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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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Be a Rebel…Break the Rules – by Alicia Dean

I have received a number of submissions over the years where the authors tried very hard to follow the ‘rules of writing.’ They tried so hard, in fact, that their stories were stiff and poorly written. I’m guessing it was the work of well meaning critique partners and overzealous contest judges. Don’t get me wrong, having input on your manuscript can be beneficial. All comments and suggestions should be considered, but if they don’t improve your writing, ignore them.

Some of the rules that actually shouldn’t be rules are…

1)      Do not use ‘was,’ especially ‘was + ing’  (sometimes, they just work)

2)      Be descriptive (to a degree, but readers don’t need every little detail)

3)      Show don’t tell (this is a good rule, but shouldn’t always be followed)

4)      Do not end a sentence in a preposition (Sometimes, you just gotta)

5)      Do not use adverbs (use them sparingly, but adverbs can be your friend)

6)      Do not use fragments (Sometimes, they add emphasis)

If I followed all these rules, I might write something like this:

I drove down the street when a figure shot across the road in front of me.  I slammed on the brakes and shoved the silver gearshift with the black vinyl knob into park, then opened my car door and climbed out.   I scanned the sidewalk. The only people in sight were a couple standing outside a convenience store.

The woman shouted, “This is it. You’ve cheated on me for the last time.”

“It was nothing. You’ve got it all wrong,” the man said.

“Yeah, right.” The woman clenched her fists at her sides. “Don’t lie to me! I’m sick and tired of all the lies.”

Whoever had run in front of me was nowhere in sight. To where did he disappear?

The roar of a motor caught my attention. I whirled. A man was behind the wheel of my car, driving away. I stumbled after him and fell to the sidewalk, scraping my knees on the concrete. Pain radiated up to my chest, and tears sprang to my eyes. I rose to my feet. I was screwed. I was totally screwed.

Here is the same passage where those rules are ignored:

I was driving down the street when a figure shot across the road in front of me.  I slammed on the brakes and shoved the gearshift into park, then opened my car door and climbed out.  I scanned the sidewalk. The only people in sight were a couple arguing outside a convenience store.

Whoever had run in front of me was nowhere in sight. Where did he disappear to?

The roar of a motor caught my attention. I whirled. A man was behind the wheel of my car, driving away. I stumbled after him and fell to the sidewalk, scraping my knees on the concrete. Pain radiated up to my chest, and tears sprang to my eyes. I gingerly rose to my feet. I was screwed. Totally screwed.

This is not a great scene, for many reasons, but it serves the purpose of providing examples of the rules that shouldn’t necessarily be followed. Below I’ve pointed out where the first passage went wrong.

I drove (This sounds like something that has already happened instead of an action that is happening now) down the street when a figure shot across the road in front of me.  I slammed on the brakes and shoved the silver gearshift with the black vinyl (We don’t care what the gear shift looks like) knob into park, then opened my car door and climbed out. I scanned the sidewalk. The only people in sight were a couple standing outside a convenience store.

The woman shouted, “This is it. You’ve cheated on me for the last time.”

“It was nothing. You’ve got it all wrong,” the man said.

“Yeah, right.” The woman clenched her fists at her sides. “Don’t lie to me! I’m sick and tired of all the lies.”  (You don’t need to ‘show’ the argument, just tell us they were arguing. In this case, inserting the argument only clutters the scene and moves the focus away from where it should be.)

Whoever had run in front of me was nowhere in sight. To where did he disappear? (This sounds unnatural until you put ‘to’ at the end)

The roar of a motor caught my attention. I whirled. A man was behind the wheel of my car, driving away. I stumbled after him and fell to the sidewalk, scraping my knees on the concrete. Pain radiated up to my chest, and tears sprang to my eyes. I rose (gingerly indicates caution due to the pain) to my feet. I was screwed. I was totally screwed. (“I was” sounds repetitious and doesn’t have the same emphasis as simply ‘Totally screwed’)

The secret is to write your story to where it sounds natural and vivid. Read it aloud, listen to the rhythm, and if breaking rules makes it sound better, then by all means, break them.

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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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2013 – a year for discoveries

Well, it’s New Year’s Eve, the last day of the calendar year. I have to apologize for being absent the last few weeks. I figured everyone was too busy shopping and baking and partying and preparing for the end of the world to read my thoughts about writing and editing. (Long pause.) Actually, I just forgot. Okay? I forgot to post the blogs I had written about voice. I presume no one was holding his or her breath in anxious anticipation though, so I’ll just start again next week.

In the meantime, I’d like to wish everyone a Happy New Year. I hope you can look back on 2012 and embrace the nuggets of good in your writing journey — maybe some great feedback, maybe a contest win, or maybe just finishing a chapter that was giving you trouble — so that you’ll you want to keep going, keep writing those words and scenes you hear and see so clearly in your head, for the rest of us to enjoy. I hope, too, that you are looking forward to 2013 with renewed energy and enthusiasm to work hard and make each story better in some way. I hope when you take a long, hard look at the competition out there (and you should), that it doesn’t discourage you. Because there’s plenty — competition, that is.

The way I see it, though, there are still more readers than writers (most of whom are also readers). There are still people who go through two or three books per week (like I used to). There are still many, many readers looking for a new voice in fiction whose works they can follow. You know I’m right. How excited are you, as a reader yourself, when you plow through your mountainous TBR pile and pluck out a book by a new or unknown author whose words suck you into a land or time or situation that makes you forget the ordinary-ness of your own everyday world?

That excites me as a reader, and I’m betting it excites you as well. Aren’t you tempted then to go out and find the next book by that author, and the next?

That’s what I hope you’re hoping for in 2013, to be that new/unknown author. To be the one whose words bring a sense of joy, excitement, danger, sadness, love — whatever it is you’re trying to convey — to a reader. It can happen. You just need to keep working, listen to trusted feedback, work on your personal writing challenges, and write. Every day, write.

Happy 2013 … let’s make it the year of discoveries, for all of us.

_______________________________

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 as senior acquisitions 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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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.

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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.

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Beta readers ~ be careful what you ask for!

Some of you might know that I write commercial fiction under a pseudonym. As a grammar snob, I pride myself on generally clean manuscripts. Not that I don’t need editing — believe me, I do — but the edits usually aren’t for grammar or punctuation, at least not on a large scale. So when I pass my precious baby (manuscript) out to my group of loyal beta readers, I ask them to let me know of any glaring inconsistencies in the story (like my hero’s eyes are brown in the first chapter and blue in the second). These are the types of errors that are so easy for authors to miss because we’ve lived in the story for so long, and probably had multiple drafts where we’ve changed details like that, we tend to gloss over inconsistencies when we’re proofing.

A couple weeks ago I sent my newest story out to my group, and asked one person to share with her friend. I knew the woman to be an avid reader, and I figured it never hurt to have an additional set of eyes. It was probably two or three days later that that my friend sent me an e-mail asking, “Was the story edited yet?”

Immediately my writer’s “hackles” went up. “Yes,” I responded. “The edits are done.” I didn’t ask why, partly because I was rushed, and partly because I wasn’t sure I wanted to know, or not until I had a chance to brace myself! (I do have a fragile ego at times.)

Another few days passed before I heard from my friend again. She said, “Susie (name changed to protect us all) wants to know, isn’t it incorrect to start the sentence with the word and?”

Ah…there it was, the reason for her earlier question: Susie was misinterpreting my request for a beta read as a request for proofreading. Of course I want my beta readers to let me know of errors and typos, but I don’t expect them (or want them) to turn into line and/or content editors. I need them to read the story as they’d read any story and let me know if anything makes them stop and do a mental head-shake.

I responded that in terms of academic or business writing, that’s the general rule, but fiction writers have leeway to play with sentence structure and rules. It’s called literary/poetic license. Authors use literary devices to emphasize or clarify. Like using clauses in place of a full sentence (when the meaning is clear). Like ignoring the rules of paragraph construction and sticking a sentence (or a clause) in a separate paragraph to draw attention to or highlight the point.

And, yes, even like starting a sentence with the word and.

When writing for academia or business, (I believe) you have to follow the rules of grammar because it gives your argument, your purpose for writing the piece, credence and authority.

When writing fiction, we’re telling a story, not writing a doctoral dissertation, or an editorial. In fiction, the writer’s job is to draw the reader into the make-believe world and keep him or her there, and the judicious use of those literary devices helps writers to do that. At the same time, we trust our readers to know the difference between those elements and grammar errors.

So after having this discussion with my friend, I passed on Susie’s kind offer to borrow her grammar book and vowed that when it comes to beta readers, to be careful who I’m asking, and to be clear about what I’m asking for. Not only had I probably wasted that woman’s time and energy, but she probably got little enjoyment from proofreading a story as a term paper.

Thanks for visiting with me this week. Hopefully sharing my goof will help others avoid this pitfall.

Wishing all a blessed Thanksgiving, filled with the laughter and love of family and friends. And maybe even a few spare hours to read a good book!

_______________________

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.

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