Tag Archives: editing

Blond or Blonde?

No, this isn’t going to be about the Bob Dylan recording (fans out there know that Blonde on Blonde is widely considered one of the greatest albums of all time).

But let’s talk about the title for a moment. If you look it up on Wikipedia, it’s spelled Blond on Blonde (unless someone has corrected it by now). So what about that final e? Does it mean anything? Does it make a difference?

Blond or blonde?

Go to www.Dictionary.com, and you’ll discover that the adjective is correctly spelled without the e: Although my hair was blond when I was little, it’s light brown now.

But if you’re referring to a woman with blond hair, you’re supposed to add the e:

Q: Why are dumb blonde jokes so short? A: So brunettes can remember them.

(I couldn’t resist. Incidentally, I’m a blonde.)

The blonde/blond distinction is a subtle one, and Dictionary.com notes that even some good writers ignore it.

Here’s a thought, however: Once in a while you’re going to encounter a language fanatic (like me) who knows the difference and looks for that final e. Why not take the opportunity to impress me?

 

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Why We Need Commas

I’m on a Lawrence Block reading kick – I love his mystery novels about Matthew Scudder, a New York detective who spends much of his free time at AA meetings.

The books are well written and fun to read, but once in a while Block and his copyeditor miss a comma or two. I want to spend a few minutes looking at problem sentence from the mystery I’m reading right now, The Devil Knows You’re Dead.

(Background:  Lisa Holtzmann, the widow of a man who was just murdered, is reminiscing about their relationship.)

Read along with me, and try to watch your brain at work. (I know that sounds crazy – but try it!)

When we met Glenn

You’re picturing a couple of people meeting Glenn, right? Wrong! Read on:

When we met Glenn had a studio apartment in Yorkville

Oops! She’s saying something different: When she and Glenn met, he had an apartment in Yorkville.

Let’s keep reading:

When we met Glenn had a studio apartment in Yorkville and

So Glenn had a studio apartment and something else, right?

Oops! Wrong again. Read on:

When we met Glenn had a studio apartment in Yorkville and of course I was still on Madison Street.

Two commas, correctly placed, would clear up all the confusion, and you’d know immediately what Lisa was trying to say.

Here’s the sentence one more time, correctly punctuated. Notice how much easier it is to read:

When we met, Glenn had a studio apartment in Yorkville, and of course I was still on Madison Street. CORRECT

To learn more about Comma Rule 1 (the first comma) and Comma Rule 2 (the second comma), click here. You can also watch a short video by clicking here.

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Why We Need Copyeditors

I’m the copyeditor for an employee newsletter at a place where I used to work full-time. I’m an excellent choice for that job (if I may say so) because, in addition to my editorial skills, I know many of the people there. That means it’s easy for me to catch a misspelled name or an incorrect job title.

Other parts of the job are not so easy. For example, the last newsletter mentioned that someone on the staff had just won third place in a powerlifting competition. I happen to be married to someone who used to be a powerlifter, so I know that it’s a specialized form of weightlifting. Google to the rescue – I was able to track down the event and confirm that it was a weightlifting (not powerlifting) competition.

Another problem is that my eyes and brain often do an “I know that already” leap over something that I should check for accuracy. When I see the name Katherine, for example, I assume it’s spelled correctly. But wait a minute! Many women (Katharine Hepburn, Katharine Graham, Katharine Ross) spell it with an a, not an e, in the middle.

Good editing requires much more than a knowledge of English usage. Sometimes you need psychology: A sentence that’s grammatically correct may still hit someone the wrong way. Knowledge of history and politics is occasionally required. For example, people who lived in the British Isles used to be called subjects; nowadays they are citizens.

If you’re a serious writer, try to cultivate friends with a wide background in a variety of subjects, and ask them to read your stuff before you send it to a publisher. Copyeditors perform a great service for writers, but you don’t always have to pay a professional to get good advice. Sometimes that extra pair of eyes belonging to a friend or family member can make all the difference.

 

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Subject-Verb Agreement Isn’t Always Easy

The editor in my brain is always on duty. So I paid attention when a red light flashed in my head after I’d read this claim in a private school ad in the New York Times Magazine:

A boarding arts high school, where the best in academic and arts education go hand-in-hand.

Did you spot the mistake? I don’t mean the sentence fragment – that’s OK in an ad, especially if it’s acting as a headline or attention-getter.

The problem is subject-verb agreement. (Click here and read Rule 4). The subject is “best,” so the verb should be “goes”:

A boarding arts high school, where the best in academic and arts education goes hand-in-hand.  CORRECT

But that “hand-in-hand” creates a new problem. First, the sentence sounds wrong. You’re expecting go, not goes (unless you’re an English teacher.) More seriously, the new sentence doesn’t make sense. How can one thing (best) go hand-in-hand? It’s nonsensical.

Sentences like these are the reason my husband sometimes catches me staring blankly at the computer screen. I know what I want to say, but this @#$%&! English language won’t let me say it.

I have no idea how you could fix that sentence about the boarding arts high school. Does that mean that my Ph.D. in English is going to be revoked?

What you’d have to do is figure out how to make “best” plural: best experiences, best instructors, best resources…something like that.

Gee whiz, though…if you’re running an expensive private school, please get the grammar right. Or do what I always do: Throw out the sentence and start over.

 

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Emphasis

Today’s topic is emphasis. When you’re talking, you can use your voice, eyes, face, and hands to emphasize particular points. Writers do the same thing, but in different ways.

Here’s an example. A few months ago I edited a press release about a local mathematics team. The original press release started something like this (I’m making up the details):

The Central Florida Collegiate Mathematics Tournament was held on November 13 and 14 in Smithville. The Sabal Palm College Mathematics Team won first place and took home a trophy and a $500 prize.

Here’s how I revised it:

The Sabal College Mathematics Team won first prize in The Central Florida Collegiate Mathematics Tournament, held on November 13 and 14 in Smithville.

I made the story more emphatic by putting the most important information first in the story: Our team won first prize.

Sentences often contain multiple pieces of information. It’s a good idea to decide what you want to emphasize and put that first. Take a look at these examples:

Under the leadership of coach Joan Paine, the Sabal College Mathematics Team recently won first prize in The Central Florida Collegiate Mathematics Tournament. [emphasis on the coach]

In a challenging math tournament, the Sabal College Mathematics Team recently won a trophy and a $500 prize.  [emphasis on the tournament]

Sabal College is proudly displaying a beautiful trophy won by its mathematics team at a recent tournament. [emphasis on the college]

Coming soon: More ways to emphasize important facts and ideas.

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Ten Writing Rules

Here’s the third (and last!) installment in my end-of-year advice series: A grab-bag of writing rules for every situation.

  1. Break up long paragraphs. Ideally each paragraph should explore a different idea. But there’s nothing to stop you from simply breaking a paragraph in half if it’s starting to get long. Readers prefer shorter paragraphs and are more likely to read them all the way through.
  2. In dialogue, keep identifying the person who’s speaking. It’s frustrating to read a whole page of dialogue, lose track of who’s speaking, and have to waste time backtracking. Since you’re the author, of course you know who said what. But does your reader?
  3. Don’t overuse would. Reserve it for talking about a wish, a repeated action, or something unreal. When you’re talking about the past, use normal past-tense forms of verbs: walked, sang, drank (not would walk, would sing, would drink).
  4. Be careful with he, she, him, and her when you’re writing about two or more people of the same sex. “Betty was expecting a phone call from Anne to talk about her tax return” is confusing: Whose tax return?
  5. Keep the subject and verb together, especially when a sentence is long. Don’t ask your readers (who probably have many demands on their time) to read a sentence two or three times in order to figure it out. (I did it myself with that last sentence!)
  6. Don’t apologize for an opinion. Many writers overuse “in my opinion,” “I think,” and “I feel.” You’re allowed to have opinions!
  7. Explain abbreviations the first time. Yesterday I had to track down INRA (which turned out to be an agricultural research organization in France) for something my husband was writing. It should have been spelled out in the article he was reading.
  8. Get rid of empty and unnecessary words: I personally feel = I feel. A personal friend = a friend. Three different times = three times. Seven individual members = seven members. Very, rather, and respective take up space while adding nothing to your meaning. “Etc.” is another bit of writing clutter that tells your readers nothing. Either spell out what the “etc.” constitutes, or omit it.
  9. In general, don’t use more than three commas in a sentence (unless you’re making a list). That fourth comma should warn you that your sentence is getting complicated, and readers may have a hard time deciphering your meaning.
  10. Impress with your ideas, not big words and fancy syntax. Pomposity never fooled anyone.
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Good Writing Advice 2

I’m wrapping up 2010 by offering my best suggestions about becoming a better writer. Here’s today’s advice: Creating is different from editing.

Creating (generating ideas) and editing (sharpening sentences and correcting errors) are very different activities, involving different parts of the brain.  Both are vital – and they have to be approached in different ways.

Where do ideas come from? On a good day, they simply blaze forth onto a piece of paper or a computer screen. You feel inspired. In bygone days  writers would say that a muse had visited them.

Most of us can’t wait around to be inspired, however. The pump must be primed, so to speak. Reading, doing research, journaling, freewriting, webbing, listing, talking to a friend – there are many ways to start the creative juices flowing.

It can be helpful to remember that “create” does not necessarily involve originality. Most great thinkers freely acknowledge that they’re building on ideas and information from others. The writer’s job is to reshape those materials to fit the task at hand.

Editing requires a totally different set of skills: Knowledge of punctuation, spelling, and the other conventions of writing. It also requires a feel for an effective sentence, along with knowing how to write a thesis statement, how to support it, how to organize a paragraph, and similar tasks.

If you were to look at MRIs or brain scans of hundreds of writers at work, you would soon notice that they use different parts of their brains at different times. You might also notice differences in the way the writers’ brains have developed. English courses in schools and colleges tend to emphasize one at the expense of the other.

Some writers – those who spent many hours diagramming sentences and studying traditional grammar – are terrific editors. Others – who attended liberal schools and were encouraged to express themselves freely – are good at creating.

If you want to be a successful writer, you need to be good at both. Or, alternatively, you need to hire a terrific secretary or marry someone who has developed the skills that you’re lacking.

And, at the very least, you need to remind yourself not to get sidetracked into editing too early in the writing process. Have something to say first. Know where your ideas will be taking you. Look for interesting examples that will draw readers into your ideas.

Then – and only then – you can start focusing on gerunds and indefinite pronoun references and all the other grammatical points that educated writers and readers delight in. (I’ve been known to phone writers to congratulate them on getting a subtle usage issue right.)

Creating comes first, editing is second: Sound advice for any writer.

 

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Good Writing Advice 1

As 2010 winds down, I’d like to offer some advice for writers to ponder as they look ahead to a new year. Today I’m going to tackle one big guideline for writers: Don’t confuse thinking with communicating. They’re not the same thing.

People frequently get the two activities mixed up. I do it all the time. I’ll be rattling away excitedly about some idea that has just grabbed at me. Suddenly my husband (or someone else who loves me) puts up a hand and says, “Stop! What are you talking about?”

And it hits me: The words pouring out of my mouth were an attempt to clarify my thinking for myself, rather than to communicate a clear message to the person listening.

Writing has (or should have) two clear-cut stages: Thinking and communicating. Thinking comes first. Don’t even attempt to present your thoughts to a reader until you’ve thoroughly explored them. That often requires research, and it ALWAYS involves a preliminary draft.

I’m convinced that many of the weak student essays I’ve read over the years are the result of the same mistake. If we’re using words, sentences, and paragraphs, then it logically follows that we’re communicating, right?

Wrong.

Here are some warning signs that you’re in the discovery phase of exploring an idea that’s not yet ready for an audience:

  • You’re surprised by some of the things coming you’re saying or writing
  • The topic is new to you
  • If someone asked you to summarize your point in a single sentence, you wouldn’t know what to say
  • You have a pile of notecards in front of you that you’re trying to string together
  • You’re so busy thinking about your topic that you haven’t thought at all about your audience

The remedy is simple: Get it all down on paper once. Explore your topic from every possible angle. Marshal all your examples. Then you can start communicating (devising an opening strategy, organizing your supporting ideas, thinking about transitions and climaxes).

Think first, communicate second: Simple advice that can make all the difference in your success as a student writer or professional author.

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In Praise of Wordiness

Earlier this week I warned you about unnecessary and repetitious words (whispered softly, ran quickly, a smile on his face). You don’t want empty spaces in your writing. Stimulate your readers and pique their interest by making every word interesting.

But sometimes longer is better: Wordiness can be an effective choice. Good writers know that there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all rule for every writing situation.

More-is-better is a useful principle when:

  • You’re trying to create a mood or an atmosphere
  • You’re giving unwelcome news (for example, saying “no” to a customer’s or employee’s request)
  • You’re explaining something complex
  • You’re emphasizing a point that readers might miss

Here’s one example of useful redundancy: The close of a paragraph. Let’s say you’ve just described the warmth and love you experienced in your grandmother’s kitchen as a child. You’ve said it all: The cinnamon in the air, the purring of her cat, the teakettle whistling on her stove, the songs she used to hum when she was making her famous chicken and dumplings. What’s left to say? Nothing – but if you’re an exceptional writer, you’ll wrap up the paragraph with one more sentence. Here are three possibilities:

  • I was happy there.
  • I wish I could go back.
  • Nothing was ever the same after she died.

There’s a grace and ease about a few extra words in just the right place. Don’t be afraid to take a little longer to say exactly what you want your readers to know. The results will be worth the effort.

(Did you notice that last sentence? Not really necessary, but it added a little finesse to what I’d written. At least I hope it did.)

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Should We Still Admire Jane Austen?

Breaking news from Oxford University: It turns out that Jane Austen did not deserve her reputation as a perfect writer, never-crossed-out-a-word writer. Those elegant sentences were often smoothed out by an editor who cleaned up her novels for publication.

She wasn’t even a very good speller, and – most startling of all – she was messy. Here, for example, is a much-scratched-out page from her novel Persuasion:

(You can read or listen to an NPR feature about the manuscripts by clicking here.)

The release of Austen’s manuscripts by Oxford University this week brought with it a storm of controversy. Some Austen lovers are bemoaning the edits, complaining that Austen’s experimental style and feminine voice were lost when the changes were made. Others say that literary critics and historians need to reappraise Austen’s reputation.

And some people (I’m one) are shrugging our shoulders and saying that we knew it all along.

Well, not really.

But it’s generally true that when you encounter a great writer, there’s a great editor nearby. Or at least lots and lots of revising. For years I’ve been saying the first thing any would-be writer needs is a substantial wastebasket.

When I teach my own writing classes, I always bring in a letter I received from an editor about a book review I submitted for publication. Before my book review was accepted, I had to make 18 (count ’em) changes.

My students are always shocked. Some are outraged. Their writing teacher produced a manuscript that – gasp – wasn’t perfect?

That’s right. All professional writers make revisions. Lots of them.

Let’s turn the tables a bit. Why was Jane Austen (as I still think) such a great writer?

She had two things going for her: A huge wastebasket and a terrific editor.

Let’s make that three things. Most important of all was her willingness to stick with it until she got it right. Good for her – and good for us, who are much richer for the literary legacy she left behind.

(To learn more about what Jane Austen did right, click here.)

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