Category Archives: Editing

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.

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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.

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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.

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No, no! No more NaNo!

I had intended to dedicate this week to homonyms, or synonyms…or one of those “nyms” that cause so much confusion in our language, but I changed my mind when I realized that we’d come to the end of November — otherwise known as D (deadline) Day to the thousands of writers who took up the annual NaNoWriMo challenge. So, in honor of all of you who so valiantly battled day in and day out to accumulate 50,000 words or more during a month already packed with Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Cyber Monday and who-knows-what-else is going on in your lives, I dedicate this week’s blog to you!

First, I congratulate you for hanging in there, for making that lofty goal and giving yourselves some literary meat to tear into as you start the next phase in your story’s life. Even if you didn’t hit the 50K mark, I congratulate you for trying. And I can most probably guarantee that you wrote more words than I did (even if I count editing).

Which is why I vow, here and now, publicly, to never, ever….ever…put myself through that torture again.

I think there are some people who take to the annual writing challenge like fish to water. (See, that is a perfect example of NaNo writing. Everyone knows that’s an old and tired cliché. But I’m in a rush to get this post finished, and I don’t want to stop and think of a fresh way of saying the same thing. So I’m going to leave it, for now.) Those NaNo naturals must love writing fast and dirty, not caring whether their initial content is full of clichés, typos or other spelling errors. They just plow ahead and get the story down.

I believe this because for two years in a row, I attended a NaNo group write-off hosted by a friend on the first Sunday of November. During the afternoon, she tasks the group with several speed-writing challenges. She sets the timer for an unknown length of time, yells, “Go!” and we attack our keyboards with the ferocity of cub reporters trying to scoop the star of the cross-town paper who’s covering the same big story. The goal of these timed writings is to write, and write, and write, write, write, write, until we hear the ding!, signaling that time is up. Then our gracious hostess (who has stocked the room with enough goodies and beverages to give the entire student body of an elementary school a sugar high…God Bless Her) asks us for our totals, declares a winner, and hands out a small prize. Over the course of the afternoon, she varies the definition of “winner” so everyone has a chance at a prize:  highest word count, lowest word count, most improved word count…you get the picture. (She’s so good.)

Each time I’d gear myself up for the race, type my fingers off, and at the ding!, I’d look at my total (maybe 1050 words for five minutes) and think, Hey, that ain’t bad. That is, until I’d hear the totals of some of my peers. Like the two young women in the group who somehow cranked out something like 3,000 words in five minutes! I kid you not! When I heard their numbers, I mumbled to the woman sitting next to me, “They must be using an awful lot of short words!” (I know, not my most gracious moment.) She shrugged and replied that they’re probably super-fast typists.

Fast typists? Really? Heck, I’m a fast typist. I tested at over 85 WPM a couple of years back, and that was going slow so I wouldn’t make errors! How the he– How fast can they possibly type!?!

Then she added, “They don’t stop to make corrections.”

Oh…..now I get it. They don’t stop. For anything. And that, as I understand it, is the whole point of NaNo. You don’t stop to edit. You don’t stop to research a detail in your story (like the “live oak” trees that I’m researching for my WIP–aren’t all oaks “live”??). You don’t stop to find the name of the hero’s third-grade teacher that you mentioned three chapters back, even though skipping that fact might cause you complete confusion when you get to edits. You don’t stop to go back and fix a plot point in the prior chapter that could conceivably throw you off for the remainder of the book. You just write, period.

I think there are some people who work well with that model. They’re the same ones who probably believe you should never edit while you’re writing, who believe you should save editing for the official editing phase. That works well for some writers. (I know a best-selling writer who creates a messy first draft, then keeps adding and refining until she’s gone through something like 20 drafts to get to her final product.)

If that’s the way you write, fine. But if you’re like me, it’s not fine, and I really don’t care that I’m not following so-and-so’s advice, because the way I write works for me. I do edit while I write. I do fix my typos (when I catch them). I do research fine details. I do go back to find the names of characters or places I’d conceived on the fly (and try to scribble them down somewhere this time so I don’t have to go back again).  When I meander off my plot outline, I do take the time to make it fit, to reconcile hanging questions, because otherwise, I may never find my way back. (Believe me, my memory can’t take more than a couple minutes’ diversion. If I don’t fix it here and now, I’ll not only forget the solution, I’ll forget there was ever a question!)

If I decided to not edit as I wrote, the final product could be an editing nightmare, causing me and my editor more work (and probably confusion) than simply taking the time to get it right the first time. Over the past six or several years, I’ve culled my process down to three solid drafts before handing it off to an editor.) It works for me. NaNo does not. I’ve tried it twice now, and twice I’ve failed, miserably. It’s been several weeks since I’ve worked on my NaNo project, and I’m actually a little afraid to go back and look at what I wrote!

So, when it comes to these theories (fast and dirty vs. editing as you go), here’s my advice: Do what works for you. If you like the challenge of racing the clock (with or without NaNo) and you do well with smoothing out your rough edges and filling in the blanks during your edit phase, I applaud you. But if you’re like me, if you prefer to think and perfect while you write, embrace your style. There’s nothing wrong with doing what works well for you.

That’s what I’m going to do from now on. And when next year’s NaNo challenge rears its ugly– I mean, when the call to enter NaNo comes next year, I’ll happily sit it out and let the speed-writers have fun.

Happy writing! Happy editing!
(Hmmmm…I never did go back and change that cliché, did I?) 🙂

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After spending her life working with words in various roles in both government and the private sector, including a 10-year stint as a freelance line editor, lifelong grammar fanatic Leah Price is excited about putting her skills and knowledge to work in the publishing industry as senior editor for Edward Allen Publishing. She also writes commercial fiction under a pseudonym and knows how tough it is to get all the pieces in the story puzzle to fit, but she loves the journey.

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