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.

G Is for Grammar

Grammar scares the hell out of many people. In the very late 1990s, when I started participating in online groups that weren’t oriented to editors and/or writers, people would sometimes apologize to me for their bad grammar or spelling. Once in a while someone would attack me for making them feel inferior. I was mystified. For one thing, their grammar wasn’t bad at all, and for another I wasn’t criticizing anyone’s grammar, spelling, or anything else.

Then I got it: I was using the same sig line I used in online groups of writers, editors, and other word people. It identified me as an editor. I cut “editor” out of my sig line. The apologies and attacks stopped.

Grammar gets a bad rap. (NB: I just took a little detour to look up “bad rap,” like why isn’t it “bad rep,” as in “reputation”? Check it out on the Merriam-Webster’s website.) Plenty of us learned in school that there’s only one right way to write and every other way is substandard. Taken to heart, that’s enough to paralyze anybody.

There’s no shortage of people who’ll sort you into a category according to how you speak or write. (Take a break here if you like to listen to “Why Can’t the English?” from My Fair Lady.) A common assumption seems to be that editors all come from this judgmental tribe. While it’s true that most of us who become editors were language adepts in school — we spot grammatical errors and misspellings as readily as musicians detect sour notes in a concert — the best editors I know put serious effort into learning more about how our language is used in the real world, and how writers use it.

Some grammars are descriptivist: they describe how a language is used by its speakers. Others are prescriptivist: they tell speakers of a language how they ought to be using it. Language changes over time, no doubt about it. It also varies across different populations, which is why both writers and editors need to consider the audience for whatever they’re working on.

Think of grammar as a tool in your toolkit. As tools go, it’s a pretty complex one and takes a while to master — it’s more like a piano than a screwdriver. On the other hand, a sentence has fewer moving parts than the human body, so learning the parts of speech takes a lot less time than learning all the bones and muscles. Understanding how the parts are supposed to work together makes it easier to recognize when a sentence isn’t working, how to fix it, and how to explain it all to someone else.

If you never learned to diagram sentences in school, or even if you did, you might find that diagramming helps you visualize how the parts of a sentence fit together. There are plenty of how-tos online, including this one.

Since my first editorial job four decades ago, my go-to reference for grammar questions has been Words Into Type. It hasn’t been revised in just about that long, so it can be hard to find, so I asked some editorial colleagues what their favorite references were. Here are a few of them:

  • The Copyeditor’s Handbook, 4th ed., by Amy Einsohn and Marilyn Schwartz, University of California Press. I’ve got the 3rd edition, the last one Amy completed solo before her death in 2014. And no, it’s not just for copyeditors.
  • Good Grief, Good Grammar: The Business Person’s Guide to Grammar and Usage, by Dianna Booher, Ballantine Books
  • The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation, by Jane Straus, Lester Kaufman, and Tom Stern, Wiley
  • The Gregg Reference Manual, by William Sabin, McGraw-Hill
  • The Little, Brown Handbook, by H. Ramsey Fowler, Jane E. Aaron, and Michael Greer, Pearson
  • The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th ed., University of Chicago Press. Also available by subscription online. I’ve been using it since the 12th edition, when it was still called A Manual of Style.
My go-to reference books

E Is for Editing

Me editing in my EDITOR T.

What did you expect E to be for? 😉 As an editor, I don’t exactly breathe editing but I spend a lot of time doing it, thinking about it, and writing about it in this blog and elsewhere. In fact, just yesterday in my new T-Shirt Chronicles blog I posted about my first staff editor job and how I got my orange EDITOR T-shirt.

Editing is a big topic so here I’m going to focus on two questions that writers often ask: (1) Do I really need an editor? and (2) What kind of editing am I looking for?

Do I really need an editor?

Many editors insist that any writer who aspires to any kind of publication needs an editor. This is not surprising, because editors need paying clients to make a living. They have a point. Every writer, and every piece of writing that aspires to be read, could use or would benefit from good editing. That includes the editor-writers among us: no matter how much experience we’ve got, we can’t bring a fresh eye to our own work.

I part company with these editors when they emphasize the necessity of editing by likening editors to plumbers or car mechanics. You need a plumber when a pipe bursts in your basement. You need a mechanic when your rear brakes start to fail. You don’t need an editor with quite the same urgency. In the real world where funds are not unlimited, the flooding basement and the failing brakes, not to mention the groceries, rent, and utilities, take precedence over the unedited manuscript.

One-on-one editing is time-intensive. It does not come cheap. It does pay for itself, but rarely in hard currency. Even if you get your book, essay, or story published, the financial returns probably won’t cover what you shelled out for editing. Unless your book is very popular, it won’t begin to compensate you for all the hours you spent working on it either. But consider it this way: If you were looking primarily for a tangible return on your investment, you probably would have gone into plumbing or car mechanics, right?

If you’re serious about your writing, and especially if you self-publish, the time will probably come when the value of good editing will be worth the money you spend on it. Worth it to you.

I encourage writers to learn as much as they can about editing. It makes us better writers. It gives us more control of our work. It saves us money, because the more we can do ourselves, the less we have to pay others to do. And when the time comes to hire an editor, we’re better able to find one who will do justice to our work. Join a writers’ group or workshop. Attend a writers’ conference. Find a couple of fellow writers to share work with. Read widely and read critically; pay close attention to how the writers you respect do what they do. (Keep in mind that they’ve probably had editorial assistance along the way.) And by all means keep writing.

What kind of editing am I looking for?

Like many of the editors I know, I’m sometimes asked by novice writers what it would cost to “proofread” their work. Aside from the fact that to give a good estimate, it’s best to actually see the work, what these writers are looking for is invariably editing, not proofreading.

So what’s editing, beyond messing with something that’s already been written? Here’s where it can get confusing. “Editing” can involve anything from correcting typos and grammar gaffes to rearranging paragraphs and even helping a writer build a book from scratch. So we talk about “levels of editing.” Here’s a rough guide to the levels, starting with “big picture” editing and moving down to what I call the “picky bitch stage”: catching spelling and grammar errors.

Ghostwriting. Ghostwriting is writing, not editing. I include it because I’m not the only editor who’s heard this question: “I’ve got a great idea. Can you help me turn it into a book and we can share the royalties?” The answer is no. Ghostwriting is even more time-intensive than editing and even more costly. The chances that the resulting product will earn any royalties are close to nil. My standard answer is “Sell your proposal first and then we can talk.” None of the querents has ever come back.

Developmental editing. Like ghostwriting, this involves building the manuscript from the ground up. For big projects, like textbooks, it can involve multiple authors, researchers, designers, and more. For the individual writer, it’s all the work that goes into creating a coherent complete draft. Most of us do our own developmental editing, often with assistance from writers’ groups and those generous people who volunteer to read our work and give us feedback.

Rewriting. Most of us do our own rewriting too. From the individual writer’s point of view, it’s close kin to developmental editing.

Structural editing. The structure of a work is its skeleton. When the wrist bones are connected to the thigh bones, the body doesn’t work too well. All written works have structure. Structure is what guides readers through the story or the essay. When you decide that a scene in the middle of the book has to come near the beginning or a certain character’s motivation won’t make sense, you’re messing with the work’s structure.

Stylistic editing. This is called all sorts of things, including content editing, line editing, and copyediting. Here you go through the work line by line, asking whether each sentence, phrase, and word says what you want it to say, and in the best way possible. English is a wonderfully flexible language. Choosing the right word and putting it in the right place can make a big difference. Writers’ groups and volunteer readers (aka “guinea pigs”) can be invaluable here. You know what you meant to say, but until you get feedback from readers it’s hard to know how well it’s coming across.

Copyediting. I hire out as a “copyeditor,” but my work includes plenty of stylistic editing so I have a hard time distinguishing one from the other. Let’s say here that copyediting focuses on the mechanics: spelling, punctuation, grammar, formatting, and the like. With nonfiction, it includes ensuring that footnotes and endnotes, bibliographies and reference lists, are accurate, consistent with each other, and properly formatted.

Proofreading. This level is the most mechanical of all. It means catching the errors that have slipped through despite all the writer’s and editor’s best efforts. (No matter how expert the writer and editor are, there will be errors. Trust me on this. I just caught one in this sentence. No, I won’t tell.)

Before the digital age, edited manuscripts had to be typeset, i.e., completely retyped, and printed out as a galley proof. Proofreaders would read this proof against the manuscript to make sure the manuscript had been followed exactly and also to flag any errors in the ms. that the typesetter had missed. Nowadays the proofs are prepared from the edited manuscript. Because nothing has to be reset, each version is cleaner than its predecessor. Most proofreading is “cold reading”: reading the page proofs to catch any errors that slipped through in earlier stages.

D Is for Deadline

You know we’re off to a good start: I’m writing this at half past noon on the day after it was supposed to be up. Never mind what the button says: Blowing off deadlines is not good practice if you value your income and/or reputation.

But if there’s a writer or editor out there who’s never missed a deadline, I’d be surprised.

And if there’s a writer or editor out there who’s never used deadlines as an excuse, I’d be even more surprised. In the last month I’ve avoided two or three events by saying “I’m on deadline.”

It wasn’t a lie. I had three editing deadlines to meet in a two-week period, all on substantial book-length jobs. The real story is a little more complicated. I took on one job with a more-than-reasonable deadline: a little over 200 pages in about four weeks. The deadline was so reasonable that I accepted another job. And then another.

So I was on deadline, but I could have finished that first job in two weeks easy if I hadn’t taken on the other two.

I bitch about deadlines, but in truth I like them. They help me stay relatively organized. And the adrenaline surge can be, well, a rush. For the better part of a decade, from the late 1980s to the late ’90s, I worked for a weekly newspaper, the Martha’s Vineyard Times. Key ingredients in the weekly rush to deadline:

  • Martha’s Vineyard is an island.
  • The printer was off-island.
  • The “boards” from which the paper would be printed had to reach the printer by a certain time to ensure that the finished copies would arrive on the island early the next morning.
  • In the days before digital transmission, there were only two ways to get the boards to the printer: by ferry or by plane.
  • Ferries and planes have fixed schedules.

The paper came out on Thursday, so Wednesday was deadline day. The boards had to be on the 5:00 ferry, without fail. No matter how much writing, editing, and paste-up got done earlier in the week — the features sections generally went to bed by Tuesday night — Wednesdays were synchronized chaos: stories breaking, reporters writing, advertisers begging to change their ads or get a new one in, and everything having to be edited, proofread, and pasted up.

Me checking the boards on my last day as features editor, October 1993. In 1996 I returned as one-woman copy desk, where I remained till I went full-time freelance in mid-1999.

I loved it. I loved the way we all came through under escalating pressure, right up to the moment that the finished boards were zipped into the big black carrying case and the editor in chief headed out the door.

After that we crashed, of course, and it was a groggy bunch of campers who showed up for staff meeting the next morning. But the camaraderie and the sense of achievement was real. We knew we could depend on each other to come through under pressure.

On the subject of pressure — I was the paper’s main theater reviewer in those days. Theater reviews had to run by opening night, which was usually our publication day or the day after. This often meant that I’d review the last or next-to-last dress rehearsal.

The deadline curbed my perfectionist tendencies, but on one occasion I froze. The play was Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days. The lead actress was excellent — but I had no idea what the play was about. I couldn’t watch the play again, or interview the director, or even read up on Beckett. (This was before the World Wide Web, so research options in my small town were limited.) I had to write something, so I riffed on the notes I’d taken, trying to understand what was going on.

Into the paper went my review, and after the paper came out on Thursday, the lead actress told me I’d “gotten it.” I knew her pretty well and don’t think she was just being nice. It was a major life lesson to realize I could wing it under that kind of pressure and not wind up with egg on my face.

Working on a big project without a set deadline is hard. When Covid-19 hit in March 2020, my writers group stopped meeting. Well into the fourth draft of my second novel, I hadn’t realized how much I depended on those meetings to keep going. Sunday night was my weekly deadline. When it stopped, so did I.

Meetings resumed in warm weather, when we could meet, socially distanced, outside. In the fall we finally made the transition to Zoom. By then I’d put the novel aside and taken up another project: The T-Shirt Chronicles, a blog organized around my formidable T-shirt collection. Will I pick the novel up again? Not sure, but as time goes on I’ve been thinking that maybe the weekly deadline was getting in the way, and what I needed was time to step back and consider the structure of the thing. The novel’s ingredients are all fine, but the whole isn’t doing what I want it to. I’m not even sure I know what I want it to do.

Short version: Deadlines can be powerful motivators, and that includes the ones you set for yourself if you take them as seriously as the ones others set for you. But pacing yourself so that every deadline doesn’t become a crunch is important too. Leave your mind time to meander a little off the track, to follow up on leads that might take a while to bear fruit. And when you meet a deadline and know you’ve done a good job, pat yourself on the back.

C Is for Critic, Criticism & Critique

I may be going too far with this multiple-word thing, but these three are closely related: they all derive, says Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, from the Greek kritikós “discerning, capable of judging.”

Plenty of writers steel themselves against the possibility of criticism and avoid dark alleys where critics are said to lurk. Merriam-Webster’s second and third definitions of critic would seem to support this wariness. (The first is more straightforward: think literary critics and film critics.) The second includes the phrase “reasoned opinion,” but the example — “Critics of the new law say that it will not reduce crime” — suggests that critics don’t like what they’re criticizing. The third is no-holds-barred negative: a critic is “one given to harsh or captious judgment.”

Many of us have encountered enough critics who are “given to harsh or captious judgment” to dump all critics into that category. When someone says “You’re so critical,” they’re usually not paying you a compliment. Small wonder that we tend to prefer feedback to criticism.

Unfortunately, those individuals “given to harsh or captious judgment” are out there. Some of them are leading workshops or teaching high school and college courses. They may even show up in your own inner circle.

But though we might love to avoid criticism altogether, we’re in trouble as writers if we close ourselves off to any possibly unsettling feedback. Other people can see things in our work that we don’t, and I’m not talking just about typos, inconsistencies, and grammatical gaffes. An outside reader might make the suggestion that helps you unsnarl a plot or make your narrative more compelling or give you an avenue to explore that you hadn’t considered.

And though I’ve been an editor by trade for more than four decades (yikes!), I will not tell you that these outside readers have to be professional editors. Not by a long shot. Serious writers comment on each other’s work, either informally or in writers’ groups. If you’ve got a non-writer friend who reads widely and is willing to spend time reading and commenting on your drafts — figure out ways to return the favor.

Here are some suggestions for both giving and receiving criticismfeedback:

  • Keep the focus on the work, not the writer. This is very important for both writers and readers.
  • When receiving feedback, “take what you like and leave the rest.” That’s commonly said at many 12-step meetings, and it’s great advice for writers. The more comments you get from others, the more they’ll contradict each other. This is good. It means that the choice is up to you. Readers are also more likely to give you their honest take if you don’t (a) argue with them, or (b) fall apart at the slightest hint your prose isn’t perfect. Asking follow-up questions is, however, absolutely OK.
  • When giving feedback, be as honest about your responses as you can. (See previous point. If the writer has given signs that they’re hyper-defensive about comments, exercise caution.)
  • It’s fine to say you don’t understand something or that it doesn’t work for you, but avoid beginning any comment with, e.g., “Most readers won’t understand . . .” or “Editors don’t like . . .” You don’t know that.
  • The more you can say about your response to a work, the more useful it will be to the writer. If the ms. is mystery, science fiction, fantasy, romance, experimental fiction, or whatever, and you’re not familiar with that particular genre, you may not understand some choices the writer has made. That’s fine — and congratulations on venturing into territory you don’t know well.
  • If, for example, you’re writing sf and your reader is challenging your use of FTL (faster-than-light) drives, don’t worry too much about it. What they say about other things may tell you something important. For my part, using dead bodies as a plot device bugs me for sure, but I manage to put my reservations on hold when reading a good mystery.

Interestingly enough, critique avoids much of the bad press its first cousins get — perhaps because it comes through the French, which is thought to be more polite? To me, a critique looks at the work as a whole. It doesn’t focus on typos or dangling participles or subject-verb disagreement, though if these come up frequently, the critiquer may mention it. A critique should offer the writer concrete advice on how to make the work more effective at whatever the writer wants it to do, without necessarily telling the writer how to do it.

Yet again, there are choices to be made, and it’s the writer who gets to make them. That’s the important part.