The Sentence Samurai Strikes Again

sentence-samurai-copyAs Grammar Smith walked down the hallway of the old, high-ceilinged
building, she saw officers in crime scene gear shuffling in and out of the door at the far end. Occasional flashes punctuated the hallway.

A woman clutching a manuscript to her chest sobbed on one bench while another, looking bored
and impatient, sat on another.

“It’s a real massacre,” Dis Connect murmured in Grammar’s ear. “I haven’t seen anything like this since Stephen King blew through.”

Grammar poked her head in the door. The room was a typical editing office: desks, computers, reference books, and a giant coffee maker. Typical except for the puddles of non-repro blue ink and bodies of bloated phrases everywhere.

Grammar took Dis off to the side. “Give me the breakdown.”

“Ten due to the fact thats, 32 nowadays, 257 unnecessary uses of the verb to be, 88 and alsos, 19 we as human beings, and an it was a dark and stormy night.”

“Have you interviewed the witnesses?”

Dis colored. “Um, well, Ms. Scrivener was so upset, I figured I’d let her calm down a bit.”

Chicken! Grammar thought as she sat next to Ms. Scrivener. Patting the woman’s hand, Grammar asked, “Can you tell me what happened?”

“It was horrible! The ink everywhere! Phrases lying around! Look at my baby!” The writer thrust the crumpled, damp manuscript at Grammar. “It’s half what it was when I brought it in here. This place is a charnel house.”

“Oh, give me a break!” the woman from the other bench said. “That manuscript’s a thousand times more readable now.”

“And you are?” Grammar asked.

“Tweakly Fine-Tune. I run this business.”

“There’s no sign of a forced entry. Do you have any idea how the perpetrator got in?”

“Probably over the transom,” Ms. Fine-Tune said pointing to the open glass panel above the door.

“Yes, it looks like the Sentence Samurai has been here,” Grammar said to Dis.

“Hey, Lieutenant,” Ms. Fine-Tune said. “When will you folks be done? I’ve got to get rid of that stench of passive voice and get back to work.”

8 Ways to Edit Your Friend’s Stuff and Still Remain Friends

dancing-skeletons

There’s a war raging inside me.

On one hand, there’s the deep need to promote good writing and proper grammar.

On the other hand, there’s a need to be a nice person whom people want to be around.

Like many professionals, my friends ask me if I can edit things for them. (Good friends sometimes even pay me!) However, it can get a bit sticky.

Think about it; as a copy editor and writing instructor, I’m compulsively correcting grammar. Mona, my dog, is bewildered how the funny box with the flat people can be so naughty that Mommy constantly yells at it. (The growing tendency to make nouns into verbs on commercials may drive me to drink.)

I grew up watching Perry White in the old Superman television series. He was always yelling at people. Folks just smiled at him and did what they wanted to anyway. But Perry demanded a level of excellence. (And, of course, he was a fictional character.)

A coworker once told me I could be intimidating. Me? A grandmother? Intimidating?

How can we satisfy our compulsion for good communication yet keep our friends?

  1. Remember there is always some good in anyone’s writing. Find it and build on it.
  2. Remind your friend that good grammar is a compulsion for you, and it’s not personal.
  3. Turn statements like “I have no idea what the subject of this sentence is!” to questions: “Who or what is doing the action here?”
  4. Teach people how to use the replace (or, as I like to call it, “search and destroy”) function in Word. This is indispensable when taking out extra spaces and exclamation points.
  5. Take a deep breath, count to 10, and think of a cool mountain glen when you feel your brain starting to boil. This may happen after the three hundredth time your friend asks, “Why can’t I put a comma there?”
  6. Don’t touch the good stuff. Don’t change things just for the sake of change.
  7. Keep in mind that the goal for editing your friend’s work is that you want her to be successful.
  8. Put it into perspective. Sometimes good is attainable, excellent isn’t. At those times, chant, “A misplaced modifier will not destroy the world.”

Yes, our grammar gift should always be used for good. We just need, in our zeal, to remember there are people behind those words.

Got a Comma? Need a Comma?

comma-jar-copy

When you check out at the store, there’s a little dish with a sign asking for excess pennies or inviting you to use a penny or two if you are short. Why not do the same with commas?

Commas are always a bit tricky. There are so many exceptions to rules that, it turns out, aren’t really hard and fast rules.

When it comes to dependent clauses, the exceptions are rarer than most people think. Just put one in if the dependent clause comes before its independent clause, and leave it out if it follows the independent clause.

I’m worried about the state of writing, because commas are running rampant.

The comma in this sentence needs to come out and go into the comma jar. Writers (and editors) can dip into the jar when they see this sentence:

Because commas are running rampant I’m worried about the state of writing.

If I corral my commas into one place, I can avoid tripping over them throughout my office. They tend to hang out with the feral paper clips.

I’ve got a bit of room next to my monitor. It’s a perfect place for my comma jar. Where will you put yours?

Don’t Fear the Feedback

fear-the-red-pen

Isn’t it a great feeling, after you’ve done something well, for someone to acknowledge your effort?

On the flip side, don’t you want to know if disaster is looming, so you can take action to minimize or correct it?

As an editor and writer, I’ve had to deal with how to handle criticism. The word “criticism” has an evil connotation these days so we’ll substitute “feedback.”

We all know that writing is extremely difficult work. It takes a great deal of time and effort. It requires constant thinking and analyzing. Most of the time, we pour our emotions into it.

It’s easy to understand why writers may get a little huffy when their “babies” become exposed to someone’s review. It is painful when people start picking them apart.

I’ve had writers get upset if I removed an unneeded comma, suggested a better word, or noted their development could use some work – really upset. Admittedly, in the heat of deadline battles, I may have stomped on the emotional connection between writer and piece.

When seeking and giving feedback, remember that nothing is totally abysmal. (Okay, I’ve had a few thrown-together papers that came close.) There is always something good in what someone has written. Start from that foundation and go forward with the attitude that any feedback is designed to make it better.

A good editor will resist the temptation to change everything. Honestly, there are times when I think I could make corrections to a Shakespearean sonnet. Some things just need to be left alone. However (and this is a big “however”), there must be a good reason for it.

“Because that’s the way I want it,” is not a good enough reason. Explain why you want it that way.  You’ll be surprised at how much good feedback you will get.

Lots of time we avoid asking for feedback. It’s terrifying to hand over our literary “baby” to someone else. We can almost feel our hearts contract.

Think of it as sending your child off to kindergarten. She will be okay, and she’ll learn a whole bunch of stuff in the process.

My teenaged grandson wants to write a book. In fact, he’s already written about 40 pages. One night, we sat down and talked about character and plot development. We talked about how his main character would react to certain circumstances given her background.

“I’m going to have to change a lot of things,” he said. “There’s a whole lot more to this.”

You know what was wonderful about the experience? We were so excited talking about how he could improve his story, we stayed up until 3 a.m.!

Yes, feedback can be a lot of fun. Don’t fear it!

What steps will you take today to face your feedback fears?

Is It Labor If You Love It?

9-5-2016 computer-clipart copy

When I was a journalist, the owner of the local construction and demolition company would always let me know when they were taking down one of the old, historic buildings in town.  I’d go and photograph the demise of the local landmarks.

The company owner liked to recycle some of the old fixtures, so it wasn’t a quick smash job. It was a surgical removal, and the guy in the backhoe was Dr. Demolition.

He used to rumble toward the building in his huge backhoe, the massive bucket with those nasty looking teeth poised over a wall, and he would gently, ever so gently, start prying away the roof, the walls, the floors.

It was an entrancing process. I watched for hours. It reminded me of those nature shows where the baby elephants run through the legs of the mammoth adults without getting injured.

Dr. Demolition was a master at this craft and obviously loved his work.

That’s the way I feel about writing and editing. It’s hard work, but I am always striving to hone my craft. I don’t just say, “I’m a good editor and writer.” I don’t sit on my laurels. I’m constantly watching webinars, visiting other people’s blogs, and practicing.

I love looking at all the variables involved in writing and how best to apply the language to accomplish the goal. This is the same whether it is writing this blog or helping a company polish its web content.

Sure, there are points when yet another comma splice feels like the last straw – a sure sign I need a coffee break. Yet I keep going back. I’m head-over-heals enamored with communicating with the English language!

How about you? Do you love your “work”?

5 Tips to Push Through the Writing Wall

man-304289_1280There are some days, as a writer and editor, I just don’t want to do any more – not write one more sentence, not clean up one more paragraph.

When I’m in the zone, I don’t even notice the hours flying by. But, like life in general, it’s not always that way.

Sometimes, writing makes me feel so vulnerable. Sometimes the subject is extremely emotional and it’s hard to make sense. Sometimes untangling huge snarls of another’s writing is exhausting, but there’s a deadline looming.

It’s important to not give up. Luckily, there are ways to pump up our resilience.

  • Take a five-minute mental vacation. Get up and get a cup of coffee. Ponder an upcoming holiday, event, or vacation. Sit back and go to your “happy place.” Just make sure you go back to work after the five minutes are up.
  • Make it into a game or contest. Challenge yourself to write a page in a half hour or five pages before lunch. When I edit, I see how many sentence structure and grammar errors I can correct in an allotted time span. Reward yourself if you achieve the goal. (Cookies or cheese works for me!)
  • Do some planning. This is especially helpful when writing. It lays down a direction you can follow when literary trees fall across the road.
  • Cut out distractions. We are all experts at chasing squirrels when we should be sticking to the task at hand. Don’t give yourself any excuse.
  • Post a “This, too, shall pass” sign where you can see it when you’re working.

Resilience is what separates the successful from the wannabes.

6 Tips for Working with Writers, Editors

You’ve decided that investing in the services of a professional editor or a writer would be good for your project or business. The next step is finding one that fits your needs.

You can do an Internet search, tap into online services like Elance, check local writing organizations and workshops, or get referrals from people you know. No matter how you get a name, there are still things you need to do to make sure you have a good fit.

  1. Check the work. Any writer or editor, if she doesn’t already have examples on a website, will be happy to provide a prospective client with examples. However, don’t get too caught up in whether those products are exact matches of what you want. Look more at the style and how the content gels with your goal. Don’t eliminate someone because she hasn’t produced a three-fold brochure. Mechanics can be learned quickly; it’s the skill and tone you want to concentrate more on.
  2. Kick the “tires” before committing. Just like anything else you invest in, spend some time reviewing the process the writer or editor uses. Is the writer or editor willing to sit down with you and get a feel for what you are looking for? Does the writer or editor work in a way that jibes with your process? Are you more a face-to-face type person or do you find “flying e-mails” an efficient way to work?
  3. Don’t forget the logistics. In an age where electronic communication is so prevalent, make sure you and the person you hire have compatible systems. Do you use Microsoft Word or some other program? Can your e-mail handle large chunks of data or are you still in the fax age? Can you Skype instead of having in-person meetings? Are you providing a written piece electronically or is it hand written? (Note: Most editors will not accept hand written products; hire someone to transcribe it first – it’ll be cheaper in the long run.)
  4. Make sure everyone knows what is expected of them. Don’t go into a situation assuming everyone knows what to do. We all know what the problem is with “ass-u-me.” Be very clear about what you expect. Editors and writers should also give you an idea of what they think you should provide and what they are willing to do. For instance, are you expecting an editor to do deep rewrites? How many revisions do you expect for a project with a flat fee? How will the information be gathered or presented? If everyone knows up front what to expect, there will be no nasty surprises.
  5. Get it in writing. You wouldn’t put an addition on your house without a contract to protect you, so don’t enter into a writing or editing relationship without some sort of written agreement. A good writer or editor would probably suggest it anyway for her own protection. It doesn’t have to be a long, drawn out contract. It could even be a letter of intent. Just make sure that somewhere you have in writing what work you are agreeing to pay for.
  6. Remember that you get what you pay for. Quality is not cheap, but it tends to pay off in the long haul. Don’t always go for the cheapest option; go for the professional who will give you a good return on your investment. (Hey, if that person’s rate is inexpensive too, it’s a bonus!) Also, don’ be surprised if the editor or writer you hire expects payment at certain milestones of the project – maybe even a percentage up front. This is the way professionals work.

Keeping these six things in mind when hiring a writer or editor will help create a good experience for all concerned. It might even be the beginning of a “beautiful friendship.”

When to Seek Professional Help: Editing

keyboard

It’s done! You’ve finished your writing project.

You went through the agony of how to get started. You fretted over what words to use and whether they produce the result you want. You drove yourself, everyone around you, and even your pets crazy with getting it written and then revising endlessly.

You’re done, but is the process really over? Do you need someone to edit what you wrote? That’s a question every writer asks, and there’s no pat answer. (Okay, I’m an editor; I thing everything needs to be edited.)

The main thing to determine is the importance of clear, understandable, and professional writing. If mistakes are going to taint your reputation or drive away readers or potential customers, you need to seriously consider working with an experienced editor.

Of course, there are lots of other questions that have to be answered, too.

  • What’s the purpose? Is it a quick e-mail, a marketing piece, a blog, a press release, or a book? The more involved the writing piece is and the more people who will see it, the greater the need for a skilled editor.
  • Who’s the audience? If you’re trying to impress someone, you definitely need the help of someone proficient in written English. We so often can’t see problems with organization and grammar in our own writing. We all (me, too!) need a fresh, competent review of our work to make it sparkle. What many consider sloppy writing errors (misused words, misspellings, run-on sentences) and poor organization can ruin those all-important first – and even subsequent – impressions.
  • What’s the time frame? How quickly does it need to be turned around? So many times, people want things “fast and good.” The problem is that “fast” often leads to errors. We’re in such a hurry to meet a deadline that we can’t put it aside to review later with fresh eyes. With “fast,” we sometimes have to sacrifice “good.” How much not-so-good writing will readers tolerate? If you have a relationship with an editor, it may be possible to squeeze in that review no matter how fast you need to work.
  • What’s the writer’s skill level and experience? Some writers are good with mechanics but trip up on organization or phrasing. Some are great storytellers but can’t spell to save their lives. I once worked with a reporter who was terrific at finding and writing stories. However, she was lousy in mechanics. Anyone reading her raw copy would think she was a terrible writer. As her editor, it was my job to showcase the brilliance of her work. More experienced writers, who recognize and can correct their writing weaknesses, can often squeak by without an editor for some writing, but I wouldn’t make a habit of it for everything.

ROI

Working with a professional editor is an investment in your writing. There are always questions we need to answer no matter what we invest in. We must look at the return on our investment (ROI). Will working with an editor help us keep readers, gain new readers, make our ideas more attractive, put our products and services in their best light, or make the piece more attractive to a publisher?  A good editor will always strive to make your writing as extraordinary as possible.

To learn more about professional editing services, visit AIC Communication Services or e-mail info@aic-communication-services.com.

Dissecting the Editor

Editors – what is it that they do, exactly? Who are they? What motivates them? Why are they always so grumpy?

If you tell people, “I’m an editor,” you get this look. People have a vague idea of what an editor is and what an editor does, but they don’t really know. It’s like saying you’re a philosopher, theoretical physicist, or member of Congress.

Beth Hill does a nice job of breaking down what various editors do in her post “Duties of an Editor & How Editors Help Writers” on The Editor’s Blog. The only caution: don’t presume that each type of editor remains strictly within the description.

editor cartoon 001It doesn’t happen that way because good editors will always do what’s needed to coax the best out of the product. Besides, job titles are always such flimsy things.

Editors of writing love the English language. We love the stories; we love the words and their shades of meaning. We even love the grammar and punctuation.

We see the potential for excellence and do everything in our power, within whatever limitations, to get every piece of work to its shining best. It can range from a novel to an operating manual to a blog post, to a resume. We don’t care. We just want it to be right. (We’re compulsive that way.)

A writer bleeds and sweats over a piece and finally brings it to an editor. The writer is shocked when the editor starts hacking and cutting away like some crazed serial killer. The writer wants to snatch the piece back and flee, but it’s too late.

What the editor sees is a bloated, overstuffed piece that would be so much healthier with a little trimming. The editor knows readers won’t tolerate wading through heaps of literary garbage to get to the kernel of truth or usefulness.

Editors usually find themselves “betwixt and between” things. They stand between the reader and the writer. They represent the reader’s interest while preserving the voice of the writer.

Editors stand between writers and publishers. They want to develop the writer and show how a piece can be better, but they have to deal with the interests of the publisher and try to get a marketable piece out in a limited amount of time.

Yes, editors are grumpy sometimes. How would you feel if you had to deal with constant butchering of the English language? How would you like to always be able to see the greatness in writing without being able to accomplish it because of time, ego, or money? Isn’t it uncomfortable to be in the middle of two conflicting perspectives?

I have always loved the following poem tacked up on the wall of the newsroom I “grew up” in. I think it perfectly (and succinctly) describes what every editor yearns for.

The written word
Should be clean as bone,
Clear as light,
Firm as stone.
   — Anonymous

The Waves of Change in English

A couple of years ago, I traveled to Italy. When we were in Rome, the woman who was acting as our tour guide (a native of Rome) warned us to make sure we crossed the street in the marked crosswalks.

“We have traffic laws,” she half-joked, “but they’re more like guidelines.”

The same can be said for English grammar “rules.” We get ourselves into trouble when we remain inflexible about punctuation, usage, or even word meaning. It is because the language is forever in flux.

I like to think of English as a “mutt” language; its DNA is made up of lots of other languages, and it continues to change. All those invasions of the British Isles over the centuries as well as modern communication connections cause constant transformation of the language.

Like the tide on a beach, the way we use English ebbs and flows. This is what makes English so wonderful – and so very frustrating.

I was talking with someone this weekend on just this subject. We agreed that, in order to break grammar rules, we need to know and understand them first. All great artists break the conventions, but they need to know the rules first and have a purpose when they play with them.

In writing, it all comes back to clarity. Blindly following the rules, such as not ending a sentence with a preposition, can actually make things too dense.

Who are you talking to? versus To whom are you talking?

The second example is correct, but feels stilted and clumsy. On the other hand, if an unnecessary preposition shows up at the end of the sentence, it needs to be purged:

Where are you at? (One of my many pet peeves!)

Years ago, a former boss, now a dear friend, gave me the Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage, printed in 1975. In only 40 years, we can see how English usage has changed in how and where we use words. Meanings especially are fluid. What was once considered slang has become an acceptable use.

For example, the panel of language experts the authors turned to pretty much agreed that “premiere” (a noun meaning the first performance of a motion picture, play, or television show) should not be used as a verb. Today, however, it is common to use it that way: The movie premiered to great acclaim.

This fluidity of language can drive us crazy if we let it. The main idea is to factor in purpose, audience, use, formality, and, above all, clarity when approaching writing. We never want to make the reader work overly hard to understand what we mean. We leave that sort of thing to lawyers.

So remember, if you are going to wander outside the English guidelines, do it with a purpose and always make sure the content is clear to the reader.