Y'all get goober English

This month’s guest post is by Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D. (www.barbaraardinger.com). Barbara is the author of eight published books  plus innumerable blogs, stories, and book reviews. Her day job is freelance editing for people who have good ideas but don’t want to embarrass themselves in print. To date, she has edited more than 300 books, both fiction and nonfiction, on a wide range of topics. She lives in Long Beach, California, with her two rescued cats, Schroedinger and Heisenberg. Her doctorate is in English. 

Notes from a Successful Freelance Editor

Back in the last century, when I was a technical editor/consultant for aerospace, hazmat, construction management, and a couple other industries, I learned to be obsessive about what I called “gooder English.” I’d pat the engineers on the knee and say, “That’s just not right. It’s not gooder English.” That always made them smile and be more open to my corrections. A confession: I stole that phrase “gooder English” from Charo, the Spanish-American singer who speaks better English than she seems to in her act. I left tech editing (or it left me) at the turn on the century when I went freelance. At first, I edited proposals for a scientific firm. One document I edited was written by a Russian scientist, who then used translation software to get it into English. That was, well, too challenging, so I broadened my horizons. I have now edited books, academic documents, stories and essays, and even some poetry for writers all around the world. And you know what I love about my job? I learn something new from nearly every author.

Here are four notes about why inexperienced writers need to hire and work carefully with someone like me, a competent editor.

Note #1: I think it’s a gospel truth that a writer needs a professional editor.This is not someone who is your relative or a personal friend. Why? They don’t want to hurt you. They see that you’ve been brave enough to actually put something on paper (so to speak) and they just love it. Or they’ve heard you muttering about what you’re writing for so long that they’ve quit paying attention, even when you hand them pages. They probably don’t know enough about your subject to spot either finger errors (bad typing) or factual errors of ignorance. Your editor reads with fresh eyes.These are not your tired eyes that haven’t been reading and reading and reading what you wrote. When we reread (especially on the monitor), we tend to read what’s in our head, not what’s really there. We just swan over awkward phrasing and misspelled words. We don’t notice that sentences are missing end punctuation or that American English uses double quotes (“…”) not single ones. An editor comes to a document without having lived with it. As your editor, I quickly see that you’ve left out apostrophes or used the wrong verb tense, that your dialogue doesn’t sound like real people talking or that you’ve somehow lost track of your plot. I turn on Track Changes and correct such errors. This is why you need to hire—and pay attention to—a competent, professional editor.

Note #2: As a writer, you need to keep in mind that your readers don’t live in your head with you. You need to explain stuff. You need to write clearly and accessibly. That’s where your editor can help you. One of my authors had her own ideas about the chakra system, another began presenting highly idiosyncratic ideas on the origins of religion. In projects like these, I often suggest that the writer add “I believe” to his assertions. How else can you write more clearly? Define terms. This is an old debating technique. If you define terms, you can argue using those definitions, even if they’re not standard definitions. Here’s a rule of thumb: ambiguity is good in poetry and often useful in fiction, but it should generally be avoided in nonfiction. As Stephen Sondheim says about his songs, “Clarity is everything.” That’s equally true of our books. You won’t sell a book if no one except you can understand it.

Note #3: No matter what you write—memoir, self-help, or fantasy YA novel—anything you put “on paper” speaks for you. This is also true when you’re writing to a literary agent or a publisher via email or snail mail. It’s true that people judge a book by its cover. What you write is what gives a reader, agent, or publisher (or editor) their first impression of you. What you write is the “cover” of the book that is you. For example, if you write emails in texting “language,” the agent or publisher will see that you’re illiterate. Or rude. I often edit queries and book proposals into gooder English so my authors have a better chance of being read. Also, when you go to a small press or self-publish, pay attention to production values. You don’t want your book to look like you just pulled it out of your printer and ran to Kinko’s. I have received books to review that don’t have page numbers, that are double-spaced, that have errors of English grammar and usage on every single page. I once declined to review a book that had a “forward” and an “afterwards.”

Note #4: The most important thing to remember is that the responsibility for accuracy of fact and English usage ultimately rests with the author. That is you. This should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: Be careful what you write because readers will blame you for dumb mistakes. One thing to be aware of is that the English language has the largest vocabulary of any language on the planet. This fact tempts inexperienced writers to try to sound fancy. They turn to the thesaurus. I have (cross my heart) edited sentences like these: (a) The rocky hillside boasted an ancient home carved out of  troglodyte.(b) He found himself facing demons with vacillating tails.(c) Within minuets he slumps down in the seat, sniffling and crying in a drunken whale.

I think I can safely say that you don’t want anyone to think you’re this…er…creative. Trust your editor to fact check and even double-check the spell checker. Be careful what you write because it’s your name on the cover of your book. Yes, hire a competent, professional editor.

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