Eloquence Is Bigly Important, Now More Than Ever

I love being an editor. I’ve been one for eighteen years, during which time I’ve learned more than I ever imagined I would when I started working in publishing. Among these many lessons is the importance of knowing when to keep my corrective instincts in check. People don’t like feeling as if they’re being judged every time they speak. So, most of the time, because I know I wouldn’t have a single friend left if I dropped the hammer whenever someone used “lay” instead of “lie” or “your” instead of “you’re,” I make a point of trying to listen holistically to what people say, rather than dissecting their every sentence. I remind myself that language is an ever-evolving thing, and that as long as people are expressing themselves somehow, then who am I to tell them to do it a different way?

But then the 2016 election happened, and now I can’t keep quiet anymore.

I voted for Hillary Clinton. I’m devastated that she lost the presidential race to Donald Trump, a man who disturbs me so profoundly that I lack the words to express the depth of my opposition to him. But I’m not here to unleash a political rant or to make predictions about what the president-elect will do once he’s inaugurated. I’m here because, as someone who has devoted her entire career to helping people identify, cultivate, and use their voices, I’m terrified about the havoc Trump is wreaking on the English language, and what that will look like for the American public.

You already know that you have the right to vote for whomever you want. However, if you place any kind of premium on self-articulation, or the power of the written word, or journalistic integrity, then set aside your party affiliations and your views on the other hot buttons dividing Americans right now and consider this: Whenever Trump takes to Twitter or the podium to express himself, he bungles his words beyond repair and in turn implies to millions of people that it’s okay to do so—because this election has proven that even if you have only a fifth-grader’s command of your native tongue by the time you’re seventy years old, you can still be POTUS. In a population that’s already grossly underserved in this regard, as evidenced by the fact that some thirty-two million adults in the United States are illiterate, the last thing we need is a president who has the potential, through his own bad example and all the airtime he gets, to do even more quantifiable damage in this realm.

You can have a hand in rectifying this situation. Whenever you read a social media post or hear a speech from Trump, try channeling your own internal editor, instead of accepting at face value—or, worse, duplicating—the many egregious errors he makes, including the following (emphases mine):

  • July 24, 2016: Trump tweeted, “Looks to me like the Bernie people will fight. If not, there blood, sweat and tears was a total waist of time.”
  • August 1, 2016: He complained to Fox News host Sean Hannity, “The New York Times . . . will never write good.”
  • September 26, 2016: During the first presidential debate, he barked at Clinton, “You was totally out of control!”
  • In the same debate, he stated, “I’m going to cut taxes bigly. And you’re going to raise taxes bigly.” (Merriam-Webster lexicographer Kory Stamper can get as semantic as she wants in insisting that “bigly” is a real word, but repurposing “big” as an adverb will never not seem ridiculous to me and to all the other people who questioned it from the get-go.)

My upset about this isn’t some eye-rolling, elitist attempt to distance myself from Donald Trump just because I know better than to make these kinds of mistakes. It relates much less to my being an editorial control freak than it does to my concern about the possibility for this to become a systemic issue. Although I realize that Trump’s verbal inadequacy is not as monumental a subject as what policies he’ll enact in office, the trickle-down impact of world leaders is massive, and in my corner of the workforce, it’s downright depressing that a lot more people are going to be using the phrase “waist of time” before too long—because if the president spells it that way, it must be right, right?

All this is to say that I’m not going to give up editing anytime in the next four years. If I can help even one author say something not just correctly but eloquently, I’ll feel like I’m playing a small part in enabling people to hold themselves to a higher standard than the standard to which Donald Trump holds himself. And doing my job won’t make his garbled speeches any easier for me to follow, but it will send more good writing out into the world to counteract all the nails-on-a-chalkboard stuff he blurts out.

In the last decade or so, the advent of self-publishing and hybrid publishing has given writers unprecedented access to tools that allow them to share their stories. I support this trend. But now more than ever, the opportunity to formally manifest a piece of your creative mind is an honor and a grave responsibility. Talk is cheap, but a published work is forever, so please, take it seriously. Whatever you set out to write, ask yourself, “What would Donald Trump do?” and then do the opposite: make it beautiful.

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Social Media Grammar Fails

A few weeks ago, I got sucked into a heated punctuation discussion on Facebook after an attorney friend of mine posted the following question:

Which is correct?
1. Defendants want to but cannot have it both ways.
2. Defendants want to, but cannot have it both ways.
3. Defendants want to, but cannot, have it both ways.

This friend tagged my name in his post because he wanted my input on what the correct version is (#1 or #3, if you’re curious), but my response got lost among the sixty-plus others that he received within the next five minutes. People were throwing out terms like “comma splice” (inapplicable) and vague guidelines like “Always put a comma before and, yet, or, nor, for and yet” (which lacks one of the very commas for which this particular contributor was so stridently advocating). Whatever rules of grammar had been implanted in these punctuation enthusiasts’ mental coffers since grade school came tumbling out in a competitive deluge of wordsmithery, and I thought my head was going to explode, so I had to log out.

People ask me all the time if I notice grammatical errors constantly. Well, yes, in the same way that a dentist probably can’t help but check out everyone’s teeth or a hair colorist can spot an especially bad dye job from across a room. But just like that dentist doesn’t want to think about who has veneers and who needs a new crown when he’s at a dinner party, and just like that colorist wants to spend her days off not thinking about anyone’s dark roots, I choose not to live in a bad-grammar prison all the time. I just want to get in bed at night and read The Goldfinch in peace like everyone else did, and I couldn’t do that if I let myself fixate on how sloppily copyedited it is. (It really is, by the way.)

But this Facebook episode stayed on my mind long after that thread disappeared to wherever old posts go to die, because it reminded me of something I’ve been ruminating on for a while, which is that social media outlets are a whole new arena for showcasing people’s grammar and language abilities. And the more time I spend on these sites, the more I notice the same handful of errors popping up again and again in people’s Facebook posts, tweets, Instagram captions, and even hashtags. As much as I usually like to turn off that part of my brain, I’ve developed a masochistic fascination with this particular breed of grammar gaffe—and now I’d like to share five prime examples with you, my lucky followers:

  1. “Your” vs. “you’re.” Maybe I’m just naive, but I thought this error was relegated to the ’80s and ’90s, along with, like, Reebok high-tops and Roxette. But no—there it was yesterday in a clothing company’s Instagram post: “If your in the LA area, come on by!” There it was today on Facebook: “Hope your having a great birthday!” I feel the same way about this mistake as I do about stretch limos in modern times—it makes me think, Is this really still happening?
  2. “Awe” vs. “aw.” Most people on photo-heavy social media sites are guilty of trying to out-cute each other once in a while with pictures of their kids, their puppies, themselves. Naturally, e-gushing follows. This is all fine—until someone drops an “awe” bomb and makes me want to send the dictionary police after her. “Awe” is a noun. It means “an emotion variously combining dread, veneration, and wonder.” It does not mean, “Your baby is sooooo adorable!” That’s the exclusive purview of “aw,” which is an interjection. So please, no “e.” That “e” is for “extra letter that doesn’t belong here.”
  3. “Happy New Year from the Clancy’s/the Jones’s.” I am fortunate in more ways than one to have grown up next door to a family whose last name ends in “s,” but I like to think that even if I hadn’t, I would still have learned somewhere along the way that the plural form of “Brooks” is “Brookses” (not “the Brooks,” not “the Brook’s”) and that the plural possessive form takes an apostrophe after the final “s” (“my house was next door to the Brookses’ house”). This rule also applies to any last name that ends in “z” or “x.” If you get confused, just think of the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses,” which you will not be doing as long as you keeping sticking unnecessary apostrophes in your name on your holiday cards.
  4. “Defiantly” vs. “definitely.” This one keeps coming up, and I deeply want to believe that it’s just an auto-correct issue, but I don’t think it is. For all its quirks, a smartphone is smart enough not to make this mistake—and when I see comments on Instagram like “I’ll defiantly be there tonight!” and “Defiantly call me later” . . . well, the context says it all, doesn’t it?
  5. “I miss my old stomp and ground.” Okay, fine, this isn’t a common error, but when I saw that someone had posted this in response to an Instagram photo of her hometown—aka her “stomping grounds”—I had to say a little prayer for her.

Grammar is a dangerous game, after all. Right now, I’m already worried about whether this whole post seems too snotty—and right now, you’re probably feeling tempted to ask (if I may adapt a line from the cinematic masterpiece Say Anything), “If you know so much about grammar, how come you’re there at, like, your apartment on a Saturday night, completely alone, with no friends anywhere?”

To that, I say, “By choice, man.” And now I’m off to spoon with The Chicago Manual of Style.

“I Hate My Book”

“I’m sick of working on my novel,” I complained to my writing coach recently. “I feel like it’s a thousand-pound weight on my shoulders.”

With the Zen-like patience befitting her status as a literary guru, she responded, “I don’t think you need to assign it such a beastly quality.”

“But it is a beast,” I whined. “It’s the beast that’s ruining both of our lives.”

“It’s certainly not ruining my life,” she said. “But if you feel like it’s ruining yours, I think you should write a blog post about it.”

“Fine,” I said. “And I’m going to call the post ‘I Hate My Book.'”

“Go for it,” she said.

So here I am, trying to turn petulance into petunias.

To be fair, I don’t really hate my book. It’s more like a frenemy, one of those maddening companions who have the power to both inspire you and torment you, make you feel proud and cut you down to size, keep you up till all hours in an intoxicatingly deep conversation or force you to hide under your bed because you can’t bear to hang out.

This kind of ambivalent relationship is always confusing but usually seems to shake out one way or the other: either you drop the frenemy because she’s causing you more suffering than happiness or you figure out how to focus on her positive attributes and steer clear of the negative ones. In either case, such a resolution rarely happens on its own but rather requires a conscious choice. And despite my grousing, I’ve already made that choice about my book—the choice to finish it, no matter how achingly slow the process is, no matter how clumsy I sometimes feel when I’m trying to put together a chapter, and no matter how often I wonder whether anyone will even want to read my story once it’s written.

When I was learning to surf, one of the best pieces of advice I got was “The only way to become a better paddler is to paddle.” Well, the only way to become a better writer is to write, and as much as I’m grateful to my coach for being patient with me when I want to vent, I know that complaining and self-doubt will only hinder my progress in the long run. And having completed forty-two of fifty-four chapters, I can safely say there’s no turning back now.

Every time I sit down to write—even if I manage to eke out only a single paragraph—I’m honoring my choice to reach the finish line of this marathon. And when I do, will I raise my fists in anger and scream out, “I hate my book”? Obviously not. I’ll immediately start feeling empty as I wonder what the heck I’m going to do with all my newfound free time.

And that’s what frenemies are for.

Writers on Writing

My favorite presenter speech of the 2014 Oscars was delivered by Robert De Niro, who, by way of introducing the nominees for Best Original Screenplay, remarked, “The mind of a writer can be a truly terrifying thing: isolated, neurotic, caffeine-addled; crippled by procrastination; and consumed by feelings of panic, self-loathing, and soul-crushing inadequacy.”  

I laughed and laughed. Whatever delicate soul crafted that teleprompter preamble is someone I should definitely have coffee with (see “caffeine-addled” and “procrastination,” above)—because it’s all so true.

A lot of the time, it’s easier to get discouraged by writing—both the process and the product—than to feel optimistic about it. That’s not to say that my low moments as an author aren’t balanced out by highs—whether it’s simply relief at having completed a new chapter, the deep satisfaction that comes from writing a sentence I feel proud of, or the sheer excitement of knowing that I’m actually fulfilling my lifelong dream of writing a book—but sometimes inspiration just doesn’t come from within.

Maybe that’s why I’ve been noticing so many quotations online recently that motivate others—to live and let live, to do what they love, to be more positive, to dig deep for inner strength, to appreciate their families and friends, to never let anyone treat them badly . . . and the list goes on. Last week, I even received an invitation to join an “inspiration exchange,” in which a sender emails the single-most influential quote of his or her life to a whole group of strangers.

Well, I didn’t jump on that bandwagon, but it did get me thinking about the kinds of quotes that resonate with me, and what I realized is that most of them have to do with the craft of writing. Below, a selection of my favorites, and why they encourage me to push myself as a novelist:

Quote: “I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night, and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.” —Joan Didion

Why I love it: Because this is classic “write what you know” stuff.

Quote: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” —Ernest Hemingway

Why I love it: Because anyone who’s read Hemingway knows that he’s a master of making a big impact with a little sentence—also known as economy of words.

Quote: “A lot of people hate heroes. I was criticized for portraying people who are brave, honest, loving, intelligent. That was called weak and sentimental. People who dismiss all real emotion as sentimentality are cowards. They’re afraid to commit themselves, and so they remain ‘cool’ for the rest of their lives, until they’re dead—then they’re really cool.” —Mark Helprin

Why I love it: Because I like to think my novel celebrates the hero and the antihero who coexist in many of my characters.

Quote: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” —Robert Frost

Why I love it: Because it’s a reminder not to get jaded (in writing or in life) and to use all those emotions I wear on my sleeve to my literary advantage.

Quote: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” —Anton Chekhov

Why I love it: Because I’m always reminding the authors I work with to “show, don’t tell,” and Chekhov sums up the concept perfectly and succinctly here.

Quote: “Some editors are failed writers, but so are most writers.”

Why I love it: Because I’m proud to be an editor, and I think all good editors deserve more respect than they sometimes get.

Quote: “Definition of rock journalism: people who can’t write, doing interviews with people who can’t think, in order to prepare articles for people who can’t read.” —Frank Zappa

Why I love it: Because—duh—it’s hilarious!

 

 

And That’s a Fact!

People who’ve never written a book before may have romantic ideas about how the process works: you sit at an antique desk in a serene space flooded with natural light; you sip a cup of herbal tea; you ruminate a bit, gazing off into the middle distance with just the hint of a smile on your lips; and then the ideas pour out of you in a cascade of creativity so bountiful, someone should really bottle the stuff.

Now let’s talk about how my writing process goes. Substitute a fluorescent bulb for sunbeams, a scarily unergonomic IKEA desk for the wooden rolltop, and a vodka rocks for the teacup, and you’re getting warmer. That’s on a good day, of course. On a bad day, you’d also need to replace the at-best-intermittent clickety-clack of my keyboard with an image of me staring gloomily at some obscure web page about native trees in state parks, or 1960s commercial architecture in Austin, or pictures of small-town high-school football players.

Why the long face? I blame fact-checking, an arduous but essential responsibility for any writer who wants to be taken seriously.

At its core, fact-checking is an interesting study in mind over matter, as it calls into question what our brains have been conditioned to think is correct versus what actually is correct. Here’s a quick example: “dumpster.” Looks okay, right? Makes you think of a big metal bin where people deposit their trash, and then you move on down the page to other, more pleasant visuals. But hold up—you just made your first fact-checking error, because “Dumpster” is actually a trademark and therefore must begin with a capital “D.” How about “laundromat”? How about “jacuzzi”? How about no? Both of these are trademarks, too—so if you ever find yourself in a jam and need to use your Jacuzzi as a Laundromat, at least you can congratulate yourself for knowing how to properly capitalize these terms when you’re stuck in the hospital with staph.

This kind of minor formatting consideration is only the very tip of the iceberg when it comes to fact-checking, though. Once you get in the habit of doing it, you’ll realize just how many seemingly insignificant details need a thorough once-over. There’s a reason why good magazines and newspapers have full-time staffers devoted to this pursuit, and why I, as an editor, have to be vigilant about confirming the accuracy of each special term and proper noun and time frame and statistic and report title I come across while I’m reviewing a book manuscript—even when I’m fairly confident I already know the answer, and even when it feels like drudgery.

When I’m working on my own book, I admit I find it tempting just to let my imagination run wild and make up a bunch of stuff to support my plot and my characters, but my novel is about a very specific time frame and place: South Texas in the 1940s through ’70s—a setting in which I’ve never lived. Therefore, I have a responsibility, both to my aspiring-author self and to prospective agents and publishers, to ground my fictional narrative in a geographically, temporally, and culturally precise setting.

Let’s look at one brief scene in chapter 34 of my book, in which we encounter my male protagonist lying on his bed, flipping through the latest issue of National Geographic. If I also tell you that it’s January, the middle of this boy’s senior year of high school, and that he was born in July 1949, what would your fact-checking radar home in on in this scenario?

Well, you’ll need to start by doing some basic math. The boy will have turned eighteen over the summer before he started senior year, so that means this wintertime interlude takes place in January 1968. Monthly magazines’ printed publication date is typically the month after they’re mailed, so this particular National Geographic would be the February 1968 issue. That means it’s time to go to Google Images to search for jpegs of back-issue Nat Geo covers. Aha! February ’68 features a great white shark, accompanied by the headline “Sharks: Wolves of the Sea.” Now you’re getting somewhere. But, of course, this character is reading the magazine, not just looking at its cover, so now you’ll need to revisit Google Images to find more jpegs of the interior of this issue, whereupon you’ll discover the byline of a Nathaniel T. Kenney, author of the cover story, and select a tiny excerpt from his article for my character to be reading at the instant when the reader comes upon him.

See how easy it is to tumble down the rabbit hole?

In a later chapter of my book, this same magazine buff moves to Austin. It’s July 1968 when he arrives in the city by bus. This is another outwardly innocuous event, but in reality one that requires a surprising amount of research. For starters, I had to find out the name of the bus depot in downtown Austin that year: the Continental station. Then I looked at pictures of the Texas State Capitol building for a while, since my character has a great view of it as his bus pulls in. To understand exactly what he’s seeing, I first had to understand that the Texas State Capitol is 308 feet tall, so its dome (made of a special “Sunset Red” granite, which I also looked up) would have towered over the surrounding skyline at the time. When I discovered that the dome is topped by a statue of the goddess of liberty holding a lone star, I knew I’d struck upon something for my protagonist’s girlfriend to ooh and aah over as she looks out the bus window, and something that could double as a symbol of hope for these two characters as they begin an exciting new chapter of life. And that’s all before the guy who picks them up at the depot takes them on a seven-minute drive that leads me into yet another minefield of fact-checking legwork.

For some, this kind of information gathering is satisfying, like a treasure hunt, and I get that—I’m nothing if not detail-oriented, and I can’t stand sloppiness in any form, especially narrative. But sometimes all I want to do is create my own version of a “Once upon a time…” story—and I’m pretty sure the Brothers Grimm didn’t have a fact-checking department to investigate whether the windowpanes of the witch’s house in “Hansel and Gretel” were made of raw or refined sugar. Then again, maybe that’s just because Wikipedia hadn’t been invented yet.

The 8-8-8 Method

Hi, I’m Annie, and I’m a workaholic. Beyond my regular workweek, I’ve spent an inestimable number of evenings and weekends at my computer over the past few years, forgoing social activities, fresh air, and rest in the name of . . . what? Extra income? Perfectionism? My love for what I do? Sure, all of those are valid reasons to work hard, but I’ve fallen down this rabbit hole mostly because, as much as I’m accustomed by now to the roller coaster ride that is self-employment, I still can’t ever totally shake my nervousness that if I say no to just one assignment, my employers will suddenly all disappear and leave me with no prospects for future projects. It may be an irrational fear, but when I put on my worrywart hat, it feels all too real.

Then I read this Forbes article, “Why Working More Than 8 Hours a Day Can Kill You,” about some of the grave health risks associated with chronic overwork, and I decided enough is enough. So now I’m trying out something I’m calling the 8-8-8 approach to work-life balance. It’s a simple concept—8 hours of work, 8 hours of sleep, and 8 hours of everything else (meals, exercise, relaxation, errands) per day—but it’s surprisingly complex to execute. I’ve mapped out these chunks of time on my Google calendar for every day in the month of October—an attempt at giving myself a 31-day challenge of sorts—and I’ve committed to taking on only as much work during those days as I can manage without eating into the time I’ve allotted for other activities, but all it takes to get off track is one unexpected task: a lengthy email I hadn’t anticipated writing, or a half-hour proofread. Each time I derail myself, I treat it as a lesson about how to adjust my schedule for the following week.

I’ve been at this for only 13 days, but here’s what I can tell you so far: Last week, I felt better rested than I had in months, after sleeping between eight and nine hours every night; I made it to the gym Monday through Friday; I saw college friends for dinner two different nights and cooked new recipes for myself the other three evenings; and I started a new chapter of my novel—and I still managed to fit in eight work hours all five days. This weekend, I’m making time to blog and focus on my own book, but I also spent all of Saturday hiking and swimming in the San Gabriel Mountains, soaking up some much-needed vitamin D. And guess what? I didn’t think about my computer once.

Beyond Chicago: The Supporting Cast of the Book-Editing Process

When I tell people I edit books for a living, they often respond with a comment along the lines of “Oh, so you’re the person who makes sure everything’s spelled right?” or “So, is that like proofreading?” Well, yes and no. Of course I’m not going to send an author to publication with a manuscript that contains an acknowledgements (rather than acknowledgments) section and an afterward (instead of an afterword). Nor am I ever going to shirk my obligation to implement all of the essential grammar and punctuation rules outlined in The Chicago Manual of Style. However, authentically in-depth editing is a many-splendored thing, guided not simply by reference books but also by individual authors’ tonal, pacing, and stylistic preferences, as well as by the editor’s own intuition.

The following is a list, in no particular order, of five key considerations I keep in mind as I’m reviewing a book manuscript. Some qualify as grammatical concepts but aren’t garden-variety, and others pertain more to developmental editing, which comprises the bulk of my work these days. In both cases, these issues recur across all genres and all levels of writing skill, and in manuscripts I prep for both self-published and traditionally published authors.

1. Structure

Part of facilitating a smooth reading experience is ensuring that ideas and sentences, both in an individual paragraph and from chapter to chapter, flow sensibly. If I come across a four-sentence paragraph that should logically build from sentence A to B to C to D, but the rough manuscript orders those sentences as A, D, C, B, it’s my job to rearrange them so that the reader can glide right through them. For example, if the original paragraph reads:

She was waiting for her father to call. He was nothing if not predictable. He always liked to chat just before he sat down to dinner, which was at six thirty. She knew he would check in at six o’clock, because he had called at that time every day for the past five years.

I would suggest the following revision:

She was waiting for her father to call. She knew he would check in at six o’clock, because he had called at that time every day for the past five years, and because he always liked to chat just before he sat down to dinner, which was at six thirty. He was nothing if not predictable.

2. Sentence Parallelism

This is a big one. Most often, I find a lack of parallelism in sentences that contain constructions such as not only…but also and either…or (known formally as correlative conjunctions).

Let’s look at the following sentence: He not only has a job but also a career. Seems okay at first glance, right? But in this example, the placement of has after the first correlative (not only) means that its direct object is only a job, not both a job and a career. In order for this sentence to be grammatically correct, both of its correlatives must join parallel sentence elements (i.e., take identically structured direct objects). Three (equally valid) options for composing this sentence correctly would be:

a) He has not only a job but also a career. (Both correlatives precede a noun.)

b) He not only has a job but also has a career. (Both correlatives precede a verb + noun compound.)

c) Not only does he have a job, but he also has a career. (Both correlatives precede a pronoun + verb + noun compound.)

Problems with parallelism pop up even more insidiously in the form of missing conjunctions, articles, or pronouns in sentences that contain series of nouns, adjectives, and other parts of speech. For instance, which of these two sentences is grammatically correct?

a) She is smart, kind, and has a positive outlook.

b) He was wearing a coat, scarf, sweater, and a wool hat.

The answer is: neither. In example a, the sentence requires the addition of either an extra verb or an extra conjunction to achieve parallelism—either She is smart and kind and has a positive outlook or She is smart, is kind, and has a positive outlook. In example b, the first and fourth nouns in the series are preceded by the indefinite article a, whereas the second and third nouns are stand-alone. The parallel version of this sentence would be either He was wearing a coat, a scarf, a sweater, and a wool hat or He was wearing a coat, scarf, sweater, and wool hat.

3. Questions of Logic

Two basic principles of good writing are: a) an author should tie up any loose ends in a narrative before the book’s conclusion (with the exception of intentional devices like cliffhanger endings and irresolvable tragedies), and b) careless contradictions impede character and plot development. So if I’m editing a manuscript that alludes on page 40 to a scandal surrounding Robert’s death, I’m going to expect the author to explain exactly what that controversy was before I finish reading. And if a book describes Emily on page 25 as being allergic to shellfish and then shows her downing a dozen oysters on page 177, I will query the author about the mixed message those two scenarios convey about the character.

These kinds of incongruities are sometimes subtler as well, like when an author defines National Bank as the largest bank in the city in chapter 3 and then expands that rank in chapter 6, calling the same institution the largest bank in the state. Not all readers catch these little differences, but those who do may find themselves questioning the author’s accuracy/legitimacy as a storyteller—and no writer wants that.

4. Correct Use of Clichés and Other Expressions

I’m convinced that authors’ misuse of words and phrases that they’ve probably heard thousands of times speaks more to some kind of glitch in the rote-memorization process than to their relative agility with language in general. In fact, some of the erroneous terminology I discover in manuscripts is as common as not in casual conversation:

l’m literally going to die if I don’t eat something soon. (No, you’re not actually going to die—you’ll be fine.)

I could care less if I get this job. (If you could care less, then you might still want to get hired; if you couldn’t care less, then you won’t mind if you get a rejection letter.)

I stumble upon a fair amount of one-off botches as well, though:

What are you really trying to say underneath all that mumble-jumble [mumbo-jumbo]?

She looked like death won over [death warmed over].

The flames spread through the house in a tower of infernal [towering inferno].

Though you may hold a thick face [have a thick skin], I know how much you’re suffering.

It’s my job to correct the full spectrum of these errors—from the most minor to the most comical—to make sure that authors don’t end up discrediting themselves to their readers.

5. Word Repetition

I obsess about this subject, both in my own writing and in others’. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve queried an author about a word that appears three times in as many paragraphs. To be clear, I’m not talking about words that no one can get around repeating (e.g., standard pronouns, articles, and conjunctions); I’m referring to the ones that stand out as repetitive precisely because they are not unavoidable and rather could easily be replaced with a synonym, without altering the author’s meaning. Consider the following passage:

He greeted her at the door. His greeting was lukewarm but hinted at forgiveness.

If I found this in a manuscript, I would point out the repetition of greeted/greeting to the author and suggest a simple work-around:

He greeted her at the door. It was a lukewarm welcome, but it hinted at forgiveness.

Harder to spot, but just as readily thwarted, are distinctive duplicates that appear many pages apart in a manuscript. This kind of repetition can engender an off-putting sense of literary déjà vu and, in some cases, even compromise a reader’s perception of a certain character. For instance, if an author depicts Samuel as hardheaded or lionhearted on page 65 and then accidentally uses the same adjective to portray Maria on page 235, the reader might wonder which of these characters is the truly stubborn or brave one. I make a concerted effort to keep such unique terms at the forefront of my consciousness as I work my way through long manuscripts, so that if I encounter them two or more times, I’ll know to suggest synonymic wording to the author. We’re lucky enough to live in the age of the thesaurus—let’s not be afraid to use it.

I’m always here to answer questions and engage in rousing debates about proper—and delightfully improper—use of language. In the meantime, I invite you to lie (not lay!) down and let all this stuff sink in.

Thanks for reading,

Annie