Editing Workshop, 10: Colonoscopy

My semicolon T-shirt has a semicolon on the front and this message on the back.

No, this is not about the medical procedure. Let’s take a look at colons of a punctuational kind.

The colon is a strong mark. Colons don’t get lost at the end of a word the way commas often do. However, unlike, say, semicolons, they don’t inspire great passion. I have a T-shirt that praises semicolons. I once gave a writer friend a semicolon sticker and she promptly drew a red international NO symbol over it. That’s what I mean: writers and editors tend to have strong feelings about semicolons, pro and con. Colons not so much, and so far I haven’t come across a T-shirt that expressed an opinion about colons.

When it comes to numbers, the colon is a workhorse, getting the job done without fanfare. We use them with time (it’s now 9:44 a.m. where I am; in 24-hour military time, however, that would be a non-colonic 0944). We use it to separate chapter and verse in the Bible and certain other books (Psalm 23:6). We use it to express ratios (3:1 means three parts of one thing to every one part of another).

The colon comes in handy in number-free text too. Off the top of my head, here are some conventional uses for colons: to separate title from subtitle in bibliographies and endnotes; to separate speaker from speech in scripts, interview transcriptions, and other dialogue; and to introduce lists (see how I snuck that one in at the beginning of this sentence?).

With lists, what precedes the colon should almost always be a complete sentence. If it isn’t, you may not need any punctuation at all. Colons are often found in the wild where they aren’t needed, as in “For our expedition, you’ll need: comfortable shoes, insect repellent, and a water bottle.” Either lose the colon or add “the following” or something similar before it.

The colon can be used with speech that doesn’t follow the script or interview style of alternating speakers. This came up in an online editors’ group the other day. A copyeditor had an author who was a little colon-happy with dialogue like this:

She said: “I won’t be home till after dark.”

Virtually everyone who responded preferred a comma in such situations. Why? Well, the simple explanation is that the most common style guides used in British and American English say so (see, for instance, the Chicago Manual of Style, the Associated Press Stylebook, or Hart’s Rules), but I’m interested in why they say so, and why in this case I agree with them. So here are a couple of reasons:

  • Colons are often used to introduce formal and/or lengthy speech. This snippet of dialogue is neither formal nor lengthy.
  • As noted above, colons are strong. You notice them. They may lead you to expect, consciously or not, that something momentous is coming. Commas are unobtrusive, and in dialogue that’s usually a good thing.

With formal and/or lengthy speech or quotations, a colon is fine.

Colons can also be used in dialogue that doesn’t include a tag attributing it to a specific speaker, as here:

Melina was adamant: “We are not leaving until tomorrow.”

No tag is needed here: It’s clear that Melina said “We are not leaving until tomorrow.” What follows a colon often explains or elaborates on what precedes it. Often the colon is one of several options, and the one you choose will subtly influence how your sentence is read. Here’s an example I came up with several years ago, which I keep trotting out because I’m too lazy to come up with another one:

  1. I’m an editor and writer. Without functioning eyes, I can’t work.
  2. I’m an editor and writer: without functioning eyes, I can’t work.
  3. I’m an editor and writer — without functioning eyes, I can’t work.
  4. I’m an editor and writer; without functioning eyes, I can’t work.

All four sentences are perfectly correct, but to the careful writer and the attentive reader they aren’t identical. Example 2, the one with the colon, sets up a cause-and-effect relationship between the first statement and the second. It could be replaced with “therefore” or “so.” Example 3, with the em dash, does that to some extent, but the visual space between the sentence’s two parts loosens the connection between them. (If you’re interested in a more extensive discussion of the four examples, check out “Praisesong for the Semicolon,” my 2014 blog post about, you guessed it, semicolons.)

The author of my current copyedit loves em dashes. I’m letting him have plenty of them, but where the cause-and-effect relationship is especially strong between the first part of the sentence and the second, or when what follows the colon clearly explains what precedes it, I’m suggesting colons.

One last thing about colons: Example 2 above illustrates a popular convention in U.S. English: a single full sentence following a colon doesn’t start with a capital letter. (The sentence I just typed does too. I’ve probably used more colons in this blog post than in anything else I’ve written in the last year.) This is a style thing, and one that one of my major U.S. trade publisher clients parenthetically but pointedly “does not endorse.” These days I tend to follow the author’s lead, because nearly all the authors I deal with are pretty good writers and because if I’m not busily changing caps to lowercase I’m more likely to notice other things that could use my attention. Just about everyone agrees, however, that when a colon is followed by more than one related full sentence, they all get initial-capped.

Any questions or comments about colons? or anything else?

Editing Workshop, 9: It All Starts with Sentences

I wish I could have sat my recent author down early on in his project and offered a few basic hints about sentences. He could obviously teach me a few things about organizing vast amounts of research into a reasonably coherent narrative. Structure matters even in a very short work — a letter to the editor, for instance — but in a work that runs well over a thousand pages in manuscript it’s crucial.

However (the editor said testily), you can’t create structure without sentences, and a work that runs well over a thousand pages in manuscript contains a lot of sentences. Word won’t tell me how many sentences there were in my recent copyedit, but if I take the word count, 347,179 (which doesn’t include endnotes), and divide by 15 (an arbitrary number based on a quick Google search on “average number of words in a sentence”), I get 23,145.

How to ensure that each one does its job of conveying information and moving the reader forward? This is what I would have told my author if I’d had the chance:

Sentences, like clotheslines, tend to sag in the middle.
  • Sentences tend to sag in the middle. The longer the sentence, the greater the sag. (This is also true of paragraphs.)
  • Subjects and verbs gain impact when they’re fairly close together.
  • Modifiers (adjectives, adverbs, phrases, and clauses) gain impact when they’re close to what they modify.
  • Sentences don’t exist in isolation. They link the preceding sentence to the one that follows. (This too is true of paragraphs.)

Here’s an example of a sentence that sags in the middle and in the process separates a clause from the main part of the sentence. (I’ve edited it to remove identifiable specifics.)

When the issue concerned civil liberties—“the problem is a thorny one,” Mr. X wrote, and it was being emphasized by [several individuals whom X doesn’t like], and even [a colleague] (who saw him “as an obstructionist”)—X’s pique rose.

The important point here is that X got pissed off when the issue of civil liberties came up, but what comes between the beginning and end of the sentence is so long and involved that it’s easy to lose the connection. What comes between the em dashes really belongs in a separate sentence. This is what I came up with:

When the issue concerned civil liberties, X’s pique rose. “The problem is a thorny one,” he wrote, and what’s more, it was being emphasized by [several individuals whom X doesn’t like], and even [a colleague] (who saw him “as an obstructionist”).

Here’s a shorter example, taken from a longer sentence about a political campaign:

Accompanied by numerous local officials and party leaders, she stumped across the city, charming nearly all, according to the reporters in tow, whom she encountered.

Is there any good reason to impose such distance between “whom she encountered” and the “nearly all” that it clearly modifies? I don’t think so. “According to the reporters in tow” belongs at the end of the sentence: “. . . charming nearly all whom she encountered, according to the reporters in tow.” In this version “whom,” though correct, could be safely dropped: “charming nearly all she encountered.”

I surmise from the original that the author thought it was important to provide a source for the assertion that this woman charmed all she encountered; otherwise he wouldn’t have stuck “according to the reporters in tow” in such a prominent place. It serves its purpose at the end of the sentence, but it might also be safely relegated to an endnote.

Like many biographies, my copyedit included many quotations and even dialogue constructed from journals, letters, and notes taken at meetings. Books have been written about how to write effective dialogue, and I’ve blogged about it more than once, but here’s an example of how sentence structure matters in dialogue.

An indispensable tool for shaping dialogue is the tag — the short bit, often no more than a subject and a verb, that attributes the words to a speaker. I think of tags as a sort of punctuation: where you put them influences how the reader hears what the speaker is saying. My author’s penchant for dropping phrases and clauses into awkward places carried into his placement of dialogue tags. Consider this one:

“I thought,” he later said, “I was dying.”

“I thought I was dying” is a dramatic statement, and here it comes at the end of an extended scene that makes it clear that the speaker had excellent reason to believe he was dying. But here the dialogue tag undermines the impact of that short, strong sentence. So I suggested putting it at the end.

The author sometimes does the same trick where dialogue isn’t involved, as here:

At the station, for the first time, Richard held his eight-month-old daughter.

This fellow is just back from extended wartime service. (As it happens, he’s the same guy who thought he was dying in the previous example.) In other words, this scene is as dramatic in its way as the one in which he thought he was dying — and “for the first time” interrupts the visual image. It’s significant, but not as significant as the picture of a young man seeing his first child for the first time. Move it to the end of the sentence and all is well.

One last example:

The project soon fell through, in a clash of personalities and objectives.

There’s nothing wrong with this sentence as a stand-alone. My snap decision to rearrange it was due to what preceded it: a vivid description of those clashing personalities and objectives. So I turned it around: “In a clash of personalities and objectives, the project soon fell through.”

In the online editors’ groups I frequent, editors will often request help or second opinions on a particular sentence. Sometimes it’s easy to see how the sentence could be improved, but other times it depends on what comes before and what comes after.

When you’re editing, you make most of these decisions on the fly. When you’re writing, you can usually take time to try out various alternatives and decide what works best. (If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ll know I’m a big fan of reading stuff out loud. Often it’s easier to hear the emphasis in a sentence than to see it inert on page or screen.)

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Got a question about sentences, punctuation, usage, or anything else editorial? Either leave it in the comments or use the contact form on the menu bar up top — click on, you guessed it, “Got a Question?”

Editing Workshop, 8: Consistency Matters

Several years ago, like in 2017, I made several posts on this blog under the title “Editing Workshop.” These were focused on specific ways to strengthen your writing by honing your editorial eye. The topics included commas, parallelism, and lead paragraphs. (You can use this blog’s search function to find the rest of them.) Readers found them useful, and so did I. A just-completed copyediting job convinced me that it’s time to resume the Editing Workshop, so first a few words about that.

This job was huge. Biographical nonfiction, more than 1,400 pages; close to 360,000 words. Many, many names, places, and dates to verify. My style sheet was 15 pages long, and 9 of those single-spaced pages were devoted to personal names.

With any book-length job, the copyeditor gets to know the author’s style pretty damn well. Living with this particular author’s style over 1,400 pages — about six weeks — was like taking an extended road trip with someone you barely know. Come to think of it, it’s something like an arranged (temporary) marriage: the production editor (PE) emails you to ask if you’re interested in Job X, and depending on schedule, interest in subject, and/or bank balance, you say yes or no. If you say yes, you’re off on a new road trip.

Copyeditors who freelance for publishers often have zero one-on-one contact with the authors of the manuscripts we work on. We know them mostly through their words, perhaps supplemented by an author’s reputation, previous books, website, and so on. They know us entirely from the edits and comments we make on their pages and from our style sheets. In the case of this particular (major U.S. trade) publisher, they don’t even know our names. When I take a job from this publisher, I change my username in Word to Copy Editor, and that’s how all my comments are slugged.

This anonymity makes a certain amount of sense, but at the same time it can contribute to the sometimes-fraught relations between copyeditors and authors. More than once I got rather annoyed with this author: Didn’t anyone ever tell you that you shouldn’t . . . Now that the author is going through the copyedited ms., maybe it’s a good thing that anonymous “Copy Editor” can’t be tracked down online.

So think of this and the next couple of Editorial Workshop posts as guidance I would give to this author if we could communicate directly. And since these are all things I’ve seen in works by other writers, I have this hunch that my comments may be useful to you too.

Variety May Be the Spice of Life, but Consistency Matters Too

When any writer — including me — uses the same noun, verb, or modifier twice in one paragraph, or several times on one page, I instinctively flag it and usually suggest an alternative. We’ve all got that down: Repetition isn’t a good thing, unless it’s intentionally done for effect.

After all, didn’t Ralph Waldo Emerson famously write “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines”? And didn’t Oscar Wilde say that “Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative”?

When Emerson is quoted on the subject, the word “foolish” is usually left out. Emerson understood that not all consistency is foolish. More to the point, when it comes to writing, attempts to avoid consistency can look pretty foolish. It isn’t hard to recognize when writers rely overmuch on their thesaurus. Synonyms often aren’t exactly interchangeable. One may have associations or nuances that another doesn’t.

My author’s problem was with names. Here’s a simple version of what I’d come across:

Joan greeted her daughter’s teacher. Henry had only moved to town two years ago.

Nothing in the previous text suggests that “teacher” and “Henry” are the same person. The reader might sensibly jump to that conclusion — only to learn a couple of sentences later that Henry is the daughter’s playmate and the teacher is his mother.

Other instances were more complex, and more confusing. In the space of four sentences, the same person might be referred to by first name, last name, job title or military rank, and — for good measure — home state. To make it more fun, remember those nine pages of personal names? This book has a long list of players, and not a few of them have similar names, sometimes because they’re related.

The short version? Make it clear who you’re writing about. This is especially important in nonfiction dealing with real-life people, but it matters in fiction too. Fiction writers can be intentionally cagey when the plot requires it and not let on at first that “Joan” and “the Georgia native in the green sweater” are the same person, but caution is advised here too.

Consistency, in other words, is your, and your reader’s, ally.

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If you’ve got a question that might make a good topic for an Editing Workshop post, leave a comment here or use the contact form on the menu bar at the top of this page.