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.

Writing Funny

Humor writing is a conundrum that baffles even the most prolific writer. A situation in real life that causes people to howl with laughter can and often does fall flat on the page. Why?

Apart from the highly subjective nature of humor, I’ve found writing that is universally perceived as humorous has three qualities: a distinct voice, honesty, and fearlessness.

Distinct Voice 

It makes sense that a person whose writing is humorous is also funny in person. For example, Michael Perry, Anne Lamott, and David Sedaris are hilarious on the page as well as when they speak. The key is they write like they speak, capturing the cadence, timing, language, and sensibility that is uniquely their own. A writer with a distinct voice shows up fully as him- or herself on the page. This is a must in all good writing, but it is vital in humor writing.


Writing that causes readers to guffaw is honest. It tells the truth as the writer sees it, and is oftentimes factually true, yet is conveyed without judgment or bias. The fact just is, and this honesty adds vitality and integrity to the story. For example, Michael Perry writes about a cross-eyed butcher, a true fact about a real person. You laughed out loud just thinking about it, right? I do every time!


Humor writers bravely go where most people fear to tread, saying and admitting to things that most of us reveal only to our therapists who are paid and bound by law to keep our secrets. Yet humor writers bare all for all the world to see. Their vulnerability and integrity make them highly relatable, and their bold fearlessness makes us laugh from shock, recognition, and awe.

If you are one who leaves people in stitches, you can on the page as well. Learn how from the master, Michael Perry, who will be the keynote speaker at the Wisconsin Writers Association Fall Conference and will also participate in a panel discussion called “You Write Funny” on October 3.

The Power of Punctuation

You might want to consider having a copy editor on retainer.

Late last month, a judge of the 12th Ohio District Court of Appeals ruled that a parking ticket be overturned due to—wait for it—a missing comma. The village ordinance refers to the unlawful parking of “any motor vehicle camper, trailer, farm implement and/or non-motorized vehicle for a continued period of twenty-four hours …” However, the vehicle that was ticketed was a pickup truck, not a “motor vehicle camper,” which the owner cleverly pointed out in her appeal. And the judge agreed. It would have been a different story if the ordinance had read, “motor vehicle, camper, trailer …” It wouldn’t even be a story if that were the case. This is the power of punctuation in living color.

I’ve long known the power of punctuation. Thirty years ago, as a secretary in the loan department of a bank, I typed real estate descriptions for mortgage loans on every pertinent document, as this was years before word processors and decades before computers with the time-saving cut-and-paste feature. My boss and I then read these descriptions out loud to each other, ensuring that each word, comma, and period matched the original. One mistake could have caused a ripple effect of grief and aggravation down the line. (Hmmm … perhaps this was my training for my current profession.)

I can’t help but wonder if the eagle-eyed Ohio woman was a copy editor. At any rate, let her experience be a lesson to you. The next time you get a parking or speeding ticket, be sure to have your trusty copy editor look it over. She just might find a loophole.

“Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press . . .”

As another Fourth of July approaches, I’m struck by the sad reality that the true meaning of this holiday—our independence, our freedom—has been replaced with thoughts of camping trips, cookouts, and fireworks.

All freedoms listed in the Bill of Rights are precious, but the one near and dear to the heart of every writer is the freedom of speech and the press. Not only is this a constitutional right, it is also a privilege, one we too often take for granted in this country. My blood runs cold whenever I read or hear a news report about the imprisonment and, in many instances, the execution of authors and journalists who dared to write the truth, their truth. These brave writers, along with the tens of thousands of military troops who have sacrificed their lives, not to mention the sacrifice of their families, remind us that freedom is not free. Nor is it a license to abuse or endanger others. With freedom comes responsibility, the responsibility to respect one another and protect our common welfare while maintaining our individual integrity.

As you gaze upon Lady Liberty, remember what she stands for. Remember that you not only have the right to express yourself through your writing, you also have the privilege to do so. And the responsibility—to be true to yourself and to your readers, who need to hear your stories, thoughts, and insights as only you can tell them.

What you have to say matters—and you have the right and privilege to share it with the world. So don’t give up. Keep writing.

Blocked? Don’t Fight It

I struggled with writing this article all month. Ideas came to mind only to fizzle once I began researching them. Then when one finally took root, some unidentifiable force ran interference between the page and me while simultaneously tapping its wrist with its finger and the floor with its toe, saying, “C’mon! You have a deadline!”

Blocked when faced with the blank page yet pressured by the tick-tick-tick that sounded more like a time bomb than a clock filled me with panic and my head with “what ifs” that multiplied like rabbits: What if I don’t make my deadline? What if my article isn’t helpful? What if I sound stupid, or pompous? What if people don’t like it—or me? What if … what if … what if … ?

Sound familiar?

I’ve long ago learned that the creative spirit cannot be forced to perform according to my, or anyone else’s, dictates. Nor does it give a rip about deadlines. Rather, it’s like a stream of water breaking away from the river and carving its own path through dry land—it moves when and where it will and at its own pace. Trying to “push the river,” as I call it, only results in drowning in my own frustration. So, stymied, I did the only thing I could: surrender. And then I did the next best thing: I parked on the couch and lost myself in my current guilty pleasure: episodes of the series Brothers and Sisters, along with a hefty bowl of salted caramel ice cream. Since I couldn’t write, I may as well relax and enjoy myself, I reasoned.

After an hour of blissful escapism, there was a scene where Nora and Kitty were commiserating over a bottle of wine, when Nora said, “You won’t do anyone any good by pretending to be less than what you are.” I bolted upright as if struck by lightning. Grabbing my pen and paper, I began writing, “what ifs” finally in the backseat, where they belong.

I can’t explain how Nora’s well-timed words broke through my block, but I know it had something to do with my surrendering. A power struggle with writer’s block never ends well for the writer, as, like struggling in quicksand, the block will always win. Rather, I’ve learned the only way out is to lay down my will, give up the fight, and let the creative spirit lead me through the chaos of creativity—this time where it wants to go, not where I do.

I no longer view writer’s block as an enemy. Rather, it’s a reminder that once again I’m trying to play it safe and control the uncontrollable. I don’t know about you, but I like guarantees, such as readers’ and editing clients’ positive reactions, and am sometimes leery of veering off the beaten path. But playing it safe requires that I be less than who I am, and as Nora said, then I won’t do anyone any good. And doing others some good, even in a small measure, is why I write and edit in the first place.

The Necessity of Slowing Down

Fast food. Microwaves. Speed dating. Twitter. Life today runs like the scrolling electronic tickers at the bottom of financial television shows. And writing is no exception. Just the other day, I happened across a book online touting how to write, market, and publish a bestseller (of course) in less than three months!

I don’t know about you, but everything in me resists this frenzied and ever-increasing pace. Although I may appear calm and steady, inwardly my default setting is a cross between the Energizer Bunny and that aggravating, cymbal-clanging monkey who does a back flip every five seconds. Over the years, I’ve learned how to achieve and maintain my equilibrium, but the lure to the Land of Busybusybusy is relentless, ever nipping at my heels.

So hearing novelist John Dufresne speak about the necessity of slowing down this past weekend at the UW-Madison Writers’ Institute was like chocolate raining from heaven. Referring to his book Is Life Like this? A Guide to Writing Your First Novel in Six Months, John said of the subtitle, “It’s a lie. I can’t do it.” (Apparently, his editor insisted on this subtitle over his protestations.) He then went on to say, “Slow down. Take your time,” and described his process for doing so. In the midst of my running from one information- and camaraderie-rich session to another, this successful, prolific author confirmed what my frazzled spirit already knew but needed reminding yet again: Slow. Down.

We’re told that moving at warp speed is a necessity if we are to achieve the fulfillment of our heart’s desires. But it’s a lie. All that brings meaning and beauty to life is not accomplished overnight. As it takes time for a fetus to develop in its mother’s womb before it’s ready to be birthed into the world, it takes time to create a transformative work of art, be it a book, a painting, a sculpture, or a rose garden. Ideas and stories, like babies and flowers, need time to incubate and germinate in the dark before they are thrust into the light of day.

So slow down. Take your time. Nurture your babies, literary and otherwise. Don’t push them into the world before they–and you–are ready. You’ll know it when you both are.

Book Review: Word Trippers 2nd Edition by Barbara McNichol

What a lifesaver for writers and editors alike! Fellow NAIWE member Barbara McNichol has compiled in one easy-to-navigate manual the most crazy-making words from A-Z that, yes, trip us up. No more scrambling through stacks of reference books, as now the answers we seek are right at our fingertips.

Who among us hasn’t agonized over “affect” or “effect”? “Lay” or “lie”? “Who” or “whom”? Word Trippers comes to our rescue, but it doesn’t stop there. It also includes homophones that trip us up, like vial/vile and waver/waiver. Excellent!

My personal word tripper is “comprise” or “compose.” I have sought several sources and have never found an explanation to help keep them straight in my mind. Until now. Thank you, Word Trippers!

Word Trippers 2nd Edition is a must for every writer and editor.

What Does “Self-Publishing” Even Mean??

As we embark on a new year, many writers are assessing where they are in their journey and determine where they want to go in the year ahead. For some, that means publication.

Most writers are familiar with traditional publishing, and usually the Big Five (formerly the Big Six) comes to mind: Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster. But a myriad of mid-size and small presses fall under this umbrella as well. Only a small percentage of manuscripts are accepted for publication each year, and with the Big Five, the author must have an agent prior to submission. There is no financial risk to the author, but he or she does lose his or her publishing rights for a negotiated period of time after publication.

But today, authors have a staggering number of self-publishing options available, which is a real coup for the thousands of books that otherwise would never see publication. However, along with the many options available, the term self-publishing is bandied about so freely that authors’ heads are spinning. And it’s no wonder. So what does “self-publishing” even mean??

First of all, true self-publishing is just that: you, the author, are the publisher. This means that you handle or contract out all aspects of the publishing process: editing, proofreading, design, indexing, printing, marketing, and distribution–in addition to writing a good book. You assume all the responsibility and risk, but you also receive all sales proceeds and retain all publishing rights.

The following options are also referred to as self-publishing. However, although the author does not assume all the responsibility, he or she still assumes all the risk with less profit and, in some cases, a loss of publishing rights, at least for a specified period of time, as in traditional publishing.


As the name implies, books are printed when there is demand rather than authors stockpiling their garage with books that they need to hustle to sell. The companies that provide this service are ideal for the author who doesn’t have the cash, time, or inclination to do the printing, design, and distribution. Some POD companies allow authors to use their own ISBNs, which means that the author is listed as the publisher and can print his or her book elsewhere as well. In addition, authors can often set their own price, which, in turn, means higher profit for the author.

Subsidy (or Vanity) Publishing

In this option, the author relinquishes responsibility for all aspects of the publishing process for a fee paid by the author. However, with some companies, their ISBN appears on the book and they hold the publishing rights, albeit nonexclusive and terminable at will. The company sets the pricing, and the author is paid a royalty.

These options are considered self-publishing because the authors themselves are ensuring the publication of their book rather than waiting for a traditional publisher to accept their manuscript. The key is to be aware of the various options and their differences when one hears the term self-publishing. Also, keep in mind that the delineation between print-on-demand companies and subsidy publishers is oftentimes murky.

True self-publishing, print-on-demand, and subsidy publishing are viable options for the do-it-yourself author. However, do extensive research into each option before making a decision as to which path to pursue. Bottom line: know your options, research them thoroughly, and determine your responsibility and risk comfort level.


As I reflect on this past year, I have had the privilege to bear witness to the achievements of many writers—and, in some cases, I have had the honor as an active participant in them. Some finished writing a book, and some started writing one. Some are days away from publication, and some are researching their options. Some created blogs and author websites, and some submitted to publications and contests. Some branched out and developed their skills in another genre, and some marketed their newly published treasure through readings, speaking engagements, social media, and book signings. And some are now brainstorming, researching, or actively writing their next book, and some are doing the same with their first book.

All of these are admirable achievements, and each one was accomplished through perseverance, commitment, and desire to communicate to the world through the author’s gift of writing. I applaud them all and am blessed to have each one of them in my life.

Wherever you are in your journey, I celebrate you. May you follow your heart in 2015.

What Does Your Brand Say about You?

What immediately comes to your mind when you hear or read the following names: Oprah? Stephen King? Joel Osteen? Most likely, it is an image, a concept, or a word. But whatever the form, that is that individual’s brand, or, in other words, what he or she represents or stands for.

To those familiar with Oprah, Stephen King, and Joel Osteen, the words talk show host, author, and televangelist are synonymous with their respective names. However, what these individuals do is not their brand. Their brand is that one quality they bring to what they do. For Oprah, living authentically is the quality she brings to every TV show she produces and every issue of her monthly magazine. For Stephen King, scaring us all half to death is the characteristic of the majority of his books. And for Joel Osteen, the positivity of faith for financial success, otherwise referred to as the prosperity gospel, is the theme of his broadcasts and books. All three of them stand out from others in their field for something specific. That “something specific” is their brand. And most people know them not only for what they do but also for what they stand for. That is an effective brand.

Here’s another way of looking at this. As I was writing this article, the image of a branding iron kept popping into my head. Ranchers place their unique stamp on their cattle to set them apart from the cattle of other ranchers. So I ask you: What is your stamp that sets you apart from other writers? What do you want to be known for?

Your brand derives from who you are, not from what you do, so determining your brand may require some soul searching. In doing so, don’t be afraid to ask those you trust what they see is your stamp or “something specific.” Oftentimes, others can see it better than you can.