Learn the rules, THEN break them

I’m sure you’ve seen this before. “You can’t break the rules well until you know what the rules are” and other variations to the same effect.  (That’s a fragment, and it’s intentional.) What’s the deal with that, anyway? Why bother to learn them to break them?

Because, folks, if you don’t know what the rules are to start with, you won’t be breaking them as much as you’ll be writing badly. Think about any art medium: clay, paint, metal, paper. If you don’t know what you’re doing, your work is likely to be amateurish at best, and garbage at worst. You don’t know how to use the medium effectively (some might say “correctly”), so your results are substandard.

It’s the same with writing and editing. Yes, editing. Every kind of writing and editing has its own set of rules and guidelines, and they need to be learned before they can be effectively ignored, bent, or broken.

As Roy Peter Clark says in The Glamour of Grammar: “Make sure you can identify common mistakes. You can’t break a rule and turn it into a tool unless you know it’s a rule in the first place.”

My use of a fragment back there at the start is an example of using rule-breaking as a tool. Sure, I could change that period to a colon, but I don’t want to. I want that fragment.  Don’t be fooled into thinking it’s an independent clause. It isn’t. If you don’t understand why that’s true, you have some studying to do. (Yes, I used to teach English at the middle-school level. I nearly went to Japan to teach it as a second language. I have reasons for doing what I do.)*

As a fiction editor, I work with a lot of rule-breakers. I break a few myself in some of my suggested edits. There’s a different set of them at play in fiction than in, say, academic editing or medical editing. And guess what? Register plays a huge part in it, too. The expectations of the language’s formality makes an enormous difference in what can be gotten away with.

Remember: it’s not an editor’s job to teach you English grammar. It’s their job to help you polish your writing, to help you achieve your objectives. If you’re still struggling with the basics, you’re not ready to move on. Harsh words, perhaps, but true ones–ones that will help you become the writer you want to be.

*Why is it a fragment? Because that whole thing taken as a unit is only a complex subject. There’s no verb to the thought. The verbs are in the quote, and they don’t apply to the phrase that follows “and.” Here’s another way to look at it: it’s grammatically the same as saying “this thing and that thing.” What about them? There’s no verb. And that’s the reason I wanted the fragment: as a teaching tool.

All right, you, break it up: Dialogue and reactions

I haven’t found anything in any of my usage or grammar texts about this particular topic. I suspect it’s because the issue is one more of craft or art than of science (inasmuch as one can compare grammar to a science; one sure as hell can’t do that with usage, I know that for a fact).

Here’s the thing: I’ve seen paragraphs containing dialogue and reactions, and while that’s not illegal, the way it was written was less than clear. Person A says something, person B reacts to it in the same graf, and then A says something again. Why? Is it because the writer was taught that grafs have to be N sentences long? (N is often 10, for some reason entirely unknown to me. I had a professor, a Kipling scholar, who insisted that if we couldn’t write 10 sentences about a topic sentence, we needed a different topic sentence.) Not that any of these grafs came close to that, but it’s about all I can think of to explain the phenomenon. Continue reading “All right, you, break it up: Dialogue and reactions”

I’m still here.

I’ve been working my butt off, and I’ve been fighting some form of plague for the last couple of weeks, but I’m still here.

Let’s see. So far this year, I’ve edited eight projects ranging from a short story to a 115-thousand-word novel. Two were for new clients; the balance were for “regulars” (in some cases long-term!). How many words total, you ask?

Three hundred ninety-nine thousand. (Give or take. I rounded up.)

In two months.

Now, I schedule myself at about 160K words/month. That’s my ideal. But as you can see, ideal doesn’t always happen. Projects slide; people get sick; cars need repairs; life happens. And when life happens, I work with every client to ensure we both get what we want and need out of the situation. It might mean contacting a couple of other clients to see if we can play with deadlines. It might mean suggesting to a new client that they take an extra month to coddle their baby project before they turn it over to me, so that a) they feel better about it, and b) I can better work on one that arrived late and needs extra TLC.

Things happen. And I roll with them, and talk to whoever I need to talk to, and keep on working.

Guidelines Are Not Rules (and Vice Versa)

Just a friendly reminder that in English, there are precious few rules and a metric ton (which is a tonne) of guidelines. Style guides do not agree. Dictionaries might not even agree. Grammar guides will agree on most things but not on everything.

What’s a rule?

“Start a new sentence with a capital letter and end it with terminal punctuation.”

That’s about as close to a rule as you’re going to get. And even here there are exceptions. If the sentence is in dialogue, it might NOT begin with a capital letter (it could be an interruption of the previous speaker’s words). The terminal punctuation might NOT be a period, a question mark, or an exclamation point, if the speaker’s drifting off into thought or being interrupted — then it might end with an em dash for an abrupt intrusion or with suspension points to signal the drifting.

No one HAS to follow the guidelines YOU like. And they’re not WRONG if they don’t. They’re making their own choices. They get to do that, and so do you.

Here’s another rule. “An independent clause contains a subject and a verb.” A complete thought contains a subject and a verb (or a noun phrase and a verb phrase, to use different terminology for the same thing). But what about “COME HERE!”? That’s a complete thought, and there’s no noun phrase in sight. That’s because the subject/noun phrase is understood to be “YOU.” “YOU COME HERE!” The subject is clear but it doesn’t appear in print.

If you’re new to this writing thing, do yourself a favor. LEARN THE RULES of grammar before you go breaking them. Having to relearn grammar SUCKS. Learning it and THEN choosing to break the rules? That can be a lot of fun.

I’m all for more fun  in 2015.

Books I bought this month (and should’ve bought sooner)

I’ve said this a lot in the last couple of weeks, and I’m saying it again.

I’ve learned more about my craft and English in general after my formal education (I graduated from college in 1979) than I ever did during it.

While I was in school studying to become a teacher (which I actually did do, for a year), I believed that we had Rules and only Rules, no guidelines. Rules were made to be Followed, and if one did not Follow the Rules, one would be in Serious Trouble.

I was SO WRONG.

Anyway, before this turns into a wholly different type of post than I intend it to be, here are three books I bought this month and really should have bought long ago.

 

See links in the post to get your own copies!
See links in the post to get your own copies!

 

The Business of Editing by Richard H. Adin is a rather heavy read for me, but not unreadable by any stretch. I’ve skimmed the entire book and am now taking my time, forcing myself not to read only the chapters with interesting titles (like “The Elusive Editorial Higgs Boson”). By the time I’m done I’ll have gotten some validation, some thwacks on the knuckles, and a good deal of excellent advice. As with Carol Fisher Saller’s The Subversive Copy Editor, I’m finding that I’m already on the same page in many areas as the esteemed author. How I managed to do that with no formal training as an editor — only OTJ for me! — I have no idea. But I think as they do, when it comes to interacting with clients. That’s a big HOORAY for me.

Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business: Being interesting and discoverable by Louise Harnby is a handy little text, too. Most of us editorial types see “marketing” and freeze. That is NOT what we do. We’re not marketing people. But we must be. No one’s going to market for us, not even our happiest clients. Word of mouth goes only so far. Harnby’s book is filled with ideas to take and make one’s own, from cold-calling (UGH) to social media posting (YAY). Again, I’m glad to see that I’m getting some of it right all on my own. I can do more, though, and I will.

The third book, on the bottom in the photo, is (sorry, Mr. Adin and Ms. Harnby) the most invaluable of the three in my professional (I can say that!) opinion. Amy Einsohn’s The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications is proving just as useful to me, with my 20+ years of experience, as it would to someone just starting out. It is not a style guide. It’s a thorough discussion of the rules of copyediting. Quoting the back cover: “[This book] is a lively, practical manual for newcomers to publishing and for experienced editors who want to fine-tune their skills or broaden their understanding of the craft.” There’s nothing for me to add, really. So far I have worked through three of the exercises (yes, it’s a workbook! With an answer key!) and scored 100% on each.

I’m waiting for the shoe to drop. And then the other one. (And probably a few more.)

Each of these books is available from Amazon.com. Even with the “we’re sorry, we’re not able to ship these together” emails, I still had all three texts within a week of ordering, and they came a day apart in two shipments. I can’t complain.

The Business of Editing at Amazon

Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business at Amazon

The Copyeditor’s Handbook at Amazon