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Archive for the ‘Editing’ Category

Writers who are serious about their craft pour a lot of themselves into their writing. I’m a writer myself, so I know how this feels. But having written, the author wants the world to see it. And this urgency creates expectations.

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A milestone gives a sense of accomplishment, but it also creates the expectation of more to come on a regular schedule. This is the idea of a deadline.

But consider how long it took you to write your book, story, article, poem, or whatnot. If you write for a newspaper or similar, you follow a formula and crank out the product. That’s hard.

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If your work is creative, you have more time.

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Unless you’re on a deadline, that is–from your publisher, for example, and may we all suffer that fate.

But this article is about editors. Remember this guy?

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Our work combines the creative and the mechanical. Planting commas where they belong and pulling out the strays is something that a machine should be able to do, but efforts to date at getting word processors to check grammar and spelling in a reliable way leave much to be desired. And so we editors plow through manuscripts, seeding and weeding.

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That much can be done on a steady pace, determined by how many errors the writer made and how much stamina the editor has.

But there’s more to it. The creative part of writing can’t be done mechanically. And that means that it’s hard to predict how long editing for the flow of the narrative or the motivations of the characters or so forth and such like will take.

This reminds me of the old line about how the work can be done in a good, quick, or cheap manner–pick any two. That’s the fact of life. So you can have your book edited by tomorrow, but it’ll cost you, or the work won’t be worth much. Or you can let your editor do a good job in the time it takes. But whatever choice you make, keep reading, keep writing, and keep submitting.

Crossposted on English 301: Reading and Writing.

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A writing friend of mine, Gil Miller, asked me some time ago to explain the difference between awhile and a while. He has a book coming out on the 14th of December (from the same publisher as my book, by the way), so I hope this question didn’t come up. I’ve read parts of his book, Spree. It’s a wild tale about two potheads who while away the time, but probably never have occasion to use the word in question.

At any rate, here’s the answer:

Awhile is an adverb. That means that it tells us about verbs. Consider this sentence:

We must wait awhile.

How long must we wait? Awhile.

Or this one:

The cat puked on the rug awhile ago.

When did this happen? Awhile ago.

Adverbs also tell us about adjectives, but in this particular case, no use of awhile modifying an adjective comes to mind. I’ll leave that as an exercise for the comments.

By contrast, an object of a preposition must be a noun or a pronoun. Recall that prepositions are anything that an airplane can do to a cloud. (Thank you Principal Wuttke.) The plane can fly over, under, through, by, toward, for, against, and so forth that poor puffy accumulation of water vapor. Try this sentence:

We must wait for a while.

In that case, while is the object of the preposition, for, and thus has to be a noun referring to a length of time. Or how about this:

The cat puked on the rug for a while.

We see here that whatever was bothering the cat took its time getting out.

Now that we’ve cleared that up, is it 4:20 yet?

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As a teacher of college composition and literature, a writer, and an editor–and as a person–I care a great deal about this wonderful English language. That being the case, when I find a word used in a wrong way, that grates on my nerves. Yesterday, for example, I ran across an article on The Huffington Post on the subject of the scientific meaning of the word, theory. In common usage, the word is treated as a synonym for guess or conjecture, but in science, it means an explanation of data that has been confirmed by observation or experiment.

But some of the readers who commented on the article insisted that because their dictionaries tell them that theory also means guess, there’s nothing wrong with using it in that sloppy manner. This reveals a fundamental problem with how people understand what their dictionaries do. Dictionaries can be prescriptive or descriptive.

1. Prescriptive

This is the kind of dictionary that tells us what a word is supposed to mean. It aims at teaching best practice in language. Noah Webster used his to reshape American English into something different from that found in British writing. This is why Americans typically write honor and color, rather than honour and colour.

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2. Descriptive

By contrast, the descriptive approach seeks to compile the way a word is used or has been used. One famous example of this is the Oxford English Dictionay.

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The O.E.D. asks readers to send in examples of words that they find in published material, and the editors compile these into a sampling of those words’ history. J.R.R. Tolkien spent a couple of years after the First World War working on the entries for W, something that surprises no one who knows much about his interests. (That sentence brought to you by the letter W.)

But just because many people use a word in a particular way doesn’t mean that this is the best usage. Consider some examples. Many think that the word, issue, is a synonym for problem. But issue must always involve something being sent out. When I hear that a person has issues, I have to wonder what the person’s sores are giving to the world. As a figure of speech, issue is acceptable as a word to describe a topic of debate, such as the issue of gun control, since that topic is being sent back and forth between sides of the argument. Or take impact. Today, we hear it used in place of effect all too often. Impact means a blow, which makes talking about the impact of healthcare reform a disturbing subject of discussion–an issue, perhaps? Then there’s nauseous. How often has someone said to you, “I feel nauseous”? The word means a quality that causes illness, thus such a person is claiming to make others sick.

Now if your characters are speaking, feel free to make them misuse words in whatever way is appropriate to who they are. But in your own expression, you ought to be better than errors such as what I illustrated above. I know, I know, people at this point will say that Shakespeare or Chaucer or Milton or so on and so forth and such like used words in the way that today’s lazy person wishes to use them. Fine. If you’re Shakespeare or the like, feel free to do as you choose. But if you’re still working on getting to that exalted state, pay attention to best usage.

Crossposted on Oghma Creative Media.

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You, dear reader, have likely heard that rotten saying, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” There is so much wrong with this idea, but of particular interest for this essay, I observe that teaching–whether in a classroom or doing editing work with a client–is a good way to improve one’s doing.

This may seem like nonsense. Isn’t a teacher supposed already to know a subject? Frankly, that is the attitude of those who aren’t involved in the process. Teachers learn a field in the same way that everyone else learns that field. Now teachers presumably are more interested in the subject and thus may absorb more of its knowledge and skills, but being human, they have the same gaps in learning. They also learn from a perspective or a limited number of perspectives. Having acquired a finite body of information that they’re skilled at using and seeing it from one position, they go out into the world to share with students.

Here’s where the best learning comes in. I know for a certainty that a teacher will discover the gaps in his understanding the quickest when standing in front of a class. I also know that good students bring new ways of seeing the subject. By being willing to adapt to and sometimes adopt alternative views, I improve in my own knowledge of English writing and literature, the subject that I teach and practice.

But there’s more. Students need to see a process step by step. People who have been doing something for years tend to skate over the basics and fudge the details, and that’s where errors and stumbles often come in. Students don’t tolerate this. They force the teacher to pay attention, to follow the logic in every step, and to make sense. This makes a teacher a better doer.

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