Semicolons Make Connections

I was recently told by a workshop attendee that my explanation of how semicolons work was the first one that made any sense to them. I stuck that feather in my cap immediately. Now to see if I can recreate it in blog-post form.

When you use a semicolon, you’re making a connection. It’s not just the visible one on the page or screen; it’s also a connection of concepts, of ideas, of sense. That punctuation mark tells the reader, “Pay attention to what comes next, because it’s closely related to what you just read.”

Using a semicolon entirely incorrectly is pretty difficult to do. Most writers I know have an understanding of what’s connected and what’s not. They would not, for example, do this: “The ice cream truck stopped at the end of the cul-de-sac; a little girl was wearing an orange romper.” Those two ideas have no connection. The semicolon indicates that one exists, though, so we readers are left trying to “make connection happen.” And it won’t. That orange romper has nothing to do with the ice cream truck’s existence, arrival, or position. And the ice cream truck has nothing to do with the little girl’s clothing. That semicolon is simply incorrect.

Even if we rewrite the second independent clause (the part following the semicolon), it’s still a stretch to call it “connected” in the correct way. “The ice cream truck stopped at the end of the cul-de-sac; the first little girl to run out to meet it was wearing an orange romper.” Those are still two discrete ideas. The truck is still not connected to the little girl’s clothing, nor can it be. A semicolon just won’t work there.

Look back at the second paragraph, where I used a semicolon to connect two related thoughts. (Start with the second sentence in that paragraph.) We could use a period there, but it’s stronger to place a semicolon after the first independent clause. That tells the readers that what follows is directly related. In this case, it’s a further explanation of the connection. There’s the visible one, and there’s the ideological, syntactical, grammatical one.

Nothing says you must use semicolons. Some writers prefer not to, ever. That’s certainly a safe choice. Some people believe semicolons should never appear in fiction. I disagree. I suggest to my clients that they use them where it makes sense, even in dialogue. Remember, punctuation marks are to the reader as road signs are to the driver; they guide. They assist. They are meant to be used, not shunned or ignored.

There’s passive, and there’s passivity

It happened again. I was scrolling through my timeline on Twitter, and there I saw it: a tweet with a link to a post that claimed “she was walking” (I have changed the words, but that is the structure) is a passive construction.

No.

It is not a passive construction. The subject is “she” and the verb is the past progressive “was walking.” The subject is performing the action of the clause. That is active voice.

Now, if that read “She was being walked on a leash by her captor,” we’d have passive voice. Here, “she” is the subject of the sentence, but she is not performing the action. Her captor is. They have put a leash on her, and are walking her in the way one walks a dog. She (the grammatical subject) is the object, syntactically speaking. The captor (the object of the preposition “by”) is the actor (the syntactical subject) in the sentence.

The clause that caused me to write this brief post is not in passive voice. There is a passivity to it, yes; that’s a danger of “to be” verbs + participles. Sometimes, that’s what we want in a sentence. Sometimes it isn’t.

But it will never be passive voice, so long as the subject of the clause is performing the action.

Things Editors Might Not Know About: Regionalisms

We know a lot, but we can’t know everything, right?

A little while ago Dave Nelsen (@The_GrammarGeek) tweeted that at his daughter’s medical appointment today, the nurse used “zipper” as a verb. As in, “Can you unzipper your jacket for me?” It’s a Wisconsin thing*, and I have heard it myself many times. I didn’t even blink.

But.

How would someone not from here know this? If an editor from, say, Nevada encountered it in a manuscript, I think they’d be likely to a) “fix” it by changing it to “unzip” or b) at the least, leave a comment asking if it’s what the author meant to write.

I’ve written before about style sheets (created by editors) and world bibles/story bibles (created by writers). This is precisely the kind of thing that writers should include in their story bibles, along with proper names spelled the way they intend (is it “Aaron” or “Aron” or something else entirely?). It’s the same with phrases their characters use. If there’s something that’s normal for the character but not in common usage, it’s a great idea to include that in the world bible.

I’m not talking about contractions or shortenings/clippings or slang common to AmE in general. I’m talking about regional speech, like using “zipper” as a verb.

In some settings, this will extend to usages like “widow means anyone who has lost a spouse, not only to women.” Or “king refers to any ruler of a country; kings can be (and are) of any gender.” I have my amazing client Garrett Robinson (@GarretAuthor) to thank for those examples. His world bible is an ever-growing organism, with new additions for nearly every new book in his setting. It’s a shared Google Doc we both use, and it’s a life-saver.

If the author hasn’t done this, of course it will fall to the editor to query and add to the style sheet if required. “Oops! No, I didn’t mean to use it like that” is a valid (and not uncommon) response from an author. So is “That’s what I mean to say, yes.”

Writers, you can save yourselves time (and often money!) and endear yourselves to your editors if you tell us up front what oddities we’ll encounter in your work. Like “zipper is used as a verb by Nurse Bren.”

*It might be a thing elsewhere, but I don’t know about elsewhere. Only about Wisconsin and northern Illinois. And this isn’t a thing in northern Illinois to my knowledge (and sometimes faulty memory).

“Underlay” is the underlying issue

I won’t rehash the lay/lie issue, except to remind you that “to lay” is transitive (taking an object) and “to lie” is intransitive (not taking an object). The problem here today is that “underlay” and “underlie” are both transitive verbs, so knowing how lay/lie work will do you no good whatsoever except to help you know how to spell the tenses.

(Full disclosure: I got myself so confused during a recent project that just today I emailed the client and told them to ignore the changes I’d made to “underlain,” because it turned out I was wrong. I own my mistakes.)

So. We have “to underlay,” meaning “to put something under another thing” or “to provide a base or a support for a thing.” And we have “underlie,” meaning “to be under or below something” or “to be the basis of or support for a thing.”

Underlay, underlaid, underlaid, underlaying (cf. “lay”)

Underlie, underlay, underlain, underlaying (cf. “lie”)

Let’s give this a shot, shall we? Say we have a construction crew, and they’re working on the flooring in a given room. They underlay the carpet padding on top of the plywood subfloor, before putting down the carpeting.

This leads us to saying “Carpet padding underlies the carpeting proper.”

Let’s take it another step, into the simple past tense. Yesterday the crew underlaid the padding for the carpeting. The padding underlay the carpeting.

One more step, into past perfect/pluperfect tense. The crew had underlaid the padding last month but didn’t get to the carpeting until today. Years from now, a CSI specialist will note that the padding had underlain the carpeting. (That’s a crap sentence, but at least the tense is right. Making up exemplars is a pain in the arse.)

Now, to the thing that tripped me up so badly: what do we use when we want to say something formed the basis of something else, as in provided support? As in: “The scent was [underlaid/underlain] by a sour note.” Well, that sour note wasn’t put there as a support; it forms the basis for that scent. We want underlain here. Turn the sentence inside out by making it active: “A sour note underlies the scent.” It provides the basis for it by virtue of its existence.

If someone or something physically places a thing to provide support for another thing, they underlay it. If a thing provides support by its existence, it underlies the thing it supports. Both verbs are transitive. Figuring out the tenses isn’t so difficult, once you have that difference in your head.

Mechanics of Dialogue, Part 4: Some Finer Points

The first three posts in this series are from 2014, and it’s a delight to know that they’re still being visited and commented on six years later. Here’s the first one. But I didn’t cover everything. What if your dialogue doesn’t fit neatly into any of those examples? What if it’s different, but still interrupted? I have a few ideas on that.

If one person begins talking and stops, perhaps to think about what word they want to use next, I suggest this. Write the direct speech, and put an em dash after the last word before the closing quotation marks. There’s no need to tell readers “they paused” because the em dash does that for you. But what comes next?

Maybe there’s an actual beat, an action like “rubbed their forehead” or “fiddled with a teacup.” That’s fine; write it, and put a period at the end. Then begin the speech again, picking up where you left off, with an em dash after the opening quotation marks and a lower-case letter on the first word. The reasoning here is that the speech is continuing, probably in the middle of a sentence, so you don’t want to make it look like a brand-new statement. It’s a continuation. Like this:

“I really don’t want to get into any kind of—” Mags looked toward the door as if expecting someone and took a deep breath as she considered her next words. “—of argument over this.”

It’s not the same as a line of speech that flows as the character does something like pick up a pencil. There’s a break, an actual, audible (and visual) pause, while something happens. That something might merely be the character thinking. Then the speech continues with whatever the character says. The main thing to remember is not to tell readers “they paused.” Let the punctuation do that for you.

In the example above, I chose to have Mags repeat the last word she said. I know I do it often enough when I’m taking time to select the right words. And remember, there’s no reason for a capital letter on that “of.” She paused, and she picked up where she left off in the middle of her speech. Let the typography and punctuation do their jobs and show the reader what’s happening.

What if one character is talking, and another picks up the thread and continues? For that, I suggest an em at the end of the first speaker’s line, before the closing quotes. Then a line break, and begin the new speaker’s speech with opening quotes and a capital letter, without an em. Why? Because it’s the first person who was interrupted (hence the em dash), and the second is jumping in fresh (so you don’t need the em, but you do need the capital letter). It looks like this:

Roger shook his head. “That’s not how it happened. When Jasper took the bracelet—”

“Stole the bracelet, you mean,” snapped Celia.

Or this:

“When she stayed out after curfew—”

“Broke the law is what you mean. Say it.”

Or even this:

Magnus fretted with his watch chain. “I don’t know what to call this, this sense of—”

“Forboding? Doom? Or are those too dark for your liking?” Henrietta sneered and turned her back.

The trick is to think about what the em dashes belong to. Do they denote an actual break in the speech? Then they go inside the quotation marks. Do they set off an action happening as the character is speaking? Then they go with the intrusion and belong outside the quotation marks. In any case, there is no space before or after an em dash in Chicago (book) style.

No first drafts, please.

I’ve written about this before, but perhaps not this baldly. (That’s “baldly.” Not “badly.”)

It’s right there in the author documents I ask every potential client to read, but, well . . . we all know how bad people are at following directions, don’t we. (No, that’s not a question. No question mark.) I tend to use that to weed out the folks I probably wouldn’t work well with; if they can’t follow simple instructions like “please click this link and read the documents,” I have a good sense that they won’t make good partners in the work of editing their writing.

I do not take first drafts. I will not work on them. I am not here to teach basic English writing, including grammar and mechanics (never mind style and usage).

The materials I make available to potential clients (they’re linked from my bio page at this blog, and I ask everyone to read them) state clearly that I expect files coming to me to be as clean as the writer can get them. Maybe that means eleventy-million drafts. Maybe it means a critique partner (CP) or three, or a bevy of beta readers. I don’t care, honestly; how it gets cleaned up isn’t my business.

Why do I insist on this?

Because, folks, when I get copy that’s as clean as the writer can make it, I can concentrate on the real editing. I can look at their style and see how best to make suggestions for clarifications or wording changes. If the sentences are below standard, I’m taking all my time making them grammatical and fixing mechanics, leaving nothing for the actual work: polishing prose until it glitters.

I’m not a language arts teacher. I’m a professional editor. In order to do my best work, I need to have yours.

Who or that: Survey says . . .

Grammar, along with its close relatives usage and style, is a common cause of pearl-clutching in some circles. I associate it with prescriptivists, myself. Those who cannot conceive of the correctness of anything other than what they know themselves to be “correct,” for varying degrees of that word. These folks also often conflate grammar with usage and style, which is not the best understanding. The latter two items are closely entwined with grammar, certainly, but they are not the same, nor can they be understood in the same way. Grammar is a set of rules. Usage is a set of guidelines. Style is a different set of guidelines about mechanics, mostly: when to capitalize, when to italicize, how to write initialisms or acronyms, where to place punctuation (when there is no grammatical guidance already in place). Both usage and style also vary with the English being considered. I’ve written here and elsewhere about the differences between American and British English. The grammar is the same; the usage and style vary.

The latest kerfuffle has been about using that to refer to people. A number of vocal participants hold that it is wrong to do so. I do not regret to say it is not. It is grammatically correct, and it always has been. Continue reading “Who or that: Survey says . . .”

There are editors, and then …

… there are editors.

My initial idea for this post was quite different from what it is actually about. You see, I was surfing the internet (what else is there to do when self-isolating, aside from bingeing* shows on Netflix or some other streaming platform?) when I saw an editor say something that stopped me dead in my tracks. I won’t quote it here; I not only do not have permission, but I would not ask for it. It’s not a very flattering reason to be quoted. It was a gaffe I almost immediately attributed to the difference between a copy editor and a developmental one. The copy editor needs a grounding in grammar. The developmental one does not. In fact, it can be a hindrance; it’s much easier to do the deep reading for developmental work without the distractions of misplaced modifiers and errant commas.

I had thought I’d write about the problem in the statement, which meant a lot of deep grammar stuff that even some long-time copy editors don’t necessarily know. It’s one thing to know that something is wrong; it’s another to know precisely why, and to be able to explain why in clear, concise, and above all correct terms.

This was … not correct.

And unless the writer knows grammar, they won’t know it’s not correct.

And for me, that’s a problem.

But backing up a step: The gist of the comment was right. The wrong thing was being emphasized. The details were wrong, though. And that bothered me. It still bothers me, hours later. But I realized, as I sat being bothered, that the bigger issue is that “editing” is a very large tent, encompassing several styles, and while there is often some overlap in skills, there isn’t necessarily any. It’s a happy coincidence when there is, in my experience.

And it’s far from my place to call someone out on having spoken erroneously when they’re essentially talking to a specific person, as it was in this case, rather than to a group at large. Not my business, honestly.

I know some of you must be wondering what the error was that got under my skin. Pretty basic stuff, really, about the grammatical subject of a sentence. Except there was a predicate complement involving a subordinating preposition followed by a rather intricate clause, and that got mixed up with the grammatical subject, and it was a right mess.

The developmental editor had a good point, but they made it with utterly incorrect information. That’s what bothered me. The sentence in question needed rewriting to tighten the focus, yes. But the prepositional object was not the grammatical subject of the sentence. Nope, sorry. (And it didn’t help that the prepositions were understood/implied rather than present, but if you diagrammed the sentence you’d know they were there. English grammar, man, it’ll get you in the ass every time.)

Can the recipient of the suggestion use the information they got and improve their writing? Probably. Especially if they go to the editor and ask for clarification. Even one who doesn’t know all the grammatical terms can still explain a problem like this one in ways that a writer can take to heart and use in a later draft. Know that I’m saying that as both a copy editor who knows her grammar and as a developmental editor who learned that DEs don’t need to focus on the technical issues, but rather on the Big Picture or “30,000 feet” problems. “Put the focus on [this word] instead of [that word].” That was the heart of the statement. And it was appropriate for the situation.

But the subject wasn’t the object of the preposition.

 

*”Bingeing” is the preferred spelling given by Merriam-Webster. The E differentiates it from “binging,” as in “The computer was binging for at least 15 minutes while her cousin tried to get her attention.”

Yep, it breaks the “rule” for dropping the terminal E when adding -ing to a verb. Too fucking bad.

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.