The Curious Mind of a Copy Editor


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between-you-me-confessions-of-a-comma-queen-mary_1Should it be “short, balding man” or “short balding man”? “Bad hair day” or “bad-hair day”?

Mary Norris, a copy editor at The New Yorker for over thirty years, relishes these sorts of editorial decisions. “If commas are open to interpretation,” she writes in her literary memoir Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, “hyphens are downright Delphic.”

As an editor, I’m naturally interested in grammar, punctuation, and usage. But Norris’s book is not a practical guide with easy-to-locate advice. What drew me in and kept me reading was her voice: smart, straight-shooting, brassy and irreverent.

“Let’s get one thing straight,” she begins. “I didn’t set out to be a comma queen.”

But she has risen, over her 30 years at The New Yorker, to the august role of “page OK’er.” She is the one who gives the final “okay” to stories before they go to press.

The book consists of ten chapters with titles like “Spelling Is for Weirdos,” “That Witch!” and “Comma Comma Comma Comma, Chameleon” (remember that song?). From the get go, readers know they are in for a wild ride.

The chapters read like a series of essays held together by Norris’s voice. Each chapter focuses on a specific editorial problem: spelling (chapter 1), “that” versus “which” (chapter 2), gendered pronouns (chapter 3), pronoun case (chapter 4), commas (chapter 5), hyphens (chapter 6), dashes, semicolons and colons (chapter 7), the apostrophe (chapter 8), and profanity (chapter 9). Chapter 10 takes readers on a road trip in search of the perfect pencil (No. 1 lead) with a detour to the Pencil Sharpener Museum at a crossroads in Ohio.

Norris excels at laugh-out-loud one-liners: “Who doesn’t know the word ‘bumper’ breaks after the bump?” she asks in the chapter on hyphens. Turning to Merriam-Webster’s, she discovers that some meanings of “bumper” do in fact break after “bum.”

A few pages later, she’s on a road trip to find out “Who Put the Hyphen in Moby-Dick.” Norris visits Melville’s study in Pittsfield, Maine, reads a thick biography of the author, researches the publishing history of Moby-Dick (a financial failure), and studies nineteenth-century punctuation conventions. She finally finds the answer buried in an endnote: a copy editor!

Between You & Me takes us inside  Norris’s curious, nimble mind as she ruminates over editorial decisions. She is a stickler for rules, but she’s thoughtful about imposing them and will refrain for the sake of the author’s voice. She shows that copy editing is not just “mechanical,” a mere application of rules that any moron with a manual can execute. Being a copy editor “draws on the entire person.”

For Norris, a hyphen or a comma can take on almost mystical meaning. Once she edited a story about a boy who poked fun at a girl for going to church. He asked, “How was it? … Delicious God-bread?” A proofreader took the hyphen out. But Norris, after a lunch break spent “brooding over a sandwich,” put it back in. “God bread” was not like raisin bread, she reasoned. It was God in bread – “transubstantiation in a hyphen.”

Spelling, too, is like a sacrament, “the clothing of words, their outward visible sign.” Not that Norris is religious in the traditional sense. She dealt with her demons in psychoanalysis, emerging free of prudery like “a fucking monarch butterfly.”

Norris admits to being “deeply invested” in the quirky style of The New Yorker. The magazine follows a “close” style of punctuation that employs commas aplenty. Norris argues that all three commas are justified in the following: “Before Atwater died, of brain cancer, in 1991, he expressed regret …” These commas, she claims, “mark off segments of the sentence that are not germane to the meaning” – to the fact that Atwater expressed regret. What he died of and when he died of it are extra details, she says. I understand Norris’s reasoning, but to me the extra commas make the sentence choppy and interfere with seamless comprehension.


Lu Burke’s Comma Shaker

One of Norris’s colleagues, Lu Burke, in protest against this generous sprinkling of commas, took a canister with a perforated lid, wrapped it in brown paper, and drew on it a bunch of commas and the words “comma shaker.” Lu, a proofreader “with snappy blue eyes,” thought that aspects of The New Yorker style “were ridiculous.” It’s touching that in the epilogue Norris pays tribute to Lu, whom she never liked, by bringing the comma shaker to a celebration of Lu’s mysterious bequest of a fortune to Southbury Public Library, Connecticut.

Like the chameleon commas, some of Norris’s grammar advice is questionable. To my surprise, she rejects “they” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun, preferring either the outmoded “he” or makeshift solutions like “heesh.” Personal pronouns became a personal problem for Norris when her younger brother, Dee, announced that “he” was transsexual. Norris’s struggles in accepting her brother as her sister explain her preoccupation with pronouns, but even the American Dialect Society has endorsed “they.” What makes this chapter meaningful is not the grammar advice but the personal story.

Mary Norris got a job at The New Yorker in 1978. She had graduated with a master’s in English from the University of Vermont and had accumulated credentials as a “milkman,” dishwasher, cheese packager, and “foot checker” at a public swimming pool. Her job was to cut and paste the magazine onto index cards. After three years of this kindergarten work, she moved to the collating department, where she copied the changes marked by the editor, author, proofreader, and fact checker onto a clean proof for the printer.

She characterizes her colleagues with humorous sketches. Dave Jackson, the head of the “foundry” department, where the final proofreading was done, “was tall and thin with a hectic red complexion and teeth that he could employ in a vicious grille.” Hilarious to read, but perhaps not so funny to the subject himself!

This is not a go-to book for answers on grammar and style, but it’s not a tell-all memoir, either. It’s a literary memoir about Norris’s work life and her wide-ranging interests in language and literature. I will return to the Comma Queen again for her smart, down-to-earth and joyous company.

For more from Mary Norris, visit her Comma Queen youtube series.






Book Review: The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr


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A curious mind probing for truth may well set your scribbling ass free.

The Art of Memoir

Poet, writing instructor, and author of three memoirs, Mary Karr has been messing around with memoir all her life.

Messy – that pretty much describes her approach to writing and teaching. “I’m a passionately messy teacher,” she writes. And, no surprise, her book is a passionately messy and wildly entertaining book.

In The Art of Memoir, Karr distills what she teaches to her superstar students – those 12 who are chosen from among a thousand applicants each year for her class at Syracuse University. The book is a hodgepodge – part graduate seminar on the “greats” in the memoir canon, part how-to instruction for would-be memoirists, and part memoir-like reflections on Karr’s own writing life.

Accordingly, the chapter titles range from the wacky – “Interiority and Inner Enemy: Private Agonies Read Deeper Than External Whammies” – to the utilitarian “How to Choose a Detail.”

The best parts are memoir-like passages where Karr’s bad-ass Texan voice springs loose in similes and salty one-liners, where she sweeps aside the “how to” instruction and asks “How do you know who you are?”

From an editor’s perspective, I was most intrigued by Karr’s take on voice, truth-telling, conflict, structure, sensory detail, and revision.

On voice: “A voice conjures the human who utters it”

Mary Karr

Mary Karr

Karr explains voice better than any writer I’ve come across. She goes beyond the usual discussions of style and diction to the heart of voice – a mindset and way of perceiving, a “you-ness” that has to speak from the first sentence.

A memoir lives or dies 100 percent on voice, she says.

For Karr, voice springs from self-awareness and from a willingness to peel away false selves. Finding your voice is therefore a painful process.

Karr admits that she spent some years trying to pass herself off as a Cambridge-style poet. Finding her voice meant casting off her pretentions and owning her roots as a “redneck Texan.” Once she accepted who she was, she consciously constructed a voice to match. Although Karr’s voice sounds natural, it’s carefully crafted. It’s her voice that makes Karr’s work so funny, frank, and unforgettable.

On truth-telling: “Seeing someone naked thrills us a little”

Karr believes in the veracity of memoirists – why go through the “major shit-eating contest” of reliving past agonies just to lie about it?

Truth-telling is closely tied to voice – to getting past your ego and “lad-dee-dah poses.” A believable voice, Karr says, bears witness to how the author as a character might be distorting reality.

Karr is fully aware of the untrustworthiness of memory and the blurry line between fact and fiction. She urges memoirists to question the past and their own interpretations of it. Only by doubting themselves can memoirists get past their own delusions and arrive at a version close to the truth. Karr burst many a bubble when writing her own memoirs: The Liars’ Club (1995), Cherry (2001), and Lit (2010).

Given this commitment to honesty and authenticity, I was perturbed by Karr’s list of twelve “liberties” that she accepts as commonplace in memoir, including creating dialogue, writing scenes about events she didn’t witness, manipulating chronology, leaving things out, and changing the names of people and places. It’s okay to take these liberties, in her view, as long as the author is “upfront” about doing so.

Perhaps as a test of veracity, she recommends passing the manuscript around to the people in it before publication. None of her family and friends ever said “Don’t write that.”

On the inner enemy: “a blazing psychic struggle”

What Karr calls the “inner enemy” is the secret to “plot” in memoir. The psychological struggle against herself is what drove Karr to write (well, that, and money). The emotional stakes are high, and she inhabits the moment. The theme of the book becomes “how the self evolves to reconcile its inner conflicts over time.”

Yet her memoirs also have plenty of external drama. I think a writer would have to be wickedly self-aware to craft a memoir only on the basis of the inner enemy.

On structure: Not much to go on

Karr has surprisingly little to say about structure. In her three memoirs, she relied on the tried-and-true flash forward followed by a chronological narrative. This structure works well for a life full of drama or trauma, but not so well for the outwardly pedestrian lives that most of us lead.

She views memoir as “dopily episodic,” held together by theme, happenstance, and voice. The structure will naturally take care of itself, she believes, if the author finds her voice. Good luck with that.

Carnality: Gritty word choices hit you in the gut

Karr puts a new twist on the old saw “show, don’t tell.” Showing resides in what she calls “carnality,” by which she means physicality and sensory perception. Karr, who converted to Catholicism as an adult, likens carnal writing to Ignatian spirituality. She composes scenes through her senses – that’s how she remembers.  Paradoxically, carnality is sacred (the chapter on this topic is called “Sacred Carnality”) because it’s physical details that bring the past into being.

On revision: Other than a few instances of luck, good work only comes through revision

Karr believes that writers need both a generative talent and an editing talent. Karr has an editing talent. Her first drafts, she says, are dumb as stumps. She threw out 1200 pages of Lit – five years of work – and had a breakdown. But once she has a draft, she’ll endlessly polish the pages.

Her standards are high. She’s in conversation with “the greats,” not with the fickle marketplace.

For more on Mary Karr, check out one of her YouTube videos.

Book Review: Editorial Niches


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editorial-niches_coverWhen Editors Canada decided to update Editing Canadian English, now in its third edition, the twenty-four authors and their team of editors generated so much material that they decided to create a companion volume, Editorial Niches.

What’s in it?

Editorial Niches consists of two long chapters, each divided into many subsections with report-style enumeration to preserve the link with the online edition of Editing Canadian English. The first chapter – chapter 12, so numbered because it’s a continuation of Editing Canadian English – covers professional development, fact checking, indexing, email etiquette, and software for editing.

The second chapter – chapter 13 – lends its name to the book. Experienced editors offer an insider’s view of particular kinds of editing, with sections on

  • online materials
  • books
  • corporate, not-for-profit, and government documents
  • educational materials
  • academic books, journal articles, and theses
  • poetry, plays, and screenplays
  • cookbooks
  • magazines
  • science, technology, and medicine publications
  • visual materials

What’s in it for you?

If you are at all curious about the kinds of work editors do, you should read this book. It provides a rich overview of many areas of editorial work for freelancers (not in-house editors, however). If you are a new editor, you will gain insight into the types of work you might want to do. If you are a seasoned editor, you will be interested to know how other editors in your niche perform the work and be reassured that your practices are up to standard. If you want to try something new, this book is for you.

The content is relevant for English-speaking editors internationally. Only one section, on editing for government, is aimed exclusively at editors working in Canada.

Editorial Niches provides practical information about editing that is not available anywhere else. The only book I know of that is remotely like it is Editors on Editing, which as a 1993 publication is no longer a trustworthy source.

It’s an excellent resource, but …

If I were the editor: A modest proposal for restructuring

A large group of editors – beyond the twenty-four authors who are also editors – contributed to this book. It is therefore terrifying to offer constructive criticism. Yet I cannot help envision the book as a stand-alone publication. Sometimes it takes an outsider – someone not wedded to the original concept – to see what a book wants to be. 

Editorial Niches has a great title and substantial content. The ten niches covered in chapter 13 would form the basis for the new book. Each niche would have its own chapter. Further, I would subdivide some of the “niches” and expand the discussion. The section on books, for example, covers production, non-fiction trade books, self-published books, and fiction for children and young adults. I would like to see separate, fully fledged chapters on each of these niches.

Luxembourg Gardens, Paris

Luxembourg Gardens, Paris

To these I would add fact-checking, plain language, and indexing from chapter 12, as these are arguably editorial niches too.

And I would add a chapter on editing novels and short stories. Editing fiction is covered only briefly in the section on editing stories for children and teens. The section on “editing self-publishing authors” deals with client relations but not the craft of fiction editing. The market for fiction is huge, and so is the need for trained editors. Any book on “editorial niches” should give fiction its due.

Of course the sequence of chapters would have to be changed to create a beginning, middle, and end. I envision a book with an introduction that, to steal the wisdom from section, “truly leads into the essence of the text.” Likewise, the book must not just stop, as it currently does; it must conclude.

Each section of Editorial Niches seems to be written by a different author, because like it or not – and I do – some individual voices come through. The book does not have a cohesive voice. I would therefore suggest attributing chapters to the authors, instead of listing the authors as a collective in the preliminary pages. The varied voices in this book would then become a strength, not a potential weakness.

The book has four levels of headings. I would suggest scaling back to two levels distinguished by heading style. I would omit the enumeration, because numbering schemes like are aesthetically unpleasing and more confusing than helpful.

The cross-references to Editing Canadian English would have to be incorporated into the narrative, referred to in notes, or added in “further reading.”

Now the hard part: the book that I envision would not include much of chapter 12. The Professional Editorial Standards and sections on professional development, email etiquette, and software for editing – as good and useful as the information is – are not editorial niches and have to go.

Professional Editorial Standards is available for free on the Editors Canada website. It is also available in each of the four certification study guides and as an appendix to Editing Canadian English. There is no need to reproduce it here. The further nine pages on preparing for certification belong, in my view, on the Editors Canada website.

An important question to consider in restructuring the book is how editors will use it. Do editors want to read about the different niches for educational purposes, or do they want practical information on finding work? A related question is, Is the information about the different niches balanced?

I have to say no.

Most sections speak to editors who have work in the given niche. Only one section, editing for government, provides specific information on how to find work in that field. I would like to see “finding work” discussed in each niche – and not just discussed, but presented as paths to finding work that editors can act on. After all, the book is aimed at new editors looking for work and at seasoned editors interested in trying something new.

The more I think about a structural edit, the more questions come to mind. How many niches should be covered? In how much detail? Should the chapters be similar in length? Should every chapter cover similar topics, such as a publishing overview for that niche, the editing process, client relations, finding work, and resources for further reading?

What do you think? Would Editorial Niches be more meaningful to readers, and more marketable, as a separate e-book or print book?

Preparing for Certification … No More


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Here I am making a fool of myself in public. Two weeks ago, I announced that I would study for the Editors Canada copy-editing exam coming up in November 2015 and blog about what I’m learning. Today, I’m announcing that I’m not taking the exam.

The idea is just too stressful. And it’s only August.

Kingston Sheepdog Trials. For me, studying for certification is like herding sheep.

For me, studying for certification is like herding sheep. Photo: Kingston Sheepdog Trials

I’ve decided instead to complete the Certificate in Publishing at Ryerson University. I’ve already taken 6.5 courses, and I only need 1.5 more to get the certificate.

I’ve heard it said at Editors Canada that EAC certification is proof of excellence, whereas completion of a university program is not. It’s true that some people barely pass university courses and still get to claim the credential. But if you get straight A’s, doesn’t that mean something?

Last week I aired my uncertainty on a Facebook group called Editors’ Association of Earth. People were generous in their responses, and their views were mixed. Anne Louise Mahoney and Stan J. Backs, both Certified Professional Editors, said that studying for the exams was the best professional development they had ever done. Plus they now feel justified in charging premium rates.

Editors who have not gone the certification route affirmed the value of experienced combined with ongoing professional development. A common refrain was “certification is not for everyone.”

Janet MacMillan, a member of Editors Canada and a (provisional) Advanced Professional Member of the UK-based Society for Editors and Proofreaders, commented:

There’s no shame in not seeking certification. It simply isn’t for everyone, not even a fraction of everyone. There are many ways to undertake continuing professional development, and studying for certification and taking the exams is only one of them. There are a not insignificant number of the best and most experienced editors in Canada for whom certification holds no interest. Of course, certification will be right for a few (some, nowhere nearly all), and those people should go for it.

Advanced membership in SfEP is a professional qualification that is granted on the basis of training and continuing professional development, completion of a mentoring program, experience as a copy editor or proofreader, and references from clients or employers. This qualification recognizes that editors acquire their skills in a variety of ways.

Editors Canada certification, by contrast, is based on achieving at least 80 percent on a three-hour exam written on paper in a classroom. To become fully certified, editors must pass four exams: structural editing, stylistic editing, copy editing, and proofreading.

Rosemary Shipton, one of the best editors of trade and scholarly books in Canada, acknowledged the value of both Editors Canada certification and university publishing programs. “One of the best things about having a good grade in a Ryerson editing course or a certification certificate is that you know you are working to a high standard. You’ve been endorsed by professionals in the field – and you can’t expect that kind of feedback from many clients.”

I was immensely relieved to hear, from an award-winning editor like Rosemary, that good grades at Ryerson do mean something. I think this balanced perspective needs to be given voice within Editors Canada.

We all learn in different ways. Some people thrive under pressure. Their mental acuity is sharpened by signing up for an Editors Canada exam. It motivates them to study and guides their professional development.

That’s not me. I learn best when I can take my time exploring many avenues. I learn by reading, writing, talking with colleagues, attending seminars, going to conferences, participating in Kingston “twig” meetings, taking online courses, teaching an editing course at Queen’s, and marking for Queen’s writing courses.

If I took the exams, it would largely be to prove myself – to get external recognition that I am in fact a professional editor. Anyone can claim to be an editor, and the exams distinguish the professionals from the self-proclaimed.

Much of my life has been spent proving myself. I was the classic perfectionist, the overachiever. I’m not that person anymore. At some point – why not today? – I have to accept that the education and skills that I have are good enough. It’s not that I will stop learning – that would be like stopping a freight train. It’s just that I want to keep learning because that’s integral to who I am, not because I crave proof of excellence. And for me, it was a childish craving.

I had a yoga instructor who would say in a melodious voice, “There is nothing that you must do. There is no place that you must be. Just breathe.”

I feel that relinquishing this course of study has released my breath. I am a writer and an editor, a mother and a musician, and I need to take a deep breath.



Preparing for Certification: Week 2



This week I assessed what I know about “the fundamentals of publishing” by doing Part A of the copy-editing practice test.

I went to the library to write the test. I work at home, and I’ve decided that I need to get out of the house to study. So this week I began what I hope will become a routine: on Wednesday afternoon I went to the Isabel Turner Branch for three hours. It was LONG. I rewarded myself afterwards with a Zumba class.

The test was also long – 14 pages. It’s a combination of multiple choice, matching questions, true/false, and short answer. This part of the test should be completed in less than an hour to leave enough time for the more demanding copy-editing passage in Part B. I finished on time but skimped on some of the questions and felt rushed.

Then I marked it using the answer key.

I got 91/119 = 76 percent.

I need over 80 percent to pass.

I lost marks for being out-of-practice with editing on paper, having no direct experience of production, not knowing how to convert imperial measurements to metric, and not being on top of technical issues like formatting, working with different file types and using a spell checker.

Converting imperial to metric. The note in the upper left is my son Jonathan's writing. He helped me find the formulas -- after I got zero!

Converting imperial to metric. The note in the upper left is my son Jonathan’s writing. He helped me find the formulas — after I got zero!

The thing with certification is that you have to learn some skills that you will never use, and you have to be able to work in ways that you might never actually work. I always edit on-screen using track changes and the comment feature of Microsoft Word. I never use hand-written copy editing symbols, although I do proofread by hand. But the test is hand-written, and so I have to be adept at using manual editing marks.

If I needed to convert imperial to metric – and I’ve never had to do so – I would google it. But in the exam, we are not allowed a smartphone. Not that I have one, anyway.

Just a calculator. Does this mean I will have to memorize several formulas for converting different types of measurements, like feet to metres, miles to kilometres, inches to millimetres, Fahrenheit to Celsius, tablespoons to millilitres? I certainly hope not. One of my tasks in Week 3 will be to find a style guide with conversion charts. The exam is open book, and we are allowed to bring up to three style guides.

Now that I have vented about short-comings – mine and those of the exam itself — I must say that studying for the test is making me read with more acuteness. Instead of grazing a book, my antennae are up. I’m alert to how what I read might apply to the standards for copy editing.

At the end of the afternoon, I reviewed my test results and jotted down what I need to learn and review.

A short list of things to learn or review

  • permissions and copyright
  • terminology used in publishing and printing
  • tools for editing, like spell checkers and macros
  • file types and their uses
  • conversions from imperial to metric
  • production and scheduling
  • conventions and parts of books, websites, journals, reports
  • copy editing marks
  • French in an English context

Having doubts

In response to my Week 1 blog post, my brother Neil, ever the pragmatic one but always on my side, said, How much does the test cost? Why not take it and pass, or take it twice and save the 42 hours of studying?

The exam costs $450. If I study for 42 hours @ $35/hour (I work mainly for academic presses), the study time will cost me $1,470. Most experienced editors earn at least $45/hour, and at that rate the study time costs $1,890. Add to that the cost of the exam and travel to Toronto …

Dear, oh dear.

I am easily swayed by contrary voices within and without. For encouragement, I searched back issues of Editors Canada publications and found this:

Regardless of the outcome of that test, and of my Copy Editing exam, preparing for the tests has been an excellent professional development exercise.
Donna L. Dawson, “My Certification Experience,” Active Voice/La Voix active (Winter 2008). Donna is now a Certified Professional Editor

Preparing for Editors Canada Certification: Week One


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_JON5598For the next 14 weeks, I will be studying for the Editors Canada copy editing test on November 14. I haven’t actually signed up for the test. I hope that if I blog about studying, I will actually study and take the test. I learn by writing.

I figure I will have to study three hours a week: 3 x 14 = 42 hours. It doesn’t seem like much. But finding that three hours a week is going to be tough in the fall when my work at Queen’s University starts up.

Editors Canada certification tests for excellence, not just competence. Many editors fail. No one that I know of has blogged about studying for it, probably because they don’t want to fail in public. If I take the test and fail – note to self — I will try not to see it as public humiliation.

What is Editors Canada certification?

There are four certification tests: structural editing, stylistic editing, copy editing, and proofreading. Each test is based on the relevant section of Professional Editorial Standards, a document revised in 2009 after years of discussion among senior editors. All the tests have two parts. The first part – Part A – is short answer and tests knowledge about “the fundamentals of editing.” Part B is a scenario and test passage that is worth about two-thirds of the total mark. Editors who pass all four tests earn the designation “Certified Professional Editor.” There are only 29 CPEs in Canada.

The four categories of standards are artificial, in that the levels of editing overlap in practice. For example, as a copy editor for McGill-Queen’s University Press, I do a combination of copy editing and stylistic editing. Editors Canada is the only professional association that distinguishes stylistic editing as a separate skill set. But if I veer into stylistic editing when writing the copy editing test, I will lose marks. The point is that the exams test the standards.

Copy editing is editing to ensure correctness, consistency, accuracy, and completeness.
— Editors Canada

Here is what I did in Week One

  • read Professional Editorial Standards
  • read the first chapter of Editorial Niches, which describes certification and how to study for it
  • reviewed the handouts from the session on certification that I attended at the Editors Canada conference in June 2015. The presenter was Sherry Hinman, a Certified Professional Editor.
  • assessed my strengths and weaknesses

My strengths

I have over ten years of experience as a freelance editor and a solid grounding in grammar, punctuation, spelling, usage, documentation styles (Chicago and APA), editing on-screen, creating style sheets, and communicating with authors.

What I need to learn

I haven’t worked in-house, and so my knowledge of production is second-hand. I have a sketchy understanding of the legal dimensions of editing, such as copyright law. The test is hand-written, and so I have to learn manual copy-editing marks and increase my endurance for handwriting. Tests make me anxious. The test is partly about speed, which makes me even more anxious. Let’s not think about that.

How I will study

I’m studying on my own, with my blog as my community.

A few years ago I was in a study group for the copy editing test, and my two study partners, Adrienne Montgomery and Cat London, took the test and passed. I was too chicken to take the test. And to be honest, I never planned to take it. And so my studying wasn’t as serious as it should have been. Now that I’m studying on my own, I will have to own it.

I don’t have a schedule for the next 14 weeks. Sherry Hinman provided a sample seven-week schedule in a handout. That’s not enough time for me.

I know what I’m doing next week, and I trust that a schedule will dawn on me without much effort on my part.

Join in if you are studying too. And if you are not, I would still like to hear from you.


A Song for Nettie Johnson, by Gloria Sawai

Regina: Coteau Books, 2001. 296 pp.

This collection of literary short stories won the Governor General’s award for fiction in Canada in 2001. The stories are loosely connected by a sense of place – small towns on the Canadian prairies – and by recurring images of light and song. In every story, the characters quote from hymns and gospel songs. The first six stories take place in the fictional town of Stone Creek, and some of the characters overlap. The last three stories are set in other prairie towns.

Sawai’s characters have meagre and painful lives: there’s alcoholics, outcasts, poor people, children, single mothers; there’s death and loss. Yet, as the Governor
General’s Award Jury writes, “The power of grace illuminates her world.”  Each story has a redemptive quality.

The title story is the first one in the collection, and it’s long – at 90 pages, almost a novella. Nettie, a woman in her early fifties, is still traumatized by her childhood experience of losing her mother and then being abused by her father. She lives as an outcast from town in a small trailer. She is befriended by Eli, an alcoholic and a musician who also does not “fit in” to small town life. The act of grace, and the turning point in this story, is a Christmas concert of the Messiah. Eli, as the conductor, transforms a ragtag choir and unites the townspeople under one roof. Nettie cannot bring herself to go inside the church, where people whispered about her last year, but stands outside and watches Eli’s baton through the glass. This might sound sad, but the story rises to the Hallelujah chorus while outside Nettie shouts her own song. It’s not the kind of grace that fixes; it’s grace in the midst of. This is honest writing.

On the other hand, I had to work at appreciating this story. I was unable to identify with the main characters, Nettie and Eli, and the narrator at times assumed an omniscient point of view through the artifice of looking down as an angel, which I found offputting. Over twenty minor characters – far too many – are named in the opening pages. As an editor, I would have suggested cutting the number of characters, and recasting the descriptive passages from an omniscient point of view to objective third person, or possibly to Eli’s point of view.

I kept reading because I wanted to see why this book had won one of the top awards in Canada. I wasn’t convinced after the first story, but the collection grew on me. More and more, I began to appreciate the narrative voice, the understated emotions, the skillful handling of structure, the evocative images, and the brilliant simplicity of style.

So I was disappointed when I read the last story, and it just sat on the surface.  The title of the story is “The Day I Sat with Jesus on the Sundeck and a Wind Came Up and Blew My Kimono Open and He Saw My Breasts.” No kidding. It’s a humorous story that juxtaposes the Biblical images of the Second Coming with the untrumpeted arrival of Jesus on Gloria Johnson’s doorstep. (Is Gloria related to Nettie Johnson? Sawai doesn’t say.) The conversation that ensues is polite and banal. Jesus says things like “You have a nice view here.” When a gust of wind blows open Gloria’s kimono, Jesus says, “You have nice breasts.” Gloria proceeds to have a visionary experience, and can’t stop talking about breasts.  The turning point of the story is when Jesus laughs. The obvious risk is that not all readers will find it funny.

For an editor, one of the main challenges posed by a story collection is what stories to include and in what order. Two problems stand out with this collection: the first story and the last one. The first story doesn’t draw readers in enough, and the last story differs in tone. What was shown as subtle grace in the earlier stories becomes divine comedy in the last one, but the comedy verges on farce.

As Sawai’s editor, I would have suggested replacing the last story, or simply dropping it. An alternative would be a two-part structure. I would suggest that the first part open with “Oh Wild Flock, Oh Crimson Sky,” which draws readers in, and end with “A Song for Nettie.” All the stories in the first part would be set in Stone Creek. But to balance the two parts, one story from Stone Creek would have to be dropped, and two stories would have to be added to the second part – one new one, and one to replace “The Day I Sat with Jesus.” I would offer these suggestions to the author for discussion, but go with her wishes. After all, the collection won the GG. Maybe I’m way off the mark.

This is the only book Sawai ever published. She died in 2011.

Why editorial freelancers need a business plan


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Being a freelance editor isn’t just about words. It’s also about wages. In Business Planning for Editorial Freelancers: A Guide for New Starters, business planning imageLouise Harnby leads people with no prior experience in publishing through the steps involved in setting up a business.

Harnby is the owner of a proofreading business, an advanced member of the U.K.-based Society for Editors and Proofreaders, and the curator of the blog The Proofreader’s Parlour. She has over twenty years of experience in the publishing industry and has been running her own business since 2005.

The core advice in her first book: write a business plan.

“Your business plan forces you to think strategically about the field you are entering, who your target market is, what training and skills are needed, how long it may take you to build up your enterprise so that you have the amount of paid work you need, what resources are required, and how you will sell yourself.”

Harnby urges editors to think of themselves as business owners first and freelancers second. You wouldn’t call your plumber a freelancer, would you? she quips. One of the goals of her book is to instill business mindset in those of us naturally drawn to the beauty of language and the craft of editing, but less inclined to think strategically about running a business.

Each chapter begins with a “task” and a “learning goal” that covers an aspect of the business plan. This feature compels readers to be active – to use the guide to draft their own plan, which Harnby believes will be different for each person. The content is easy to follow with headings and subheadings, short paragraphs, bulleted lists, and features like “top tips” and “key points.”

A “practitionlouiseharnbyer focus” provides real-life examples of how freelancers have applied the learning goals. The practitioners — Kate Haigh, Liz Jones, Nick Jones, Janet MacMillan, Anna Sharman, Marcus Trower, and Louise Harnby herself – represent a fairly wide range of experience, with perhaps more concentration in proofreading and academic publishing than other fields.

The book ends with three case studies of freelancers who reflect candidly on their personal experiences of starting a business, followed by a list of resources.

Harnby says that her book is intended for “new starters” – people with no editing experience. But I would widen the audience to editors who are already working as freelancers but who haven’t thought through all that running a business entails (this is me). On my “to buy” list is her follow-up book, Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business.

On a personal note – next steps for me

This book prompted me to think about my freelance work in a more organized way. To ask the questions I probably should have asked at the beginning. Two points stand out.

First, I need a website. “You’d be daft not to have one,” Harnby says.

Second, I need to decide on what Harnby calls “core specialisms” or “unique selling points.” My time is thinly spread across academic copyediting and proofreading, writing consultation for students, online instruction (this fall I’m teaching WRIT 265: Editing in Academic and Professional Contexts, an online course at Queen’s University), marking for Queen’s writing courses, manuscript assessments of fiction and memoir, and copyediting of fiction and memoir. I need a focus before I can create a website.

I do wish that Harnby had provided a template or some samples of business plans. I suspect she didn’t do so because, as she says, “people order their thoughts and ideas in different ways.” As well, she views a business plan as a dynamic tool, not as a fixed template.

What about you?

Do you have a business plan? Do you intend to develop one? If you have one, do you revise it as you go?


A Review of Fiction Editing Courses


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Over the past four years or so, I’ve taken three fiction editing courses online. Here are my thoughts and recommendations.

Trade Books: Fiction (CDPB 306)
Ryerson University

'We liked your novel about the magician until the plot disappeared.'

From this seven-week course I learned how to read and think like an editor, not like an English major (which I was). The course provided an overview of the elements of fiction and practice in writing two 750-word manuscript evaluations. I found these assignments perplexing. Students are asked to edit short stories by the likes of Alistair McLeod, Jack Hodgins, Phyllis Gotlieb, and Ethel Wilson – well-known Canadian authors from an older generation. The stories have been published and, presumably, edited. I had something to say in the first assignment, but in the second I tried to find something wrong with the story when I thought there was nothing wrong with it.

The course texts were the Fiction Writer’s Workshop by Josip Novakovich, which I found to be too formulaic in its approach, and Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway, Elizabeth Stuckey-French, and Ned Stuckey-French, which I highly recommend.

I would like to see this course expanded to twelve weeks and re-envisioned for distance learning. The online course when I took it was an apologetic version of the in-class course. I think there is a huge need for a comprehensive fiction editing course, and Ryerson could do better. After completing Trade Books, I didn’t feel that I had the skills to edit fiction, so I enrolled in . . .

Editing Fiction, Parts II and III
The Christian Pen

I was allowed to skip Part I because I had taken the course at Ryerson. Part II is a six-week course that covers a number of random topics such as dialogue, interior monologue, chronology, sensory detail, sentence length, metaphor, malapropisms, and plot. Part III runs for seven weeks and focuses on substantive editing and how to set up an editorial business. The instructor is Jeanne Marie Leach, an author of Christian historical romance novels and a freelance editor.

This course alerted me to aspects of stylistic editing to watch for in fiction, such as too much step-by-step description of mundane action, repetitive sentence structure, the hazards of the little words “before” and “after,” and the difference between interior monologue and direct thoughts. I was baffled by the debate about FBPs – floating body parts – which apparently is an issue in Christian fiction.

An example of FBPs from the course notes: “She threw up her hands.” Jeanne’s response: “She shouldn’t have swallowed her hands in the first place.” Aargh.

Naturally, given that these courses are offered by The Christian Pen, the content has a Christian slant. In the assignments, we were asked to edit Christian historical romance – the genre that the instructor herself writes – and the lessons referred to the Bible. I’m not interested in editing Christian fiction, but it would be unfair to criticize a Christian organization for having that teaching focus.

That said, the course notes could benefit from stylistic and copy editing, and from a more attractive layout.

The instructor provided generous feedback on the weekly assignments. I also learned a great deal from the other students, many of whom had previous editing experience in other contexts. I was beginning to feel more confident about editing fiction, but something was still missing, and so I enrolled in . . .

Introduction to Developmental Editing: Book-Length Fiction and Creative Nonfiction
Author-Editor Clinic, Seattle

This eight-week course is excellent. The instructor, Barbara Sjoholm, taught me an approach to structural editing that I’ve used ever since, such as how to take notes, write an editorial letter or manuscript evaluation, and use tables to analyze elements of fiction. In addition to practical tools, she shared her philosophy of “cultivating an attitude of positive neutrality.”

In the weekly assignments, we practiced how to write sections of an editorial letter. The assignments were time-consuming but worth the effort. In her feedback, Barbara demonstrated how I could temper my bluntness (still working on that) and communicate with authors with respect and kindness.

Note that the course is not about developmental editing in the sense of working with a concept, outline, or unfinished draft. In the parlance of Editors Canada, this is a course on structural editing.

The format of this course is somewhat outdated. Students join a Yahoo Group and access lectures (files) and discussion threads on the group site. I received an email whenever someone posted anything, which cluttered up my in-box.

Another minor complaint is that Barbara wouldn’t address questions about the business aspects of editing, such as how to estimate time and fees, and how to convince an author that their manuscript needs structural editing and not just copy editing. Instead, she referred students to another course offered by the Author-Editor Clinic on business practices.

I highly recommend the course and the text, An Editor’s Guide to Working with Authors (reviewed earlier on my blog).

Invitation to Talk Shop

I’d love to hear from fiction editors. How did you acquire the skills you need?

Anent The Editor’s Companion

I’m loath to give a negative review, but I’m uninspired by The Editor’s Companion (Writer’s Digest Books, 2014) by Steve Dunham. The book rehearses rules that I already know and fails to provide a coherent approach to editing.Editor's Companion

To be fair, perhaps the book isn’t aimed at experienced editors; it certainly isn’t aimed at editors who work on scholarly books or more literary trade books, whether fiction or nonfiction. Nor is it helpful for acquisitions editors, developmental editors, or those who provide structural or substantive editing. The title is misleading in this regard. The book is more for copy editors who work in journalism or corporate communications.

According to Steve Dunham’s blog, the book “will be useful to journalism students, novice editors, and those who have editing thrust upon them—volunteers editing organizations’ newsletters and websites, or people whose employers have assigned them editing responsibility because they are good with English.”

The Editor’s Companion focuses on the mechanics of communicating clearly to the audience. The eleven chapters cover topics such as fact-checking, accuracy, precise language, grammar, editing tools and resources, editorial relationships, and “marks of good writing.” Dunham is well qualified to discuss these topics. He has over thirty years of experience as a writer and an editor – mainly in journalism and corporate communications – and he provides many humorous examples of errors that he ferreted out and fixed. His Editor’s Companion blog offers more examples of editing gaffes from “Steve’s Hall of Shame.”

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