The lighter side of editing

The lighter side of editing

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Don’t Trust Your Editor … Too Much

An editor works to make a manuscript perfect. Should
an author blindly trust that he'll succeed? No!

Stock image from GraphicStock.

The author-editor relationship is built on trust: The author trusts the editor to correct errors in a manuscript without screwing anything up, and the editor trusts the author to pay the bill on time. Usually, this system works out just fine. Most editors I’ve known will make every effort to edit as flawlessly as possible, and most authors pay promptly. Sometimes an author will skip out on a payment, but that is a subject for a different post. Today I’m thinking about authors who trust too much.

Most of my editing projects go like this: I read through the work, marking up changes and inserting questions and suggestions as I go, and then I return the marked-up work to the author. Sometimes (though not as often as I’d like), our agreement is that I will do another editing pass after receiving the author’s comments/answers/changes. Ideally, the author will read through the entire work before sending it back to me. Even more ideally, the author will read through the entire work one more time after my final edit.

But as we all know, things are often not ideal.

In the real world

If I have just returned an edited 350-page book with instructions for the author to read through it carefully before sending me an updated manuscript, and the updated manuscript hits my in-box a mere eight hours later, I can be pretty darn sure the author did not read the whole thing; said author most likely responded to my questions/suggestions and maybe—maybe, mind you—looked at some of the tracked changes before approving all of them. If I have just returned a 350-page manuscript and the author e-mails me two days later to say that the self-published book is now available on Amazon, I can be pretty darn sure the author did not read through the whole book one last time before hitting Publish.

This is a problem, for me and the author.

We try to be perfect, but…

Remember back in the first paragraph when I wrote that editors “will make every effort to edit as flawlessly as possible”? I chose that wording for a reason: Editors are human. Even the best, most experienced editors make mistakes sometimes. Yes, a skilled editor can miss a simple typo even when they’ve read through a manuscript two or three times.

We are not purposely imperfect. I am honest and conscientious about my work. I would never deliberately leave a mistake in a manuscript or knowingly introduce a mistake by subtly changing the author’s meaning when I reword a sentence to improve its clarity. But suppose I were less honest and more sloppy. Suppose I were vindictive or evil. How, without reading through the entire edited manuscript, would the author know that I hadn’t changed a character’s eye color or twisted some wording to reflect my own style, opinion, or political persuasion?

I’ll say again I would never ever ever do any of those things, and the vast majority of editors follow the same code. But I am not perfect, and I get the creepy-crawlies when authors assume that because I have done a careful edit, the final product will be flawless.

Yes, I try to be perfect, but…

Authors, own your work

Now, I’m not suggesting that authors should do all the hard work of writing and the heavy lifting of line editing or copyediting. I’m not suggesting that authors should treat editors with suspicion. I am suggesting that authors should treat their relationship with an editor as an interactive partnership. Don’t hand your manuscript over to someone and say, “Here, fix this,” blindly trusting that the editor is going to do everything just right.

Authors, trust your editors, but own your work. Take the time to look at the edits in your manuscript. Ask questions if you don’t understand something or if you disagree with something the editor has done. Read through the whole manuscript. Yes, I know it’s a hassle and you have a kid and a full-time job and you’ve already worked on this book for six years and it’s about to drive you batty and you just paid an editor a wad of dough to fix everything for you.

But remember this: When that book is published, it’ll be your name, not the editor’s, on the cover.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

On Grizzly Scenes and Gristled Old Men

A grizzly (not gristly) bear 
in Anchorage, Alaska.
Photo by Shellie from Florida 
[CC-BY-2.0] via Wikimedia Commons. 
All editors have pet peeves, little errors that are so crazy-making we just can’t let them go. And by let them go I do not mean “choose not to fix them”; I mean something more like “unburn them from our retinas so we can go on to lead relatively normal lives.”

My pet peeves include the misuse and abuse of the words grizzly, gristly, and grizzled. I have lost track of the number of “grizzly” or “gristly” murder scenes, accident scenes, or battlefield scenes I’ve encountered. And somehow grizzled often becomes gristled, so we end up with “gristled” old men, old veterans, or what have you. Just yesterday in my online travels, I came across a video game site that promised “gristly” scenes in one of its products.

In case you’re wondering (and I hope to all that is holy that you are not), grizzly and gristly in the above examples should be grisly, and gristled should be grizzled. In general, a murder scene is not “somewhat gray” (dictionary definition of grizzly), “crowded with big bears” (my definition of grizzly), or “consisting of gristle” (dictionary definition of gristly). It is instead “grim and ghastly” (dictionary definition of grisly). Also in general, old men and old veterans, or at least their hair and beards, can be “sprinkled, streaked, or mixed with gray” (dictionary definition of grizzled), but they are less likely to be “covered in extraneous bits of cartilage” (my definition of gristled).

I don’t know why these particular problems make me bang my head on my desk in despair, but they do. I know I should learn to let go.

I had very nearly convinced myself to refuse to be bothered by these words any longer, but then while researching this post, I was reminded that Merriam-Webster Unbridged allows grizzly as a variant spelling of grisly. This peeves me in ways I prefer not to admit to, much less describe. Thanks a lot, dictionary.[1]

[1] This in no way diminishes my love of dictionaries. I am still one of those weirdos who can spend a whole afternoon browsing words in a dictionary.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Where Have All the Hyphens Gone?

Certain things in life just bug me. For example, compounds that are missing their hyphens bug me—a lot. The hyphens are missing from work I’m editing (this does not bother me so much, because I’m the editor and fixing that sort of thing is my job), ads and other promotional materials, instruction manuals (yes, I do sometimes resort to reading those things), and published (and presumably edited) books and articles. It seems that everywhere I look, I see these little gaps where a hyphen should go.

I’ve read about “sixteen year-old girls” going on dates (call me old-fashioned, but that is just too young), “gray bearded men” (a little vitamin C and some sunlight would probably bring their color back), and “low flying planes” (sad “flying planes”?). Of course I change these to “sixteen-year-old girls,” “gray-bearded men,” and “low-flying planes.” And every once in a while an author will ask me to please remove the hyphens.

What is this language coming to?

It seems that the hyphen, like the comma, is misunderstood. This is not surprising, since hyphen usage (like comma usage) is to some extent a matter of personal taste. Personally, I like a good hyphen. If you happen to be an editor, you probably noticed the hyphen in “old-fashioned” above. I go for early-morning walks that are often necessary after my late-night snacks. I have lower-class taste than some people. I do, however, avoid overhyphenation. I don’t pick-up my mail or put-away my groceries. I see many high school students walking to school in the mornings (but some would argue that I actually see high-school students, unless the students I see are, in fact, high).

What can we do about our missing or misused hyphens? Call me crazy, but I have an idea. Picture a gang of hyphen vigilantes:  unemployed English majors roaming the country and righting hyphen wrongs everywhere they go.

This could work.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Goldilocks and the Three Comma Users

In editing, some things are easy. I could correct the improper use of lie versus lay in my sleep, for example. Easy. Other things are less easy, less clear, sometimes downright puzzling. Some things can leave me feeling like I don’t know this English business so good as I thunk I do.

Consider the comma. In form it’s a period with a cute little tail. In function, a comma can be the difference between a sentence making sense and well not (and, well, not). Just how important are these cute little comma critters? The 16th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style devotes one page to the period, two pages to the colon, and over thirteen pages to the comma. Thirteen pages to explain comma usage, and some of us still have questions!

Chicago advises, “Effective use of the comma involves good judgment, with ease of reading the end in view” (6.16). Sounds easy enough, and often it is easy. Some sentences like this one cry out for commas (Some sentences, like this one, cry out…). But “ease of reading” implies you already know what the sentence is supposed to say; alas, for editors, this is often not the case.

Classification of comma users

Comma users (yes, I know "comma user" is not a "thing") can be sorted into three broad categories: those who love commas and use too many of them; those who have some sort of aversion to commas and use too few of them; and those who use commas just right. Consider these passages that might fit into a little tale titled “Goldilocks and the Three Comma Users”:

Too many:

As she slept, in the comfy bed, three, big, brown bears came in, and the biggest one, the old, and grumpy, father, said…

Too few:

As she slept in the comfy bed three big brown bears came in and the biggest one the old and grumpy father said…

Just right:

As she slept in the comfy bed, three big brown bears came in, and the biggest one, the old and grumpy father, said…

The editor's task

It’s my job to make things just right. And trust me, it’s not always this easy. But I won’t bore you anymore with my personal comma issues. After all how many examples of bad, comma placement can I expect you to read, in one day? I’ll keep playing Goldilocks, using my best judgment trying to get those commas just right.