An American Editor

April 5, 2017

Lyonizing Word: Microsoft Word’s Built-in Grammar Checker

by Jack Lyon

In my last missive, Lyonizing Word: Editing by Computer, I discussed some of the grammar checkers that seem to be popping up like mushrooms online. But I neglected to discuss Microsoft Word’s built-in grammar checker. Is it any good? And might it be of use to professional editors? Let’s find out.

First, I recommend that you set Word’s grammar checker to mark grammar errors in your document rather than “running” the grammar checker as a separate process. That way, you can spot and fix the errors as you read, making changes as necessary. Here’s how:

  1. Click File > Options > Proofing.
  2. Under “When correcting spelling and grammar in Word,” check the box labeled “Mark grammar errors as you type.”
  3. Click the “OK” button.

Mark Errors

Now you should see grammar errors flagged in various ways:

Flagged Errors

The double blue underlines indicate possible problems with grammar, spacing, or punctuation.

The dark red dots indicate possible problems with what Microsoft calls “More,” which includes:

  • Clarity and conciseness.
  • Inclusive language.
  • Vocabulary choice.
  • Formal language.
  • Punctuation conventions.

The wavy red underlines indicate possible spelling errors.

For all of these I say “possible” because Word may get things wrong; you can’t blindly accept its recommendations. But they do give you something to consider, including things you might otherwise overlook.

To see and select Word’s recommendations, right-click the flagged text, which will give you a menu like this:

Menu

The grammar checker also flags many things that editors would be better off fixing with Word’s Find and Replace feature or FileCleaner in Editor’s ToolKit Plus 2014. If something can be fixed automatically, there’s no need to have Word check it and flag it; to do so would just mean more work, because you’d have to consider and manually change each flagged item. Examples include checking for punctuation marks preceded by a space, opening parentheses followed by a space, and double spaces between words and sentences. All such corrections can and should be automated.

Grammar Options

What, then, should you have Word’s grammar checker check? Anything that you think would be easy to overlook while editing. Here are the options that seem most useful to me:

Punctuation

Semicolon Use

Targets the use of a semicolon instead of a comma in two related but independent clauses that are not joined by a coordinating conjunction such as “and” or “but.”

  • Example: They don’t have a discussion board, the website isn’t big enough for one yet.
  • Correction: They don’t have a discussion board; the website isn’t big enough for one yet.

Comma Use

Targets a missing comma in front of an independent clause if the sentence begins with the conjunction “if.”

  • Example: If you’re like me you’ve already seen this movie.
  • Correction: If you’re like me, you’ve already seen this movie.

Comma after Introductory Phrases

Targets a missing comma after short introductory phrases such as “however” or “for example” before an independent clause that follows.

  • Example: First of all we must make sure the power is off.
  • Correction: First of all, we must make sure the power is off .

Clarity and Conciseness

Complex words

Targets complex and abstract words, and suggests using a simpler word to present a clear message and a more approachable tone.

  • Example: The magnitude of the problem is far beyond the scope of humanitarian aid.
  • Correction: The size of the problem is far beyond the scope of humanitarian aid.

Jargon

Targets jargon, technical terminology, or abbreviations that may confuse some readers.

  • Example: The company hired a well-known headhunting firm.
  • Correction: The company hired a well-known recruiting firm.

Nominalizations

Targets phrases relying on nouns that need extra words to introduce them and suggests using a single verb instead of nouns.

  • Example: The trade union is holding negotiations with the employers.
  • Correction: The trade union is negotiating with the employers.

Wordiness

Targets redundant and needless words.

  • Example: Her backpack was large in size.
  • Correction: Her backpack was large.

Words Expressing Uncertainty

Targets words that express uncertainty or lessen the impact of a statement.

  • Example: They largely decorated the kitchen with old bottles.
  • Correction: They decorated the kitchen with old bottles.

Inclusive Language

Gender-Specific Language

Targets gendered language which may be perceived as excluding, dismissive, or stereotyping.

  • Example: We need more policemen to maintain public safety.
  • Correction: We need more police officers to maintain public safety.

Vocabulary Choice

Clichés

Targets overused and predictable words or phrases and suggests to replace them with an alternative phrase.

  • Example: Institutions seem caught between a rock and a hard place.
  • Correction: Institutions seem caught in a difficult situation.

Formal Language

Contractions

Targets contractions (e.g., let’s, we’ve, can’t), which should be avoided in formal writing.

  • Example: The animal won’t be authorized to be out of the bag during the flight.
  • Correction: The animal will not be authorized to be out of the bag during the flight.

Informal Language

Targets informal words and phrases that are more appropriate for familiar, conversational settings.

  • Example: Our lounge includes comfy massage chairs.
  • Correction: Our lounge includes comfortable massage chairs.

Slang

Targets regional expressions or slang terms that may not be understood by a general audience and should be avoided in formal writing.

  • Example: My cat barfed all over my homework last night.
  • Correction: My cat vomited all over my homework last night. [Yes, a fine example of formal writing.]

Punctuation Conventions

Oxford Comma

Targets a missing comma after the second-to-last item in a list.

  • Example: I enjoy apples, pears and oranges.
  • Correction: I enjoy apples, pears, and oranges.

Other Options

Many more options are available; you can see the whole list at Microsoft’s website.

Many of the options seemed designed to help writers whose primary language is not English; a few appear to have been dreamed up by Microsoft’s marketing department as just one more thing to include. Fortunately, you can choose the items that you think might be most useful to you. Here’s how:

  1. Click File > Options > Proofing.
  2. Under “When correcting spelling and grammar in Word,” click “Settings.”
  3. On the “Writing style” menu, select “Grammar” or “Grammar & More.”
  4. Scroll down to see all of the options available; select or clear any rules that you want the grammar checker to flag or ignore. (Note: Any changes you make here will apply to all documents that you open in Word. If you want to go back to Microsoft’s default settings, click “Reset All.”)
  5. When you’re finished, click the “OK” button.

Options

Writing Styles

Rich Adin asked, “What types of manuscripts does Microsoft’s grammar help work best with, and with what types will it only cause problems? For example, it is clear to me, based on my experience with grammar checkers, that they tend to do better with short, nontechnical documents than with long, technical documents. Writing a short essay with grammar checking on might be helpful; editing a 100-page medical chapter that is replete with acronyms, initialisms, abbreviations, measures, chemical formulas, clinical terms, and the like with grammar checking turned on is inviting problems and a great slowing of the editing process.”

Versions of Word before 2016 included various writing styles that you could select for the kind of document you were editing:

  • Casual
  • Standard
  • Formal
  • Technical
  • Custom

Of course, “Custom” was probably the most useful style, as you could select the items you wanted it to check. Unfortunately, Word 2016 includes only two writing styles:

  • Grammar & More
  • Grammar

Those are of limited help, although Microsoft claims to be working on new styles to be added in future updates.

In the meantime, I’d recommend selecting only the grammar options that you think might really be of help. Here, less is definitely more.

If, however, the idea of using a more advanced grammar checker appeals to you, you might try Grammarly’s free add-in for Microsoft Word.

Toggling the Grammar Checker

Turning the grammar checker off and on requires digging through several Word menus—it’s not easily done. So let’s solve that problem with a macro:

Sub ToggleGrammarErrors()
   Dim GrammarCheck
   GrammarCheck = Options.CheckGrammarAsYouType
   If GrammarCheck = False Then
      Options.CheckGrammarAsYouType = True
      ActiveDocument.ShowGrammaticalErrors = True
   Else
      Options.CheckGrammarAsYouType = False
      ActiveDocument.ShowGrammaticalErrors = False
   End If
   Application.ScreenRefresh
End Sub

Here’s how the macro works:

Dim GrammarCheck

That line defines (“dimensions”) a variable called “GrammarCheck.” We’ll use that variable to hold the value of the current setting (grammar checker on or off).

GrammarCheck = Options.CheckGrammarAsYouType

Here, we get the value of the current setting. If the grammar checker is on, GrammarCheck is set to “True”; if it’s off, GrammarCheck is set to “False.”

If GrammarCheck = False Then
  Options.CheckGrammarAsYouType = True
  ActiveDocument.ShowGrammaticalErrors = True
Else
  Options.CheckGrammarAsYouType = False
  ActiveDocument.ShowGrammaticalErrors = False
End If

If the value of GrammarCheck is “False” (that is, the grammar checker is off), we turn it on by setting it to “True.” We also make sure grammar errors are showing in the active document. Otherwise (“Else”), if the grammar checker is on, we turn it off by setting it to “False.” We also turn off the display of grammar errors.

Application.ScreenRefresh

Finally, we need to refresh the screen. If we don’t, we’ll be wondering why our changes didn’t take effect, when in fact they did — a small Microsoft “oops.”

Unfortunately, Microsoft has not made it possible to set individual grammar options in a macro — yet another “oops.”

How to Add the Toggle Grammar Macro to Word & to the QAT

Here’s how to put this macro (or any other) into Microsoft Word so it will be available when you need it:

  1. Copy the text of the macro, starting with the first “Sub” and ending with the last “Sub.”
  2. Click the “View” tab on Microsoft Word’s ribbon.
  3. Click the “Macros” button.
  4. Type a name for the macro in the “Macro name” box — probably the name used after the first “Sub.” For this macro, that’s “ToggleGrammarError.”
  5. Click the “Create” button.
  6. Delete the “Sub [macro name]” and “End Sub” lines that Word created in the macro window. The macro window should now be completely empty (unless you already have other macros in there).
  7. Paste the macro text at the current insertion point.
  8. Click “File,” then “Close and Return to Microsoft Word.”

To actually use the macro:

  1. Place your cursor in your document.
  2. Click the “View” tab on Microsoft Word’s ribbon.
  3. Click the “Macros” button.
  4. Click the name of your macro to select it.
  5. Click the “Run” button. (If you wanted to delete the macro, you could press the “Delete” button instead.)

Here’s how to put the macro on Word’s QAT (Quick Access Toolbar):

  1. Locate the QAT (it’s probably on the top left of your screen either above or below Word’s Ribbon interface).
  2. Right-click the QAT.
  3. Click “Customize Quick Access Toolbar.”
  4. Under “Choose commands from:” click the dropdown list and select “Macros.”
  5. Find and select your macro in the list on the left.
  6. Click the “Add” button to add it to the QAT.
  7. Click the “OK” button to finish.

What About You?

Do you use Word’s grammar checker? If so, what options do you find most useful? I’d love to hear about your experiences with this.

Jack Lyon (editor@editorium.com) owns and operates the Editorium, which provides macros and information to help editors and publishers do mundane tasks quickly and efficiently. He is the author of Microsoft Word for Publishing Professionals, Wildcard Cookbook for Microsoft Word, and of Macro Cookbook for Microsoft Word. Both books will help you learn more about macros and how to use them.

March 1, 2017

Copyediting and Line Editing Series Fiction

by Carolyn Haley

Series fiction is a boon for everyone in the publishing chain. Authors have a ready market for their work; independent editors can get repeat work from a single client; publishers have a steady flow of sellable material; readers get their fiction appetites regularly fed.

That combination is why I favor series fiction in my editing business. For independent copyeditors and line editors who may be looking to add series fiction to their roster of services, here are the main factors to consider.

Style sheets

The most important part of editing a series is building a comprehensive style sheet. While this is also true for standalone novels, it’s crucial for series to ensure continuity and consistency between volumes. Months or years may pass between editing each volume, especially if the author is writing and sending them for editing one at a time. Also, different editors might work on different volumes. In both situations, a style sheet constitutes the series’ connective tissue.

Editors working directly with indie authors are free to design style sheets according to their own parameters meshed with the author’s needs. An excellent quartet of essays on what to include on style sheets, and why these items need to be included, was presented here by the previous Thinking Fiction contributor, Amy Schneider. See Part I: General Style, Part II: Characters, Part III: Locations, and Part IV: Timeline.

When editors subcontract to publishers, they must follow the house’s lead on style sheets. The instructions could be as simple as to include character names in alphabetical order and follow Chicago Manual of Style, or as complex as to fill in a fancy-formatted template just so, for characters, places, timeline, and special terms.

Any time editors are hired to work on a series volume later in sequence than volume 1, it’s important to confirm with the indie author or the publisher’s production coordinator whether the editor is expected to make a new style sheet for each new volume or consolidate new material into the style sheet established for the previous volume(s) so that one sheet travels with the series.

Single vs. batch manuscripts

Publisher-provided series usually come to the editor one book at a time with long intervals in between. Series from indie authors, however, may come as either single books or a multivolume batch. While one-at-a-time is most common, batches may come when an author wrote an epic and decided to break it into volumes, or planned from the start to write a trilogy but wanted to complete the whole work before editing.

It’s easier and more efficient to edit a series as a unit than as single books spread out over time, but doing them all in one shot takes a big bite out of the calendar — a downside for editors who like or need to keep a diverse cycle going, but a plus for editors who like tackling large projects. Psychologically, immersion in one world and one author’s style can become grinding without a break. On the other hand, immersion may make the editor aware of slight nuances that change a character or story from what was previously described.

Even if such immersion is desired, editors need to be careful about putting an entire series into one contract. It makes sense to do so on the surface, because in essence the job is one really big novel instead of X number of individual novels, and the style sheet is created once instead of multiple times. But over the extended period of a series job, the risk runs higher than with standalone novels that difficulties might arise, such as:

  • the editor or author might have a change of circumstance and be unable to fulfill their end of the agreement;
  • the editor might recognize too late that they underestimated the scope of work, or the author might dramatically change the scope as the series develops, forcing the contract to be renegotiated and the editor to possibly lose the balance of the project if it gets appreciably more expensive or complex;
  • one party might become dissatisfied with the other’s personality, or the material, partway through and want to bail out.

Editors who haven’t prepared for such possibilities in the contract can get trapped in a bad deal for a long time, making it wise to have a lawyer review the contract before anyone signs. If nothing else, in an all-in-one contract, the editor should make certain there’s an escape clause after each volume.

I prefer to contract for volume 1 separately, then negotiate a rate or service change for the balance of the series after its qualities are understood. That opens the door to losing the subsequent volumes because the author and I can’t agree on what needs to be adjusted, but I’m more comfortable with that risk than those associated with an all-in-one contract. Usually by the time we’re done with volume 1, we’ve established a rapport that allows successful negotiation. When in doubt, I’ll treat each volume as a standalone novel and make a deal for them individually.

Series basics

Each volume in a fiction series must be a complete story, with a beginning, middle, and end, and a character(s) struggling to resolve one or more conflicts. At the same time, each volume must advance an overarching story or theme that evolves during the series and is resolved at series end. In effect, a series author is writing two books simultaneously, for as many volumes as the series runs.

Some beginning authors believe that ending a volume on a cliffhanger will inspire readers to rush to the next volume to find out what happens. More often than not, this backfires, and frustrated readers feel cheated and may not continue with the series. The trick is to leave just enough of the overarching story unresolved in each book to draw readers onward. But the episode covered in a volume must conclude satisfactorily before the next one begins, even if the next episode opens immediately afterward in the timeline. In this regard, series novels follow the same pattern as series TV shows.

A major challenge in writing any fiction is determining how much backstory to include. The goal is to provide enough information to keep readers oriented, and the action and characters in context, without overloading the narrative with an “info dump.” In series fiction, however, the backstory not only has to be provided in the right measure to begin with, but then must be reiterated in subsequent volumes to a different degree. Ideally, readers start with volume 1 when it comes out and eagerly await the next one, and don’t need refreshers as they continue through the series. In reality, readers might discover a series at volume 4, so they must be given enough backstory to understand the basics of what’s going on, without the author having to set up the scenario all over again.

Broadly, volume 1 should establish the premise and key characters for the series, and subsequent volumes should unfold new developments and show character growth. All volumes should refer back to the first with a light touch wherever understanding the new story depends on knowledge of what came before. Some series authors open each volume with a preface covering the previous volumes, but that can get cumbersome after the second or third book and is not commonly done. Other authors may write a prequel to an existing series and provide full backstory for an established audience hungry for more detail.

Tough spots

A tricky situation is when an editor gets volume 2 from an indie author who has already self-published volume 1, and no style sheet comes with the volume 2 manuscript. This might happen if the author didn’t use a professional editor the first time, or if the author wants to switch editors and the original editor didn’t create a style sheet for the job. For the new editor to make the new volume consistent with the first, they need a copy of volume 1 as part of the job and to build extra time into the quote because every style point will need to be backtracked to create the style sheet for the book in hand and any that follow.

It helps the editor to read all volumes of the story that came before, to best understand what’s happening in the new volume — but somebody has to pay for the time it takes to do so. That somebody should be the client, not the editor, so the editor has to factor extra reading time into their quote. It’s less critical to read previous volumes when working for publishers who are on the ball with style sheets, and whose pay rate is low and schedule is tight, because the existing style sheet should have most of the information the editor needs to do the job without becoming upside-down financially. With novels by inexperienced indie authors, though, the backstory can aid an editor in doing their job well so the author will come back for more.

Sometimes what starts out as a standalone novel expands into a series. An editor might work with an indie author on the single title then be contacted later for an unexpected volume 2. Having done a detailed style sheet for the original project will pay the editor back when responding to the second opportunity. If their schedule can’t accommodate the new book, then they’ve at least made life easier for the editor who takes their place. That won’t fill the first editor’s wallet but will reflect positively on their reputation, and maybe bring back the author for volume 3 or lead to future referrals.

Author fatigue

It’s not safe to assume that editing a series will get easier with each volume. Sometimes authors get fatigued from thinking up new stories inside a fixed scenario, or bored by the whole thing, and the quality of their work may deteriorate instead of improve as they push on. Marketplace pressure also can influence an author, in that readers just want more of the same thing while the author itches to stretch in a new direction, or is obliged to turn out the next volume in less time than they need to write it well.

Most copyeditors and line editors aren’t involved in an author’s content angst, but if they’ve been working with the same indie author since volume 1, then they’ve probably established a personal relationship and care about the author’s growth and the series’ success. To help that relationship happen and help authors avoid fatigue before it starts, editors can suggest at the beginning of the series that the author plan a finite number of volumes and outline the primary plot of each one within the plot of the whole. That simple guideline can both direct the author’s energies and allow the editor to raise relevant questions during the series’ progress to help the author stay on task while being creative.

Editing series fiction can be both challenging and rewarding, especially for editors who themselves are series readers. From that habit they know how a series can thrive or pall, or vacillate in its quality, and be motivated to help authors start strong and continually improve. The bonding potential with authors adds a richness to the experience. When the business and technical sides are carefully arranged, then the creative side can bloom to mutual satisfaction and result in a series that delights the reading public and earns income for everyone in the publishing chain.

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, 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 two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books.

February 8, 2017

Lyonizing Word: Editing by Computer

by Jack Lyon

AlphaGo is a computer program developed by Google DeepMind in London to play the board game Go, which originated in China and is far more complex than chess. In March 2016, it beat Lee Sedol, one of the world’s best professional players, in a five-game match. I was interested because I’ve been playing Go since 1980. And why should you, as an editor, be interested? Because AlphaGo was not programmed to play Go; instead, it learned to play by “watching” and playing millions of games. (The same kind of learning lies behind the recent radical improvements in Google Translate.)

Now consider what the result might be if we fed Google’s computer thousands of raw manuscripts with their edited counterparts for comparison. Could the computer learn how to edit? I suspect that it’s only a matter of time before someone tries the experiment. (Although, as the Pen Master asks, “How does it know when to delete a paragraph?”)

In the meantime (while we’re dusting off our résumés), let’s look at some of the not-so-intelligent editing apps that are popping up on the internet. Do they really work? Are they a threat to our livelihood? Or are they tools we can use to enhance our productivity?

AutoCrit

AutoCrit, aimed mainly at writers of fiction, might also be useful for editors of fiction. It claims to check dialog, writing strength, word choice, repetition, and much more. It also compares your manuscript to other works of fiction to see how yours stacks up. You can take the tour and explore the features. AutoCrit allows you to check a writing sample online but, as far as I can tell, it won’t provide a full report unless you sign up for a monthly subscription of $29.97. You can cancel at any time and receive a full refund within your first fourteen days of use.

Wanting to see what the full report includes, I signed up and then submitted a short science-fiction story, “Nippers,” that I wrote about a million years ago and which you can at The Editorium if you’re interested. AutoCrit’s analysis was interesting, but I found it a little difficult to navigate, as it discusses each area on a separate web page. AutoCrit does give you a lot of stuff to consider, including:

  • Pacing & Momentum
    • Sentence Variation
    • Pacing
    • Paragraph Variation
    • Chapter Variation
  • Dialogue
    • Dialogue Tags
    • Adverbs in Dialogue
  • Strong Writing
    • Adverbs
    • Passive Voice
    • Showing vs. Telling
    • Clichés
    • Redundancies
    • Unnecessary Filler Words
  • Word Choice
    • Initial Pronoun and Names
    • Sentence Starters
    • Generic Descriptions
    • Homonyms
    • Personal Words and Phrases
  • Repetition
    • Repeated Words
    • Repeated Uncommon Words
    • Repeated Phrases
    • Word Frequency
    • Phrase Frequency
  • Compare to [other] Fiction
    • Overused Words
    • Combination Report
  • Readability
    • Readability Statistics
    • Dale Chall Readability
    • Complex Words
    • Uncommon Words in Fiction

Here’s what the AutoCrit Combination Report looks like:

autocrit-combination-report

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a way to download a complete report all in one file.

Grammarly

Grammarly looks useful for general editing, providing a fairly thorough online analysis and even an add-in for Microsoft Word. I fed it the first paragraph of Paul Clifford, the Victorian novel by Edward Bulwer Lytton that begins, “It was a dark and stormy night.” Here are the results:

grammarly

And now, I’m impressed. After I typed the paragraph above, the Grammarly add-in informed me that Bulwer Lytton should be hyphenated: Bulwer-Lytton. And that’s right, of course, so the program is much smarter than I anticipated. On the other hand, the add-in disables Word’s Undo feature (CTRL-Z), which to me is unacceptable. Grammarly gives you a partial analysis of your text at no charge, but for “advanced issues” it requires a monthly subscription of $29.95. You can get a full refund within the first seven days of use.

I also fed it my short story “Nippers,” which purposely uses bad grammar in its first-person narration. You can see the results at The Editorium.

Hemingway

Hemingway’s website claims that “Hemingway makes your writing bold and clear. It’s like a spellchecker, but for style. It makes sure that your reader will focus on your message, not your prose.” Again, I fed it the first paragraph of Paul Clifford. Here is the result:

hemingway

 

 

When I first visited the Hemingway website, I had a hard time understanding how to use it. Fortunately, the “Help” page explains what to do: “Begin your document by clicking the ‘Write’ button. This will fade out the editing tools, transferring Hemingway into distraction-free writing mode. Here, you can work out your first draft free from our highlighting. Once you’re finished, click ‘Edit’ to transition back to editing mode. Now you can make changes with real-time Hemingway feedback. Tighten up your prose, clear the highlights, and then share your work with the masses.” The online version is free to use. The desktop app (both Mac and Windows) is $19.99. After using the app, you can save your work as a regular Word document.

For the sake of comparison, Hemingway’s analysis of “Nippers” looks like this:

 nippershemingwayreport

You’ll notice that Hemingway has color-coded the text:

  • Cyan = adverbs. I have 32, and Hemingway is recommending 17 or fewer.
  • Green = passive voice. I have just 5 uses, well below the recommended 37 or fewer.
  • Magenta = phrases that have simpler alternatives.
  • Yellow = sentences that are hard to read.
  • Red = sentences that are very hard to read.

The idea is to keep editing until all of the colors are gone. In actual practice, you won’t want to do that, unless you enjoy lots of short, choppy sentences.

Unfortunately, it’s not possible to download Hemingway’s results as a separate file, as Hemingway is designed as an online writing tool. However, the Hemingway desktop app does make this possible.

You can learn more about Hemingway here.

I think out of AutoCrit, Grammarly, and Hemingway, the one program I might consistently use is Hemingway, just because it’s simple yet offers some useful observations, although I would feel free to ignore them.

Also-Rans

I also tried Orwell and Ginger, but neither seemed to work well for me. Orwell seemed clunky and buggy, while Ginger seemed rather basic, although its ability to rephrase an awkward sentence is impressive. If you’ve seen other editing programs I’ve overlooked, please let me know.

Here is another roundup by the NY Book Editors, which includes additional editing tools. It seems everyone is trying to get in on the act.

The Future

The programs I’ve featured here are useful in their own way, but they still require the educated eye of a human editor to decide which of their suggested changes make sense—something that I don’t think will change anytime soon.

What do you think? Will computers ever be capable of editing on their own? If so, how could we turn that to our advantage as editors? And how can we take advantage of the tools that are already available? I’d love to hear your thoughts about this.

Jack Lyon (editor@editorium.com) owns and operates the Editorium, which provides macros and information to help editors and publishers do mundane tasks quickly and efficiently. He is the author of Microsoft Word for Publishing Professionals, Wildcard Cookbook for Microsoft Word, and of Macro Cookbook for Microsoft Word. Both books will help you learn more about macros and how to use them.

January 16, 2017

On the Basics: Some Ideas for a Strong Start to the New Year

by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

It’s a new year, so it’s time to stop for a moment and think about everything that we should or could do to start 2017 with fresh perspectives on what we do and how we do it as editorial professionals. Here are a few ideas.

  • Change your passwords.

The beginning of a new year is a great time to refresh and revise the passwords for all your accounts — email, social media, bank accounts, credit cards, website(s), memberships, etc. It doesn’t have to be a big change; even switching one letter or number will do — if you used 2016 or 16 in last year’s passwords, change the 6 to a 7. Hacking and security are such huge issues nowadays that changing passwords on occasion is the smart thing to do to protect your identity and accounts, and the new year provides the perfect opportunity to take steps to do so. Consider putting a reminder in your calendar to make another change every quarter. You might also take steps to enhance your computer’s overall security against malware and ransomware. Search AAE’s archives for suggestions.

  • Update your account contacts.

Check in with whoever you have designated to handle your accounts —especially social media and e-mail discussion lists — should you have a crisis of some sort, to make sure they’re still willing and able to handle this for you. No one wants to think about mortality, but having someone with access to those accounts who can notify communities (including clients) of illness, injury, or death is important. If you haven’t asked a relative, friend, or colleague to do this, now is the time to give someone trustworthy your account passwords so they can act on your behalf. (It’s also a good time to update your will and healthcare proxies.)

By the way, if you ask someone to handle your accounts in the event of a crisis, make sure to provide language for them to use — don’t assume they’ll know what to say. As an example, a friend’s Facebook account status recently said, “I passed away on date X. See you on the other side.” The immediate reaction of her friends and colleagues was shock and confusion, since this isn’t how someone’s death usually appears in that arena. Some thought it was a macabre joke, others thought her account had been hacked. Since the comment appeared on a holiday, it was difficult to confirm what had happened. It turned out that she had actually died and one of her relatives thought that was an appropriate way to announce it, but those two or three days of confusion were quite upsetting.

  • Change copyright dates.

Update the copyright date on your website, client newsletter(s), and related material to 2017. It may not be mandatory, but it’s good sense in protecting what you write or produce.

  • Budget for professional development.

Start now to set aside funds every month for conference attendance, memberships, training, new tools (whether books, updates for or new software and hardware, office equipment, business cards, etc.), so you have funds on hand when an opportunity arises and don’t have to scramble to cover it. (Keep the fall Communication Central Be a Better Freelancer® conference in mind — and calendar September 15–16, 2017 — it’s a great way to meet colleagues and learn new professional “tricks.”)

  • Plan your promotions and marketing projects.

Even if you have plenty of work in hand, but especially if you don’t, use the first few weeks of the new year to set up a formal plan for promoting your business and marketing your services if you’re a freelancer, or working toward a promotion, raise, or change in assignments if you work in-house. Be prepared to meet new opportunities as they arise, rather than panicking because you haven’t thought about what you want to or where you want to go.

If promotions and marketing will require money, set something aside every month, just as you do for regular expenses or professional development.

Successful freelancers know to market their businesses constantly, because even the most reliable long-term clients can disappear in a moment. We can’t assume that any project or client will last indefinitely. We can’t even assume that high-paying clients won’t suddenly reduce their rates or the volume of work they provide to us. Companies and publications downsize, fold, are acquired, or change policies on using outside services; long-time contact people leave for new opportunities or retire. The classic Girl Scout motto “be prepared” is well worth adopting, and being prepared means doing something on a regular basis to bring in new business, or at least be visible to potential new clients in case the status quo suddenly changes.

  • Update your résumé.

Make sure your résumé reflects both your recent achievements and any new trends in design or structure. Keep it fresh and current so you can respond to requests for it immediately, so you don’t have to worry that you might have left something out or don’t appear up to date in terms of layout and content.

Even if you don’t make any changes, but especially if you do, ask a colleague to proofread it for any egregious or subtle errors that you might have overlooked, or anything worth including that you might have forgotten to add.

You don’t have to be job-searching for an up-to-date résumé to be useful. You might want it have it handy for freelance projects outside a regular job, if you’re asked to make a speech, as the basis for requesting a raise or promotion, as the starting point for an “About” page at your website, or as the foundation of a blog post about career development and progression. And, of course, for that lovely moment when a headhunter contacts you about an amazing, perfect-for-you new job that you weren’t looking for but are thrilled to be considered for. And be sure to update your LinkedIn and other bios, directory listings, and profiles.

  • Review your expenses and income.

Take some time to create a formal, written overview of your financial situation. List all regular/recurring expenses and when they occur. Ask yourself where you can cut back to build up a savings cushion or add to funding the projects mentioned above (professional development and promotions/marketing).

If you’re a freelancer, list current clients and how much income each one generates. If you work in-house, break down your salary into monthly segments. Compare the income numbers against the expense numbers to see if there’s a gap. Once you put those factors down in writing, it might be a little scary — but it’s a vital first step in getting those finances under control, reinforcing a need to generate more income, and reducing any stress you’ve been experiencing about making ends meet.

  • Improve your health.

Among the potential challenges of the new political world in the USA will be health insurance coverage, so it might be smart to start the new year with a physical exam and a commitment to eating and behaving more healthily. The fewer medical services you have to use, the better off you’ll be — both physically and financially.

  • Think about service.

A new year is also a good time to look for opportunities to support a community, cause, or organization. It can be a challenge to fit volunteering in a busy schedule, but making time to do so can be rewarding on many levels (and might even lead to new projects or jobs!). If you can’t commit to personal involvement, at least try to put some money where your social conscience is.

  • Look ahead.

Depending on your age and career status, the first month or two of the new year might be a good time to think about, and do some formal planning for, the future. Younger colleagues might want to invest some time in formal plans for how you want to progress and set some specific, achievable goals for advancing your careers. Older colleagues might want to start planning for retirement — when you’ll be ready, what you’ll want to do with your time, how much money you’ll need, where you might want to live, etc.

  • Start something new.

A new year is also a great time to try something new, whether a hobby, sport, or project. This might be the year to try blogging, either as a contributor to someone else’s or on your own. You could try getting training in a new skill that you could offer in your freelance business or as the stepping stone to a new in-house job. If you’re single and want to meet new people, consider joining a dating site or a hobby group of some sort (participating in hobby groups, a church, or a social service project could lead to editorial work!). If you’re chronically disorganized, look into hiring someone to help you try to get things sorted out — whether files or your home — so you can feel more in control and less frustrated.

Doing something new can change your perspective, cheer you up, help you meet new people, make you feel better, get you unstuck. It’s worth a try!

  • Become active in online discussions.

We often forget how important it is to let people know we exist and that we really are highly skilled. Finding ways to get that word out means we can help others achieve their literary goals. One of the best ways to get referrals is to participate in online groups — actually participate, not just lurk. Make this the year to be more than what I call a “checkbook member” of a group or organization: one who joins but never contributes anything. Post to online discussions, offer to speak, write for an organizational newsletter or blog, etc. An American Editor has its own LinkedIn group — a great place to start making your voice heard!

  • Invest in tools for your business.

Investing in your business is a good way to make your career more rewarding. Who doesn’t feel better when cash flow improves? Investing in tools to make us more productive and efficient is but another method of improving that flow. Look into the resources of the Editorium and EditTools, for starters, as well as the offerings of various professional associations.

However you use these first few weeks of 2017, here’s wishing all of our readers good health, fulfilling work, high incomes, and happy home lives. Feel free to share your plans for making the most of the new year!

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter is an award-winning freelance writer, editor, proofreader, desktop publisher, and speaker whose motto is “I can write about anything!”® She is also the owner of Communication Central, which hosts an annual conference for colleagues, and a regular contributor to An American Editor.

January 11, 2017

Thinking Fiction: What Novels Do Fiction Editors Read?

by Carolyn Haley

In follow-up to my survey about what editors in general read for recreation (What Do Editors Read?, I invited fiction editors to share their Top 10 favorite novels, along with something about their background and experience.

Thirty-two editors responded, comprising freelancers plus one cluster of staff and contract editors for a single romance publisher. No one working for a Big 5 traditional publisher participated, giving unbalanced results. However, I wasn’t attempting a rigidly scientific survey of the total editorial population. As with my first survey, I just wanted to satisfy my curiosity about what other editors read, and to share their recommendations for our collective enjoyment. The complete list, owing to length, is posted separately from this essay on the file downloads page at wordsnSync as “What Fiction Editors Read: List of Titles”.

Note that not every responding editor answered every question in the survey; or sometimes they combined answers, or gave more or fewer titles when I asked for ten, and so forth. Thus in this essay I cannot always give “X out of 32” results for a given topic. Since I was looking for patterns rather than conducting a true statistical analysis, I took the liberty of rounding numbers up or down or otherwise generalizing in cases where deviations occurred.

Common denominators

It comes as no surprise to learn that fiction editors read a lot of fiction. What is surprising is how many novels they find time to read. While one editor reports only reading fiction for work, the rest read anywhere from two to sixty (!) novels per month for recreation. Most of them also read short fiction, poetry, blogs, magazines, news media, and nonfiction of all types.

Such heavy reading is somewhat understandable, in that almost half the responders work part time. For them, as with the two retirees, more opportunity for leisure reading is theoretically available. But we can’t draw a blanket conclusion from that, because in several cases the responders edit part time and do something else for the balance of full-time employment—and of course they have the obligations and complexities of a personal life (details of which were not addressed in the survey).

The survey asked broad questions about occupation, education, writing background, and reading habits, to see what other commonalities might exist. The primary criterion for participation was that at least two-thirds of their professional editing work be fiction. In this everyone qualified. There were no other 100% matches, though several predominant features emerged. For instance, all but one responder is female. Three-quarters of the responders are older than forty, and of these, most are in their fifties and sixties. The full age span is twenty-eight to seventy-eight.

Twenty-five responders come from the United States, five from Canada, and one each from the United Kingdom and Australia. Approximately two-thirds of the group have college degrees, of which twelve are in English or a closely related subject. Seven of the thirty-two have a certificate of some sort in editing.

In years of experience, approximately half the responders have been editing professionally for ten years or less and the other half for longer. Six have more than twenty years of experience, and one has more than forty. Most have worked in fiction the bulk of their careers, focusing on novels but also accepting novellas, short stories, and flash fiction (super-short stories), along with assorted nonfiction.

A majority of the responders work with indie authors as their main clients, with a few also working with publishers and packagers. All but one report that they offer multiple types of editing and associated services (the exception being a dedicated developmental editor). Twenty-six of the editors are writers themselves, and almost two-thirds of them have published. Only one-third, however, has published in fiction.

Reading tastes

As readers, the responding fiction editors like darn near everything, with literary, crime, and historical novels dominating. But many of the responding editors enjoy romance and young adult novels, as well as science fiction, fantasy, and eclectic other. The editors read in all formats, with almost two-thirds liking a mix of print, ebook, and audiobook compared to those who prefer print only. One editor has moved entirely away from print, preferring to get her stories via ebooks and audiobooks.

Series

Many of the editors favor series or complete bodies of work by a given author. These responses skewed the results, because among the total consolidated list of 263 novels, not all are unique titles but rather representative titles of a series, or just the series name, or “all works” by an individual. Ninety-four—just over one-third—of all editor responses mentioned part or all of a series. Frequently, responders listed single titles that are part of a series, but they didn’t list the entire series (the rest I uncovered during a title/author spelling check online). I suspect that in many of those cases the responder read all volumes in the series and simply didn’t say so.

Specifics of series titles are shown on the complete list. Below are the series names that came up, and the number of times beyond one that they were mentioned, followed by the shorter list of favorite bodies of work by a given author.

Favored series:

  • A Wrinkle in Time series (2), Madeleine L’Engle
  • Adam Dagliesh series, P. D. James
  • All Souls trilogy, Deborah Harkness
  • Amelia Peabody series, Elizabeth Peters
  • Anita Blank, Vampire Hunter series, Laurell K. Hamilton
  • Atticus Kodiak series, Greg Rucka
  • Austenland series, Shannon Hale
  • Cairo series, Naguib Mahfouz
  • Checquy Files series, Daniel O’Malley
  • Chicago Star series, Susan Elizabeth Phillips
  • Chronicles of Ixia, Maria V. Snyder
  • CIA Spies series, Linda Howard
  • Colorado Trust series, Stacey Joy Netzel
  • Cowboy-Fiancé series, Donna Michaels
  • Culture series, Iain M. Banks
  • Dempsey series, Jennifer Crusie
  • Detective Inspector Chen, Liz Williams
  • Discworld series (2), Terry Pratchett
  • Dragonriders of Pern series, Anne McCaffrey
  • Dresden Files series (2), Jim Butcher
  • Drumberley series, D. E. Stevenson
  • Ender series, Orson Scott Card
  • Fever series, Karen Marie Moning
  • Gallaghers of Ardmore series, Nora Roberts
  • Hainish Cycle series, Ursula K Le Guin
  • Haitian Revolutionary series, Madison Smartt Bell
  • Harry Potter series (4), J. K. Rowling
  • Hazelwood High series, Sharon M. Draper
  • Heartbreaker Bay series, Jill Shalvis
  • Heralds of Valdemar series (2), Mercedes Lackey
  • Hidden Wolves series, Kaje Harper
  • Immortals After Dark series, Kresley Cole
  • In Death series, J. D. Robb (Nora Roberts)
  • Irin Chronicles series, Elizabeth Hunter
  • Italy Intrigue series, Stacey Joy Netzel
  • I-Team series, Pamela Clare
  • Jack Reacher series, Lee Child
  • Juliette Chronicles, Tahereh Mafi
  • Kirsten Lavransdatter trilogy, Sigrid Undset
  • Law of Moses series, Amy Harmon
  • Leaphorn and Chee Navajo police series, Tony Hillerman
  • Life Lessons series, Kaje Harper
  • Little House series, Laura Ingalls Wilder
  • Lives of the Mayfair Witches series, Anne Rice
  • Lizzy & Diesel series, Janet Evanovich
  • Logan Family Saga series, Mildred D. Taylor
  • Lord Peter Wimsey series, Dorothy L. Sayers
  • Lords of Misrule series, Andy Graham
  • Manawaka series, Margaret Laurence
  • Marrying Stone series, Pamela Morsi
  • Maze Runner series, James Dashner
  • Midnight in Austenland, Shannon Hale
  • Midwife Mystery series, Sam Thomas
  • Millennium series, Steig Larsson
  • Outlander series (3), Diana Gabaldon
  • Plainsong series, Kent Haruf
  • Regeneration series, Pat Barker
  • Riftwar series, Raymond Feist
  • Riyria Revelations series, Michael J. Sullivan
  • Shannara series, Terry Brooks
  • Silo series, Hugh Howey
  • Sinner’s Grove series, A. B. Michaels
  • Song of Ice and Fire series, George R. R. Martin
  • Species Imperative trilogy, Julie Czerneda
  • Starbridge series, Susan Howatch
  • Starcatchers series, Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson
  • Stephanie Plum series, Janet Evanovich
  • Sword of Truth series, Terry Goodkind
  • The Black Dagger Brotherhood series (2), J. R. Ward
  • The Black Stallion series, Walter Farley
  • The Bourne trilogy , Robert Ludlum
  • The Bronze Horseman series, Paullina Simons
  • The Cat Who series, Lillian Jackson Braun
  • The Chalion series, Lois McMaster Bujold
  • The Chronicles of Narnia, C. S. Lewis
  • The Deed of Paksennarion series, Elizabeth Moon
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide series (2), Douglas Adams
  • The Hunger Games series (2), Suzanne Collins
  • The Lace Reader series, Brunonia Barry
  • The Lord of the Rings series (2), J. R. R. Tolkien
  • The Pillars of the Earth series, Ken Follett
  • The Raven Cycle series, Maggie Stiefvater
  • The Sandman series, Neil Gaiman
  • Thessaly series, Jo Walton
  • Tillerman Cycle series (2), Cynthia Voigt
  • Vampire Chronicles series, Anne Rice
  • Vorkosigan saga, Lois McMaster Bujold
  • Wolf Hall series, Hilary Mantel

Favored author bodies of work:

  • Clive Cussler
  • Harlan Coben
  • John Grisham
  • Lawrence Block
  • Lee Child
  • Nora Roberts
  • Sandra Brown (mysteries only)

Works such as J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia were sometimes listed as standalone titles and other times as series. I’ve included them under the series listing because most people who read them read all volumes.

Duplicate titles

In the main, responders mentioned individual titles. The list below shows novels mentioned by two or more responders (with the number in parentheses indicating how many more than two).

  • Beloved, Toni Morrison
  • Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • Disgrace, J. M. Coetzee (3)
  • Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
  • Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen (6)
  • Rebecca, Daphne Du Maurier
  • The Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin
  • The Fellowship of the Ring, J. R. R. Tolkien
  • The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
  • The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin
  • The Living, Annie Dillard
  • To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

Duplicate authors

Individual authors were mentioned by multiple responders in conjunction with different titles. There were instances where a responder listed different titles by the same author on their own list, and also a few cases where one responder mentioned a specific title and a second responder mentioned “all works” by the same author or a series. The list below, however, only includes authors mentioned by different responders, specifying different titles.

  • Barbara Kingsolver
  • Charles Dickens
  • Cormac McCarthy
  • C. S. Lewis
  • Daphne Du Maurier
  • Haruki Murakami
  • Jane Austen
  • Jodi Picoult
  • John Steinbeck
  • J. R. R. Tolkien
  • Linda Howard
  • Madeleine L’Engle
  • Margaret Atwood
  • Thomas Hardy
  • Toni Morrison
  • Ursula Le Guin
  • Virginia Woolf

Oddballs and exceptions

Not every responder understood the directions in the questionnaire, or else rushed through it and missed a request. For instance, I asked exclusively for novels, but two responders included memoirs and one included a nonfiction title. Although I’ve included these titles on the complete list, I do not include them in the full count.

Likewise, the request for “your favorite novelist” was commonly ignored, or people just couldn’t answer because they had so many (with one responder saying, “You’re kidding, right?”). Among those who did answer, or listed multiple authors, there was erratic correlation between favorite authors and those on the individual’s Top 10 list. Favorite authors mentioned are shown below (with the number in parentheses indicating how many times more than once their names came up).

  • Anne McCaffrey
  • Anne Rice
  • Bess Streeter Aldrich
  • Beverly Nault
  • Charles Dickens
  • Connie Willis
  • Cormac McCarthy
  • D. E. Stevenson
  • Dean Koontz
  • Diana Gabaldon (2)
  • Dick Francis
  • Donna Tartt
  • Dorothy Sayers
  • Douglas Adams
  • Drayton Mayrant
  • Eliot Baker
  • Elizabeth Cadell
  • Elizabeth Moon
  • Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • George R. R. Martin
  • Georgette Heyer
  • Helen MacInnes
  • J. R. R. Tolkien
  • J. K. Rowling
  • James Patterson
  • Jane Austen (2)
  • Janet Evanovich
  • J. D. Ward
  • Jodi Picoult
  • Jonathan Franzen
  • Joseph C. Lincoln
  • Judy Ann Davis
  • Karen Marie Moning
  • Laurel Hamilton
  • Linda Howard
  • Lois McMaster Bujold
  • Louise Erdrich
  • Madeleine L’Engle
  • Maeve Binchy
  • Markus Zusak
  • Mary Balogh
  • Nevada Barr (2)
  • Nora Roberts (2)
  • P. D. James
  • Patricia Cornwall
  • Peter Carey
  • Peter Mayle
  • Rita Bay
  • Ruth Rendell
  • Sam Thomas
  • Sigrid Undset
  • Terry Brooks
  • Thomas Hardy
  • Tony Hillerman

Survey overlaps

While processing the fiction editors’ questionnaires, I looked for overlaps with my first survey, even though it’s an apples-and-oranges comparison. The first survey involved thirteen nonfiction-dominant editors, while this one involved thirty-two fiction-dominant editors. Nevertheless, their tastes crossed thirteen times for specific titles and seventeen times for authors (meaning, different books by the same author mentioned twice or more). Most of these titles and authors can be considered “literary” and/or “classic.”

Title overlaps:

  • The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver
  • The Chronicles of Narnia, C. S. Lewis
  • Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
  • The Lord of the Rings series, J. R. R. Tolkien
  • Persuasion, Jane Austen
  • Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
  • The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
  • The Curse of Chalion, Lois McMaster Bujold
  • The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
  • Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
  • Discworld series, Terry Pratchett
  • The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin

Author overlaps:

  • Jane Austen
  • Charles Dickens
  • Charlotte Brontë
  • Connie Willis
  • David Mitchell
  • Dick Francis
  • Edith Wharton
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • Ian McEwan
  • John Fowles
  • J. R. R. Tolkien
  • Margaret Atwood
  • Michael J. Sullivan
  • Sarah Waters
  • Terry Pratchett
  • Umberto Eco
  • Virginia Woolf

Conclusions

Putting it all together, I observed three superstars—Jane Austen, J. R. R. Tolkien, and C. S. Lewis—whose names came up multiple times no matter what criterion I used to view and sort the reading lists of the fiction and nonfiction editors I surveyed, separately or combined. Another standout was Terry Pratchett, whose enormous Discworld series appealed to editors of both types.

While I was not surprised to see these and many other familiar names on so many people’s lists, I was surprised to see who didn’t appear. Agatha Christie, for example. She is considered one of — if not the — top-selling novelists of all time, yet none of the fiction responders in my survey mentioned her. She did, however, appear once on the nonfiction editors’ list (also on my own list, which was appended to that essay but not counted in the results).

Among the fiction editors, there seems to be a gap between classic and contemporary works that leaves many vintage mega-sellers behind, such as Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey, Jackie Collins and Barbara Cartland, Harold Robbins and Sidney Sheldon, Georges Simenon and Erle Stanley Gardner, and many others, all of whom were hugely popular in their day. Also notably absent is household name Stephen King (who did, unexpectedly, appear on one nonfiction editor’s literary-biased list). But J. K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame had a strong presence, even though that series was marketed for young adults, whereas Danielle Steele, still writing prolifically with an enormous fan base, wasn’t mentioned even by the editors who gobble up romance and women’s fiction.

What I found to be significant among all the editors surveyed was how widely their tastes range. See for yourself the complete fiction editors list here: “What Fiction Editors Read: List of Titles”.

Postscript: Apparently I’m not the only one doing this type of survey. For a literary take, see “The Most Important Books of the Last Twenty Years”. A handful of titles and authors on this list overlap both my surveys.

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, 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 two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books.

January 9, 2017

Wise Counsel: Garner’s Modern English Usage – The App

by Daniel Sosnoski

All editors need a robust reference shelf. Depending on your interests, your selections will be tailored to your personal needs, but it’s likely you have a copy of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, and perhaps Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. And on your shelf, consider adding Garner’s Modern English Usage (a retitling of Garner’s Modern American Usage [GMAU] as released in the fourth edition). This is now available as an app for iPhone; the Android version will be out close to the time you read this. The app version is available at Apple’s App Store for $24.99

The hardcover version of Garner’s Modern English Usage (GMEU) weighs in at 1,120 pages and 5 lbs., making it impractical to carry about with you, so having an app for phone and tablet is a convenience if you edit on the go. I work at home and at my office. Normally, my hardcopy of GMAU is at my office desk (I’ll update to the current version anon). It’s not a book I want to lug back and forth. If you like to work at coffee shops or travel frequently, there’s a good case to get the app. If you work in one setting, maybe not.

With the app, the digital index allows for rapid searching, displaying the results as you would find them in the paper text. This is a case where a digital reference book competes well with its physical version.

This type of app is also useful when you need to check a usage question but don’t have internet access. There are a number of usage guides available as apps from the iTunes store, such as the Oxford A-Z of English Usage and Practical English Usage (also available for Android at the Google Play Store), but they tend to skew toward British English.

A voice of reason

Whether you work solo as a freelancer or in-house with a team, you’ll find yourself in situations where you want the advice of a wise colleague. Perhaps you’re unsure if an expression is in the correct register, or if a word is a proper synonym of another. You can often obtain the answers you want with an online check. When you can’t, you turn to a usage guide for that voice over your shoulder.

The internet is excellent for rapid spellcheck. As a medical editor, I’m constantly looking up anatomical terms, the names of diseases, and the names of persons. The typical usage guide won’t be much help there. But for grammar and usage questions like, “different from” versus “different than,” a usage guide will walk you through the matter in detail.

If you’re familiar with the online sources that are authoritative in answering such questions, a rapid online check will resolve your question. The Chicago Manual of Style, and Grammar Girl, and The Grammarist are generally reliable for quick queries. For more problematic questions you’ll turn to your reference shelf and the books you’ve chosen will give you consistent guidance.

Laypersons — but not professional editors — can get by with Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves, or Nevile Gwynne’s Gwynne’s Grammar, as these are prescriptivist in tone, offering the reader a sharp-tongued schoolmarm who will champion (questionable) rules and exhort you to “do X, not Y.” I wouldn’t advise those texts to anyone, personally, but they’ve found a ready market. Garner, on the other hand, is a voice of reason who eschews petty prescriptivism, while offering more guidance on usage and style than the free-wheeling descriptivism of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.

A nudge in the right direction

It’d be nice if there were black-and-white answers to usage questions, but more often than not a measure of judgment is required. Garner’s notable innovation is his “Language Change Index,” which addresses the judgment issue. When looking at a term (especially a disputed one), he often flags it with one of the following:

1 Rejected: People normally consider innovations at this stage to be outright mistakes.

2 Widely shunned. Has spread to a significant portion of the language community, but is unacceptable in standard usage.

3 Widespread. Becoming common but still avoided in careful usage.

4 Ubiquitous. Virtually universal but still opposed on cogent grounds by a few linguistic stalwarts.

5 Fully accepted. Universally adopted except by a few eccentrics.

This is an abbreviation of how his approach allows for degrees of nuance. In the “Preface to the First Edition,” Garner mentions some of his influences, one of whom is Theodore Bernstein, author of The Careful Writer, among other books. Bernstein had an intimate familiarity with false rules, zombie rules, and the like, combatting them in his Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins.

Whether you accept Garner’s judgment regarding the status of a term is up to you. His classifications are based on a number of sources. The exemplars he presents are taken from his personal reading and those submitted to him by his network of colleagues, friends, and persons who work in linguistics. I find that his assessments are generally in accord with my own sense of the language and are trustworthy.

For example: Under “Octopus,” he notes that for the plural, “octopuses” is overwhelmingly approved in American and British English, whereas the false Latinate “octopi” is largely considered a fault, and so he relegates it to Stage 3. He likely is drawing from a corpus of citations and rendering his opinion from instances in print or using his own judgment; in no cases have I found his assessments to veer from my own observations.

The challenge for the writer, however, is that nearly everyone is raised learning the same rules, but relatively few later in life learn which can be safely discarded. Ergo, Bernstein took the approach of offering his advice in terms of, “Yes, you could get away with that, but the careful writer will hew toward safer ground.”

For example, in his entry for “data,” Garner labels it a skunked term—a word with such contention regarding whether it should be considered singular or plural that a writer is likely to miff readers on both sides of the debate. (He considers the singular mass-noun sense to be at the “ubiquitous” level 4 in his index.)

Another case would be the expression “madding crowd,” which occasionally is corrupted to “maddening crowd.” In frequency, he finds this error isn’t widespread, appearing in a 6:1 ratio in edited text, and so he positions it at index level 2: “widely shunned.”

And as Garner explains the approach he’s taking with GMEU, he clarifies that it’s directed for the general and professional writers who want to be as correct as possible, and elegant and powerful in their prose. What is often sought by those consulting a usage manual isn’t permission, but learned opinion; “Tell me what the best writers do,” the reader is asking. The usage examples Garner presents in GMEU are always taken from actual citations, so you can examine how other writers approach grammatical problems as they appear in the real world.

The good stuff

GMEU contains much more than a list of words commonly misused. Its essays are informative and include “Back-Formations,” “Clichés,” “Etymology,” and so on. These appear throughout the text where logically warranted, and can be accessed directly from a separate index. In addition to usage, there’s considerable advice about document design and layout.

For editors, he includes a list of 100 editorial comments, which you can select by entry number and in page markup indicate, for example, “See Garner GMEU, ‘Editorial Guide’ entry 15.” If you know your author has a copy of this text, this could be a timesaver. The idea being that if you have GMEU and your author has GMEU, this could work as a shorthand. I’m not sure how likely this is, but it’s offered in that regard.

Also of note is a quiz section – natural for an app-based work, with 300 questions to test your understanding of common editorial problems (warning: they’re hard). The scores reset when you close the app so you can retake the quiz.

You don’t have to work with this text long before you realize the impressive amount of research and thought that’s gone into it. Garner doesn’t make proclamations by fiat but rather offers support and citations for his opinion. And while the classics by Fowler, Bernstein, and Copperud deserve a spot on any language maven’s reference shelf, those authors are long deceased, albeit Fowler has been updated by Butterfield in Fowler’s 2015 4th edition and remains current.

Target user

If you have an interest in knowing where the battle lines in English have been drawn, a hardcopy of GMEU is a good purchase. If you work in multiple settings travel frequently and work away from your desk, the app might prove useful. Freelancers working in multiple settings, editors on assignment abroad, and people who want to access this work on the move may find this app to be the right choice whether or not they own it in hardcover.

Daniel Sosnoski is the author of Introduction to Japanese Culture and editor-in-chief of Chiropractic Economics magazine. He has been the staff editor for numerous medical associations and is the founding editor of the PubMed-indexed Journal of Clinical Lipidology. He currently belongs to the American Copy Editors Society.

December 7, 2016

Plot or Characterization? (Part III)

by Alison Parker

(AAE Note: Because of length, this essay was divided into halves. The first half was published previously as “Plot or Characterization? (Part II).” For the first part of this series, see “Plot or Characterization? (Part I).”)

Though Anne of Green Gables lacks a cohesive plot, it more than makes up for that defect through characterization. In addition, every flouting of modern rules of story structure follows from there and finds its justification. It’s also a book written in anger, often a good spur to the imagination.

Lucy Maud Montgomery doubtless knew about the dire fate of orphans. Prince Edward Island didn’t have an orphanage until 1907, so Anne comes from Nova Scotia in a book set in the late 1800s. Some institutions there were worse than others, and Anne probably came from a more respectable place, one that fitted girls for domestic work. In the Halifax Poor House, orphaned children were housed with adults who had mental disorders until after 1900, and the doors had no locks or even doorknobs. If the children weren’t sexually abused before they left, they’d likely experience that fate once people who wanted cheap labor adopted them. Anne names everything around her but animals — animals were considered of more use than lower-class children, so it’s probably a veiled expression of outrage. Still, it was the Nova Scotia Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals that stepped in to help abused and neglected children after 1880. Before the 19th century, orphan asylums didn’t exist at all, and the efforts of women’s groups and churches to help were only fitful after that. (The horrifying details are spelled out in an appendix to Oxford’s Annotated Anne of Green Gables.)

In Anne’s fairy tale, the general view of orphans at the time is only hinted at when in the first chapter busybody Rachel Lynde talks of the dangers of letting children from who knows where get too close. Anne doesn’t suffer the prejudice and contempt that was the lot of most orphans in real life. Who wants too much reality in a children’s book?

Despite, or perhaps because of, her grim childhood up until we first see her, Anne is vibrant, full of fantasies and imaginings. In Chapter 28, she tots up her disasters and gives a moral to each of them.

“Well,” explained Anne, “I’ve learned a new and valuable lesson today. Ever since I came to Green Gables I’ve been making mistakes, and each mistake has helped to cure me of some great shortcoming. The affair of the amethyst brooch cured me of meddling with things that didn’t belong to me. The Haunted Wood mistake cured me of letting my imagination run away with me. The liniment cake mistake cured me of carelessness in cooking. Dyeing my hair cured me of vanity. I never think about my hair and nose now — at least, very seldom. And today’s mistake is going to cure me of being too romantic.

I have come to the conclusion that it is no use trying to be romantic in Avonlea. It was probably easy enough in towered Camelot hundreds of years ago, but romance is not appreciated now. I feel quite sure that you will soon see a great improvement in me in this respect, Marilla.”

“I’m sure I hope so,” said Marilla skeptically.

But Matthew, who had been sitting mutely in his corner, laid a hand on Anne’s shoulder when Marilla had gone out.

“Don’t give up all your romance, Anne,” he whispered shyly, “a little of it is a good thing — not too much, of course — but keep a little of it, Anne, keep a little of it.”

I don’t buy Montgomery’s excuses for her repetition of the scrape plots. But I never minded the repetition when I repeatedly reread the book when I was young. Anne is no doormat — in fact, she’s characterized by anger and feuds — but she’s the creature of a woman torn between feminism and womanly duty. Anne is unconsciously rebellious and unconventional, and she sheds her glory on almost everyone around her, rather as Pippa seems to do in Robert Browning’s Pippa Passes, now known more for a verbal gaffe than for its literary merits. As Anne passes along, she opens minds and hearts. So she talks too much and with odd words? Don’t we all in the editing business? Actually, Maud didn’t yammer on — unlike Anne, she was too afraid. But Anne wasn’t afraid. We can put up with her monologues in part because they’re completely in character, and they’re charming and illuminating.

Despite the emotional depth of Anne’s story as she looks for love and a home, Montgomery isn’t sparing on the humor and satire that go along with life in a small town — like busybodies, bad teachers, and boring preachers.

The novel is in certain respects a bildungsroman, a book about growth, which is by nature a stumbling process. Thus the Bildung takes a while, at least for Anne. It’s more obvious with Marilla, the spinster who adopted her, and who, incidentally, takes charge of the point of view more often than Anne does, according to Genevieve Wiggins (L.M. Montgomery [Twayne’s World Authors Series, 1992], 39). In fact, the top of the four major storylines that Waterston (Magic Island, 13–14) lists is the growing familial love felt by the repressed Marilla for Anne and by Anne for Marilla, who was an airbrushed and retouched version of Maud’s loveless grandmother. (See Gammel, Looking for Anne, 122 for the technique.) Margaret Atwood pegs Marilla as the real focus of the novel (“Reflection Piece — Revisiting Anne,” originally published in 1992, but easily found in L.M. Montgomery and Canadian Culture [1999]). Here’s Atwood’s concluding paragraph (226):

It may be the ludicrous escapades of Anne that render the book so attractive to children. But it is the struggles of Marilla that give it romance for adults. Anne may be the orphan in all of us, but then, so is Marilla. Anne is the fairy-tale wish-fulfillment version, what Montgomery longs for. Marilla is more likely what she feared she might become — joyless, bereft, trapped, hopeless, unloved. Each of them saves the other. It is the neatness of their psychological fit — as well as the invention, humour, and fidelity of the writing — that makes Anne such a satisfying and enduring fable.

Like Burnett, Montgomery was screwed over because she wasn’t a boy, but she also seemed to know that she’d be happier if she didn’t vent her depression and misery in too edgy a way, even after Victorian ideas about the importance of portraying “the beautiful child” had passed.

Everything around Anne plays into Maud’s fantasy of a happier life. Even the descriptive passages, though not what you’d expect in “literary” novels, point up the heroine’s character. As Epperly (30) says, “This rhapsody of light, colour, and sound is the poetic wish-fulfillment of the beauty-starved, love-starved orphan.” And when half the second chapter of Anne is taken up with description, as the old, shy bachelor drives Anne back from the railway station to certain doom, the beauty is fraught with ugly suspense. The reader knows that Anne’s dreams are about to be dashed. So every glorious tree and petal loom over us — darkness visible. Except that the light takes over.

Before Anne leaves Green Gables to get a teaching certificate, she has come to see that her fantasies about herself as a romantic heroine don’t come close to the joy she has right now (Chapter 33).

“Well, I don’t want to be anyone but myself, even if I go uncomforted by diamonds all my life,” declared Anne. “I’m quite content to be Anne of Green Gables, with my string of pearl beads. I know Matthew gave me as much love with them as ever went with Madame the Pink Lady’s jewels.”

Even at the end of Anne of Green Gables, when darkness is all around, and when Anne gives up her ambitions and her fantasies — for a time, at least, out of duty and love — it’s all good. Life wasn’t so delightful when Maud had to give up everything to take care of her grandmother — and her grandfather had essentially cut her out of his will despite her years helping out the two of them. But she could dream.

The quiet and introspective Maud was enthralled with her open and talkative Anne (see Gammel 129), as are Anne fans all around the word. Yes, the book breaks rules aplenty. Aristotle, with his insistence of the primacy of plot, would have scoffed at the way Anne’s character drives the story. But the reader is drawn along by her compelling personality and the comic disasters it gets her into. Cohesive plot? Who cares when confronted with such a girl?

Anne is someone you’d like to have a drink with — I’m talking nonalcoholic raspberry cordial, not the homemade currant wine that got her banned from her bosom friend’s company for a time (Chapter 16). Anne is more interesting than Little Lord Fauntleroy, the young hero who made Frances Hodgson Burnett’s fortune and ruined the life of one of her sons. Young Fauntleroy is cute and flawless, and he immediately wins over the embittered and unhappy people in his sphere, whereas Anne, who is far more flawed, takes more time in transforming the people around her. And L.M. Montgomery revels in her character’s flaws. According to Wiggins (26), “In a society bound by convention, Anne is a disrupting influence. She is the rebel, the nonconformist, the independent spirit who appeals to the child reader who chafes at adult strictures or to the adult who sometimes feels restricted by society’s expectations.”

The novel, with its episodic nature, is often compared to Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. I’ve always been more a plot person than a character person, so Anne is only my third-favorite children’s book. Yet I consider Anne Shirley more of a close friend than I do the heroines of my top two, and whenever I’m forced to travel, all three of the plucky girls go along with me.

The book Anne of Green Gables is in effect a miniseries. The famous TV miniseries, which I’ve never seen, apparently has a cohesive plot. But the problem with that plot is that the focus seems to be on a happy romantic ending between Anne and her nemesis, Gilbert Blythe. Unfortunately, that’s not what the first book in the first trilogy is about.

In this first book about Anne, we watch the character as she careens and careers through life, trying, like Maud, to reconstruct a lost family. Maud couldn’t, but Anne did.

And there’s no place like home.

Alison Parker has held jobs in libraries, bookstores, and newspapers. She has taught university courses in classical languages, literature, mythology, and etymology. Parker helped edit legal maxims for Bryan A. Garner. Garner’s Modern English Usage acknowledges her contributions, and she was an outside reviewer for his Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation. She has also worked as a columnist, a book reviewer, and an editor in various capacities, including developmental editing, rewriting, and plot doctoring.

December 5, 2016

Plot or Characterization? (Part II)

by Alison Parker

(AAE Note: Because of length, this essay has been divided. The second half is scheduled for Wednesday [see “Plot or Characterization? (Part III)”]. For the first essay in this series see, “Plot or Characterization? (Part I).”)

Write what you know? I tried to write a romantic fantasy loosely tethered to a miserable job I once held. Consider this story: The heroine, an uptight but understatedly gorgeous newspaper copy editor, has a run-in with a billionaire because he dislikes one of her (completely accurate) headlines. He gets her fired without meaning to, and atones by hiring her in public relations. And he falls for her utterly because she keeps correcting his grammar. Of course! Everyone loves that!

I worked that plot up when newspapers still had copy editors. Now it’s too far divorced from the real world to sell.

But many authors manage to take darker elements from their past and turn them around to make them happier and more elevating.

A great case in point is the story of Anne Shirley, the heroine of Anne of Green Gables and several sequels. Like many romantic heroines, she’s an orphan, cast adrift and unprotected. That yields instant drama, which grows even more dramatic for Anne when she goes to a house on Prince Edward Island hoping to find a real home at last after years of drudgery and starved emotions. She burbles happily all the way from the railroad station to the house in Avonlea, and then discovers that the aging brother and sister who live there wanted a boy to help around their little farm. Anne’s adoption was a mistake.

Still, despite a defect of temper, she’s plucky and witty and loving, and she manages to fight through the disadvantages of her life and through other people’s prejudices against orphans and girls with gumption and imagination.

Scholars know a lot about the story behind the Anne books because the author, Lucy Maud Montgomery (aka Maud), wrote hundreds of pages in her journals. (The standard biography is Mary Henley Rubio’s Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings (2008). We know, or can know, about the largely depressing life Maud led, from living with and catering to rigid and repressive grandparents after her mother died and her father hared off west. Or, perhaps more accurately, we know about her impressions; who knows the truth? And we “know” that the girl was ecstatic when her beloved father summoned her from Prince Edward Island to what’s now Saskatchewan. But instead of finding a true home, she discovered her true mission: to provide free child care for her stepmother. Soon back with her grandparents, she was later lifted out of a severe depression by writing Anne of Green Gables. She married a man as prone to depression as she was, and the older of her two sons was a mooch, an adulterer, and a thief. Because of the sad state of medicine in the first half of the 20th century, Maud and her husband were treated for depression with barbiturates, to which they became addicted, and they were poisoned to boot with bromides (outlawed for humans in the United States since 1975). Did Maud commit suicide? (See Rubio 550ff. and especially 575ff., for the larger picture; for a shorter discussion, see Mary Beth Calvert’s “Perspectives on the Circumstances of L.M. Montgomery’s Death: Was It Suicide or Accident?”)

In any case, there was no happy ending here. But just as misery can make great comedians, it can also make compelling authors, ones who don’t wallow in their despondency but who transform it; as Irene Gammel says in Looking for Anne of Green Gables: The Story of L.M. Montgomery and Her Literary Classic (2008), 40,

Maud believed that literature should engage with the real world by transforming negative realities. Never should a reader’s pleasure be spoiled by the fact that some of the cheeriest episodes in Anne were sparked by the darker side of life. Indeed, Maud’s losses and disappointments fueled her imagination into high gear, transforming bleakness into hope.

Anne isn’t Maud’s alter ego. She’s her altered ego.

And if you want to see a boatload of copy editors gasp and swoon, to say nothing about Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro, just mention Anne. And yet the novel breaks many of the sacred rules of current fiction.

  • The book is episodic, in many ways a series of short stories — not surprising, because Montgomery started out as a short-story author and even cannibalized some of her earlier stories in writing the book. But there’s no complex or unified plot, and Anne doesn’t change very much for the first two-thirds of the book.
  • In How Not to Write a Novel (2008), 36, Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark say, “NEVER use two scenes to establish the same thing.” Anne is rife with repetition. For much of the book, you’ll see paired chapters, with Anne first in a scrape because of her rabid daydreaming and then triumphant (see Elizabeth Waterston, Magic Island: The Fictions of L.M. Montgomery (2009), 16. And Elizabeth Rollins Epperly, in The Fragrance of Sweet-Grass: L.M. Montgomery’s Heroines and the Pursuit of Romance (1992; an updated version is available; its new preface covers the explosion in scholarship about Montgomery between 1992 and 2014, among other things), 21ff, notes five confession/apology scenes, full of self-drama until the last one.
  • The narrator is omniscient, which is not surprising in older children’s books, particularly those with a fairy-tale bent. But the point of view wanders even within scenes. And even, in a sense, in the first sentence.
  • The first sentence is 148 words with three semicolons, and the voice shifts several times; the main POV could be said to be the brook’s (see Epperly 20):

Mrs. Rachel Lynde lived just where the Avonlea main road dipped down into a little hollow, fringed with alders and ladies’ eardrops and traversed by a brook that had its source away back in the woods of the old Cuthbert place; it was reputed to be an intricate, headlong brook in its earlier course through those woods, with dark secrets of pool and cascade; but by the time it reached Lynde’s Hollow it was a quiet, well-conducted little stream, for not even a brook could run past Mrs. Rachel Lynde’s door without due regard for decency and decorum; it probably was conscious that Mrs. Rachel was sitting at her window, keeping a sharp eye on everything that passed, from brooks and children up, and that if she noticed anything odd or out of place she would never rest until she had ferreted out the whys and wherefores thereof.

  • Anne’s speeches are similarly long and winding; take this 239-word example from the novel’s fourth chapter:

“Oh, I don’t mean just the tree; of course it’s lovely — yes, it’s radiantly lovely — it blooms as if it meant it — but I meant everything, the garden and the orchard and the brook and the woods, the whole big dear world. Don’t you feel as if you just loved the world on a morning like this? And I can hear the brook laughing all the way up here. Have you ever noticed what cheerful things brooks are? They’re always laughing. Even in winter-time I’ve heard them under the ice. I’m so glad there’s a brook near Green Gables. Perhaps you think it doesn’t make any difference to me when you’re not going to keep me, but it does. I shall always like to remember that there is a brook at Green Gables even if I never see it again. If there wasn’t a brook I’d be haunted by the uncomfortable feeling that there ought to be one. I’m not in the depths of despair this morning. I never can be in the morning. Isn’t it a splendid thing that there are mornings? But I feel very sad. I’ve just been imagining that it was really me you wanted after all and that I was to stay here for ever and ever. It was a great comfort while it lasted. But the worst of imagining things is that the time comes when you have to stop and that hurts.”

  • Lengthy descriptive passages feature heavily in the novel. Nature is especially big league, and Epperly counts eleven sunsets. Compulsive adult readers might enjoy the botanical and geographical help offered in Oxford’s The Annotated Anne of Green Gables (1997), though I don’t remember worrying about any of it when I read the book over and over as a girl.
  • Montgomery litters her work with numerous allusions to songs, books, poems, and plays from the 19th century and before, most of which her modern audience wouldn’t have read. (See The Annotated Anne at appropriate places in the text and in the appendixes starting on p. 452.) Two in particular seem somewhat inappropriate for a book aimed at young girls. Yes, Tennyson’s Idylls of the King is still often read in high school, perhaps as a cautionary tale against adultery, but Anne comes to grief over the poem at age 13, and she regrets that she didn’t get the dramatic part of Guinevere — instead, she almost dies when playing the dead Elaine. The allusion to Robert Browning’s Pippa Passes is brief, but it’s clear that Montgomery had read the poetic drama about an innocent walking past adulterers, murderers, suicides, prostitutes, malevolent students, an assassination plotter, and even a Monsignor who is tempted to kidnap Pippa, his brother’s long-lost heir, and force her into prostitution.

So why does the book succeed? My answer lies in the second half of this essay.

Alison Parker has held jobs in libraries, bookstores, and newspapers. She has taught university courses in classical languages, literature, mythology, and etymology. Parker helped edit legal maxims for Bryan A. Garner. Garner’s Modern English Usage acknowledges her contributions, and she was an outside reviewer for his Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation. She has also worked as a columnist, a book reviewer, and an editor in various capacities, including developmental editing, rewriting, and plot doctoring.

November 2, 2016

Thinking Fiction: What Do Editors Read? (Part II)

by Carolyn Haley

In Thinking Fiction: What Do Editors Read? (Part I), I described an informal survey I made among editorial colleagues to learn what novels they felt to be Really Good. Thirteen responded. What follows is the balance of the responders’ lists of Really Good novels, along with profile information for context.

Editors’ personal favorites (the final ten)

Editor #4: female, 76, Washington

  • Professional experience: 30 years; retired from staff position, currently part-time self-employed in nonfiction (business communications), doing copy and line editing for business consultancies and professional services firms.
  • Highest level of schooling: bachelor’s (American studies), post-grad (incomplete, in film). Studied some literature and writing in high school and college.
  • Recreational reading: 2–3 books per month, approximately half novels, always in print. Prefers general fiction and mystery. Favorite fiction author: varies constantly, with Jo Nesbo current favorite.
  • Top 7:

A Little Princess, Francis Hodgson Burnett
Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
Anne of Green Gables (lead title of the 6-volume series w/prequels and sequels), Lucy Maud Montgomery
Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco
Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
The Franchise Affair, Josephine Tey
The French Lieutenant’s Woman, John Fowles

Editor #5: female, 79, California

  • Professional experience: 50 years; retired from nonfiction (educational materials, esp. biology and health) doing developmental editing for textbook publishers.
  • Highest level of schooling: bachelor’s (biology), master’s (human ecology), doctorate (education). Studied some literature and writing in college.
  • Recreational reading: 5 books per month, approximately half novels. Prefers general fiction. Favorite fiction author: Margaret Atwood.
  • Top 10:

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
Candide, Voltaire
Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
Mr. Sammler’s Planet, Saul Bellow
Native Son, Richard Wright
The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton
The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Agatha Christie
The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert
Walden Two, B. F. Skinner

Editor #6: male, 69, Connecticut

  • Professional experience: 20+ years; currently full-time self-employed in mainly memoir and family history, some business/technical, doing developmental, line and copy editing, and production services for individual authors and companies.
  • Highest level of schooling: college without degree (math/computer science, English minor). Studied some literature and writing in high school.
  • Recreational reading: 2 books per month, mainly nonfiction, a few non-business-related novels per year, always in print. Prefers an eclectic mix. Favorite fiction author: no opinion.
  • Top 10:

1984, George Orwell
Animal Farm, George Orwell
Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
Catch-22, Joseph Heller
Chermpf, book 1 The Cats of Nova, William S. Russell III
Life of Pi, Yann Martel
Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut
The Andromeda Strain, Michael Crichton
The Time Machine, H. G. Wells
Trout Fishing in America, Richard Brautigan

Editor #7: female, 36, central Europe

  • Professional experience: 10 years; currently full-time staff in nonfiction and science (medical and physics), doing developmental, line, and copy editing for NGOs.
  • Highest level of schooling: undergrad (German and linguistics), grad (applied linguistics). Studied German literature in school.
  • Recreational reading: 5–10 books per month, mostly novels, always in print. Prefers literary fiction. Favorite fiction author: Anne Tyler.
  • Top 10:

A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth
Gut gegen Nordwind (trans. Love Virtually), Daniel Glattauer
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norell, Susanna Clarke
Larry’s Party, Carol Shields
Of Love and Other Demons, Gabriel Garcia Márquez
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
The Accidental Tourist, Anne Tyler
The Eyre Affair (lead title of the Thursday Next series, 7+ volumes ongoing), Jasper Fforde
The House of the Spirits, Isabel Allende
Tipping the Velvet, Sarah Waters

Editor #8: female, 52, Jamaica

  • Professional experience: 10 years; currently full-time self-employed in nonfiction, moving into fiction, doing copy editing and indexing for individual authors, publishers, packagers, and businesses.
  • Highest level of schooling: graduate (library and information science). Studied some literature and writing in high school.
  • Recreational reading: 4 books per month, mainly novels, in print and ebook. No category preference or favorite author.
  • Top 10:

1984, George Orwell
A House for Mr. Biswas, V. S. Naipaul
Green Days by the River, Michael Anthony
Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror (lead title of the 4-volume [plus prequel] Meg series), Steve Alten
Native Son, Richard Wright
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
Silas Marner, George Eliot
The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
Weaveworld, Clive Barker

Editor #9: female, 69, Hawaii

  • Professional experience: 10 years; currently part-time self-employed in environmental sciences (ESL), science fiction and fantasy, doing developmental editing for individual authors.
  • Highest level of schooling: associate’s (STEM), bachelor’s and incomplete master’s (anthropology). Studied some literature and writing in school.
  • Recreational reading: 30 books per month, mainly novels, in ebook. Prefers science fiction and fantasy, 19th-century novels, and mystery. Favorite fiction author: no opinion.
  • Top 10:

A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth
Genji Monogatari (trans. The Tale of Genji), Murasaki Shikibu
Heartsease, Charlotte Yonge
Persuasion, Jane Austen
Peter Grant series (lead title Midnight Riot, 6+ volumes ongoing), Ben Aaronovitch
The Curse of Chalion (lead title of the 3-volume Chalion series), Lois McMaster Bujold
The Goblin Emperor, Sara Monette (writing as Katherine Addison)
The Martian, Andy Weir
The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (lead title in series of same name, 16+ volumes ongoing), Alexander McCall Smith
Villette, Charlotte Brontë

Editor #10: male, 56, Massachusetts

  • Professional experience: 23 years; currently full-time staff managing editor for a nonprofit periodical.
  • Highest level of schooling: no college degree. Studied some literature and writing in high school.
  • Recreational reading: 4–5 books per month, mainly novels, in ebook. Prefers speculative fiction. Favorite fiction author: Ursula Le Guin.
  • Top 10:

A Door Into Ocean (lead title of the 4-volume Elysium Cycle series), Joan Slonczewski
Ancillary Justice (lead title of the 3-volume Imperial Radch series), Ann Leckie
Doctor Thorne (book 3 of the 6-volume Chronicles of Barsetshire), Anthony Trollope
Little, Big: Or, The Fairies’ Parliament, John Crowley
Memoirs of Hadrian, Marguerite Yourcenar
O Pioneers!, Willa Cather
The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin
The Sparrow (lead title of the 2-volume Sparrow series), Mary Doria Russell
To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis

Editor #11: male, 73, Ohio

  • Professional experience: 9 years; currently part-time self-employed in nonfiction and fiction, doing line and copy editing for self-publishing clients.
  • Highest level of schooling: bachelor’s and incomplete master’s (music). Studied some literature and writing in school.
  • Recreational reading: 5 books per month, approximately half novels, in print and ebook. Prefers literary fiction. Favorite fiction author: multiple.
  • Top 10:

11/22/63, Stephen King
American Pastoral (lead title of the 3-volume American Trilogy series), Philip Roth
Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
Rabbit quadrilogy (Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Redux, Rabbit Is Rich, Rabbit at Rest), John Updike
The Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars) , Kim Stanley Robinson
Tobacco Road, Erskine Caldwell

Editor #12: male, 41, Texas

  • Professional experience: 4 years; currently part-time self-employed in nonfiction (academic, ESL), doing mixed editing for individual authors.
  • Highest level of schooling: Ph.D. (ethnomusicology). Studied some literature and writing in college.
  • Recreational reading: 10 books per month, mainly nonfiction with a few novels, always in print. Prefers literary fiction and fantasy. Favorite fiction author: Dostoevsky.
  • Top 10:

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland along with Through the Looking-Glass, Lewis Carroll
Aubrey–Maturin series (21 volumes starting with Master and Commander), Patrick O’Brian
Chaos Walking trilogy (The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask and the Answer, Monsters of Men), Patrick Ness
Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky
Descent into Hell, Charles Williams
Middlemarch, George Eliot
The Chronicles of Narnia (7 volumes starting with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), C. S. Lewis
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Lord of the Rings together with The Silmarillion, J. R. R. Tolkien
The Neverending Story, Michael Ende

Editor #13 (aka An American Editor): male, 68, New York

  • Professional experience: 32 years; currently semi-retired self-employed in nonfiction (medical), doing line and copy editing for publishers and packagers.
  • Highest level of schooling: bachelor’s (political science), JD (law). Did not study literature or writing in school.
  • Recreational reading: 4–6 books per month, a few novels, in print and ebook. Prefers science fiction and fantasy. Favorite fiction author: David Weber.
  • Top 10:

Age of Myth (lead title of what is planned to be a 5-volume series called The Legends of the First Empire), Michael J. Sullivan
Honor Harrington series (15 volumes ongoing, plus spin-offs, starting with On Basilisk Station) and Safehold series (9 volumes ongoing, starting with Off Armageddon Reef), David Weber
Inspector Lynley series (19 volumes ongoing, starting with A Great Deliverance), Elizabeth George
Inspector Maigret series (75 volumes starting with The Strange Case of Peter the Lett), George Simenon
It Can’t Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis
Jason Bourne trilogy (The Bourne Identity, The Bource Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum), Robert Ludlum
Saga of Recluce series (lead title The Magic of Recluce, 17 volumes ongoing) and The Imager Portfolio series (10 volumes ongoing, starting with Imager), L. E. Modesitt, Jr.
Sentence of Marriage, Shayne Parkinson
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, John Le Carré
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

As an addendum for those who are curious, here are my own choices and data. I have not counted them in the survey results.

Editor #14: female, 60, Vermont

  • Professional experience: 35 years; currently full-time self-employed primarily fiction, doing line and copy editing for publishers and individual authors.
  • Highest level of schooling: college without degree (art and animal science), certificate in copyediting. Studied literature and writing in high school.
  • Recreational reading: 5–10 books per month, almost all novels, in print only. Prefers mystery, hybrid romance, and historical fiction. Favorite fiction author: Dick Francis.
  • Top 10:

Aubrey–Maturin series (21 volumes starting with Master and Commander), Patrick O’Brian
Complete oeuvre, Dick Francis
Ordinary Grace, William Kent Krueger
Landfalls, Naomi J. Williams
Mike Bowditch series (6 volumes ongoing starting with The Poacher’s Son), Paul Doiron
Mrs. Mike (lead title of the 3-volume Mrs. Mike series), Benedict and Nancy Freedman
Nemesis (12th of the 13-volume Miss Marple series), Agatha Christie
The Eleventh Man, Ivan Doig
The Flicka trilogy (My Friend Flicka, Thunderhead, Green Grass of Wyoming), Mary O’Hara
Under the Tonto Rim, Zane Grey

I’m sure you’ll agree that the total collection shows intriguing diversity, creating that book buffet I was hoping for. Among the offerings, you will find many selections that make you nod in agreement, blink in astonishment, and jot down a list of new material you’d like to sample. That’s the goal of the next survey, too, which will focus on dedicated fiction editors’ reading preferences.

Stay tuned!

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, 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 two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books.

October 24, 2016

Plot or Characterization? (Part I)

by Alison Parker

(AAE Note: For subsequent essays in this series, see “Plot or Characterization? (Part II)” and “Plot or Characterization? (Part III).”)

Anyone can write romance and make big bucks off it. You just have to know the formula.

Sorry. I was dreaming. Romance fiction used to be the most reliable way to make money in fiction. In 2011, unknowns could breeze into Amazon and other such places, and their indie stuff would sometimes rake in amazing sums. One untutored author I know picked up a million bucks in her first year of indie fiction. Harlequin wouldn’t have her, and what’s now Harlequin Enterprises had long been accused of paying most of its authors on the down side.

Unfortunately, the marketplace even for indie romance is glutted now because everyone sees romance as a quick and dirty way to make a few bucks without breaking much of a sweat.

I’ve been reading short-form romance fiction for more than four decades. So could I write it for the indie market? Of course not — it takes a careful understanding of the audience for this sort of work and an odd sort of wit.

It’s also essential to put out roughly (the word roughly used advisedly) a book every two months; otherwise, readers find someone else to glom on to. I’ve been able to edit contemporary romance, but writing romance and winning readers can be tough. And the rules for success are many and often confusing.

The manuals and the trends in the short romances that I like to read fly in the face of Aristotle’s position that plot comes first and characterization second. Here’s what the ancient philosopher says about tragic drama in his Poetics:

The plot then is the first principle and as it were the soul of tragedy: character [ēthos] comes second. It is much the same also in painting; if a man smeared a canvas with the loveliest colors at random, it would not give as much pleasure as an outline in black and white. And it is mainly because a play is a representation of action that it also for that reason represents people.

To Aristotle’s way of thinking, giving characterization pride of place offers up something like modern art. It can be pretty, but not everyone gets it.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Getting Your Romance Published doesn’t agree. In Chapter 7, we learn that “Characterization is probably the most important element of your story.”

Former Harlequin author Leigh Michaels might seem to find middle ground here in On Writing Romance. Though she says that character is all-important in romance — see Chapter 3, “Essential Elements” — she has to start out with the framework, which means plot. I have to add that The Complete Idiot’s Guide mentioned above also walks you through plot before moving on to character. But we’re all romantics. And those manuals were written before the indie revolution.

And if your romances go on for only 55,000 words, you can’t flesh out even the protagonists, let alone add vivid minor characters. Or at least the standard conventions since about the year 2000 won’t let you do that now. The hero is almost always an “alpha male,” quite often a billionaire (even if he’s a backwater fire chief), with a fear of commitment and often bent on ill-considered revenge. The heroine doesn’t have to be a virgin anymore, thank heavens, but she has to have greater moral fiber and less money than the hero to be able to delta her alpha.

Still, writers who focus on characterization give it the old college try. It took Harlequin/Mills & Boon some time to allow the man’s thoughts into the equation, and in the beginning it was a good thing, but now it can be all thought and little action, even in the sex scenes. We get pages and pages of mooning and lust and insecurity, but the plot doesn’t move forward. In fact, the conflict and the revelation scenes are sometimes lost in what I’d call not head-hopping but head-hugging drama.

And at least in indie romance, this tack seems to fail. I’ve followed a few authors of contemporary indie romance on the Amazon boards, and the only one who has been making it consistently into the top 100 of paid Kindle authors of any stripe doesn’t seem to be distinguished by good characterization or good writing. Tight and careful plotting doesn’t even matter all that much in her books. But a lot happens, and there’s a lot of conflict.

One more thing is important in the indie market. The author I just mentioned is careful to put out a new ebook roughly every two months. You have more leeway in publishing houses, but for readers of Kindle books and the like, fans will wander off to other writers if the adrenaline fix isn’t in quickly. And they can get thousands of cheap or free fixes through sites like BookBub and BookGorilla. I amassed more than a thousand of them before I bailed. No, I haven’t read them, but you never know when you’ll get desperate.

Customer reviews on Amazon, iBooks, and the like can be useful. The first batch isn’t — fans on an author’s “street team” (in this case, people committed to promote a favorite writer on social media), or the invited group of Facebook beta readers, will be urged to rush off and give five stars.

Soon after, you’ll get the grumblers. “I paid for this?” In the one-star reviews, you’ll see a lot of people recoiling at the filthy language and explicit sex scenes. Yes, you have to wonder why the poor saps didn’t do a little more research. “Sweet” and “inspirational” romance is out there and easily found, though it doesn’t sell the way sex does. Go figure.

But the other complaints head another way. Some dissatisfied customers speak of cardboard characters — what did they expect from barely edited romance fiction? — yet readers seem to growl more often that the protagonists are thinking or feeling all the time and that it all gets boring. The thrill is gone when you’re slogging through the initial disgust and the endless sexual tension on the way to the “HEA” — the happily-ever-after — when there’s nothing to watch. And you should see the howls from readers when they thought a book was going to give them the story that they really wanted but left them hanging at the last minute. You got the first book for free, perhaps, or maybe for 99 cents, but you have to buy two or three more to find out that Aristotle was probably on to a good thing.

After this cliff-hanger, we’ll learn better things about the value of characterization next time. Maybe.

Alison Parker has held jobs in libraries, bookstores, and newspapers. She has taught university courses in classical languages, literature, mythology, and etymology. Parker helped edit legal maxims for Bryan A. Garner. Garner’s Modern English Usage acknowledges her contributions, and she was an outside reviewer for his Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation. She has also worked as a columnist, a book reviewer, and an editor in various capacities, including developmental editing, rewriting, and plot doctoring.

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