Editors Are People, Too (Just So You Know)

As a writer myself, I totally understand the frustration of trying to read an editor’s mind and understand the why behind lengthy edits or outright rejections. What’s going on?

I’ve been encouraging my professional writing students to be aware of and submit to literary magazines as an outlet for their creative writing. Some of them were only aware of a few such locations to send their writing, others didn’t know about lit mags at all, others knew only about contests and didn’t enter often because of the submission fee. But with the thousands of literary magazines out there (I just discovered Duotrope and used it to help me locate lit mags that publish in my genre), anyone can build a list of locations for future submissions. Literary magazines don’t generally pay (although a few do), but the by-line and exposure are invaluable. So this semester, each of my students will be researching lit mags and building lists.

As with any publishing house, however, the writing needs to pass muster for any number of reasons in order to get published.

That’s why I love this article by Savannah Thorne over at one of my favorite websites for following the world of literary magazines, “The Review Review” (and thanks to Becky Tuch for creating it!). Savannah was accepted for publication in a literary magazine called Conclave: A Journal of Character, only to find that the magazine was possibly going to close down. So she took the amazing step of taking it on as managing editor and turning it around.

Her article, “What the Editor Sees (That the Writer Does Not)offers wonderful insight from a writer turned editor into the world of editing a literary magazine. She describes for writers what happens after you’ve hit “submit.” And why it takes so long to hear back. And what you should do when you get a rejection. And why you should keep trying. And, yes, why it takes so long to hear back.

I’ll wait while you click on the link above and read her article . . . [pause for a refill on whatever I’m currently drinking]

What’s the takeaway? Do your research, write well, keep on writing, keep on submitting. Editors have any number of reasons for accepting some pieces and rejecting others–and often it’s just a gut feeling about a particular piece.

As I said in this post about how editors really aren’t “failed writers” with, as Martin Eden would say, nothing but failure in their past causing their desire to make life miserable for writers who are still trying. Instead, editors are slogging through piles of submissions, many of which are probably great, looking for the excellent, something that sings to them, something that they want to publish in the magazine about which they care so much.

No, you can’t know what that is necessarily. But write your best. Get critiqued. Keep writing. Keep submitting. If someone rejects it, try somewhere else.

Don’t give up, my friend. Keep writing what is truly you. As Herman Melville once wrote, “It is better to fail in originality, than to succeed in imitation. He who has never failed somewhere, that man cannot be great.”

Great Editors–Sol Stein Helps Us Learn to Edit Ourselves

I just finished reading Sol Stein’s excellent book, Stein on Writing–A Master Editor of Some of the Most Successful Writers of Our Century Shares His Craft Techniques and StrategiesI found myself marking passage after passage, “This will be great to teach my students in my feature article writing class,” or “Wow, that’s a real encouragement to me,” or “I never thought of it that way before.”

Born in 1926 and now 88 years old, Sol Stein founded the book publishing firm of Stein and Day in 1962 which operated until 1989. During his tenure there, according to his website, Stein “edited and published some of the outstanding writers of the 20th century, including James Baldwin, David Frost, Jack Higgins, Elia Kazan, Dylan Thomas, Lionel Trilling, W. H. Auden, Jacques Barzun, and three heads of state.”

Describing his editing of Elia Kazan, Stein says,

The author I have spent more time editing than any other is Elia Kazan, winner of two Academy Awards and director of five Pulitzer Prize Stein on Writingplays who turned to fiction and became a number-one bestselling novelist. In his autobiography Kazan said, “I was now in a new profession. My publisher Sol Stein was my producer, and my editor Sol Stein was my director. . . . He saw quickly . . . that I delighted in saying the same thing over and over, thereby minimizing its impact (‘One plus one equals a half,” Sol would say’).” (205)

Throughout this book, Stein offers advice to writers of both fiction and nonfiction on the basics of plot, pacing, dialog, characterization, and just plain how to be a better writer and get noticed by editors. To flesh out the concepts he teaches, Stein uses anecdotes from his editing of great writers and from working with students in his classrooms. Speaking of his advice to Kazan:

Eliminating redundance was an important factor in [Kazan’s] novel The Arrangement remaining number one on the bestseller charts for thirty-seven consecutive weeks. . . . Catching “one-plus-ones” is a function of what is called “line editing.” Shouldn’t writers rely on editors to catch things like that? The hard fact is that editors do a lot less line editing than they used to. If a novel requires a lot of line editing, it is less likely to be taken on by a publisher, who has to consider the cost of editing. Which is why it is incumbent upon writers to become, in effect, their own editors. (205-206)

I know, I know. You want to be a writer. And I do know how difficult it is to see the forest for the trees. And, yes, you do indeed need readers in a critique group, you need editors and copyeditors who will see things that completely escape you. But here’s the deal. Write that article or essay or book and then let it simmer for awhile. Go away from it. Let others read it. Reread it yourself–slowly, carefully, out loud. If you’re fortunate enough to get published, editors and copyeditors will still bleed red ink all over it (or at least Microsoft Word comments), but it won’t be because you didn’t do your job.

Stein continues:

The biggest difference between a writer and a would-be writer is their attitude toward rewriting. The writer, professional or not, looks forward to the opportunity of excising words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters that do not work and to improving those that do. Many a would-be writer thinks whatever he puts down on paper is by that act somehow indelible. . . .

Judith Applebaum quotes Hemingway as saying to an interviewer, “I rewrote the ending of A Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times before I was satisfied.” Asked what stumped him, Hemingway said, “Getting the words right.”

Of the most successful authors I have worked with, I can think of only one who fiercely resisted revising. . . .Unwillingness to revise usually signals an amateur. (277)

Sure, we all want to be published. Sure, we’re in a hurry to get our words out into the world. But let’s make that writing, when published, something of which we can be proud.

Like Hemingway, let’s take our time getting the words right.

 

What Martin Eden (aka Jack London) Teaches about Writing and Editing

As I continue to write about editors and editing, I came across some very interesting insights in Jack London‘s masterful work, Martin Eden. Written as a thinly veiled autobiography, the story follows a low-class man and his desire for self-improvement in order to impress a high-class woman with whom he has fallen in love. He reads voraciously; learns language, grammar, and syntax; and teaches himself manners, politics, and philosophy. Eventually, he decides to become a writer–after all, he has many stories to tell from his travels around the world as a sailor.

Alas, every story he sends in is rejected and returned in what we would call the SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope). For years, he toils. He goes back and rereads the magazines to which he’s submitting to discover the “secret formula” for getting accepted. He spends hours and hours working at his craft, steadfastly refusing to bow to pressure from the woman he loves (and everyone else in his world) to just “get a job.”

He knows he’s a writer. He can feel it in his bones. He knows he has stories to tell, and he knows his stories are better than anything he’s reading in the magazines.

His money runs out. He barely survives. And the rejections keep coming. Martin begins to wonder:

He began to doubt that editors were real men. They seemed cogs in a machine. That was what it was, a machine. He poured his soul into stories, articles, and poems, and entrusted them to the machine. . . . There was no human editor at the other end, but a mere cunning arrangement of cogs that change the manuscript from one envelope to another and stuck on the stamps. (160-61)martin eden

The chief qualification of ninety-nine percent of all editors is failure. They have failed as writers. Don’t think they prefer the drudgery of the desk and the slavery to their circulation and to the business manager to the joy of writing. They have tried to write, and they have failed. And right there is the cursed paradox of it. Every portal to success in literature is guarded by those watch-dogs, the failures in literature. The editors, sub-editors, associate editors, most of them, and the manuscript-readers for the magazines and book-publishers, most of them, nearly all of them, are men who wanted to write and who have failed. And yet they, of all creatures under the sun the most unfit, are the very creatures who decide what shall and what shall not find its way into print–they, who have proved themselves not original, who have demonstrated that they lack the divine fire, sit in judgment upon originality and genius. (322-23)

Ever felt that way as a writer? Ever felt like the editors either don’t exist or are simply cogs in machines that send out nothing but rejections?

As an editor, I do have to take a bit of offense that Martin sees me as “unfit.” But as a writer, yes, I have at times wondered if anyone with any taste receives–and rejects–my queries, my articles, my blood-and-guts pieces of creative nonfiction.

I’m sure many writers feel the same.

But let me put in a little bit of a plug on behalf of myself and my editor friends.

  • We truly do want the very best writing. But, you need to understand how subjective that is. It’s a gut reaction to a piece of writing. And if you get rejected one place and you really believe in your piece, keep trying.
  • Everything needs to be edited–everything. Trust us. We will work with you to make your writing the best it can be.
  • Editors are human, and each one of us is different. No two editors will edit a piece the same way. Take the advice, but also understand that we are in a conversation with you when we edit.
  • We are busy. Sure, no one wants to wait months for a response, but we’re reading hundreds (sometimes thousands) of pieces. Hence, the form letters that get returned in your SASE. We simply don’t have time to give personal responses to everything. (That said, if you get any kind of response–such as a quick hand-written note on that rejection letter–take that as a huge compliment and keep on trying with that editor.)
  • And generally we aren’t failed writers who defaulted to editing. Many of us write on the side (and get the same treatment from fellow editors). There’s no club. Our work has to stand on its own, just as with everyone else. Many of us have no desire to write at all–editing is our calling and we’re committed to that.
  • Rejection doesn’t mean failure. A piece can be rejected for any number of reasons. It may be that your writing isn’t good–but if you’re in a critique group and you’re taking advice, that probably isn’t the case. It could be things you have no way of knowing–maybe a story like yours has already been accepted and now yours isn’t needed. It could be that gut thing I wrote of above.
  • We really do care about the submission guidelines, the formatting advice we give you, etc. Read these guidelines and follow them. Because we receive hundreds of manuscripts, if it’s apparent you can’t follow the simplest guidelines, then we won’t take the time to read what you sent.

Eventually, Martin Eden does find the success he so long sought, but it comes at a price. He discovers the down side of fame and some of the hypocrisy in publishing, which begins his undoing.

Bottom line, Martin Eden teaches us that it takes persistence, faith in yourself, and hard hard hard work to be a writer.

Don’t give up. Don’t let the editors get you down. Realize that they aren’t “rejection machines.”

Nothing’s perfect, but work with us. Your great writing will find its home.

Quotations taken from Jack London’s Martin Eden: The Annotated Edition by Dennis E. Hensley, Ph.D. Upland, IN: Taylor University Press, 2006. This edition is pictured above.

Great Editors–Robert Loomis at Random House

My decision to use my blog to focus on the unsung heroes of publishing–the editors in the trenches–has sent me on an adventure of websites and book reading and rather intense study. But I am loving every minute of it. It’s just not all happening as quickly as my self-imposed blogging schedule might like. But I’m learning along the way about what makes great editors, and I want to pass what I’m learning along to you.

In any case, my trail led me from Maxwell Perkins (see Part 1 and Part 2 of my homage to him) to Bennett Cerf (one of the founders of Random House publishers, more about him later) to Robert Loomis, legendary editor at Random House who retired in 2011 after 54 years.

Right there. That should make him a hero.

You’ve probably not heard of him. But chances are, you’ve heard of some of the people he edited, such as Maya Angelou and William Styron (Loomis edited Sophie’s Choice, among others).

Indeed, the title of an article in The New York Times about his retirement announcement captures his essence: “Nurturer of Authors Is Closing the Book.”

The New York Times article says that upon hearing of his retirement, Maya Angelou said in an email, “Robert Loomis has been my editor since 1968. He has guided and encouraged me through 31 books. I can’t imagine trusting a manuscript in the hands of anyone else. I am not finished writing, so I cannot let him retire.”

That’s the kind of relationship great editors have with writers. The writers need those editors. They love them. They entrust their works and words to them. They know those editors make them that much better as writers. As the article title says, great editors are nurturers of writers.

In fact, from The New York Times archives is this tidbit from “Making Books; Familiarity Breeds Content“:

But while the news accounts go to the authors and editors who pop from one publishing house to another, the less celebrated but more interesting tales are those of continuity and loyalty. Sometimes they even become the stuff of literary legend.

Which brings us back to Ms. Angelou. Her editor is Robert Loomis, an executive editor at Random House, one of publishing’s hall of fame editors. “We are an item,” Ms. Angelou said. ”I would go with Bob if he left and went to a university press. He knows what I hope to achieve in all my work. I don’t know anybody as fierce, simply fierce, but he’s as tender as he’s tough.” . . .

Here’s an insight to a writer-editor relationship. Ms. Angelou said: ”He’s a nuisance. He asks these questions: ‘Why did you put a semicolon there, to give the thought some breath? Is that the word you really want?’ I’ve said to him many times you’re bullheaded, I’ll never speak to you again and then I send him night letters or telegrams telling him he’s right.

”When he finished the manuscript of my last volume he said: ‘Maya, thank you. This is great.’ In 33 years he never used that word for me. Great is good to him.”

In fact, Bennett Cerf, co-founder of Random House (did you know they were so named because they printed “random” books?), counted on the relationships his editors had with their authors to bring those authors into Random House and onto their publication lists. If Random House was able to lure an editor away from a competitor, often that editor’s authors came along.

at random

In his book, At Random: The Reminiscences of Bennett Cerf (Random House, 1977), Cerf describes great editors like this:

A good editor, I think, like a good author, has to be born with some of the necessary talents, like a good memory and some imagination. But he also needs to have acquired a fairly broad range of interests, a working knowledge of the English language and a good supply of general information–the more the better–so that he can understand what an author is trying to do and be of help to him in doing it. An editor has to have read widely enough to be able to recognize and appreciate good writing when he sees it. . . .

An editor has to be able to get along with authors–which is not always easy. When the relationship is a good one, an editor can be extremely helpful by serving as a kind of sounding board for an author’s ideas and intentions, and by making suggestions aimed at sharpening and clarifying what the author wants to say. Also, the editor can be of value in pointing out parts of a manuscript that should be cut out because they are repetitive, or dull, or unnecessary. (219)

Being a good editor means caring about books, caring about language, and being a constant learner. Being one of the greats takes perseverance, relationship-building, honesty coupled with kindness, and a big dose of nurturing.

All of that because of a deep desire to help an author write the best book possible.

Great Editors–Maxwell Perkins, My New Hero (Part 1)

So as it turns out, if it weren’t for an editor, there might not have been The Great Gatsby.

Yay for editors!

I have decided that–while it’s terrific to review books and interview authors–I’m going to go a slightly different direction in my blog in the coming weeks. I’m going to study up on some great editors from the past, and I’m going to interview some great editors of the present.

Because, well, I’m an editor. I know what it takes to work in the salt mines of editing manuscripts to make the good–the great–that much better. I know what it means to study typeset pages until your eyes cross, making sure no typos slip through because I want the author to look good. I know what it means to be in the background and let the author have the credit (as it should be).

I just want to bring some of these people out of the shadows and learn from them and, in so doing, pass along some info to you, my readers, and to the students in my editing classes.

After my last post about teaching editing, Rich Adin (who writes the blog “An American Editor“) commented, “We can teach people to be editors like me; we cannot teach people to be an editor like Maxwell Perkins. Perkins had that rare gift that made him the Michelangelo of editing.” Thanks so much for that comment, Rich, because that sent me on a quest to learn from the best.

perkinsAnd that sent me to A. Scott Berg’s book, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1978).

Seriously, I’m so excited about what I’m reading I can barely stand it.

Maxwell Perkins (1884-1947) was the editor at Charles Scribner’s and Sons for the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe. The book is filled with quotes from correspondence between Perkins and these writers and anecdotes of how he worked with them–cajoling them, encouraging them, offering insight and advice on the big picture of each manuscript, and advocating for them at the meetings of the editorial board.

Mind officially blown.

No, I will never be Max Perkins–and, no, I cannot teach anyone to be Max Perkins. The next Max Perkinses will arise from folks with that internal “gift” that is, simply put, God-given.

But I want to learn from the best and pass along to my students what they, too, can learn from the best.

And for my students out there–I tell you this all the time–you probably won’t start out as full-fledged editors. Max didn’t even study literature or writing in college (Harvard); instead, he studied economics. But his real love was words, and it was a freshman English instructor who, as Berg puts it, “certainly . . . developed Max’s editorial instincts” (32). After graduation, Max went to work writing for The New York Times as the writer who hung around all night and picked up the “suicides, fires, and other nocturnal catastrophes” (33).

His first job at Charles Scribner’s and Sons was in the advertising department where he spent four and a half years before ascending to the hallowed fifth floor–the editorial floor.

And, students, guess what he did there . . .

He was a proofreader!

For the most part, Maxwell Perkins’s duties as an editor were limited to proofreading galleys–long printed sheets, each containing the equivalent of three book pages–and to other perfunctory chores. Occasionally he was called upon to correct the grammar in a gardening book or arrange the selections in school anthologies of classic short stories and translations of Chekhov. The work demanded little creativity. (12)

But then here’s what happened. A regular Scribner author named Shane Leslie became friends with a young author from Minnesota. Leslie sent this young author’s manuscript to the editors at Scribner. It got passed from editor to editor (no one liked it) until it ended up on Perkins’s desk. While he liked it, he was forced to write to the author and decline it (the lowly proofreading editor didn’t have much sway at first). But Perkins saw something in the young man’s writing, and the rejection letter held out some hope and encouragement to the young man who went to work revising and revising and revising.

The manuscript came back much improved, and Perkins went to work doing everything he could (and it was a lot) to get Scribner’s to publish it. At one tense editorial meeting, he said, “My feeling is that a publisher’s first allegiance is to talent. And if we aren’t going to publish talent like this, it is a very serious thing” (15-16).

The young author was F. Scott Fitzgerald. The book was This Side of Paradise (Scribner’s 1920).

What about The Great Gatsby? More on that next week.

Suffice it to say, Maxwell Perkins is my new editorial hero. And I’m his newest student.

 

How to Support an Author’s New Book: 11 Ideas For You

So last week I talked about Literary Citizenship and why I love it. A key, of course, is supporting our fellow authors. In fact, that’s what it’s all about. Chuck Sambuchino offers 11 ideas for how we can support new books.

Writers In The Storm Blog

By Chuck Sambuchino

large_5595133805My Writer’s Digest coworker, Brian A. Klems, recently geared up for the release of his first book — a humorous guide for fathers called OH BOY, YOU’RE HAVING A GIRL: A DAD’S SURVIVAL GUIDE TO RAISING DAUGHTERS (Adams Media). On top of that, my coworker Robert Brewer (editor of Writer’s Market) recently got a publishing deal for a book of his poetry.

So I find myself as a cheerleader for my writing buddies — trying to do what I can to help as their 2013 release dates approach. I help in two ways: 1) I use my own experience of writing & publishing books to share advice on what they can expect and plan for; and 2) I simply do whatever little things I can that help in any way.

This last part brings up an important point: Anyone can support an author’s…

View original post 1,450 more words

Why I Love Literary Citizenship

Much is being written lately on the topic of literary citizenship. Since this was the topic of my Master’s final research paper, I thought I’d go ahead and weigh in with my two cents. (I could write 50 pages, but I already did that. Let’s see if I can condense my thoughts here into a readable blog post!)

I just happened upon this term in the last couple of years–but it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. You see, I’ve worked in publishing for thirty years and went back to school with the hopes of teaching at the college level. As I sat under Cathy Day, she (thankfully) talked to her students about what’s out there in the real world–how to join the literary world, how to get published, how to organize submissions, how to handle rejection, and how to find their “tribes” once they leave the cocoon of a university writing program–everything I already knew was extremely important for writers to understand.

I was thrilled that she talked about this because too often (I feel) creative writing programs focus only on craft without giving students the tools to know what to do with their writing. Yes, I get it. You have to first be a good writer, no, an excellent writer. That’s a given. Roxane Gay puts it this way:

You’re not going to become a better writer by focusing more on getting your writing published than writing work that merits publication. You won’t become a better writer by resenting the success of others or spending most of your time indulging in conspiracy theories about publishing. Yes, sometimes the game is rigged, but mostly it is not. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the wrong things when so much information about writers and what they’re doing or could be doing is readily available via social networks, blogs, and the like.

So of course, being great writers is step one, and I don’t advise that writers let themselves get distracted by the marketing side at the expense of their product. But, after thirty years in publishing, I come at this with a different perspective, and so I maintain that students should be taught what to do with their writing. How to research the literary magazines or the online sites or the commercial magazines or the book publishers that might be interested in their kind of writing. How to write query letters. How to approach an agent. How to create a book proposal. That’s all part of learning to write.

Because, in the end, while writing can indeed be an end in itself, most of us write because we want people to read what we wrote. We want to share it.

And I’m sure it’s my years in publishing talking, but I’ve sat on the other side of the table, needing to help authors understand the importance of marketing their own books.

I know, what a pain after doing all the work of actually writing the book to have to be burdened with actually doing the marketing, too. Isn’t the publisher supposed to do that? That’s the question Becky Tuch asks and precisely why she detests literary citizenship.

But I understand the business side of publishing; it is a business after all and, if it doesn’t make money, none of us gets published. And yes, all those big-name authors get all of the marketing dollars and the rest of us are left pretty much to fend for ourselves, but there’s a reason for that as well. There’s a statistic in Christian publishing that says 9 percent of the authors sell 80 percent of the books. That means that 9 percent of writers are pretty much carrying their publishing houses. So let them have the marketing dollars! In secular publishing, the number may be similar–and we can be sure that it is indeed the big names who get taken care of. Those authors help keep their companies open, which then allows them to take a chance on little ol’ me.

But here’s the deal–literary citizenship is not to be entered into because you want to sell your books. Instead, it’s about joining Renaissance Fairethe literary world because that’s who you are. Just as you might identify with those who join the worlds of ComiCon or Renaissance Faires because you have an affinity for comics and superheroes or feathered caps and falconry, so you join the world of Words and Books as a literary citizen because that’s who you are. You join with like-minded people to talk about what you love best.

The side effect of being “neighborly” in that world (by doing what many lit cit blog posts have discussed regarding ways to be literary citizens) is that when your article or book is published, you can naturally talk about it with those who care–and who will, in turn, talk about it with others. That’s where the “marketing” part actually begins to happen.

But literary citizenship doesn’t start there. It doesn’t start with “marketing” or “selling.” It’s not all about us. It’s not all about “gimme” as in “gimme your attention–me me me” as David Ebenbach describes in his article, Literary Citizenship Does Not Mean Gimme. Instead, it’s about joining a world of word lovers–reading, appreciating, talking about, and sharing one another’s work.

So let’s not hate literary citizenship, let’s embrace it because, in essence, it’s who we are. Let’s come together in this world of Words and Books enjoying what we love most and making sure it continues for all of us for a long, long time.

 

 

6 Quick Proofreading Tips

AND . . . . today is National Proofreading Day. I will celebrate by . . . proofreading! Today I am also reposting a blog I wrote last year on March 8.

What a busy week! We had National Grammar Day on March 4, and today, March 8, is National Proofreading Day. For someone like me who lives this stuff on a daily basis, it’s downright exciting!

The day is devoted to “mistake-free writing” and projecting “a professional image with well-written documents that are 100 percent accurate.” Started by Judy Beaver at The Office Pro, this day is designated because it was her mother’s birthday—and her mother loved to correct errors.

As I noted earlier this week in my post about National Grammar Day, I’m not a total grammar geek but I do care about the correct usage of our language, and I’ve made a living for many years honing this skill. Lots of times I still CMShave to look things up in a dictionary or my Chicago Manual of Style (the style manual for much of the book publishing industry). All manuscripts go through several phases of editing, and I’ve done them all. Generally, if I do one phase on a particular manuscript, I make sure that other people do the other two phases–there’s a different focus that has to take place at each phase.

Editing—I call this the 10,000-foot view. I look at the big picture. I’m reading the fiction story and checking the plot, the pacing and flow, the characterization. In a non-fiction manuscript, I’m seeing if the organization works and makes sense. Any changes I suggest at this point are on the macro level—moving chapter 3 to become chapter 1, for instance. Or looking for that loose end in the mystery that the writer forgot to tie up (“What happened to so-and-so?”). The author makes changes (or not) based on my suggestions, and then the manuscript goes to a copyeditor.

Copyediting—This is more like the 1,000-foot view. Now that the editor has put the manuscript in good shape, if I’m in this role, I’m reading closely for sentence construction—dangling modifiers, run-ons, and inconsistencies. I fact check. I query if something doesn’t make sense, if a transition is needed, if a character’s way of speaking doesn’t sound real based on how he or she has been described by the author (“Would he really say this in this way?”).

Proofreading—This is the 10-foot view. If I’m in this role, sometimes I’m working on a manuscript, but often at this phase I’m looking at a pdf of typeset pages—which means I have to check the table of contents to make sure the titles and page numbers are correct, I check all the folios and running heads, I check the look of each page—marking widows and orphans (those random one or two words at the top of a page, or the lone line at the bottom—these just look awkward). Then I read every word. Even a clean manuscript can have random errors show up when the document is flowed into the typesetting program (a hidden tab in a Word document can suddenly rear its ugly head and space words far apart when typeset).

I love it.

Proofreading is probably my favorite. It’s that red pen mentality. I’m looking for errors only because I want the book, the author, and the publisher to put their best foot (feet?) forward.

The three types of editing take different skills. In my Editing class, I give my students practice in all of these areas, telling them that they will probably find an affinity for one and not like the others so much. But I also tell those who want to become editors that they should hone their grammar and punctuation knowledge anyway, because the copyediting and proofreading jobs are often the entry level positions in publishing companies. From there, they can move up, since often editors and acquisitions editors are hired from within, from people who have been with the company and understand the ethos there.

As I noted in my post earlier this week, proofreading skills are vitally important, especially on the job market. To have a clean paper, I suggest the following:

(1) Don’t trust the spell check program on your computer. (Judy has some tips on her blog about this.)

(2) If you’re not absolutely sure of the spelling of a word, don’t guess. Look it up. Dictionary.com is your best friend.

(3) Go back and read your letter, paper, email, memo, whatever, aloud slowly to yourself. This will help you notice if words are missing or if a sentence runs on and on. (It’s best to do this on hard copy. Trust me, you’ll see things differently than on screen. A friend of one of my students writes about that on his blog.)

(4) Then, read it again starting from the bottom paragraph backward, a paragraph at a time. This helps you get outside your own flow and see errors you might skip over otherwise.

(5) Electronically, go back and do a search for an open parenthesis (to make sure that you always have a matching close parenthesis), an open quotation mark (to make sure you always have the appropriate closing quotation mark and to make sure any inner quotation marks are single and that they are both there). And get rid of those double spaces between sentences!

(6) Be aware of your own weaknesses. If you know you tend to write run-on sentences, watch for that in particular. If you know that possessives always mess you up, do a search for apostrophes and check each one for correct usage.

This will clear up a good number of your errors. It never hurts, however, to have someone else look over an especially important document—like a cover letter or resume or manuscript submission.

Let’s put our best foot forward—both of them!

It’s National Grammar Day!

In honor of National Grammar Day, I am reposting my blog on this date from last year. Why? Because I’m busy grading papers for correct grammar–that’s why!

Today, March 4, is National Grammar Day.

Are you celebrating? Well, are you?

I am celebrating by finding other celebrants–people I want to add to my tribe because they care about this stuff as much as I do.

I have to confess to being a bit of a grammar geek–although not nearly at the level of Mignon Fogarty aka Grammar Girl. I know some things, but I may not know why I know them or the rule behind them. That comes from thirty years of proofreading, following publisher style sheets, painstakingly reading typeset pages and marking pdfs until my eyes blur.

I love my red pen.

You see, I value perfection. (Oh my, I sure hope there aren’t any errors in this post when I’m finished . . . ). I’ve started grad school to learn more about teaching writing and discovered in my theory classes, much to my chagrin, that teaching grammar works against creativity and that college instructors try to steer clear in favor of the big picture, the creativity, the thought processes. I believe all of that is vital, of course. What’s the point of writing if you can’t make a clear argument or create a document that flows? But I also believe that the best argument in the world will get ignored if the writing is fraught with errors. Why do I want to take the time to read your article and consider your opinion if you can’t take the time to make sure to spell correctly and use proper punctuation?

It matters.

So I love National Grammar Day. (It’s on March 4th because apparently that’s the only date that forms a sentence, “March forth.”) I love when I find others in my tribe who care as much as I do about grammar and punctuation and a well-written sentence (they won’t be dangling any modifers in front of me, no sir!).

For one of my classes, I did a little research project. I hypothesized that writing instructors need to teach their students to proofread. We help them a lot at the contextual and sentence level in their writing, but we probably say, “And be sure to proofread your paper before turning it in,” without explaining what proofreading really involves. I think we do them a disservice. There is indeed a place for focusing on perfection. (More about this on Friday, March 8, National Proofreading Day . . . oh my, busy week!)

Take, for example, business writing. I start filling in for the instructor of a Writing for Business class this week for the rest of the semester (the regular instructor is out for shoulder surgery and rehab). I’m reading the textbooks and finding constant statements about the importance of perfection. In fact, one book quotes a website that keeps a collection of “cover letters from hell“–cringe-worthy letters sent to them by folks hoping for a job, like the person who wrote that he/she was an English major good at grammar–and then misspelled it as “grammer.” The website then states,

Elements of Style

A word to the wise: An error-free letter is now so freakin’ rare that the minimal care required to send a letter with zero defects, combined with a few crisply written simple declarative sentences, will, alone, guarantee a respectful reading of a resume. Maybe even secure an interview. Doesn’t anybody read Strunk and White in school any more? If you haven’t, get a copy of The Elements of Style, so you can follow it all your days.

Exactly.

Now all those theorists have a point. Do your writing and don’t worry a bit about your grammar. Get your ideas down. Tell your story. Make your point. Do the best writing you can do.

But before you send the query letter, turn in that article, or send in that manuscript, do me a favor.

Make sure it’s perfect.

Now realize that if you have your own little stylistic “tics” (you want to Capitalize Certain Words for Emphasis, or do random italics), then just let your proofreader know. You can be “incorrect” if it’s part of your style. Create a style sheet that tells your proofreader this is how you want it–then he/she will make sure that you’re consistent, along with looking for any errors you may have missed.

As citizens of the literary world, let’s protect our craft, always doing our best to deliver the best quality.

And if you feel that your proofreading skills leave something to be desired, hire a professional proofreader (or get someone you trust who really knows the craft) to go over everything before you submit the story or mail the letter. Believe it or not, there are people who thrive on helping your writing be perfect. In fact, even if you are good at it, it’s difficult to proofread your own work. It’s that whole “seeing the forest for the trees” thing.

(One little additional note: I’m talking at the professional level here. Please don’t refuse to drop me a note for fear of making errors. I truly do want to keep my friends. My point is that when we’re doing professional writing, we need to be professionals. The rest of the time, my red pen is safely in the drawer.)

So celebrate National Grammar Day with me! Grammar is the toolbox of our trade. Let’s keep those tools sharp!

Getting Published–and Not Even Knowing It!

It’s an odd experience to get published and not know it.

I suppose I should be glad, but it wasn’t something I ever submitted, nor did I write it for publication.

Let me explain.

Over Christmas I was visiting with family in Corry, a small town in western Pennsylvania. My sister happens to be quite the photographer and recently had two of her large photographs on display at the Painted Finch Gallery in Corry (displayed, that is, until both sold at a juried art show!). Anyway, several of us made a stop in at the gallery on Christmas eve. The gallery is an eclectic mix of wildlife oil paintings, flowers and scenery in watercolors, color and black-and-white photography, pottery, jewelry, and work in other types of mediums that I, as a non-artsy person, can’t name but can appreciate.

While the others chatted with the proprietors, I wandered. In the back, near a glass case holding jewelry and pens, was a small holder with some greeting cards and a couple of paperback books.

Of course, I picked up the books.

One was a little paperback history of the town of Wattsburg, Pennsylvania. The little borough of Wattsburg, nestled about fourteen miles northwest of Corry, happens to have been my dad’s hometown. My grandfather had lived there most of his life–even was the mail carrier for many years (I talked about that in this post). We visited nearly every summer with him and cousins who lived nearby.

The Wattsburg Historical Society
The Wattsburg Historical Society

Some of my fondest memories have to do with the Erie County Fair held annually at the Wattsburg fairgrounds. Gramps was in charge of the concessions at the fair for many years. As a young child, walking through the midway with gramps was magical. Everyone knew him. I remember him motioning to one concessioner after I had spotted among his prizes a Barbie-type doll in a beautiful lace wedding gown. Next thing I knew, the doll was in my hands. (I’m sure he settled up later.)

Many years passed and, either in high school or college, I wrote an essay about the fair and grandpa. Later, I mailed it to him, thinking he would enjoy my reflections. He passed away not many years later.

So at the art gallery, I thumbed through the book about Wattsburg’s history filled with quirky stories, anecdotes, and people’s memories. I went to the spine and copyright page (hey, I’m in publishing–it’s a habit) and saw that it was self-published. The introduction stated that the material in the book had been gleaned from the Wattsburg Historical Society. Flipping pages revealed an index in the back. I wonder if gramps is in here, I thought. Chaffee, Chaffee–there he was!

And, to my surprise, so was I.

Wait. What?

Page 49. What’s on page 49?

And there, to my astonishment, was my little essay about gramps and the Wattsburg fair.

I’m guessing that gramps received my essay in the mail and stored it among his fair papers, most of which apparently ended up in the historical society. The editors of this collection must have discovered the typewritten pages (or maybe they were handwritten, I can’t remember) among the papers and decided to publish it in this collection.

It’s a little embarrassing to read the musings of my early life (not to mention my immature writing style) from so many years ago. In the midst of my article, the editors had put a black-and-white photo of the fair committee, and among them is my dear grandfather.

So as odd as it is to be published without knowing it, I suppose for the audience of this particular book (one being my dad, who received that book the next day as a Christmas present), my little essay might bring back some good memories.

If my writing can do that, I suppose that’s all I can ask.

 

Photo courtesy of http://www.city-data.com/picfilesc/picc64500.php