Thursday, July 17, 2014

Grammar Totalitarianism

I keep getting linked to the recent Weird Al song, “Word Crimes.” On every conceivable form of social media. Multiple times a day. I have no doubt that if you’re an English teacher, translator, editor, or any other sort of wordsmith, you’ve had the same experience.

In his song, Weird Al parodies Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” by complaining about how some people write in English. It includes the usual grammar police hangups, such as the difference between it’s and its, literally and figuratively, what irony means, etc. Insults drip throughout.

First off, I am a child of a 80s. I like Weird Al, and what he’s done with his parody here is just as clever as ever. But what I don’t like are the things people assume about me and about English when they send me the song. So let me inform you:

1. I’m a developmental editor. I don’t deal with grammar.
2. When I was a copyeditor, I didn’t deal with grammar unless I was paid.
3. I certainly don’t care if your English is “improper.”

That’s right. I don’t care. And I find that the song’s justification of self-styled grammar police underscores a troubling issue, one perpetuated by those lucky enough to have a little English knowledge. People think that English is set in stone by some editor god at the beginning of time. The truth is this: English is changing, English is arbitary, and English is biased.

Dialect is English

Two months ago, Strange Horizons published a review of the groundbreaking Long Hidden anthology. The reviewer commented on one story by writing:
Troy L. Wiggins's "A Score of Roses" features heavy use of phonetic dialect, a literary trick which works perhaps one time out of a hundred—a shame, because the story underneath all the "chil'ren"s and "yo'self"s is charming.
This led to a Twittersplosion and an apology by Strange Horizons. Troy L. Wiggins wrote an extensive blog post about the silencing of dialect. Since then, many authors have eloquently spoken about culture, dialect, and voice in fiction. Sofia Samatar kept a list of blog entries on this topic. I encourage you to read them.

You may be wondering, what does the Long Hidden review have to do with a dangling participle or an Oxford comma? How does a review of dialect and its fallout apply to the concept of proper English?

What else do you think led to the characterization of dialect as a “literary trick”?

English is Not the Force

There is a belief in this world, false but powerful, that floating in the aether of wordsmithery there is a true, pure English that only people wise in the grammarforce know. Grammar jedi use it to instruct and correct; grammar sith use it to obfuscate and troll upon others.

As a former game manager for an online community, I’ve had a lot of experience with grammar sith. The educated 30-year-old player who wanted to make a 13-year-old cry, for instance. The bevy of trolls who used language mockery to drum outsiders away from their part of the map.

You may have, unwittingly, been party to behavior of this sort: bashing other people over the head with your feelings of self-worth, your Khan-like superior intellect. Ever told someone to “go back to pre-school,” as Weird Al does in his video? Ever questioned someone’s intelligence for pronouncing nuclear as nuke-u-lar? Ever targeted someone’s spelling in an online debate?

Using English isn’t about your intellect. There is no grammarforce.

How you write and speak English is primarily luck. You happen to know a commonly-understood grammar rule? Good for you. You had a specific educational experience, were in a position to remember it, and lived in a community that reinforced it. Do not let that knowledge become grammar snobbery. How you use English reflects your privilege more than it reflects your intellect. We use English in myriad ways, reflecting our region, class, culture, education, generation. You think there’s one grammarforce for that?

Dude. No.

English is Not a Unified Church

But Nessie! you might say. Surely there’s a set of rules out there on which most people agree! Isn’t that what proper English is?

There are indeed sets of agreed-upon rules in English. These are called style guides. But before you jump up and down in grammar jedi glee, let me list, as an illustration of simplicity and properness, all style guides for the English language:

Not. Because there are too many.

No deities were involved in
the creation of this book.
Moreover, on none of these guides is written, “Editor Deity made these rules.” There are no claims that an author dipped into the lava of the grammarforce to find the One True Style Guide. Style guides are tools used by wordsmiths to create consistency in English for specific disciplines or tasks. Every company has one; so do many university departments, government offices, and volunteer organizations. Even individual novels get style sheets.

There is no unified English grammar. English is far more flexible than most people realize. Many of the "rules" to which so many people hold are mere preferences. We use “normalcy” as often as “normality” because Warren G. Harding popularized the word. Ever written the word, “dwarves,” and thought it was ok? Tolkien. Honour in the UK is spelled honor in the US because of one man.

The only reason we have style guides at all is because the primary function of language is to communicate. Keep that in mind when some troll complains to you about a comma. If someone understands you (and it will never be all people), you’ve done the primary duty of language. You’ve communicated something about yourself. And since it is yourself, you should communicate in the way you know best. This includes dialect. 0R wr1T1n9 1n L337.

English is Biased

Now, before my comments asplode, let me head off a few objections:

* I'm not saying, writers, that we shouldn't strive to be more aware of bias in our writing. Language can easily become a tool of oppression.
* I'm not saying, teachers, that you shouldn't help students learn the language of academia. Communication is most useful when it is consistent within its discipline.
* I'm not saying, editors, that you need not edit to a particular style guide. I’m not advocating language nihilism. If someone pays me, I'll edit the hell out of that person's work, and find value in aiding communication.

Remember when you learned that all writing had bias? It was world-changing, wasn't it? To realize that a writer and the words you read were connected, slanted, had an opinion. Language rules have bias too--sometimes arbitrary, sometimes intentional. You don't need to read Nineteen Eighty-Four to know that language shapes culture as much as culture changes language.

So when you take your personal knowledge of English and think that it is somehow written in stone, that there’s a grammarforce that will back you up if you want to question your neighbor’s speech, think again. Beating someone down for how they express themselves shows you care more about how they say things than what they're saying. Sure, you're allowed to adore a well-written sentence. Goodness knows I do. But why waste your time trolling for word crimes?


Additional links on this topic:
* There is No 'Proper English' (Wall Street Journal, 13 March 2015)
* Dear Pedants: Your Favorite Grammar Rule is Probably Fake (JSTOR Daily, 17 Aug 2015)

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

My Back is to Venus (poem)

The sun goes up on the other side
Where I am, it is dark
They are sleeping
I pad with crackling tendons to my desk
Look outside
Lower the blinds
Sit before my square of light, my deadlines
Glare at them; they glare at me
Headache sniffle blow justify copy paste delete
The sun goes down behind me
An interruption
Behind the trees and mounded earth
My back is to Venus
Changing words

Monday, June 2, 2014

Zombie Style Guide II

Editor Zombie returns! Walking the line between respect for English and being useful to one's zombie companions can be tricky. Especially when usefulness is delicious.

(If you have a hard time reading these, folks, just click on the images: they expand.)

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Editing and...Zombies?

Last August, I wrote a short post on Facebook about sleep. I was editing late at night, you see, and had begun to freak out at all of the changes I thought I needed to make to the manuscript. It looked disastrous! I couldn't deal with it, so I went to bed. Eight hours later, in the crisp morning alertness of 5am, I realized that very little needed to be changed. My brain was clearly a morning brain. Or at least a fresh cup of tea brain.

Then I started thinking about brains in general. As comic creatures. Was there an editing brain? Would it be delicious to zombies? A friend prodded me to draw these things. And so I started to draw a story about a clueless editor zombie, terrified that zombies would discover s/he* still had some working (and possibly delicious) brains. It is not meant to imply that editing brains are better than other brains--it's more of a situational comedy about two zombies, one possessing a body part tasty to the other.

This will probably be a comic I'll pump out every now and then. It was nice to pick up a pen and doodle.

* I deliberately left the genders ambiguous.
* Zam = delicious spamified zombie meat. Compliments of my macabre cousins.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Field Guide to Editing, Part II: Go With the Flow

In my previous "field guide" blog post, I wrote about typical things an editor hears upon being given or pitched an editing job. Stuff like, "This shouldn't take long," or, "I edited it myself." There's a gap between what clients expect and what editors actually do. This guide is to help narrow that gap.

The e-book industry is booming. E-books are already outselling hardcovers, and while they don't appear ready to challenge paperbacks just yet, e-books may eventually replace all books. E-publishing has exploded, making it easier for any given novelist to get a book out to the public.

There is a problem with the e-book market, however: the glut of books, many of them poorly produced. The reason for this poor production is because costs are pushed back to individual authors, who do not have the funds or apparatus of a large publishing company. Because of this, many authors give up once the writing is completed: they find a public domain image for the covers and edit their own novels.

"Edit your own novel!" I wish I could tell you the number of blog posts I've seen from people who tell writers that this is the way to go. The #amediting hashtag on Twitter is full of writers who say they're editing their
Editors were here.
own work. But let me tell you something: you can revise your novel, you can review your novel, and you can even overhaul your novel, but one thing you cannot do is edit your novel. You can't do it; I can't do it. Rumors to the contrary, George R.R. Martin can't do it. And even though Fifty Shades of Grey seems like it hasn't been edited, it was: once off the fan-fic forums, E.L. James released the first digital version with a small press.

Editing is a necessary investment for self-publishers, just as it is for any author or press. 

To be sure, many writers do realize this. On any given day, I usually have a request in my inbox to edit a novel. The requests vary. One might be labeled "copyediting," or a writer might ask me to edit the first 10,000 words only, but the main thing all of them say is:

I want to make sure it all flows.

Flow! It isn't a technical term, but everyone knows what "flow" feels like. Who doesn't want a story that flows? Who wants to look at a block of text and come to a standstill of confusion? Or read prose that stumbles and shifts and loses its path? No way. We want flow. We want prose that looks like a river, bold and precise and beautiful.
If your story flows like the Colorado,
you might want to do some revising.

Do you want flow? Then you want developmental editing, also known as content editing. Developmental editing is about the big picture: where concerns of story intersect you, the readers, your market, and yes, an occasional style guide. A good developmental editor (DE) is a flow doctor: she will take that lazy river from its source to its mouth.

What is Flow?

Let's look at the meaning of flow, from the standpoint of development. If I asked you to define what you mean by flow, what would you say? In my experience, an author asking for "flow" is usually concerned with pace. Pace is the rate at which the reader moves through the story. How quickly does the story seem to go? Are there places where the pace is too slow or too fast? If you've put down a book because it dragged on too long or you've sat confused at the sudden ending of the first Thor movie, you've felt the results of poor pacing.

Developmental editing covers a lot more than pace, however, and many of the elements also affect a novel's flow. Character, consistency, tone, and even syntax can make a reader stumble over the words or stop short. Did Molly, an agoraphobic, just walk out of her house without hesitating? Is Jack inexplicably cracking jokes over the body of his best friend? Too many five-word sentences?

A crucial area in which a DE can help is assessing your audience. It is important for a writer to enjoy her story, but all potential readers will not approach her story in the same way. Sometimes flow means keeping your readers from snagging on your words because of their own knowledge and experiences. One of the first things I do with new clients is develop a readership profile, which serves as an editing and marketing guide. The profile includes a list of the kinds of readers to whom the book will most likely appeal.

But I want my audience to be everyone!

Anyone can read your book. But you should tailor your work to make sure people in your main readership are hooked into and will not stumble on your story. If you're writing a medical drama, your readers will be keen on the details of the emergency room; if your starship captain is walking on Mars, sci-fi readers will know the sky shouldn't be blue unless it's sunrise or sunset. There are conventions to each genre that you can either keep or ignore, but your work will be a dialogue with those conventions through reader expectations.

I am not prejudiced.

I once got this objection from a potential client. He thought my detailing the uses of a readership profile meant that he was not capable of seeing those issues for himself. But as I said before, no one can see in absolutely objective terms. Everyone has bias. You will want to know if bias gets between you and your readers. You will also want to know if words or events you've chosen to write will trigger a bad reaction in a reader.

I do know how to write to an audience, and I had beta-readers.

You're on the right track! Beta-readers are especially crucial. A writer like you will probably already have an idea of readership, even if you haven't written it down. The main help you'd get from a DE is knowledge of the trends in your genre/industry, followed by specific examples of how to tailor your manuscript to better reach your audience.

I've been an editor for eight years, and a DE for five of those years. While I've worked all over the editing spectrum, development is my favorite. When you're a DE, the story matters--it's a creative process. You have an opportunity to work with an author to create the manuscript the author always wanted--sometimes before the writing even begins.

Development also includes a lot more than the "flow" issues I've outlined here. If you're interested in learning more about developmental editing, a good resource is Scott Norton's Developmental Editing. The Editorial Freelancers Association also has a useful article on development.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Road Goes Ever Ever On

Phobos: This is my magical golden sword. It's also a pretend axe. And a pretend bow. I can do magic like Gandalf, Gimli, and Faramir. Aha! *pauses* Phobos--that's my other name--he can't do magic.

Me: He can't? Didn't you just make magic with your story?

Phobos: No, silly mommy. You need a staff. Gandalf has a staff.


Phobos (not his real name) is four years old. He is tall and thin for his age, has dark curly hair and enormous eyes. He's always moving, much more active and mercurial than our sedate second son. As he approaches five, though, he has finally gotten to the point when he will sit and let us read to him from Big Books. We have cracked open The Hobbit, which is the first Big Book I remember reading at his age. My spouse and I take turns reading it, supplementing the story by playing Lego® Lord of the Rings with him.

It is strange to watch my son travel literary roads I know so well, and to see him take completely different things from the experience. When I was young, I remember being very invested in elves and hobbits--in their small, hidden communities. The humans annoyed me in general (including Aragorn), and I was often troubled by the wizards. Phobos, on the other hand, has little use for hobbits. He's interested in Gandalf: when the lights went dark in the goblin cave, Phobos piped, "Gandalf will save them!" He is fascinated by Gimli and the martial abilities of the dwarves in general. And of course, there's Faramir. When he showed up in that video game, it was love at first arrow.

Phobos is the only Faramir fan I've ever met. He has assured me, in his most serious voice, that Faramir could easily beat Legolas as an archer. He tells me stories about Faramir, like the time he rescued a town from orcs by hitting targets, thereby causing the targets to fall upon the unsuspecting orcs. 
Leaps across Middle
Earth in a single bound

Phobos: Faramir has the staff that Gandalf lost in the battle.
Me: How did he lose the staff?
Phobos: He fell into a hole with the big, you know, balrog. He fighted it.
Me: What does Faramir do with the staff?
Phobos: He makes bad wizards into good ones.
Me: Saruman?
Phobos: No, Gandalf the White. Faramir made him.

Faramir can climb the biggest walls. Faramir slew all the ohliphants. Faramir even destroyed the Ring. His only weakness, for my firstborn son, is that he's the baby brother. Alas! I wonder what Phobos will think about Faramir once he reads The Lord of the Rings for himself. One thing's for certain: we'll be avoiding the books until he can handle the idea of a dad trying to immolate his own son.

Meanwhile, on we read in The Hobbit. We haven't gotten to Smaug yet. I'm not sure how happy he'll be with Smaug, considering he has long been exposed to How To Train Your Dragon. The idea of a cunning, ruthless demon of an elder age might be a bit much for him to swallow. Not that it would stop Phobos. I'm cheerily awaiting one of his alternate stories about how Bilbo trained Smaug and rode him through the skies of Middle Earth, rescuing dwarves in distress.

Surprised by Grief

I woke up today from disturbed dreams, surprised by a random wave of grief. I say random, because the grief was not tied to one event or an anniversary: it was tied to losses in the last two years. And I was doing well this month, not even thinking about it much. I stopped grief counseling some time ago. Now, suddenly, everything in my house is laden with memories: I am in the glaring light of grief and can't look away.

Perhaps those of you with more grief experience will be able to explain this. Why everyone at once? Does grief always combine into a big ball of sad? Why did it have to happen now? What did I do to set it off? Did I look too much at the handkerchiefs? Did I dwell on the wrong pictures? Play a game they once loved? Get too few phone calls? Feel stressed with work? What?

I miss them, especially Lois. Some days it feels like I am walking with a moth-eaten cloth tied to my back, defined by its holes. I think about what grandma said, about how getting to your nineties is lonely, because you watch others fall to the side on the way. And I wonder if the cloth will get bigger, or if I'm failing at grief to still have it tied to me in this way.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Field Guide to Editing, Part I: Mind the Gap

“Are you an editor?” Yes. “Would you edit my work?”

My specialties are fairly broad as an editor: I work as a content lead for humanities education projects and as a developmental editor for academic and speculative fiction writers. Even so, I have had to turn away three people recently who, after asking if I edit, asked me to edit a Christian devotional book, a memoir, and a mystery novel. And even when I suggested, politely, that I might not be the proper editor for them, I got the following responses:

1. I have edited it myself, so it shouldn't be too much work.
2. Just give it a quick read-through.
3. I just want to make sure it all flows.
4. This won’t take long.

Can you imagine walking into a doctor’s office with statements like that? “Here’s my arm: I bandaged it myself, so don’t bother with a x-ray--just make sure it looks good. Can you do it in fifteen minutes?” Now imagine the doctor to whom you’re speaking isn't your GP: she’s an ophthalmologist. She could, undoubtedly, check your arm. So could I, if all you wanted was to make sure the bandages were smooth.
Mt. St. Helens, 1980. Once known as the Mt. Fuji
of the United States for her symmetrical cone.

Implicit in these statements are two beliefs: the first is that editing is a simple process (more on that later). There is also that necessary faith in the written word the author has produced--and why not? It takes a lot of guts to write, and even more guts to expose your baby to any sort of scrutiny. Chances are, once you’ve finished writing of any sort, you tend to think of it like this:

A towering edifice of natural genius. And I’m just as guilty as anyone else. When I send my written work to an editor, I await word, not of changes, but of the editor’s effusive praise. I am absolutely certain that there will be very little to alter.

Unfortunately for you and for me, this will never happen. No matter what you send to an editor, be it the very words of the Bard himself, an editor's first response will be something like this:
Mt. St. Helens, also 1980*
*Disclaimer: no editors were involved in this eruption

I feel that way about almost every work that scrolls under my gaze as an editor. I might not convey this to the writer in so many words (Hey you! Your cone is lopsided!), but I can’t help but see it. An editor is trained to see things that would interrupt writers in the throes of creation: issues of genre, audience, consistency, construction, and yes, grammar and usage too. You may be aware of those things, but think of it this way: a farmer may grow acres of apples, but it is in the grocery that people think about how to present the apples so as to best catch a shopper’s eye. It’s a wholly different perspective.

And that brings us back to the first belief: that editing is a simple process. If all written work were as perfect as a symmetrical volcano, perhaps. But when something as simple as a CV cover letter must take genre, audience, and style into account, it’s highly unlikely.

Perhaps because ours is such a highly literate society, perhaps because editing and writing seem so related, or perhaps because so many of us wrote our term papers last-minute--my bet’s on the last one--there’s an enormous gap between realizing that you need editing and understanding what editing is. A writer, finished with his first novel, will cheerily hire an editor like me without the slightest idea of what he wants the editor to do, other than to make his novel “work.” (More on this issue here.)

“Wait, Ness,” you might say. “Didn't you imply that editors are specialists? That you ought to ‘trust the doctor,’ as it were, to fix my words?” Sure, editors are specialists. We all have niches and variations of ability, and no editor-writer relationship can work without trust. But that doesn't mean you, as a writer, cannot know what editing involves. You should know, as that knowledge will help you decide what sort of editor you need, a fair rate, and a realistic time frame. It will also keep you from being scammed. Unlike the ophthalmologist in my example, there is no specific professional degree associated with editing. (My own degree’s in history--not what you expected, is it?)

So let’s get to it: an impromptu field guide to editors.

Differentiations between editing types is so frequent a topic, you’re sure to see at least one offering every #Mondayblogs. But I suggest you look no further than the Editorial Freelancers Association’s rate chart. Not only does it differentiate between types, it gives you a sense of the monetary worth of each.

Developmental Editor (DE): This editor is in deep, sometimes working with an author before the document is even written. Think structure, audience, genre, character, and myriad other “big picture” elements. The line between a DE and a substantive editor or ghostwriter is sometimes thin.

Substantive/Line Editor: Line by line, word by word, looking for the big-picture elements of a DE combined with the gritty details of a CE.

Copyeditor (CE): Correcting usage, grammar, etc., usually to align with a specific stylebook. They’ll also notice logical flaws or other inconsistencies, and will usually compile a “style sheet,” or list of editorial choices made in your manuscript.

Proofreader: Most people call all editing “proofreading,” but in truth, proofreaders come in after the copy has been produced. Is anything missing? Was anything changed? Think polish rather than revision. (A good differentiation between CEs and proofers is here.)

Indexer: Have you ever flipped to the back of a book to find a word in the text? You’re benefiting from the work of an indexer. No, this is not something computers can do well. A highly technical and necessary niche.

That's it for today, my seismic scholars. Next, I’ll continue the field guide with a breakdown of developmental editing. In the meantime, pepper me with questions or quibbles (I'm looking at you, editors) in the comments section.