies, so we were under a lot of pressure to get it finished and out the door. I told my folks, “It has to be good. No rushing. No skimping.” We took the time we needed to write this book.


Bang! is very different from the other books. It’s not about writing clearly and correctly. Instead, it is a book about choosing words, structuring sentences, and organizing content so that readers will pay attention and respond to what you write. In short, this is a book about storytelling, about using words for an effect.  Bang! provides 114 strategies in 18 categories, such as emphasizing specific ideas, emphasizing particular characteristics, defending against counter-arguments, and demonstrating the relationships among ideas. You might think of this book as 114 answers to the question, “Hey, what’s a good way to . . . .” I’m looking forward to getting feedback from buyers on this one.

Aneeta: As you know, this website caters for storytellers. What advice would you give to those who would like to venture into storytelling? In particular, can you please focus on how your services and ebooks will be able to help them?

David: Your question reminds me of a question that many of our first-time, novice clients ask us. “What can I do to be a better writer?” This is going to seem like a pat answer, but the best advice is to read and read and read. I mean, really read. Read good stories and think about what the author is doing and how he or she is doing it. Think about how you know the characters and how they interact. Think about the conflict and themes that tie the story together.

The second bit of advice is similar. Write and write and write. Then think about your writing. Don’t expect a first draft to be any good, and don’t be discouraged if it isn’t. In most cases, it won’t be. That’s expected. So, first write, and then edit. Writing and editing are two very different processes. When you edit, read your own stories like you are reading other writers’ stories. Question everything. This is the point where most writers come to us. The first draft is done, and they want our help to make it great.

Regarding our books, I would recommend both the Training Manual and Bang! for storytellers. One is about clarity and correctness, but the second is about manipulating words for effect, something every storyteller needs to do. Both sets of skills are necessary. The other resources will also be useful, too, but these two are probably the most useful.

And finally about services. We’re editors. We help authors prepare manuscripts that others will want to buy and read. I would be pleased to speak with your readers about their manuscripts.

I’ve already talked quite a bit about what we do for authors. I will say this, though. Not all storytellers are authors. Many storytellers are standing in front of a group of people. They are telling their stories. The same strategies apply. A good story is a good story regardless of the medium. We can help these storytellers, too.

Aneeta: David, this is all I have to ask. Is there anything you’d like to add?

David: Just thanks for this opportunity. That and the fact that I’ve read through nearly all your site. It has a lot of good stuff. I’ll probably send a few of our clients and website visitors your way.

Oh, and one last point. I’ll put in a plug for our writing blog, if you don’t mind. The Precise Edit Blog (another practical name, see?) is the place where I post articles about writing. We cover a lot of topics there, so just about any type of writer should find something useful. The blog address is http://PreciseEdit.wordpress.com. I hope folks will stop by and leave a comment. We really are serious about helping people become better writers.

Aneeta: David, thank you.

David: My pleasure.


This piece may NOT be freely reprinted. Please contact editor @ howtotellagreatstory.com for reprint rights.

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