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.

April 11, 2016

Thinking Fiction: The Subjectivity of Editing Fiction II

by Carolyn Haley

Part I of this two-part essay described the experiment I conducted to learn more about the weight and importance of subjectivity in editing fiction, and to satisfy my personal curiosity about how different editors might handle the same material. Part I covered the experiment parameters, general results, and types of technical errors that occurred in the work of seven volunteer professional editors.

Part II continues the description of results, shifting to areas where errors are harder to define and recognize, and where individual backgrounds come more strongly into play.

Debatable errors

All the volunteers addressed the debatable items I inserted into the test samples, though no two editors addressed the same number and combination of them. This is where I expected the greatest variation between editors, and I was not disappointed.

Example debatable items were hyphenated or solid prefixes and suffixes; hyphenation of compound adjectives; one-word or two-word spellings that could vary according to dictionary; use or not of the serial comma; treatment of ellipses and dashes; treatment of dialogue tags and thoughts; words or numerals for numbers; location of paragraph breaks; casualness versus formalness of characters’ speech; spelling of common expressions (all right vs. alright, OK vs. okay); and the like.

These represent what I expect to see itemized on a style sheet. I deliberately did not request style sheets from the volunteers, because I wanted to see whether providing one with a copyediting job is a default practice, and what form the style sheet took if provided. Note that some editors, as a matter of policy, do not provide style sheets for tests but will provide them for live book-length projects. As this exercise resembled a short test, and I did not request a style sheet, I expected that not everyone would include one.

And not everyone did—just three of seven editors. Two of the submitted style sheets were organized and detailed, reflecting the editors’ long experience with traditional publishers. These greatly helped my review of those editors’ samples. The select debatable items they put on their term lists affirmed that they had spotted the variants and made decisions about them. I also knew what reference resources they were drawing from so had context to understand their choices. The thorough and professional presentation of the style sheets positively influenced my opinion of the editors’ knowledge and capability. While the editors who did not provide a style sheet might have done as good a job on the sample exercises as those editors who did provide one, I had to guess what they noticed or not, based on what I saw changed and unchanged. (Sometimes an editor removed the guessing game by deleting or rewriting a debatable item.)

Including a style sheet in an actual test for a publisher might give an editor a competitive advantage, based on the positive impression it gave in my experiment. And including a style sheet for an author is always a good idea. A style sheet shows that the editor really did examine the manuscript closely and think about fine points. It also gives organized information to the author during later revisions or expansion in a series, making the next round cleaner. At the same time it gives context and detail for any subsequent editors, as well as for the proofreader at the end of the line.

For more information about creating and using style sheets, see Amy Schneider’s four-part series starting with “Thinking Fiction: The Style Sheets Part I: General Style.

Fact checking and formatting

Whether fact checking should be included in copyediting is a scope-of-work item determined between editor and client. Commonly, copyeditors who work for publishers aren’t asked to do fact checking or don’t provide that service, whereas copyeditors who work for indie authors might include it. I did not instruct the volunteer editors on fact checking because I wanted to see if there was any pattern in who did and who didn’t provide the service. I tested it by inserting errors that could be found by simple online lookups, such as whether a mountain range’s formal name included “Hills” or “Mountains,” and the wrong manufacturing date for a vintage car. Four of the seven editors found one or more of these, although none reacted to them all, and I saw no correlation with anyone’s particular background.

At the same time, three editors queried subtle verisimilitude issues that would have embarrassed the author had the details gone through to publication. I had been aware of two of those bloopers but blind to the others; so, as the author in question, I would have been deeply grateful to those sharp editorial eyes (and as the test creator, I was duly embarrassed).

Formatting a manuscript is also considered a scope-of-work variable in copyediting. Here again I did not instruct the volunteers, wanting to see what they did on their own. The majority left the text as they found it, in terms of font, type size, and line spacing. I put one sample in 1.5 spacing instead of industry-standard double spacing; nobody changed it. I set the other one in Courier font; two editors changed it to Times New Roman, and one who let it stand apparently had trouble telling the difference between straight and “curly” apostrophes and quotation marks in that font, for that editor had the highest miss rate in those details.

I also inserted manual tab indents for paragraphs in one of the samples. Only one editor replaced them with automatic indent, as is required for production. A different editor inserted a note advising that they had spotted the tabs and other deviations from industry standard but left them in place, while another editor went for no-indent first paragraphs then auto-indented the rest without remark. Most of these changes were manually applied; only two editors used Word’s style feature on whole text.

Comments and queries

Everybody was polite, professional, and helpful in their comments. Some were so gentle and politically correct in their phrasing that, in my eyes, it undermined their authority. Somewhere there’s a happy medium between bullying and babying, and although everyone in the experiment found that middle ground, some conveyed their expertise and confidence better than others. If I were an author shopping for an editor based on these samples, it would have been easy to determine who best suited my preferences and needs.

At first the number of comments and queries for so little text seemed disproportionately high. Then I realized that some of the editors’ remarks covered subjects I ordinarily put on a style sheet. For instance, I list my grammar/style/spelling resources and operating premises together at the top of my style sheet, whereas some of the editors who did not include a style sheet used comments to explain, for example, that a change was supported by a particular style guide or dictionary.

I’m guessing that the editors made more queries than might be normal because the test was done in a vacuum. In a real job they would have more information than I provided about the story premise, client, and other parameters of the project. For example, the full novel one of the samples came from was loaded with telepathic communication between psychics, which I set in italics. To distinguish telepathy from private thoughts, I kept thoughts in roman type. But I did not give this information to the volunteer editors. One of them, when encountering the direct thought in roman text, selected it and applied italics:

“…but I can still make the autocross on Sunday.” Two hours in the other direction, I didn’t add.

This distraction led the copyeditor to miss the inverted close-quote mark immediately preceding the sentence. If editor had known that thoughts did not have to be italicized, then the editor would not have paused to change or query the sentence and likely would have noticed the punctuation error.

That example was not the only evidence of editors being distracted by adjacent problems. It appeared during highlighting text for comments, too. One editor was so focused on typing up a remark about writing style that they didn’t see this error lying inside the selected text: No more hazy envelop of pulsing bruises; instead, a bright, boundless world begging to be explored. I saw several oversights of that sort among the editors who commented heavily. The lighter-touch editors caught more mechanical errors, presumably because their eyes and minds weren’t bouncing back and forth as much between places on the screen.

Conclusion

What does the experiment teach us? Not much more than we already know. And with a sampling of only seven editors, along with the number of variables being evaluated at one time and my personal bias, we can’t call this a scientific test.

The experiment revealed little insight into the question, “How good is good enough?” Some aspects of that question will be discussed in a future essay covering editorial subjectivity from the author’s point of view.

From my editor’s point of view, the experiment affirmed my expectations. I now feel confident stating that every copyeditor has a different approach and editing style; that most copyeditors will address most elements in a manuscript while never quite attaining perfection; that their understanding of the distinctions between editing tasks varies; and that in the absence of explicit instructions, copyeditors will likely return results different from what the hiring party might expect.

The experiment also supported two beliefs I’ve long adhered to: (a) that a successful editorial job comes from a compatible fit and good communication between editor and client, and (b) that journalist William H. Whyte had it right when he said, “The great enemy of communication…is the illusion of it.”

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.

March 28, 2016

Thinking Fiction: The Subjectivity of Editing Fiction I

by Carolyn Haley

Earlier generations of fiction editors were mentored by old pros at august publishing houses, learning the art and craft of storytelling and producing books to high standards. Things have changed; although there are still old pros cultivating younger editors at important, high-quality houses, their numbers have declined. The editing profession now contains many independent and small-press editors who have entered the field from diverse paths; who have different training; who may have incomplete knowledge of writing, editing, and publishing practices; and who, in some cases, are too naïve or unethical to be handling other people’s work.

Because of this shift, the subjectivity that characterizes editing novels has become more complex — at least for me, who was not educated and seasoned in the traditional book publishing business. Thankfully, my arrival in the industry coincided with the Internet, so I can tap into the collective editorial mind. But that has revealed so many different approaches that I often bog down in pondering choices, reversing decisions, consulting other people, revisiting style guides, and talking more thoroughly with clients in order to make the right judgment call about myriad details. This process might make me a better editor, but it also makes me a slower and more tentative editor. The question that never seems to go away is, “How good is good enough?”

The question may be unanswerable because of subjectivity. What seems to matter, ultimately, is the fit between editor and client and between a novel and its audience.

Objectifying subjectivity

I remain curious and concerned about the weight and importance of subjectivity, and have long wanted to see how different editors would work the same material. So I devised an informal experiment. Emulating a publisher who needs to test editorial candidates’ skills, I created an exercise loaded with traps. Then I called for volunteers among my editorial colleagues. Seven responded, and I sent them the opening pages from two manuscripts (each sample approximately 1,680 words), with the instruction to copyedit either or both samples according to their own understanding of what “copyediting” means. This provided ten samples total.

The sample text came from early drafts of my own novels, now published, and for which I own the rights. I chose this material to avoid any potential problems that could arise from using disguised client text in a public forum. My goal was to see similarities and differences in individual copyeditors’ techniques and accuracy, such as how many and what types of errors were caught, and how comments and queries were handled. I hoped, too, for some single characteristic to emerge that would lead to a profound discovery or conclusion.

The volunteers’ professional editing experience ranged from five to 25 years, representing a mix of fiction and nonfiction; copyediting, line editing, and developmental editing; and working for publishers and independent authors. Although some of the volunteers specialize in copyediting fiction, others aspire to that or prefer a balance of fiction and nonfiction work.

The traps I planted in the exercises were split between technical errors (spelling, grammar, punctuation, factual accuracy, and consistency) and debatable errors (usage, punctuation, and style). By “debatable” I mean items that are open to interpretation or could result from the editors’ adherence to different dictionaries and style guides.

My instructions to the volunteers intentionally did not mention style guides, style sheets, fact checking, and software tools, because I wanted to see what turned up unprompted.

Summary of results

In three areas the editors performed identically:

  1. Everyone used Microsoft Word and its Track Changes feature. All edits were visible, save for global formatting or corrections. And each editor found reasons to use Track Changes’ Comments feature, whether as margin balloons or inline insertions.
  2. Everyone caught almost all (95+ percent) of the technical errors I inserted into the text.
  3. Everyone responded to some percentage of the debatable items.

No one caught every technical error I inserted, although five of seven found errors I hadn’t noticed when I made the tests.

The strongest overall performance came from the most specialized copyeditor who has been working in fiction the longest and for publishers only. The weakest overall performance came from an editor with more than a decade of mixed fiction/nonfiction experience for publishers and indie authors.

Interestingly, an editor with a high miss rate on one sample performed fine on the other sample. This points to state of mind, timing of work session, nature of material, and attention span as variables in the subjectivity equation.

In either test sample, there was no one section where every editor changed or commented on the same thing. Instead, individual styles and sensibilities expressed themselves in small amounts throughout the text. Some editors made minor changes without query or comment, whereas others made similar changes but included explanations and suggested alternative phrasings. Some made so many changes or suggestions it was hard to believe they were copyediting. Indeed, their copyediting resembled what I call line, substantive, or developmental editing. The majority touched the text more than I ever do for a copyediting job.

Technical Errors

The most common type of technical error involved punctuation and spaces. Some of those errors pertained to typography; for example, the editor didn’t spot straight apostrophes (′) and quotation marks (″) that should have been “curly” (i.e., typographer’s style), or attempted to fix them all and missed a few.

It’s possible that the straight/curly subject might not fall into the copyediting scope of work for editors hired by publishing houses. Often, manuscripts from publishers come to the editor mechanically groomed and styled, reducing the number of gremlins the copyeditor needs to address. Or else the copyeditor is informed that quotations marks, dashes, ellipses, and the like will be taken care of by a compositor. That usually isn’t the case for editors working with indie authors, so scope of work when working with indie authors may include more elements of mechanical editing.

The volunteers in my experiment mostly went one way or the other with the curly/straight detail — changed them all, or left them all. I considered either approach allowable. There were two editors, however, who changed straights to curlies but appeared to have done it manually instead of electronically, so some instances remained unchanged. I considered those errors. I also considered it an error to use a single open quotation mark instead of an apostrophe in truncated words. This occurred in one sample that contained the short form of until (til). Three editors revised it to til — which may or may not be correct according to what dictionary you consult — but inserted the wrong punctuation mark. The others left the word alone or replaced it with the alternate, till.

In another instance, the editor apparently was distracted from an inverted close-quote mark by attending to a style change right next to it, so that the following happened at a transition between dialogue and a character’s thought:

“…but I can still make the autocross on Sunday.” Two hours in the other direction, I didn’t add.

The original text did not contain italics. But in the process of selecting and changing the style of the character’s thought from roman to italic, the editor failed to notice the close-quote problem at the end of the previous sentence.

Similar bloopers were spread among the samples, such as an extra space before or after punctuation (e.g., “I— damn it”) and spelling inconsistencies (e.g., Atlantis vs. Atlantic). Most small, subtle oversights of this type can be caught using features available in commercial software tools designed for editors (e.g., EditTools, Editor’s ToolKit, PerfectIt) or built into Word (e.g., find/replace, wildcard find/replace, macros), so I was surprised by how many got through. When I later questioned the editors about what tools they use, I learned that six use a limited selection of tools, and one uses none at all. (One of the six added a twist I didn’t anticipate, claiming to use a few tools for live work but for the experiment thought that using them would be “cheating.”)

The second most common technical error came in the spelling of similar-sounding or similar-looking words (“confusables”): reign/rein, hoard/horde, envelop/envelope, deserts/desserts, breath/breathe. Spellcheck alone won’t catch real words of this sort, so one needs a keen eye enhanced by editorial software tools and macros to find them all in a text.

One editor made a good case for this by not catching typos in critical proper nouns—for instance, a main character’s name (Dru vs. Drew). This editor’s custom is to make only a few specific find/replace passes in Word for global mechanical details (e.g., double spaces after periods), which won’t catch names or spelling variants. For those, you need something like PerfectIt, or Paul Beverley’s ProperNounAlyse, or EditTools’ Never Spell Word, or just paying close attention to Word’s spellchecker, which will stop on “Jon” after you’ve hit Ignore All when accepting “John.”

In general, the results compiled for all seven editors showed a strong correlation between a high number of spelling, punctuation, and consistency errors and a low number of support tools used. The correlation is not absolute, however. The editor with least experience in fiction, who speaks British instead of American English, and used only one tool, performed above midpack.

Part II continues with a discussion of the experiment’s results relating to debatable errors, fact checking, formatting, style sheets, comments, and queries.

Related essays on An American Editor:

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.

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