Don’t Bypass the Copy Editor Revisited

In March 2011, I wrote a post about the necessity and wisdom of an author hiring a copy editor whether he or she chooses to self-publish or go the traditional route. Now almost six years later, I still stand behind my reasons for doing so, and with more vehemence, as the publishing landscape becomes more populated and competitive with each passing day. Yet I’m constantly struck by the following reasons authors often give for their not needing to hire a copy editor for their work:

  1. I have an English degree. (Implication: I know how to write.)
  2. I’m a teacher. (Implication: I know how to write.)
  3. I’m an editor/proofreader. (Implication: I know how to write and edit.)

Let me go on record. I, too, know how to write as well as edit, but if and when I write a book, I will definitely have another editor copyedit it. Why? Two reasons: 1) I am not perfect, so there will be errors, and 2) I won’t be objective about my work. Sure, I will know what I meant to say and in what tone, but did I adequately do so? Even the most eagle-eyed of us have a blind spot when it comes to our work. We’re simply too close to it and often too attached to see it clearly and objectively.

Earlier this month, I attended the fall conference of the Wisconsin Writers Association of which renowned, prolific author Jerry Apps was the keynote speaker. One of the many nuggets of wisdom he shared was “You cannot edit your own work,” and listed the same reasons I have. Having written over 35 books and 800 articles, Mr. Apps certainly is an authority on this subject. And his notable humility is an example for us all to emulate.

It is humbling to be on the receiving end of a good copy editor’s scrutiny and analysis. (“Good” defined as knowledgeable, accurate, and experienced in his or her craft as well as open to learning and correction.) And a good copy editor is no stranger to being on the receiving end of said scrutiny and analysis. I have had this experience myself, and although it pained me, I was deeply grateful for the second (and third) pair of eyes to help trim and polish my work—and for the reminder that no matter how skilled I am at my craft (writing and editing), I need the expertise and objectivity of my fellow copy editors and proofreaders. And so does each and every author.

Remember, a good copy editor is your friend. He or she is your publishing partner, hired to polish your manuscript so it shines like a diamond when it is presented to the world. And that, by the way, reflects very well on you. So I reiterate: don’t bypass the copy editor on your way to the press!

 

Process: Where Life Happens

Right after I wrote my last post (January 2016 “Taking Stock”), I got sick. Down-for-the-count sick. No longer do I have the bounce-back I did in my twenties. Or thirties. Okay, or even my forties. Gone are the days of a round of antibiotics and I’m up and at ’em, good as new, back to business as usual.

It didn’t take too much reflection for me to realize that I had gotten so sick because I had, once again, burned it at both ends, leaving me a flamed out pile of ash. Having long been a get-it-done kind of person with an overdeveloped work ethic, I derived way too much satisfaction—one could even say I was addicted—to accomplishment and achievement. Even when I felt like I was at the tail end of crack the whip, I was still compelled to keep all the balls in the air and considered every day that I managed to do just that a good one. But when I found myself bedridden, too sick to move or even care, I knew something had to change—and that something was my thinking about life and myself. Rather than focusing so intently upon the end result of my efforts, or the product, I have learned that I need to focus on how I do things, or the process. Product is important, yes. But the process is where life happens and where the quality of that life lies.

This hard-earned wisdom applies to all of us, especially we driven, ambitious perfectionists. Whether writing a book, story, essay, or article, editing one (or all), building a business or platform, or promoting a business or newly published book, what is the point of achieving our goals if we are too burned out and sick to enjoy the fruits of our labor? I now know that I’ve crossed the line when striving for the goal supersedes taking care of myself and enjoying the trip. Since my bout of illness this past winter, I am now all about quality of life over quantity of achievement. Maybe I’ve finally learned my lesson.

As a result, I have developed a much more reasonable and sane strategy for my work life. No more working late into the evenings, getting to bed late, and sleeping poorly, only to get up feeling hung-over (only I’m really not) and dragging myself back to the computer and doing it all over again. Now I finish work by no later than 5:30 p.m. and work only five days a week, which gives me the downtime I need to actually relax and nurture other important areas of my life. And I can honestly say that I am even more productive.

So what about you? Are you focused strictly on product? Or do you have a healthy process on your way to the goal, all while keeping your eye on the prize?

Copy Editors Are People Too

I did a double take when I saw that the comma queen, Mary Norris, was speaking at this year’s Wisconsin Book Festival. I made my way to the already-packed room with ten minutes to spare and managed to snag a seat in the last row. There was ample seating available in the overflow area where the event would be streamed, but I wanted—no, needed—to be in the actual presence of Queen Mary.

To rousing applause, she took the podium and began sharing her story of a good Midwestern girl’s climb through the ranks from foot checker for athlete’s foot at the pool in her hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, to milk woman (her word—great story), to cheese packager, to editorial library staff at The New Yorker, to her now venerable position as copy editor of the same. She then segued into giving us the goods, what we were all hungering for: her grammatical wisdom. I resisted the impulse to stand and applaud her take on the epicene, or gender-neutral, pronoun “they” (it satisfies the problem of gender but not number), and her reading from her book, Between You and Me, regarding the common conundrum of “that” and “which” left us geeks in stitches. Who knew that grammar could be so funny?

But when Ms. Norris said, “People tend to be afraid of copy editors,” I really sat at attention. She shared that when new employees are brought around her office to meet the staff, they recoil in fear when they approach her door and discover that she’s a copy editor. Only when she reassures the trembling new employee that it is indeed safe to talk to her, that she doesn’t edit the spoken word only the written that is destined for publication (her emphasis), does the poor soul relax. It was then that I recognized Queen Mary as a kindred spirit, for I, too, experience others tiptoeing around me once they know  I’m a copy editor. People repeatedly apologize to me in follow-up e-mails for grammatical, spelling, or punctuation errors in their previous messages. I even receive follow-up texts with “* (word spelled correctly),” and sometimes with the commentary, “damn spellcheck!” It pains me that my profession, and apparently I by association, strikes such terror in the hearts of people.

After a Q&A that included such fascinating topics as peeked/peaked/piqued and “hopefully”/“presently,” the event concluded, and we all herded out of the room en route to the bathroom or bookseller’s table, or both. My heart went all a-flutter when the Queen herself and I practically brushed elbows as she made her way through the throng to the book-signing table. Never before have I been so near royalty.

Little did I know that this would not be my last encounter.

One hour later, I left Central Library and headed to the parking garage one block away. Since I have a chronic mental block as to where I’ve parked, I had taken special note, and even checked three times, the floor of the garage: X5.

After climbing eight flights of stairs, I came to a door marked “X3-X4.” Since five comes after four, it stood to reason that I needed to go up one more floor. However, after doing so, I was met by a door marked “Y3-Y4.” Hmmm … Y comes after X. What happened to X5?

I hiked another two flights of stairs, only to find myself standing on Y5, the top floor of the garage. Where the hell was X5??

I traced this route twice, certain that I must be overlooking something, until I finally just hoofed it through the ramps, where I eventually found X5 nestled within the recesses. Upon laying eyes on my beloved car, I almost ran to it with outstretched arms and draped myself across its hood.

As I approached the exit, two women were ambling away from the parking attendant. One was laughing while the other was turning in circles, scanning the walls of the parking garage with a befuddled look on her face, saying something like “Now what?” Then I recognized her black shoes (I loooove shoes). “That’s Mary Norris!” I said out loud to myself.

I wanted to roll down my window and speak to my kindred spirit, as twice we had crossed paths in as many hours. But I didn’t. Why? Because she’s Mary Norris, copy editor for The New Yorker! Copyediting royalty! But I suspect that Mary would have welcomed the interruption and even chatted shop with me a bit and shared a good laugh had I the guts to engage her. We copy editors from the Midwest are down-to-earth folk, after all. We also get lost in parking garages.

So don’t let our good grammar fool you. We scary copy editors are people too.

Burnout

“If you don’t take some time off, your work is going to suffer.”

This inner admonition sliced through my murky, overwork-induced fog, snapping me to full, present-moment attention. The last thing I want is for my work or my health to suffer, and I had been diligent about taking time for and good care of myself. Still, my workaholic tendency to forge ahead like a steamroller gaining momentum had kicked in without my realizing it, and I was dangerously close to hitting the wall.

I was burned out, a very real condition that entrepreneurs of all stripes—and that includes writers—are prone to when their passion, coupled with an overdeveloped work ethic, blinds them to the reality that they are driving themselves way too hard.

Two months ago, I wrote that today’s authors are expected to be entrepreneurs; gone are the days when writers focused solely on writing and PR and marketing people did the promoting and marketing. Alas, today’s authors are responsible for it all, whether they traditionally or self-publish. Running in all directions and wearing all the hats, which for some may be exciting and invigorating, can lead to mental and physical exhaustion, cynicism, depression, and a host of other maladies if one is not mindful of maintaining balance and a healthy perspective.

I’m grateful I took heed before my work had suffered and/or I had done serious harm to my physical, mental, or emotional well-being. Perhaps the fact that I was aware of my tendency to overdo helped me hear the instruction to slow down and pay attention to it—before it was too late.

And that’s the key to avoiding burnout: know thyself. First, know your basic nature. Whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, you need regular downtime to recharge your batteries. Second, know what downtime means for you. For some of you that may be white-water rafting with forty of your closest friends, for others of you that may be curling up with a good book with nothing but silence and solitude for companions. And third, know those pitfalls that ensnare you and those temptations that lure you into the rocky shoals when you least suspect. One of mine is “Oh, this will only take a minute.” Before I know it, an hour or more is shot because, along the way, I’ve stumbled across a few more things that “will only take a minute.” And, of course, this is in addition to that day’s initial to-do list.

Finally, take time for yourself daily, or at least weekly, and do those things that relax and refresh your mind and body and revive your spirit. And above all, listen to your inner wisdom. Loving what you do will result in a heap of ashes if you don’t love yourself first.

The Muddling Middle

When I began my newsletter eight months ago, I was on fire, brimming with ideas and enthusiasm and committed to having it sitting in my subscribers’ inboxes first thing on the first day of each month. And for the first six months, I did just that. But then on the seventh month, it showed up in their inboxes on the fourth day of the month (because of the New Year’s holiday, I told myself), and now today, the eighth month, it showed up on the fifth day of the month. What’s happening??

Like all of us do at one point or another, I’ve hit the muddling middle.

The muddling middle is that place where the flame of our enthusiasm has waned, our once clearly charted course has veered into the brambles, and our keen vision and sense of purpose has grown cloudy and sludgy. We have all been there or are now. The muddling middle of life. The muddling middle of winter. The muddling middle of writing or editing a book. The muddling middle of building a business. The muddling middle of (you name it). Despite the circumstances, the muddling middle feels the same: blechy.

Blechy, perhaps, but part of the process. All living things have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and the creative process is no exception. We give life to whatever we pour ourselves into, whether that is a relationship, a project, or a cause. I’ve found that realizing and accepting that the muddling middle is just part of the journey—as winter is a part of the cycle of nature—helps me soldier on toward my goal, one step, one keystroke, at a time. Eventually, I find that I’ve slogged my way out of the muddling middle and have ended with a sense of accomplishment and renewed vision.

So don’t lose heart once the dead of winter sets in. Just keep showing up every day and do what you can toward your goal, even if it’s very little. Remember: winter may be long and hard, but spring is on its way—and every day we’re one step closer.

Book Review: The Great Typo Hunt: Two Friends Changing the World, One Correction at a Time

From the first page, I applauded Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Herson’s cross-country trek on their noble mission of restoring proper spelling, punctuation, and grammar. I encounter such public gaffes far too often and embarrass myself by gesturing and shouting at guilty billboards on the highway. I yell at the television when captions flash across the screen containing misspelled words and misplaced apostrophes. So when I heard that these two gentlemen took up arms in the form of a Typo Correction Kit and headed out to right these pervasive grammatical wrongs, I couldn’t wait to read their story.

Jeff and Benjamin did not disappoint. Not only is their grammar, syntax, spelling, and punctuation flawless (as one would expect), their humorous storytelling is filled with informative, historical tidbits regarding the English language. One of my favorites concerns the battle between language Prescriptivists and Descriptivists, whom Jeff dubs Grammar Hawks and Grammar Hippies respectively, which dates back to the late twelfth century and continues to this day.

Jeff and Benjamin then go on to provide a solution to our nation’s slide into orthographic apathy by giving us an inside look at Direct Instruction, a highly effective yet too-little-implemented teaching model used in conjunction with phonics-based reading instruction. Priceless!

But never did I anticipate that our heroes’ noble mission would be met with antagonism, outright hostility, even run-ins with the law. Who would have thought that a brief, relaxing visit to the Grand Canyon (which included only some minor typo corrections) would turn into a legal nightmare?

This chronicle of Jeff and Benjamin’s illustrious journey was the next best thing to riding shotgun. For all word nerds and lovers of the English language–maybe even (or especially) for those who aren’t–The Great Typo Hunt is a gotta-read.

(This review is also posted on Amazon.com)

Don’t Bypass the Copy Editor

Self-publishing came to the forefront two week’s ago with Nathan Bransford’s blog post “Amanda Hocking and the 99-Cent Kindle Millionaires.” Ms. Hocking’s unprecedented success has the writing world reeling and is prompting as-yet-unpublished authors to seriously consider mining for self-published gold themselves. But whichever publishing path you choose–self-publishing, print on demand, e-book, or traditional–I implore all of you to make one vital pre-publishing stop: the copy editor.

The copy editor helps you to present yourself as an intelligent, professional writer by providing two key services:

1: Cleans Up Messy Writing

Messy writing distracts the reader from your message. By messy writing, I mean poor, improper, or nonexistent punctuation; improper grammar, syntax, and tense usage; misspelled words; run-on or fragmented sentences; and material that makes little or no logical sense. The writer’s job is to clearly communicate to the reader through the artful choice and use of language, which is accomplished through the intricate mechanics of writing. The writer’s failure to master either of these vital tasks forces the reader to try to figure out what the writer is trying to say, and that is not the reader’s job. Bored, frustrated, or both, the reader eventually tosses the book aside, never to return.

Clean writing, on the other hand, leaves no unanswered questions in the reader’s mind. The copy editor will ferret out errant commas, semicolons, and misspelled words; will insert missing words and delete extraneous ones; will point out any gap in logic or redundant information; will correct errors in grammar, syntax, and tense; and will offer suggestions for revisions, rewrites, or restructuring of the manuscript so that it flows. When the writing is clean, the reader is free to curl up and lose him- or herself in the story.

2: Provides Objective, Professional Feedback

As writers, we know what we are trying to say, but are we accomplishing that through our writing? We know what we intend to convey, but is that intention evident on the page? Writers’ groups are invaluable sources of support and feedback, but they are not always objective nor are they always made up of writing professionals. A good copy editor is both objective and professional and approaches each manuscript with the intention and meticulous eye to help make it as polished and publication-ready as possible.

If publishing your book is your goal, bypassing the copy editor is not an option. With the slew of books on today’s market, competition is fierce. As more and more people opt for self-publishing, the number of books hitting the market will increase exponentially. In order for your book to rise above the competition, it’s more important than ever to produce the most concise, clean, clear, polished-to-perfection manuscript as possible.

Whether self- or traditionally published, the reader wants an engaging, well-written read. If that is your dream for your book, do not bypass the copy editor on your way to the press.

Copywhat??

A few months ago, an acquaintance of mine told me that he’d written a book. After congratulating him and asking for more details about his book, I told him that I’m a freelance copyeditor.

“No kidding! What exactly do you do?”

How do I say this nicely? I thought. I took a deep breath. “Well, I go over a manuscript, checking for everything from incorrect word usage and punctuation, improper tenses, misspelled words, and redundancies. I note if the text doesn’t flow logically and make suggestions for restructuring the piece so that it does. I reword sentences and paragraphs or eliminate them if that makes the piece read better. I also make sure that–”

“So, in other words, you go over a text with a fine-toothed comb and tear it to shreds,” he said with a smile in his voice.

I cringed. Being a writer myself, I’m hypersensitive to “tearing to shreds” another writer’s work. Yet as a copyeditor, I’m not serving the writer well if I don’t meticulously scrutinize every detail. “That’s one way of looking at it, I suppose,” I laughed. Having a sense of humor is vital for both writers and copyeditors.

“In all seriousness, you are an answer to prayer,” he said. “I’ve needed someone like you for a long time. I’d love for you to look over my book, and don’t worry about hurting my feelings either. I want your honest feedback, even if that means the entire book needs to be rewritten.”

He called me two weeks after he’d received my feedback on his manuscript. “You are too good at what you do,” he said.

I preferred to take that as a compliment–which he assured me it was.

Receiving End

With pen in hand, Laura was still working on page two of my five-page submission while the other three members of our writers’ group were on either page four or five. What’s taking her so long? I flipped the page of the Writer’s Digest magazine I was reading in a futile attempt to quell my anxiety.

Unable to resist, I cast a furtive glance at Laura over the top of my magazine. I could tell she was reading then rereading either a sentence or a whole paragraph. But she’s not writing anything yet. That’s a good sign. Then she started writing. I shook my head. Oh no. Here she goes.

She wrote. And wrote. The other three members finished; all of us sat quietly waiting for Laura, who was finally on page four, making notations in the margin, adding a comma here and there, rewriting a sentence, and deleting another one. Will this never end?? Turning to page five, Laura cleaned up some awkward language, circled yet another “it” (her pet peeve), and glanced over the piece one last time. Finally–thankfully!–she put down her pen.

The next morning I poured over each member’s feedback, but it was Laura’s that rankled; it always did. Oh, what does she know? I shoved the copies of my piece into a folder and buried it beneath a pile of papers on the dining room table. For two days, I pouted. Cried. Considered never putting pen to paper again. Then I got mad. What made Laura an authority anyway? Okay, so she was an editor. Still.

On the third day, I slithered to the dining room table and unearthed the folder. Maybe Laura’s right. I viewed her feedback with less emotion this time. As much as I hated to admit it, in many instances Laura was spot-on. I incorporated her suggestions and submitted a much tighter, cleaner piece at our next meeting.

I’d like to say that being on the receiving end of rigorous editing has gotten easier for me, but it hasn’t. Now as I edit another person’s work, I pray that he or she realizes my intention is to help his or her message or story leap off the page through crisp, tight, clean writing. My intention is to help other writers as Laura helped me.

Thank you, Laura.

The Encouraging Editor

Writers need people in their lives who believe in them. Those precious souls who believe in what they do and why they do it. Who cheer them on when they want to give up and pick them up when they fall. I know because I, too, am a writer.

I know what it is to pour your heart and soul onto the page, laboring night and day to find the perfect word, coin the perfect phrase, and crafting the perfect sentence in an attempt to evoke the intended emotion or to communicate a vital truth. Then when you’re brave enough, you send your baby out into the world, filled with hope, terror, joy, despair, anticipation, and dread for who knows how–or if–your baby will be received?

Not only is writing an often lonely vocation, it’s also an emotional roller coaster fraught with dizzying highs and bend-inducing lows. That’s where I come in, the Encouraging Editor. I know the crafting tricks along with the emotional travails of this achingly lovely vocation. I know what writers need and why they need it. And that they can’t create for too long under their own steam.

I love the act of writing, the craft of writing. I love words. Where would we be without them? Writing is essential to each of us as individuals and to our society and culture as a whole. Let me help you bring your message alive.

Keep writing. Don’t give up. The world needs your message offered from your perspective through the lens of your experience. The world needs you.