Team Oxford Comma?

I know… It would sound weird to my younger self too, but the deeper I go into writing and editing I’m gaining an appreciation for the Oxford comma.

Once, as a youngster, I learned that that comma before an ‘and’ in lists really wasn’t necessary. It was optional and something the old guys did, so I didn’t use it. That approach works just fine if you only worry about eggs, bread and milk…

But, what if you get into lists that are longer? What if you want to put things that are actually interesting into your list?

If you want to talk about red flowers, jewels that shine like the moon, the smell of mature pecan trees, and the fine sand of a South Georgia beach, then that Oxford comma actually becomes more appropriate and important.

The Oxford comma, along with commas that went to less prestigious universities (and yes even that one that just got its GED…), are used to help parse sentences and add clarity. They help break things up in such a way that you can figure out what the %^&^&%^&%#$#@$#@%$#@$@$!!!! the author is saying. No, you probably don’t need it in simple sentences and lists with single word items, but if you want to add clauses to a sentence, or use conjunctions, or use parentheticals without the parentheses, then you probably want to ‘open up a pack of comas’.

The point of the thing is clarity in your writing, and big complicated sentences call for commas. And, that means big complicated lists need that Oxford comma. It really does make things clearer; except when it doesn’t…

Sometimes, when you’re making those big complicated lists, you want to create a list of things that already have commas in them. That is when you dig out another old and misunderstood friend of mine, the semicolon.

If you are making a list of items like: military uniforms, in a range of colors and camouflage patterns; fireworks, including bottle rockets and smoke bombs; lunch bags, preferably with cartoon characters printed on them; and all the other things you need for the new school year, you really need something to help break up and simplify that list. This time even the Oxford comma can’t save you (it is well educated, but it’s not a miracle worker…). This time you need to add another punctuation mark to help organize your list.

I know. I know. There are things a lot more fun than punctuation out there, and punctuation has all these fiddly little rules… But, when you’re a writer the point is to write in ways that help your reader get the point; to write in ways that help him or her to understand what the #%#%$#^#$^#^#!!! you’re saying.

And dear reader, that’s why we do it. That is why we spend so much time sweating the details of punctuation in our writing.

And that’s why I’m finding myself on team Oxford comma. Just like any of us, I would really like to be understood.

Thanks for reading today. Keep those sentences straight. And, I’ll see you next post!

Editorial Choices…

As always I’m working on a couple of my own writing projects. At the same time my wife and I have been working on some editing projects to help a couple of other writers. This has all gotten me thinking about the choices I can make and actions I can take as an editor…

You can’t dictate everything…

You can’t. Ultimately the individual piece is the author’s piece. You can help shape that piece. You can help refine that piece. You can help the author make it better. But, what you can’t do, is take it away from the author completely (obviously we’re not talking about the whole copy right/rights to the characters can of worms (we can talk about that another day but not right now…)).

In a lot of ways being an editor is to be an assistant. In a lot of ways being an editor is like being a teacher. You are guiding and supporting an author in the process of creating a work. You can put in a lot of work, and you should be rewarded for it. But the person who had the idea and did the writing needs her/his own reward as well (it was his or her baby!).

In this side of things you can advise, but you can’t dictate. You are helping the writer to create and improve a piece of writing that ultimately belongs to its author. If you try to take it away then you’re going to have issues (we’re back to that copy right thing again…).

There are choices you can make.

If your author comes seeking advice, or asks for your input, you can certainly give both.

If your author asks “should I do ‘A’ or ‘B’?” It’s kind of your job as an editor to give the best answer you can.

You can choose what advice to give. You can choose how to give it (actually it’s often a good idea to discuss and even negotiate what kind of advice your giving and how BEFORE you start working together).

You can choose to say “one or both of us need to think on this some more”, or even “Let’s bring someone else in on this”.  There are good reasons for making these choices actually. Some things need more thought and planning. Sometimes you really do need to hand things off to, or enlist the aid of, someone else.

What’s an example of that last one? Here are a few…

My author client wants support in telling a good story. I can do that!

My author wants advice on how to present statistics in a piece. I can do that (I’ve tutored doctoral students in stats and written scientific papers…)

My author wants advice on how best to portray a bisexual Latina living on the U.S. Mexico border. Umm… Let me call in a friend from back when I was at San Diego State. In this case it’s not that I’m unwilling, it’s just that I happen to know someone with a much better skill set for that particular need.

An author (I won’t call this one mine…) contacts me to work on a piece entitled “ALL WHITE MEN ARE RACISIT SEXIST HOMOPHOBIC BIGOTS AND SHOULD BE SHOT OFF INTO THE SUN!!!!!!!”. This time I’m actually going to decline to work on the piece. I can sense right off the bat that there will be some problems in working on this one and I’m not the right person to work with this author (if nothing else the fact that the presented title is in all caps is a bit of a red flag…).

There are choices you can and should make…

Even though I come from the school that says “don’t take the piece from the author”, there are choices you can and should make.

You can, and should, make choices about who you work with. If you can see that the author in question is going to be a headache (or from the author side if you can see the editor is going to be a headache); then why would you choose to work with that person. If there’s not a compelling reason, then you might want to seek another partnership. And money alone isn’t compelling enough (for me at least!)

You can make choices about how you work with the person. One of the concepts we learn about in the seven habits of highly effective people is the idea of the win-win scenario. It might be a good idea to find ways to make your author/editor interactions win-win (from either position why are you going into this if you’re expecting to lose?).

And then there are some bigger ‘special case’ decisions…

So far most of what I’ve said has had to do with helping an author with a piece; you’re part of a team working to create something and make it the best that it can be. But, there is another hat that editors occasionally wear; being an editor you occasionally also serve in the role of publisher.

As an editor (and chief editor at that!) I try not to take my authors projects away from them. I’m not going to demand that they change the main character from a male to a female and species reassign the sidekick to be a bottle nosed dolphin. But at the same time if I’m going to be the one to publish the work, that does give me more of a say. The author can choose to write what he or she wants, but just because somebody wrote it doesn’t mean I have to publish it!

The difference is that when one steps from the role of editor to the roll of publisher one is transitioning from helping someone else to tell her/his story to actually using one’s own resources to put that story out to the world. Now that we’re talking about publishing I’m in a place where it is my name and reputation on the line as well.

What you write says something about you. What I publish says something about me.

(That’s why “ALL WHITE MEN ARE RACISIT SEXIST HOMOPHOBIC BIGOTS AND SHOULD BE SHOT OFF INTO THE SUN!!!!!!!” ain’t getting published at my company. It’s a message I don’t agree with and I’m not going to be forced to put my name on it. But, if the author feels like going somewhere else to publish it and that person/group chooses to publish it, then the fall out is their problem…)

I’m not for taking away anyone’s free speech (that would negatively impact my business), but at the same time I don’t have to give up my free speech by allowing people to use my company to say things that I can’t ethically agree with.

Summing it all up…

So there it is dear reader… Editors shouldn’t try to take away a writer’s work, or mutilate it in ways the author doesn’t agree with. But, at the same time, it is kind of the editor’s job to do his or her level best to help the projects he/she chooses to pick up become truly excellent.

Editors and writers can and should choose partners/coworkers that they can actually work with in an amicable way. And both need to work together to make the piece really good.

No matter what else happens, no one in the relationship: writer, editor, or publisher really has the right to force someone else to say something she/he/whatever else doesn’t agree with.

So that’s it for this one dear reader. Choose people to work with who will actually help the work to go forward, and don’t try to bully folks just because you don’t agree. And of course…

See you next post!

Lessons learned from editing and commentary

Yep, I’ve been quiet on the blog for a little longer that I intended, but things have been busy…

In the last couple of weeks I’ve been working hard on helping a client get his doctoral dissertation into shape for his defense and for eventual publication. It’s been hard enough going that I even slowed down on some of my other writing and editing projects to give that one more attention.

I’ve also recently reconnected with the cartoon series Galaxy Rangers, something that I loved when it originally aired, but hadn’t seen for a while.

I have learned something about my own writing, and the writing of others, in both of these processes.

One of the reasons that we as writers should share with others, and one of the reasons we should actively partake in the genres we work in, is that we learn things as we are seeing and reading the work of others. In working on my client’s stuff I recognized that he occasionally has the same issues I do with making nonfiction stuff too wordy and ‘hemming and hawing’ at parts he’s uncomfortable with. Recognizing these behaviors in his writing makes me more conscious and aware of the same problems in my own work. Helping him figure out his issues helps me work on my own.

The same thing happened with Galaxy Rangers… I realized one of the flaws in my old favorite series was that they kind of rushed things and expanded the universe, and the cast, too quickly. It’s ok to have ideas for a vast universe, but if you’re spitting them out there before you can finish figuring them out that can lead to problems. And, even if you have them completely figured out you might want to pace things so that your reader/viewer has time to learn and get invested.

Now, that’s not to say that you need to move at a snail’s pace! In both cases it is about reader expectations. Whether you are doing fiction or non-fiction you need to work on pacing that works for your reader and you want to develop a voice that is confident where your reader wants/needs confidence, and is speculative when the time is right for speculation.

I can do these things dear reader. You can do these things dear reader! One of the best tools we have to develop these talents and figure out how to meet the challenges in our own writing is to help other people edit there stuff, and to analyze the work that other writers and directors have done and learn from their achievements and mistakes.

Writing isn’t usually done in a vacuum. Successful writing isn’t generally just done for the author her/himself. Because our writing is intended to reach and communicate with other people it helps us to look at the writing and communicating others do. It helps if we really analyze that writing and communication and learn what it has to teach us.

That’s it for this one dear reader. Get out there and read, write, learn, and live… And I’ll see you next post!

Google docs voice input: useful but quirky

Recently my wife and I were talking with a friend who teaches in the area of special needs students and special education in mainstream classrooms. During that discussion I discovered Google docs has a voice to text feature. So naturally I had to try it. And while I can’t say I’m throwing away my keyboard for a microphone there are times that this feature could be worthwhile.

Why I like it

There are times, like doing video scripts, that I want to write things that sound more like someone speaking naturally. In these cases it is easier to say it than to type it. For some reason when I type or write long hand I get into a mode that is more rhetorical and “printed word/texty” than I want. When I talk into a mic it’s easier to avoid that.

Also, there are times when I want my hands free while I’m writing (like when I’m trying to write up a craft project and need my hands free to do making stuff). Google docs voice feature is a free tool that helps with this.

Actually when I tested it the voice to text feature worked surprisingly well. It was able to have a fairly good level of accuracy in translating what I was saying. It was actually able to translate phrases like four in one chainmail without stress.

Of course the feature did have quirks and it wasn’t entirely a solution to my problems.

What I’m not happy with

The core engine driving the feature seems to be the same one that converts phone calls to texts for google voice. If you have ever seen the ‘creative’ resolutions that happen with that google feature you can imagine what happens if you cough, mumble, or pause mid word. You may also run into problems with more unusual idioms, phrases or words.

You will definitely need to do your editing because the software also occasionally swaps words for other words. In my test case the voice to text feature kept using the word ‘cloths’ for the word ‘close’…

The system is also light on punctuation and formatting options so you may need to put those in later. I was able to get a period by saying the word period, or a comma by saying the word comma. But if I said the word semicolon I got the word semicolon and not a punctuation mark.

Similarly you get a new line by saying “new line” unfortunately if you want a blank line between paragraphs you have to add it in later or say “new line”… wait… and then say “new line” again. This does tend to slow things down a bit. So you may be better off just accepting the fact that you will have to do your formatting later.

I found myself wondering what would happen if I wanted the word ‘period’ instead of a punctuation mark. I experimented and my results were mixed. If I talked about a woman’s period I got the word period. If I said “periods” the software would write “periods”. But if I talked about a trial period, or the colonial period, or said that the program “was the best software period” I got a punctuation mark.

 

And… Things kind of went downhill from there…

After finding the program’s selectivity about the word period I found myself wondering what would happen with other words.

Naturally the first place my mind went was the old F-bomb…

When you use that particular word you get f***.

You will also end up with c*** and a variety of other similar items when you use words that might be offensive to women. But oddly enough the word ass is apparently ok.

At this point I was feeling a bit wierd swearing at my computer, but hey if you’re going to go you might as well go all the way…

Oddly enough while Google docs voice tool seems to want to “bleep you out” if you say something insulting about women; it seems to be just fine with racial epiphytes against blacks, Jews, Italians and others.

At this point I was both surprised and offended and decided to stop.

Summing up

There are times that the voice to text feature is really useful. And I will use it in those cases; however, the feature does not have a full range of punctuation and text formatting features (and you know how much I love those parentheses…). This part makes it even more important to take the time to reread and edit the things you write using this feature.

And of course watch out for those wrong word situations…

I also find it odd that the software actively filters things that might be insulting to women, but seems to be fine with users insulting blacks and Jews (as long as they’re male of course…).

It’s also a good idea to remember that Google docs are stored online and may be more easily observed or pirated than things you keep resident to your machine.

In the final analysis I would say that if you think the idea of talk to text could be worthwhile for you, then give the Google docs voice tool a try. But realize that it does have its quirks and will increase your editing load. You may want to move on and try other speech to text software but the google docs voice to text feature is a starting point.

I would also love an explanation of what they will and will not censor (it’s a free tool so they can make their own choices… I just find the choices that have been made interesting).

That’s it for this one. See you next week

Characters and space

Nope, we’re not actually going sci fi this week dear reader (maybe soon, but not this week). Actually, what I’m writing about has to do with your characters and the length of your story…

Between November’s NANOWRIMO adventure and now (where I’m engaging in editing and finishing Jamie’s Sacrifice) I’ve been thinking about the differences between long and short fiction. I’ve been thinking about how the length of story really does impact the things that you can, and should, do.

One area that really gets impacted is your characters. In longer fiction you have a lot more space to describe and develop characters. You have the opportunity to add more details (which might or might not be a good thing…). In shorter fiction you kind of need to get on with things and tell the story. You don’t have time to detail every detail of the heroine’s bedroom (unless that is the story…).

Need to know

Whether you’re doing a long or short story there is information about your character that the reader needs to know, and that’s the information to worry most about; both providing it and when to provide it.

In a long story you can take time to provide more information. And you can hide those key details that lead your reader to gasp “I should have seen that” among the other information you give them.  But you do need to play fair: give them the information and don’t just pump out filler.

In shorter fiction you may have to leave out those cool but extraneous details you’ve worked up. If you’re only doing a ten page story you don’t have the extra room to waste on the hero’s stamp collection, unless it’s actually relevant.

But what if I really want to give that detail (or, how do I control the information fire hose?)

Well… If you are going to do short stories and really want to use that bit of information which doesn’t quite fit into this story, why not write another story where the detail matters?

If you think about it the chapters of a long story are a sequence of short stories, just a sequence with one big plot running through it all. It is just as fair to do multiple short stories with a character that the reader can get to know over time. It worked for Conan the Barbarian and it can work for you.

While we’re at it, even in long fiction you might want to take some time in revealing information. Let your reader get to know the character through action and story not just “reading the character’s baseball card” somewhere on page three. In real life and real friendships our knowledge of our friends develops over time. You can do that in your fiction too.

Your secondary characters (and tertiary characters, and quaternary characters, and that guy over on the corner…)

Here’s another other big difference dear reader, in long fiction you have time to introduce more characters. But, you still need to think about how much information you’re giving. We really don’t need to know the life story of the ‘counter guy’ at the local fast food joint if he’s only going to be showing up in that one scene. Remember, your readers can only keep up with so many characters at one time. And having too much or too little information can impact your reader’s ability to keep track of who is who.

If you’re doing a short story stick to a couple of characters and write them well. In longer fiction you can add more, but remember it’s a story not a telephone directory! In any case you need to think about the descriptions and information you’re giving about your characters. We want to know who they are but we don’t need to be overwhelmed with extraneous drama.

That’s it for this one dear reader. I’d tell you what we’re doing next week, but my characters haven’t told me yet…

The written word doesn’t work alone…

Writing is in many ways a solitary process. Ultimately if you want to write something you have to sit down and actually write (if you pay someone else to write it you didn’t entirely write it). The thing is the writing process, and even more so written communication, is seldom actually a solitary process.

It is true. Written communication and the writing process are not things you can solo your way through. Well, there is the case of you writing a note for yourself, but that’s the exception that proves the rule…

Generally when we write, be it a text, an email, a blog post, a pamphlet, a novel, a series, or a set of encyclopedias (remember those?) we are writing with the expectation that someone will read what we wrote. That means we might finish the writing, but we haven’t actually communicated until someone has read and understood what we wrote (and then there’s the issue of multiple ‘right’ meanings…).

Someone has to read what we wrote for communication to happen. That means, unless you really are just writing to yourself, at least one other person is involved in the process (and even if you left yourself a note you have to come back and read it for communication to have happened…).

Sorry… Other people are involved and we actually need them…

Because we can reasonably expect at least one other person to be involved in the process, we have to start thinking about our audience and how to communicate with them. Sometimes we can do that on our own, but as we get into more complex projects or deal with new and different audiences it can be useful to get other people involved before you finish the writing part of the process.

It’s not always easy to listen to criticism, and not all criticism is constructive (or even helpful). But, pre-readers, editors, and other helpers and advisors exist to help you, the writer, convey your message.

Sometimes it’s annoying (like when the guy you asked to check punctuation wants to rewrite your opening scene); sometimes it’s thought provoking. Sometimes it becomes down right funny (like the time a 14 year old pre-reader thought the story was about him, even though it was written before I’d ever met him). But, no matter how little (or how much) you like having that second set of eyes, having someone read and give honest feedback is really valuable in writing.

In fact, some writing projects won’t work out without some help and feedback. (if you leave out texts and shopping lists that’s most projects…)

That’s it for this one dear reader. See you next week.

P.S. I’ve left out the very special category of book reviewers… That’s not any form of disrespect. It’s just that they work at a different point in the process, so I’ll talk about them at another point in the blog. For now let me just summarize this way… If you want the book to be readable find an editor. If you want people to read it find a book reviewer!