Warming Up The Red Pen

red-inked manuscript

(C) 2008 Nic McPhee, used under Creative Commons

One of the benefits of going to college this late in life is that I’m learning more about editing. Much of it is line editing: Can you make this clearer, stronger? Some of it has been developmental, trimming and shifting the structure of a work. Because my degree is a business degree, there is an emphasis on writing in about half my classes.

This is good. My associates was a technical degree, taught by career IT consultants with few social skills and an open contempt for anything beyond writing computer code. One prof who taught a hybrid class (part online, part classroom) pitched a fit when he had to show up on campus.

The science fiction novel has demonstrated a need to learn this skill. It’s clearly a mess. I know who my characters are and what generally needs to happen, but it is going to need a massive developmental edit. But there is another reason I need to shore up my editing skills.

Last week, on Jennette Powell’s blog, I talked about the advantages of barter for the independent author. One of the most common things writers trade in exchange for ebook formatting, covers, or a beta read is editing. It’s one thing to look at an someone’s story and say, “Yeah, it’s good” or “No, it didn’t work for me.”

Editing is also a possible revenue stream, and something I’d like to do. However, it’s not so much not knowing how to edit but what to look for. I’ve spent the last 14 years writing crime fiction. So what do I look for if someone hands me romance? Science fiction? How much is the author willing to change from his or her original concept? These are developmental questions.

A frequent complaint I hear about copy editors, from both editors and writers alike, is an inability to understand that not everything is styled like a newspaper report or a research paper, especially dialog. There has to be a sense of context. There has to be a clear understanding that the “rules” of writing are generally not rules but guidelines. Don’t believe me? Read Huckleberry Finn, written by a newspaper reporter, namely Mark Twain. Then go read The Innocents Abroad. Two completely different books, one written in dialect, the other written conversationally. Do you really think Twain’s editor shouted The Chicago Manual of Style back at him? (Assuming it existed then. It’s not the first style manual.) Of course not! Jim and Huck sounded like two rubes from a Mississippi River town. And Huck was narrating. Queen’s English would have ruined the entire story.

There are some peccadilloes I need to address before I ever take money to hammer on someone’s manuscript.

  • Adverbs: Every writer and editor I have ever heard decry adverbs, without exception, has been a serial abuser of adverbs. (Are you reading this, Stephen King? I’m halfway through your canon and am not seeing your decree adhered to in one single book.) Every time I’ve followed the slash-all-adverbs advice, it’s resulted in some of the most stilted and unreadable prose ever to spring from my fingertips. So I need to make peace with the adverb and make sure it knows its place.
  • The thesaurus: This creature failed to go extinct with the rest of the non-avian, non-crocodilian dinosaurs some 70 million years ago. Since then, it has been the source of more flowery, overwrought prose than any other source. I suppose I’ll have to make peace with the thesaurus as well, since writers, including myself, have pet words we tend to overuse. For me, though, it’s usually “just” and “well,” which means that I can simply fix it by deleting the offending word.
  • “All right” vs. “alright”: OK, this is just stupid. If “already” is a word, then “alright” is a word. And I refuse to correct it when I see it. Don’t like it? Then circle the change and write the word “stet.”, which is the writer’s way of asserting his or her will on their work. (Besides, you’re paying me or trading with me. It’s not like I’m your publisher.)
  • Punctuation and quotes: It has always bugged the hell out of me that the punctuation mark goes inside quotations at the end of a sentence when they are not part of the quote. For instance, “Did Dr. Evil get his ‘laser?'” The “proper” way is to put the question mark inside the quotes around “laser,” (like that comma I just wrote), but it makes no logical sense. It should be “Did Dr. Evil get his ‘laser’?” You’re not quoting the question mark. (Or making air quotes, if you remember this bit.) However, it’s a battle I know I would lose. So fear not. I’ll bow to common usage on this one.But not happily.
  • Singular “their”: Given that there’s a royal “we,” and we no longer use “thee” and “thou” but the plural “you,” it makes no sense not to use “they/their/them” as singular third-person gender non-specific. “It” does not work to refer to humans. “They” does. Once again, though, it’s a battle I can’t fight as an editor. So I won’t. That’s not what people will pay/trade with me for. (Also, they would probably like me to not end sentences in prepositions.)

The best rule of thumb would be WWMMD? “What would Mr. Murphy do?” Mr. Murphy was my favorite teacher in high school, an English teacher who encouraged my writing.

And he probably would have said, “Shut up, Winter, and quit using singular they.”

Mr. Murphy was a wise man.

One thing we can do to sharpen our skills as both writers and editors is to bone up on the language. For that, I’ve found a blog by local author and Wilmington College professor Brian F. Snowden. Brian has some definite opinions about the language, some of them that clash with mine, others that make me want to shout “Preach on, brother!” Check it out here, as well as his novel, A Delicate Imbalance.