Honor the writer’s voice

Editors are told to “honor the writer’s voice.” But what does that mean, exactly?

It does not mean that we leave their errors in place; that would be shirking our responsibility as editors. I would hope that’s obvious, but I’ve learned that what I think is obvious is often anything but to others.

To honor the writer’s voice, we have to get a feel for their style. Do they use contractions, or do they write everything out fully? Do they like long sentences or short ones, in general? What about their word choices? Do they lean toward simpler words or fancier ones?

Maybe they use contractions in dialogue but never in narrative. It is not my job, as editor, to change all the contractions in their dialogue to fully written-out wording. Nor is it my job to contract everything that can be contracted in their narrative. My job is to see and hear how they write, and then ensure consistency within that framework.

What if one character’s dialogue uses contractions, but only that one? Chances are very high that it’s a choice on the writer’s part, as one method of characterization. The same goes for the character who speaks in flowery phrases. “I don’t hear X saying this” is a frequent comment I leave in the margins, when something sounds off to me.

We are the polishers of prose. The writer chisels form from a block of an idea; we come along afterward and sand off the roughness, adding a highlight here or there, chipping off a stray protuberance, making that work shine.

Honor the writer’s voice. Hear them, and make your suggestions in harmony with their words.

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.

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.

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.


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).

National Grammar Day 2020

Before the day slipped away entirely, I wanted to publish a short post.

Earlier, I tweeted my single bit of advice for new editors and writers, which is to never trust your spellchecker. Use it, yes. It’s a safety net, in the same way that high-wire acts use a safety net. But, unlike the net that will prevent them from splattering on the ground, this one cannot save you from every error. Verify every result it gives you. Some will be incorrect. Dare I say, wrong. (And some will be wrong in uproariously funny ways. Take the laughs where you can get them, I say.)

I also suggested befriending a linguist or ten. You’ll learn things you never dreamed of about English. My colleague Sarah Grey added lexicographers; there is a lot of crossover between the groups. And both groups will teach you things that will leave you wondering why you ever thought you knew anything. In the best way, I might add.

My third issue on this Grammar Day is one I return to every few months. Grammar is not usage is not mechanics is not syntax is not semantics. Don’t come at me with a so-called “grammar quiz” that’s nothing but spelling and mechanics issues. (I won’t say errors, because a good portion of the time the “errors” are nothing more than style issues, and that’s another sore point of mine.) I write and tweet and talk about all of those things, which I call “GUMmy Stuff” (Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics, and I make the S work double for Syntax and Semantics because I’m mean. Be glad I don’t make it work treble by adding Style to the set).

And that, my friends, is that, for this year. It’s late, I have a sleeping granddaughter on the couch beside me, and the old cat man wants me to follow him. Happy Grammar Day.

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!)

“Stay on target … stay on target …”

Get a drink and maybe a snack and settle in. Today I’m talking about keeping yourself focused and targeted when writing complex sentences (both those defined that way grammatically and the ones that are just long).

I see the same thing happening time and again. A writer creates a sentence, probably a grammatically complex one with at least one dependent clause along with the independent clause, and somewhere, somehow, the focus of the sentence gets lost. By the time we’re at the terminal punctuation, the thrust has shifted from the grammatical subject to something else that’s related to it, grammatically speaking. Continue reading ““Stay on target … stay on target …””

What a dictionary is and isn’t, from this editor’s point of view

I’m not a lexicographer, but I know several from Twitter. That’s my disclaimer. What I’m writing here is taken from English-language dictionaries themselves (did you know the print versions usually include a “how to use this book” section?), personal experience, and Twitter discussions.

Dictionaries do not dictate how you are allowed to use a word. They do, however, tell you how words are used. Do you see the difference? They’re showing you a snapshot, in essence, of the English language at a moment in time. The definitions change with the language, but not as quickly as language changes. For a word to enter a dictionary, or for its definition to change, that word must appear in print in places where the lexicographers can cite it. That can be news media, fiction, nonfiction, periodicals, personal correspondence made public, transcripts of speech, websites, and so on. Continue reading “What a dictionary is and isn’t, from this editor’s point of view”

Lost in the words: a tale of two commas

Earlier this morning I was scrolling through my Twitter feed, and I came across a retweet concerning crop-circle art of Beto O’Rourke. About halfway through the text, I’d lost sight of the sentence structure. Why?

Here’s the tweet.

And here’s the text, copied exactly (links removed):

“Dying to know how this 2-acre “BETO 2020” crop circle made of sand, mulch, clay, rocks & pecan shells a little over a mile north of an Austin Texas airport less than a week after @BetoORourke announced his run for president shows up in @FEC campaign finance disclosures”

I can’t speak for everyone, of course, but by the time I got to “Austin Texas” I was asking myself what the crop circle did. I had yet to come to the relevant verb.

Grammar will help sort this out. The sentence subject isn’t present; it’s “I,” which is understood. “I’m dying to know.” That’s the basic sentence, here. However, that’s not the really important bit.

What is the writer dying to know? “How this crop circle” did something, presumably. You’ll notice I’m leaving out the modifiers. They’re not germane to the basic sentence. They add information, sure, but they’re not vital to a subject/verb structure.

A quick and dirty fix is to insert commas after “circle” and “president.” Then we have this:

Dying to know how this 2-acre “Beto 2020” crop circle, made of sand, mulch, clay, rocks & pecan shells a little over a mile north of an Austin Texas airport less than a week after @BetoORourke announced his run for president, shows up in @FEC campaign finance  disclosures

There’s no period because Twitter. That’s also why the subject, I, is understood and absent; it saves characters. Sure, we have 280 to play with now, but people are still stingy with them. This version uses 272.

Those commas I added indicate to the reader that what’s set off by them can be ignored safely to get to the meat of the sentence, which is this: Dying to know how this crop circle shows up in FEC campaign finance disclosures. (I’ve left out other modifiers, too, for clarity in making the point.) I’d prefer to see more commas, but as I said, this is quick and dirty. (Twitter register is oh, so forgiving.)

However, we could help readers more by making bigger changes. Those two commas are the minimum work. What if we rearrange the phrases and clauses a little?

Dying to know how this 2-acre “BETO 2020” crop circle shows up in @FEC campaign finance disclosures. Just over a mile north of an Austin, TX, airport, appearing less than a week after @BetoORourke announced his run for president. Made of sand, mulch, rocks, clay & pecan shells.

Two hundred seventy-eight characters. The gist of the tweet, which is the crop circle showing up in FEC documents, is together now rather than separated by a string of modifiers (“made of this and such,” “just over a mile north of an airport,” “less than a week after (he) announced his run for president”).  I also used “TX” instead of “Texas,” with commas where style required them. The least important information, what the circle is made of, comes at the end. We don’t have to use full sentences, again because Twitter.

Do we take time to edit like this before hitting “TWEET”? Of course not. We’re working at speed, on the fly. Some folks are better than others at composing succinct yet descriptive tweets.

This is the kind of work I once did for a national chain’s social media. I edited tweets and social media posts, which were scheduled to go up at specific times. When I see one that’s difficult to parse, my editor brain jumps in to see what can be done: what’s the least amount of editing necessary to help the reader? What more could be done if there’s time?