Serialissima

If you hang out with editors and armchair grammarians, you soon learn that the serial comma is a contested issue.

You will hear some defend to the death their right not to use it, while others insist that every time it’s omitted the English language teeters closer to the brink of collapse.

If you hang out with editors and armchair grammarians or count them among your Facebook friends, it’s best to keep Sturgis’s Law #16 in mind. In the annotation of Sturgis’s Laws I haven’t got there yet , but here’s a sneak preview:

The amount of discussion devoted to an issue is inversely proportional to the issue’s importance and to the preparation required to say anything meaningful about it.

So what exactly is this little mite that inspires such passion?

comma

Commas in isolation are hard to distinguish from apostrophes.

The serial comma is also called the Oxford comma, but I prefer “serial,” and not just because I live on the left side of the Atlantic. The serial comma, after all, is about how one punctuates series of three or more items, specifically about whether one should use a comma before the conjunction that precedes the last element.

This sentence is widely circulated by serial-comma fans to prove their point: “I’d like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God.” You’ve probably seen it, or one very like it.

Without the serial comma, “Ayn Rand and God” could be an appositive phrase. Is the writer really saying that Ayn Rand and God are his/her parents? Ha ha ha.

As an argument for the serial comma, however, this example is less than persuasive. Take any sentence out of context and myriad misreadings become possible. The Associated Press style guide, widely used by newspapers and businesses across the U.S., generally doesn’t recommend the serial comma unless confusion might result from its absence. The sky hasn’t fallen in yet, and besides, if one fears confusion might result from “my parents, Ayn Rand and God,” one is free to insert a comma after “Rand.”

That said, I’m a serial-comma fan. This has as much to do with habit as anything else. I don’t recall anyone making a big deal about serial commas when I was in school, but when I was an apprentice editor in the very late 1970s, “Chicago style” — currently codified in The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition — was drummed into my head. Chicago recommends the serial comma, as do most U.S. publishers.

As a result, I’m used to it. I notice when it’s not there. Here’s a sentence chosen at random from my novel in progress. The speaker is referring to Moshup, the giant of Wampanoag legend.

“He caught whales one-handed, cooked them up here, and shared the meat with the resident Wampanoags.”

To my eye and ear, the comma after “here” makes clear that there are three elements here, not two. If that comma isn’t there, my eye slides to the end of the sentence without registering the slight break that separates the third element from the second. A reader who doesn’t expect a comma there probably isn’t going to miss it.

Sometimes, however, I want my eye to slide to the end of a phrase. The U.S. flag is often called “the Red, White and Blue.” We say it almost as if it’s one word: “the RedWhiteandBlue.” With a comma after “White” I visualize three distinct colors, not a single flag. If I wrote “The flag is red, white, and blue,” would I use the serial comma? Yes, I would. (I just did.)

The serial comma is rarely used, by the way, when the conjunction “and” is represented by an ampersand: “The flag is red, white & blue.” Ampersands are rarely used in formal or even informal writing, so this comes up more often in display type, like advertisements, posters, and headlines. Why is this? Damned if I know, but the big ampersand dwarfs the tiny comma so I don’t blame the comma for wanting outta there.

But it’s more than habit and long experience that makes me a serial-comma fan. Because I generally use it, I can use its omission to shape the meaning of a phrase. Here’s a simple example:

Gathered in the foyer were colleagues, writers, and editors she’d known for years.

“Colleagues, writers, and editors” are three distinct groups, right? Now remove the commas after “writers”:

Gathered in the foyer were colleagues, writers and editors she’d known for years.

“Writers and editors” is now in apposition to “colleagues.” In other words, the writers and editors are her colleagues.

To a non-serial-comma user the second sentence could go either way: two groups or three? The astute non-serial-comma user might insert a serial comma here if three groups were meant, realizing that this is an instance where the serial comma serves a purpose. With any luck the non-serial-comma-using copyeditor would realize as much and not delete it.

So I use the serial comma regularly because if I do, its omission becomes a tool in my toolkit. Even if I only use it a few times a month, I like knowing it’s there.

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Writing as Discovery

I’ve got a new morning ritual. After I light a candle or two — currently it’s a Yankee Candle, because fat candles in glass jars last a lot longer than tapers in candlesticks — I open The Writer’s Chapbook at random and read a couple of passages.

The Writer’s Chapbook is, says its subtitle, is “A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice from the 20th Century’s Preeminent Writers.” This is true. Organized into a couple dozen topics, the book consists of extracts from interviews conducted from The Paris Review from 1953 onward. Some extracts are aphoristic; others are full-blown anecdotes. It’s like listening in on an intense conversation among extremely accomplished and articulate writers, and because the writers in each chapter appear in alphabetical order, the likes of Anne Sexton, Georges Simenon, and James Thurber may show up on facing pages.

There are two editions out there. I borrowed the 1999 edition from the library and knew almost at once that I had to have it. Turns out it’s out of print and very hard to find: copies on BigBehemoth.com were going for $299 and up, and I dropped out of an auction on MegaMarketplace.com when the bidding sailed past $30 — that copy eventually went for $71. With a bit of persistence, I scored a used copy of the 1989 edition for less than $10, including shipping.

So this morning I opened to two pages in the “On Performance” chapter. On the verso (left-hand) page was this, from playwright Edward Albee:

Naturally, no writer who’s any good at all would sit down and put a sheet of paper in a typewriter and start typing a play unless he knew what he was writing about. But at the same time, writing has got to be an act of discovery. Finding out things about what one is writing about. To a certain extent I imagine a play is completely finished in my mind — in my case at any rate — without my knowing it, before I sit down to write. So in that sense, I suppose, writing a play is finding out what the play is.

And just opposite, on the recto (right-hand) page, novelist John Barth was saying this:

I have a pretty good sense of where the book is going to go. . . . But I have learned from experience that there are certain barriers that you cannot cross until you get to them; in a thing as long and complicated as a novel you may not even know the real shape of the obstacle until you heave in sight of it, much less how you’re going to get around it. I can see in my plans that there will be this enormous pothole to cross somewhere around the third chapter from the end; I’ll get out my little pocket calculator and estimate that the pothole will be reached about the second of July, 1986, let’s say, and then just trust to God and the muses that by the time I get there I’ll know how to get around it.

Travvy, on whom Wolfie is based but who has his own stories to tell

Travvy, on whom Wolfie is based but who has his own stories to tell

Wolfie, my novel in progress, is fast approaching its second birthday. All through the first draft and well into the second, I told anyone who asked “It’s about the rescue of a dog and the rescue of an eleven-year-old girl and how they rescue each other — oh yeah, and the dog is based on my Alaskan malamute, Travvy.”

Then one character told another the tale of how she’d failed to rescue her father, who had been devastated by the shooting death of his three-year-old grandchild. And my protagonist, who as a teenager fled a violently dysfunctional family, gets a phone call from the younger sister she couldn’t take with her. To make it more fun, no one is sure exactly what the girl needs to be rescued from, though it’s pretty clear to all that she needs rescuing.

So yes, Edward Albee: writing this novel is finding out what the novel is. And yes, John Barth, I suspected the obstacles were out there, but until I drew closer I couldn’t see what they were, never mind how I was going to get round them. If I’d thought too hard about it, I would never have started.

But I’m trusting the muses and my fountain pens, and the candle burning on the table to my right, to show me how it’s done.

Trust the pen, and the hand that holds it.

Trust the pen, and the hand that holds it.

How Clear Is Clear Enough?

20151007 blot 2The English language is a mother lode for punsters. So many words and phrases have multiple meanings. Viewed from a different angle, an innocuous phrase becomes hilarious. I love puns.

The very same quality makes English rich with possibilities for ambiguity and confusion. Here’s an example from the scene I took to my writers’ group last night. Shannon and Jackie are doing some sightseeing. Shannon is driving.

“As they drove by the old Keith farm on Middle Road, Shannon pointed out Jackie’s window.”

One group member stalled on “pointed out.” After a moment she understood what I meant, but, she pointed out, “point out” can mean “call attention to” as well as “point to something outside.” (See what I mean?)

At this point, I have a choice: leave it as is or reword it. On one hand, this is not a gaffe that will provoke the reader to gales of laughter. On the other, this is not a sentence that I want anyone to stumble over. Most important, it’s easy to fix. This morning, while reviewing the feedback from my writers’ group, I made a little change:

“As they drove by the old Keith farm on Middle Road, Shannon pointed a forefinger toward Jackie’s window.”

Part of an editor’s job is to misread everything that can be misread. The writer thinks something is perfectly clear; the editor says, “I’m not sure what you mean here.” This is one reason that writers sometimes think editors are a pain in the butt. (Being both writer and editor, I often think I’m a pain in the butt, so don’t feel bad.)

This is also why it’s an excellent idea to have others read your work before you send it out into the world: peers or colleagues, a writers’ group, maybe even a professional editor. At the very least, let it sit for a week or two or three, then read it as if you’ve never read it before. Be warned, though: This takes practice, and it’s never as reliable as having others read it.

Often a reader’s “Huh?” will prompt a rewording that works better than the original. Sometimes you’ll decide to stick with the original, perhaps because it’ll be readily understood by your target audience(s), or perhaps because all the fixes you come up with make it worse. It’s the writer’s call, but writers are usually better off for having some idea of how our writing is coming across to readers.

Let Gratitude Empower Your Creativity

I’m not usually inspired by “inspirational” writing, but this post about gratitude was exactly what I needed to read before I got down to writing this morning. Instead of beating myself up about how long it takes to write a novel and how maybe it’s a stupid thing to be doing, I’m grateful for the characters who want me to tell their story and the words that come to me just when I need them.

Business in Rhyme

Deepak

In almost any religion and culture we have heard of the importance of being grateful: to search for positive aspects in life instead of dwelling on what is wrong and how world is a bad place to live in. Our modern and fast paced environment has so much to offer: yet we  get trapped in to trivial and petty things instead of concentrating our attention on more important experiences. Those negative feelings that arise can literally block our creative energy, potential for problem solving and seizing the opportunities.

Gratitude can help us combat fear and anxiety. That feeling of appreciation opens the door for receiving even better things to flow into your life – like creativity. Experience of positive emotions and nurturing the state of well-being helps us engage in the  activities that encourage discovery and growth. Your observation improves; your relationship with the environment improves and you tackle problems…

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Sturgis’s Law #7

ink blot 2Last spring I started an occasional series devoted to Sturgis’s Laws. “Sturgis” is me. The “Laws” aren’t Rules That Must Be Obeyed. Gods forbid, we writers and editors have enough of those circling in our heads and ready to pounce at any moment. These laws are more like hypotheses based on my observations over the years. They’re mostly about writing and editing. None of them can be proven, but they do come in handy from time to time. Here’s #7:

It’s hard to see the whole when you’re up too close, and easy to see unity when you’re too far away.

Notice how some people will make sweeping generalizations about huge groups of people they know very little about, then call you on every generalization you make about their people?

That’s what Sturgis’s Law #7 is about. This is a presidential election year in the United States — lucky you if you haven’t noticed — and generalizations are running amok. Generalizations are often made about groups of people the generalizer doesn’t particularly like. Conservatives generalize about liberals, liberals about conservatives, Democrats about Trump supporters, Sanders supporters about Clinton supporters, gun control advocates about gun owners . . .

When anyone generalizes about “Americans,” all 320 million of us, I look around my town of fewer than 3,000 souls and realize I’d have a hard time making a generalization about us, other than “we all live in West Tisbury.”

Sturgis’s Law #7 has several applications for writers and editors. Here’s one: You’ve got a grand idea for a story or novel or essay. You map it out in your head. Then you sit down to write it — and you immediately realize how little you know about the details necessary to create images in the reader’s mind.

Here’s another: You’re so fascinated by the research you’re doing for your project that you lose sight of, and maybe interest in, the project itself.

And here’s yet another, this time from the editorial side: When I’m copyediting — reading line by line watching for typos, pronouns with unclear referents, sentences that swallow their own tails — I probably won’t notice that a compelling scene in chapter 4 really needs to come earlier. But if I’m critiquing, considering the work as a whole, I’ll probably skip over the typos or even miss them completely. In fact, if I’m too conscious of typos, it’s either because I’m not paying enough attention to the big picture or because the typos are so numerous they’re distracting me from my job.

Many editors specialize in either “big picture” structural editing or sentence-by-sentence language editing, but even those who do both won’t try to do both at the same time. Wise writers do likewise. When you start revising, don’t obsess about typos and subject-verb agreement. Deal with those when the work’s structure is solid. If you share your near-final drafts with volunteer readers, make it clear that you want them to read, not proofread — unless one of them is a crackerjack speller, in which case you may want to let him or her have at it.

In traditional publishing, a manuscript passed through several editors on its way to becoming a book. Once the structure was sound, the focus moved on to the paragraphs and sentences, then to the words, and finally the proofreader went hunting for the details that had eluded everyone else. The result probably wasn’t error-free, but it came pretty close.

Such attentiveness, however, is time-consuming and expensive, beyond the reach of most self-publishers and many small and not-so-small presses. Still, it’s possible to get excellent results by keeping Sturgis’s Law #7 in mind. Both distance vision and tight focus are important, but don’t expect yourself or your editor to catch everything on one pass through your manuscript.

***********

Serendipitously, I just came across this passage in The Writer’s Chapbook: A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice from the Twentieth Century’s Preeminent Writers, edited by George Plimpton (New York: Random House, 1999). It’s full of pithy comments by all sorts of writers on all sorts of writing-related subjects. It’s also out of print, alas. I got it on interlibrary loan. Anyway, this bit from novelist Michael Crichton illustrates what Sturgis’s Law #7 is about:

In my experience of writing, you generally start out with some overall idea that you can see fairly clearly, as if you were standing on a dock and looking at a ship on the ocean. At first you can see the entire ship, but then as you begin work you’re in the boiler room and you can’t see the ship anymore. All you can see are the pipes and the grease and the fittings of the boiler room, and you have to assume the ship’s exterior. What you really want in an editor is someone who’s still on the dock, who can say, Hi, I’m looking at your ship, and it’s missing a bow, the front mast is crooked, and it looks to me as if your propellers are going to have to be fixed.

The Charles W. Morgan, restored 19th century whaling ship, seen from the dock. Vineyard Haven, Mass., June 2014.

The Charles W. Morgan, restored 19th century whaling ship, seen from the dock. Vineyard Haven, Mass., June 2014.

Structured Revision: Keeping Your Novel on Track

I’ll almost certainly be starting draft 3 of Wolfie before I finish draft 2, so Alison McKenzie’s assurance that it really is OK to edit before you have a complete draft came at just the right time. Wrangling book-length works into shape is a challenge no matter what, but I’m intrigued by her “25K rule” and might try it with novel #3. If you’re working on a novel, novella, or book-length memoir, check it out.

Master Proofread

I just finished a master proofread, and boy, was it a doozy.

The master proofreader reads proof against copy, line for line, word for word, character for character. It requires intense focus. This is exhausting.

Don't drive yourself crazy looking for the typo, OK?

Don’t drive yourself crazy looking for the typo, OK?

In a master proofread, errors fall into two categories: printer’s errors and editor’s alterations. Both are flagged and corrected in the margin with conventional proofreader’s marks. If the compositor didn’t follow the manuscript precisely, the proofreader marks the correction “pe” (printer’s error). When the proofreader catches something that the author, editor, and copyeditor missed, she marks the correction “ea” (editor’s alteration) or something similar.

When authors make changes in proof, they’re called, big surprise, author’s alterations and marked “aa.”

The distinction is made between printer’s errors and editor’s or author’s alterations because print shops correct their own errors for free. When authors or editors make changes at the proof stage, they generally get charged for them. Some writers have an irresistible desire to fiddle with their prose at the proof stage. Often the desire is somewhat easier to resist if they know it’s going to cost them money.

Fortunately the only person who has to translate this into type is me.

Fortunately the only person who has to translate this into type is me.

Before the digital age, typewritten manuscripts had to be completely rekeyed by the compositor. Good compositors are uncannily accurate, but when an entire 300-page ms. has to be retyped, errors are inevitable.  (Good compositors often correct obvious typos on the fly, but their only compensation for this is the gratitude of proofreader, editor, and author.)

These days, most mss. are submitted and edited electronically. Each version is “cleaner” — more free of errors — than its predecessor. The manuscript never has to be completely rekeyed, so at least in theory the proofs never have to be read against the edited ms. The proof still has to be read, however, ideally by a fresh set of eyes that have never seen the copy before. This is called “cold” or “blind” reading.

Most of the proofreading I do is cold reading.  (I’ve blogged elsewhere about why I like proofreading.) I never see the edited manuscript, so I don’t know what shape it was in when the copyeditor got it or how the author responded to the copyeditor’s changes. I’m the safety net. I’m supposed to catch whatever wasn’t caught earlier.

I’m also looking for formatting glitches, like weird end-of-line hyphenation (you don’t want “therapist” to break as “the-rapist,” or one-syllable words to break at all), “stacks” (when three or more consecutive lines end with a hyphen), and widows and orphans (these are variously defined, but basically they’re instances where a word or even a whole line winds up on a different page from the rest of its paragraph).

I do very few master proofreads these days. The last one was less than arduous: reading second-pass proofs against first-pass to make sure that all the corrections had been correctly entered and that the changes hadn’t messed up any line or page breaks.

So earlier this winter a publisher’s production editor (PE) asked if I’d be able to take on what clearly wasn’t your typical master proofread. Not only was the copyedit on paper (not common these days), but the author had done extensive rewriting after the copyedit. As the PE described it, it sounded like a compositor’s nightmare: “huge number of inserts in a hard-copy ms., no single file, author’s bordering-on-illegible handwriting.”

The 176 inserts — some of which were several pages long — hadn’t been copyedited, though the very capable PE had read them through and done some markup, along with making sure they were keyed to the manuscript so the compositor could replace old copy with new and keep everything in order. Where the author’s handwritten revisions on the original ms. were almost unintelligible, she’d written out the words so the compositor (and I) could read them.

To make it even more fun, both the PE and the book’s editor had written queries to the author on the ms., so part of my job was to copy these queries onto the proofs so the author can see them. These are marked “CQ,” which as I learned it stands for “carry query.” (Wikipedia notes that it actually stands for cadit quaestioliterally “the question falls,” which in legal writing and in some editorial venues means that the question has been settled. In my editing experience it means the exact opposite: the question hasn’t been answered.)

The first thing I did was lock Perfectionista in a closet where I couldn’t hear her carping. Perfectionista is my inner anti-muse who thinks perfection is a reasonable expectation and if I can’t achieve it I’m worthless. I was going to be simultaneously proofreading, copyediting, and looking out for continuity problems introduced by all the new text. No way was I going to catch everything. Once the proofs were corrected, there would be a second proofreading pass, both a master proofread and a cold read.  On jobs this messy, the safety net needs a safety net.

Blessing the PE for her meticulous work and the copyeditor for her comprehensive style sheet, which made it relatively easy to make all those inserts consistent with the copyedited pages that surrounded them, I made it through. Will the author have to pay for all those changes? I don’t know. The cost of implementing them — time spent by editor, production editor, compositor, and proofreaders — must be running well into the thousands of dollars.

The real moral of the story, dear writers, is this: Do your rewriting before your book goes into production, not after the manuscript has been copyedited.

Here’s what a fairly typical page of the copyedited, rewritten, and worked-over manuscript looked like:

ms page 2