Pursuant to a discussion with Google+ user Fiber Babble about proofreaders and grammar checkers, I looked into Ginger Page, a free grammar and spelling checker (and supposedly much more) that I heard about on Twitter.
I just wrote a fairly long post at G+ in which I dissect an article from People Magazine. In it, the grammar checker Grammarly takes E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey to task.
To no one’s surprise, I hope, it fails miserably. Mechanical checkers cannot possibly parse the nuances of writing, grammar, usage, mechanics, and style. The proof’s right in the article, linked from my post there.
And I’m linking to that post from here, because writing it once was enough.
Read and enjoy.
If you’ve been following me on any platform for any length of time, you know I’ve been a staunch adversary of “alright.” I have stated as clearly as I know how that I would never reconsider that stance: “alright” would never become all right in my worldview.
You also know the saying “Never say never,” don’t you?
I’ll wait while you all recover and fetch smelling salts or whiskey or whatever you need to help you get through this. I understand entirely.
Rather than rewrite the book, so to speak, I’m providing a link to the article that changed my mind. As I tweeted earlier this morning, reading about the English language as it is actually spoken and used (descriptive grammar and linguistics, mostly) can lead to changing opinions. And I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, at all.
My last blog post here was about how I’ve mellowed. Even I never expected to mellow this much. I’m rather curious to see where I’ll go from here. Now I have one more item for my “ask the author” list, when I start a project with a new client. Added to the usual “Do you like serial commas?” and “UK or US conventions, for the most part?” will be “Do you care about ‘alright’ and ‘all right’?”
Clarification (October 13, 2014): I am still opposed to “alright” in narrative text. This sea change is purely for dialogue, and only if it’s appropriate for the setting and the character. A 16th-century nobleman will not say “all right.” He may well say “very well” or “excellent,” though. (A 16th-century peasant won’t say “all right,” either. Perhaps just “right” works for him. “All right” is a very American phrase (not that the English don’t use it, but it smacks of American speech–“Right” sounds more English to the non-academic ear), “attested to from 1953” according to Online Etymology (http://etymonline..com).
And if they say they like “alright,” that will be all right with me.
Had you asked me a year ago what my focus was as an editor, I’d have said (almost without thinking) “grammar, usage, and mechanics.” I was sure I could label myself a copy editor; I was aware of all those nit-picky things that average folks either don’t see or aren’t bothered by. Not only was I bothered by them (and I still am, make no mistake), I would stop reading a book if there were too many errors (as I define “too many,” of course).
Dialogue gets a pass because, well, it’s dialogue, and characters talk like people, and most people just, y’know, talk. They don’t worry about correctness, they worry about making a point. Being understood. Whatever that takes, that’s what they do. But narrative . . . oh, lawdy, if there were too many errors in the narrative passages within the first chapter or so? I’d close the book and that was the end. It never got another chance with me, no sirree.
Time passes. ::insert .wmv of analog clock with swiftly-moving hands::
Now, I would still call myself a copy editor, but I’m sending out tentative tendrils into the realm of developmental editing. I think some of my clients would say I am a dev-editor based solely on the types of things I mark for them. I rewrite paragraphs to improve flow. I rewrite sentences to vary structure. Sometimes, if I feel the writer is capable (not all of them are, but a good number, I think), I’ll leave comments along the lines of “too many compound sentences here. Rework for more variety.” If they don’t understand, they ask me. That’s a good thing. I want to be able to teach them how to make their own improvements. Not to put myself out of a job, but to make mine easier by improving their skills. If all I have to do is check GUM issues, I can work quicker than if I have to rewrite paragraph after paragraph.
Then there are those very few who come to me with work at which I take one look and shake my head sadly. “This isn’t ready for me,” I have to tell them, and I send them off to find a developmental editor who will be patient and thoughtful, equal parts creative writing teacher and Miss Thistlebottom. If the writing’s at high-school level–I mean average high-school, not honors/AP level–it’s not ready for me. I don’t charge nearly enough to teach grammar. If you can’t construct a complete sentence and don’t know how to organize a paragraph, you’re not ready to work with me.
I need to learn more myself about narrative structure. About the flow of the story, whether it’s a short story or a 110,000-word novel. Right now I’m not competent to critique on that level. I can say “this paragraph makes no sense here,” but I’m not able to say “this entire chapter needs to move.” Not yet, but I’m getting there. I think.
See? I don’t always sit here grousing about how the language is dying because “selfie” is now in the dictionary, or about how a misplaced modifier makes my blood boil. (More often it makes me chuckle. Not always, but damn, some of them are pretty amusing.) Sometimes I sit here thinking about how I can improve my skills. Because there is always room for that.
Even for me.
It occurs to me that many of the questions writers ask in editorial forums (such as the Writer’s Discussion Group at G+) could be answered by a little research. I’m not saying it’s not good to ask; I’m saying that research is a highly useful skill, and writers would do well to practice it. When you want to know how to spell a word, you use a dictionary. (Maybe you even use a misspeller’s dictionary, if you have a serious problem. That’s what they’re for, after all.) When you have a question about how your text should appear, you consult a style manual (or two, or three). If you’re working “to spec” there’s no question about which manual you should use. You use the one you’re told to use, period.
How many spaces after terminal punctuation? Do I use single quotes or double for direct speech? How do I form a possessive of a name that ends in -s? Are names of restaurants italicized, or enclosed in quotation marks (or perhaps something different from either of those)? What’s the difference between an em dash and an en dash, and how are they used? Should there be terminal punctuation after items in a bulleted list? Should I use “noon” and “midnight,” or “12 p.m.” and “12 a.m.?” And are there periods in those abbreviations, or are they set in small capitals? What about a range of times? Do I have to put the abbreviation after each time, or only the last one?
All excellent questions, and all answered by any one of the major style guides out there. Used copies are readily available if you don’t want to shell out for a new one. If you’re writing fiction, chances are you’ll lean toward CMoS (the Chicago Manual of Style). That might be your best option for nonfiction, unless that nonfiction is medical in nature; then perhaps you’d want to look at the AMA (the American Medical Association) style manual. If you’re writing for the education field, it’s a good bet that you’ll need to check the Modern Language Association’s guidelines (MLA). And, if you’re doing general research work in an academic setting, chances are good you’ll need an APA (American Psychological Association) style manual.
My “day job” consists of copyediting and proofreading content for social media sites for a national supermarket chain and its subsidiaries. I use the AP (Associated Press) manual for that, per the company standards. (AP is used for many news outlets; it’s a very spare style, focused on getting the maximum information into the minimum space.) The company I work for also has a house style guide for the things that AP doesn’t cover, and that document is constantly undergoing revisions (mostly because the two of us who freelance for them ask questions and push for answers, to make it easier on both their in-house staff writers and us). This guide covers not only the social media posts, but also Powerpoint presentations for clients, internal reports, and blog entries. What kind of revisions, you ask? Just this week, it was determined that the word “Associate” should always appear with an initial capital letter when it refers to someone employed by one of the companies (as in “Ask one of our friendly Associates about the rewards card program!”). A couple of months ago, the team decided that tweets should always use an ampersand (&) instead of the word “and,” but should never use “w/” instead of the word “with.” AP style says lists should use dashes, not bullets; the house guidelines supercede the AP version and say always use bullets.
You’ll need to do a little research before you do your research, you see, but I promise you it’ll be worth it in the long run. And if you’re a freelance editor, don’t be surprised if you wind up with a copy of each one on your reference shelf. The only ones I’ve never had call to use are AMA and MLA, but that’s just the luck of the draw. I even went so far as to get a copy of The New Oxford Style Manual for working with British writers, just in case. (I’ve become convinced that British writers can do pretty much whatever they please, as long as they’re consistent. I’m still happy I have that book, though. Makes a great paperweight.)
Here’s an article I wrote for my friend Jean Rabe, editor of The Bulletin of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (or “the SFWA Bulletin” for short). Now that the print copy has shipped, I’m able to post my work here for everyone else to see. This is my last version of the original file, before it was sent to Jean. Nothing substantial was changed.
As usual, this is an opinion piece and should be taken as such. Hope you like it.
Say the Secret Word
Some words are better used than others.
Some should be used once in a book, others once in a series of books, and others perhaps once in a lifetime.
I leave it to you to decide for yourself which words fall into which categories for your own purposes. As for me, if I never see another “exit” it will be too soon.
It’s a pretty common word, after all, isn’t it? We see Exit all the time while traveling interstate highways. It glows red above doors in public places. Those usages I can encounter without twitching. However, in a novel I really don’t need to see the word used ever again.
You see, it’s been ruined for me now thanks to something I read not long ago where every time there was a door or a tunnel opening or a cave mouth . . . every time someone left a room or a hallway . . . it was an exit. It wasn’t a door, or a tunnel opening, or a cave mouth. It was an exit. People didn’t leave. They exited.
Is there a secret club somewhere for authors with an entrance requirement that reads “Use one word to the exclusion of any possible synonyms every time you need to convey X concept or thought or movement”?
Did I miss the memo that said “For the month of February, we’ll be using the word ‘exit’ instead of ‘door, tunnel opening, cave mouth, or leave”?
Someone else told me that she’d encountered “undulate” in nearly every book she’d read over the course of several months, regardless of genre. Herpetology and belly-dancing notwithstanding, undulation’s not all that common a term in everyday parlance. It strikes me as one of those once-a-book words (unless the book’s about snakes or belly-dancers). While it’s certainly evocative, if it were to appear in every chapter (again, unless the main character’s a snake or a belly-dancer) the reader could well have one of two reactions: becoming inured to it, or becoming annoyed by it. Neither one is terribly desirable in my book. (Not that I’m writing one, you know. It’s a figure of speech. No, really, it is. I’m not a writer. Move along, nothing to see here . . .)
What’s the term? Oh, yes. “Hackneyed.” No one enjoys reading hackneyed writing. And things that weren’t hackneyed before can become so with overuse, like the convention of “a single tear.” It was powerful when we saw that public service announcement decades ago with that lone drop of saltwater coursing down the cheek of Chief Iron Eyes Cody. It really was.
But think about this; if every time characters become emotional we see a single tear course down a cheek, why should we care? Do they have a blocked tear duct in that other eye, since only one tear’s getting loose? That’s a serious medical condition, y’know.
Consider the act of nodding. Are your characters bobbleheads?
Sure, people nod in assent, they nod off, they nod to a friend they pass on the street. But do they have to nod every time they say “yes?” EVERY TIME? Can’t we assume they do, without seeing the word? We’re intelligent folks, most of us. If the dialogue tells us someone says “yes,” we’ll probably visualize them nodding. Now, if for some reason they’re nodding vehemently, we probably need to be told. But just nodding? Naah. We can figure that one out on our own, thanks.
Heaving bosoms. Alabaster ones, even. We don’t need ’em. Bodice rippers don’t even need ’em. Words that I could stand to see more often, but still only once per book: Mellifluous. Exaltation. Luxuriant.
Words I don’t need to see for a while (aside from “exit”): Massive. Cavernous. Stealthy.
And while I’m on about words I don’t need to see, let me rant for a moment about words that don’t really mean what you think they mean (like “massive”). “Massive” carries a sense of weight, of enormousness. Buildings, mountains, even people can be massive. Caverns can’t. There’s no weight to a cavern. It’s a hole. A really really BIG hole, but a hole nevertheless. Caverns are—wait for it—cavernous. They’re enormous. They’re immense, perhaps. But they’re not massive.
So they’re enormous. But they don’t have enormity. See, “enormity” refers to an occurrence or a state of being. The tragedy of 9-11 can be called an enormity in the sense of “atrocity.” Someone who is staggeringly brilliant can be described with a phrase like “enormity of intellect.” But a cavern doesn’t have enormity. It doesn’t have massiveness (it’s a hole, remember?).
Let’s go back to those exits for a moment or five. When I read something like the project to which I referred earlier, and I’m seeing the same word over and over, I start making notes on the side (usually actual notes, with real dead-tree paper and ink or pencil). Sometimes those notes end up going to the author after I’ve inserted them into the file as comments; sometimes they’re just for me. In the case of the excessive exits, most of them were just for me. I’d mark the sentence and make a note for myself to come back later and try recasting it to eliminate the word, tightening the prose as I did so. (I tightened an awful lot of prose in this project. A few thousand words’ worth.) “He stood up from the chair and exited the room” might have become “He rose and stalked out.” (I’m not giving you the actual sentences and changes. I’m using very similar sentences, though. They’re pretty much burned into my brain. Someday they’ll fade . . . I hope.)
Then there are the words that just plain don’t belong. At all. If you’re using voice-recognition software, you need to be aware that what you say might not come out the same on the other end of the process. You can end up with things like this: “The fact that all of those attacks had the same purpose couldn’t have been quintessential.” What? “Quintessential?” I kid you not; I stared at that sentence for a long time before I finally read it aloud. Then and only then did I realize the word had to be “coincidental.” Perhaps it would have clicked sooner for some of you, and perhaps not. Some of you might still be staring at it a month later. (I hope not, but it could happen, I suppose.) The words don’t sound that much alike to me, but if someone had less-than-good diction I can understand how a piece of software might confuse the two. That one incident caused me to do another round, this time reading aloud (which I don’t usually do) just in case I’d missed something else. (I hadn’t.)
I suspect the same thing might have happened to cause the word “perimeter” to show up instead of “parameter.” Those two sound far more alike than “quintessential” and “coincidental,” so I was far less confused. I bring this up because I know quite a few writers are turning to voice recognition; they’re dictating their drafts instead of typing them, because it’s faster. Faster is good. Faster isn’t always better. If you’re doing this, I beg you on behalf of copyeditors everywhere: Read your work after it’s transcribed. Aloud. Don’t skim it. READ it. You’ll save time and money and effort if you catch these errors before we do. (You’ll also save yourself the ignominy of being written about in essays, albeit anonymously so.)
But I digress . . .
Back to that repetition issue. If you have an assassin who wears black from head to toe, think twice before referring to him as “the man in black” every time he appears. A less-friendly copyeditor than I might change all references to him to “the MIB.” (Or they might refer to him as Cash. Points for getting that reference. No cash, just points.) Ask yourself how else he might be called, what other terms or epithets you could use. If his identity’s a state secret and only a handful of people know his real name (or perhaps no one knows his real name, but a handful know his code name) you’ll have to be more creative than usual with this, but I have faith in you as a writer. Read every scene where this fellow appears, and see how often you’ve repeated the same phrase describing him. You may well end up rewriting entire paragraphs to avoid the repetition. So be it. Your readers (and your copyeditor before them) will be forever grateful.
A caveat, though. Avoid the temptation to reference a thesaurus every time you get stuck. Readers have great radar for the results of this action. While the occasional twenty-dollar word (like ignominy) can boost your writing, using a whole passel of them in one or two paragraphs will set off every thesaurus-alarm in the country. Contemplate your intended meaning and choose the best words to convey it. Those might well be simple everyday words, not the pricey ones your reader will have to look up. How they’re put together will make the difference.
Words are our friends. Let them do the talking, in all their variations, their shades of meaning. Don’t send your readers running for the exit (door, tunnel opening, cave mouth) before the story ends.
As a pragmatist, I shake my head at the ongoing “debate” over how many spaces to use after terminal (or “sentence”) punctuation. Those of us who learned typing (as on a typewriter) as opposed to word processing generally learned to press the space bar twice after a period or a colon. Times change, and spacing changes too. These days, it’s generally accepted that one space is all you need. I’m continually amazed at the anguish evinced by those who cling to the old ways, as if being asked to use only one space were akin to being asked to cut off their dominant hand.
Really? Is it all that big a deal?
I don’t see it. I honestly don’t. Use two spaces if that’s what you want to do. Hell, use five if it makes you happy. The only time you’ll run into trouble is if and when your work goes to an editor to be prepped for publication. You’ll need to be ready for that editor to remove all the extra spaces, because three of the four most commonly used style guides in the US—the Chicago Manual of Style, the Modern Language Association style guide, and the Associated Press style guide—all specify one space following terminal punctuation. (The fourth major guide, that of the American Psychological Association, specifies two spaces. However, I will point out that for most writers looking to publish fiction or nonfiction, that won’t be the style guide in play.) If that editor is working for a publishing house, I feel secure in stating that there won’t be any negotiating on this point.
“But Karen, I’m an indie author and I’m self-publishing!” Hooray for you. If you contract with an editor (as I hope you will), you need to be prepared for that editor to ask (or perhaps tell) you what style guide will be used. It’s in an editor’s sphere of influence, as it were. And perhaps you and that editor can agree that your personal “house style” will be two spaces after terminal punctuation. Bully for you both.
The history of spacing is interesting, to be sure. Movable type. Typewriters. Word processors. Fixed-space fonts versus variable-width ones. That’s all interesting, yes. Ultimately, however, for my job as a copyeditor, none of it matters. The why’s don’t matter. The how’s don’t matter. What matters is what the style guide says is to be done. I don’t get paid to agree with the decision. I get paid to make the text fall into line with the style guide. Whether I’d be amenable to the two-spaces question remains to be seen, and depends a lot on the author’s attitude. Someone who blusters in and demands that they be left or else is someone I’d prefer not to deal with, thanks. I prefer the look of one space in this day of variable-width fonts and automatic kerning and all those other wonderful technological advancements, and apparently I’m far from being in the minority on that. I happen to have three pretty important authorities on my side. Bully for me. All it means is that I agree with what those authorities have to say on the matter, and that I will cite them whenever someone asks the oft-repeated question.
There’s no good reason for it, nor is there a good reason against it. It’s not a moral decision. It’s a stylistic one, and one that is addressed in every major style guide in use today. It’s about appearance on the page or the screen, not about personal preference or how you were taught in 1980. It’s about guidelines (not rules, notice—guidelines). There is no rule. There are, however, multiple guidelines, most of which are in agreement.
So you all go ahead and debate this point however you like. I know what my job is, and I know how to do it well. If that makes me someone you don’t want to work with, that’s perfectly all right with me. I’m not here to make your life miserable; I’m here to whip your writing into shape, make sure it’s grammatically and syntactically correct in whatever way is required by the style and the intended audience, and see that the final product adheres to an accepted style guide (whichever one we agree to use), perhaps with a few minor “house style” exceptions. That’s what I’m paid to do.
And I might even let you have your two spaces—if you comport yourself like the professional you want to be.
I’ve been ranting a lot here and elsewhere about the sorry state of ebooks from indie authors, relating to the (apparent) lack of editorial skills (paid or otherwise) applied to those ebooks. I decided to provide concrete examples from the book I’m currently trying to read. I say trying, because I want to read it, I want to enjoy it, but the appalling number of errors is really harshing on my serenity, dude.
I won’t name names or titles, or say where I got the book. I will say I’m glad I didn’t pay for it, though. If I’d parted with any money for this I’d be pretty upset. More upset than I already am. At least having paid nothing for it, I can’t bemoan the loss of money I could have spent on, I don’t know, food or gas or something useful. All I’m losing is time.
These, then, are actual errors from an actual book. I’m not making this up. Honest.
I will note that I’m only 25% of the way through the book, according to my Kindle. I took a tip from another editor and started highlighting errors as I came across them. What an eye-opener that was! I mean, I knew there were errors; I can’t not see them. Proofreading is hardwired into my brain. However, highlighting them makes them seem that much worse. Now I really can’t not see them.
Some of them I’ll explain, some I’ll let speak for themselves. By all means comment if you don’t understand why I’ve called something an error. I’ll do my best to enlighten. I will also state that I’m not quoting full sentences, but only the portions containing the error. It’s also important to know that the writer is from the UK, so some of the mechanics just drive me batty on principle and some of the word choices are unfamiliar to me.
no sights, no sound (For parallelism, I’d change that to “sounds” in this description of a setting.)
standing next to it, was M (Delete that unnecessary comma.)
lit up the lens of his glasses (Unless he’s wearing a monocle, he has lenses, plural.)
gunge (As an American English speaker, I didn’t know this word. It’s a UK term that I figured out contextually and then checked against a dictionary online. If I had been editing I might’ve queried it even after finding the definition. Therefore, this isn’t so much an error as a language issue–but I’m still pointing it out as something that can stop readers in their tracks.)
” . . . we can-.” (Oh, dear me. No. Not even in British usage. If the sentence/thought isn’t finished, there’s no period, no full stop, whatever you wish to call that dot at the end. Also, rather than a hyphen, I’d have used an em-dash to indicate the sudden breaking of the thought/speech. This particular mechanical error occurs throughout the book. I cheated and looked ahead, so I know.)
“Just one . . . at a time”. (Again, no. The period’s at the end of the spoken sentence, so it goes inside the closed quotation mark. I’ve read quite a few blogs lately about US vs. UK mechanics, and quotation marks with other punctuation is one of the most confusing things on both sides of the pond. However–no. It’s a sentence; it has a definite end; put the period inside the quote.)
alright (It’s not all right to use this. It’s all wrong. Two words. Always. All right? Thanks.)
small with a blue studs on top (It’s either a single stud, or perhaps this is a possessive missing its apostrophe and its object. I think it’s the first, and I’d delete that “s” on the end of “stud.”)
industrial sized Hoover (Adjectives made from two words–called compound adjectives–are often hyphenated. “Industrial-sized.” To a point this comes down to the editor’s preference in conjunction with a style guide, such as the CMoS. I far prefer the unambiguous hyphenation to an open version that in some cases leads to confusion or misunderstanding. That, and I like the look of the hyphenated form. So there. I suspect that in this case one might argue that “industrial-sized” is a temporary compound. I’ve not looked for the term in any dictionaries, so I can’t say. The concept is familiar to anyone who shops at places like Sam’s Club or Costco, though.)
give a once over (The idiom is hyphenated. “Once-over.”)
cotton weaved interior (I’m not entirely clear on the intent, here. I think the writer means the interior of this particular wig is woven from cotton. I’d have suggested changing it to “woven cotton interior.” On further discussion with the writer, I might have ended up with something more like “woven cotton cap,” since I believe that’s what the base of a wig is called–the part that fits the head like a cap, that is. I’m indulging in conjecture, of course.)
cheers and laughter . . . was a cacophony (I’d recast this, because while it seems a quick fix to say “were” and have the plural form for the plural subject, we’re also in that messy area of reciprocity. The sentence can’t be easily reversed using the same words (“cacophony” as the subject requires “was,” but “cheers and laughter” as the subject require “were”). I’d suggest recasting the sentence entirely to avoid the issue, and perhaps use the verb “created” instead of the form of “to be,” which is the heart of the problem.)
To the greying ice cream man, he couldn’t help but think . . (The greying fellow is the “he” following the comma. The sentence needs to be recast to eliminate the clumsiness. Perhaps “To the greying ice cream man the crowd looked like nothing so much as a cross between . . . .” Trust me, that’s where the sentence was going. I didn’t want to type the whole thing as it appears in the book, though.)
white-clothed (Again, this needs a hyphen.)
The driver slammed the breaks (No he didn’t. He slammed the brakes. A live proofreader would’ve caught this one.)
her inner thighs ran red raw from . . . (It took me a while to realize what’s needed here, I think because I was getting numb from the number of errors assaulting my editorial senses. Inserting a comma after “red” helps quite a bit, but I still would query the “running red” part. I know the condition the author’s describing, and I wouldn’t use the term “running” with it. “Were chafed and red,” perhaps. The way it’s written sounds like a hemorrhage.)
marine life getup (Another case here of needing a hyphen to create an adjectival compound. “Marine-life.”)
baggy (Pants are baggy. The plastic bag is a “baggie.”)
un-amused (Here’s one of the hyphens that was missing from the compound adjectives. It doesn’t belong in this word; “unamused” is a closed form.)
pre-occupied (Here’s another one. Delete it and close the space. “Preoccupied.”)
buy one get one free offer (Now we’re back to needing hyphens. “Buy-one-get-one-free offer.”)
collapse on to the floor (Usage problem. One could say “collapse on the floor” or “collapse to the floor,” but “collapse on to” is just poor usage.)
oxidisation (Aside from the UK s-for-z spelling issue, this just isn’t a word. The one the writer wanted was “oxidation.”)
pressed him for a minutae (sic) more (Just–no. No. One cannot have “a minutiae.” “Pressed him for more minuitae” preserves the author’s word choice and is grammatically correct. I had originally written another suggestion with a different word entirely, but I like this one much better. And I corrected the misspelling.)
spaghetti bolognaise (If you’re going to write about a food, know how to spell it. Particularly when the food is regional Italian, like “spaghetti Bolognese.” Capitalize the “B” because this is a proper adjective.)
That’s where I stopped taking notes for the time being. You’ll notice I’m not fussing about pacing, or characterization, or plot, or any of those bigger things. I’m not a story/fiction/developmental editor. I’m a copy editor and a proofreader. I see these little things that many people seem to consider “nitpicking.” They’re far from nitpicking, though. They’re signs of someone with an imperfect grasp of grammar and mechanics who would have done well to have hired someone like me–or any other professional copy editor/proofreader–to look over the work before publication. Then, readers like me wouldn’t find themselves becoming irritated and unable to enjoy the story because of the plethora of errors in the “nitpicky stuff.”
I’ll also say: I learned a new phrase from this book. “Keep schtum” means “keep quiet, particularly if you’ll get in more trouble otherwise.” While it sounds Yiddish, it apparently came from the criminal culture of the UK. It might come in handy someday, so I’ll tuck it away for later.
I would hope that this has shed some light on how a typical copy editor’s brain works while they’re reading. (I think I’m typical, anyway. I’m damned good at what I do, but I don’t think I’m all that special when compared to other professional copy editors.) That’s why I did it. Not to point at a writer and chastise his work. Not to complain for no reason. To point out the kinds of errors commonly made, to explain how I would correct them and why, and to provide an example of why writers really should drop some cash on professional editing and proofreading for their hard work. That’s all, really.
Thanks for reading.
So there I was, wondering what to post here on the blog, and then fate stepped in and delivered unto me a wonderful little essay on the difference between copy editors and fiction editors, written by Torah Cottrill (who happens to be both a writer and an editor).
In my own professional work, I do both kinds of editing. Karen focuses mainly on copy editing. But plenty of people out there—including many self-publishing authors, unfortunately—don’t differentiate between types of editing. No matter what you’re writing, it’s important to know what kind of editorial services you want and/or need to make your stuff as appealing as possible to your audience.
And now, take it away, Torah!
A Few General Thoughts About Editors
It’s worth pointing out, for those not familiar with the distinction, that copy editors and fiction editors are two entirely separate things. (Although there are cases where the same person can do both, it’s actually pretty rare for one person to be good at both.)
Copy editors will make sure you don’t use “bare with me” or “should of” or “sneak peak” and that your typo “what is” instead of “what if” gets caught and corrected. Copy editors can catch continuity errors (for instance, that your character had a red shirt in the first chapter, but you described a blue shirt in chapter three), and can even offer advice about restructuring sections of text and about reworking clunky or confusing language.
Fiction editors look at the larger picture of your work, and can help you decide things like whether you need to add more POV characters, if the narrative structure is falling apart in chapter 5, whether your antagonist is believable, and all of the other story advice that writers dream of when they imagine “having an editor.”
Both types of editors are invaluable. What you should spend your money on depends on what you feel you need. Bottom line, everybody needs to have a copy editor (or a friend who’s good at those kinds of details) look at their work before it’s published, because basic errors of grammar and spelling are inexcusable in work you offer a reader.
As with any professional service, ask for references when looking for any type of editor. Ask what the editor offers, and how much he or she charges. Ask for a sample of his or her work. Discuss price and what you get for your investment. Maybe you’d benefit more from general advice on the structure of your novel, based on the first two chapters and a detailed outline, rather than from a full-blown edit of the whole work. Maybe you only want a final proofreading polish rather than a more intensive copy editing pass. Discuss what you want to achieve by working with the editor, and how the editor can help you accomplish that.
Remember, like any other professionals, editors have varying degrees of experience and expertise, and varying personalities. Spend the time to find someone who’s a good fit for you.
For examples of both kinds of editing, look at the Serious Pixie blog by Susan Morris and GRAMMARGEDDON! by Karen Conlin and Ray Vallese.
Very well said, Torah. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us—and for the shout-out to our blog. (I disabled the GRAMMARGEDDON! link you put in your essay so as not to create a self-referential loop that would destroy reality. That’s me, generous to a fault.)
Have you read Thirty-Five Shades of Grey? How about I Am the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo? How about Steve Jobs—no, not the biography by Walter Isaacson, but the version by a guy named Isaac Worthington? The one that looks like it was cribbed from Wikipedia?
If you try to buy a popular best-seller from Amazon, double-check your purchase before clicking all the way through. It seems that the website sells books that have titles and author names that are deliberately similar to genuine best-sellers. That’s because they’re “written” (and I wish I could imply even more sarcasm than mere quotation marks will allow) by “authors” (there I go again) who are trying to jump on the self-publishing bandwagon.
Worse, they use CreateSpace, an Amazon service that makes it easy—apparently far too easy—to write and publish your book on the website with an air of legitimacy. The product details list CreateSpace as the publisher, so customers who aren’t paying attention might miss this clue that the books are, in fact, self published. (Amazon has removed the knock-off books listed above from the site, probably due to the bad publicity stirred up by articles like this one from Fortune, but you can still find them for sale elsewhere on the web.)
As I’ve said before, self-publishing is great, but not if it bypasses an editor. At the very least, a good editor can stop you from making an absolute fool of yourself as you try to dupe people into buying your book by accident.
Then again, maybe I’m missing the boat here. According to the Fortune article, Karen Peebles, the “author” of I Am the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, claims to have used CreateSpace to publish 10,000 books. Yes, ten thousand. (You can see some of them here, if you dare.)
If I hurry, I might be able to get I’m Not the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo up for sale by dinner.