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.

Reading Farther Afield

Writers should read. We should read a lot. It’s true, and we all know it — even once we figure out that reading is a great way to avoid writing.

I don’t read nearly as much as I did in earlier decades. I do, however, read, usually two or three or four books at once, and that doesn’t include the manuscript or two that I’m editing.

Recently I took on a book that was way off my beaten track: Agents of Empire: Knights, Corsairs, Jesuits and Spies in the Sixteenth-Century Mediterranean World, by British historian Noel Malcolm. I was turned on to it by a copyediting job, a journalist’s ms. that combined history and memoir about the Adriatic. Almost everything about it was new to me. I had to look a lot up. Agents of Empire and its author were mentioned more than once. I requested the book from the regional library system.

It’s well researched, well written, and altogether riveting, but I have to admit: It was also challenging, because I had so little background in either the Mediterranean world or the 16th century.

That turned out to be a plus. Agents of Empire shed a lot of light on areas I was somewhat familiar with, as well as introducing me to perspectives I hadn’t considered. I’ve never really understood what happened in the Balkans after the former Yugoslavia broke up. This book about the 16th century gave me some clues.

As a result, I’ve resolved to take more deep dives into areas about which I know next to nothing.

For those interested, here’s my review of Agents of Empire on GoodReads:

Agents of Empire: Knights, Corsairs, Jesuits and Spies in the Sixteenth-Century Mediterranean World by Noel Malcolm

I was drawn to Agents of Empire because it’s about a part of the world and a period about which I know next to nothing, and it came well recommended. Wow. Professor Malcolm was already adept in the Balkan region and the early modern period when he came across a chance reference to a 16th century manuscript that seemed to have been written by an Albanian native — the earliest extant evidence of such a thing. It took him years to track it down, but after he did (IIRC it was lying unremarked in the vast libraries of the Vatican) it proved to be a sort of Rosetta stone, leading to the interlocked Bruni and Bruti families.

The Brunis and Brutis were indeed rooted in Albania, but to say they got around is an understatement. The book’s subtitle gives you an idea: in two or three generations, they produced a Knight of Malta, a Jesuit, a ship’s commander at the Battle of Lepanto (1571), a few spies, a translator at the Ottoman court, a powerbroker in Moldavia, and several merchants. Using their stories as threads, Malcolm creates a rich tapestry of place and period primarily from the perspective not of kings and emperors, popes and sultans (though they do appear in the story), but of those a couple of levels down in the socioeconomic hierarchy.

Readers who come to this book with more knowledge of the period will undoubtedly retain more of the details, but for me its great gift is its challenge to my notions of geography. Even though I know better, I fall into the habit of seeing Europe, Asia, and Africa as distinct entities. Focusing on the Mediterranean in a period when most long-distance travel was by sea undermines that habit in a big way. Commerce binds the coastal areas together; the never-ending need for raw materials, foodstuffs, and livestock binds the coasts to their inland regions. The players in Agents of Empire range as far as Spain, and a whole sequence takes place in the South of France.

Much warfare takes place on the water as well, less in pitched battles than in raids on shipping. The sea lanes were lifelines, and ships at sea were popular targets for corsairs and pirates. (Corsairs, I learn, professed some loyalty to a particular state. Pirates were entirely self-employed.) This spawned continual negotiations between municipalities for the ransoming of captives and the return of or compensation for cargo. Enslavement was a booming business. The relatively affluent and/or well connected had a good chance of being ransomed. The others were likely to wind up on the galley benches — those ships did not depend entirely on sails to get around.

Finally — I wish this book had been around when I was trying to make sense of the bloody war that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The shifting border between the Ottoman Empire and the various jurisdictions east of the Adriatic explains a lot. Warfare was frequent here too: several members of the Bruni-Bruti clan died in battle or when cities fell, and others lost their livelihoods and had to relocate. The region was multiethnic, multilingual, and multi-religious (Orthodox, Catholic, and Muslim); while the Ottoman Empire was strong enough to hold it together, it was reasonably cohesive at least on the surface, but the potential fault lines were there.

So I recommend Agents of Empire to anyone interested in either the place or the period, even if you’re starting out with little background. Prepare to feel a little overwhelmed, but trust me, it’s worth it. I recommend it to those already familiar with Mediterranean history, too, though it’s probably been on your shelves for several years now.


View all my reviews

Why Are We So Horrible to Each Other Online?

This historian Heather Cox Richardson posted this question as a hypothetical and invited responses. As often happens, I realized that my response was the rough draft of a blog post, and because it’s about written communication, this is the blog it belongs in. I have, of course, messed with it a bit. 😉

Aside: If you have any interest in U.S. history and/or the current U.S. political situation and you aren’t already following HCR’s Letters from an American, you should. As a subscriber, I can blather in the comments, but you can read it for free. You can find it in your inbox almost every morning. Also for free, you can listen to the podcast Now and Then, which she recently started with sister historian Joanne Freeman on the Vox/Cafe network.

Well, in my experience plenty of people aren’t horrible to each other online, and “online” isn’t monolithic. Some online situations facilitate horrible behavior and others don’t. My hunch is that a big factor is that online we can’t see the reaction our words are having. In face-to-face (F2F) encounters we can. (Need I say that some people are capable of being horrible F2F and never regretting it.) Humans are sensitive to the physical presence of others — this is even true for those who perform before large audiences. Online we don’t have those cues. We’re posting in isolation.

I suspect that my mostly positive experience over the years on Facebook is partly due to the fact that a significant percentage of my FB friends are, like me, editors and/or writers, or they work in fields where communication is front and center, like education or health care. We pay close attention to the intended audience for what we’re writing or saying. This shapes how we say it, both the words and the tone. Most of us most of the time probably do this without thinking too much about it.

Those of us who move through different circles in the course of a day or write/edit for different audiences become adept at code-switching. I’m currently editing a book-length manuscript about the oil industry. The intended audience includes readers who know a lot about the oil industry and/or a fair amount about economics, but it also includes readers who are interested in energy politics but know little about economics or the oil company at the center of this book. Earlier this year I edited (1) a travel memoir focused on the Adriatic, and (2) a memoir that combines personal history with African-American history and women’s experience into a hard-to-describe whole. I’m here to tell you that no style guide recommendation I know of could apply to all three jobs. Too much depends on the subject at hand and the intended audience.

Consider, too, that plenty of people active online have less-than-stellar skills in written communication, period. They aren’t accustomed to speaking with people outside of their own circle either. In other words, I’m not surprised that many people are horrible to each other online. This makes me value all the more the skills I’ve developed as an editor.

Over the decades I’ve learned to pay close attention not just to individual behavior but to the underlying systems that shape it. Since I joined Facebook 10 years ago and Twitter last year (I held out for a long time, and on the whole I don’t think I’ve missed much), I’ve noticed a big difference between them and the e-groups I’ve been part of since the late 1990s. Part of it has to do with effective moderation (on Facebook and Twitter there effectively isn’t any), but even more it has to do with structure. The structure of social media makes it hard to have anything close to a conversation or discussion. The comment threads move in one direction only. Subthreads surface here and there, but they’re mostly ephemeral.

If you take umbrage at what someone else has posted, it is very hard to ask that person what s/he meant. Since we generally know very little about the person whose post we’re pissed off at, misunderstandings are inevitable, and it’s much easier to fire back a rejoinder than to ask for clarification.

And we’ve learned that Facebook et al. ❤ this. Their algorithms privilege posts that inspire immediate reactions — emojis and sharing — not those that encourage temperate speech and clarification. As writers and editors we know how much communication benefits from the ability to step back for a few minutes (or hours, or days). Social media do not encourage this.

The short version? As writers, editors, and other word people we know that communication is possible across political, regional, ethnic, and all sorts of differences. We know that we have the skills to help it happen. But social media does not make it easy. I hope it doesn’t make it impossible.

Sturgis’s Law #11

A very long while back, like in May 2015, 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, but I can’t help noticing that some of them apply to other aspects of life as well. None of them can be proven, but they do come in handy from time to time.

It’s been more than three and a half years since I blogged about Sturgis’s Law #10, and I’m only halfway through the list. Time to get cracking! As I blog about them, I add the link to Sturgis’s Laws on the drop-down from the menu bar. Here at long last is Sturgis’s Law #11:

The burden of proof is on the editor.

We editors live to make good prose better and awkward prose readable. We mean well and most of us are at least pretty good at what we do, but this has its downside: the writers we deal with are usually pretty good at what they do, and even when they’re not, they generally have a better idea of what they’re trying to get across than we do.

Newly fledged editors can be a bit, well, full of ourselves. I sure as hell was. I got hired for my first professional (i.e., paid) editor job on the basis of my knowledge of English grammar, usage, spelling — the basics, in other words. I was quickly introduced to “Chicago style,” which then in its 12th edition was still called A Manual of Style. (It became the Chicago Manual of Style with the 13th edition and so it’s continued through the 17th and current one.)

Oh dear! So many recommendations to remember and apply! I learned, I applied — and I got pretty obnoxious about some of it, notably the which/that distinction: That is used for restrictive clauses, which for non-restrictive, and which is invariably preceded by a comma. Thus —

The house that I grew up in had green shutters.

That house, which was built in 1956, is the one I grew up in.

In the first example, “that I grew up in” provides information essential to identifying the house. In the second, “which was built in 1956” is almost an aside: you could put it in parentheses or drop it completely. (For what it’s worth, the house I grew up in was built in 1956, but it had no shutters at all.)

Never mind that I’d lived almost three decades and learned to write pretty well knowing zip about the which/that distinction — now it became my litmus test for sorting writers into categories: those who “got it” and those who didn’t. This stood me in good stead when, almost two decades later, I started freelancing for U.S. publishers, because many of them include the which/that distinction in their house style, plus it’s in Chicago, which most of them use as a style guide.

Long before that, however, I’d learned that in British English “which” is often used for restrictive clauses and little if any confusion results; it also dawned on me that the distinction between restrictive/essential and non-restrictive/non-essential often isn’t all that important to the sentence at hand. Consider, for instance, the convention for setting off non-essential words with commas. I’m supposed to write “My dog, Tam, likes to ride in the car” because (1) I’ve only got one dog, and (2) it’s important that the reader know that. True, I’ve only got one dog, but if it’s important that the reader know this I’m not going to rely on commas to get the idea across. Besides, that’s an awful lot of commas for a short sentence.

I also learned that in turning which/that into a litmus test, I was acting perilously like the English-language grammarians and educators in the mid to late 19th century. Concerned by increasing literacy among the working classes, they came up with a bunch of rules to distinguish the properly educated from the riffraff. Most of those “rules,” like the injunction against splitting an infinitive or ending a sentence with a preposition, have been properly consigned to the dungheap by good writers and editors. Nevertheless, they’re tenacious enough to have been dubbed “zombie rules” because they don’t stay dead.

Me at work in my EDITOR shirt

While that first editorial job introduced me to the potential for editorial arrogance, it also presented a couple of antidotes. One was Theodore Bernstein’s The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage. My paperback copy is in two pieces from years of frequent consultation. Since it was first published in the mid-1960s, it’s no longer quite as “modern,” but it’s still a good antidote for editors, educators, and other word people who are sometimes tempted to take ourselves and our esoteric knowledge a little too seriously. Bernstein is also the author of Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins: The Careful Writer’s Guide to the Taboos, Bugbears, and Outmoded Rules of English Usage, which I think is still in print.

Most important, that job required that each manuscript be “cleared”: you sat down side by side with the writer and went through the whole ms. line by line, answering the writer’s questions and explaining why you’d made this or that change. (These were pamphlets, brochures, training manuals, and such, ranging up to perhaps 40 pages in length, not full-length books.) These writers weren’t pros. Some were definitely more capable than others, and it wasn’t uncommon for the less capable to be the most defensive about edits. I learned to justify every change I made to myself so that I could explain it clearly to the writer.

When freelancing for trade publishers these days, I have zero direct contact with the authors of the book-length mss. I work on, but I know they’re going to see the edits I make and the queries I write. On most other jobs, I do deal directly with the author, but almost exclusively by email. That early experience has stood me in very good stead over the decades: I never forget that there’s a real human being on the other side of the manuscript.

For more about that first staff editor job, including how I got that T-shirt, see “1979: I Become an Editor” in my new blog, The T-Shirt Chronicles.

U Is for Undo

My possibilities for U didn’t inspire me at all — usage? uniformity? — then this morning while Tam Lin and I were out walking, “undo” popped into my head. (This is why W is going to be for Walking. Coming up soon! Watch this space.)

My next thought was “Doesn’t undo begin with Z?”

Muwahahaha. If you’re a Windows user who writes and/or edits for a living, you are almost certainly on a first-name basis with CTRL+Z, the keyboard command that will undo most of the awful things you just did. No, it will not bring back the document you accidentally trashed before you’d saved it, but after you’ve done that once, you’ll probably remember to name and save new files as soon as you create them, and tell your PC to automatically back up your work at regular intervals.

If you decide that the awful thing you just undid isn’t so awful after all, CTRL+Y will bring it back. I don’t use CTRL+Y nearly as often as I use CTRL+Z. That probably says more about me than I want generally known, but there it is.

Aside for Mac users: The Mac equivalent is COMMAND+Z. To undo your undo, it’s COMMAND+SHIFT+Z. I can’t verify this at home, but you can if you’ve got a Mac.

CTRL+Z is so much easier than its analog predecessors: erasers, Wite-Out, correction tape, etc. With those methods, undoing your undo was pretty much out of the question. And don’t get me started on correcting a master stencil in the heyday of mimeograph. In case you’re wondering why I wax rhapsodic about CTRL+Z.

If you use Track Changes — as I do when I’m editing, all the time, but not so often when I’m writing — it’s easy to flip back and forth between the original version and whatever you did to it. Even so, CTRL+Z saves my butt on a regular basis.

But really, people, this isn’t just about a handy keyboard shortcut. It’s a reminder that — at least until something’s published, and maybe even then — you can change it, rethink it, revise it.

CTRL+Z is a reminder that you’ve always got an escape hatch, a safety net. Feel free to take risks. Don’t worry about looking stupid to yourself 10 minutes later. You can always undo it.

And if you decide you had it right the first time, you can undo your undo.

Tam waits for me to get done with whatever I’m doing.

S Is for Style

Over the years of working with English as an editor and writer I’ve learned to be careful of the words “right” and “wrong.” When asked if something is right or not, I often begin with “It depends” — on your intended audience, on context, on which side of “the pond” (aka the Atlantic Ocean) you’re on, and so on.

We talk about the “rules of grammar” as if they’re hard, fast, and uncompromising, but they aren’t. Even the basic ones have their exceptions. Take “subject-verb agreement.” The subject should always agree with its verb in number, right? Most of the time, yes, but some nouns can be singular or plural depending on how they’re being used. Some examples: couple and family take a singular verb when referring to the unit, but a plural verb when its members are being emphasized.

The same principle applies to majority and many other words denoting groups of persons, places, or things: is it referring to the group as a whole or to its constituent parts? (Tip: Is it preceded by the definite article the or the indefinite a(n)?

  • The majority has voted to replace the bridge.
  • A majority (of participants or whatever) are coming to the party.
Arbiters of style, in hardcopy

Which brings me around to style. Style is far more flexible than grammar, and for this very reason publications, publishers, and academic disciplines adopt distinctive styles. These are often based on one of the major style guides. Most U.S. publishers use the Chicago Manual of Style, often with their own additions and exceptions. Most U.S. newspapers and periodicals start with the AP Stylebook. (AP stands for Associated Press, a nonprofit news agency that dates back to the mid-19th century.) Other common styles include MLA (Modern Language Association), which is especially popular in the humanities, and APA (American Psychological Association), widely used in the social sciences.

I’m on a first-name basis with Chicago, having been using it since 1979, and I have a nodding acquaintance with AP. A significant difference between the two is in how they handle numbers. Chicago generally spells out numbers through one hundred. AP spells out one through nine but uses figures for 10 and up. Another is in the use of italics: Chicago employs them in a variety of ways, notably for titles of books, films, and other full-length works. AP style doesn’t use them at all. Before the digital age, italics couldn’t be transmitted “over the wires,” so AP style developed without them (and without boldface, for the same reason).

Unsurprisingly, Chicago, MLA, and APA styles devote a lot of attention to citations. All three are widely used by academics, whose writing is based on previously published work or unpublished work that can be found in manuscript collections. (Chicago began as the style guide of the University of Chicago Press. Though it’s widely used by trade publishers and even fiction writers, its scholarly origins are obvious in the chapters devoted to quotations and citation style.)

It’s no surprise either that AP devotes virtually no attention to footnotes, endnotes, and bibliographies. Reporters may quote from public documents, but their primary sources are interviews and public statements. They may have recorded backup, or they may rely on notes scribbled the old way in a notebook.

So what does this mean to you? The top two lessons I’ve learned over the years as a writer and editor are (1) right and wrong, correct and incorrect, are shiftier than one learns in school, and (2) nevertheless, rules and conventions are important. The better you know them, the more command you’ll have over your writing — which is a big plus when you decide to stretch, bend, or break them.

For U.S. writers of general nonfiction, creative nonfiction (e.g., memoir), and fiction, the Chicago Manual of Style is a good place to start. No, you don’t need to read it straight through. (I never have, and there are a couple of chapters that I’ve rarely ever looked at.) The further you get from scholarly nonfiction, the more flexible you should be about applying its recommendations. As I keep saying, these are guidelines, not godlines.

When I’m working, I usually have three dictionaries — Merriam-Webster’s, American Heritage, and Oxford/UK — open in my browser, along with the Chicago Manual of Style. I subscribe to the AP Stylebook and consult it from time to time. This reminds me continually that even “the authorities” differ. For colloquialisms and current slang, Google is only a click away.

I just realized that I haven’t said a thing about style sheets. Fortunately I wrote about them at some length a few years ago: “What’s a Style Sheet?” Short version: A style sheet is for keeping track of all the style choices one makes when copyediting a manuscript. It includes general choices about the styling of, e.g., numbers and the use of quote marks and italics. It also includes words, dozens of words: unusual words, words that aren’t in the dictionary, words for which there is more than one spelling. In biographies and history books, the list of personal names might be as long as the word list. When I turn in the completed copyediting job, my style sheet goes with it. When I receive a proofreading job, I get the copyeditor’s style sheet too.

For writers, keeping a style sheet is a handy way to maintain consistency, especially in a novel or other book-length work. It can also remind you to check the spelling of names and places. Publishers don’t encourage authors to submit style sheets with their manuscripts, but I wish they did.

O Is for Order

One of the marvels of English is its flexibility about word order. Subject-verb-object is standard, but multiple variations are possible. However, the further you stray from the standard, the more important it is to pay attention to what the words may be doing behind your back. When I copyedit the work of competent writers, many of my edits are due to the ambiguity, confusion, or even outright hilarity created by a misplaced modifier.

Here’s a simple example of how the placement of a single word can change the meaning of a sentence. In this case it’s “only,” a handy four-letter word whose very versatility can cause trouble. Note that when it comes to placing adjectives and adverbs, proximity matters. We generally associate adjectives with the nearest noun or pronoun, adverbs with the nearest verb or adjective.

Only she would eat coffee ice cream for breakfast.
No one else would eat coffee ice cream for breakfast.

She would eat only coffee ice cream for breakfast.
Cereal and scrambled eggs wouldn’t do. It had to be coffee ice cream.

She would eat coffee ice cream only for breakfast.
She wouldn’t eat coffee ice cream for lunch or supper or any other meal.

In oral communication, a speaker’s intonation — emphasizing she or coffee, for example — will often make the meaning clear, no matter where the “only” goes — “She would only eat coffee ice cream for breakfast” or “Only she would eat coffee ice cream for breakfast” — but readers of a printed text can’t hear what the writer intended. It’s tempting to rely on italics or boldface or ALL CAPS to signal emphasis, but such devices lose their impact with overuse. With experience we learn to let the placement of the words and phrases do most of the work.

This includes, I should add, paying attention not only the proximity of modifiers to the words they modify but also to the rhythm of the language, including where the stresses fall in multisyllabic words. Poets do this. Prose writers should too, and good ones do, consciously or by “feel.” I’ll sometimes choose one synonym over another because it sounds better. I urge writers to read sentences aloud while they’re working, even at the first-draft stage. This is too big a subject to be covered here, but here’s a crash course if you’re interested.

Google “misplaced modifier” and you’ll find plenty of examples, along the lines of “He served cake to the children on paper plates.” Were the children really on paper plates? No: it was the cake. Make it “He served the children cake on paper plates.” Misplaced modifiers are easier to catch in other people’s writing. Knowing what you meant to say makes it harder to see that this isn’t what the words say, or that the words could be taken in more than one way. This happens even to those of us who are editors as well as writers. I’m best at catching my own goofs if I let a day, or at least a few hours, go by before I revisit something I’ve just finished.

Where you place a dialogue tag — said or asked or one of their many alternatives — can help convey how your character is saying whatever s/he’s saying and where s/he pauses to breathe or think. Like punctuation marks, dialogue tags shape the way your sentences are read. I went into this in some detail a few years back. If you want to read more, check out “‘Tag!’ She Scowled.”

And while we’re at it, I blogged about word order even longer ago, in “Location!” Check that out too if you like.

The more attention you pay to the order and placement of words and phrases, the more possibilities you’ll discover in the language you use. And, as I never get tired of saying, do read your writing out loud when you’re working on it. Some things are easier to hear than to see. In my writers’ group, some members occasionally ask other members to read their work aloud. If you have the opportunity to do this, take advantage of it!

J Is for Journal/ism

Journal, journalism . . .

Lately while out in the woods with my dog I’ve been pondering the connection. It’s out there in plain sight: both words derive from the Latin diurnus or diurnal, daily, by way of the French jour. So does journey, from the Old French jornée, a day’s travel or a day’s work.

The etymological connection is close and clear, but in practice? Both have to do with writing, but journals are private while journalism is very public, right?

Well, a journal is private while you’re writing in it, but in the historical and biographical nonfiction I copyedit, previously private journals become essential sources for published writing. Public figures and figures who plan to become public often keep journals as an off-the-record record of their journeys, their days’ travel and their days’ work. For anyone who seeks to understand what was going on behind the scenes during important events, these journals become crucial.

With journalism, the journey from private to public happens much faster. It may be almost immediate. Being a rather slow writer myself, I’m continually awed by the speed with which a good reporter can gather information, synthesize it, and spin it into a story that makes sense when heard or read. In a competent news organization the reporter doesn’t do it alone, of course. The tighter the deadline, the more important editors and fact-checkers become.

You can see the problem: In the digital age, deadlines have never been tighter, but unfortunately neither have budgets, and the editorial and fact-checking positions are among the first to get axed. For a writer, going to print without adequate editing is like doing tightrope acrobatics without a safety net. Continuous deadline pressure raises the wire a few yards.

Another casualty of the digital age has been local journalism. Local journalists know their areas well. They develop stories that develop under the radar of regional and big-city news organizations. These stories can and often do become the impetus for regional and national stories — the building blocks, if you will.

And that’s a connection between journals and journalism: as journals can become building blocks — sources — for historians, biographers, and historical-fiction writers, so day-to-day news stories become the foundation for longer series, for informed commentary, and for full-length books. Some of the most important books I’ve read began as the writer’s reporting for a newspaper or magazine. Among the works that come immediately to mind: Seyward Darby’s Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism, Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators, and Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, about the migration of African Americans from the South into the Northeast, Midwest, and West.

Others rely heavily on the in-depth reporting of others, such as Rachel Maddow’s Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth.

I recently copyedited two books dealing with Covid-19. One focused on the political and medical aspects of the pandemic; the author had clearly been keeping a detailed record of a year’s worth of developments, while publishing some of it in pieces along the way. The other, by a working journalist, gathered in-depth interviews with individuals variously involved with the pandemic, as patients, health-care workers, local officials, scientists, and so on; earlier versions of most of these interviews had already been published.

So what does all this have to do with you, the writer and/or editor? I see a few possibilities. An obvious one is that news outlets, especially local ones, are a vehicle for getting your words into print and even building an audience. Think letters to the editor, op-eds (opinion pieces that traditionally appear opposite the editoral page), and feature stories, for instance about an individual or organization that’s doing good work in your area.

As local news outlets decline, “citizen journalism” has become more important. Sometimes it’s fostered by existing news organizations; other times it arises from the grass roots, with individuals using social media to report and comment on happenings in their areas. Some practitioners have huge national and international followings. Many more find readers closer to home.

In my area a very large Facebook group has become a conduit for local news, even though we’re lucky enough to still have not one but two weekly newspapers. I think of it as the grapevine on steroids: “news,” such as it is, travels farther faster than old-fashioned gossip ever dreamed of doing, and it can be every bit as inaccurate and even vindictive. But it tells me a lot about the community I live in.