Author Archives: Lexi Walker

The Nation Speaks … in a Manner of Speaking

I worry sometimes that I wrote myself into a corner when I told you about robo-editing. Most of the problems I will discuss here twice monthly are caused by the robotic enforcement of rules that demand human judgment.  

One of the hallmarks of robo-editing is the inability to read language figuratively. Robo-editors cannot appreciate that not everything you put on the page is meant to be read literally. As a consequence, they will alter or delete perfectly decent figurative language with notes like, “The nation doesn’t actually speak.” Many of my colleagues have received marks like this from critique partners. I’ve received marks like this. I imagine some of you have, too.

There is an unspoken rule between critiquers and the critiqued that one can’t say such marks are unhelpful. I will now break that rule for you. This is unhelpful.

During the happiest time of my life, the four years I spent at the University of Virginia, one of my professors passed out a drawing depicting what someone would look like if the figurative descriptions used in classic poetry were read as literal truth. This portrait, barely recognizable as a human female, had pearls instead of teeth, globes for eyes, rose petals for lips and cheeks, and a couple of melons protruding from the bodice of her dress.

She was hideous. I wish I could find it to show you, but we all got a good laugh out of it.

The point of this drawing is that the woman described in this way is not offended because she understands that her lips are not actually rose petals (fragile, easily crushed, and prone to wilting). Instead, the writer has taken the wonder of nature that is the single rose petal and put her lips on the same pedestal. Most of us get that.

Juliet isn’t actually the blazing ball of gas at the center of our solar system. No one’s spirit, to the extent such a thing is tangible, has ever actually soared anywhere. The nation does not actually mourn or rejoice. The reader is presumed to be sharp enough to figure that out, as well as what you really meant, with a minimum of hand-holding. Your readers are that sharp. Trust me.

Even if they’re not that sharp – and I assure you that they are – isn’t it better to behave as if they are, instead of leaning in the opposite direction?

The robo-editor, however, seems to honestly believe that your reader is incapable of determining that you are using figurative language when you say that the nation speaks (and you are, it’s called synecdoche). Alternately, the robo-editor hasn’t made that leap itself. Neither situation is good.

Eliminating all figurative language essentially forces you to tell instead of showing. Robo-editors are great at telling. Good luck eliminating figurative language if you write something with high emotional content. I dare you to try writing romance that way.

This component of robo-editing, like so many others, is based on some misinformation about the language. Many robo-editors believe that they are removing clichés. Let us be clear: figurative language is not per se clichéd. Things become clichéd with overuse. Don’t delete the fire in someone’s eyes because there isn’t actually a fire (ouchie!). Delete it because it’s been done to death.

The last time I was robo-edited in this way, I had written about something – probably bedsprings – protesting under a character’s weight. I got back a note that read something like, “Protesting is an emotional act, which springs are not capable of performing. J” I think the whole sentence had been deleted, but hey, nice of them to leave me a smiley face, right?

I resolved to take the robo-editor’s advice with a grain of salt. Ultimately, it took quite a few grains of salt, arranged around the rim of a glass.

My guess here is that the robot editor is the only one who thinks I carefully placed several grains of salt around the rim of a glass in order to cope with its advice. I suspect that most of my readers would think I had a drink. I cannot stop the robot from thinking whatever it wants, but the truth of the matter is that I am not writing for the robot. I’m writing for people who read the preceding paragraph and saw a margarita.

And now it’s time for me to see a margarita. Literally.

**Freelance editor Lexi Walker will be posting on issues of grammar, usage, and style twice monthly. She knows that her firm approach to editing stings a little but prefers to think that the momentary discomfort means the process is working.

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under Editing, Grammar

So Shall It Be Written: Using the Passive Voice

Call them resolutions, goals, or life lists. The names may vary, but the intentions don’t. People like to start a new year by making plans and taking action. I’m pretty sure no one is making the promise to sit around more, although there is value in a vow to be more accepting of life as it comes by.

I’m taking action myself in the new year. In my first editorial post of the year, I’m taking on the passive voice.

First, let’s be clear about what the passive voice is.

In a sentence written in the passive voice, the subject of the sentence is receiving the action described by the verb. In the active voice, the subject is performing the action. Neither of the preceding two sentences is written in the passive voice (but this one is).

For example, the sentence “Lexi wrote this blog post” is in the active voice; I, the subject, am doing the writing. If I said, “This blog post is written by Lexi,” the subject, which is now the blog post, is receiving the action, which is my having written it.

Lots of misinformation surrounds the passive voice, and that misinformation can lead to robo-editing. The worst of it is the misconception that inclusion of the verb “to be” (or any of its forms) places your sentence in the passive voice. That’s just not true. If I write that “I am slapping a robo-editor,” I am definitely performing the action.

I’ve also observed a lively debate about whether a sentence like “I am confused” is in the passive voice. One school of thought maintains that this sentence is in the passive voice. The subject is being confused by something not present in the sentence. Personally, I think that “confused” is an adjective here. That would place this in the active voice; the subject is performing the action, to the extent that the state of being is an action.

I do not purport to resolve this debate here, but I want to make two points. My reading of the sentence leaves the writer with another problem, in that the only verb in the sentence is a form of “to be.” That’s limp writing, and we can do better. I also want to note that if I’m editing, I charge by the hour, and it will take me less time to call the word “confused” an adjective, suggest using a better verb, and keep moving, rather than engage in the debate about voice. Your mileage may vary.

Most of us have at some point been told not to use the passive voice. At all. But is that good advice? In my so-called real life, as a lawyer and a journalist, I often find I have to use the passive voice. I’m willing to bet you face many of the same situations.

Passive voice is a good idea – if not required – when it doesn’t matter who performed the action, when it’s unclear who performed the action, when it’s important to obscure blame for the action, and when the receiver of the action is more important than the actor. It’s okay to say someone was killed if we do not know (or cannot prove) who committed the murder. It’s okay to say your car was vandalized if your concern lies more with your car than with the perpetrator. To say that something could have been handled better avoids pointing the finger without necessarily minimizing the mistake. Lots of people apologize exclusively in the passive voice (I think it takes guts to apologize in the active, but that’s another column).

Don’t write off the passive voice altogether. You’ll find it’s a powerful ally. Just don’t let it run off with your writing. Readers love people of action.

**Freelance editor Lexi Walker will be posting on issues of grammar, usage, and style twice monthly. She knows that her firm approach to editing stings a little but prefers to think that the momentary discomfort means the process is working.

2 Comments

Filed under Editing, Grammar

Peace on Earth and Good Will Toward Writers

This is my last column of 2012. I like to spend a little time at the end of the year to take stock of what I’ve managed to do and to consider my plans for the next year. I’ll have to do some writing between here and January; there’s just too much to do for me to spend the next two weeks completely slacking off. But I really want to focus on winding up the year and getting recharged for the future.

Everyone’s got a preferred method for rejuvenating their artistic spirit. These are a few of my favorites.

Re-read something. It’s comforting to pass through familiar settings and turns of phrase in the company of characters who feel like old friends. Re-reading also reminds me of places in my own past. I have a Sherlock Holmes collection that reminds me of a snowy afternoon in Charlottesville on the weekend I decided to attend the University of Virginia. Each time I read Jane Eyre, I think about how much my life has changed since the first time I read it in middle school. Thinking about the full circles and broken patterns of the past often gets me thinking about the future, too.

Play games with the muse. I’ll probably have to work on some larger projects over the holiday, which means the laptop, my enormous stack of index cards, and at least two full-size notebooks have to come with me when I travel. But I’m planning to take one of my pocket notebooks with me, just to fool around in. I might run a few 15-minute exercises. (I tried two last year – 15 minutes starting with “I remember” and another 15 minutes starting with “I don’t remember” – that felt fresh and exciting.) I might dash off a character sketch or play “what if” or pull out one of my writing exercise books. When I switch it up with the muse, he often responds with a surprise of his own, which is very nice indeed!

Embrace a hobby. My personal favorite is knitting (my home is filled with partially completed projects, slowly stretching out on the needles), but I like to get into new recipes over the holiday, too. Once my hands are distracted, my mind is free to think of the writing in a less structured way. It’s easier to be positive about how I’ve been doing as a writer when I’m occupied with completely different projects.

Get out there. The world outside is just loaded with sensory stimuli – rocket fuel for writerly pursuits. Holidays are also great for people-watching; everyone’s off work and relaxed and enjoying the season. Being outside among other people is a reminder that the world is brand new and different every day. Each morning presents a fresh combination of random chance and individual planning, and there’s no way to really know what’s going to happen. How exciting is that?

How are you enjoying the end of the year? Share your invigorating secrets in the comments. Don’t worry – I will greet the first of the year at the top of my game, with lots of tough editorial love for everyone.

**Freelance editor Lexi Walker will be posting on issues of grammar, usage, and style twice monthly. She knows that her firm approach to editing stings a little but prefers to think that the momentary discomfort means the process is working.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

A Critique Partner for the Holidays … and Beyond!

Are you between NaNoWriMo and the new year’s fresh opportunities to renew your writing practice? Maybe you’re taking a month off from your writing routine to re-enter the so-called real world. In any case, December is a good time to consider the care and feeding of your writing career. So what do you need? A long-range plan? A fistful of USB drives? A workspace more conducive to actual work?

How about a critique partner?

Now, don’t take it personally. I imagine that most of you reading this column already have a critique partner. I think you’re here because you care about your work and you’re willing to put in the time and effort necessary to make sure it looks its best. Having said that, I think most of us know someone who needs a critique partner or who is looking for another critique partner. Maybe our acquaintance doesn’t know he needs a critique partner or doesn’t know how to find one. Maybe it’s time to expand to a critique network.

Finding a good critique partner is no simple task, but with confidence, patience, and a thick skin, it’s far from impossible. Hopefully, these notes will start you thinking about what you need and don’t need as you go looking for your new CP.

Your partner should understand your genre. This is not to say that your CP has to write in the same genre as you, or even that he has to write genre fiction. But if you’re writing romance and your partner openly disdains the genre as a whole, you’re not going to get as much as you can out of that relationship. Drill down as far into subgenres as you need to. You’ll want someone who isn’t squeamish about the specific mix of elements that brings your writing to life.

It’s a good idea to seek out a partner who’s going to challenge you. You shouldn’t feel like you’re being dragged behind your partner, but in any sound partnership, each of you will find something to admire about the other. When you admire your CP, you’ll want to stretch yourself as a writer so that you can get the most out of that relationship.

At the same time, your ideal partner knows your voice and your style. Like a good editor, your critique partner will help you to sound more like yourself. That’s not to say that your partner can’t share with you what he would do in a specific situation. If you’re finding that your partner’s critique consistently leads you to sound more like him at the expense of yourself, then it’s time to shop around some more.

So where do you find the ideal critique partner? If you were in NaNoWriMo, you’ve got a good place to start; the December forums have lots of great resources, as well as potential partners. If you look for partners online, you’ll find a large number of people to choose from, but seeking out critique partners in person can be just as productive. Try local writers’ groups (plug it into your search engine and go from there) and get involved in your local literary community. You might even try Meetup.com. There’s a Meetup for just about everything. When you start to narrow things down, consider gathering a little group of critique partners, like the Knights of the Round Table or the X-Men (back in the day, before there were X-Men on each coast and overseas). You’ll keep your own skills sharp by critiquing several people, and you’ll have a group of opinions to choose from when the time comes. Plus you’ll have a lot of occasions to celebrate when each of you finds a new level of success.

I’ve been very fortunate – my critique partner is a genius! (And no, I’m not going to tell you who she is; I very selfishly am trying to prevent increases in demand.) When I was looking for partners, I found I kept more of her marks than anyone else’s. She bears my fits of pique with patience and good humor. She’s gentle and diplomatic and sticks to her guns. And as I work, I often catch myself thinking, “Oh, yeah. She’s going to mark that.” All of that has made me a better writer, and I hope I’ve at least been helpful to her as well.

I still think most of you already have critique partners. What does that relationship look like for you?

**Freelance editor Lexi Walker will be posting on issues of grammar, usage, and style twice monthly. She knows that her firm approach to editing stings a little but prefers to think that the momentary discomfort means the process is working.

2 Comments

Filed under Editing

Go Low(er) Tech and Fight Robo-Editing

I like big editing jobs. I like moving the words around and standing back to see what they look like. I like taking a green pen to a thick, freshly printed stack of pages. Word by word, line by line, page by page, and chapter by chapter, that stack of pages takes on its proper shape, and it is beautiful to watch.

In this computer-driven time, it would be easy to let the machine do most of the work, if I didn’t love doing it myself quite so much. I can see how other editors might be tempted to rely on the various bells and whistles found in most word processing software. That temptation, like most temptations, has its place. Even I have given in to the seduction of Search and Destroy – I mean, Search and Replace – to deal with consistent misspellings. Complete surrender to automation, however, can lead to an unfortunate editing misstep, which I call robo-editing.

Robo-editing relies on two problematic approaches to editing. First, it uses troubling editing “rules,” usually the ones that depend on the word “never.” The rules of the editing road generally don’t rest on absolutes like that. Robo-editing also utilizes Replace All. There are very few situations in which the use of Replace All is appropriate.

An example might make things clearer.

Some schools of editing teach writers never to use the phrase “a little.” A robo-editor plugs the phrase “a little” into the Search and Replace (leaving the Replace part blank) and then clicks Replace All. This will eliminate any and all uses of the phrase “a little,” and that’s a bad idea.

The difference between seductive coaxing and a command is the phrase “a little.” A child putting on a brave face for a police officer might cloak his fear by admitting that he is “a little” scared. Someone trying to minimize a big problem will call it “a little” one.

Robo-editing doesn’t care. The Replace All function doesn’t appreciate all these nuances. Robo-editors only know that some person said never to use “a little,” and now that phrase has been expunged from the manuscript.

Robo-editing sends a message. It says, “I didn’t make the effort to go through your document line by line. I can’t be bothered to read your work and assess it for voice, context, and cadence. I won’t even follow Search and Replace to each instance of your target phrase and make individual decisions based on my judgment.” If you’re comfortable sending that message, by all means, go right ahead and robo-edit. At some point in the life of the manuscript, a human editor will notice the robo-editing and draw his or her own conclusions, none of which is likely to be pleasant. That’s if you’re lucky. If you’re not lucky, a reader will notice. The reader’s conclusions will definitely be unpleasant.

So what should you do, as a writer, if you want to make sure you get all occurrences of your personal problematic phrases? You’ve got a couple of options.

You can still use the computer to do it. If you’re using Scrivener, the Search function will count and highlight every instance of your target words or phrases, and you can pop through and handle each one individually. If you’re using something else, you can still use the Search and Replace – just don’t use Replace All. Don’t even use Replace. Stick to Find. Find Next will get you through the manuscript, one instance at a time. If I have to use the Search function, this is how I try to do it.

You could also go old school and read your manuscript out loud. This is a good practice anyway. Reading out loud identifies unnatural dialogue, awkward construction, and any number of other problems. As you’re reading, mark your trouble phrases as you go. It takes time, but excellence will do that.

Stand up for humanity! Don’t let the machine do your job for you.

**Freelance editor Lexi Walker will be posting on issues of grammar, usage, and style twice monthly. She knows that her firm approach to editing stings a little but prefers to think that the momentary discomfort means the process is working.

7 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

The Best Thing about Editing? Shopping.

I have a confession to make. I hate writing introductions. I struggled with the topic for my first post here. In future posts, I’ll be tackling some of the things that make editors cry (and not in a good way) and discussing some of the tools writers can use to make their work more effective. I just hate to open with complaints. At the same time, we don’t really know each other well enough for you to take my advice, right? This first post, then, takes up a reasonably harmless subject: shopping.

Only 15 days separate us from Thanksgiving, which means that the holiday shopping season isn’t far behind. In this opening post, I’ll share the most useful resources I rely on as an editor. They’re easy to come by, and they make great gifts for writers in any stage of their careers.

  1. A good grammar book. The one on my shelf is stolen; I took it from my brother after he graduated from high school. It’s old, but I tend to agree with Leah. I don’t think grammar should float on the current of popular opinion. Grammar is like a navy blue suit or a little black dress. It’s timeless and sophisticated, and put to its proper use, it’ll make you look that way, too. If you don’t have a sibling who will look the other way while you take his things, consider Jane Straus’s The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation. It’s approachable and easy to use, a great resource that blends the classic rules of grammar with modern usage. Her website also has a set of grammar quizzes to test your language mettle.
  2. The Chicago Manual of Style. The jolly orange giant goes beyond grammar and into the world of style to answer a writer’s most troublesome questions. Should “french fries” be capitalized? (It shouldn’t, and neither should “india ink.”) The Second Coming is capitalized, but hell, purgatory, and original sin are not. My copy falls open to Chapter 7, which includes the rules on compound words, possessives, and hyphenation. So many publishers lean on the Chicago Manual that it makes sense to get very comfortable with the rules. How comfortable? Well, I like to insert tape flags on the pages I refer to all the time. Seriously, I derive enjoyment from doing that. But I’m a geek. You might find that a little disturbing.
  3. A visual dictionary. The one on my shelf is a gift from the same brother from whom I stole my grammar book. A visual dictionary contains loads of pictures of objects as diverse as spacesuits, dining utensils, art supplies, and fashion accessories. Each illustration features captions with the proper names of the item’s components. Not only will a visual dictionary help you distinguish the fish knife from the cheese knife, but it’ll also tell you what to call that little rubbery thing between your glasses and your nose. (It’s a nose pad, the little oval gold thing inside it is a pad plate, and the thing holding it onto your glasses is a pad arm.) Sure, some of the information is a little obscure, but sometimes that’s a good thing. In his novel Intensity, Dean Koontz taught me what a pintle and gudgeon are. They’re little details that remind me of him every time I open a door. Visual dictionaries are available online, but they’re quite addictive. I dare you not to spend at least half an hour poking around Merriam-Webster’s.

If you’ve got the basics on your shelf already, the best thing you can do to build those language skills is to read. Reading builds vocabulary, exposes you to different modes of voice and tone, and shows you new and elegant ways to use the language. Read whatever you can, inside and outside of your chosen genre. Think of it like the “balanced breakfast” we used to see on commercials for cereal. Sure, we could just eat the Cocoa Puffs all by themselves, but you’re supposed to have toast, orange juice, and a piece of fruit, too.

The more you read, the more you’ll come to see the flexibility in some of these grammar and usage rules. That’s a good thing. It’ll give us something to talk about the next time I’m here.

What’s your favorite editorial resource book? I’m always looking for things to buy … and to ask for.

**Freelance editor Lexi Walker will be posting on issues of grammar, usage, and style twice monthly. She knows that her firm approach to editing stings a little but prefers to think that the momentary discomfort means the process is working.

4 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized