Posted On December 21, 2012 by Print This Post

Five Things to Remember – by Theresa Stevens

Editor Theresa Stevens takes the podium for the last time as our Ask An Editor columnist. Theresa has been integral to RU’s success, and we are extremely grateful for her contribution

Theresa, we will miss you!

This is my final column for Romance University. I’m sad to go, but I have some new demands on my schedule that are ushering in many changes for me. It’s been a good run here, stretching all the way back to the inception of this blog. I’m proud to have been a part of the origin and evolution of a site that has done much good for many authors, and I hope to carry forward the friends and contacts made here. Thank you for including me, RU Crew! And thank you to all the readers and commenters who have made it such a wonderful experience.

I’ve thought long and hard about my final post because I feel that this is my last shot to tell the RU readers the things I want you to know. The trouble with writing (which is also the joy of writing, in many ways) is that there is such a long learning curve. We must learn so many things, from the big sweeping things to the tiny details, and we must continue to learn even after we’ve become proficient. That’s the nature of the beast. It’s always hungry.

But if there’s one knowledge advantage I have, it is not about punctuation or pacing, but about the character of writers and writing. I see enough successful and struggling writers, enough good and bad projects, to be able to make some global assessments about what separates the winners from the hopefuls. The winners have some things in common, most of which have to do with how they approach the work, and the good news is that we can all adopt these methods. We can consider these the five major components of a successful writing attitude.


1. Be diligent.

If you don’t have a finished manuscript, you have nothing. Plot notes, character sketches, perfect partials, contest wins, networking, writing classes and seminars — none of these things are a finished manuscript. Your first and only job as a writer is to finish the manuscript, and that requires diligence. Let the act of writing occupy a space in your life. You and you alone get to decide the size and shape of that space, and then you and you alone must guard that space. Let nothing else interfere with that space, not even the things meant to serve the writing.


2. Be bold.

A good manuscript crackles with excitement and daring, and I don’t mean this in the adventure-story sense. Even a quiet, introspective story about character change will have that sizzle, but the source will be internal emotions rather than external actions. Whatever the source of your story’s magic, exploit it. Far too often, we see manuscripts that set up a premise full of possibilities, but the premise is left unexplored or underexplored. Or, just as weak, we see a premise explored in a way no different from a thousand other manuscripts with the same tired ideas. Find your story’s most compelling angles, and follow them. Hold nothing back. Scene by scene, paragraph by paragraph, dare to develop your story in a deep way. Leave it all on the page.


3. Be ruthless.

What if you can’t figure out a way to explore an angle in a deep, compelling way in the context of the existing manuscript? Cut it. Cut every line, every scene, every half-baked idea that never quite sets. Don’t cling to anything that weakens the manuscript. I know we resist this — we do fall in love with our darlings. But for God’s sake, why would you want to keep something limp and dull and embryonic on the page? You gain nothing by guarding soft spots in your manuscript. If you really love an idea, maybe it will work in another manuscript. But if it doesn’t work in this one, cut it.


4. Be meticulous.

Who has two thumbs and hates a sloppy manuscript? You’d better be pointing those thumbs at yourself right now. Because if you think the thumbs should only be pointing at an editor, if you think that it’s someone else’s job to polish your prose, then you’re only doing half the job. There’s a difference between a writer and a daydreamer who can type. A writer knows that the arrangement of words on the page matters in a deeply vital way. It’s really all we have. We don’t get lighting experts and makeup experts and laugh tracks. We get words. If your words are trite, misspelled, rambling, inadequate, poorly arranged or poorly punctuated, then they will act as a barrier between the reader and the underlying story. The words you choose and the presentation of those words should rightly be a major concern for a writer.


5. Be sensitive.

One of my creative writing professors was famous for continually admonishing us to observe the world around us. Our assignments included eavesdropping on conversations, describing childhood bedrooms and classrooms, and plenty of other tasks focused on first observing and then recalling those observations. He once set an object beside the classroom door before we arrived, removed it before he entered the room, and required us to write for five minutes on “the thing by the door when you came in.” More than half the class had failed to notice the object, a green fishing tackle box, and failed that small assignment.

Observation and recollection are crucial writing tools, but they are nothing without a kind of sensitivity to provide a context for the things observed and recollected. Of all the successful writing attributes, this sensitivity is the hardest to describe and perhaps the hardest to acquire. All I can tell you is that some people have a knack for understanding the “why” of things. These are the writers who generate properly motivated characters. These are the writers who use setting to advance the plot. Their stories have an internal logic and coherence which is born from their intuitive grasp of the world around them. They don’t just notice the tackle box beside the door. They know why it’s there and how it will change things for the people coming through that door. 

These are the five attributes I’ve noticed in the way successful authors approach their manuscripts. I wish I could leave you with something more — some final line editing tip, some miracle time management technique — but the reality is that no matter how much I teach you, there will always be something new for you to learn. And that’s a wonderful thing. Thank you for letting me play some part in your learning. I really have enjoyed my time as an RU columnist, and I leave here confident that there are many good things ahead. For all of us.


What other traits or habits contribute to your success as a writer? Share them with us! 


Please join us on Monday, December 24th when RU staffer Carrie Spencer steps up to the lectern.


Bio: Theresa Stevens is the Publisher of STAR Guides Publishing, a nonfiction publishing company with the mission to help writers write better books. After earning degrees in creative writing and law, she worked as a literary attorney agent for a boutique firm in Indianapolis where she represented a range of fiction and nonfiction authors. After a nine-year hiatus from the publishing industry to practice law, Theresa worked as chief executive editor for a highly acclaimed small romance press, and her articles on writing and editing have appeared in numerous publications for writers. Visit her blog at where she and her co-blogger share their knowledge and hardly ever argue about punctuation.

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24 Responses to “Five Things to Remember – by Theresa Stevens”

  1. Theresa, another awesome post! Really love this bit of wisdom — “Let nothing else interfere with that space, not even the things meant to serve the writing.”

    Thanks for taking this journey with us. I’ve learned so much from you and appreciate every minute you’ve spent with us at RU.

    Good luck on your next journey. May you have an abundance of health and happiness along the way.

    Hugs and best wishes,

    (See you in a few weeks!)

    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | December 21, 2012, 6:02 am
    • I think that’s one of the hardest things to learn, how to protect that writing space in our lives. We all have so many demands on our time! But it’s not just time, it’s also a mental attitude, a way of honoring what’s important to us.

      Big hugs, and thanks so much for everything!

      Posted by Theresa S. | December 21, 2012, 9:30 am
  2. Hi Theresa,

    Be kind to yourself. Somedays, nothing happens and you stare at the blank page. It’s fine and normal. Be open to ideas. They come out of nowhere.

    Theresa, good luck with your life’s endeavors. My editor recommended your blog,, to me. I told her I knew it was an excellent source.

    All the best,

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | December 21, 2012, 7:09 am
  3. Theresa –

    Truly, any thanks, any kudos I give you here will be inadequate. You, Adrienne and Tracey have seen me through some of my darkest writing days. Although I’m sure there were times you wanted to give up on me, you didn’t. The thank you for that alone would be twenty pages :-).

    But thanks for all you’ve done for Romance University, our community and our readers. You should be proud to have helped so many writers, most who may never say thank you themselves.

    This last post comes at a perfect time for me, reminding me not to get too caught up in all the little things that come along with a career as a writer. The writing is first, last, always.

    I’m so blessed to have met you in San Francisco in 2008!


    Posted by Kelsey Browning | December 21, 2012, 7:33 am
  4. Hi Theresa,

    Another great post. I’m particularly struck by #5, perhaps because I need to work on my observation skills.

    I’ll miss you here, but, as a long time lurker at Edittorent, I’ll continue to learn from you.

    Good luck with your upcoming projects, and thanks for sharing your time and expertise with us.


    Posted by Cia | December 21, 2012, 7:44 am
  5. Morning Theresa!

    Beautiful post. Definitely a keeper for times when I am heading into a new project or revisions.

    Thank you SO MUCH for participating in RU with us – your advice is worth it’s weight in gold.

    Best wishes for a healthy and happy future. Since I’m an edittorrent lurker as well, it won’t be as if you’ve left, but more just moved down the street. =)

    Big hugs


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | December 21, 2012, 8:39 am
  6. Sniff, sniff. 🙂

    You’ve been such an amazing mentor to us that it’s hard to see you go.

    In 2007 you gave me the best writing advice I’ve ever received. I’d just finished writing Risking Trust and you told me to start on another book while I was querying Risking Trust. After I finished the second book, you told me to start on the third. By the time I sold, I had three completed books that my publisher bought. The result was that over a thirteen month period I had five releases. All because I was diligent and kept writing.

    So, thank you for that life altering advice. I will never forget it.

    You’re the best!

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | December 21, 2012, 9:22 am
    • Oh, I know, I’ve been sniffing for days, too. It’s sad to see a good thing come to an end, but it’s time.

      I’m glad that advice helped you. I knew you were that rare author who had generated a publishable first manuscript, and that sooner or later, it would find a path to readers. I wonder if you know how remarkable that is!

      Posted by Theresa S. | December 21, 2012, 9:39 am
  7. Thank you, Theresa, for all your great advice and the positive spirit in which you gave it. I’ve learned a lot from you here at RU. And I sooo appreciate the guidance you gave me not long ago. You were my rock when I felt like mush. I’m in a much better situation as a result. I’ll keep tuning in to edittorrent, so I’m glad you’re not leaving us entirely. 😉

    Best wishes!

    Posted by Laurie London | December 21, 2012, 1:26 pm
  8. I’m so sad that this is your last column for us! As always, it’s brilliant!

    I have so many of your columns bookmarked, I keep thinking how convenient it would be if they were in an actual book. (Something to consider when you have nothing else on your plate?)

    Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and expertise with us – we’ll miss you!

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | December 21, 2012, 2:14 pm
  9. Theresa,

    I have learned something from every one of your posts on Edittorrent and your RU columns. Thank you for being a such a big part of RU. Best of luck!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | December 21, 2012, 2:22 pm
  10. Hi Theresa,

    I’m going to miss your posts:(. I was a brave sole who earlier this year participated in an Ask the Editor line edit. (Ha- I don’t think we actually got to the edit. I had some things to work on…)

    Your advice was so helpful and really the beginning of my rolling up my sleeves and diving in to serious revisions. I’m happy to report I sold the manuscript in November.

    Happy Holidays!


    Posted by Robyn Neeley | December 21, 2012, 2:31 pm

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