Category Archives: Editing/writing life

About doing this stuff for a living.

The tyranny of the style book

Do you really believe there are editors who run around agonizing about commas, stressing over where to put the hyphen, and otherwise driving themselves to drink over tiny fussy little minutiae?

If you look hard enough, you can find places where they ask for help with those questions. (“Should this have a hyphen? Augh! I’ve been near self-harm for hours over this! Or is it self harm, since it’s a compound noun! I can’t even contemplate suicide correctly!”) Many are novices who decided to be editors and then to learn the English language (that’s not the correct order in which we do this), but some others are professional copy editors. And very often the question will quote The Chicago Manual of Style, the AP Style Book, or some other reference, asking for a ruling.

What’s wrong with this? Sometimes nothing. Sometimes one works in a guide-constrained environment where one of the editor’s primary duties is to conform a document to this or that style, including an internal style guide. In those cases, I understand the agonizing up to a point. One good example would be academic writing, where style fascism is the norm.

But at some point, even in those cases, there come guide-governed situations where the guide does not deliver a clear answer. Then what?

Then use your best judgment based on years of experience, familiarity with the style guide’s intent, and your own damn common sense, that’s what. Those are why you do what you do, and are in the position you are in.

What shocks me more: strict editing to a style guide, and agonizing over some point of punctuation order, when it’s not a requirement. I am serious. The editor views the CMS, or some other style reference, as a holy book whose first version came down graven on stone tablets.

It will eventually fail them anyway, because our language is too diverse for perfect coverage, even by such a voluminous reference as the Chicago Manual. But they are missing the point.

The point is that an editor has years of broad expertise with the English language. It can involve one dialect or many, but it probably began before kindergarten and involved reading hundreds of thousands of pages in varying styles of superb English before the age of twelve. Under normal circumstances, which is to say writing that does not require style guide conformity as a baseline expectation, the point of being an editor is not to worry oneself to death over whether one is in proper and full compliance with a style guide.

The point is to know the language well enough, to consult the various guides where they can be helpful, and to have enough guts and brainpower to make judgments that will make the book the best it can be for the target audience.

That is what we are here to do. Our work is to do all the things to the manuscript content that will help it be its best. What if the narrator doesn’t use upper case? Those who live in style guide tyranny might simply get busy with the Shift key. I might, too–but only after I’d reviewed the ms and satisfied myself that all lower case didn’t work well in this context. If the author’s style and syntax work well to communicate with his or her audience, I’m not likely to change those aspects. Correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation are the defaults, but they are not inviolable. There are times to break every rule in service of the greater good.

You aren’t supposed to cross a doubled solid yellow line when driving, at least in the US. That’s usually because that would take you into the oncoming lane in a dangerous situation (such as passing on a curve or while cresting a hill), which could produce a serious kinetic energy problem. It’s a good rule. Most of the time most people should comply. But what if an accident is imminent, and the only way to prevent it is to cross that line? What if there is a serious emergency meriting the risk? I’d rather get a ticket for illegal passing (and there are police stupid enough to give such a ticket, trust me; I once received an even stupider one) than be cut out of the wreckage by the jaws of life. Or have my remains cut out at leisure once they attend to everyone they can still save.

Style guides aren’t law books, and they are not crutches for indecision. If the work requires style guide conformity, all right; but if an uncovered situation arises, that’s why an editor has experience and judgment. It’s time to use them. That’s why not everyone can do this. If one needs to explain a decision to the client, that’s what margin comments are for.

One has to know the rules well enough to judge when to ignore them.

There’s a great part in one of W.E.B. Griffin’s books, the ones before his son started performing some unspecified percentage of the work, doing proportionate damage. Griffin was a military/police/intelligence fiction author of some note. While he had his weaknesses, the strengths were great enough to outweigh those failings. In this situation, the US Army is getting ready to invade Cuba after we bungled the Bay of Pigs. It is necessary to move an armored division by rail from somewhere inland to New Orleans, so it can be loaded for the voyage. There is a fascinating discussion of the logistical headaches involved in entraining about 450 tanks plus all their supporting people and equipment, the sort of detail into which Griffin always knew when it was time to deep-dive. In the end, it comes down to an engineer company that is already loaded, and a colonel tasked with getting things moving. The colonel has an idea how the engineer company can help get the division’s vehicles loaded on rail cars that are showing up with mixed consists. He wants to use their forklifts and other hoisting equipment.

The company commander is the POV character, and he is respectfully dismissive. He figures that the colonel probably considers himself the first person ever to think of using forklifts to load tanks. The captain thus states that it’s against regulations, and worse yet, that it would likely result in the equipment’s eventual destruction due to exceeding safety parameters, which, sir, as the colonel can surely see, exist to prevent such disasters. And therefore, with respect, sir, he can’t do it.

The colonel asks the obvious question, paraphrased from my memory: “Captain, has it ever occurred to you that your goddamn intact drag lines would look pretty silly sitting on a Cuban beach if the division’s tanks were still hung up in Texas waiting for proper train consists?”

When I see a style guide used like a crutch or a bible in situations where there is no specific rule that it must govern, I feel like I’m watching someone who would end up on the beach in Cuba with functional rock crushers, forklifts, and other construction equipment, having not brought the armored fighting vehicles that might make the invasion succeed. I laugh every time at this picture. “Mi comandante, the norteamericanos have landed on the beach!” “With what?” “Señor, they appear to be construction engineers. They have brought a road grader, some forklift trucks, and a backhoe.” “That is all? No tanks?” “None, mi comandante.” “Teniente, if you have been drinking rum on duty, your next assignment will involve cutting sugar cane–and you will not be supervising the process.”

Use your judgment. If you are afraid to use your judgment, overcome this unbecoming fear. Your client depends upon your judgment. If it was just about a damn style guide, the client could read that herself. You’re here to make decisions in her best interests.

Make them. Have and share good reasons for them. Be ready to have them questioned.

Being questioned is not time to wallow in imposter syndrome. Being questioned is time to show off the experience and consideration you invested. Explain your thought process. Show your client the level of effort you expend for what she pays. You should be proud of it.

The clients who write best tend to be the most questioning. They are the clients who drive you to become better.

Thinking Fiction: Three Types of Indie Editing Clients — An American Editor

[JK here. I liked this because it showed me a different way of looking at incoming clients than my own, which begins with discovering whether the project is vanity (won’t make money, thus my services are for pride and education) or commercial (meant to make profit after paying expenses including me). I feel constrained to begin there because otherwise I risk leading someone down a garden path by omission of truth, which is: books with marketing plans might make money, but those without one will not. Do I believe that this Ice Bucket phase costs me some projects? I am sure it does–but if I did not, I would in essence be taking advantage of the unknown, withholding known truth, for financial gain. I won’t.]

====

Carolyn Haley If you edit enough novels by independent authors, you’ll notice patterns in author types and ambitions. By this I mean broad patterns — which always contain exceptions — that can help guide editors in determining how to guide individual authors on their publishing journeys. The three broad types of indie authors are those […]

Thinking Fiction: Three Types of Indie Editing Clients — An American Editor

What is an Unreliable Narrator? — Jerry Jenkins | Proven Writing Tips

[J here. These are the sorts of questions that arise in the kitchen where the sausage is made. Want my opinion, most fiction authors start out writing exactly the way they want to write, without considering the constraints and impacts of that choice. I don’t have a problem with them writing the way they want to write, but I do have an issue when they don’t realize they aren’t making it work well.]

===========

You can use a variety of literary devices to add conflict and tension to narrative fiction. But few make readers work harder than the unreliable narrator, a device that, true to its name, allows the storyteller to take readers on a wild goose chase as they determine what’s true, what’s not, and why they feel…

What is an Unreliable Narrator? — Jerry Jenkins | Proven Writing Tips

Deconstructing Deadly Illusions—What Not to Do With Your Manuscript — Fiction University

[J here: this is a very useful little list of common mistakes that separate bits of untethered plot thrown in from a considered story. Very good advice for writers.]

By Bonnie RandallPart of The How They Do It Series JH: The smart writer learns from the mistakes of others. Bonnie Randall shares what went wrong with a story that made plenty of them, and how we can avoid those same mistakes.Friends, because I’m a little salty these days, and because Netflix is a quadra-gajillion-earning empire…

Deconstructing Deadly Illusions—What Not to Do With Your Manuscript — Fiction University

 

The Young Farmer dogmatism

A couple of years back, I did developmental and line editing on a great fantasy novel. One of the book’s great strengths was the author’s enormous esoteric medievalist vocabulary. Put it this way: I might stand justly accused of many failings, but among them is not a small vocabulary. I respect any writer who can send me fumbling for a dictionary. This author did, perhaps a dozen times.

One of these terms was “gong farmer.” When I first saw it, I thought: Pretty sure one can’t grow gongs in a crop field, or a rice paddy, or orchard. I’d better look this up. This is what competent editors and proofreaders do; we look up that which we do not comprehend. I discovered that a gong farmer was someone who cleaned out latrine pits, hauling the goodness in a shit wagon, most probably to some form of soil enrichment purpose. I laughed, said “stet,” made another nod to my client’s vocabulary, and kept working.

Came time for proofreading, and my client hired a proofer who had plenty of good ratings. That would teach him not to trust the ratings. The proofreader was an abject moron (now you see why I am not naming names). I’m convinced she just ran grammar check and spell check, ‘congrats 2 me I proofed pls heres my pay pal.’ To my our shock, she had simply changed any esoteric terms or usages she didn’t understand. “Gong farmer” had become “young farmer,” from stem to stern.

Ya.

For me, this event memed the term. It came to define mindless editing and proofreading, that dogmatic attitude that finds itself unmoored from context. As I look far back into my own history in this regard, I have probably myself gone through such a phase and made similarly dogmatic, stupid edits. Maybe I owe some empathy for that, and maybe I feel some. But not much, because context always does matter.

The goal is to do all the things that lead to the best possible ms. And now, any time I find myself having a reflex reaction to a usage, I remind myself not to have a Young Farmer moment.

For Rent to Publishers: One Pistol with Bullet to Shoot Yourself in the Foot (or Why Good Editing Matters) — An American Editor

Jk here: I’m glad it’s not just my imagination that even the big and supposedly reputable houses are hiring people who end up not doing a decent job. Does evidence of lack of competent editorial impact harm a book’s prospects? I guess some of them think not.

============

Richard H. Adin I never thought I would say “Gosh, I am glad I am retired,” but I am. Being retired has done many things for me, not least of which (aside from having the time to play with my granddaughters before their school and other diversions make me uninteresting and obsolete before my time) […]

For Rent to Publishers: One Pistol with Bullet to Shoot Yourself in the Foot (or Why Good Editing Matters) — An American Editor

Sucking at tech support, and the Sea of Red Ink

Not long ago, I asked an editorial community how it felt about clients’ requests to be taught and guided in the use of computers, email, and especially software such as MS Word.

Results were all over the board, from “Sure, I’m an expert” to “Not only no but hell no” to “If they want to pay me for it, I’m their huckleberry.” I asked because I don’t like it and am not good at it, and was wondering if this was rare. The reasons are complex, but are based on this: when I left that field behind, it was like a weight off my shoulders, and I don’t like re-shouldering it. Few seem to understand this reluctance, but we all have different paths and experiences. There are former police officers who never again touch a firearm once they retire. You couldn’t get my football widow mother to sit down and watch a game if I were playing in it, not even if you stapled her to the chair and propped her eyelids open à la A Clockwork Orange. She would look away and sing to drown out the audio for all three and a half hours. I think she’d rather have a bucket of horse turds dropped in her lap than a football.

So I was reading what the other editors said about tech support, and then one of the responses hit me with a flash of the road to Damascus (and no, it wasn’t a Syrian Arab Air Force strike aircraft firing rockets). There are Youtubes on everything. I can’t possibly know what the client is seeing, and I’m not willing to set up some form of screen-sharing remote access software. If I can find out the feature they need help with, and the version they are using, I can find them a YT that will discuss how the feature works. Their screen will look like what the video shows, and menu selections will have the same names as they will see on the video.

It feels like liberation.

Here is a helpful hint for all those of you who work with Word and an editor: Go to YT and search for ” track changes ” plus the version (e.g. ” Word 2013 “). Watch them. Live them. Groove them.

Because I’m still using Word 2007, I have zero interest in downgrading to a more current version, and what I see on my screen simply is not what you see. All I can do is confuse you.

I can’t charge you for confusing you. Not nice. I already do enough free work (emails, phone discussions) and have to establish a boundary, stay within my comfort and happiness zone. Doing tech support makes me not want to do my work at all, and I can’t afford that.

That still leaves the Track Changes learning curve, which brings into play the Sea of Red Ink. This is where their first view of the finished product, by default, shows it looking like a e-splatter film. I had one client just accept all the changes without review, so traumatized were they.

There’s a solution and it involves a better way to send the client his or her results. Send two versions: one with all changes accepted (no Sea of Red Ink), one with the changes awaiting acceptance (e-splatter film). I don’t like it, but I have to accept that the Sea of Red Ink is scary when it’s the first thing clients see. It isn’t the version I want them to begin with. What I normally want them to do first is read the edited version (which is not the default view in Track Changes, and which can’t be saved to be the default view) all the way through, with just comments, and see how it feels; see how they like the way they sound, just read and react.

Then I want them to review it with the tracked changes. The Sea of Red Ink will now show, but by now, the client will realize that every single teensy correction (loose space, case error, changed comma, fixed typo) leaves a trail of red pixels out to the margin. This will show, should show, that the Sea of Red Ink is not nearly as fearful as once believed. The simple act of a global S&R for “two spaces, replace with one,” will coat in e-splatter any page in most mss even though it led to no substantive alterations. It looks bloody, but it’s a minor scratch.

Sounds so reasonable, right?

Hardly any of them have ever paid attention to these directions. They dove straight into the Sea of Red Ink (default view), had whatever crisis they were going to have, and either recovered or did not. Their lips said “yes, yes” but their eyes said “FOAD FOAD FOAD,” as one long-ago RA colleague used to say about residents and activities. For me to expect them to follow my suggestions is naïve. I have to make that easier for them.

I’m tired of the crises and worrying about them, and I’m ten times tired of being asked for tech support. So now I’m going to send two versions as described earlier, so that I don’t have to do tech support to help them face the Sea of Red Ink. They never have to see it if they prefer not to; they can, if they wish, just use the fully accepted copy and put comments/edits there. It will still have changes tracked. This should make an enormous difference in outcomes, without ever removing acceptance or rejection of changes from their own hands, where that process belongs.

Not paying attention to that particular group any more due to excessive thought/speech policing, but I have to credit it for this one valuable thing. At least, in return for the many dozens of people I helped, I did get one help back. Could be worse.

Tips on Writing “The Boring Stuff” Readers Tend to Skip — Fiction University

[J here: I spend a good deal of time trying to guide writers to remember what I like to call the readercam, another term for point of view. There is a tendency to head-hop, which means to shift the perspective from one person to another. Managed well, this is workable. Managed badly, it is not. And when writers choose first person, many do not realize that they are setting limiters on what they may do for the rest of the tale. This article touched on structural matters of that sort, the kind I often encounter in the editing process.]

By Jenna HartePart of The How They Do It SeriesJH: Readers skim when they read, especially if nothing is really going on in the story. Jenna Harte shares tips on keeping readers engaged in your novel.Jenna Harte is a die-hard romantic writing about characters who are passionate about and committed to each other, and frequently…

Tips on Writing “The Boring Stuff” Readers Tend to Skip — Fiction University

How to Write Rich Characterization: A Cheat-Sheet — Fiction University

[J here: I found this a nice list of quick character development suggestions. Quite a few writers struggle with character development in fiction, but non-fiction writers often flat neglect it because you can’t just make stuff up in non-fiction. No, you can’t, but you can use some of the same principles to identify what makes a character intriguing.]

By Bonnie RandallPart of The How They Do It Series JH: Wonderfully rich characters typically leads to a wonderfully rich novel. Bonnie Randall shares tips on how to reveal the depth and richness of your characters. A character is infinitely more than just who the author says they are. Like their living, breathing counterparts, fictional characters often…

How to Write Rich Characterization: A Cheat-Sheet — Fiction University

Bob’s 2021 Tech Predictions: What a Difference a Pandemic Makes — I, Cringely

I have been reading I, Cringely off and on since I was an IS professional (children, that’s what we called IT people in the 1990s), back when we fibbed to get free copies of InfoWorld.  He’s usually been very good, and my editorial eye would assess his writing ability very favorably.

Also, unlike one industry pundit, he never had to eat a soup of one of his columns at Comdex. However, here he does a retrospective (or autopsy, if you like) on his predictions for 2020. Enjoy.

This is when I typically generate a list of technology predictions for the coming year. The challenge this year isn’t coming up with predictions, it’s finding a moment of calm to share them when people are most likely to read. With a pandemic rolling along and the nation in political and economic crises to boot,…

Bob’s 2021 Tech Predictions: What a Difference a Pandemic Makes — I, Cringely