Thursday, April 20, 2017

Editor's Notes #31: My Role as the Enforcer

For those of you who have editors you love (or at least love the quality of their work): how much control do you give them over your manuscript?

I find myself with a multitude of "control levels" when I edit, depending on the author. I tend to be rather tentative when working with an author for the first time, for a number of reasons. I think part of it is that I don't want to scare anyone before they get to know me. I believe (and please correct me if I'm wrong) that most authors are a tiny bit possessive of the manuscripts they've worked so hard to polish. By the time they give it to an editor, they're about as ready as they can be, but they're probably apprehensive of what the editor will tell them. [Love it? Hate it? No affirming comments whatsoever? And what does that mean?] 

My job is to correct what's wrong, yes. But my job is tricky, because I need to do these corrections in such a way that I don't break anyone's spirit or cause discouragement. Make no mistake: there are some things that are black-and-white wrong or right, and those things need to change no matter what else happens. But there are other items that often need attention, and tact is the name of the game.

When I'm working with someone new, I tend to leave a lot of margin comments. Sometimes I do this to explain why I've changed something—such as when there's a common error that "everyone" assumes to be correct, or there's a situation where I appear to be inconsistent but am actually correct. For example, the average reader isn't aware that the word after a colon isn't usually capitalized unless what follows the colon is a question. There are, of course, exceptions, as there always seem to be, but that's the basic rule. So if I have a capped word after a colon in one spot but not in another, the author may think I have no idea what I'm doing. Many authors do know this particular rule—but just in case, I figure it's better to be safe than sorry, so I'll add a margin note to explain the edit.

My basic premise when editing (and I tell people this up front) is that I correct and approve all changes that are nonnegotiable. I'm not going to take the chance that someone will either a.) undo everything I've worked on by hitting the wrong button, or b.) think that proper punctuation is optional and only a suggestion.

I once edited someone's short short (nonfiction) story about her husband's descent into Alzheimer's-induced dementia, and each time she sent the paper back to me, all the changes I'd made were gone. Now, I need to clarify that she was not a paying client—just a friend—and is an elderly lady who admittedly was "just dumb sometimes" (her words) when it came to word processing programs. I must have edited that thing six times for every one time the changes stayed put. She kept saying things like, "I thought I'd mentioned that I wanted to add such and such," and "What happened to the section on so and so?" and I would point out that I'd already added such and such, and the section on so and so was right where we'd left it. In my copy, that is.

Lesson learned. I ended up making all the corrections one final time, approved every dang one of them, relabeled the document, and sent it to her with strict instructions to DELETE every other copy she had in her possession. I told her I still had her original if she needed it, but that the final copy with all the corrections was the only one she needed to keep and/or read through. It was frustrating and funny at the same time, because she was obviously not an experienced writer and couldn't figure out what she was doing wrong.

My tentative attitude goes away bit by bit as I work with an author more often. Those authors I've worked with multiple times trust my judgment on what needs to move along and what can stay, and it makes my job easier with each subsequent book.

Each author has his or her own preference, though, and I will abide by their wishes if the reasoning makes sense. Otherwise, I will of course tell them why they are wrong and need to obey listen to me. S.K. Anthony is a classic example of someone I trust completely when it comes to doing the right thing. She trusts that I know what I'm doing, but she wants to approve all changes herself (even the nonnegotiables) because she uses the read-through as a teaching tool. Her theory runs along these lines: if she has to approve every change, one by one, then she will know what she did wrong for next time, and there will be fewer errors. She also describes herself as a control freak when it comes to her manuscripts, and though I won't argue with that (there really is no winning an argument with her), she is a lovable control freak so I go with it and she approves all changes.

Other authors run the gamut from "this is what I pay you for and if you do it wrong, your name is on the editing credits for people to blame" (fair enough) to "we've worked on enough books that I trust your judgment even on the subjective stuff; just do it and I'll be fine with it." The cool thing about the latter sentiment is that the author gets back a pretty clean-looking manuscript and has the ego-boost moment of "hey, there weren't many changes to be made . . . I rock." Of course I'm always quick to wipe the (fake) sweat off my brow and talk about how hard I worked to make it look that clean.

Overall, the important part is to have an ongoing communication between an author and me so we're all clear on what responsibilities fall on which side of the table.

What is your preference?

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Editor's Notes #30: A Question of Random Capitalization

One of the things that stands out to me whether I'm reading for edits or reading for pleasure is the misuse of capitalization. It reminds me of handwritten letters from previous centuries and their Randomly Capitalized words of Importance. In fact, the US's own Declaration of Independence is full of them.

As I puzzled over this, and—more importantly—researched it, I discovered that the German language capitalizes their nouns. Not just proper nouns (those words which describe a specific person, place, or thing) but all the nouns. Trust me, it's a thing.

Because Johannes Gutenberg (inventor of the printing press in Europe, circa 1440) was German, this was undoubtedly his practice when using his shiny new press to produce any number of papers for distribution. As more and more people became literate, this capitalization habit was already commonplace.

In the English language (as in most other languages), nouns are only capitalized if they're indicating something specific. In older writings, people would capitalize words they deemed important—to heighten emphasis or simply for dramatic effect. These days, we can show where to put the oomph in our words with italics, or hit the bold key for the force we need, but back in the day, they used capital letters. It's all they had, the poor dears.

The problem I find these days is not a matter of emphasis, but rather a matter of not knowing. When people capitalize things like "I saw the King waving from the castle balcony," more often than not it's because they assume the word king should be capitalized because he's someone important. Of course, if it's Elvis waving from the balcony, then yes, capitalize it, because the King is one of his names rather than an official title. Also, have your eyes checked, because he really is dead and shouldn't be up on a balcony at all.

There is much confusion when it comes to titles of all types, whether religious, civil, academic, sovereigns, or military. Because I've edited a good number of books with characters in the military, and a handful that include royalty, I feel I'm fairly well versed on the yeses and nos. Here are but a few to keep in mind, most of them directly from my beloved Chicago Manual of Style:

  • Civil titles
    • the president; George Washington, first president of the United States; President George Washington
    • the chief judge; Timothy C. Evans, chief judge; Judge Evans
  • Titles of sovereigns and other rulers (Most titles of sovereigns and other rulers are lowercase when used alone.)
    • Nero, emperor of Rome; the Roman emperor; Emperor Nero
    • the king; King Abdullah II; the king of Jordan
  • Military titles (These vary, depending on where they are. Military titles are routinely capitalized in the literature of the organization or government with which they are associated. Nonetheless, in formal academic prose, most such titles are capitalized only when used as part of a person's name.)
    • the general; General Ulysses S. Grant, commander in chief of the Union army; General Grant; the commander in chief
    • the captain; Captain James T. Kirk, commander of the Starship Enterprise
  • Religious titles 
    • the pope; Pope Leo X; the papacy; papal
    • the archbishop; the archbishop of Canterbury; Archbishop Williams
    • the Dalai Lama is traditionally capitalized, but previous dalai lamas are not
Something I run across with regularity is the title commander in chief. Most people want to capitalize it because, of course, the guy is in command of important stuff. Many people also want to hyphenate it, and I'm not sure where they get that idea but they need to get rid of it. No hyphens and no caps. (I had a beta reader once tell me, "It seems to me that it should be this way." I replied to him that it seemed to me that the actual written rules on this were the way it should be.) 

One of the first things I do when editing a book with military or medical titles is to do a find/replace for doctor, captain, lieutenant, sergeant (often misspelled "sargent"), commander, ambassador, and the like—and there are usually a lot of replacements. When referring to a captain or a doctor and not addressing that person directly, no caps are needed. However, if your character says, "Well, Captain, I've blown out our last remaining engine," then the word captain requires a capital letter because it's a substitute for the captain's name. The rule is pretty consistent for most titles.

If you are prone to randomly capitalizing words in your sentences, you may find yourself and your own reasons somewhere on this terrific list I found on The Straight Dope, where their motto is "FIGHTING IGNORANCE SINCE 1973 (it's taking longer than we thought)." I don't need to know where you fall on the list; the important thing is to learn from it.

And here's one final gem for fun or the development of a permanent twitch: a sign that not only showcases random capital letters, but random punctuation, a misplaced apostrophe and an unexplained lighter ink color for the most important part of the sign: WHAT is closed for repair? 

*For those who care: the best explanation I found for the capitalization of nouns in the German language was on Quora from July 21, 2012, in an answer written by a German exchange student. I'll just give you the link, rather than take the space here. Cool stuff.