Sunday, July 31, 2016

Who Cares About the Oxford Comma?

Okay, I admit it. I'm not totally and completely in love with the Oxford comma.

Instead, as an editor, I love what the Oxford comma does: It cuts down on ambiguity in a series of items (which is why it's also called the "series" or "serial" comma).

desk with objects

You see, if you and I were speaking, I could probably tell what you meant when you said to me:
"This weekend, I'm going home to see my family, my husband and my cat."

In part, that would be because of context. After all, if I know you well enough to talk to you about your weekend plans, it would probably be obvious to me whether your family consisted of three entities, or whether you and your housemates were entertaining the extended family for the weekend. (In the former situation, I'd probably wish you a good time, while in the latter I might offer my condolences…)

However, if I were reading a manuscript and a character we've just met said that she planned to go home to "her family, her husband and her cat" I wouldn’t know whether the character meant just two housemates or a whole bunch of semi-related individuals.

Adding that Harvard comma (it's amazing how many names one little piece of punctuation can go by), we get:
 "This weekend, I’m going home to see my family, my husband, and my cat."

Suddenly, with or without previous context, it becomes obvious there are three separate items in the list:
1. family
2. husband
3. cat

Context, of course, is where all the fun begins.

As a fiction author, it's incredibly easy to get wrapped up in the world you've created. If you're doing things right, you probably know more about your characters than you do about the people you eat lunch with every day. You, at your keyboard, know precisely who will be spending time with whom on the weekend. You don't need context. Your readers, however, do. And—if you hope to keep your readers interested beyond the first few pages—you need to clue them in on what is going on in the world inside your head. (Otherwise, you become your slightly addled grandfather trying to tell stories about relatives who died thirty years before you were born. In either case, only the closest relatives will hang on until the end.)

elderly man on chair in city

As a nonfiction author, the serial comma can be even more important. After all, if you're explaining that there are a set of factors which impact the violence of a volcanic eruption, and you list "the magma's viscosity, gas content and composition" it might seem that you're worried about the composition of the gas in the magma, instead of the composition of the magma, itself. (This changes, as you can see, if you add the second comma: "the magma's viscosity, gas content, and composition.") Speaking of nonfiction, it's interesting—at least to me—that the Associated Press's stylebook does not use the serial comma. Wouldn't you think a news organization would want to avoid confusion?

Here's the catch, though: It’s all about understandability. (Yes, that's a real word.) If you can truly make yourself understood without using the terminal comma before your conjunction (the "and" or "or" before the last listed item), then you may not need that comma.

Yep. I've just admitted it. There is, technically, no right or wrong answer in this never-ending grammatical debate. Much of the "to use or not to use" discussion falls to the style guide you're working off of, your consistent use of one form or the other, and your ability to make your point clear and your meaning precise. As an editor, I might prefer the Oxford comma (and I do—I really do), but if you desperately wish to leave it out, I'm not going to sneak back into your manuscript late at night and add it in.

My final question for you to consider as you move forward is: Are you sure your meaning will come through without it? If you're not sure beyond a shadow of a doubt, save yourself, your readers, and (yes, I'm biased) your editors some time and clear up that ambiguity with a few extra pixels.

Your family, husband, and cat will thank you.

Originally published on - 5/6/2016

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Answer to the Editing Question You're Too Afraid to Ask

When I meet people for the first time, during the small-talk phase, I'm often asked what I do. When I explain that I work as an editor, I get a range of responses. There are the people who simply smile and nod (I admit that I do the same when someone says she's an accountant); the people who say that they'll never link to me on social media for fear that I'll correct them (I won't); and—I admit this is a fairly small group—the people who ask what I edit, and why I do it.

In the rare cases where someone does want to learn more—and if they don't immediately ask me if being an editor means that I truly want to be an author—I find myself caught between discussing the nuts and bolts of the job ("I do a lot of search-and-replace in Microsoft Word") and the fantasy vision of the job everyone sees in movies (the editor who finds the jewel in the rough and turns it into an instant best seller).

While I do, in fact, use a lot of Microsoft Word's tools, they've never launched a best seller for me.
What does that have to do with this column?

Over the next, well, however long you'll put up with me, I'm going to share with you some of that in-between realm where we find all the daily work that I do.

We'll be looking at the broad topic of "What is editing?" and the more personal "Why should you and I care about editing?"

I'm not going to get all Grammarly on you, and I won't be going full-on Grammar Girl (err... Guy), either. Those folks have already claimed their Internet space, and—as an editor—I'm not one to try to push someone off a pedestal. That doesn't mean I won't try to share it, though.

Let's get this whole discussion started with the most basic of questions:

What is editing?

Oh, wait. Did I say that was a basic question? Yeah… That'd be a lie. It's probably one of the biggest questions I could actually try to answer. You see, editing means something different to almost every person you ask—whether they're in the business or not.

If you talk to someone in "traditional" publishing, you'll learn about editors who are kind of shepherds, guiding authors from their first attempts at manuscripts all the way through to their publication dates. And—in that same scenario—you'll find a bunch of subdivisions, like copyeditors, line editors, and developmental editors.

If you ask someone in the print news business, you'll find that editors are the ones deciding which pieces to print and which to leave out. They're the ones who assign headlines and send stories to layout.

And, of course, there are all of the versions of editing that happen in non-language, non-print venues: video editing, sound editing, and the like.

What they all have in common, though, is the very thing that gets me excited to do my job: all editors take an existing product and—in a perfect world—make it better than it was before. The traditional publishing editor creates a book where only pages existed before. The newspaper editor makes sure that stories are presented in a particular way. Video and audio editors take raw footage and turn out epics. Essentially, they're all doing the same thing.

I, however, am not any of those. I don't work in traditional publishing. I don't follow a news cycle. And I can't even get a gif to show up in my email.

What I do do is sit at a desk for eight hours every week day and work with the manuscripts people pay me to edit. I spend my time making the author's words sound better. Making the manuscript "tighter." Digging for the buried gems of knowledge and brilliance that need one more polish to make them shine.

If you ask me, that's what editing—in any form—is.

And I really love it. I love watching a manuscript come to life with a few tweaks and nudges (and the occasional knock-down-drag-out fight). I like to be able to look at what I've accomplished at the end of the day and feel like I've made a difference.

Okay—if I'm being totally honest—I also spend a lot of time correcting spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors. But that is where some of the most unintentionally memorable moments come into play.

I fully admit that I love finding some of the inadvertently funny-as-hell lines that people have left in their work. I read something a week or so ago about waves "braking" against the shore and immediately wondered what kind of car those waves must have been driving. (To show you what I mean, I'll be sharing some of those quotes along the way, too.)

So what is editing? It's a world unto itself—a world of rules to be learned so you know how and when to break them, a world of intrigue and mystery, and a realm of impossible dreams and amazing realities. It is, in short, a pretty cool way to make a living.

Originally posted on - 4/1/2016

Friday, July 22, 2016

Where'd you go? Oh, wait...

I really didn't plan to be gone from my blog for 6+ months when I wrote my last post on New Year's Day.

I've thought about coming back to it almost weekly, but with wedding planning, and work being crazy busy - including me writing some blog posts for work - and some really time-consuming things in our "normal" lives, I just kept putting it off.

Well, for some reasons I may (or may not) explain as the next few months progress, I've decided it's time to come back.

I'm going to give myself a bit of a head start by pulling in a few posts I wrote for work, to sprinkle in, first. They focus on editing and writing, so some of you will have to forgive me for that tack. I'm hoping to write on that topic at least once per week (-ish) in the future.

Those of you who got inundated by my "I'm online!" posts along the way... I promise there will be new posts between each of those so you won't feel like you're only getting repeats.

Who knows? I may even update the look of the blog at some point to represent the changes that have been going on... We'll see.

For now, welcome back! I really have missed you.