Commenting on a recent post, Celia Hayes spoke of an editing programme called Serenity. I’m over half way on my ten day free trial and it’s the main reason I’ve not blogged all week.
We all need editors. I’m currently reading and thoroughly enjoying Harmony by HRH The Prince of Wales. It is published by Blue Door, the prestigious new imprint from HarperCollins, about as mainstream as you can get. There are no typos that I can see, no gaps between words that shouldn’t be there, none of those things commonly called ‘errors’, so it has almost certainly been edited. However, the editor did not know that it is Bad Form to begin a sentence with a number in figures (should be spelt out ); nor did he/she gently rebuke His Royal Highness for capitalising words such as Winter and Spring. Or perhaps he/she did and was rebuffed for his/her temerity (as happened to me once on this very issue, resulting in a book looking like it had been written by a German capitalising Every Important Word).
There are different levels of editing, and this programme deals with six of them, each one done separately as a list, which shows how incredible the human brain is, because a human editor would read all six levels at once and produce just one edited copy.
1. FIX – finds many mechanical errors and lists words and phrases that are often incorrect in novice writers’ work.
2. SPELL1 – finds many spelling mistakes that other spelling checkers miss.
3. SPELL2 – finds many sound-alike words that poor spellers mix up.
4. TIGHTEN – looks for wordiness and for unnecessary repetitions.
5. POLISH – looks for cliches, vagueness and overused expressions.
6. CONSIDER – finds many words and phrases that, while not always wrong, often cause problems for novice writers.
And those six levels are only in the category called ‘copy editing’. The Serenity programme is good, if ill-named (it would have been better called Humility), but it shows the limits of machines and software programmes. It does not do, cannot do, what only a human editor can do and show you where your plot has a hole or the pace has slackened. It is, by its very nature, mechanical.
There is a joke about a novelist writing a story set in Florence and using all the facilities Word has to offer, including ‘Find and Replace’ when he decided to change his hero’s name. His editor says he enjoyed the book but he was a bit puzzled by references to ‘Michelangelo’s Kevin.’
Machines have their limits.
That said, Serenity’s Editor programme is pretty bloomin’ amazing. I shall almost definitely be buying a copy once my trial time is up. I must say it is one of the most difficult programmes I’ve encountered and I’m still not using it properly, I’m sure. It is designed to make things difficult so that we don’t just use it like an editing slave, clicking the mouse whenever we accept the suggested change. Until I did what I was told and printed out the draft copy (it numbers every sentence in your text) I found it maddening going from ‘draft’ to ‘usage’, as I was meant to. Do what you are told! For Editor is here to teach you, not to do the work.
And boy, I have a few things to learn. For those aficionados of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, this programme goes a long way to helping you eliminate all unnecessary words. It’s already shown me that when it comes to the difference between that and which, I consistently opt for the wrong one (and no, I’m not going to tell you which is which).
I quickly learnt to work with Editor rather than be cowed by it, and by no means do I accept all suggestions. My sentence may be ‘wordy’ but I have cadence to consider as well as economy. Nevertheless, I feel chastened to learn how often I use ‘empty intensifiers’ such as ‘very’ and ‘great’ and how much more effective a sentence is without such words.
For example, consider the difference between these two:
‘Alberti would say you are very ignorant.’
‘Alberti would say you are ignorant.’
The first is what I would say in the circumstances, but the second carries more force; in fact, the absence of ‘very’ does the intensification that the word, overused, no longer does.
You get six lists from Editor, which means you have to comb through your draft text six times. This is intense and you cannot do this work without both the text and its author changing. What I have learned is how often I use ‘vague terms’ such as ‘somewhat’, ‘rather’ and ‘quite’. I know why I use them: these are middle class understatements often used to humorous effect, but it suddenly occurred to me that I may just have picked up this trick from Wind in the Willows when I was a child. I haven’t checked, but I’m wondering if I don’t seem somewhat Mole-ish at times, or, as Editor would have me say it, deleting ‘seem’ and ‘somewhat’: ‘I am Mole-ish’. For what the programme is pointing out to me is the English habit of avoiding saying exactly what I mean. I sit in my burrow, make tea and try not to offend anybody. As a result, my text is woolly and verbose with empty intensifiers and dead metaphors.
But I have also learned my strengths and it is only lists 4 and 5 which are throwing up changes and improvements, the rest I could ignore, but I read them all through just in case, because Linda Humility is my new name.
As I said, it’s a programme designed to teach as well as advise. You have to sit and think of an alternative to your ‘cliche or dead metaphor’. I find this very useful – oops! I find this useful and hope it rubs off. But is ‘origin’ really a pretentious way of saying ‘beginning’? Should ‘not possible’ always become ‘impossible’? No! You must keep your wits and overrule where necessary. Starting sentences with ‘there was’ may be sloppy but it is sometimes unavoidable and rhythm must always be considered. Nevertheless I appreciate the work which changed ‘ill-gotten gains’ to ‘profits from usury’, and learning what the difference is between ‘ship’ and ‘boat’, ‘gaol’ and ‘prison’.
Editor is not infallible. It’s American for a start, and has to be forgiven for its inappropriate spelling suggestions. ‘Spelt’ it tells me, is the name of a fish and I should use ‘spelled’ – well, not in the UK, as it happens, but I appreciate having to go to the dictionary to find this out – indeed I’ve never gone to the dictionary so often as I have done these past few days. (There is a way to switch to British English but I haven’t found it yet.) Editor’s list of ‘homonyms’ designed to spot possible errors failed to see that I had written ‘sites’ for ‘sights’ – but I would never have spotted this myself if I had not been in the process of the intense work which Editor encourages.
Yes, a human editor is best, but one always needs at least three – one to spot holes and inconsistencies in the story; one to edit copy as Editor does; one to proof read at the end – and to have all three is expensive whoever is paying for it. Serenity’s Editor is a good alternative to the copy editor. My husband does the first job; Godstow employs someone to do the proof reading. I’ve always done the second kind but now, I realise, not perfectly. Hence the lesson in Humility.
But there is a law which states that some mistakes are only visible once a book is bound, and no amount of editors will help bypass that. One always has to steel one’s self against the helpful correctors, those readers who write to you so much more quickly than those who want to praise your work. Forget the humiliation, be grateful and designate an ‘Author’s copy’ of your book to keep a record of all changes for the next edition.
In The Rebirth of Venus I poked a little fun at all this. My hero is working in one of the earliest Italian printing houses and meets the Printer’s Devil, the sprite responsible for all the mistakes. And then I deliberately misspelt a word to demonstrate how hard it is to spot such things. My proof reader and typesetter did spot it, so I had to keep correcting their corrections to keep the mistake intact.
I’d heard from nobody about it until this week when I received an email from Argentina: