An American Editor

September 10, 2021

On the Basics: Rethinking language usages

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 11:36 am

© Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

© An American Editor. Content may not be recirculated, republished or otherwise used without both the prior permission of the publisher and full credit to the author of a given post and the An American Editor blog, including a live link to the post being referenced. Thank you for respecting our rights to and ownership of our work.

For years, I’ve been urging aspiring freelancers to budget for health insurance even if they’re young and fit because “you never know when you might step off the curb and get hit by a bus.” I never meant it flippantly, although it might have come across that way. Today I learned that a valued colleague has died in just such a horrible way. I don’t think I can ever use that language again.

When I mentioned this in a Facebook group for editors, several colleagues brought up other usages that we might all want to rethink, or think about carefully before using. We’re in an era of increasing awareness of language (and behavior) that can be seen as insulting, insensitive, racist, sexist, exclusive and otherwise damaging — that can trigger trauma on all kinds of levels. These instances may be less so, but still can create trauma at worst and discomfort at best. We probably can’t always avoid upsetting someone, no matter how carefully we choose our words, but we can aim to avoid clichés or our own frequent phrases that might be painful for others to see or hear. 

Personal perspectives

Probably like many of us, I’ve had my own experiences with incidents that make me more careful about how I describe events, possibilities and even people. I broke a leg after tripping — over something I never even saw — on a casual walk (as opposed to a challenging hike or climb) and falling the wrong way. I dislocated an elbow and tore up ligaments and tendons in falling off a stage prop as I backed up to take photos at an event. Both experiences make me careful about how I refer to other people’s accidents, such as not calling anyone (including myself) a klutz or clumsy, or trivializing an injury or event.

When I was in grad school, I was walking to class one day when I realized that someone might be about to jump off a pedestrian bridge over a major intersection, and I tried to get him to stop and talk to me. He jumped anyhow and died of his injuries. Ever since, I’ve been super-sensitive to any references to suicide in general and jumping off a bridge in particular.

Language to assess before using

As colleagues said in response to my Facebook post: “We never know what might bring up negative emotions for someone else” and “‘Know better do better’ applies to our lived experiences and unfolding improved awareness of language …”

With that in mind, wording or imagery to think about carefully before using would be:

• Hit by a train, streetcar, bus, car

• “I feel like I’ve been hit by a Mack truck” to describe feeling sick

“Drink the Kool-Aid” to refer to company culture (because hundreds of followers of cult leader Jim Jones actually drank poisoned Kool-Aid at his order, and died.)

• Putting a gun to your head

• To die for

• Jump off a bridge

• A verbal or writing tic

• The worst thing to do/that can happen; There’s nothing worse than … (because so many times, the rest of the sentence refers to something that really isn’t that bad, especially when compared to something like the death of a loved one)

This kind of sensitivity can also can come into play if you’re trying to convince friends, family or colleagues to have a will, business insurance, medical directive and other end-of-life plans, power of attorney, easily found emergency contact information, etc., or at least as a reminder that we all should have those documents and provisions in place, regardless of whether we’re in business or work for someone. Illness and accidents can happen to anyone. It’s important to try to be prepared, on our own behalf and on behalf of those whom we love, live with, and work for or with, because we really don’t know what could happen from one day to the next.

Workarounds that work

Colleagues suggested a couple of clever ways to avoid using phrases like “hit by a bus/truck/train”: “‘In case I get hit by a comet’ — highly unlikely you’ll encounter anyone who’s had that experience” and “In case you’re abducted by aliens” — also highly unlikely (we hope).

Instead of “the worst thing is,” I use “One of the worst things [in this situation] is” or “Few things are as bad/hard/difficult/painful as …”  

For my future presentations, I plan to simply say that accidents, injury and illness can happen to anyone, regardless of age or health status, so health, business and life insurance are key things to include when launching an editorial (or any) business. 

Are there any terms or phrases that you avoid, or that trigger trauma on some level when used by others, because of personal experience or events that affected friends and family?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter ( is an award-winning provider of editorial and publishing services for publications, independent authors, publishers, associations, nonprofits and companies worldwide, and the editor-in-chief and owner of An American Editor. She created the annual Communication Central Be a Better Freelancer® conference for colleagues (, now co-hosted with the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors ( and sponsored by An American Editor. She also owns A Flair for Writing (, which helps independent authors produce and publish their books. She can be reached at or


September 8, 2021

On the Basics: Reflecting on editing then and now

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 11:42 am

© Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

In a recent online conversation about responding to an author who said their manuscript just needed a “light edit” because they had run it through Grammarly, a colleague asked whether “before computers, did folks also assume that editing was just rote grammar stuff or is this a new thing now that spellcheck and other computer functions are ubiquitous?”

I was not surprised to see a number of variations on “Yeah, right; that will happen” and “Never use that tool!” Of more discussable interest is that I thought it was a good question. Here’s my response:

“I think authors in the past had more respect for human editing skills, but there were far fewer aspiring independent authors and most had no way to find an editor. Far fewer got published because they didn’t have today’s outlets, with or without editors.

“And editing/proofreading wasn’t (weren’t?) perfect; almost every book I read [that was published] going waaayyy back has typos. Maybe not many, but at least a few. (It’s why I don’t borrow books from the library; I can’t help marking the typos!)

“Today’s tech tools make it easier for us to check or enhance our work, but those tools aren’t perfect, as everyone here knows. Put the tools in the hands of a skilled, careful editor and the combination is golden. It may still not be 100% perfect every time, but is likely to be much closer than when we didn’t have things like spellcheck and PerfectIt.”

And, of course, the post got me thinking further about publishing then and now, so here we are.

I started writing for publication way back in the 1970s, using a manual typewriter and not seeing my work until it appeared in print; if something got edited, I didn’t see the process.

We used correction tape or fluid to cope with typos, and often had to retype entire pages because there was no find-and-replace or typing over an error. Items might have been missed because there was no spellcheck. For what would now be called self-publishing projects, we typed on green stencil sheets and ran them through hand-cranked AB Dick machines. Making corrections on those was an even bigger headache than correcting typewritten pages on regular paper.

I started editing in the late ’70s — my own work and that of college friends, then on my college newspaper, then as a staff reporter for a weekly community newspaper — when self-correcting electric typewriters were cutting-edge new and exciting, and Compugraphic was the new technology for typesetting. Authors would hand in material typed on manual or electric typewriters, editors would mark up the manuscripts by hand, Compugraphic operators would type in the material and print out the text on bright-white coated paper, and we — often just whoever was handy and cared enough, depending on the environment; many of the places where I worked didn’t have formally trained or designated editors — would proof the resulting galleys before layout. Sometimes the galleys would be sent to authors for review, sometimes not. Corrections for the galleys would go to the Compugraphic operators to be retyped a line or even a word at a time, and pasted down manually.

We referred to printed dictionaries and style manuals, and spent a lot of time on the phone to track down and verify information; no Internet access from our desks to those resources, much less Google and other browsers.

The final galleys would be cut apart, backed with hot glue and pasted into place on heavy-duty graph paper. The pages would go to the printing house and turned into plates that were used to create bluelines (called that because they were in blue ink) — the last chance to review and make corrections, which were charged by the item, because every change meant a new printing plate.

It all took more time than most publishing projects today, although editing, proofreading, layout and more proofreading in the current digital world still takes longer than most authors or clients realize. And it involved costs — for making corrections, and for holding up printing because of a last-minute realization that something egregious had snuck through the editing and proofreading process (if there was one).

The digital environment today has created expectations that publishing — editing, design/layout, proofreading — occurs almost immediately. Clients also often assume that they can have multiple passes of all those steps without extra expense. That means that both in-house and freelance editors, proofreaders, designers and layout experts have to educate colleagues and clients about how the process works; how quickly and when changes can be made, if at all; and the impact of changes on deadlines and costs.

Of course, we also have to educate prospective clients about why they might want to work with us rather than, or in addition to, using online editing tools.

How have you dealt with clients who think that having used online editing or proofreading tools means their work needs “only a light edit or proofing”? How have you responded to clients who keep coming back with more changes but don’t want to pay for your additional time or expect (even demand!) that their project be published per the original schedule?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter ( is an award-winning provider of editorial and publishing services for publications, independent authors, publishers, associations, nonprofits and companies worldwide, and the editor-in-chief and owner of An American Editor. She created the annual Communication Central Be a Better Freelancer® conference for colleagues (, now co-hosted with the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors ( and sponsored by An American Editor. She also owns A Flair for Writing (, which helps independent authors produce and publish their books. She can be reached at or

© An American Editor. Content may not be recirculated, republished or otherwise used without both the prior permission of the publisher and full credit to the author of a given post and the An American Editor blog, including a live link to the post being referenced. Thank you for respecting our rights to and ownership of our work.

September 3, 2021

Thinking Fiction: What is literature, anyway?

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 5:28 pm

© Carolyn Haley

Early this year, I wrote about the challenges that contemporary-novel-writing authors will face in adapting to the “new normal” (

Things haven’t settled down much in the months since then, but enough time has passed that new novels are coming out, through both traditional and indie publishing, in which authors who write contemporary fiction have adapted to the times in different ways.

Some of these works were in process when the combined pandemic and political upheavals started; others have been written since it became clear that daily life and culture were going to change permanently. Enough novels have crossed my desk for purposes of editing, reviewing, and recreational reading that I’m beginning to see patterns.

Even though these books qualify as commercial fiction, I’m interested in them collectively as a facet of literature. I read mainly American fiction but also samplings from western Europe and Canada; this essay is limited to personal observations about contemporary fiction written in or about those parts of the world.


To better understand what “literature” means today, and how it reflects our era vis-a-vis any other time, I turned to my trusty dictionary as a starting point.

Merriam-Webster Online Unabridged lists several definitions of “literature.” The one I was looking for is this:

3b: the body of written works produced in a particular language, country, or age

This definition embraces fiction, my central concern. But the literal definition does not expand to include purpose, so I went internet trolling to find a more nuanced meaning.

The first search results (I stopped after 20) agreed in principle, albeit with different wording, that the purpose of literature is to explore and express human nature. I refine that to mean creative writing that reveals truth and possibility through story. Doesn’t matter if it’s a simple genre romance or multi-generational saga or anything in between. Storytelling is as old as human civilization, and capturing it in writing is what constitutes literature.

In fiction publishing, there’s a distinction between literature as a written art and “literary” as a writing style and marketing category. My interest is in the former, and in seeing how authors across genres — the body of literature — are adapting to a global pandemic concurrent with intense sociopolitical changes.

Multiple adaptations

The trends I see so far among fiction authors are clustering in four approaches.

(1) Some novelists have simply incorporated societal changes into their stories, including peoples of all colors, cultures, and genders in their character sets as part of the norm of their characters’ worlds.

In physical descriptions, when characters are described at all, references to their racial or ethnic heritages are as generic as possible, country of origin omitted unless directly relevant to the story, and nonbinary sexuality alluded to by casual mentions, such as a man having a husband or a woman having a wife. All human varieties are assumed to be normal. No commentary about it in the narrative; the story just moves on.

(2) Other novelists have gone the apologia route, inserting front matter into their books to define their positions to readers before they launch into the story. Some literally apologize for even mentioning difficult subjects. Those subjects can be the pandemic or socially sensitive topics such as race, sexuality, politics, or violence.

(3) Another group has failed to separate their personal positions from their characters’ positions. I’ve seen this several times in prolific, popular series authors who are confident about their readerships. I usually read those books in pre-press for review, and recently they’ve been keeping me awake at night wondering how to honestly and fairly evaluate those works. Subtle, intermittent shifts in the narrative change the voice so reader attention is broken by what I call “author intrusion.” While the story is doing its job of expressing the position, the author seemingly can’t resist elbowing in (and the publisher’s editor[s] doesn’t elbow them back out), resulting in a distracting mixed message that undercuts the book’s own merits.

(4) Then there are authors who put their positions solidly into their characters’ mouths and actions, leaving themselves invisible but making their points loud and clear.

Art vs. propaganda

Just about every author writes from a political, emotional, and personal perspective, and has done so since the beginning of publishing time. Same is true for almost every creator who expresses through an artistic medium. People flock to the arts to find resonance for their thoughts and feelings. Nothing abnormal there; in fact, that’s the nature of the beast.

The trick is how well they do it — or not. Authors who draw readers into their worlds and involve them in the trials and tribulations of the characters/setting/time succeed in conveying their messages. They make readers think and feel, and indirectly advance their own thoughts and feelings while remaining offstage. The work is its own self.

But when authors step outside the story world to manipulate reader impressions, things slide onto the slippery slope between fiction and propaganda. In my opinion, if authors feel so strongly about something that they can’t keep themselves out of their story, they should switch to a nonfiction vehicle. Or write op-eds (opinion-editorial pieces).

My personal opinion is meaningless in the larger scope. As a professional editor, I strive to put aside my biases and be as neutral and analytical as possible when I edit or review a fictional work. (But I’m totally subjective when I read for recreation!) If a story is historical fiction, I expect the author to adhere to the mores of the time for plausibility. Unfortunately, this has become a flashpoint in some circles, where people judge historical scenarios by contemporary mores.

I think this is unfair. In most cases, the purpose of the story is to show how things were in comparison to today’s sensibilities. Condemning authors for being accurate — and in some cases, calling to ban a book because it’s offensive to contemporary tastes — is unreasonable. Let literature, let art, inform us about the past to help us analyze the present and advance toward the future!

Who owns the viewpoint?

Some contemporary novelists have become scared to write what they want to say because they expect rejection or pushback, even shaming, from a polarized, judgmental audience. I see reports about this on social media, writing/editing/publishing forums, and articles in publishing newsletters. I also hear about it directly from clients and associates.

This anxiety differs from the common one among authors about their work being accepted by a publisher or an audience. Their anxiety has broadened to social and political spheres, which has undercut their confidence.

Some of them question whether to hire sensitivity readers in cases where they wrote outside their everyday reality. Which is worth thinking about, because storytellers have been walking in “other” shoes for as long as people have been writing stories. What’s different now to make that a problem?

I don’t see a problem, because it’s standard practice for conscientious authors to research what they don’t know and round up more-knowledgeable people to vet their work where it touches unfamiliar areas. Acknowledgment and dedication sections in books are full of credits to people who have helped authors with verisimilitude and factual accuracy.

A sensitivity reader is nothing more than an individual offering insight into a different culture or norm. Just like any technical professional, a sensitivity reader is only one person representing a great body of information. Their insight may be valuable, but it must be taken with the same grain of salt as any other resource. How the author handles that information is ultimately what counts.

Context is the bottom line

What’s often forgotten in the world of literary criticism is the world itself. We all belong to an immense, diverse population spread across the planet. Something that’s meaningful or controversial in the United States of America might be irrelevant, inflammatory, or incomprehensible somewhere else — even at a regional level. For instance, rural Alabama in a bayou environment has little to do with the Minnesota boundary waters, or downtown Los Angeles or New York.

A novel’s content has to be framed by not only its subject but also its context. Authors with commercial ambitions must direct their work toward a specific desired audience. By definition, that eliminates others.

“Otherness” has long been a concern of science fiction and fantasy authors. They have the advantage of being able to make it up. Who can speak for aliens from other planets?

Extrapolating from there, nobody on Earth can truly speak for anybody else, so the purpose of a novel is to present what’s happening to a unique character(s), expressed by a unique author, in hopes of finding commonality among unique readers.

The benefit of this is a constant stream of education and enlightenment about different people through their adventures and misadventures. The only thing that matters is story. Story expresses our shared humanity, and the infinite number of stories expresses our individuality. How wonderful is that?

The word that encompasses it all is “literature.”

Carolyn Haley is an award-winning novelist who lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of three novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1997 and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at or through DocuMania. Carolyn also reviews for the New York Journal of Books, and has presented about editing fiction at Communication Central conferences.

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