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

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

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

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

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


Commas in isolation are hard to distinguish from apostrophes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A Rule Worth Giving Up On | Arrant Pedantry

Jonathon Owen doesn’t post all that often, but his blog, Arrant Pedantry, is always worth reading. He brings clarity and good sense to style, usage, and grammar questions that hang a lot of editors and writers up. Here he takes on that hoary bugaboo “Never end a sentence with a preposition.” Click on the link to read the whole thing.

— sjs

A Rule Worth Giving Up On

A few weeks ago, the official Twitter account for the forthcoming movie Deadpool tweeted, “A love for which is worth killing.” Name developer Nancy Friedman commented, “There are …

Source: A Rule Worth Giving Up On | Arrant Pedantry


I did make a New Year’s resolution once. When I was working on my first novel, The Mud of the Place, and desperately afraid that I’d never finish it, I resolved that I would work on it every day until it was done.

Note that I did not vow to write a thousand words or two thousand words or any number of words. Nor did I vow to write for an hour or two hours or for any set time.

Just every day.

mud cover2This turned out to be a brilliant move. There were days when I was so panicky, so sure that everything I’d done so far was crap, that I didn’t work up the nerve to open my Word file till ten minutes before midnight. And this was enough. Just opening the file and reading what I’d already written was enough to reassure me that this thing was good, this thing was worthwhile, I really needed to keep going till I finished this thing.

And that was enough to encourage me to add a few words, and sometimes to keep going till two in the morning.

Had I vowed to write so many words or for so many hours, there would have been no point to opening the file at ten minutes to midnight.

I haven’t made a New Year’s resolution since.

How Many Is Too Many?

An editor was asking how to explain to a client that he was overusing a particular word.

Writers, even experienced writers, have our pet constructions, our favorite words. Often we don’t realize we’re overusing them. When I’m in revision mode, I’ll pause on a word and realize I’ve seen it pretty recently. I hit CTRL+F (that’s the Windows version — it’s COMMAND + F for you Mac folks), put the word in the search bar, and search upward. Recently I discovered I’d used “stage-whispered” twice in three pages. One of them wasn’t necessary. I got rid of it.

The editor’s query wasn’t unusual, but then the editor wanted to know if there was a “rule of thumb” for how many repetitions of a word was too many.

I replied that I went by the “rule of gut”: as an experienced editor and writer, I know that when something stops me in my tracks, it’s worth a second look.

Other editors pointed out that it depended on the word. Unusual words call attention to themselves. “Stage-whispered” isn’t exactly exotic, but as a dialogue tag it’s not all that common either. Twice in three pages struck me as once too often. Other words are so distinctive that if you encounter one on page 251, you may remember that you saw it a hundred pages earlier.

Aside: In my many years of editing on paper, without CTRL+F to fall back on, I developed a sixth sense for this. I also noted unusual words, variant spellings, and personal and place names on my style sheet, along with the applicable page number. When the Katherine on page 73 became Katharine on page 228, I usually noticed. CTRL+F has spoiled me rotten. I’m not as good at this as I used to be, but I’m still not bad.

The inquiring editor took all this in and finally asked how, if there was no rule, she could explain to the client that he was overusing a word. Had anyone done any studies on how often is too often? she wondered.

Then someone suggested telling the client that his readers would notice and not like it. Back in September I blogged about editors and other gatekeepers who hide behind “readers won’t like it if . . .” Editors who hide behind an “authority” that can’t be contradicted or even verified are treading on unsteady ground.

“Good editors don’t need to hide,” I wrote. “We’ll say things like ‘I stumbled over this bit’ or ‘Given the conventions of [insert genre here], you might consider picking up the pace in chapter one.'”

I’ve learned over the years that anything that trips a reader up is worth a second look. Especially if the reader is someone whose opinion I respect and whose honesty I want to encourage. Perceptive readers who’ll give you their honest opinion about your work in progress aren’t all that easy to find. Encourage them by paying attention to what they tell you.

You don’t have to act on all of it: of course not. Perhaps the most valuable lesson I learned at the first writing workshop I ever attended is that readers are a diverse lot. One might love a turn of phrase that another finds trite or confusing. Two might interpret a character’s actions in one scene in two different ways — and have equally valid reasons for doing so. Readers bring their own unique experiences and expectations to your work. They aren’t going to read it the same way no matter what you do. Listen to what they tell you, then make up your own mind.

So back to the original question: “How many is too many?” Well, if someone notes that a particular word or phrase or construction comes up a lot in your story or essay, take a critical look at it. Use CTRL+F or COMMAND+F to find out just how often you’re using a word or phrase. Even better, read the passage aloud. The word “audience” comes from the Latin verb audīre, to hear. For many of us, repetitiousness is easier to hear than to see.

Learn what your own literary tics are. You don’t have to avoid them completely: just come up with some alternatives.

And keep in mind that repetition can be an effective device. Sometimes it’s 100% intentional. Here’s an example from my novel in progress:

Shannon knew what the message said. It had been playing when she walked through the door twenty minutes ago. She’d dropped onto the sofa and been sitting there ever since, as the room grew darker and both dogs gave up on being fed early. If she got up, she’d have to decide: play the message back or deep-six it, like she’d deep-sixed the last one and the ones before it.

The last deep-six had been on impulse and she’d been regretting it ever since. . . .

“Deep-six” occurs three times in two adjacent sentences, and in the third instance the verb has turned into a noun. Horrors! Is this too many? Should one of those deep-sixes be deep-sixed?

For the moment, no. I like the way the passage reads. The repetition suggests that Shannon is obsessing about what she’s done and wondering what to do next. Will it survive into the next draft? That I can’t tell you. What seems just right now may seem like too many tomorrow — or vice versa. That’s writing for you, and it’s why I trust my rules of gut more than other people’s rules of thumb.


“Tag!” She Scowled

Let’s talk about dialogue tags: the “he saids” and “she saids” that you can’t do without if you’re writing fiction or memoir or anything that includes people talking. (Except play and film scripts: those are different.)

How did they come to be called that? I don’t know. “Tag” to me suggests a bit of paper attached by string, wire, or plastic to an item for sale at a yard sale or in a store. Or a children’s game in which one kid catches up with another and yells “Tag, you’re it.” I think of them as “attributions,” because they attribute speech to one speaker or another, but “tag” is shorter so I’ll stick with that.

There’s plenty of hoohah out there about dialogue in general and tags in particular. I’ve contributed a bit to the hoohah: “Monologue About Dialogue” and “Of Dots and Dashes.” Here’s a bit more.

Most of the style guides, how-tos, and freelance pontificators agree on two points:

  • Tags are supposed to be unobtrusive.
  • “Said” is usually the best choice.

As guidelines these are fine. As rules? Not so much. “Said” is often the best choice, but by no means always, and “unobtrusive” does not mean “invisible” or (maybe more important) “inaudible.”

Dialogue tags can do so much more than attach words to speakers. Depending on what you choose and where you put it, they can help convey how your character is saying whatever s/he’s saying and where s/he pauses to breathe or think.

Take a scene from Wolfie, my novel in progress. It involves several speakers and a lot of dialogue. Having  written it in longhand, I typed it into the Word file, doing a very light edit as I typed and paying particular attention to the tags. Most of the tags are “said,” but we’ve also got “stage-whispered,” “admitted,” “called out,” “muttered,” “advised” (twice), “agreed,” “added” (twice), “ordered,” “protested,” “continued,” “told,” “hissed,” and “wondered.”

Here’s a sample. The scene is a big bash celebrating Lorna’s retirement. Shannon has just arrived. Not to worry: the tags aren’t italicized in the original. I just want to call attention to them here. (“Seemed” in the first para is italicized in the original.)

Lorna gave Shannon a big hug then held her at arm’s length. Lorna was actually shorter than Shannon: she only seemed six feet tall. “Looking good, girl,” she said, then she leaned in closer and stage-whispered, “Is that love light in your eyes?”

“Lorna, darlin’,” Shannon said, shaking her head, “you need to make an appointment with your eye doctor.”

Lorna wagged a stubby, impeccably manicured finger at her, setting her beaded bracelets to clinking merrily. “You don’t fool me for a minute,” she said. “I know that look.”

“Well, I do have a new dog,” Shannon admitted. “I can’t believe you’re really leaving.”

When I write dialogue, I’m usually transcribing a scene playing out in my head. I use tags and punctuation to convey it the way I hear it, the cadence, the facial expressions, the body language of each speaker, but without weighing the passage down with detailed description.

When I write, I just write. When I edit, I play around with alternatives. Go ahead: play around with that passage. Would said work better than stage-whispered or admitted? How about changing one of the saids to something less neutral? Experiment with tag placement. See how it changes the pacing of the sentence?

In this particular passage, all the tags have the same structure: Shannon said, not said Shannon. In what follows there’s a said Lorna and a said Shannon. No problem. Recently I fell in with some editors discussing online whether”John said” or “said John” was better. One asked if one was more “correct” than the other, and someone else surmised that one was more typical of British English than American.  When editors start talking like this, it’s time to run in the opposite direction.

Whether “John said” or “said John” is better depends on whether it precedes, follows, or comes in the middle of the spoken part. And on what’s being said. And on whether the speech is being attributed to a noun or a pronoun: “said she” calls attention to itself in a way that “said Shannon” does not. If it suits the tone of whatever you’re writing, by all means go with it.

Choose whatever works best in context. What you do want to avoid is using the same structure every time.

One more thing about tags and editors: Some editors take exception to using words like “smile” or “scowl” or “grimace” as dialogue tags. Hence the title of this post. These aren’t synonyms for said, they argue. No, they’re not, but they can (I argue) convey how something is said — and heard. A phrase said with a smile on the face doesn’t sound like the same phrase said with a scowl. So (say these editors) write “she said, with a smile” instead of “she smiled.” Sorry, no. That separates the smile from the sound. Sometimes that’s fine. Other times it’s not what you want.

The scene excerpted above includes this line:

“What, you’re not retiring to Florida?” Shannon grinned.

Here the question mark fudges the issue of whether grinned is a tag or not. I don’t believe it is. As I see and hear it, Shannon asks the question, then grins. But say that line was followed by this one:

“No way,” Lorna scowled.

It isn’t, but to my mind and ear it’s fine, and neither Lorna said, scowling nor Lorna said with a scowl conveys quite the same thing. The difference is subtle, but if you hear it, don’t let a tin-eared editor talk you out of it.


The Writing Life: Advice from a Counterculture Icon

I haven’t read Vonnegut since college, and his “rule” about semicolons is crap, but his comments about writing and art making in this blog post are just wonderful.

The Daily Post

Everyone should read at least one Kurt Vonnegut book — Welcome to the Monkey House and Mother Night are my favorites. They’re blunt. Dark. Demanding. And they make you think, and laugh, and want to be a better person. What more can we ask of literature, and what better person to turn to for tough love on writing?

It’s not surprising that his thoughts on art, writing, and the writing life are just as thought-provoking, funny, and inspiring…

If you want to really hurt your parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be gay, the least you can do is go into the arts. I’m not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the…

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In a Facebook discussion about my recent blog post “Shibboleths and Other Pitfalls,” my friend Greg Feeley, writer, critic, and adjunct professor of writing, posed a question: “What about ‘like’ / ‘as if’ (or ‘as though’)? I still teach my students the distinction, because they should know formal English — the kind the people who read their interview cover letters will judge them by — as well as the English they already speak perfectly well.”

He’s right, both about “like” the conjunction and about the general principle. I grew up with the ad campaign for Winston cigarettes whose key sentence was “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.” I remember English teachers and other adults going up in the air about “like a cigarette should.”

“As!” they’d yell. “It should be ‘as’!”

They probably said stuff like “the youth of America is going to hell in a handbasket,” or maybe western civilization was going to hell in a handbasket, and all because of this damned cigarette ad.

I probably went around saying stuff like “Say it like you mean it” just to piss them off.

“Like” the conjunction may have been around since Chaucer’s time, as the American Heritage Dictionary notes, but plenty of well-educated English-speakers don’t like it at all. They may dislike split infinitives, place great value on the which/that distinction, or subscribe to other shibboleths and zombie rules whose justification is shaky . . .

But, as Greg points out, they may be the ones reading your interview cover letters, or your agent queries, or your grant proposals.

They’re the gatekeepers, in other words. Gatekeepers are the ones you have to get past in order to get what you want: an agent, a publishing contract, a job, a grant, whatever it is.

You can get by this gate, but not in a car.

You can get by this gate, but not in a car.

I was a gatekeeper once. Between 1989 and 1991 I edited three original anthologies of women’s fantasy and science fiction: Memories and Visions, The Women Who Walk Through Fire, and Tales of Magic Realism by Women (Dreams in a Minor Key). Over three years I read nearly a thousand stories — and accepted a grand total of 46.

Think about it. For every story I accepted, I rejected about 21. At first, I considered every good story — and there were a lot of them — a possible YES. Before long, the numbers got to me. My attitude changed. When I started reading each story, I was looking for reasons to say NO.

Before that, I’d heard editors and agents say that within a very few paragraphs of a story, a very few pages of a novel, they knew whether the work was publishable. How unfair! I thought. How could they possibly tell?

I read most of those thousand f/sf stories through to the end. I learned to trust my snap judgments. A story had to be more than “good” to make it into the YES or even the MAYBE pile. I learned to look for intangibles: energy, originality, clues that I’d never read anything like this before.

After that I had much more sympathy for the gatekeepers.

Even the ones who are using shibboleths and zombie rules to stick your query or cover letter or proposal in the NO pile. They’re probably swamped with good letters and applications. Their “sort” parameters may be flawed, but they’ve got to keep the MAYBE pile down to manageable size.

The moral of the story is that when you’re dealing with gatekeepers, give the gatekeepers as few reasons as possible to say NO. Follow the appropriate guidelines. Use standard formatting, or whatever format the organization or publication prescribes. And avoid the shibboleths and other pitfalls that may set the gatekeepers off. Pay attention to your teacher, your editor, and all those handy “10 things to never do in your writing” lists that are all over the Web. (Yes, I just split an infinitive. This is why I like being my own gatekeeper.)

If you’re an editor, teacher, reader of grant proposals, or other gatekeeper, you can do your bit too. Placate the shibboleths but don’t use them to sort people into SMART and STUPID, YES and NO.

Think of the language as your wardrobe. When you dress for a cocktail party, you don’t put on the same clothes you wear to do barn chores. Clothes don’t make the person, and neither does word choice, but there are plenty of people out there who think otherwise. Be prepared.

turn back

At least they’re polite about it.

Shibboleths and Other Pitfalls

For all too many people, the English language is a minefield. They’re afraid that if they take one wrong step, something will blow up in their face.

hidden cove NTIt gets worse when they learn you’re a writer, a teacher, or (gods forbid) an editor. Some people laugh nervously. Others clam up.

Many of those explosive devices we’re so afraid of are shibboleths. Like “Never end a sentence with a preposition” and “Don’t split infinitives.”

What’s a shibboleth? Here’s what the American Heritage Dictionary had to say:

  1. A word or pronunciation that distinguishes people of one group or class from those of another.
  2. a. A word or phrase identified with a particular group or cause; a catchword.
    b. A commonplace saying or idea.
  3. A custom or practice that betrays one as an outsider.

old courthouse rd 2Readers and writers, teachers and editors, are forever getting them mixed up with rules. How to tell a rule from a shibboleth? Rules usually further the cause of clarity: verbs should agree with their subjects in number; pronouns should agree with the nouns they refer to. Shibboleths often don’t. No surprise there: their main purpose isn’t to facilitate communication; it’s to separate those who know them from those who don’t.

To complicate matters even further, the language is continually evolving. New words are born. Meanings morph. Nouns get verbed and verbs get nouned. If you’re too far ahead of the pack in adopting a new usage, someone‘s not going to be happy about it.

If that’s not enough, we’ve also got such everyday confusables like ensure/insure/assure, affect/effect — and is it irrespective that’s OK and irregardless that’s verboten, or is it the other way round?

No wonder English starts to look like a minefield, even to native speakers who use it all the time.

Editors have been known to make it worse. Been there, done that. It’s an occupational hazard. An example:

As an apprentice editor, I was initiated into the mysteries of the which/that distinction. “That” was for restrictive (essential) clauses: “The sweater that I’m wearing was made by my mother.” (This implies that I have other sweaters and my mother probably didn’t make all of them.) “Which” was for non-restrictive clauses: “The house, which was built in 1850, has been in his family for decades.” (The building date is extra information. It doesn’t specify which house has been in his family for decades.)

security signHoo boy, did I go wild or what. Anyone who hadn’t mastered the which/that distinction was an ignoramus. I got to look down my snoot at them. I got to educate them.

Then I learned that British English (BrE) was managing to get along quite nicely without the which/that distinction. BrE writers liberally used which” for restrictive clauses.  Their editors weren’t changing every “which” to “that.”

Wonder of wonders, I had no trouble understanding which clauses were restrictive and which weren’t.

By that time I’d so internalized the which/that distinction that it came naturally to me. This was an asset when I started copyediting for U.S. publishers, many of whom require copyeditors to change every restrictive “which” to “that.” Fortunately most writers won’t fight about this. Many have internalized the which/that distinction just the way I did. When editing the work of a BrE writer, I’ll generally stet the restrictive “which” and note it in my style sheet so the proofreader will realize that this was a conscious decision on my part, not a (gods forbid) mistake.

Another shibboleth is the widespread notion among U.S. copyeditors that “toward” is American English and “towards” is British English. They mechanically knock the “s” off every “towards” they come to. A few years back, Jonathon Owen, linguist, writer, and editor, did his master’s thesis on this very subject. As reported in his excellent blog, Arrant Pedantry, his research suggested that U.S. editors are creating the perception that “toward” is AmE and “towards” is BrE. For writers, it’s six of one, half dozen of the other. In edited manuscripts, however, “toward” overwhelmed “towards,” 90% to 10%.

In a recent online discussion, an assortment of editors took on the difference between “such as” and “like.” (If you haven’t heard of it, worry not: I’d been editing for 10 years before I was initiated into this particular mystery. Till then I thought “such as” was simply a more formal synonym for “like.”) According to those who observe the distinction, if I refer to “movies such as Lawrence of Arabia,” I am including Lawrence in the group. If I write “movies like Lawrence of Arabia,” I’m not.

Most of the editors participating in the discussion thought the such as/like distinction was a made-up “rule” — a shibboleth. I rarely use “such as”; when I use “like,” I’m not excluding the item(s) that follow from the group. I’ll wager that most writers do likewise, and — even more important — so do most readers. What this means is that if it’s important to know whether the item(s) are included or not, you better not rely on the such as/like distinction alone to get the message across. (The discussion suggested that readers of scientific literature were alert to the distinction, so if that’s your audience you’d best observe it.)

A caveat: English is riddled with sound-alike and look-alike words that don’t mean the same thing. These aren’t shibboleths. They facilitate communication. If you write or read, they’re worth learning. As an editor, I’m always on the lookout for them. The very capable author of a recent editing job consistently confused “imply” and “infer.” (A speaker implies that something is true. Her listeners may infer the truth from what she said.) I made the necessary changes and explained the difference to the author. He said he had a hard time keeping those two words straight.

Why does any of this matter? Here I turn to “Rules That Eat Your Brain,” by Geoffrey Pullum, linguist and frequent writer on English grammar and usage. “Zombie rules” are shibboleths by another name.

Though dead, they shamble mindlessly on. The worst thing about zombie rules, I believe, is not the pomposity of those advocating them, or the time-wasting character of the associated gotcha games, but the way they actually make people’s writing worse. They promote insecurity, and nervous people worrying about their language write worse than relaxed people enjoying their language.

If the language really were a minefield, what fool would venture out into it? Be brave. Write on.


Needless Words?

“Omit needless words.” You’ve heard it, right? Maybe you’ve had it drummed into your head. It comes from Strunk and White’s famous, or infamous, Elements of Style. (More about that below.)

It’s actually pretty good advice. The tricky part is “needless.” What’s necessary and what isn’t depends on the kind of writing, the intended audience, and what the author had in mind, among other things. Consider, for example, “she shrugged her shoulders.” Taken literally, “her shoulders” is redundant — what else would she shrug? And sometimes “she shrugged” is fine. Other times, the mention of “her shoulders” emphasizes the physical aspect of the gesture, or influences the pacing of the sentence. “She shrugged” and “she shrugged her shoulders” read differently. Ditto “he blinked” and “he blinked his eyes.”

Unless you’re writing technical manuals (do people ever shrug or blink in technical manuals?), you don’t want an editor who lops off “eyes” and “shoulders” just because they’re literally redundant.

However, I do a lot of lopping off when I reread anything I’ve written. Words that served a purpose in the writing may turn out to be needless in later drafts — like the ladder you climbed in order to repaint a windowsill, they can be removed when the job is done. Nearly every draft I write is shorter than its predecessor.

Here’s an example from my novel in progress. Pixel has already been introduced as an elderly dog. Shannon is her owner, Ben their next-door neighbor.

Pixel descended the stairs with a confidence that Shannon hadn’t seen in weeks and thought might be gone for good, then trotted sprily over to Ben. Shannon followed, smiling. “Every summer I think she’s gone over the hill for good,” she said, “and with the first whiff of fall she always seems to drop a couple of years.”

Rereading, my eye balked at “and thought might be gone for good.” Wasn’t that covered by Shannon’s remark “I think she’s gone over the hill for good”? Sure it was. I struck out the needless words:

Pixel descended the stairs with a confidence that Shannon hadn’t seen in weeks and thought might be gone for good, then trotted sprily over to Ben. Shannon followed, smiling. “Every summer I think she’s gone over the hill for good,” she said, “and with the first whiff of fall she always seems to drop a couple of years.”

When I read it over, I didn’t miss those words at all, so the paragraph now looks like this:

Pixel descended the stairs with a confidence that Shannon hadn’t seen in weeks, then trotted sprily over to Ben. Shannon followed, smiling. “Every summer I think she’s gone over the hill for good,” she said, “and with the first whiff of fall she always seems to drop a couple of years.”

When I’m editing, either my own work or someone else’s, I’m always looking for what a workshop leader once called “soft ice” — words that don’t bear weight. What’s soft and what isn’t, and how soft is it, is a judgment call. I may go back and forth several times in five minutes about how soft — how needless — a word or phrase or whole sentence is.

In a current job, a memoir by a very good writer, I came upon this sentence:

As we came around the last curve, we were greeted by a scene of absolute devastation.

No problem, I thought. A couple of sentences later, I slammed on the brakes and backed up. How about this?

As we came around the last curve, we were greeted by a scene of absolute devastation.

I liked it. What the narrator saw was devastation, not a scene; “devastation” is a stronger word. But it’s the author’s call. She can stet “a scene of” if she prefers it that way.

*  *  *  *  *

While writing the above, I went looking for my copy of The Elements of Style. To my surprise, I had not one, not two, but three copies. The little paperback I probably bought myself. The illustrated version, published in 2005, was a gift. So was the decommissioned library edition. The name of the library was effectively redacted, but concealed within the book’s pages were cards from two former colleagues. One of them had given it to me as a parting gift when I left my newspaper job in 1999.

Strunk & White times three

Strunk & White times three

If you Google “strunk and white,” you’ll find that many love The Elements of Style and many, including some heavy-hitting grammarians, hate it. As I flipped through it for the first time in umpteen years, I was surprised by how much useful stuff it has in it. Yes, the tone is often prescriptive: Do it my way or else. No, it doesn’t apply equally to all kinds of writing. But it’s useful.

Strunk and White’s biggest drawback lies not within its pages but within its users. They turn guidelines into godlines, thou shalts and thou shalt nots that must not be disobeyed. This happens to The Chicago Manual of Style and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary too, among other reference books, so I know for sure it’s not entirely the book’s fault. When the godliners are teachers or editors, the damage they do can have a half-life of decades.

But this is no reason to jettison the books themselves. Read them. Experiment with their advice. Argue with it. Above all, take what you like and leave the rest.

And run like hell from anyone who insists you swallow them whole.

Guidelines, Not Godlines

I cringe whenever writers and editors start talking about “rules.”

What I really love about these rules is that there's never anyone around to enforce them.

What I really love about these rules is that there’s never anyone around to enforce them.

The real problem, though, isn’t the innocent little word “rules.” It’s that so many of us grow up thinking that rules are not to be broken. If we break them, bad things will happen. We’ll get a big red X on our paper. We’ll flunk the course. People will laugh at us.

Bending the rules is possible, of course, but it carries the tinge of unethical behavior, if not outright sleaziness.

Instead of rules, I think of conventions and guidelines.

Conventions and guidelines are worth knowing. They’re worth knowing well. They help you write better, and — probably more important — they help make what you write comprehensible to others.

But guidelines are not godlines. They are not graven in stone. Lightning will not strike you dead if you adapt them to your own purposes, or ignore them completely. If you ignore them too completely, however, readers may ignore your writing.

grammar policeCome to think of it, this is yet another way that writing and editing are like driving. Some people observe speed limits and use their turn signals because they’re afraid they’ll get a ticket if they don’t. True, they might — but seriously, how many cops are on the road at any one time? Not enough to ticket more than a tiny percentage of scofflaws.

Most of us figure this out pretty damn quick. We observe speed limits less for fear of getting caught speeding and more because they make it easier to control our vehicle. We use turn signals because they reduce our chance of getting rear-ended.

Learn the conventions and guidelines. Respect them. Internalize them. But bowing and scraping and trembling in fear are all optional. Guidelines aren’t godlines. The choices are yours.