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).

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

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

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

It’s not the pastry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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