Show & Tell (or not)

The “show, don’t tell” discourse has come around again as it does, and this time I have a little something to add. I want to thank Maria Heater and Ian Martinez Cassmeyer for inspiring me.

It’s been pointed out that this isn’t an absolute. It’s not “ALWAYS show, NEVER tell.” It’s more a case of “explain when it’s needed, and when it isn’t, describe.” Background is often best done by telling/explaining. Give the reader what they need to understand! Don’t let them flail around in the dark while you “show” them. Tell them, straight up. “The flight was late, and by the time he left the jetway he was moving at a dead run.” I don’t need to know he’s feeling his heart pound while he’s running. You’ve told me he’s late. That’s good information, presented as it needs to be. Describing the entire sequence of movements from jetway to ride-share pickup point would be tedious as hell. Just explain it and get on with the story. (Now, it’s possible that something important to the story happens during his dash for the Uber. Then, maybe we need some describing. It’s a balancing act!)

I usually end up reminding clients to “show, don’t tell” when they’re overusing filter language. Don’t tell me or your other readers what someone feels. Show me how they feel it. (Or hear it, or smell it, or taste it, or see it.) “She felt cold.” Yippee. She needs to put on a coat. “The gusts of driving sleet bit through her parka as if it were a windbreaker.” NOW I’m there with her.

Or: “He was nervous.” Poor guy. “Droplets of cold sweat dripped down the back of his neck, soaking into his shirt.” Is he at an interview? Is this the guy who was racing through the airport? I want to know!

It takes practice to strike the best balance of showing and telling. A good editor will help clients figure out how to reach that balance. That might be suggesting a change from one to the other at certain points, and providing some possible wording. It might be leaving comments like “This is perfect at this juncture!” or “I’m lost here. How about some explanation of why she thinks this?”

Show AND tell, but do so judiciously. Give readers what they need to enter your story and stay there.

New Year, New Rates

Happy 2022 to all my followers! May this year be an improvement over the last one.

Effective today, 3 January 2022, my rates have increased to five cents per word. You can see more at my Fee Structure document, which is linked to from my personal page here at the blog.

When I first started as an indie editor, ten years, ago, I charged a cent and a half. It took me nearly five years to raise my rates. I’m no longer shy about the process. While I don’t blow my own horn too loudly or too often, I am an award-winning editor and I’m worth the price.

Thank you for being here. I appreciate every one of you.

Beats following dialogue begin with capital letters

I’m running into a common error lately, one I haven’t addressed previously.

The writer sets down a line or three of dialogue, ending with an ellipsis or an em dash to indicate the thought breaks off. However, they follow that with a lowercase letter and a complete sentence. A beat, in other words.

In every case, the word following the closing quotation mark needs to be capitalized. It’s beginning a sentence, not starting a dialogue tag.

What I’m seeing, V1:

“Put that down! You don’t know where it’s—” she stopped short of completing the statement when a hand touched her on the shoulder.

What it should be, V1:

“Put that down! You don’t know where it’s—” She stopped short of completing the statement when a hand touched her on the shoulder.

What I’m seeing, V2:

“I’ve had this very thing happen to me a thousand times! Why, just last month, in Paris . . .” he stared into space as if a movie of those days were being projected on the wall in front of them.

What it should be, V2:

“I’ve had this very thing happen to me a thousand times! Why, just last month, in Paris . . .” He stared into space as if a movie of those days were being projected on the wall in front of them.

Compare both of these to speech that’s interrupted by a beat, action that occurs while the speaker is talking. Like this:

“In Paris, as I was saying, I was standing on my balcony, gazing up at the Eiffel Tower” — he tapped his empty rocks glass, shooting a glance at the bartender and nodding thanks — “and I felt a hand on my shoulder. But I knew I was alone!” *

The key to getting this right is remembering that the ellipsis always belongs with the speech, so whatever comes after the closing quote will begin with a lowercase letter if it’s an actual tag (like “he said”). If it’s anything other than a tag, it begins with a capital letter. Honestly, I’m hard pressed to think of a situation where a tag would be worthwhile in this position. A beat, yes. A tag, not so much.

With the em dashes, it’s a little trickier; if the dash belongs with the speech, whatever follows it needs to begin with a capital (unless it’s an actual dialogue tag, but see my previous paragraph). If the dash goes with the intrusion, what follows will begin with a lowercase letter.

Beats that interrupt dialogue begin with lowercase letters. Beats following dialogue begin with capital letters.

*The astute among you will notice spaces around the em dashes in the Paris example. I have deviated from Chicago style for that paragraph because there’s a glitch in WordPress that causes the opening quotation mark following the second em to be a closing quotation mark. (I use straight quotes in my draft, but they become curly in the final. The draft looks correct. The final, not so much.) Inserting a space around the em dashes results in the correct curly quotes. I’m not thrilled about it, but it works.

Split infinitives: Not wrong, sometimes preferable

I saw a generalization early this morning that got my dander up. The writer stated that “almost every style guide” says to avoid the split infinitive. To put it bluntly, that’s wrong; it’s a misrepresentation of what they actually say. That the post went on to explain and clarify doesn’t much matter when what people will remember is that initial statement: “Almost every style guide” says not to use it.

I’ve looked up “split infinitive” in The Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago, the style guide I use) and on the website for AP, and then I checked Buzzfeed for good measure. After that, I went to the usage guides: Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, Garner’s Modern English Usage, Dreyer’s English (Dreyer), Words into Type, and Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage.

Not one of these sources says that a split infinitive is to be avoided at all times. In fact, every one of them says that not only is the construction grammatically correct, but it is also preferable to performing syntactical gyrations. There’s no reason to avoid using it when that usage is the clearest and changing it would alter the intended meaning of the sentence.

Furthermore, I’ll note here that the APA style manual, 7th edition, does not even mention split infinitives. As I said to someone in a Slack chat earlier, “APA does not recognize this as a problem.” (Yes, I was being snarky. Imagine that. Thank you to my colleagues DeAnna Burghart and James Fraleigh for being my reference checkers.) Rather, the manual refers users to “a trusted grammar reference” for questions about issues not covered. Which reference? That’s users’ choice.

The only place one might routinely consider avoiding the split infinitive is in the most formal writing, where the most readers are likely to think poorly of its presence (because they’re not grammarians, obviously). Annoying one’s intended audience is seldom if ever the best option.

I will quote only one source here, that being Chicago:

“Although from about 1850 to 1925 many grammarians stated otherwise, it is now widely acknowledged that adverbs sometimes justifiably separate the to from the principal verb.” (Chicago 17th ed., 5.108)

“If the adverb bears the emphasis in a phrase {to boldly go} {to strongly favor}, the split infinitive is justified and often even necessary. . . . Recasting a sentence just to eliminate a split infinitive or to avoid splitting the infinitive can alter the nuance or meaning of the sentence.” (5.171)

The style guide most used by journalists, the venerated AP text, changed its guidance in 2019 in an admission that the split infinitive can aid comprehension and readability.

Of the usage guides, I will quote only from Dreyer, and that itself is a quote from Raymond Chandler:

“By the way, would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split.” (Dreyer, 1st ed., p. 11)

I can say without reservation that we are free to confidently split infinitives without fear of repercussions.

Chicago Manual of Style comes to PerfectIt 5

I honestly didn’t see how PerfectIt 4 could be improved upon. I’ve been using it since it came out. And I used PerfectIt 3 before that. I love, love, love this program.

Believe me when I say that Daniel Heuman and the team at Intelligent Editing have found a way to improve upon it.

When you get PerfectIt 5, you’re not only getting the kind of proofreading/copy editing support you’ve become accustomed to in the past, but if you have a subscription to CMOS online, then you’re also getting real-time support via the site (chicagomanualofstyle.org). When PerfectIt5 highlights stylistic problem areas, it also provides you with a live link to CMOS guidance.

If it’s something you already know and are comfortable with, something you’re sure about, of course you can ignore it and keep on trucking. However, if it’s something that makes you wonder whether you know what you thought you knew (and it happens to all of us!), just click on the link and you’ll see the “chapter and verse” about the issue. For example: “The term half brother is usually open. See more from CMOS 7.89”. Clicking the “see more” line brings up the relevant text directly from the CMOS site, with the numerals in bright red bold type.

For editors who are still learning the Chicago style, I’ll say this is nigh unto invaluable. No more wondering whether you’ve gotten it right. No more second-guessing yourself. And best of all, you’ll find you’re looking up fewer issues. Even for those of us used to using the online version, this is an improvement. The information will come up when we need it, at the precise point in our document where we need it. NB: This addition does not include the entirety of the CMOS database. There will still be times you’ll need to go to the book or the online version on your own.

The usual caveats apply as they do with any “checker” program. It’s better to be cautious and check each instance individually than cavalierly “fix all.” (Only when I can see “all” right there in one place do I ever even consider doing that.)

I say all of this as an editor who works only with fiction. I don’t have to think about heading hierarchies, tables, figures, footnotes, bibliography entries, and so on. If you do, I feel safe saying you will find this a godsend. The guidance will pop up immediately, right on your screen. No hunting through a print copy, no searching the website. It’s right there, and it will expand at the click of your mouse.

Congratulations, Daniel and team! You found a way to improve something I thought was already perfect.

[Disclaimer: I received a free one-year extension to my subscription for this review.]

More on using “a” or “an” before acronyms/initialisms

That’s a previous post about this subject. However, because this topic is evergreen, I can write more!

This question comes up regularly on social media. I’m not sure if that’s because it is actually that confusing or because people simply don’t read closely.

If the term in question begins with a consonant sound (not necessarily a consonant! It’s about the sound, not the letter!), use “a,” like this:

A friend who applied to be a CIA operative used me as a reference.

We use “a” because we say “see eye ay,” which begins with an S sound.

Look again at “an S sound.” Remember, it’s about the sound of the beginning letter, not the letter itself. Because “ess” (what we call that letter) begins with a vowel sound, we use “an” with “S.”

With the initialism “NYC,” I see both articles used even in text produced within the city itself. The article guides me, as a reader, toward the expected pronunciation. If I see “a NYC bistro,” I know I’m meant to read that as “New York City.” If I see “an NYC bistro,” I’m meant to read that as “an En-Why-See bistro.” People who live in NYC have strong opinions about which is correct. (Which way did you read it that time? There’s nothing to guide you; there’s also no right or wrong answer. At least not to me, there isn’t.)

Recently this question arose about the term “FAQ.” Within the IT community, it’s universally accepted as a word, pronounced like “fack”: Read the FAQ. Outside that group, opinions and practices vary. Some people say “eff-ay-cue,” which would necessitate using “an” if one required an indefinite article. Others say “fack,” which of course would take “a.” I wager nearly everyone who has ever ordered anything online has encountered “FAQ” at some point, usually in wording like “Questions? Read our FAQ before contacting us.” It’s not so much unfamiliarity with the term that’s the issue. It’s whether you’re inside the IT community, where it’s just a word and pronounced like one, or outside, where you don’t hear or use it regularly. (Disclosure: My spouse has decades of experience in IT. I learned early on that it’s “a FAQ.”)

Remember: It’s the sound of the letter, not the letter that makes the sound, that matters in choosing the indefinite article that will guide readers to the intended pronunciation.

Punctuation: Road Signs for Readers

The title says it all, really. All punctuation (periods, commas, semicolons, quotation marks, and so on) functions like road signs, but for readers instead of drivers. The cleanest metaphor is a period; it’s a stop sign. It signals the end of a thought. Commas signal a pause (not necessarily a breath!). Semicolons signal a connection of some kind. Parentheses signal additional information that isn’t required but is helpful. And so on.

In the same way that traffic signs keep cars from running off the road, punctuation marks keep the reader from ending up in the word weeds. At the same time, they help keep your thoughts in line, which you’ll see in action as you’re writing, I’ll wager. You type, then back up and add or remove a mark, then type more. You’re placing, adding, and removing road signs for your readers. A colon might mean “A list of items is coming up.” An em dash can signal “There’s a sharp change in direction here.” Quotation marks mean “Someone is speaking” or “This material is taken directly from a source.”

Is someone pausing to think in the middle of speaking? An ellipsis (three spaced periods with a space before and after, in Chicago style) lets the reader know it’s happening.

“I’m hungry for Japanese tonight. Let’s go to . . . How does Shiroi Hana sound to you?”

Are they changing thoughts midsentence? An em dash shows readers that.

“Sounds great! We can take my—Where are my keys?”

[There are other ways to indicate this by using beats. However, this post isn’t about that. It’s good to know more than one way to lead your readers in the right direction.]

And, as always, remember: I write about American English. If you’re using a different English, the rules and guidelines may well be different.

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.

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.