This article, written by Lindsay Randall is from the April 2020 edition of Nink, the monthly newsletter of Novelists, Inc.  (NINC). Nink, which is packed each month with informative articles for career novelists, is a benefit of NINC membership

For author and professor Denny Wilkins, editing is this: defending your reader—from error, inaccuracies, a confusing story.

Any discussion of it being a mix of rules and artistry doesn’t hold much interest for him.

“Editing is just work. It’s thoughtful, meticulous, persistent work,” Wilkins said. “Debate about the art and science of it all you want. You have to want to defend your reader, right down to its and it’s.”

Wilkins, who has spent the past 20 years teaching journalism and mass communication, said the “search for the right word is a moral imperative for a good writer.”

But the evolution of language, especially recently, has narrowed the ability to create fine distinctions in meaning. Added to this is the fact that while the English language has by far the largest number of words, the working vocabulary of the average person is decreasing. Too, words can cause distance and division, perhaps more so now than ever before.

All the more reason for novelists to have fresh eyes on their work—both conceptually and line by line, Wilkins noted—to ensure serving today’s reader.

Benjamin Dreyer, author of the bestselling Dreyer's English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, has devoted nearly three decades to “making skilled writing better.”

He began his publishing career as a freelance proofreader and copy editor and today serves as vice president, executive managing editor and copy chief, of Random House.

Dreyer defines copyediting as “the act of doing one’s best to make an author’s text into the best possible version of itself that it can be.”

He does this by ensuring that sentences are grammatical, words are spelled correctly, and punctuation is error-free.

He also asks questions “carefully and respectfully” and makes suggestions on “more subjective, nuantial issues of style,” which is, in other words, “a great big blanket term covering everything an author sets on a page,” he said.

In the past 20 years, Dreyer has noted a decrease in the use of punctuation from all kinds of writers, but the biggest change in written English, he said, “derives from the awareness on the part of writers that the default reader—and the default human being—are not male, are not white, are not heterosexual.

“This appreciation of a larger world is reflected, I’d say, in the near disappearance of the supposedly genderless use of the pronoun ‘he,’ and the rise of the singular and nonbinary ‘they,’ to any number of changes in perspective and assumption that writers bring to their work in all sorts of ways,” he said.

Dreyer's English, named one of the best books of 2019 by O: The Oprah Magazine, the Strand Book Store, and Shelf Awareness, details the many tips and tricks Dreyer has gathered through the years, plus features his fun sense of humor and true delight in all things word related.

Special to this edition of the newsletter are the following excerpts from the book.

From Chapter 7, The Realities Of Fiction

Putting aside the extensive mechanical work of attending to the rudiments of spelling, punctuation, grammar, etc., the styling of prose is very much about listening. An attentive copy editor should become attuned to and immersed in a writer’s voice to the point where the copy editor has so thoroughly absorbed the writer’s intentions that the process turns into a sort of conversation-on-the-page.

Nowhere is this conversation more crucial than in the copyediting of fiction, where artistry, however you want to define that slippery concept, can outrank and outweigh notions of what might conventionally be deemed “correct”; where voice—eccentric, particular, peculiar as it may be—is paramount; and where a copy editor, however well-intentioned, who can’t hear what a writer is doing, or at least attempting to do, is apt to wreak havoc. Unfortunately, havoc is occasionally wreaked: I cringingly recall an instance in which one of the finest copy editors I know—so attentive, so sensitive, so adept that editors clamor for her service—crashed and burned on a job in which for some mysterious, unhappy reason she didn’t understand what the writer was doing generally and, specifically and perhaps worst of all, didn’t get his jokes, which she proceeded to flatten as if with a steamroller. Happily, this sort of calamity is exceptionally rare, and it was easy enough, in this case, to put the writer’s nose back in joint by having his manuscript recopyedited, tip to toe, by another copy editor.

Though I can’t here demonstrate in any practical fashion the elusive art of empathic listening, I can certainly let you in on some of the methodology—scrutinizing everything, taking nothing for granted, asking lots of questions, taking lots of notes, and performing scores of little tricks—a copy editor employs in the act of copyediting a work of fiction. I can, as well, point out to you some of the glitches that, since I’ve repeatedly come face-to-face with them over the years, you may well find in your own work.

The Real Reality Of Fiction

Fiction may be fictional, but a work of fiction won’t work if it isn’t logical and consistent.

  • Characters must age in accordance with the calendar—that is, someone asserted to have been born in May 1960 must then be twenty-five in May 1985, forty in May 2000, etc.—and at the same pace as other characters:  Two characters who meet at the ages of thirty-five and eighteen cannot, in a later scene, be fifty and merely twenty-six. Grandparents and great-grandparents, I’ve occasionally noted, are often said to have lived decades out of whack, in either direction, with what is reproductively possible.
  • Keep track of passage of time, particularly in narratives whose plots play themselves out, crucially, in a matter of days or weeks. I’ve encountered many a Friday arriving two days after a Tuesday, and third graders in math class on what, once one adds up the various “the next day”s, turns out to be a Sunday.
  • Height; weight; eye and hair color; nose, ear, and chin size; right- or left-handedness; etc., mandate consistency.
  • Stage management and choreography: Watch out for people going up to the attic only to shortly and directly step out onto the driveway; removing their shoes and socks twice over the course of five minutes; drinking from glasses they quite definitively set down, a few paragraphs earlier, in another room; and reading newspapers that suddenly transform into magazines.
  • While we’re here: I recall one manuscript in which fully half the characters had names beginning with the letter M. You may not be surprised to learn that the author’s given name also began with an M. This is not a good thing.
  • I don’t know why or how writers end up laboriously and lengthily describing restaurant meals as if they—the writers, that is—have never experienced one, but: Pay better attention.
  • I don’t know why or how writers end up laboriously and lengthily counterfeiting newspaper articles as if they—the writers, that is—had never read one. At the least, remember to establish the whowhatwherewhywhen you were taught in high school, and terse it up a bit too.

Fun tip for counterfeiting newspaper articles with verisimilitude and panache:  Yank out all the series commas.

From pages 123-124: A Few Pointers On Unfinished Speech

• If one of your characters is speaking and is cut off in midsentence by the speech or action of another character, haul out a dash:

“I’m about to play Chopin’s Prelude—” Grace slammed the piano lid onto Horace’s fingers.

• When a line of dialogue is interrupted by an action, note that the dashes are placed not within the dialogue but one either side of the interrupting action.

“I can’t possibly”—she set the jam pot down furiously—“eat such overtoasted toast.”

Writers will often do this:

“I can’t possibly—” she set the jam pot down furiously “—eat such overtoasted toast.”

and that floating, unmoored narration is, I’m sure you’ll agree, spooky-looking.

• If one of your characters is speaking and drifts off dreamily in midsentence, indicate that not with a dash, but with an ellipsis.

“It’s been such a spring for daffodils,” she crooned kittenishly. “I can’t recall the last time…” she drifted off dreamily in midsentence.

• When characters self-interrupt and immediately resume speaking with a pronounced change in thought, I suggest the em dash-space-capital letter combo pack, thus:

“Our lesson for today is— No, we can’t have class outside today, it’s raining.”

• “Furthermore,” he noted, “if your characters are in the habit of nattering on for numerous uninterrupted paragraphs of dialogue, do remember that each paragraph of dialogue concludes without a closing quotation mark, until you get to the last one.

“Only then do you properly conclude the dialogue with a closing quotation mark.

“Like so.”

Excerpted from Dreyer's English by Benjamin Dreyer. Copyright © 2019 by Benjamin Dreyer. Excerpted by permission of Random House, A Penguin Random House Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Lindsay Randall writes historical romance and most recently served as assistant editor of Nink.

Laura Resnick

Laura Resnick is the author of the popular Esther Diamond urban fantasy series. A monthly columnist for Nink, she is also a past president of Ninc.