Never too Old to Learn

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 ofย  ‘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:

In case you are collecting lists of errors for future editions, we had a good chuckle today because on page 265 of the third book of your trilogy, when Tommaso is complaining that it’s somehow and inexplicably impossible for the human brain to spot all the mistakes in the proofreading of printed texts, the end of that paragraph (the last word in the chapter – “understanding”) is misspelt!!๐Ÿ™‚
Tee hee!

8 thoughts on “Never too Old to Learn

  1. From Lynne Hatwell via Facebook:

    I wanted to say thank you for the post because you have no idea how long I labour over the editing of blog posts, and mostly finding my way in the dark with punctuation and sentence structure etc. And perhaps people might think it’s only a blog so it doesn’t matter, but all writing matters if it’s out there and being read. I was also hoping you would reveal the that/ which mystery because having looked it up countless times the advice seems vague.. If not very vague! I now have visions of you sitting there reading my blog ( occasionally perhaps, or even just perhaps!) and grinding your teeth at the many editorial faux pas, so all advice welcome or the suggestion of a helpful book??”

  2. Glad it was of such help to you, Linda … when I’m up to it financially, I may buy it as well. My editor is eagle-eyed, but she is getting up there. I have a tendency to use empty-stuffing words like ‘very’ and ‘seemed’ and ‘rather’ and ‘quite’ … along with an over-dependence on ellipses and run-on sentances. I did a final edit of my latest book, with an eye to trimming the chapters, since I had chapters with a last page which had only about five or six lines on it. Desirious of reducing the number of overall pages, I went through ruthlessly slashing – and reduced the page count by fifteen.

  3. Lynne, the that/which mystery may only be unravelled by those who know their defining clauses from their descriptive ones. Mostly we can get by without knowing such stuff and using the ear for what is right, which I thought I was doing nicely until Editor brought me up short. I think I knew that which should follow a comma (as in previous sentence), but I’d begun to use it because I prefer the brush-drum sound of it to the slap of ‘that’. But here is a nice comparison from the Time Style Guide:
    ‘The night train, which used to carry mail and newspapers, stops at Crewe.’
    ‘The night train that used to carry mail and newspapers stops at Crewe.’
    So that’s clear now, isn’t it?
    I think to use Editor for blog posts you will need to write your post in Word first and then run it through. Try the free trial to see if there are enough minutes in your day for this!

  4. Celia, Editor tells me all my ellipses and hyphens are wrong, but I’m hoping and presuming that’s because my text originated on a Mac. I really can’t be doing with staring at my three full-stops wondering what’s wrong with them!

  5. You do realise you have now made me even more paranoid about errors! *laugh*

    I am in the middle of a mammoth re-checking of all my books. Trouble is, half the files I have were recently edited for the American market (where they say some darn things different to us) Getting rid of the American spellchecker is a nightmare.
    Re-checking 7 books is a nightmare.

    I was just thinking “Well, I’ve done my best” when I read your piece and found spring not Spring.

    Oh gawd, I remembered seeing Spring in one of the early books (Kingmaking I think) This was originally edited by Heinemann back in the mid-nineties, when Spring seems to have been used…
    just when I thought I’d finished…..๐Ÿ™‚

    I also distinctly recall my English teacher saying spring, summer should be Spring, Summer. I also remember her telling me of for writing till not ’til instead of until. So I’ve always used ’til. Now I’m told that’s wrong.

    So is this a case of fashion editing? Class editing?Preference editing?

    then there are the ‘- ‘words: war-cry or war cry? love-making or lovemaking?
    ….
    every one of my books has sonmething different depending on who did the editing!

    A couple of things concern me about using a computer programme:
    1. different editors have different styles so how one editor goes through a book could be different to another (and very different from what the author wants/intended)

    2. Using an edit programme to help is all very well….but….. is there a danger that this can then influence the writer’s natural style?
    You say you found the programme helped you choose different words that you wouldn’t normally have used…. so there could be a danger that your book ends up as how the computer wants it written, not how you do?

    3. By using a programme to edit in detail, the computer highlights nuances and glitches that a writer writes i.e. a made-up word (I did have one in Sea Witch, but for the life of me I can’t remember it now & I haven’t time to go look) My human editor underlined it & pointed out it wasn’t a real word – I decided to leave it in. Is there a danger that relying on a computer could over-influence the spontaneous word-usage?

    Having said all that, it looks a great programme. It didn’t like my 600 page novels, though. Wanted me to split it into 20 page sections. Blow that for a game of skittles. (Nightmare escalating to X rated horror movie level here….)

    And…. do I want to change my novels written 10 – 18 years ago or leave them, warts & all? Yes, tidy up the spelling mistakes, the typo errors, but do I want to change my style or not? Do I want to repair the split infinitives that cropped up in the books which I never noticed because they might be incorrect grammar but that is how I talk & think. (I boldly go, very rarely go boldly)?

    Do I want to make the first couple of novels I wrote something different to what I writ [sic] ?
    Do I want to change Spring to spring because one person says its wrong, whereas an editor back then passed it as OK?

    See…. paranoid!๐Ÿ™‚
    (exits stage left muttering wildly & pulling hair out…..

    Oh and if the spelling is wrong in this…. blame my spellchecker. The US one.
    (um, is that spellchecker, spell checker or spell-checker?)

    eeek….!!!!!

  6. Tell me about it! I had to remove all sharp objects from Mike’s (editor, Moon in Leo) vicinity when he opened the newly published book, and found several typos! We had BOTH proof read it several times— Arrrggghhhh that way madness lies. Small consolation that even books published by the big five or six are often full of typos! Mike consoled himself by writing a scholarly note or two on the blog.

    Anyway- carry on the good work.
    I am currently reading and enjoying Shadow of the King on my Kindle.

  7. OMGoodness, Helen! I’m sorry to have caused so much anxiety and will do what I can to make things better, because a lot – sorry, many of the points you raise are familiar.

    Golden Rule #1. Do whatever you like, so long as you are conscious of doing it

    Golden Rule #2. Be consistent.

    In the end, we need to decide our own ‘style rules’ because there are so very many opinions about, so it’s a good idea to write a short list that can go up on the wall. When I worked in publishing, every publishing house had its own style guide which used to be – and probably still is – given to editors.

    In my tyro days I used two classic style guides, one is ‘The Times – English Style and Usage Guide’; the other is ‘The Economist – Pocket Style Book’.

    There are so many differences between US and UK usage, apart from spelling, that one has to edit a novel separately for each market.

    It would be wonderful if we could rely on editors but I see small cause to do so. It’s something I want to write about soon but first I have to do some research. I was taught by editors who themselves had worked on Fleet Street and had their masters-in-the-basement, those unsung heroes the compositors. With the dawning of the PC age, standards in editing appear to have been in free fall, and it’s one of the reasons I keep blogging about it and agitating good souls such as yourself, because the fate of the language lies in the hands of writers.

    We need to rise up and question all spell- and grammar-checkers just what it is they have against the use of the reflexive (my own, themselves, etc.) and the passive (when I wrote that ‘he was found dead in the alley’, Editor wanted to know, ‘by whom?’ – I am getting quite vocal in my responses to Editor, and it’s mostly unpublishable).

    Now, in some detail about Editor – yes, you must do what you are told and split long text into bite-sized pieces. This is for your sake as well as the programme’s, because you don’t want to read your novel through six times, do you? I do a few chapters at a time, what I consider to be a work enough for one day, and I call it my ‘giornata’ (the area of fresco which can be painted before the plaster dries).

    It would be worth doing just a chapter initially to see what Editor throws up and find if it’s any use to you.

    I’m getting increasingly bolshie with mine and overruling it left, right and centre, but I really do appreciate the aid it gives in following Golden Rule #1, because I’m not always conscious when I’m writing – are you? Getting into a flow is all well and good at the compositional stage, but that’s why editing is so important. At that stage you alight like a bee on a sentence and examine it in isolation: then the cliches begin to become apparent.

    Does it change your style? I think there is some danger of that and so we have to guard against it (by avoiding blind obedience for a start) and find some happy medium.

    My eye alights on one example in the text before me:

    ‘It seemed as if it had been written into him, into his marrow, the idea which Alberti had had of the new Platonic Academy.’

    This now reads: ‘It had been written into him, into his marrow, Alberti’s idea for a new Platonic Academy.’

    Does that constitute change of style or merely tightening up?

    As to what we’re taught by others, the contradictions are maddening. That’s why we need to make our own minds up and stick to it (Golden Rule #2). I must say, however, I do tend to trust older folks more than younger ones, although you have to watch out for archaisms! But my most serious mentor was Cyril Connolly’s secretary and she really knew her stuff. They were just taught better in the old days – even had lessons in grammar, can you believe it?

    With the thorny issue of capitalisation, I try and stick to the Times guide which says ‘this is the source of great tribulation. Please adhere to the following guidance. Too many capital letters are ugly. Capitals interrupt the passage of the eye along a line. They are often unnecessary… Struggle to avoid them unless to do so looks absurd. If in doubt use lower case.’ It then goes on to give detailed advice.

    So, as few as possible, then, but I do think historical novelists have a very tough time with this issue. The pope or the Pope? The king or the King? I usually opt for the former, unless a name is attached: the pope, but Pope Sixtus. No one has ever objected.

    Which leads me to Golden Rule #3. Do nothing which causes another to scream.

    We all now it is perfectly fine and allowable to split an infinitive, but if you are of a nervous disposition and cannot bear Those Wot Know Better braying at you in the face, do not split an infinitive under any circumstances. The best article on this thorny issue is Fowler. He wrote The King’s English so long ago that we had a king at the time, so his advice to split with aplomb and don’t let the bastards grind you down is positively radical. I’ve never had the nerve to follow it, not since the first (and last) braying incident.

    Lastly, there is a tendency or force at work which impels words to join up. I think it’s the writers duty to get in between (not inbetween) and prise them apart and perhaps use a hyphen to act as a brace. So it is spell checker or spell-checker but not spellchecker. Hyphens, as I’ve written elsewhere, are a species of punctuation threatened with extinction and we must do our best to save them.

    I’ve just been to look for earlier posts on punctuation but they may have got lost in the move to WordPress, so I shall hunt them out and post them again in due course.

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