Sometimes, the best way to learn something is to see it done poorly.
The website www.plainlanguage.gov features an article called “How to Write Good” that has examples of excellent writing advice written in a contradictory way. As noted on the Plain Language web page, the first twenty-three entries were written by Frank L. Visco for Writers Digest (June 1986), and rules twenty-four through fifty-three are based on William Safire’s Rules for Writers.
24. Parenthetical words however must be enclosed in commas.
25. It behooves you to avoid archaic expressions.
26. Avoid archaeic spellings too.
27. Don’t repeat yourself, or say again what you have said before.
28. Don’t use commas, that, are not, necessary.
29. Do not use hyperbole; not one in a million can do it effectively.
30. Never use a big word when a diminutive alternative would suffice.
31. Subject and verb always has to agree.
32. Placing a comma between subject and predicate, is not correct.
33. Use youre spell chekker to avoid mispeling and to catch typograhpical errers.
34. Don’t repeat yourself, or say again what you have said before.
35. Use the apostrophe in it’s proper place and omit it when its not needed.
36. Don’t never use no double negatives.
37. Poofread carefully to see if you any words out.
38. Hopefully, you will use words correctly, irregardless of how others use them.
39. Eschew obfuscation.
40. No sentence fragments.
41. Don’t indulge in sesquipedalian lexicological constructions.
42. A writer must not shift your point of view.
43. Don’t overuse exclamation marks!!
44. Place pronouns as close as possible, especially in long sentences, as of 10 or more words, to their antecedents.
45. Writing carefully, dangling participles must be avoided.
46. If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.
47. Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky.
48. Everyone should be careful to use a singular pronoun with singular nouns in their writing.
49. Always pick on the correct idiom.
50. The adverb always follows the verb.
51. Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixing metaphors.
52. If you reread your work, you can find on rereading a great deal of repetition can be by rereading and editing.
53. And always be sure to finish what
Note: www.plainlanguage.gov is a federal website that states its content is in the public domain and can be reprinted without explicit permission.
I first learned about style sheets when I took a copyediting course, and I can see their importance to editors. They ensure continuity and promise the finished product will fall within expected parameters.
Serial commas? Yes. A.M. or a.m.? The latter. Starting sentences with the year written as a numeral? Fine.
Style sheets eliminate ambiguity. Which is why they are a wonderful addition to a writer’s toolbox.
Copy editors usually create one for every book or series they work on, listing characters’ names and descriptions, as well as the names of all the locations where scenes take place, i.e., street names, towns, and topography. They also include a timeline for when things happen, so Aunt Phyllis doesn’t announce she’s three months pregnant on Thursday only to give birth to a full-term baby the following month.
So, it makes sense for writers to create a style sheet as well. It would help them during rewrites when they can’t remember where Jason proposed to Ella, or that the Unqi people from the planet Gur say “peg-we” just before they kill you.
And it could make your editors' jobs easier if you provide them with all this wonderful information ahead of time. Why should you care about making an editor’s job easier? Because it means you’ll get your manuscript back more quickly. I’ve never met a writer who didn’t want their edited manuscript back “yesterday.”
So, what kinds of details should be include on a style sheet?
Title of the book
Point of view if it differs from previous works in a series
Formatting (chapter headers, indents, section breaks)
Characters’ names, chapter in which they first appear, ages, descriptions, odd traits, clothing—if important
Settings including addresses, descriptions, and topography
Unusual props, tools, items
Unusual spelling or vocabulary
Grammar and punctuation guidelines that differ from the norm
A timeline of events
I have a terrible memory and have always had trouble remembering details. When I first started writing, I had no knowledge of style sheets, but I knew I had to have something to help keep the details straight in my manuscript. My YA fantasy series about the "Library of Illumination" covers thirteen different worlds, each one distinctly different. To stay on track, I created pages on my website—that only I know how to access—where I keep all my “world-building” details. So, I guess you could say I recognized the need for style sheets early on. I just didn’t realize they already existed or know how wonderful it would be to share the information contained on them with my editors.
Oops. My bad.
The rhyme I learned in elementery school: "I before E except after C, or when sounded as A, as in neighbor and weigh" didn't quite hit the mark.
December has been crazy, and I haven't had time to put my thoughts together, but I'm hoping to rectify that in January as I work on editing my latest novel (in between proofreading jobs, of course) and move it toward publication. Perhaps we'll talk about editing software that helps with the process. Until then, my best wishes for a festive holiday season and a prosperous new year.
As a proofreader, I look for mistakes in spelling, grammar, and punctuation. I want your work to be as error-free as possible so its flow is not interrupted by readers who suddenly stop to ask themselves, “Is that really how you spell dirigible?” A good copy editor also corrects those types of mistakes, so, what’s the difference between a proofreader and a copy editor?
Note: I should point out that the different types of readers and editors listed below are in the reverse order of when you actually need them.
A proofreader’s job is to make sure your completed manuscript, article, letter, etc., is technically correct. It is your last line of defense before going to print. Proofreaders are like the person at the circus who runs around after the animals in the ring with a bucket and a shovel. Cleanup. Not very glamorous, but imagine the mess without them.
A copy editor should be hired at an earlier stage in the writing process. They will point out problems with your spelling, grammar, and punctuation—just like a proofreader would—but more importantly, they’ll help you with content and flow. A good copy editor will call attention to problems with sentence structure and style and improve the readability of your work. They’ll look for double words (the the) and character inconsistencies (like the protagonist’s height changing from five-foot-nine in an early chapter to six-foot-four in a later one). They’ll point out if you use too many exclamation points, distracting dialog tags, or if the POV hops from one person to another mid-sentence. Sometimes, copyediting is referred to as line editing.
You may want to have some beta readers give you feedback from a regular reader’s point of view. You can just ask for their general observations, or, if something is bothering you, ask them specific questions. And while it is always nice to have your best friend and favorite aunt tell you how wonderful your writing is, you’re looking for non-biased feedback, so look for beta readers who aren’t afraid to hurt your feelings.
Early on, you may want to have a developmental editor look at your work. This should happen during the first stages of the writing process, probably around the time you complete your outline or first draft. A developmental editor will go over the basic structure and tell you what’s missing. Or what’s not necessary. A developmental edit will help you organize your thoughts and give you advice about quirks—like too many characters with similar names. Or white room syndrome, in which details that ground the setting are missing, so your characters may as well be speaking in a white room. And they can point out problems with character motivation and theme. To me, it makes more sense to have this done after you’ve written your first draft, so you can rewrite effectively before hiring a copyeditor or proofreader. Sometimes, a developmental editor is referred to as a substantive editor.
Every time your work is edited, it opens your writing up to the possibility of new mistakes in grammar, spelling, or punctuation. That’s why proofreading should be saved for last. Proofreaders are here to make sure the final product is as close to perfect as possible.
October 11 commemorates the late Elmore Leonard’s birthday. The American author and screenwriter was known for his westerns, crime novels, and suspense thrillers. In his honor, I’m blogging the bare bones of his Ten Rules for Writing, which were published in The New York Times in 2001. The original article is much longer, but I’m going to cut to the chase and give you the basics. If they stoke your imagination, you can do a little poking around to learn more.
Never open a book with weather.
Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.”
Keep your exclamation points under control!
Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
Then there’s the un-numbered rule he used to sum up the list: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”
I’m just giving you the bare bones here. I left out all the “hooptedoodle.” If you want to know more, google it.
I’m discussing this list because it deals directly with the process of copyediting. One of a copy editor’s jobs is to make a writer’s words more readable. Several of these rules, when followed, do the exact same thing.
Below is a button that should link you to the original article in the New York Times, however, I don’t know if you can access it without a subscription. If not, do a little digging. You’ll find it.
Happy birthday, Elmore Leonard.
I got it into my head that after twenty-five years of newswriting, copyediting, and being the author and publisher of twenty fiction and non-fiction books—not to mention having a general love of words—I would hang out my shingle as a proofreader and put myself to work. But aside from my books, I’ve never actually proofread for print before. So, I hunkered down and took a proofreading course that certified me.
Let me just say that the course was a humbling experience. The rules a proofreader needs to follow change with the category of writing being worked on. Books are different from transcripts, which are different from dissertations, which are nothing like journalism, or business letters, or science writing. So even though you may have the correct rules of grammar and punctuation for some forms of writing embedded in your brain, they can trip you up. It’s like the clothing in your closet. Even if those killer sherpa boots make you feel confident and sure of yourself, you probably shouldn’t wear them to an interview at a law firm. You need to select the right clothing and accessories for the occasion; the same holds true for proofreading guidelines.
I think it's fun to proofread authors—because I am one—and I understand how much my fellow writers cherish their words. My tools of the trade for that task would start with the Chicago Manual of Style and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. However, that’s not the only type of proofreading I do. When working on business brochures for a marketing firm, the Associated Press Stylebook and Webster’s New World College Dictionary are the tools I turn toward.
And the list of resources goes on. There’s the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, and the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, just to mention a few. Plus, the Oxford English Dictionary, the American Heritage Dictionary, the New Century Dictionary, etc. Too bad they don’t all agree. Some will have you hyphenate compound words, while another will write them as two words without a hyphen, and a third will merge them into one single word. It’s like the old saying, “You can’t tell the players without a scorecard.”
It took me a while to get into the process, all the while wondering if I was up to the task. And then, one day, I realized that it’s not just me second-guessing my ability. Everyone carries certain rules of grammar and punctuation with them from childhood, rules that they believe are completely accurate. And they’re right. The rules we’ve learned—work in certain situations. They just don’t work in all situations. And that’s why we need to hire a proofreader whenever we want our words to shine.
I used the inclusive “we” in my last sentence because (with the exception of this blog) I don't usually proofread my own work. I'm too close to it and after a while, I become blind to my own mistakes.
Don’t we all?