A wall or the wall? Does it matter?

Does it matter whether you use an indefinite article or a definite article when specifying a thing in your writing?

It does.

The reasons are less easy to explain, but I’ll take a shot anyway. Keep in mind, I’m talking about writing, here. Not speech. Writing.

“The” indicates something (could be a person or an item) that’s already understood or has already been discussed or mentioned.

“A” and “an” indicate something that doesn’t fulfill those requirements. Something that we cannot readily understand or define, something that hasn’t been discussed previously. (Like “a person” and “an item” in the previous paragraph.)

Let’s say we’re walking through a house we’ve never seen before. Maybe we’re thinking of buying it. Before I go further, look at that first sentence. “Through a house we’ve never seen before.” Not “the house.” “A house.” We don’t know this house yet. However, it’s “the house we’re thinking of buying” (for the sake of argument); we’re only looking at one, and this is it, so it’s “the house we’re thinking of buying.” If we were looking at more than one, this would be “a house we’re thinking of buying.” (Or perhaps “one of the houses,” if  there’s a specific set of houses we’re visiting with an eye toward purchasing.)

We enter through the front door. There’s only the one, and we can see it and understand its purpose from experiences with doors, so “the front door.” Inside, we see a hallway leading to the back of the house, and another hallway crossing it in the middle. (Work with me here. I’m not an interior designer, and these constructions are purely to illustrate a point—not the layout.) Because we can’t say any more about these hallways yet—we don’t know where they lead, for example, other than the one going “to the back”—there’s a hallway and another hallway. Once we know more about them, perhaps one will become “the main hallway” and the other “the bedroom hallway” (if, let’s say, it leads to bedrooms on either side of the house).

In the big room at the front (there’s only one big room, from what we can see, so “the big room”) there’s a large window facing the street, a smaller window on the side wall facing the yard (if we said “a side wall,” folks will wonder how many other side walls there are here), and a doorway leading to what looks like a kitchen. We can’t know it’s “the” kitchen yet. And while we can see the windows, we haven’t seen them previously so we use “a” to indicate the unknown quality of them. Now that we’ve seen them, though, we can say “Jane walked over to the small window on the side wall.” If she did that immediately on entering the room, before any description has been given, we’d say “Jane walked to a small window on the side wall.” We didn’t know about that window before. Walls are more easily assumed.

“Hey, there’s a little door in the wall out here next to this cabinet.” (Hey, that room was a kitchen! Now it’s “the kitchen.” But it’s odd, seeing a little door in that position.)

“Aha! That’s for a dumbwaiter, I’ll bet.” (Whoever said this has an idea what that little door probably is, but can’t be sure until they investigate.)

If the person responding were the realtor showing the house, the answer would probably be “Yes, that’s for the dumbwaiter.” They know what it is, so they can use “the” to indicate it.

A couch sits in the middle of the big room. It’s covered in leather. The leather couch is black, but the layer of dust covering it makes it look gray. (It’s “a couch” when we first see it. Once it’s been mentioned, it becomes “the couch.” Someone probably dragged a finger over the surface and came away with dust, so “the layer of dust.”)

I could write more on this, but I suspect there’s enough here already to illustrate the point. Indefinite articles are for undefined, unknown, uncertain items/people (also for abstract nouns, like “an uncertainty” if it’s a vague feeling). The definite article is for defined (funny how that works), certain items/people (and also for specific abstract nouns, like “the uncertainty that comes with unemployment”).

Ask questions in the comments, if you like. This is a tricky subject, and if you need clarification, I’ll do my best to provide it. (“The comments,” because they’re a known item; blogs have comment sections. You may have “a comment,” so called because no one but you knows what it is until you write it.)

The editing letter: no longer a mystery

Some people refer to this as a query letter, because often it’s filled with questions for the writer from the editor.

More properly, though, it’s an editing letter. It’s still filled with questions, but it also contains plenty of praise for what was done right and well. (A query letter is what a writer sends to an agent.)

(I mentioned this in Part 2 of that three-part series on working with an editor, and then I didn’t include it in Part 3 as I had said I would. Not one of you called me out on it, either. I’m not sure what to make of that.)

(Maybe it just means no one really read it.)

As usual, I can’t speak for all editors, but I can tell you what my editing letter usually contains. As I said, questions and praise; but what kinds of questions? And what kind of praise?

I start with a general “what I liked most about this project.” It’s different every time, of course. Sometimes it’s the way the plot unfolded; sometimes, the characterization; other times, the dialogue. There is always something done well (even if I have to think about it for a bit). Then, I move on to the questions and comments that relate to the work as a whole. This isn’t “on page 72, you said John has brown eyes, but on page 104 they’re blue.” That’s in the file as a marginal comment. If that kind of inattention to detail occurs more than once or twice, it’s the kind of thing I’ll put in the letter. I’ll say it thoughtfully, of course: “I suggest looking at the comments with an eye toward noted inconsistencies. I can’t know which color you intended for someone’s eyes, or how tall someone is supposed to be, but there are times in the story where you’ve set up one expectation and delivered another. I don’t need to know which one you choose, but you need to choose one.”

If there are major problems with basic writing skills, I’ll note that as well, along with suggestions for how to address them. This happens rarely, but it happens. (Remember, I work with indies. Some folks have never written anything except their college term papers. Writing fiction ain’t like writing a research paper.)

There might be something like “I feel like I lost a couple of plot threads in the fourteenth chapter, but they came back quickly in Chapter 15.”

A valuable skill I picked up in a developmental editing class deals with tension in the plot. If I get the sense that the plotting is uneven, I sketch out the narrative spine. That means looking at the end of each chapter and marking on a sheet of paper whether it’s positive or negative for the characters. Are they standing at the edge of a cliff that’s crumbling? Negative. Are they curled up on a couch, eating popcorn while the rain patters against the windows? Probably positive. Did someone receive an upsetting text message? Negative. Then, look at the relative number of positive and negative endings, and how they’re grouped. Too many of either in a row means too little (positive) or too much (negative) tension in the story as a whole. Remember when I said that my style of editing combines developmental, line, and copy? This is part of that. Then I can make general suggestions, based on what I find. The client can take them or ignore them. I get paid, either way. (I’ve done this maybe twice in the last four years, since taking that class. The majority of my clients have enough experience at plotting to get the balance right.)

After I’ve briefly outlined the major things I want the client to look at, I close with one more positive thing. You know about “the sandwich,” right? Praise on the top and bottom, constructive criticism in the middle. Only once that I can recall did I have to work hard to come up with something good to say at the end.

Admittedly, for my long-time clients I tend to ignore the niceties and dash off a quick “Here’s the book. Great job, as usual. Watch out for the prepositional phrases. Can’t wait for the next one!”

We understand one another. And that’s part of what I love about this work.

Work with your editor, part 3: You are part of a team

I’ve written about one method of finding an editor, and about what I expect from my clients (new and old alike), but what about after the editing? What happens then?

It’s not that difficult, really.

I’ve given your work at least two complete read-throughs and one pass with PerfectIt4 for proofreading/consistency. I’ve made changes for which there is no debate (actual misspellings, errors in grammar and mechanics) and for which I welcome discussion (usage and style issues). I’ve left copious comments for you, at least some of which are positive (“I LOVE THIS!” “Great phrasing here”) while the rest are neutral or warnings (“Watch out for this phrase, you’ve used it at least twice in every chapter so far” or “I’m not marking every instance of this, but if I were you I’d go through and reconsider every usage of it for deletion”). Some of them are miniature essays in usage or diction (word choice). Deletions are marked in red, additions are marked in blue, and all of my comments are in the margins, never in-line.

I was a teacher, once. I cannot not teach on some level.

I may well have emailed you with requests for clarification of things I can’t figure out on my own. Sometimes it’s a problem on my end, sometimes there’s information missing in the work. I’ll only email if the issue will keep me from continuing the edit. If I think I’ve sussed it out, I’ll mark and comment and keep going.

I will not have fiddled with your formatting unless there was a major issue of some kind, such as no spaces between paragraphs or no paragraph indentations. (I don’t care which format you use. Block paragraphs are lovely, as long as there’s a space between them. First-line indents are great, as long as they’re in place. I follow your lead. As I have said repeatedly, I am an editor, not a designer/formatter.)

All of my edits are visible. Some editors do “silent edits” for things like extra spaces, obvious misspellings, missing mechanics, and such. These things aren’t negotiable; they’re wrong, and editors correct them. That’s the rationale for doing them silently. I don’t. Back when I began freelance editing, I took an informal poll and overwhelmingly the respondents said they wanted to see everything. So, you see everything. Every space, period, apostrophe, and hyphen, whether it’s been added or deleted.

Eventually, then, on or before the deadline we agreed on (unless life blew up and I had to renegotiate with you), you get your file back with all of my markups. You could, if you wanted, just say “ACCEPT ALL” and be done.

But you wouldn’t learn anything then, would you.

I suggest going through it and reading the comments, to get a feel for what’s generally happening. Make a list of questions for me. Seriously. I love discussing edits with clients. Perhaps there’s something I missed that led me to suggest a certain change. That might point to a problem on my end, or it might mean there’s something missing from the text that you need to address. Once you’ve gone from end to end, maybe then is the time to send me your questions. Or perhaps you want to wait until you’ve accepted those you agree with, and send the questions afterward. I can’t tell you what the right time is.

I don’t expect to see the work again after I return it. However, sometimes a client wants me to see a rewrite, to ensure they haven’t messed something else up in the process. That’s totally fine. I won’t say no to another chance to look at your work.

At some point, then, you’ll let me know we’re done, and I’ll thank you for the chance to work with you, and I’ll invoice the final payment. You’ll pay it, and we’ll go on.

And if I’m lucky, I’ll get to work with you again someday.

Work with your editor, part 2: What can you do?

Let’s assume for purposes of this post that you and I have negotiated a project agreement. Maybe there’s a paper contract, maybe not. (For better or worse, I don’t do a lot of paper contracts. However, I keep every email chain from every client as proof of what was discussed and when. It’s still in writing, it’s just not in contract form. An electronic handshake, if you will.) So, what can you do on your end to ensure things go well, starting with the turnover?

I actually had someone ask me what I meant by turnover.

It’s not the pastry.

It’s the date on which you turn over the project to me so I can start work. You email me the file and anything else we’ve decided I need (maybe links to information on the internet, if there’s something specialized in your work). I shoot you an email confirming receipt. We’ve made the first turnover.

But what I want to talk about here is what steps you can take before that turnover.

I don’t expect clients to be experts in the GUMmy stuff, but I do expect them to do their level best. Those basic things you learned in high school or college composition class? That stuff? I expect you’re able to do that. Use paragraphs. Keep your verb tenses under control. (I won’t say “don’t change tense” because that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. You try speaking without changing verb tense. You’ll sound like an alien.) By “under control” I mean decide what tense your main narrative is going to be, and stick with it unless there’s compelling reason to change it. One of my most recent projects was in past tense, but the writer used present tense for dreams and memories. It was amazing. The second the reader sees “X wakes from a sound sleep to the smell of smoke” they know it’s not the normal narrative.

If you’re writing a story with a lot of invented proper nouns, please please please give me a style sheet with them. Then I won’t have to guess which spelling you really want when there are some that don’t match. If I have to guess, I’ll look at how often each form appears, and I’ll go with the one you used most. If I’m lucky, that’s the one you intended to use. This goes for invented common nouns, too, of course, but in my experience the proper ones tend to be more problematic. (This will also show up in a query letter, but more on those in the next post.)

Use your spellchecker and grammar checker. No, you cannot depend on them to save you. However, they are safety nets that will catch the most egregious errors (homophones are not egregious) like repeated words. They won’t catch missing words; they can’t mark what isn’t there. They won’t catch errors like “her” for “here;” only a human can do that. The grammar checker may be annoying, but it will make you stop and look at your work and consider whether what you wrote is what you meant to write. (And nine times out of ten, it will misidentify the passive voice. Be alert.)

If you’re writing in an English other than American, tell me. That way I won’t waste precious time changing spellings or usages that aren’t American, when they’re not what you want in the first place. I have a client in Tasmania who, naturally, writes in Australian English. For the most part, it’s a lot like Canadian English, but some of the phrasings are utterly foreign to me. I’ve gotten good at picking out which are merely Aussie English and which are things I need to be querying. And honestly, even with the first set (the Aussie English), I query anyway: “Will most non-Australian readers understand this? I didn’t.” I try to put myself in the average reader seat.

If you are writing in something like Scrivener, from which you can export  your work into a Word file (I work in Word 365 these days), do us both a favor and make sure the export file is clean. I’ve had some that come to me with hard returns after every line, extra spaces at the beginning of lines, mysterious tabs in the middle of paragraphs, and so on. Fixing all of that takes time away from the focus of my work, which is the writing. I’m not a formatter. I don’t do design work. I’ll clean up a mess, but it would be better by far if the mess wasn’t there in the first place.

As I said in the previous post, I’m using myself as the example here because I won’t speak for others. However, I will suggest that the kinds of things I’m asking you do to up front here are things that any editor will appreciate.

Next time, I’ll talk about what happens during the editing process. How often will you hear from me? What should you do about it? (Hint: It’s not usually necessary to self-medicate. At least not on my account.)

Work with your editor, not against them

That probably sounds foolish. Why would you want to work against your editor? But see, here’s the thing: Working with them begins before you’ve even agreed on a project.

I’ll use myself as the example. I can’t speak for other editors’ expectations, but mine are pretty simple. At least I think they are. Continue reading “Work with your editor, not against them”

Style Guides: A primer

I dare say everyone who writes at all regularly, even for casual purposes, knows that it’s vital to have access to a dictionary. And with so many of them now online for free, there’s really not much of an excuse not to use one.

But what about a style guide? Do you need to use one? And by “use,” I mean “have access to and perhaps own.” Isn’t that like a usage guide? No. A style guide is not a usage guide. Most of them contain some usage guidance, but that’s not the point of a style guide.

Continue reading “Style Guides: A primer”

PerfectIt 4: YES, you want it!

I’ve been going on and on about PerfectIt since I bought the previous version. It’s NOT a spelling or grammar checker. It’s a proofreading tool. You’re worried about inconsistency in hyphenation? PerfectIt has your back. Concerned about capitalization? No worries. What about acronyms being used without being defined? They’re covered.

(Full disclosure: I’m being compensated for this review. And no, it had nothing to do with that whisky bar in Providence. The agreement was made before that.)

(And another thing: This review is for the Windows version. If you’re on a Mac, you might like to know that this is catching us up with things you’ve already had!)

I’m not a power user. I wasn’t one before, either. My work is very simple compared to that of many of my colleagues. I don’t work with tables and figures. I don’t have to deal with footnotes or endnotes. No indexing. No tables of contents. No styles. (Sounds like I’m quite the slacker, doesn’t it.) However, I can still speak to how PerfectIt 4 helps with my work.

The most recent project, the one on which I was able to take this baby out for a test drive, had around 50,000 words. I opened the file, clicked “PerfectIt 4,” and unchecked the boxes of the tests I didn’t require (figures, tables, and so on). Then I clicked on “Launch.” (This is no different from the previous version. But …)

Within seconds (seconds! not minutes!), the program was ready for me to proceed. And this time, instead of my having to look at every instance of a change by clicking into the file location to see context, the context was right there in the box! That was magical for me. Instead of having to bounce back and forth to check each instance of “it’s,” for example, I could just click the radio button next to each one I wanted the program to fix.

One. Click. WOW.

The same was true of hyphenated compounds. I follow the guidance of “hyphenate before a noun, style open elsewhere” so again, it was a time-saver not to have to keep bouncing back and forth. One click per change I wanted to make. Boom. Done.

Sure, that doesn’t sound like much. Seconds? What’s the big deal? Multiply those seconds across all the projects you do in a year. It’s a cliché, sure, but: They add up. They save you time. (And annoyance, if you’re working in a 100,000-word file.)

I was using the beta version, because along with agreeing to provide a review I was asked to help beta test. (COOL!) Now, I’m married to a QA guru. But that doesn’t mean I know what I’m doing when it comes to testing. I wasn’t being asked to sit there and try to break the program (which is a good thing, because that scares the hell out of me).

So, I wasn’t entirely surprised when at one point during the run, an error message popped up. But it wasn’t just “oops, something went wrong.” Oh, no. It was a BIG box that included a bunch of code, and the message (which I’ll paraphrase) “Please copy this and paste it into an email to address@restofaddress.”

Of course, I complied. I had no clue what the code meant or what hadn’t worked, but I did my part. And eventually, the devs and QA folks there figured out what had happened, fixed it, and thanked me (and the other five or six people to whom the same thing had happened). I’m reminded of that ad for Seven Seas salad dressing: “And I helped!”

And yes, there’s still that wonderful “final actions” list where you can choose, as I always do, “change multiple spaces to one.” (It used to say “two.” Now those weird places where there are perhaps three spaces will be magically closed up. No more having to do that one twice!)

If you used PerfectIt3, making the jump to this one is an utter no-brainer.

If you’ve been waffling, now’s the time. (Less time than it took before!)