Tag Archives: editing services

Editorial maverick: carts and horses

Some of you know I’m doing part-time office work that entails a lot of technical editing. I like it: It’s an excellent company high up in its field, treating staff well and producing work of which one can be proud. Half the staff have advanced degrees. For me, it’s a little steadier income without cutting into my freelancing work.

While they were excited to bring a pro on board, I think some aspects of the change took them by surprise. For one thing, I think they expected me to rip their writing apart a lot more comprehensively; for another, pretty sure they expected some debates about industry usages. The best handling of those situations brings with it some lessons specific to tech editing but also germane to other editorial work.

We come across it all the time: this idea that editors are the people who go in and dismantle your writing with ruthless precision. There are times for that…but not when one is already dealing with capable and very coachable writers. If one of my colleagues’ writing were weak, I wouldn’t hesitate to fix anything that needed it, but even our subcontractors write fairly well. My work as an editor is not to criticize or correct; those are just aspects of progress toward the goal. My work as an editor is to help the content become the very best it can be. If that means critique and correction, we do those. If that meant burning a photograph of a lemur over a purple candle flame at midnight while chanting in Old Slavonic, I’d be doing so. In this case, the best way to improve the content is to offer minor corrections with sound explanations. These are people of science and reason who expect me to know more than them about English, and to help them become more proficient. If a para needs a complete recast, I’m glad to do so, but more often the need relates to subtler acts such as changing phrasal order for clarity and flow.

I haven’t said a word about style guides: AP, Chicago, etc. That’s because I understand that these are not bibles unless the management says they are (and ours sensibly does not). Style guides are like military regulations: They are for the guidance of command, not as straitjackets to it. The idea of writing something in a way that fails to communicate, but conforms to the hallowed style guide, is idiocy. Our management knows this, as do our writers. So the writers will ask me: “What is the rule here?” If there is one that sensibly governs, I’ll tell them; in many cases the area is grey, often straddling the gap between popular imagination of the rule and its strict letter. Join an editors’ group online and you can see posts daily bleating for help with some arcane point of style guide nitpickery they’ve been agonizing over for hours. Okay, if it’s a mandated usage, very well…but if you’re an editor, isn’t it your job to make the damn decision? Whose, if not yours? People look to us as informed guides to quality writing. Someone’s saying they’re afraid to guide? This is like a professional taxi driver afraid to trust/deviate from a map or a navigation system. Decide, and use the comments to explain the decision. And if the style guide isn’t even mandated, there’s even less pressure to conform. Do something intelligent in furtherance of the original goal, and help your people understand why you felt that was so. If you can be a professional editor, you have the writing skills to persuade and explain.

The other side that surprised my colleagues was that I take a very relaxed attitude toward industry usages, even where the common presentation strictly speaking violates some basic guideline. Should it be “small diameter poles” or “small-diameter poles”? Objectively, the latter; but the industry usage most often omits the hyphen, and we are communicating with industry members. It’d be idiotic to die in a drainage ditch over a hyphen. I’m the industry newcomer and this is tech editing. It is my job to drink from the industry firehose and learn language specific to expected usages. We should be consistent and clear; we should sound informed and intelligent; we should convey the views of highly expert people with professional voicing and presentation. If that means we don’t write this item name in what I consider the obvious way, because one of our people learned in school that there was a specific reason not to do so, I can either joust with my colleague (and his MBA plus thirty years of experience) or I can accept that he’s using sound logic based in educated thought. I should worry far more about helping my people sound their brilliant best than about imposing a foolish consistency.

That’s why tech editing is an unglamorous but very necessary field. A percentage of editors simply can’t operate without some form of Scriptural guide, and will inevitably find themselves asked to make decisions for which there is no clear direction cited in Chicago, and concerning which they thus won’t be able to convince the subject matter expert without that biblical backup. And yet so many technical specialists, unlike my colleagues, just can’t write worth a damn. They starve for editorial support–not from style guide literalists, but from colleagues who make them better and help them grow.

If I were starting as an editor right now, I would still set up a blog/website and I’d still take jobs involving manuscript fiction and non-fiction, but I know what my marketing would be. I’d imagine the industries I understood best and I’d start sending pitches to firms in those industries. I would invite them all to reach out to me with a page of text and whatever context they considered germane, and let me have a crack it it. I’d send back the samples in prompt fashion and see what happened. A good outcome would be a cost estimate query for a full report/manual/other doc, because then they’d be asking themselves whether this were affordable (and could they bill it out?). The secret of technical editing is that your client can usually bill their client for your work. If they find this to their best advantage, they’ll probably start sending you rush jobs with urgent needs (because they procrastinate or get swamped). Do them no matter how late you have to stay up. They’ll come to consider you part of the support system and they won’t want to deal with anyone else once they are comfortable with you. Nice work–you now have a client. Treat them right. Their greatest hours of need are your greatest moments of potential and value.


Editorial Maverick: the unlamented death of lolling

I refer, of course, to the unlamented abbreviation “lol.” I have a politically incorrect term for its addicts, one I will decline to share in a public presentation.

At first it was just a fun thing. Someone would private message something funny, and it was shorthand for saying that one was laughing aloud. All right. And then the cancerous node metastasized.

Soon it became the stand-in for a comma or even a period:

  • j: hi there
  • person: hello lol
  • j: how goes?
  • p: not so good lol
  • j: what’s wrong?
  • p: oh lol my car broke down on teh freeway lol and i had to have it toad lol now were getting evicted lol not sure what were gonna do lol maybe its time to get on the pole lol
  • how is this funny? doesn’t sound very amusing
  • i know rite lol

At that point I had to start controlling myself. Not only was it used when nothing was funny, but it made writing all but unreadable. I just stopped encouraging extensive conversations where I’d have to shovel through a lot of lolling. Now, I don’t worry about spelling errors, grammar, even case when typing in texts and private messages. Some people seem to imagine that editors spend every waking moment finding fault with their friends’ writing. If we did that, two things would happen. One, we’d be exhausted–too tired to do our work after all that free editing. Two, the problem would solve itself because no one would talk to us. All I care about is being able to make sense of the person I’m talking with. When something gets in the way of that, it also is exhausting.

But lolling seems to be in long-term care and about ready for hospice, and this would seem a perfect time for vocabulary assisted suicide. We don’t need this. We have emojis and other little face images that might not technically be emojis, but grouping them all under that term is convenient. The end of lolling seems at hand.

I won’t be attending the funeral, but neither will I grieve.

Editorial Maverick: don’t format it

One key aspect of transforming a manuscript (ms) into a book is formatting, sometimes called typesetting (I’m sure the term will be with us long after the last ink-stained hands have fallen still and cold). This is how it goes from Word format to something you can print as a book. It can mean inserting photos, cute drop caps (the extra large letter to begin a chapter), graphics for segment breaks (say, a cattle brand for a book on ranching life), and all that other prettying up. A basic version can be had by self-publishing through CreateSpace or something like it; if you want it fancier, you hire a formatter or figure it out yourself. Formatters are generally expert in Word and understand how the conversion tools work, knowledge only a few people need.

Whatever you do, please do not book-format your ms as you go.

For one thing, writers do not automatically know how to use Word’s features correctly. I say Word because I don’t work on G-word docs; I’d sooner work on a plain text file (which I’ll bring into Word anyway so I can use change tracking and commenting). If the ms is in G-word, well, I’ll work on it when it’s sent to me as a .docx file. What it means is that people wanting to line things up, make them all nice, will impose all sorts of oddness on the ms. Not knowing how to indent, they’ll just use tabs, or worse yet, hit the space bar five times. Not knowing how to insert a hard page break, they’ll just bang hard returns (the Enter key) until they’re at the top of the next page. These are problems because the editing process shoves everything around. It is almost certain to mess them up; lines might be inserted, margins changed, and so on.

The little graphics and other cutesiness (which I call it at this stage, because it belongs in the formatting stage; here it’s just clutter) are as bad. They make editing harder. If that isn’t enough to discourage novice authors, let’s try money. Anything that makes editing harder also makes it more expensive. So here’s the core of it: Why would you put in extra work that you will certainly pay to have undone, and on top of that, have to do it all again later? This does not make sense.

Here’s the proper order of Good Actions. First, write. If you’re going to indent paras, indent them using Word’s Indent feature; if you’re going to break pages at chapter end, just use Word’s hard page break (Ctrl-Enter). To break chapters into segments, just stick in a simple placeholder, for example three asterisks separated by spaces. Whatever you do, focus on writing, not cosmetics. Get the text as good as you can make it. Self-edit until it wrenches your soul…then let your editor go to work. You can use italics at this point, but don’t make typeface changes. Use something straightforward, typically Times Roman or Calibri or Arial. Left margin justified, right margin ragged. Leave placeholder markers for graphics to go in later, if you’re going to put in charts or photos or whatnot.

Many seem to feel that the decision whether to single space, one-and-a-half space, or double space is a Momentous Choice. Nah, not here. Your editor can undo it in five seconds, as long as it takes to Select All and go into the Line Spacing. What I usually do is edit with single spaces or 1.5, but what matters is what I use if I do a print review. I might edit it in single, then review and red-pen a copy in double. Costs me a little more in paper and ms heft, gives me more room for editing marks and insertions. At the end, I can convert it back to the way the au sent it to me.

If you’re going to try for traditional publishing, also called trad-pub (, then I don’t really understand the logic, but I will support you as you) then prepare to send queries and submissions to people who might or might not show an interest. If that’s the plan, then either follow the publisher’s submission specs or go with the industry standards.

If you are going it alone, then we’re probably still doing this together. When you have finalized the content, by whatever handing back and forth of the football you and your editor have determined should occur, then it’s time for formatting. Formatting creates galleys–probably final images of what will be published if the proofreading doesn’t find any errors. Any formatting mistakes, typos, alignment issues, and so on can be caught and fixed at this point.

Here’s another reason for this. The hardest part, for most people, is just getting it all down on e-paper. For some people it takes a decade or even two. However long it takes, the last thing you want to do as you attempt to express your thoughts or tell your story is to run around making little cutenesses. It makes the writing harder, and if there’s one thing writers don’t need it is to make writing harder.

Have you ever had someone look at you and tell you that you just unraveled months of frustration that drove them to sleepless nights, vodka, and feelings of deep inadequacy and hopelessness? People whose work is to help people get that experience. It is a special one.

If what you write has flaws and you can’t figure them out, That’s Why You Have An Editor. Step back fifteen yards from scrimmage and punt. Tell your editor the parts you don’t like, where you’d like special attention and input. Sure, you can self-edit, and in most cases you should do some of that before you send it off to a pro. But if your self-editing is bogging you down, your work is harder than it needs to be. The reason you have an editor is to help you get the text into suitable syntax, flowing well, reading consistently, and making sense. Get those benefits. Let your editor help. Get what you’re paying for.

Believe me, your editor wants it that way.

Editorial Maverick: tech editing

My world is a diverse one, with wide variety between different styles as well as modes. By modes I refer to developmental, substantive, line, and other forms of editing. By styles I refer to the subject matter: fiction (with many divisions), non-fiction (same), screen editing (don’t look at me), and technical editing among others. Only some of the knowledge carries over from one style to another. One of my favorite people, the awesome and capable Maggi Kirkbride, edits only non-fiction. I know academic editors, self-help editors, and so on. I have acquired a skillset in technical editing.

Since tech editing involves reviewing and changing subject matter experts’ work (we call those SMEs to show that we’re in the club), the first thing that happens is that one drinks from the knowledge firehose. If one has little knowledge in a given field, the question is how one works into a level of competence. Much looking up of terms, asking of questions, and hesitation before barging ahead with changes. In this style, any reference that sounds odd could in fact be an industry term loaded with meaning. After a time, one gets a sense for these. I have tech edited roleplaying game rulebooks, engineering documents, and forest products analyses. In all cases, while I had some fundamental understanding going in (longtime RPGer; father was an engineer and I was a computer nerd; father was later a forester and I worked summers in a mill), there remained much to learn. Most tech editing work requires at least a good grounding in Word document formatting, unlike say fiction in which one can get by with saying “I’m the language jockey; formatting is up to someone else.”

How it’s different from, for example, travel editing:

You are less concerned with preserving style than with conforming the ms to a style guide. Most organizations have specific looks, styles, colors, and branding terminology they like to see. You mostly do not, for example, have to explain to sixtysomethings why they can’t use two spaces after a period just because Mrs. Blunthead taught them to type that way in the 1960s. Either the person in charge says one space is required, or mandates two, and either way, the tech editor can make a case but rarely gets to be the decider.

Your content is vertical in that it pertains to some particular field of study: agriculture, marketing, engineering, software. This requires you to drink from the proverbial firehose in order to absorb enough terminology and technical detail that you do not need to ask questions SMEs will find dumb and annoying. So if you’re editing timber industry documents and the term “board feet (Scribner)” means nothing to you, you must change that–your level of understanding, that is, not the meaning.

Rush jobs are very much the norm. People who write manuals, papers, analyses, and so forth usually take more time then they expected. Where is the shortfall made up? On the computer of the person with the red pen. What this means is that you will not always be able to make this a work of sweet perfection, and you must make sure the au (as we refer to the author when she’s not looking) knows this and has reasonable expectations. It will sometimes boil down to: “Look. You have given me three hours and there are eighty pages here, with captions, footnotes, graphics, and so on. That’s not long enough to do it right, but I will give you the best three hours I’ve got.” If the au doesn’t like that, then she needs to get it to you sooner.

There’s a lot of opportunity and retention. Tech editing clients are less concerned with price (they are typically billing the work to a client) and more with excellence and alacrity. Think about it. Suppose you run a demolition consulting firm. Companies commission you to tell them the best way to blow up stuff with the least impact on the surrounding area, best recovery/disposal outlook, and so on. You know secrets and they fuel your business. Your work product is the report and its supporting data. You can make it good, but you find an editor who can make it “wow”–and will, at need, make your report her priority. You love the new level of professionalism in the impression your product makes. You do not want to lose that editor. You do not want to try your luck with a new one, see how well they learn your business terms, or go without. You’re going to make sure you pay your editor. The cost is tiny relative to the benefit. You would be a ninny to do without that editor, or her equivalent, once you’ve had a taste of the good stuff.

What kind of editor can be a tech editor? I find it’s mostly the same properties as make a good editor of other material, but with an emphasis on adapting. Eloquence is less important than communication flow. You aren’t asking whether readers will like this story arc; you’re asking who your audience is and how to help your au convey information as concisely and professionally as can be done. You can’t go on anti-adverb and anti-passive voice crusades because technical writing often creates situations where the surgery is worse than the injury, if you will. Your reader will be in one of two categories: She either knows what makes good English (rare), or she does not (the norm). If the former, she will see that you could not recast those passives because there was no non-cumbersome way to come up with a subject to perform the action. If the latter, she just knows it reads real smooth and the au gets props for clear information delivery. You win either way.

It’s a useful skill to build, because some types of non-fiction mss involve tech editing skills. Textbook editing is a perfect example, its vertical market being very specific to a discipline and audience type. There will be descriptive paras to check for common writing flaws, but there will also be examples to check; sidenotes to review; ever the question of clarity. Will our audience understand the au here? The au engages you because she thinks you can make her book better. You adapt your work to what will serve that end.

Editorial Maverick: action scenes

Why are action scenes so hard to write?

It might not seem that way when you see the material in published form, but it is quite probable that most of what you’re seeing was once an action salad. I doubt that any two editors help fix such situations in the same way.

Far as I can tell, the most common problem with action scenes is over-familiarity on the author’s part. Think of this: You have been working on a fiction novel for five years. Within the first quarter of the ms, there is a complicated fight scene that starts two new story arcs. You have played this scene out in your mind two dozen times as you have gone over and over your ms. You know what “happened.” You have known it so long you can no longer imagine not knowing it.

Your reader doesn’t know any of it until you tell her. How big was the room? Your first gut response might be: “Uhhhh…big enough for the action.” You probably wouldn’t go with that answer, but it is probably the truest one. Your reader has to be told that, especially if the space constrains the action. She must be told everything that is pertinent–but not too much, because…

The next most common problem is over-description. Too much detail: The living room had old-school 1960s tongue-and-groove paneling with a ceiling fan, a brown leather sofa, two leather recliners, a fireplace, and two lamps on end tables. Could any of those details possibly help your reader through the action? Possibly the fireplace, especially if someone grabs the poker. The fan? Sure, if it constrains the action. The other furniture? Minimally, if it too constrains the action. The sofa’s upholstering probably doesn’t affect the outcome; the fact of a sofa might. Does every stroke and feint and hit matter? No, and trying to include all of them makes excruciating reading. This is overcorrection, and it is much easier to fix than omitted essential details. We can always whittle it down to the basics, a few short descriptive strokes that are just enough to help our reader through fast-paced suspense and action.

She likes that, and we want her to have it. Let’s not forget to think of her. She bought the book! Bless her with a mighty blessing! We begin by thinking of her as wonderful, a customer we very much wish to satisfy. We don’t want her bogged down in detail or confused by events. We want to help her. If she puts the book down in frustration, we lose.

There is a third problem: unrealistic action. Take for example a combat situation involving multiple troop movements and weapon types. Some authors have actually been part of troop movements in battle; most haven’t and are glad of it. Fine. How do we sort this all out so it comes out reading plausible?

When in doubt, I make a miniature wargame. I rough out a map, sketch in some basic rules, and borrow counters (small square cardboard pieces from my wargame library). I designate who is what and how many, decide which side initiates the action, and start walking through the battle. Some are easier. If it’s WWII, for example, my old Avalon Hill Squad Leader game is my friend because I won’t even have to make up rules or use my imagination regarding what the counters represent. I’ve drawn a scene on graph paper and used pennies and nickels for the opposing sides, with different dates to designate that this is Joe, this is Lakeisha, this is José; these others are the thugs, and the 1969 nickel is the one with the pistol; everyone else on that side has a switchblade. Anyone who has ever played role-playing games is well equipped to sketch out a game of an encounter and walk the characters through it. Anyone who has not probably knows someone who has.

Yes, they’re hard to write. They are also hard to edit, but the editing is easier than the guidance. The hardest part is conveying to someone whose brain contains indelible footage of “how it happened” which parts are implausible, which are incomprehensible, and which are illogical (a polite way of saying the character isn’t dumb enough to do what the author has them doing). I came up with another tactic, which I call the readercam.

Put your reader in the room, invisible and non-corporeal; Nothing can interact with her, and she stands in the corner with a ringside view. Now put a video camera on her shoulder and see the action through it. What’s visible through the readercam? Of that which is visible, describe what is germane. Use the readercam to define her perspective and field of vision. When need be, change the camera’s aim. This does not mean adding exhaustive detail of a new wall, for example, but it might mean that new obstacles come into play. If they were already described, those bits of description now pay their way. You see the principle, which is that you focus on what affects the action and you don’t move the vantage without some good reason.

And yet you don’t want to over-describe for one more reason: You will be taking your reader’s fun away. She doesn’t want you to tell her every little detail; she wants to tell the story as her mind sees it. How she does that is purely her choice and business, and you’re there to help her but not do it for her. Your work is not to tell her every detail. It is to give her enough roughed-in information to let her mind animate the action in a plausible and exciting way. This is why authors often won’t clarify the way character names should be pronounced. The pronunciation  likely won’t change events; why not let your reader say it however she likes? Is it LEGG-oh-lass or le-GO-less in Tolkien? Who gives a rip? How the reader pronounces the author’s names is none of the author’s business.

The author has more pressing business, such as writing a decent action scene. If you’re the reader, and you just read a banging action scene that had you in suspense while making you want more, more, more, that scene probably didn’t spring into its current form on first draft. Unless done by an author with a natural intuitive gift, it probably didn’t gel on the fourth or fifth. And the long the ms took, the farther away from novelty went the author’s mind. In time, he forgot not knowing.

If he had a competent editor, of course, that got fixed.

Editorial Maverick: adverbs

Adverbs? But Stephen King talks about them like readers talk about his antagonists!


Right. And he is–but it’s easy to take it too far. Let us start with the fact that not all adverbs end in -ly (and not all -ly words are adverbs), so spotting them doesn’t just require a document search. One must read the writing with some application of basic grammar. An adverb, as most of you probably know, is a word or combination of words that modifies a verb:

She ran very quickly down the sidewalk.

If you think like me, of course, you saw the problem with that sentence in short order. The adverbs do not pay their way; a better verb could replace them, and one could even argue they are redundant. The better verb would be childishly easy:

She sped down the sidewalk.

That’s your basic test and correction in simplest form.

I let more adverbs go than perhaps most editors do. I brought up the part about -ly endings because that’s the sort of simple dogmatic crap that one might get from the not insignificant population of crummy editors who would be paralyzed without spellcheck, grammar check and word searching. When I see your adverb, I ask myself whether a better verb could subsume its meaning. I also ask whether the adverb adds anything of substance to the verb (handy mnemonic for writers, perhaps). In my earlier example, she’s already running; would we say she ran slowly? Kind of doubt that. We make clear she’s on the sidewalk, so the default presumption is she’s on foot; we can trust the reader to infer this specific of “to run,” especially as there would be surrounding context to inform us she isn’t driving a Harley down the sidewalk, or doing something else odd. The only thing we got from the original adverbs was that the author wanted to make clear she was seriously booking down that sidewalk. We have many fine options:

She sprinted down the sidewalk.

She dashed down the sidewalk.

She raced down the sidewalk.

How would you choose? If this were a developmental edit, you’d explain this to the client and ask them to hunt up a better verb. In developmental editing, I don’t correct everything. It works far better to correct a few examples of a writing misbehavior, define it clearly, and encourage the client to hunt down and repair the rest herself. While a part of her might be cussing you and/or crying in frustration, another part of her knows she’s growing. The editor is helping her reach her potential.

After you’ve staked your fiftieth adverb, the lesson has either begun to sink in or it hasn’t, and we have an uptake problem. When you picture writers, you probably picture retreats full of brilliant remarks and an urgent need not to have to explain any references–the intellectual big kids. That stereotype exists (and it might surprise you to learn that it doesn’t really extend into editing so much; maybe we have less to prove), but there’s another subset that just doesn’t improve. You can teach until you run out of red pens and they still don’t get it. I’m not mocking them because they are to writing as I am to calculus, but they do exist.

One way to help such a person is with a substantive edit, which aims to create text that is ready for proofreading. Maybe the client has just decided that she doesn’t need to write better as long as her editor is willing to fix it up, and if so, that’s a valid choice. As long as she’s been told of the problem, with explanations and encouragement in good faith and directed at her best interests, the editor must live with the client’s choices or tell her to find a new editor. I’ve had to do that before, and it’s not fun, but I can’t always live with the client’s choices. When I can’t, the client deserves someone who can.

So how is this mavericky? Because I’m somewhat more permissive. First I try to improve on the adverb. If it adds something, and I can’t improve on it, it serves a purpose and should stay–but my definition of “adds something” might differ from that of others. There are times to use a redundant adverb for effect; dialogue uses redundant adverbs all the time; sometimes it just brings a different flavor. I’m by no means the only editor who looks at it this way. To my mind, the purpose of writing is to communicate with an audience. No two audiences are identical, nor are any two writing voices, and we handle this by reading the writing. We don’t answer it by quoting a reference.

Lastly, the people have spoken. I asked the Facebook page with regard to changing this page’s title to “The Editorial Maverick.” The logic is that “The ‘Lancer,” while perhaps cool, is very dated and doesn’t even tell the casual observer what I do nowadays. People might think I’m anything from an SCA equestrian to a dermatologist (both possibilities actually came up in the conversation). While it was not unanimous, support for the change was overwhelming. I plan to retitle this page just before the end of 2022. No action is needed by subscribers and nothing else will change; same URL, same style of content, same maverickiness (perhaps even more, with the rep to uphold).

I do plan to focus a little more on work-related content rather than the self-indulgence I have shown over the decade and more I’ve been at this. At heart, it is supposed to be marketing. If I don’t use it for marketing at least some of the time, it’s not serving its designed aim. I look forward to your continued readership at The Editorial Maverick in 2023 and beyond, and I thank you for your past readership and support.

Hail the new.

Editorial Maverick: commas

Some of the strongest articles of faith in the style guides concern commas. You must blah blah blah. You must not blah bah blee blah blah. People get militant. If you fail to do it their way, you are wrong and bad and just simply incorrect, and you probably shoplift at dollar stores.

There are rules for commas, and they aren’t stupid. Famous SF author C.J. Cherryh was the first one I heard say never to follow a rule off a cliff. An observation that goes with it is that one should know the rules in order to know when to break them.

I agree with that. To me, the question is whether bending or breaking the rule will make the words read better. Not be more correct; read better. Most of the time, writing reads better when one follows the rules. I’m more concerned with bumps in the flow. Sometimes the addition or omission of a comma creates a little jolt in the flow, like the feeling you get when you’re driving through Spokane (Washington) and the entire city is plagued by road damage and repairs. There are huge steel plates covering craters that could have been made by incoming mortar fire, and every time one hits one, there’s a jarring bump. If you have never driven in Spokane, you’re in for an experience.

In editing, one of my goals is to help remove jarring bumps that serve no purpose. I’ll encourage clients to use commas not where Chicago or Grammarly says they go, but where they read best. There is large and welcome overlap there, but in a conflict between rule nitpicking and successful written communication, I don’t see how I can take any side but the latter. Is it not about the audience?

Therein lies the point: Who’s the audience? Who would read this? If it were an audience of editors and grammarians, the comma rules would matter far more because what jolts experts differs from what jolts a layperson. How many authors seeking editors are writing for an audience of editors? None of them have yet brought their projects to me–but if they did, it would be a factor. Because that’s what would best reach that audience.

There is one comma area in which I have yet to see a single case for endorsement: the comma splice. When a comma connects two stand-alone sentences, we call this a comma splice. A comma splice always looks bad, their use is a terrible habit. (See? Hideous.) Depending on the situation, it might be better to break the sentence into two; to use a semicolon; even to use a colon. What one can’t do is stet [‘let stand as set’–editor-speak for ‘ignore this edit’] a comma splice. It cannot stand.

But if I ever learn of a situation that would make a comma splice look like effective communication, rather than the brain-shaking jolt that it is, I’ll rethink. That’s what an editorial maverick does–use their brain rather than just quote a book.

Editorial Maverick: introduction

Would people want to read about editing? If it means reading lamentations about agonizing for eight hours trying to figure out where Chicago says to put the comma, I’m guessing not. But I work differently from many editors.

For example, unless the assignment directly involves a style manual, I regard Chicago and AP as suggestion books rather than bibles. It’s that simple. To many editors, that would be heresy. Here is the logic: The list of purposes for the English language is varied, vast, and inexhaustible. The purpose of writing is to communicate information to a given audience. Does a former gang leader write in all lower case? Besides utterly defying the style guides, won’t that limit the audience? It might, but the question I would ask is not whether the sacred style guidelines had been profaned. I would ask whether this method was effective in reaching the desired audience, and why.

You cannot imagine the crickets I have heard in this career when I have asked the basic question: “Who’s the intended audience?”

Take the aforementioned gangster book. I would ask the client why he (I refer here to an actual book I once read for pleasure, not an actual client) felt this style would best reach his audience–which, by the way, was exactly who? We’d talk about that. I’d hear out his case, consider it. If I disagreed, I’d explain why. We’d have a conversation. I’m the editor who might be receptive to subversive style methods if they were effective, so I’d have an open mind.

In such a case, it usually comes down to whether the major style variation is lazy or deliberate. If lazy, the short version is “I think my shitty is as good as others’ polished.” It has no aforethought, just “I don’t want to grow.” But if it’s deliberate, it’s written that way not because their basic ceiling is shitty, but because that reaches out to the intended audience in ways I might never understand if I’m not part of the target market. I have to be open to that.

That’s part of what makes me the Editorial Maverick, I guess.

Scumbag studies: Arajs Kommando Deputy Commander Herberts Cukurs

Here’s a real prize I hadn’t learned about until recently: Latvian aviator Herberts Cukurs (pronounced “ZU-kurs,” I think–my Latvian is nonexistent). He is a reminder that one can’t carry out efficient monstrosities against other peoples without collaborators.

Cukurs was born in 1900 at Liepaja, Latvia, then part of the Russian Empire. Easy math: that would have made him just too young for World War I, old enough to see his native Latvia become independent for the first time in recent history. A bright and energetic young man, his primary talents led him to a career designing and piloting aircraft. It’s fair to say he was to Latvian aviation what Lindbergh was to that of the United States.

Latvian independence did not last. In 1939, by which time Cukurs was a little old to be a grunt, the Soviet Union absorbed Latvia without open warfare. Given Soviet treatment of perceived nationalist leaders, before long plenty of Latvians were ready to pay Stalin’s NKVD back in cold coin. While nothing excuses Latvian collaboration with Nazi genocide, there is a difference between excusing an action and seeing it in context. In spite of the Soviet Union’s own persecution of Jews, historic reality is that Jews were slightly over-represented in Communist leadership; considering their treatment under the Tsars, one can understand that. In fact there is zero reason to imagine that Lenin and Stalin would have led any differently even had their governments included no Jewish people at all–but a fair number of Latvians didn’t see it that way. Those opposing the Soviet régime and already motivated toward anti-Semitism might seek reasons to discern an association that Nazi propaganda would inflame with everything in its power. Scapegoating is both awful and effective.

This dynamic explains without excusing a fair number of Western Nazi collaborators’ motivations: Some were religious and saw communism as the ultimate threat to faith. Some had personal reasons to loathe communism. Certainly the conduct of the young Soviet Union with its mass incarcerations, executions, and the brutal starvation its policies inflicted on Ukraine, would be enough to make at least some people see it as the greater evil when Latvia and the other two Baltic states receded behind the day’s Iron Curtain.

Many Latvians despised their new occupiers and would jump into bed with any force that might drive them out. The fact that two Waffen-SS divisions (the 15th and 19th) would later form from Latvian recruits tells us something. That driving-out occurred in fall 1941, when German fire and steel cleared Soviet occupiers from all three Baltic states.

For Latvia, having the Nazis drive out the Russians meant mixed emotions. Many Latvians chose the invaders’ side. Cukurs joined a Latvian auxiliary police unit in German service, the Arajs Kommando, named for its commander. Of roughly battalion strength, Arajs’s men did the Nazis’ dirty work of eradicating Latvian Jewry. Herberts Cukurs was responsible for much of that death, personally or through orders given. He became known as the Hangman of Riga.

As we know, Hitler’s war against the Soviet Union didn’t work out well for Nazi Germany and most of its henchcountries. The Arajs Kommando didn’t stick around, sensibly reasoning that the Soviet Union probably wasn’t going to start coddling turncoats. Its members retreated westward with German forces, Cukurs included. He survived that retreat and the war, and evaded Allied justice long enough to escape to Brazil. There he lived openly, operating a prosperous aviation business.

In 1965 the Mossad, of hunting-down-Adolf-Eichmann fame, came up with a plan to get at Cukurs by luring him to Uruguay on pretext of a business opportunity. It was an ambush–but one that didn’t go so well.

Cukurs was a big, powerful man in good physical condition, and he fought back with everything he had. His fury impressed the Mossad agents, but he eventually lost the battle. They shot him to death, left him in a trunk, and notified the media. Had the original plan been to bring him back to Israel for trial, as with Eichmann? I’m not sure. What I’m sure of is that Cukurs fought back, was subdued and then executed.

There is notable revisionism surrounding Cukurs in Latvia and (mostly) in world Holocaust denial circles. The most common complaint seems to be that he didn’t get a fair trial. Considering the number and percentage of Latvian Jews that died without a fair trial, that argument can cry me a river. Simply collaborating with the Nazis was bad enough, but the deeds of the Arajs Kommando were as bad as those of the Einsatzgruppen. If Cukurs hadn’t wanted to be associated with and complicit in Arajs’s deeds, I doubt he would have become Arajs’s deputy. Herberts Cukurs wasn’t stupid. He didn’t book on out to Brazil because he expected that an Allied trial would acquit him, or because he supposed the Soviets might forgive him.

If you want to know how modern Russian propaganda got the idea to try and paint its former fellow Soviet republics as havens for modern Nazis, here’s the genesis of that. At one time, former Soviet minority citizens had in large numbers embraced the Nazi invaders and did indeed help to carry out Nazi atrocities. Eighty years later, Russian leadership continues to make a meal of that reality, “confirmed” every time an actual far-right movement becomes visible (unless, of course, that far-right movement is working in Russian geopolitical interests). The way all Soviet people suffered at Nazi hands makes all such movements (that are beyond their control, at any rate) naturally concerning to Russia, even when this amounts to projecting. Right now the Russian leadership is making former SSRs’ neo-fascist movements look pretty tame.

As for Cukurs, we might be impressed by his ferocity; as far as feeling badly for him, not me. Had the Allies gotten hold of him he would have hanged. His flight bought him far more security and prosperity than he offered any of the Arajs Kommando’s victims. I’ll save my sorrows for the latter.

Do English spelling and grammar even matter any more?

Does that seem like a strange question coming from an editor? It shouldn’t–nor should one leap to conclusions regarding the answer.

I submit that the answer is a qualified yes. It has to be qualified due to these observable realities:

  • Not all communication is formal and professional. If we’re texting or PMing on FacePalm, do we really need to stress over mistakes? Not sure about your phone, but on mine it’s enough of a pain in the ass just texting understandably. There are many contexts in which I care about upper case, avoiding loose spaces, and so on. This one tends not to be such a context.
  • Language does evolve, however powerfully language conservatives rage against ‘deterioration.’ That there has been deterioration I think few can deny, but at any given point in time language differs from previous points of time, and its future will differ in turn. Look at the styles of 1800s and 1700s writing and you can see how it happened. There is never a time at which the orthodoxy is static, meaning that “perfectly correct” is a moving target.
  • As if that weren’t enough, many other countries have their own versions of English. There are more English speakers in India than in the United States. Australian and New Zealand English have marked differences, and I don’t recommend going there to try telling them they’re doing it wrong. Same for South Africa. Irish English and British English also differ from ours, with the added fillip that “The King’s English” is supposedly the mother tongue. Canadian English is akin to US English but with noteworthy British influence. If we’re going to talk about “correct English,” whose correct English do we mean? That of the largest numeric grouping, which would be Indian English?
  • Writers can be very effective yet be doing it “wrong.” When I get a ms that is written in some bizarre-looking form of English, I ask myself whether it’s effective. Some time back I did a line edit on a vanity book about of an elderly Alabama gentleman’s country music career. It sounded like what it was: a book written by a rural Alabamian nonagenarian. To edit it into some semblance of English perfection would have meant destroying the author’s basic tone. As it was, parts were a little repetitive and sometimes unclear, but his tone was familiar and regionally correct. His audience would understand every word of it, even find it warm and comforting; what was more, who would want to excise the author from his own autobiography? It’d have been lunacy.
  • At the opposite pole, I read a book by an L.A. gangster who converted to some variation of Islam and reformed. as i recall, it did not use upper case. It sounded like it was written by a moderately educated gangster. It was raw, real, personal, and effective. If he’d come to me as an editor, I doubt I would have tried to regularize his language. The way he wrote made it feel like the reader was getting to look at an otherwise inaccessible world. That I couldn’t think of a compelling benefit that would make it worth losing that feeling testified to the effectiveness of his style.

Qualifiers noted, I have indeed seen the quality of US English education and composition decline over my lifetime (don’t blame me). That gives it something in common with the rest of education during my adult life. With a dead battery, most people now are without their arithmetic. I was watching a frightful display of ignorance on Big Brother where someone thought London was in Paris, or Paris was in London. Most every day I read at least one adult female person refer to herself as “a women.” People not only don’t learn physics and geometry; they don’t even learn to adult. (There’s a verbing you might expect me to hate and reject. Nah; that word arose in reply to a genuine need, right around the time it became de-stigmatized to live with your parents once you grew up.)

All the more reason, some might say, to give no willing ground in the erosion of language standards. I understand the outlook on an emotional level. From a practical standpoint it feels like a King Canute activity. I’d rather fight for the differences that make differences, such as the abuse of “literally” to mean “figuratively.” We need that word. Without it we have no way to clarify whether a statement is hyperbolic or, well, literal.

In the end, my editorial outlook is that everything comes down to judgment and context. Does it work? If it does, any change requires a compelling case. If however its language causes it to fail, we need to rethink and adapt. There is no editorial Scripture, just some textbooks and style guides; they should be consulted but not worshipped or thumped at anyone. In the end we must apply our best understanding.

If it were as easy as just pointing to the arcana of the Chicago Manual and interpreting its holy words, this job would require far less experience and discernment. (I might start terming that crowd the “Chicago judiciary.”)