Thursday, August 4, 2016

Editor's Notes #21: DO. THE. RESEARCH.

I could have subtitled this "A Short Rant on Why I'm Not Doing Your Work for You." Seriously.

My name is Lynda. My middle name is Ann, the same as my mom, my grandma, and most of my aunts on that same side of the family (no one was very creative back in the mid-1960s, I suppose). One of my good friends has long maintained that my middle name is Hershey Kiss-Cheesecake, but that's a story for another day.

What my middle name is NOT:

  • Google
  • Webster
  • Language Arts Grade 5, first edition
I should perhaps preface this by saying I really like the people I work with. Some of them I even love. When editing their manuscripts, I always, always want to do my best so their work is at its best. Editing sometimes—okay, always—involves looking things up, fact-checking, spell-checking, and a little research here and there to make sure I'm doing my own job properly. I spend a lot of time in my Chicago Manual of Style, in Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Edition (or the online version of it), on a variety of editing help sites, and cuddling up with classics like Sleeping Dogs Don't Lay and The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed. (Yes, it's a real book and it's terrific.) On my Amazon to-buy list is Kiss My Asterisk: A Feisty Guide to Punctuation and Grammar.

As a copy editor, I correct spelling, grammar, punctuation and the like. If I am expected to do more, I get paid for doing more. There are times I'll suggest things or make note of a plot oddity—partly because I can't ignore something that may hurt the book, and partly because most readers think an editor is supposed to catch everything, regardless of what type of editor has gone over the book. I don't mind doing things like that, though if the book is practically being ghostwritten by me because the plot or sentence structure is so poorly done, we've now crossed the line into another type of editing and . . . yep, it costs more because it takes a LOT more time and effort.

However, I've run into the occasional author who doesn't know the basics and who doesn't seem to realize it's his or her job to learn them. I don't expect someone to know all the editing rule differences between the US and the UK, or why "riffling" is the correct word (not "rifling") when going through someone's belongings, but I do expect them to know that when people talk, their speech is put inside quotation marks. I expect them to know that an entire book is made up of more than one lonnnnnnggggg paragraph, and I expect them to know a little thing or two about punctuation in general. They may not be as well-versed in using the "track changes" and other editing features in Word that I am, but they should have a basic understanding of their word processing program so they're not completely baffled when I make a suggestion in the digital margin of the manuscript.

I'll give assistance and instruction to a certain point, and then I hit my limit and start to wonder why that person isn't just doing their own research. It takes literal seconds to Google something. That's how I've found out all kinds of things, and I'll bet you have, too.

At what point is it considered rude to say, "You need to figure these things out on your own; I'm not a writing coach"? I will be the first person to tell you what's wrong with your sentence structure, but I can't sit you down and reteach grade-school language arts. Well, technically I can, but frankly, I don't have the time.

When I suggest to someone that their scene is flat—that it needs some textures or smells to make it come alive in the reader's mind—I honestly don't know how to answer a question of "How do I do that?" without actually writing the additions for them. I can't tell someone what's in their head; they need to figure out how to express that on their own.

I love to help people. Sharing things I've learned is something I enjoy. When I get a manuscript, I'm typically pretty excited about it, because it's new, in many cases no one else has read it yet, and there are all kinds of possibilities waiting to tickle my brain. But when someone never lifts a finger (or ten of them) to do any research on their own, my first thought is usually along the lines of, I'm already dreading the idea of editing this book if they can't even figure out basics and won't try. How awful is that?

I love when I'm talking with one of "my" authors and they mention a book they've read recently on writing, the process of it, the polishing of it, or anything that suggests they're researching their topics and constantly in the pursuit of bettering themselves. Something clicks, every time, in my head, and it says, yep. That's exactly why they're so good at what they do. They don't assume they are "good enough," ever.

If you're an editor, have you dealt with this situation—and how did you handle it? I'm looking for a balance between kind but firm, knowing where to draw the line without being seen as a complete jerk. I don't enjoy feeling mean and petty inside but have a difficult time cutting the cord.

Because most of my blog visitors are authors, I'd love to know if you've ever experienced this with a critique partner. Did you ever get stuck with one you regretted, because the writing quality was so vastly different than your own?

Thanks for visiting, and thanks (always!) for commenting! I love finding out what people think.


  1. Noted!
    My wife hates it because she'll ask me something and my answer is usually Google it.
    I can usually figure out how to fix what's wrong from comments by my critique partners and my publisher's editor.
    I did have one critique partner whose own writing was... boring. (Best way I can put it.) But even he was good at spotting certain mistakes that others would miss.

    1. My first thought, almost always, is to Google. If I can't find a satisfactory answer after really searching, I'll ask someone, but only if I'm desperate.

      As for your boring CP, at least he did have some redeeming qualities!

  2. I do a lot of research, too, but when people ask me how to use track changes, I say, "Google it and you'll find great videos on how to use track changes." The videos explain track changes better than I can. I also correct common errors, and after I've corrected the same error several times so that I know the writer isn't making a one-time mistake, I say, "Okay, now you correct the rest of these. You look for them and fix them the way that I have (I usually provide an explanation of what's incorrect and what's correct) so you'll learn how to do it right." How do you handle re-writing? Early in my days of editing books, I re-wrote large chunks of a book that came to me through its publisher. Looking back on it, I feel I should have requested credit as one of the authors. What do you think? I made very little money for a lot of work on that one. I know better now.


    1. I will correct the "same error" stuff but will make a margin note with the first instance of it so the author knows the rule/correction for the next time. If there are a good many common errors, I'll include a list of them with the first round of edits so the author is aware for the next book (or for any rewrites before the second round).

      The first book I ever worked on was one that needed an awful lot of work, and in my ignorance, I found myself rewriting a LOT of it to fix it properly. I probably should have gotten co-author status, as you mentioned with yours. I also made very little on that one because I didn't even know what to charge. Had I gone with my current rate and the heaviness of the edits, I could have made three to four times what I was paid. I learned from that, though, that I won't do it again without compensation. Sounds like you did too.

      Oh, and I even made a sample "track changes" document for one person, and it outlined step by step (with tracked examples and "try this here" portions), and STILL the author was completely confused as to why there were "colors" in the doc. That's when I realized I was being relied upon to do the thinking, and I guess it didn't sit well with me.

    2. I worked with an author who insisted that he could NOT use track changes. He didn't know how and couldn't learn (how did he manage to write a darn good book?). He said he had to have a neighbor come over to his house to turn off track changes. He was also the nastiest author with whom I've worked. I wanted to write about his book on my blog because I liked the book so much. I sent him interview questions. In one of the answers, he trashed my work and blamed me for suggested changes that had come from the publisher. I learned that he complained to the publisher about the desired changes, and the publisher said I was wrong and he didn't need to make the changes. So in his version I was the "evil editor" but the kind publisher saved the day. Arrrrrrrgh! I never received an apology from the publisher when I called him out on it.

  3. Good morning, Lynda. If I haven't mentioned it before, it's really good to have you back.

    As a professional, it is never rude to explain to a client what your job is and isn't. If you were doing a book for free to help a good friend, you'd probably want to do everything you could; it's what friends do. But if I hired a plumber, I wouldn't expect him to patch my roof while he was here, and there is nothing wrong with saying (kindly, of course) "If you want a writing coach, hire one." What I have noticed since I have been writing for publication is that authors, maybe because most of us begin as hobbyists or maybe because we so love what we're doing, have a tendency to wonder why the professionals we do our business with are such sticklers about charging money for what you do, and why, once having gotten your fee, won't do a hundred extra things for nothing.

    On research, well, as a writer of steampunk (which I've never lived) in Africa (where I've never lived) in the 1880s (when I've never lived), I research everything. It's enjoyable, it grounds what is essentially works of science-based fantasy in a recognizable world, and having been called out a couple of times about things I've written, and been able to force the trolls back under their bridges by citing references, I can't see how anyone could possibly forego the pleasure of having everything just so before allowing anyone else to see their work. Especially a literary professional who is going to see and comment on every little mistake.

    You have my sympathy. Writers (creative types in general, I guess) have some strange notions of how things ought to be. A writer has to immerse himself in his fantasy world in order to do his work. Maybe we have difficulty dragging ourselves out of it to deal with the real.

    But carry on. You're doing great things here. Read well, and write better!

    1. Good to hear from you again, Jack! I do struggle with the "extras for nothing" with some people and not others, and I think the difference lies in whether I think someone is simply expecting me to do it all, or whether they're actually doing everything they can do on their end to make my job easier. It's a tough line to toe.

      I love your description of not living a style . . . in a place . . . at a time of which you write. Most authors I know love—and thrive upon—the research end of things, and if I ever write a novel of my own (not likely, but I'd never say never), I would probably be one of those who enjoys the research every bit as much as putting it all together.

  4. My sometime writing partner and I shared a blog, once upon a time. I did a lot of re-writing of his stuff, for what I referred to as "sameness of style." Heh. He never took offense to my corrections. In fact, I think he liked having me to fall back on, you might say. (Or should I say, he liked having me upon whom to fall back? Or something. WAUGGHH!)

    Sorry. It's one of those days.

    1. It may be one of those days, but I still appreciate that you showed up and commented.

      Sameness of style in a shared blog is essential, and I'm glad he was cool with your fixes. As long as he didn't get an attitude of not bothering to try because he knew you'd fix it up, you're good.


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