An American Editor

March 4, 2019

Lazy Writing, Part 2 — Something to Combat, but Sometimes Appreciate

By Carolyn Haley

For Part 1 of this article, go to https://americaneditor.wordpress.com/2019/02/15/thinking-fiction-lazy-writing-part-1-something-to-combat-but-sometimes-appreciate/

Extra padding

Sometimes lazy writing involves using more words than needed. Characters give a sigh or give a wink instead of just sighing or winking. They make their way somewhere instead of walking, driving, climbing, wending, etc. They have a feeling of dread about something instead of dreading it, or haven’t seen someone for a while instead of for hours, days, weeks, months, or years. Readers soon get tired of such lazy usage and yearn for some brevity and specificity.

The same effect occurs with over-creativity, by which I mean referring to a character in too many ways. Joe might be a short guy with black hair who is also a police officer in Chicago. As paragraphs about his action go by, he’s referred to as Joe, the short man, the black-haired fighter, the cop, and the Chicagoan. In trying to avoid repetition, the author ends up confusing the reader by introducing too many variables. This tends to happen in action novels, where a character is lightly sketched at first appearance and never developed to the point of being easily recognizable later. Such variability again makes the reader have to work hard to keep track of who’s who.

Loose ends

The most common lazy writing I encounter is false suspense, although this is a result less of laziness than ignorance. It usually occurs in a first novel, when the author doesn’t yet understand the difference between suspense that generates the “What happens next?” question and suspense that generates the “What’s going on?” question.

I recently challenged a client about why he kept starting new chapters in new places and times without telling us who was talking or where/when they were. That information came several paragraphs or even pages into the chapter. He said he liked dropping readers straight into the action. That’s fine if readers can follow the logic leap. If not, it’s a head-scratcher that is certain to leave readers impatient and confused.

Lazy writing occurs also in matters of verisimilitude. When writers get carried away with the excitement of their story and don’t later verify facts and logistics, it falls on the editor to burst their balloon by pointing out that a scene can’t happen the way it’s described.

Most such bloopers are easy fixes, such as adjusting the scene to account for moonlight (or lack of), or whether it’s possible to maneuver with bodies lying around underfoot, or how a specified gun type might behave, or accounting for vehicles left crashed in the middle of the road when the hero then zooms down said road unimpeded. Sometimes a technical blooper might require a major recast of scene or even storyline; but, thankfully for both writers and editors, bloopers usually are of the “duh” type, such as cigarettes lit but never put out (or smoked in 30 seconds or 30 minutes), or the consequences of a major wound (people who don’t bleed, or continue running around when they’ve had a lung shot out), and the like. Fixing those items doesn’t require revising the whole book.

The subjectivity factor

The laziest of lazy writing, in my passionate opinion, is the cliffhanger, be it the ending of a scene, a chapter, or an entire book. I acknowledge that this can be a matter of taste, and I struggle with determining whether that’s truly the case or if the story is hurting itself by using that device. How to respond to cliffhangers is, perhaps, the most difficult decision I must make as an editor. Do I let it go, or flag it as a criticism or item for discussion? As a recreational reader on my own time, cliffhangers inspire me to simply toss a book over my shoulder, but as a professional editor, I can’t do that.

Cliffhangers strike me as a cheap shot, as manipulative, as author intrusion into a story. They occur most often in series novels, used as an attempt to bribe readers into reading the next book. I consider cliffhanging a lazy technique because, as a reader, I want resolution. I am willing to keep turning pages if the author keeps the suspense and interest mounting, but I don’t need to be compelled to continue by force. I want closure of the individual volume’s story with promise of more to come, not major components left dangling to provoke me into reading the next book.

As with almost everything relating to writing and editing novels, subjectivity is a big factor. My job as an editor is to inform an author about any spot where other readers might bark their shins. It’s up to the author to decide whether those places are things they want to think about and change.

If the author chooses to let an issue stand, I’m fine with that. I care only that they make an informed choice. The marketplace will decide whether it’s the right choice. Most of us know that you can’t please everyone, and the author’s goal is to connect with the audience who wants to read their stuff. My job as an editor is to help them achieve that end.

The editor’s role

It’s a rare editor who doesn’t encounter lazy writing during their career. Those who work with indie authors, especially new ones, encounter it often. Tolerance for editing lazy writing should be considered when deciding what kind of editorial work to do for a living. That tolerance level also an important component of structuring contracts — defining exactly what the editor is going to do to the client’s manuscript is essential to a good working relationship.

If you have the heart and soul of a developmental editor, and you find clients willing to pay the cost, then you can dive into someone’s early work and help them avoid symptoms of lazy writing. This not only gives you job satisfaction, but also helps line and copy editors down the road, who might not be developmentally inclined and have a harder time sorting out the material, defining the boundaries of their work, and helping their clients.

Line and copy editors do sometimes have to deal with un-developmentally-edited texts, because their clients are unwilling or unable to pay for the higher level of edit that would catch and help the author fix instances of lazy writing. In all cases, no matter what level of editing is involved, editors have to define terms and expectations carefully in the work they propose to provide. Copy editors are generally limited to making comments and queries instead of rephrasing, and both editor and author might end up tearing their hair out if the “edited” manuscript is overloaded with changes and queries attacking the text when that’s not part of the agreed-upon scope of work. A client expecting the mechanical focus of copyediting might not be open to the heavy hits on their prose by an editor who recognizes lazy writing and tries to improve it, while a client expecting deep involvement in their prose might feel cheated if all they get are mechanical edits.

Appreciating the lazy …

Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate lazy writing. It forces me to concentrate on a story and think hard about the details, get engrossed in the characters, take the author seriously. Addressing the questions that lazy writing triggers and talking with the author about them brings out the best of our relationship, letting us blend the artistic and analytical elements that bring out the best of the work. Ultimately, we all — author, editor, and the story itself — end up more muscular and vibrant. How can that not result in a better book?

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, and has presented on editing fiction at the Communication Central conference.

March 26, 2018

Romanized Arabic in English Texts — Part 5: Inserting Symbols and Creating Shortcuts

 Ælfwine Mischler

As an editor and indexer, I often deal with texts that use diacritics to transcribe Arabic. In parts 1 through 4 of this series (Romanized Arabic in English Texts, Part 1 — Sources of Variations; Romanized Arabic in English Texts, Part 2 — Other Challenges for EditorsRomanized Arabic in English Texts, Part  3 — Spelling the Definite ArticleRomanized Arabic in English Texts, Part 4 — Omitting, Capitalizing, and Alphabetizing the Definite Article), I often mention the use of special characters, but until now, I have not explained how to put them in your Word document. In this part, I discuss how to insert symbols and create keyboard shortcuts. In part 6, I discuss how to use AutoCorrect and FRedit for special characters.

Insert Symbol

If you only need to insert a few special characters in a Word document, you can use this method.

  1. Go to the Insert tab and click on Symbol. You will bring up a box with up to 20 of the most recently inserted symbols.
  2. If what you want is not there, click on More Symbols at the bottom.
  3. Another window will pop up. (You can click and drag on the little triangle at the bottom to enlarge it if you want.) Choose the font and subset that you want.

  1. Find and click on the character you want in the table.
  2. Click on Insert, then Close. The next time you open the Symbols menu, that character will appear in the box that opens first, so you don’t have to search for it again.

Note that not all characters are available in all fonts, but the most common ones should be available in popular fonts. Your publisher might require you to use a particular font or even provide one for you to download and use. For Arabic, in Times New Roman, I find the letters with macrons under Latin Extended A; the letters with dots are under Latin Extended Additional.

Under the table of letters, on the right, you will see the character code (circled in red in the screen shot). I have selected the Unicode (hex) code from the drop-down list to the right of that, since most publishers require Unicode characters. If your publisher has provided you with a list of Unicode characters to use, check that the code for the character you have selected from the table matches the one from your publisher, since some characters look similar but are different.

The method above is fine if you only have to use it a few times, but if you have to do this many times, you will want another method. You can create keyboard shortcuts (discussed below) if you only have a few different characters to insert, but if you have to use many different characters in a text (as I do with Arabic), use AutoCorrect or the FRedit macro (discussed in part 6).

Create Keyboard Shortcuts

  1. Go to the Insert tab and the Symbols menu.
  2. Find and select the character you want, but instead of clicking on Insert, click on Shortcut Key at the bottom left. A new window pops up.

  1. Type in the shortcut you want — usually Alt + something or Alt + Shift + something. Word will warn you if the key combination is already assigned to something else, in which case you can override (not a good idea if it’s a function) or choose another key combination.
  2. Click on Assign.

Note that the lowercase and uppercase versions of the same character have different character codes, so if you need both versions, you will have to repeat these steps and use a different key combination for each.

I have created shortcuts for characters that I use frequently: Alt + A for Æ [00C6] (the first letter in my name) and Alt + V for P (a check mark in Wingdings 2).

As I said, this method is OK if you need only a few special characters, but if you need many, such as I do for transcribing Arabic, you will run out of possible key combinations. Instead, use AutoCorrect or the FRedit macro, which I discuss in part 6.

Ælfwine Mischler is an American copyeditor and indexer in Cairo, Egypt, who has been the head copyeditor at a large Islamic website and a senior editor for an EFL textbook publisher. She often edits and indexes books on Islamic studies, Middle East studies, and Egyptology.

February 16, 2015

Thinking Fiction: The Style Sheets — Part II: Characters

The Style Sheets — Part II: Characters

by Amy J. Schneider

This month I continue my discussion of the style sheets I keep and the details that go into them. Let’s talk about tracking character attributes.

The Devil Is in the Details

When I receive a style sheet for a previous book by the same author, whether a standalone title or one in the same series, it usually includes a character list. And by “a character list,” I mean just that: a tidy alphabetical list of character names, often last name first, first name last. We copyeditors love to make alphabetical lists. But for ensuring continuity both in attributes of individual characters and in the relationships between them, such a list isn’t very useful.

For example, suppose that in Chapter 1, James is described as being a vegetarian, but in Chapter 18 he orders a Big Mac for lunch. Or suppose that Angela is an only child in Chapter 3, but in Chapter 6 she gets a call from her sister. I don’t know that my memory is good enough to recall a detail from so far back. And often such details are mentioned in the barest passing, and so they are easy to overlook. That’s what the style sheet is for. Any detail that could possibly be contradicted later on goes on the style sheet. Examples follow shortly.

In addition, I find it extremely helpful to group characters not alphabetically, but by their relationships to each other. Family members, coworker groups, the neighbors, the guys down at the pub, the bad guys: these are examples of how you might group characters. Sometimes you may not be sure where to put a character. That’s okay; just start them in their own group for now and later it may become clear. The advantage of grouping like this is that it helps you spot name changes (the bartender was Andy, but suddenly he’s become Randy), missing or extra people (there are supposed to be five Murphy brothers, but six are named), and so on.

Remember to track nonhuman characters too. I enclose animal names in quotes (“Max” — Susan’s cat; black fur, left front paw and tip of tail are white). Make note of unnamed animals too; make sure that the neighbors’ black lab doesn’t turn into a border collie. In fantasy and science fiction, you may encounter “characters” that are sentient objects such as weapons and other magical items (think of the elven blade “Sting” from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings), as well as fictional deities, spirits, and so forth. On the style sheet they go.

Details to Track

So, what kinds of details should you track? As I stated earlier, anything that could possibly be contradicted later. (And as you come across such items, later, check against your previous entries on the style sheet to ensure that they are still accurate; if not, you know that you need to flag or query.) The following are only a few examples:

  • Physical descriptions: hair color/length/qualities, eye/skin color, facial descriptions (straight nose, thick eyebrows, high cheekbones), body build (muscle bound, lanky), blood type, clothing size, glasses, disabilities, vocal quality (pitch, accent)
  • Life status: age/birthday (age 27; her birthday was last May; the baby will be born next fall), relationships (her mother died of cancer when she was twelve; he has been divorced twice), employment, schooling, abilities (I once met a character who could speak a foreign language, but had mysteriously lost that ability later on), nicknames, habits (vegetarian, doesn’t drink), accents, pet phrases, personal history (inherited $6 million from his grandmother)
  • Right/left: scars, injuries, tattoos, and so on
  • Phone numbers, e-mail addresses, Twitter handles (query the author to ensure that these are not in use by real people)
  • “Negative” attributes: can’t swim, is afraid of dogs, has never seen the ocean
  • Relative descriptions: Rodrigo towers over Lancelot; Evan is two years older than Shane

Assuming you are editing in Word, it’s easy to copy relevant descriptive phrases out of the manuscript and plop them into the style sheet, for ease of searching later if you need to refer back to earlier text. I condense the copied text to save a little space by changing spelled-out numbers to digits and editing down to the essential key words (e.g., “her auburn hair cascaded down her back, and fluffy bangs accentuated her ocean-blue eyes” would become “auburn hair down her back, bangs, blue eyes”; “died six days before her eighty-fifth birthday” would become “died 6 days before her 85th birthday”). The idea is to take out information that’s non-essential to the style sheet (you might copy a full paragraph just to grab a few informational phrases). Another point to remember: in hard-copy days, we noted the page number for details, but with electronic editing, page layouts can shift, so use the chapter number instead. You can always use search to find the exact text you’re looking for.

I Found a Contradiction; Now What?

Oops. Nancy is blonde in Chapter 4 but brunette in Chapter 27. Michael’s eyes keep changing color from blue to green to blue again. Tonya’s parents died when she was a baby, but also threw her out of the house when she was sixteen. What to do?

Remember that it’s the author’s story, so if any major rewriting or plot adjustment is required, it’s up to the author to do so. However, you can certainly help by making suggestions.

  • If it’s a minor detail that’s not critical to the plot, and only a few instances are different (suppose Nancy’s hair is described as blonde twelve times and brown twice), it’s safe to simply change the brown hair back to blonde and write a query alerting the author to the change.
  • If Michael’s eyes are blue six times and green seven times, then you need to write a query that lets the author know about the discrepancy and ask the author to decide which way to go.
  • Let’s say that the fact that Tonya is an orphan is important to the plot, but so is the fact that she had to fend for herself at a young age. That’s not something that a copyeditor can fix. But you might suggest that the author have Tonya raised by an aunt and uncle, and they are the ones who threw her out.
  • You may find a character-related plot hole that has no obvious solution. The best you can do then is outline the problems and ask the author if he or she can see a way to solve them. After that, it’s in the author’s hands — and the author may decide to just live with it. (I’ve seen that happen.) But you’ve done your due diligence.

Because fiction is by nature made up, there’s no real-world reference for its internal factual information — so keeping a detailed style sheet with as much information as possible about the characters (and other elements) is enormously helpful for catching inconsistencies.  In the next article, I’ll talk about tracking information about locations and buildings, which involves much the same approach as I’ve discussed here.

Amy J. Schneider (amy@featherschneider.com), owner of Featherschneider Editorial Services, has been a freelance copyeditor and proofreader of fiction and nonfiction books since 1995. She has shared her insights on copyediting fiction as a speaker at the Communication Central conferences, in writing for the Copyediting newsletter, and in an audioconference for Copyediting.com. Amy can be reached at LinkedIn, via Twitter, and on Facebook.

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