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,



Which Came First, the Author or the Editor?

As I sit down each week to write a new installment of my novel, I often find myself puzzling over a chicken or egg–type question: What was I first, a writer or an editor? Can someone be a good editor without understanding how to be a solid writer first? How about vice versa?

For me, these two roles are inextricable. I can’t imagine deserving the privilege of editing someone else’s writing without having spent many years trying to craft sentences of my own that flow better, read more clearly, leave a certain kind of mark on the reader. By the same token, I can’t conceive of drafting my own book or magazine article without drawing constantly upon the lessons I’ve learned through fine-tuning other writers’ language.

This feedback loop certainly doesn’t apply to all publishing professionals, but that’s usually because they’ve consciously chosen one area of specialization. For example, several seasoned editors I know steadfastly claim, “I love editing, but I don’t want to be a writer”—yet I believe that if these same people, whose adeptness with language and grammar is undeniable, decided to parlay their editing skills into a book or article or blog of their own, they’d do a great job with the crossover. Then, of course, there are the writers who straight-up aren’t interested in editing—and kudos to them, too, because it can be really tedious. If you’re a macro-focused author with an editor and/or publisher whom you trust implicitly, why not focus on the creative, big-picture stuff and farm out the micromanagement of your text to someone who’s genuinely into it?

But what if you’re a double agent, like I am? This is where things can get tricky and feelings (my own) can get hurt (by me). As the editor of other writers’ work, I derive deep satisfaction from the treasure-hunt aspects of copyediting (Aha! A misplaced modifier!) and from rearranging all the building blocks of a manuscript like Jenga pieces during a developmental edit. But when I put on my author hat, those “treasures” aren’t quite so sweet when I come across them in my own work (A misplaced modifier? How could I have been so sloppy?), nor is all the time I have to spend in my personal woodshop, sawing and sanding those Jenga sticks until I have what passes for a complete tower.

My editing experience also has a way of turning my writing process into a slog through wet sand. As often as people ask me, “What’s the big deal? Just sit down and let it flow”; as many times as I’ve lamented to my writing coach that sometimes it takes me hours to write only four pages; as much as I want to silence what my coach calls saboteurs—those inner voices taunting me, Hurry up! What’s the holdup?—I just can’t resist self-editing. I treat every sentence within every paragraph within every chapter, not to mention the novel as a whole, as a project unto itself, something to belabor often to the point of obsession.

Sometimes when I’m writing, I think of the movie Black Swan, in which Natalie Portman plays Nina, a technically meticulous but dangerously uptight ballerina who is cast as the lead in Swan Lake. Nina dances the austere White Swan to perfection in her audition, but when it comes time for her to portray the savage abandon that the part of the Black Swan embodies, she falters—she’s just too rigid. One day during rehearsal, Portman watches enviously as her understudy, Lily (played by Mila Kunis), pirouettes wildly around the studio. Their instructor (Vincent Cassel) sidles up next to her and whispers, “Watch the way she moves—imprecise, but effortless.” At that moment, Lily careens into a fellow dancer, but she just laughs and keeps on spinning—just as the Black Swan should.

Guess which swan I am in this scenario? I’d love to say I’m like Lily when I write—loose, easygoing, letting the words tumble out of me onto the page with joyful recklessness—but I’m just not. I’m Nina all the way (minus the bloody cuticles). That’s because there’s an editor alter ego inside my author persona all the time, and while I hope I don’t end up stabbing her with a shard of broken mirror, like Nina did to Lily, I do wish she would let me spread my wings a little more some days.

I console myself with this idea, though: maybe all the personal policing my writing process involves on the front end will pay off in the form of a more polished manuscript on the back end. Everyone has to tackle pesky issues like verb-tense shifts and word repetition and punctuation errors at some point, but some writers (understandably, I might add) prefer to put off dealing with these details until they’ve completed a rough draft. I suspect that’s how Lily would approach her own novel. But, again, that’s simply not who I am. So I’m crossing my t‘s, as well as my fingers, the first time around, in hopes that both my editor self and my author self feel good about our book.