Tag Archives: writing

Out of the Closet with Author Services

For the past decade, I’ve been an editor first and foremost. My ideal is to help authors make their storylines sing and their characters so three-dimensional, they practically leap off the page. I also aim to smooth out my clients’ dishevelled sentences and slim down their bloated prose. I nitpick to make sure the wrong words aren’t capitalized and the quotation marks are turned the right way around and are consistently curly (or straight, if you prefer). Like most editors I know, my editing work runs the gamut from the big-picture stuff to the finest details. But lately, I’ve been doing more than editing.

As the years have flown by, more and more authors have turned to me to help them promote their books, and I’ve found myself writing for them. I admit, I fell into this–it wasn’t something I actively pursued. Initially, I lacked confidence in my ability to help, but I’ve gained a lot of experience and received plenty of positive feedback from clients about what I’ve written for them.  As I’ve gained self-assurance, I’ve discovered that I love the challenge of this work. And it’s so gratifying to have another way, besides editing, of helping my clients realize their publishing dreams. Until now I’ve been quiet about my writing work, but I’m declaring myself out of the closet. Loudly and proudly, I’m officially adding Author Services to my bag of tricks!

For those of you wondering what writing services for authors I offer, here’s a brief rundown:

Back-cover Blurbs. You’re self-publishing and need a catchy blurb that will hook potential readers emotionally and convey your novel in a nutshell–without giving too much away, of course. Writing a good blurb always gives me a delicious thrill (I’m funny that way), and I love the opportunity to use my words to move people to read your book.

Note: “Blurb” in this case does not refer to critical reviews that may appear on your book’s cover.  It’s unethical to write these for an author when I have worked on their book.

Query Letters. You’re trying to pitch your short story to a magazine or your novel to an agent or publisher and don’t know to tackle the all-important query letter. I’ll craft a concise one that will cover everything it needs to and help get you noticed.

Chapter Summaries. You’ve been asked by a publisher to submit succinct chapter summaries, but you feel much too close to your work and can’t find the forest for the trees. Using vigorous, engaging writing, I’ll zero in on the essential plot threads in each chapter.

Synopses. Boiling a novel down to five or six hundred words is a task most writers dread, and with good reason–it’s tough work, especially when it’s your baby. Your synopsis can’t read like a dull, mechanical account of events; a good one tells your story but in a lively, colourful way. I can help.

Biographies. Whether it’s for the back cover of your book or for your website, tell me about yourself and I’ll help you, Mr. or Ms. Author, present yourself in the most flattering light.

Although I’m delighted to write any of the above, I will edit your versions if you’d prefer. Whether I’m starting from scratch or simply polishing your existing material, we’ll work together to create the best blurbs, query letters, summaries, synopses, and biographies we possibly can.


Usage Misdemeanours: Peak, Peek, and Pique

Virtually every manuscript that’s crossed my desk for editing in the past year or so has contained errors in the use of the homophones peak, peek, and pique. Personally, I’ve never had any difficulty keeping these three little words straight, but given the number of errors I see it’s obvious they’re a source of confusion to writers everywhere. I’ve seen “peak my curiosity” and “a sneak peak” among other misuses. Here’s a quick peek (if you’ll pardon the expression) at the differences between these words and tips for keeping them straight.

Peak is a word dating back to the 1500s, and it has several meanings as a noun. It can be the pointed top of a mountain or any mountain with a pointed top. Mountains aside, a peak is something that protrudes and reaches a point.  When you whip egg whites vigorously, they end up having stiff peaks (and you’re then ready to make a meringue).  A peak is also a high point in a different sense; you can reach a peak of activity or achievement. For example, “Horace reached his peak as a magician.” As well, a peak is the point on a graph that reflects the highest point in terms of a physical quantity. The brim of a hat (particularly in Britain) or the narrow part of a ship’s hold are also definitions of the word peak.

As a verb, peak means to reach an apex, and often a certain time for this occurrence is specified. You could say that “Horace peaked as a magician at age thirty.” Peak is also an archaic verb from about 1600 meaning to become sickly. Derived from it are the adjectives peaked (always pronounced pea-ked) and peaky, which is more commonly used in Britain. Both words emerged in the early 1800s and not surprisingly mean pallid or gaunt from illness. Peak used as an adjective is fairly recent, dating to about 1900. Again, it’s related to attaining a maximum. “Horace reached his peak level as a magician.”

Peek as a verb means to glance quickly or slyly. For example, “Alice peeked through the window at her devastatingly handsome neighbour.” It can also mean to protrude very slightly so as to be barely visible, as in, “His fingertips peeked through the ends of his threadbare gloves.” As a verb, it’s very old, dating back to the 14th century. It wasn’t used as a noun (meaning a quick or furtive look) until the middle of the 19th century.

The important thing to remember about peek is that it’s always associated with looking, whereas peak is primarily associated with  high points. With this in mind, I created this illustration to help you distinguish the two. The two es  in peek resemble a pair of eyes, while the a in peak, when capitalized, resembles a mountain.

Peek vs. peak

Finally, there’s pique. The word derives from the French verb piquer, which means to prick or irritate. The noun form of the word emerged first around 1600 and means irritation or resentment at suffering a slight or blow to your pride. A person typically has “a fit of pique,” which isn’t much fun for those witnessing it. But pique is most commonly used as a verb meaning to arouse interest or curiosity, and it’s been used as such since the late 17th century. For example, “You piqued my curiosity when you started whispering.” To be piqued means you’re feeling irritable. To pique yourself means that you pride yourself, but this is an archaic usage that’s unfamiliar to most of us. Pique is also used a both a noun and a verb with reference to piquet, a card game for two, but most of the confusion writers experience isn’t related to this usage. To avoid confusing pique with the other homophones, remember that it’s the only one with an i in it, which stands for irritation.

I hope I’ve clarified the meanings of peak, peek, and pique for you and provided useful tips for keeping them straight. Now when you need to choose the right homophone in your writing, you’ll no longer experience confusion or succumb to fits of pique!

A Short Guide to Handling Speeches in Fiction

Whether they take the form of lectures or diatribes, speeches are rarely enjoyable to listen to–unless they happen to combine the talents of a gifted orator and a skilled speechwriter. But this combination is rare. The average speech is, well . . . average. This is generally true in real life and especially true in fiction.

Yet many aspiring novelists think it’s a good idea to include speeches. They appear either as formal addresses to a captive audience or, more commonly, informal monologue. Here’s an example of the latter.  During a coffee break at the lab, Dr. Saurus, a mad scientist who’s secretly recreating extinct creatures in test tubes, lectures his colleagues about the natural history of the Triassic, Cretaceous, and Jurassic periods. But more about the good doctor later.

The problem with speeches is that your plot typically goes on vacation during them, so everything grinds to a halt. The grave danger is that the reader will get bored, impatient, or exhausted and will consign your book to the trash can. Obviously, you don’t want that to happen, so what should you do about speeches?

First, consider the purpose of each speech. What does the speaker want to achieve? Cut out anything that’s irrelevant to that purpose. If, for example, Dr. Saurus wants to reveal the nature of his experiments to his colleagues, he should confine his words to those experiments. He shouldn’t ramble on about the Triassic, Cretaceous, and Jurassic periods; the scientists know about them already, and he comes off looking pedantic. He’s also committing the terrible sin of information dumping, which brings me to my second point.

Include only information that’s vital for the reader’s understanding of what’s happening. Anything beyond that is extraneous. If readers want an in-depth discussion about the Jurassic period, they’ll google it or pick up a book on the subject. Don’t pummel them with paragraph after paragraph of facts and figures. When you do, they forget they’re even reading a novel and imagine they’ve mistakenly wandered into a textbook. Remember that few things destroy the fictive dream like a big information dump in a speech. A far better approach is to eliminate such speeches altogether and weave their content bit by bit into the narrative instead of depositing it all in one place.

But if you’re still committed to keeping a speech in and have done your best to rid it of irrelevant material, it may still be too long. If so, there’s a lot more you should be doing. Try interrupting the speech. Consider for a moment that many authors write speeches without properly supporting them with narrative. Reading this is much like listening to the radio; you hear a voice, but you can’t see where the speaker is or what he’s doing. This results in an incomplete sensory experience for the reader. Interrupt monologue with lots of supporting details about characters’ actions, gestures, and expressions. In the Dr. Saurus example, one of the scientists might jump up and down excitedly after hearing about the experiments and spill coffee on a colleague. Remember that the speaker isn’t talking to zombies (well, not usually) but to actual human beings who react to what’s being said, so interrupt using questions or comments from listeners as well. Another of Dr. Saurus’s colleagues might ask him why he wants to recreate extinct creatures and accuse him of playing God. Dialogue and interaction are inherently more dramatic than monologue, which is essentially static, so don’t hesitate to turn speeches into conversations.

As well, you can briefly summarize many points of a speech in narrative form while giving your character choice lines highlighting the most important or dramatic points. For example, you could summarize Dr. Saurus’s experimental procedures in a paragraph but allow him to talk about the exciting results of his work: a baby stegosaurus hatching in his lab right before his very eyes!

Much like Dr. Saurus, you as an author get to play God. You’re in control of everything that happens in your book, so unruly characters needn’t get away from you and run the show. You probably wouldn’t let someone drone on and on in real life uninterrupted, so why let it happen in your fiction? Use the above techniques to more effectively handle speeches. They may take work, but the payoff is prose that will keep readers thoroughly engaged in your work.


Lumbering to the Editing Phase: Draft Four of Virginia’s Ghost Begins

I recently finished my third draft of Virginia’s Ghost, the novel I’ve been working on for longer than I can believe. Without a doubt, I’m a putter-inner, not a taker-outer, as my first draft was a bare-bones one and came in at a very slim 30,000 words, while this most recent draft is an impressive (to me, anyway) 61,000 words. I printed it out and discovered that it’s got physical heft if nothing else.

Seeing my book all in one big pile almost made me weak at the knees, and in a reckless moment I almost passed the thing on to one of my trusted editor colleagues. But after rereading it, I realized that it’s almost where I want it to be, so I’m not ready to relinquish it just yet to editorial scrutiny. Almost isn’t nearly good enough for me, nor should it be for any author. I refuse to embarrass myself.

So what’s my next step? Instead of diving directly into Draft 4, I decided to write a summary of each chapter. It’s my way of stepping back into a more objective mode of thinking and ferreting out all the things that need to be fixed: the little timeline glitches, the things that are missing, the events that don’t quite add up or that feel contrived, and the stupid things that sometimes come out of characters’ mouths when you least expect it of them. I’ve written suggestions as to how I’m going to fix these things at the bottom of each chapter summary. The blue writing identifies my main storyline, while the red is a second storyline. I’ve also done some hard-copy edits right on my draft.

Chapter summaries for Virginia's Ghost

But aren’t you supposed to do all the outlining and summarizing stuff at the beginning? Certainly a lot of writing books suggest drawing up an outline well before you write the book, and I often suggest it to clients who seem to be struggling with an unruly plot. But I began writing the book well before I knew very much about outlines, but more importantly, I think that my initial outline probably would have been nearly as skeletal as my first draft. In other words, my writing process doesn’t seem to lend itself to the outline-before-you-write approach. I find myself layering new stories into each successive draft, adding richness and complexity (I hope) to the storylines. There are things going on in the third draft that would have seemed inconceivable to me when I was writing the first or even second draft.

All this reminds me that there are probably as many ways of going about writing a book as there are writers. We each find our own way of getting from that first blank page to the end of that final draft. Our path may be straight, swift, and sure as an arrow heading toward a bull’s eye, or it may be more like that of a meandering, lumbering bear apparently not heading anywhere in particular. The choice is ours, and there is really no right way. The only thing that matters in the end is that the book itself is everything we want it to be.


No First Drafts, No Fancy Formatting: Tips for Keeping Editing Costs Down

Last month, I gave a workshop aimed at self-publishing authors about hiring editors, and naturally we covered pricing. I told the workshop attendees that many editors charge by the hour. In estimating costs, they’ll first determine how many pages per hour they can edit by reviewing a sample of the author’s manuscript. (By “page,” I mean a standard double-spaced 250-word page.) Seven to eight pages per hour is quite brisk, whereas two to three is deathly slow. I went on to describe what makes an editor’s pages-per-hour rate plummet, thereby causing editing costs to rise.

What factors can add to editing costs? An obvious one is the quality of the writing. I’ll be honest–truly awful writing is mind-twistingly difficult to edit and time-consuming. The reasons for awful writing vary, of course. Sometimes the author’s first language is not English, which results in incorrect spelling, cumbersome syntax, and a sometimes amusing mangling of English idioms. If ESL isn’t the issue, the writer may have been daydreaming through English class, never learning the rules or thinking they’d be needed. Whatever the cause of awful writing, an experienced editor often has a knack for figuring out what these writers are trying to say and can edit their work. In extreme cases, bad writers need to go back to school to learn the basics of expressing themselves before they can even be edited.

One thing I told my workshop attendees was to always submit the best work they’re capable of, as this will save them money. Submitting your best possible work means slaving away at multiple drafts to work out structural issues before getting any line editing done. (By the way, if you’re a writer and don’t think you need to work hard, I urge you to reconsider your chosen path.) Under the category of disheartening are those clients who submit their first drafts for line editing. No first draft is ever ready for such late-stage editing. It’s a different matter if the editor is providing a manuscript evaluation, as direction for a rewrite can be based on the initial draft. Remember that no matter who writes them, first drafts are invariably lousy. But like some sort of unattractive foundation garment, they need to exist before anything else can be layered on top. Once they’ve served their purpose, though, hide them away at the back of the drawer!

Aside from submitting your most polished prose, how else can you cut costs? For one thing, keep your formatting standard. Use a standard font such as 12-point Times New Roman or Courier. As well, double space your text and indent your paragraphs. Take out any extra line spaces between your paragraphs. Keep the left margin justified and set margins all around to one inch. Start new chapters on new pages. Keep spacing between headings and body text consistent throughout the text. If you don’t do these things, your editor generally will, and it does take extra time.

Avoid the temptation to design your book in Word; a professional designer will do this after the editing phase is finished. Some authors love to play with multiple fonts in Word, resulting in a dog’s breakfast of bizarrely incompatible text styles. As well, it’s not unusual to find authors using multiple formatting tools–colour, bold, underlining, and all caps–to emphasize particular words. (Italics are all that’s needed to emphasize words, and even those need to be used judiciously.) Don’t festoon your manuscript with this sort of garish window dressing–it only distracts the editor from the content of your writing. As well, don’t do quirky things with your margins. Once, and for no good reason that I could determine, a client insisted on starting certain paragraphs about three-quarters of the way across the page, near the right margin, and I couldn’t dissuade her. Leaving such wildly unconventional stuff in your manuscript will only make it look amateurish, and your editor will need to spend a great deal of time undoing it. Simplicity of presentation is what impresses editors the most, and what makes your work appear professional.

The bottom line is this: you’ll save money on editing costs if you submit your most polished work and format your manuscript in standard, simple ways.

Point of View (POV) in Fiction: First Person

This is the first post in an occasional series exploring the importance of point of view (POV) in fiction. In future posts, I will be looking at omniscient and third-person POV.  

Writing in first-person POV is something many fiction writers instinctively gravitate to. It seems easy and natural to adopt this POV in writing, probably because we’re so accustomed to telling stories about ourselves in conversation, and of course we always tell them in the first person. Certainly, I’ve always favoured this perspective in my own work, and I now find myself shuffling between two alternating first-person narrators in my book, Virginia’s Ghost.

The chief advantage of first-person POV is the wonderful sense of intimacy it creates, the sense of being right inside the narrator’s head, privy to all of his or her thoughts, perceptions, and emotions. You can create an intense bond between narrator and audience when you’re writing from the first-person POV, and that intimacy is one of the chief reasons for selecting it. Of all the different POVs, it is probably the one that most easily allows readers to become emotionally invested in your story.

Remember, though, that your narrator should be someone whose head readers would actually want to be inside for the duration of an entire short story or novel. If your narrator is weird, obnoxious, or arrogant, you can be sure that few readers will be interested in your book. Draw up a detailed profile of your first-person narrator to ensure that you’ve created someone worth spending all that time with. Think about what qualities will make your narrator worth listening to. Does she have a particular attitude that makes her fascinating? Immerse yourself in the character and remember that when you’re writing in the first person, you’re writing using your character’s voice, not your own. You’re filtering your entire story through your narrator’s perceptions, so this character’s take on things had better be interesting.

Remember too that using first-person POV limits you to writing about only what the narrator knows and has experienced, so in this way, it can limit where your plot goes. Though I suppose you could have another character telling your narrator what just happened in the other room, this is far from ideal. You cheat readers by offering a second-hand account when they really wanted to be right there, front and centre, seeing the action through your narrator’s eyes. It almost goes without saying that your first-person narrator needs to be someone who is constantly at the heart of the action–in most cases, your protagonist.

Another important thing to be conscious of when using first-person POV is that your narrator is in the position of knowing the whole story right from the start. What this gives you as a writer is the flexibility to discuss, with the benefit of hindsight, what the narrator wouldn’t have perceived earlier in the narrative but now understands. To what extent you want to exploit this is up to you. My view is that when you write from a position of hindsight, you sometimes reveal too much about what’s to come and you also distance readers from events. By contrast, writing in real time, as events are actually unfolding, creates a sense of immediacy that plunges readers into your narrative.

Although writing in first-person POV doesn’t appear all that difficult, many writers nonetheless make errors when writing from this perspective. By this I mean that they make “illegal” shifts into another character’s POV. If your narrator suddenly starts telling us what another character is thinking, that’s a POV error, as there’s no way he could possibly know. As well, if the narrator starts describing a scene he hasn’t witnessed, that’s also an error. Writers also frequently make the mistake of describing the first-person narrator’s appearance as if they were looking down on him from above, which is yet another breach of the POV rules.

It may take some practice, but If you can create a compelling first-person narrator and stay consistently inside that character’s head, then you are well on your way to mastering first-person POV.

Redundancies and Pleonasms

Today’s blog post is by freelance editor Arlene Prunkl of PenUltimate Editorial Services. Until I read Arlene’s post, I’d never heard of the word pleonasm before, which sounds like some sort of substance you’d look at under a microscope. And who knew that there was even a word for all those little redundancies I’ve always gotten such a kick out of? I hope you enjoy Arlene’s wonderfully succinct and informative post.

Redundancy is just one of the many problems that fall under the general category of wordiness. A redundant phrase or expression is called a pleonasm. You may think you know when a redundancy occurs, but some of them can be subtle.

How often have you heard a friend say something like this: “An unexpected surprise came when a pair of baby twins was born at 12 midnight”? What is a surprise if not unexpected? What are twins if not a pair? Who can be born but a baby? When is midnight if not at 12? Your friend could just as well have said, “A surprise came when twins were born at midnight” with far less repetition.

Or what if you heard someone say, “The armed gunman gave an advance warning that he would make death threats on their lives”? Can you find the pleonasms in that sentence? The expressions we use are full of unwitting redundancy.

I’ve prepared a good long list of pleonasms; some of them are rather funny. Can you see what’s wrong with these? Can you think of any others? Once you start paying attention to each of your words, I’m sure you’ll begin to detect occasional redundancies. In fact, email me with your pet peeve redundancies and pleonasms, and I’ll add them to this list!

– Dry desert
– Free gift
– End result
– Over and over again
– Whether or not
– Former business failed/former ex-husband
– Personal friends/personal opinion/my personal anything
– Standard orthodoxy
– Genuine original
– Ancient fossil
– Basic necessities/basic fundamentals
– Major milestone
– Linger behind
– Rugged mountain range
– Quickly mushroomed
– Interconnect/intermix/interlink
– Future ahead looks bright
– Main thrust
– Small cubbyhole
– Familiar fixture
– Single most/single biggest
– Point in time/period of time
– Death threats on his life
– Close proximity
– Actual experience/past experience
– Advance planning/advance warning/advance reservations
– All meet together/join together
– Armed gunman
– 12 midnight/12 noon
– Autobiography of one’s life
– Awkward predicament
– Cease and desist
– Each and every
– First and foremost
– Cheap price/expensive price
– Commute back and forth
– Consensus of opinion
– Difficult dilemma
– Estimated roughly/guesstimated
– Filled to capacity
– Frozen ice
– General public
– Green in color
– Natural instinct
– Null and void
– Pre-recorded
– The reason is because
– Regular routine
– Suddenly exploded
– Surrounded on all sides
– Broke both his legs
– The winter months
– Postponed until later
– Mutual cooperation
– In order to…

Are Grammar-checking Websites Worth the Bother?

A client mentioned recently that she has a thirty-dollar monthly subscription to a certain popular website that promises to check your spelling, grammar, punctuation, style, and word choice for you. I should say at the outset that I’m biased and tend to turn up my nose at sites like these; I don’t imagine that they have a hope of ever replacing me or my editor colleagues, so I don’t lose any sleep over the fact of their existence. Feeling a little mischievous, I thought it would be entertaining to run an experiment to see exactly how accurate my client’s grammar-checking site really is. I signed up for the free seven-day trial and wracked my brains to come up with some excruciatingly bad text. This is what I submitted to the grammar checker for assessment:

The lion tapped his crown and screamed quietly, now that Im kind of the forest, I’m kinda loosing my mine.

Your majesty, with all due respect, their is no kneed to carry on in this fashion, felicia robinson his advisor said patiently. Its not appropriate. Yew have had plenty of time to get used to our knew roll, four you have been king of the forest for quiet some time. The time for complaining has past, you must except your responsibilities more better than you have bin doing

Bee that as it may the lion inserted boldly, but I am not pre-pared. And when am I two have time to eat steak, eggs, and peanut-butter.

My text had a grand total of thirty errors, and the grammar checker found just ten of them. Yes, it knew that losing  and prepared were spelled wrong, and it realized that certain homophones were the wrong ones, like their and yew. And it picked up a comma splice and the improper comparative more better.

But on the whole, it performed dismally. Yes, it did find a number of the misused homophones, but it missed others such as past, bee, and four. So much for the “contextual spelling check.” And although it claims to be concerned with word choice, it completely missed screamed quietly in the first line, and it seemed to think that inserted was fine when asserted was what I meant. Its grasp of punctuation was abysmal, as it didn’t seem to know that my passage included dialogue and therefore needed quotation marks. Nor did it realize that the last sentence was a question and required a question mark at the end, or that Im needed an apostrophe. And sadly, it missed that peanut butter isn’t hyphenated.

Possibly worse than the things it missed was the wrong advice it gave me. It told me that in be (okay, I did write bee) that as it may the may should be maybe, dismissed my use of the pronoun you as improper in academic writing (not that the nonsense I fed it could be deemed in any way academic), and dissed my use of and at the beginning of a sentence. It called its not appropriate a sentence fragment, failing to recognize that all that was needed to make it a proper sentence was an apostrophe in the first word. It didn’t recognize that felicia robinson was a proper name that simply required capitals; instead it told me that the words were actually misspelled. I was taken to task for using kind of (which was actually a typo–from the context it should have been apparent that I meant king of), yet it somehow missed kinda in the same sentence.

Okay, I admit that the test I gave it was tricky; I threw everything I could think of at it with the intention of messing with its so-called mind. Perhaps I was unnecessarily cruel to the poor thing. But all the types of errors I threw at it are certainly common enough in manuscripts; they’re just usually not present in such mind-twisting quantities.

Should you as a writer rely on grammar-checking websites? Absolutely not. Though they may offer interesting tidbits of information about grammatical rules in their analyses, they can’t even begin to grasp subtle or even not-so-subtle contextual issues, so they will miss a good portion of the errors–two-thirds, if you go by my results–and can misinterpret that which is actually correct. If you are really concerned about accuracy, you need the judgment of an actual human being, and there is simply no substitute for a good editor.

The Pros and Cons of Writing Dialect Phonetically in Fiction

In 19th-century novels, it’s not at all unusual to come across dialect that is written phonetically. Consider the following, an exotic bit of Yorkshire dialect from a servant named Joseph in Wuthering Heights, which was published in 1847: “There’s nobbut t’ missis; and shoo’ll not oppen ‘t an ye mak’ yer flaysome dins till neeght.” Taken out of context like this, this snippet is nearly incomprehensible; it’s almost impossible to know precisely what Joseph is getting at. (All I know for sure is that he’s telling Heathcliff’s tenant, Mr. Lockwood, that the mistress of Wuthering Heights is not going to let him in). It’s not just the bizarre vocabulary (those pesky flaysome dins) that makes it hard to comprehend, but also the peculiar spellings of familiar words, such as shoo’ll for she’ll, and neeght for night.

Would 19th-century readers have understood any better than we do what Joseph was saying? It’s difficult to know for sure, but I would imagine that at the very least, they would have expected to see phonetically written dialect in novels. After all, such a detailed and realistic rendering of speech would have functioned to clearly convey the speaker’s social standing and level of education, which were important preoccupations at the time, especially in England. But does such dialect have any place at all in 21st-century fiction?

Many contemporary authors, particularly in fantasy and historical genres, continue to attempt phonetically written dialect. I’ve edited about half a dozen such authors over the past year or so, and I continue to puzzle over the question of how much is too much. Current authorities on writing fiction feel strongly that any at all is way too much, and that words like ye and yer, and even dropped gs, should go the way of the dodo. The trend is to shun what Renni Browne and Dave King, authors of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, call “trick spellings and lexical gimmicks.” Instead, writers are advised to concentrate on adjusting word choice, grammar, and syntax to convey a person’s social status through speech. There is no question at all that this is excellent advice.

The main argument against phonetically written dialect is that it’s simply too hard to read, and naturally it’s impossible to be in favour of anything that destroys clarity in writing. Readers should never get bogged down in dialogue and feel that they have to translate it into English. And if they have to read it multiple times to get the gist of it, then the lexical tricks are clearly overdone. However, is it fair to eliminate all phonetically written dialect? If it was good enough for a literary giant such as Emily Bronte, shouldn’t it be good enough for contemporary writers?

Although I usually advise clients that phonetically written dialect is out of fashion, many still insist on using it because they feel it adds the right note to their work, particularly if the novel takes place in a bygone era. I ask them to consider the tastes and expectations of their audience and sometimes ask them, “Would your readers have trouble with this?” One of my clients gave her novel to several readers to evaluate (a practice I highly recommend). Many of them had read widely in the genre she was writing in. She made a point of asking them specifically whether they could understand the dialect, and most were fine with it.

If your book’s audience has little or no difficulty with phonetically rendered dialect, I see no difficulty in using it. The editing becomes a matter of making the dialogue more readable by eliminating what doesn’t work and maintaining consistency in particular dialect spellings. I tend to toss out particularly wacky spellings that seem distractingly bizarre or vocabulary that I feel most contemporary readers wouldn’t understand. To my mind, authors should err on the conservative side and remember that just a little phonetically written dialect goes a very long way. And if it really does add a little flavour and colour to a book, then that’s hardly a bad thing.

Seeing Editors as Allies, Not Enemies

I belong to an online writers’ and editors’ group, and when time allows, I entertain myself by catching up on the discussions in the forums. People generally behave themselves admirably, but the writers, most of whom are self-publishing, do lash out at editors from time to time. One day, I saw an author complaining that she’d been ripped off to the tune of three thousand dollars by an editor. Other forum participants were quick to become indignant that any editor would even dream of charging her such an amount to edit her book. What an outrage!

Feeling profoundly irritated, I wrote that it was ridiculous to consider the cost outrageous without knowing the facts–after all, the author hadn’t even mentioned what the word count was or told us anything about the nature of the book. Nor had we seen a sample of the writing. Without this information, no one could possibly know the extent of the editing required. And had anyone even considered the question of what the author actually received for her money? As she later revealed, the answer was nothing–she paid three thousand dollars to the “editor,” who never delivered any work at all. The unsuspecting  author had not been dealing with a professional editor–she’d fallen victim to a smooth-talking scam artist.

Apart from the author’s misfortune, what bothered me about this whole exchange was the readiness of the writers who were commenting to believe that editors are taking them for a ride. Apparently, some writers still don’t see the value in what editors have to offer. I suspect that those who feel this way have never actually had their own work edited, so they can’t even begin to understand the invaluable contributions an editor can make to a manuscript. As well, such writers fear criticism, as most of us do to one degree or another, but rather than being able to perceive it as helpful and constructive, they feel threatened by it. And so they insist on standing in their own way, and the book suffers as a result.

I still occasionally meet people who think that all editors do is correct typos; they confidently assert that they can do their own spell-check and grammar check, thank you very much–as if spelling and grammar were all there was to it. But editors are involved in shaping the entire manuscript, and they cover the broad strokes as well as the fine details. A good editor will diplomatically call attention to a plot that doesn’t even get off the runway, loose ends that dangle messily, a protagonist who bores readers to tears, or a character who talks like he’s a nineteenth-century British aristocrat instead of the twentieth-century American student he’s supposed to be. Furthermore, a good editor offers constructive advice for fixing these problems.

I believe that writers who don’t appreciate what editors can do for their work are in a small and ever-shrinking minority. But often the writers who need editorial help the most are the very ones who are most resistant to receiving it. It’s time that such resistant writers began to see editors as allies who can help them create their best possible work, not as enemies who will either take advantage of them or belittle them. All editors contend that every writer needs an editor, and most writers I know wholeheartedly agree with this contention. And as an editor who also writes, I know that I’ll need an experienced and eagle-eyed editor to help me with my book before I publish it; I wouldn’t dream of skipping this essential step. Even for the best writers, the choice is clear: if you’re putting your book out there for public consumption, hire a professional editor.