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.

Y Is for You

You! The low-maintenance second-person pronoun: same form in singular and plural, nothing gendered about it, and no worries about whether you’re being too familiar or too formal. It’s so self-effacing that in imperatives it’s not mentioned at all: “Get this done today, all right?”

In fiction, point-of-view discussions usually focus on first person vs. third, but the second-person POV is common in other contexts. How-tos are usually written in second person, often with an emphasis on imperatives: “Open the box and make sure all the pieces are in there.”

Plenty of songs are in second person, addressed either to an unspecified but probably large number of people — Joni Mitchell: “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” — or to a particular, often unnamed, but intensely speculated-about individual: Carly Simon: “You’re So Vain” and Betty Everett via Linda Ronstadt: “You’re No Good.”

Speeches formal and informal are usually addressed, at least in part, to the audience. Imperatives are not uncommon, as in JFK: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

It’s much less common in fiction, especially novels, because it’s bloody hard to do, especially at length. But it’s most definitely possible. No, I’ve never read Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City (1989), which those who opine on second-person fiction like to cite.

Rarely cited (at least in my non-exhaustive online survey) is Zoran Drvenkar, author of Sorry and You, both of which I copyedited the English-language translations of. I’m here to tell you that both novels, Sorry in particular, are brilliant and both of them gave me the creeps. In the hands of a master novelist, the second-person narrative can have almost unbearable power. Commentators say that the second person can make the action more immediate, to which I say “Yes it can, and be careful what you wish for.”

Hey, give second person a try! There are lots of discussions out there of what it is, who’s done it, and how to do it. Here’s one that’s pretty good.


But you is more than the second-person POV. You is you. See how I scrambled subject-verb agreement there? You are you, of course, but in context that italicized you means not you the person but you the concept. The two indeed overlap, however. We’re getting to the very end of the alphabet, and at the end of the alphabet it’s up to YOU to keep going. And you will.

This blog and I plan to continue, so if you’ve got questions about writing or editing or ideas for future blog posts, send them along. There’s a contact tab on the menu bar (“Got a Question?”), or you can use this one:

V Is for Voice

There’s a lot of gobbledygook out there about “voice.” Novice writers in particular worry about finding their voice, and about not finding it, and about not knowing whether they’ve found it or not.

Some copyeditors worry about interfering with the author’s voice, often without being too clear on what an author’s voice is, what a particular author’s voice sounds like, and when it’s OK to mess with it.

I get nervous when editors talk about “preserving the author’s voice.” There’s often a condescending tinge to it, as if “preserving the author’s voice” means putting up with sloppy writing. It doesn’t. It does, however, require a certain flexibility on the editor’s part. It may mean bending “rules” that aren’t rules at all, like “never split an infinitive” or putting a comma where the Chicago Manual of Style says you don’t need one.

Is there a voice in there?

Time to cut through the obfuscation and mystification. Your writer’s voice isn’t something you find, like the prize at the end of a treasure hunt or the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It’s something you develop on the journey.

If you’re writing in English, you start with pretty much the same rules and conventions as everybody else. The way you use, abuse, ignore, and stretch those rules and conventions will be influenced by the things you choose to write about, the audience(s) you’re writing for, your traveling companions, the places you pass through and sojourn in, and so on and on.

Think about it: Our speaking voices are flexible. We can whisper or we can shout. The foul-mouthed among us can clean up our language when we’re in polite company or interviewing for a job. Our writing voices can be likewise.

In some kinds of writing, the writer’s individual voice takes a back seat. News reporting, technical writing, scientific writing, the writing in textbooks and legal documents: these don’t generally show much personality. They’re not supposed to. They’re supposed to communicate clearly and, often, concisely. The writers write and the editors edit with this in mind. It takes tremendous skill to do this well.

The late Travvy had no trouble finding his voice. Here he’s talking to a tractor.

Note, however, that some lawyers and academics write novels, journalists write memoirs, business people write poetry, and scientists write essays for the popular press. The novels don’t sound like legal briefs, the memoirs don’t sound like front-page news stories, the poems don’t sound like annual reports, and the newspaper op-eds don’t sound like scientific papers, even though they’re written by the same person.

Even though the writers are almost certainly applying the skills they’ve developed in one milieu to the writing they’re doing in another.

These writers have flexible voices that can be adapted to different kinds of writing. Flexibility is especially important for fiction writers and writers of “creative nonfiction” — which seems to mean by definition nonfiction that encourages a distinctive authorial voice. Characters speak in different voices, and all those voices come out of the writer’s head.

If you write a lot, you will develop your own style. All the choices you make — about words, sentence structure, punctuation, and paragraphs, and especially about how to put them together — become your style, your voice. If you keep writing — and reading! don’t forget reading! — it’ll evolve, depending on what you’re writing about. Trust me on this. It will happen.

Q Is for Quotes

“Quotes” is short for either “quotations” or “quotation marks.” They are related, so we’ll deal with both of them here. While we’re at it, we might say a few things about dialogue, even though it begins with d, not q.

So: quotations. A quotation consists of words — one word, a few words, or many words — from a source other than you. For writers of academic nonfiction, these sources are often published or unpublished written works. The source for each quote has to be noted, in fairly excruciating detail, in a footnote or endnote. Then the works and manuscript collections (etc.) consulted must be listed in a bibliography or reference list. (Aside: These are not the same thing, but we’re not going into the differences here. If you’re interested, leave a comment or consult the Chicago Manual of Style.)

Working journalists — reporters on the ground — also rely on quotations from other sources, but their sources are often living breathing real people. These days they may be able to record what their sources say, but this is not always possible. In the not-too-distant past it was almost never possible. Reporters scribbled notes in their notebooks and then, often under deadline pressure, reconstructed their notes into a quote that was then attributed to a source. (You begin to understand one reason why sources often choose to be quoted “off the record”?)

Plenty of essential nonfiction these days is written by journalists who’ve done their initial research on the ground and then been able to step back from day-to-day deadline pressure, explore the connections among the stories they’ve reported, and provide context for them. I recently read an excellent example of this: Seyward Darby’s Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism.

Isabel Wilkerson’s brilliant Warmth of Other Suns began as on-the-ground reporting and grew into an indispensable, Pulitzer Prize–winning work of U.S. history, and one that has had and continues to have profound effects on how we USians understand our past.

Whether written by academics or by journalists like Darby and Wilkerson, these books depend for their credibility on their sources, whether manuscripts or published works or interviews or works in other media. Hence the importance of citations: it should be possible for readers to verify both the accuracy of those sources and the author’s care in quoting them. The overwhelming majority of readers won’t do this, of course, but the knowledge that there’s a paper trail that could be followed tends to inspire confidence.

Writers of what’s often called “creative nonfiction” (note the use of quotation marks there, eh?) use quotations too, but they generally aren’t held to the same standard as academics and journalists. The author of a memoir may use quotation marks in recounting dialogue recollected from childhood, but the savvy reader will probably assume that the conversation has been reconstructed from memory and is therefore, at best, inexact.

I worry, though, about less savvy readers, and about those to whom the quotes are attributed (if they’re still alive, which they often aren’t), and about everyone close enough to the situation to have their own memories of the people involved. I’m old school enough to expect that in nonfiction quotation marks indicate at least an attempt to replicate a conversation or speech as it happened — unless, of course, the author has noted that memory is notoriously tricky and s/he has taken liberties in reconstructing remembered dialogue. Some authors do indeed note this. On the other hand, a few years ago I copyedited a memoir in which the (experienced, much-published) author noted in an afterword that two of the relatives in his story had been invented out of whole cloth. One of them had been my favorite character, and she didn’t even exist? I was shocked. I felt betrayed.

In my opinion, recreating imperfectly recalled dialogue, even inventing it to show how a particular situation developed, is OK if and only if you level with readers about what you’re up to. Once you start inventing characters, however, you’re writing fiction. Call it a fictionalized memoir if you wish, but please don’t pass it off as a memoir.

Fiction writers use dialogue to reveal character and the relationships among characters, and to move the plot along. Fictional dialogue isn’t sourced with footnotes or endnotes, but good writers are often listening for what their characters say, trying to get it right.

So it’s not surprising that, in English at least, quotations and dialogue are punctuated in pretty much the same way. In American English (AmE), double quote marks are used for both, and quotes within quotes are set off with single quotation marks. British English (BrE) does the reverse — single, then double — although British newspapers often follow the U.S. style. Other languages may treat quotations and dialogue differently. French, for instance, uses guillemets (« and ») for the former and em dashes (—) to introduce the latter.

In AmE, commas and periods go inside the close quote: So do question marks and exclamation points if they’re part of the quote. If they’re not, as sometimes happens if you’ve got a quote within a quote, they may go outside the single close quote and inside the double close quote. Like this: “Do you believe,” said Georgia, “that she really said ‘I’ll be here by six’?”

BrE puts commas and periods (known in BrE as full stops) outside the quote marks unless they’re part of the quotation. As an AmE editor who occasionally edits in BrE, I can manage this pretty well, but I look stuff up a lot more in BrE than I do in AmE (and in AmE I look up stuff a lot) and no way am I going to try to explain it here.

Quotation marks are like HTML: An open quote has to be paired with a close quote. This goes for both double and single quotes. The big exception is that when you have a quote, such as a speech, that goes on continuously for more than one paragraph, each paragraph has to begin with an open quote but the only close quote you need is at the very end. I emphasize that continuously because these lengthy quotations can’t be interrupted by “he said” or “she wrote” or anything else. Once they’re interrupted, they’re no longer continuous.

Got that?

Just do me a favor, please, and don’t be inventing characters from your past and calling what you’re writing a memoir. Thank you.

K Is for Knowledge

You’ve probably heard it so often, repeated with such authority, that you’re ready to throttle the next person who says it: Write what you know.

Likely you’ve also heard, or even yourself said, the common rejoinder, which goes something like That’s crap. Haven’t you ever heard of research?

Well, of course. What we know is fluid, expanding and deepening even without any conscious effort on our part. For writers, research is ongoing. We read, we listen, we travel to a new place, we walk down a street we’ve walked down many times before, noticing some things for the first time.

My hunch is that Write what you know surfaced at least in part as a response to the notion that one could only be a real writer if one had had certain experiences. The requisite experiences — being in combat, for instance — were almost invariably skewed male. At a women’s writing workshop in the late 1980s, a bunch of us got to talking about this. We couldn’t help noticing that experiences common to women, from childbirth to housework to caregiving, weren’t considered worthy subjects for serious literature.

One of us remarked, half-facetiously, that “the only suitable subjects for academic poetry were bullfighting and war,” whereupon several of us set out to write about bullfighting, which, need I say, none of us had ever done. My contribution grew into “The Bullfight Sonnets,” which was published by Sinister Wisdom in 1988. It includes these lines:

. . . Novelists extol
the crowd, the sun, the blood, the kill, the role
of manhood challenged and found worthy. I
am less enthralled. Instead, I wonder why
cerebral critics desperately admire
heroes who hold their shit when under fire.

Can you tell we had Ernest Hemingway on the brain? Not so much Hemingway, however, as the “cerebral critics,” English teachers, and others who held Hemingway’s spare style up as the pinnacle of literary excellence. At the time, writing about New York, published in New York, and taken up by an audience of New York–based literati was also elevated a step or two above “regional” writing. Take that, Willa Cather, Flannery O’Connor, and Eudora Welty.

I think that the English-language “canon” has gotten more regional, more international, and a lot less white since then. Nevertheless, I continue to take Write what you know as encouragement to start wherever we are, in place, time, and subject matter. Themes of universal — or at least widespread — concern can be reached from anywhere.

One of my favorite axioms is Your writing will teach you what you need to know.

A corollary to that is Your readers will teach you what you need to know more about.

I live on Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the coast of New England that you have probably heard of whether you’ve been here or not because it gets written about a lot, by journalists, novelists, poets, and others. Most of them don’t live here year-round, or haven’t lived here long. It’s not hard to tell which of these writers have been listening to the place and the people in it and which either didn’t take the time or just don’t know what they don’t know.

It really is OK to write about places where you haven’t spent much time and people with lives and backgrounds very different from yours. Hell, historians and historical-fiction writers regularly write about times where they’ve never been, and plenty of them do it very well. (On the other hand, if we’ve never been there either, who are we to tell them that they’ve got it wrong?) Research is required for sure, but it can only get us so far: there’s more to recreating a place or time than avoiding anachronisms and getting the street names right. Imagination and empathy are also necessary, along with an awareness that no matter how much we know, there’s always a lot that we don’t.

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.

On Crossing Borders

I’m thinking of you, Allen Sawan.

I’m in the U.S. — Massachusetts, to be exact — watching images and reading stories about adults detained, children taken from parents at the southern U.S. border. Their only crime, if they can be said to have committed one, is to have been born in the wrong place at the wrong time.

A place so unpredictable and violent that undertaking a many-hundred-mile journey north with a two- or five- or ten-year-old in tow seemed the better bet.

I lucked out. I was born into a safe place and a safe time. The only real dangers I’ve faced in my life have been dangers I courted, by speaking out when I could have been silent or walking into possible difficulty with my eyes wide open. Yet I can imagine the desperate conditions that prompted these people to make this terrible journey, hoping — knowing — that whatever place they arrived at would have to be better than the home they had left.

I’m not even a mother, but still — I can imagine.

Not easily, mind you. The mind flinches from imagining, the way a finger recoils from a hot burner. But I can imagine.

This is why I’m thinking of you, Allen Sawan. You were born in a fine place at a fine time, but when you were ten years old things went horribly wrong. The place was Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. You turned ten in 1975, the year civil war broke out in Lebanon. Your life was changed forever. By the time you reached twenty, you wrote — much, much later — you “had seen more body bags than most people in the civilized world have seen garbage bags.”

I knew about Lebanon’s civil war. I thought I knew about Lebanon’s civil war. I started college as an Arabic major. If I hadn’t changed course, I probably would have spent my junior year in Beirut, around 1971–72, several years before everything blew up.

What was it, three and a half years ago? You contacted me out of the blue. As an editor I’ve been contacted out of the blue quite a few times by hopeful writers, and in most cases I’ve had to say: Not so fast. This isn’t ready for prime time.

But your sample chapters were ready. They took me somewhere I’d never been, into the world and mind of a young man not yet twenty whose life had been turned upside down and who had risen to the challenge.

Travvy and I read the very first copy of Allen Sawan’s Terrorist University.

We took each other on, editor and writer, writer and editor, and on an accelerated deadline you produced Terrorist University. It’s one of the books I’m proudest of having worked on. But you kept going. You found a mainstream publisher, and out came Al Shabah, The Ghost, closely based on Terrorist University but tighter. I was thrilled to find that the work we’d done together was pretty much intact.

In the years since, we’ve become friends — friends who’ve never met in person but still friends. You live in Ontario now. You and your wife have raised your three children in peace. Each of them was born in the right place at the right time, and their world didn’t turn upside down when they were ten.

I joke that Canada should build a wall on its southern border, to keep out the USians who despair of their country and want to emigrate to someplace better. You joke that you will build a tunnel that my dog and I could escape through. I know for absolute certain that if we needed that tunnel, you of all people would be willing and able to build it.

Your kids, like me, have been lucky. They were born at the right place and time, in a Canada that let you in and let you stay. They’ll learn about your life the same way I did: from the stories you tell so well.

So I’m thinking of you, Allen Sawan. Of you and your children — I’ve never met them either, but one of these days I think I will. Of all you went through to make it possible for them to grow up more like I did and less like you did.

And I’m thinking of the children taken from their parents at the U.S. border. What stories will they have to tell, ten and twenty years from now? What lessons will they pass on to their children?

What stories will the parents tell? Of struggling against such odds to get this far, and then being treated like criminals by the richest country on earth?

I think of your story, Allen Sawan. It never goes away.

On Research, Writing, and the “Rambling Path”

Says the author: “I never quite know what I’ll need until I’m writing, so really, I could argue that everything is research.” Exactly.

At the moment I’m doing the kind of research that almost anyone would call “research”: finding out what happens at the local hospital when an 11-year-old survivor of sexual abuse shows up with two adult friends and (eventually) her mother. The next step is to go sit in the ER waiting room for a while and just take it in. It’s always easier for me to write a scene when I can visualize the setting. Sometimes the setting becomes clearer as I write.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

zz Coffelt photo 400x600By Allison Coffelt

“Excuse me.  Can I ask you a few questions?” I say as I walk up to someone.  “I’m here doing some,” I flip open my black, two-fold wallet. The camera cuts to a close-up of a glinting gold badge.  “Research.”

This is how I sometimes imagine it, as a cheesy crime drama, with research as my credential.  I love research.  I love research so, so much.  Though it took me a while, now I even love to call it research; there is power in that label, and the way it offers me a little extra confidence to walk around, asking better questions.  A walk in the woods trying to improve plant identification?  Research.  A trip to the museum?  Research.  A rock concert? Sure; that’s research.  I never quite know what I’ll need until I’m writing, so really, I could argue that everything is research.  Though I do…

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Dash Away, All

Dashes and hyphens are so often considered together that when I got to the end of “Sturgis’s Law #10,” I knew something was missing. After all, the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) devotes several pages to dashes, and so do many other style guides. Surely I should devote at least a few words to the subject?

But I’d already gone on too long (blog posts that top 1,000 words make me nervous), and besides, nowhere in Sturgis’s Laws are dashes even mentioned. (That may change in the future.)

Meanwhile — let’s talk about dashes.

In U.S. usage, dashes come in two sizes. The em dash ( — ) is so called because it’s generally the length of one m. The shorter en dash (which, surprise surprise, is the length of an n) is the one that gets mixed up with hyphens.

As my typographer friends point out, a dash is a dash. How it’s styled — em or en, with or without space before and after — is a typographical decision. In British English (BrE) the kind of dash that indicates a break or sets off parenthetical remarks (as in the previous sentence) is generally rendered by an en dash with a space on either side, like this: How it’s styled – em or en, with or without space before and after – is a typographical decision.

  • To create an em dash on a PC: Alt+0151 (use the number pad) or ALT+CTRL+minus key (the latter works in Word but not in WordPress). Using AutoCorrect, you can also tell Word to automatically convert two hyphens (which is how we indicated em dashes back in typewriter days) to an em dash. I don’t allow Word to AutoCorrect anything, but you may be more tolerant than I.
  • To create an en dash on a PC: ALT+0150 or CTRL+minus key (see above)
  • To create an em dash on a Mac: Option+Shift+minus
  • To create an en dash on a Mac: Option+minus

In this blog and in my own writing, I insert a space on either side of my em dashes. This is to avoid bad end-of-line breaks. Word processors may treat “styled—em” in the sample sentence as one word and keep it all on one line, which may lead to an unsightly gap in the line preceding. The shorter dash seems to be coming into its own in ebooks, and with good reason: ebooks can be read on devices with relatively narrow lines, and in a narrow line a full em dash can look huge.

Em dashes generally herald a break of some kind. In dialogue, they are commonly used to indicate in interruption: “But I was about to say—” Frankie began before Sal cut her off. (Dialogue that trails off is generally indicated by an ellipsis. For more about this see “Of Dots and Dashes.”)

In non-dialogue, they can signal a change of subject or an aside. When the aside occurs in the middle of a sentence, it becomes more or less a parenthetical and is set off by em dashes. Why not use parentheses in such cases? You can use parens in such cases. For me an aside set off by parens is more peripheral — expendable, even — than one set off by dashes.

Em dashes are big. They call attention to themselves. Flip through a book — on paper or on screen — and chances are your eye will be drawn to the em dashes. If a writer is overusing em dashes, it’s often the first thing I notice when skimming through a manuscript. So use them sparingly. Like just about everything else in writing, they lose their power when overused.

Emily Dickinson is noted for her extravagant use of dashes, but she could get away with it because (1) she was a poet, (2) her poetry was brilliant, and (3) she was writing in the 19th century, before the Chicago Manual of Style was invented. Long after she died, one of her editors got into big trouble for taming her dashes into commas. If you’re adding Dickinson’s collected poems to your library, make sure the edition you choose has the dashes.

En dashes are somewhat specialized, and different styles have different takes on when to use them. In the social sciences, for instance, an en dash is often used to indicate that a compound comprises two words of equal weight, e.g., “I’m a writer–editor.” Chicago does not recommend this, and neither do I. Here’s my reasoning: The difference in length between a – and a – is not huge. When you’re reading along, you may not notice it at all — unless of course you’re a copyeditor like me. If it is important to know that the two halves of a compound are of equal weight, I would not depend on an en dash alone to get that across. However, if you’re in a field that follows this style, you should too.

Here are the most common uses of en dashes, per Chicago:

  • To signify through in number ranges: pages 3–17; the years 1941–1945. The range can be open-ended: my dog Travvy (2008–).  Figures and tables in nonfiction books are often given numbers like 2-5 and 3-17. The hyphen denotes that this is NOT a range; the first number is generally that of the chapter and the second that of the particular figure or table. The distinction comes in handy in footnotes and endnotes, where page ranges run rampant and table and figure numbers are sometimes concealed among them. By the way, It’s a faux-pas to use the dash when the range is preceded by from: She lived in France from 1978 to 1982, not “from 1978–1982.”
  • To signify to in destinations, votes, or scores: the Boston–Washington train; my team won, 99–92; the vote was 5–4.
  • To form compounds when one element is itself an open compound: the post–World War II baby boom; the New York–Boston rivalry. This is to avoid reading the former as post-world and the latter as York-Boston. Editors sometimes differ on which open compounds have to stay open and which can be hyphenated when attached to prefix, suffix, or another word. Proper nouns generally stay open, but when the New-York Historical Society was founded in 1804 another style prevailed, and its official name is so styled to this very day. Chicago 16, section 6.80, recommends country music–influenced lyrics, but I see nothing wrong with country-music-influenced lyrics.

All clear now? Dash away, dash away, dash away, all. And I really should come up with a dashing Sturgis’s Law . . .